Monday, February 16, 2015

The Courage of Saints

Address to students

You may have seen in the news recently that a young lady, Kayla Mueller, was one of the recent victims of the terrorist group known as the “Islamic State” which is now controlling large parts of Syria and Iraq. ISIS is the group that has been beheading people, and recently took their depravity to the next level by burning to death a Jordanian pilot in a cage , filming it, and showing it to the world. Ms. Mueller was a remarkable young lady, only 26 when she was killed, and her life is worthy of retelling.

She graduated from college in 2009 with a degree in political science from Northern Arizona University. Even before that, in high school, it was evident she had a strong social conscience, as she was involved in causes such as Youth Count, AmeriCorps, America's Promise, Open Inn for troubled youth, Big Brothers Big Sisters and other organizations.  Upon graduation from college, she worked in India and also in Tel Aviv, Israel for five months, helping at the African Refugee Development Center. In 2011, she returned to Prescott, Arizona and worked at an AIDS clinic and a shelter for abused women. Later in 2011, convinced she was called to work with refugees from Africa, she became an au pair in France so as to learn French, but ended up instead working on the Turkish-Syria border providing support to Syrian refugees who were fleeing Syria, seeking asylum in Turkey. On August 3, 2013, she visited with Spanish Doctors without Borders in Aleppo, Syria, and spent the night at the hospital. The next morning, trying to catch a bus, she was captured by ISIS.

Not knowing if she were alive or dead, her parents didn’t discuss her capture publicly, fearing that if their daughter became a kind of celebrity, she would be used for propaganda purposes by ISIS and likely executed. The first they knew she was alive was almost 9 months after her capture, when they received a letter from her that was smuggled out from some fellow cellmates who had been released. Even then, the parents kept their daughter’s situation unknown to the public, but you can imagine the horror they felt watching ISIS behead and burn their victims for the world to see, not knowing if their daughter were going to be next. It was only after the family confirmed their daughter was in fact, dead—they haven’t released the details—that they made the contents of this letter known to the world, and I want to read you part of it, as it reveals a heroic courage and faith that I believe is inspirational for all of us.

This is a redacted version of Ms. Mueller’s letter to her parents and friends, dating to May 2014.

Everyone, If you are receiving this letter it means I am still detained but my cell mates have been released. I have asked them to contact you and send you this letter. It's hard to know what to say… I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no else, and by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free fall. I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness and surrender to God as well and have formed a bond of love and support amongst one another.  I miss you all as if it has been a decade of forced separation…I have had many hours to think how only in your absence have I finally @ 25 years old come to realize your place in my life--the gift that is each one of you, and the person I could not be if you were not a part of my life, my family, my support. I DO NOT want the negotiations for my release to be your duty, if there is any other option, take it, even if it takes more time. This should never have become your burden…

None of us could have known it would be this long but I know I am also fighting from my side in the ways I am able and I have a lot of fight left inside of me. I am not breaking down and I will not give in no matter how long it takes. I wrote a song some months ago that says, 'The part of me that pains the most also gets me out of bed, without out your hope there would be nothing left’ ... The thought of your pain is the source of my own, simultaneously the hope of our reunion is the source of my strength. Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I-- by God's will we will be together soon.

All my everything, 


I was listening to National Public Radio when I first heard the contents of this letter—and got choked up. Even in captivity, she was more concerned about her parents than herself, not wanting them to bear the burden of negotiating her release, even if it meant she were to be in captivity longer. She encouraged them to bring their pain to God, asking them not to fear on her behalf. In my view, this woman had the courage of saints. 

We are blessed to be part of a school that is now named after a saint, Saint John Paul II. But saints are not just the spiritually elite celebrities or the extraordinary few. We walk among them each day. I believe some of your teachers here are saintly. I believe you have classmates who are saintly. All of us, at some level, are called to be saints, called to live out our faith with conviction and courage. No, we’re not perfect, and we’ll stumble along the way. But God forgives, and we are called to live with courage, open to the adventure God has planned for us, whether that leads us to the Turkish-Syrian border, or whether we’re simply called to be examples to our classmates in the hallways of JPII.

In 2011, Ms. Mueller penned this simple prayer: "I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how You are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek You.”

May Kayla Mueller be an inspiration to all of us to direct our lives toward things that matter, and may we be given the courage and grace to trust in God and work for justice  as she did.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Gala Remarks, 2015

These are my remarks at the 2015 Gala, my last at JPII:

In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." (John Henry Newman, “Development of Doctrine”)

As we honor one of our founding members tonight, Dr. Carolyn Baker, who chaired the search committee for our first headmaster, Mr. Hans Broekman, as I prepare to leave JPII, and as we prepare to welcome our school’s new headmaster, Mr. Mike Deely, I am reminded of this tract from Newman. He asks: Is an idea, a doctrine or an institution “purer” or more “real” in its infancy or as it develops over time? His answer--like the history of a river which slowly develops its “character” as it moves downstream, making essays which sometime fail, interacting with the soil on its banks, deepening and broadening its base as its current chisels out new paths--is that institutions become more fully themselves, more “real,” as they gradually change to address new realities and those whom they serve.

I am proud of the fact that the trajectory established by our founders remains arched toward excellence here, even as we address the ever-changing needs of our students and families in this, our thirteenth year. Though perhaps different in "form", with faculty, staff and headmasters coming and going, in "essence" we remain rooted to our founding ideals: to cooperate with God’s grace in the life of our students, helping them “reach beyond” themselves to become the magnificent persons God has destined them to be, re-created in mind, body and soul. This place changes kids’ lives! 

I, too, have been greatly changed by this place. Its high aspirations, the ownership our faculty feels for it, our challenges and our successes, have elevated my sense of what is possible for a school.  I’ve been blessed to work with wonderful students, whose honesty, wit and curiosity have kept my life interesting and ever new.

“To be perfect is to have changed often.”  May it always be said of us that we have the courage to follow God’s will, wherever He may lead us!    

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Making An Indelible Mark

Our motto is “Faith Leads Us Beyond Ourselves,” and in case you missed it, over the last month, local papers have run three extraordinary stories about members of our senior class. I want to bring them to your attention:

Grace Wood went to Uganda with Michael Koen and Christian Cook in their junior year and did service work at an orphanage. The orphanage was necessary in this particular village because many of the adults there died from AIDS. At the orphanage, Grace, Michael and Christian met a little girl who had an umbilical hernia protruding from her stomach, and Grace talked to her family about sponsoring the girl to have surgery to get it fixed, and they did so. Had this little girl not met our students, doctors predicted the hernia would have ruptured and killed her. So I think it’s literally true that they saved this young girl’s life. 

Grace was so touched by her experience that she decided to go back to Uganda last summer. You were very generous in helping Grace raise monies—over $1800—which then helped her purchase goats for the villagers there. Goats are very important because they provide milk for the villagers, and so even after Grace returned back to us, she is continuing to have an impact on that village.  You can read more about all this here:

Anna Veazey also went to Uganda through a different program with her father and members of her Church. They visited several villages, helping people get eyeglasses whose eyesight was affected by malaria. During her stay, Anna befriended a little boy who had no parents, and Anna learned he had no shoes and had to walk to school a great distance each day.  After being with this boy for a few days, Anna noticed he was getting sick, so she took him to the local clinic, where he was diagnosed with malaria. Had she not noticed, doctors believe this boy would have died, so Anna, too, literally saved this boys’ life, and continues to sponsor this boy, sending money once/month for medication, food and clothing.

Anna, like Grace, has been so touched by her experience she’ll be going to Haiti this month and hopes to help Haitian farmers raise chickens, so they can provide chicken to the orphanages and schools and give the kids protein in their diet. She talked about this earlier this year with you and sought your help. If you can give more to assist her in this noble effort, I am sure it’s not too late. Anna, when do you leave?  You can read more here:

And then, in this week’s Registrar, there is the story about the senior class project. Through an organization known as “Special Spaces,” the seniors decided to do a “dream room makeover” for a 13 year old girl they learned about through Vanderbilt Hospital suffering from leukemia.  Seniors raised the money, then worked with contractors to do a complete makeover of the room as a gift to the girl.  You can read more about this fantastic service work here:

I can’t tell you how proud I am to be headmaster at a school that has students like you doing such amazing things for people all over the world, literally. You are living out the gospel command “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” You are making your lives matter to others. You are making an indelible mark. 

I encourage more of you to follow the lead of these amazing seniors Maybe you can’t travel abroad, but you can make an extraordinary difference in the way you tackle your Christian service, the service you give in your churches, how you help out with youth in your Church, or in your neighborhood.  We can all make our mark in this world if we have the courage to take that first step.

Bravo, seniors. Bravo, JPII.