An amazing man, on and off the pitch

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Professional soccer is one of my favorite sports to watch and it’s hard to find better soccer than the English Premiere Leauge (come on, La Liga, you only have two real teams. And Serie A has as much credibility these days as professional wrestling.)

I’m a Chelsea fan. For those of you who don’t know, Chelsea is a team in London. Apparently, being a Chelsea fan is like being an Philadelphia Eagles fan—it’s not something you’d wish on someone you care about. While in England, I saw someone wear a t-shirt that said, “A.B.C. Anyone But Chelsea.” That just about sums up most people’s attitude toward the team.

The reason I root for Chelsea is because the first (and only) English soccer game I went to was a Chelsea home game and, like a baby who bonds with the breast it’s first fed from, I was immediately hooked.

But one of the biggest reasons I love Chelsea is Didier Drogba.

On the pitch, fans both loved and hated him. He was an amazing forward, scored spectacular goals, and was usually the man to bury it in the back of the net for the big games. But he was also highly emotional, prone to flopping (for you non-soccer fans, that’s going down with a fake injury) and inconsistent with his focus. But when he was on, he was on. When Drogba was healthy and disciplined, there was no striker like him.

A spectacular player. But that’s not what impresses me the most about Didier Drogba.

Droba is from the Ivory Coast in Africa. It’s a country that had been ravaged by 27 years of civil war that only ended in 2002. That was when Drogba joined the national team. Though the war was over, there was much unrest, corruption, and fighting. The country was a powder keg waiting for someone to light a match. But one of the things that kept that country together was the national team and it’s leader, Diger Drogba.

After winning a 2005 game in which the Ivory Coast qualified for the World Cup for the first time in history, Drogba grabbed a camera-man during the on-field celebrations and spoke to his beloved country:

“Ivorians, men and women, from the north and the south, from the east and the west, you’ve seen this. We’ve proved to you that the people of the Ivory Coast can live together side by side, play together toward the same goal… We promised you this celebration would bring the people together. Now we’re asking you to make this a reality. Please, let’s all kneel.” The entire team knelt as he continued, “The only country in Africa with such wealth cannot sink into war like this! Please, put down your weapons, organize the elections and things will get better.” (Quote taken from this article.)

He has used his popularity to bring peace to his country. He has used the wealth he gained from soccer to build orphanages and hospitals for children. When asked about his life after soccer, he said, “I want to help with a lot of things: my charity, the hospital. I hope to keep learning. For me it’s important to open my mind. I love to meet people and listen to their stories, their experiences.” The journalist interviewing him commented, “In 15 years as a journalist I have never had an interview with an athlete that felt more like a two-way conversation.” (This is the whole article.)

Two weeks ago Chelsea won the title, “Champions of Europe.” It was to be Drogba’s final game in a Chelsea jersey, and fittingly enough his last touch of the ball was to drive the ball into the back of the net for the game winner. At 34, his talents are starting to wain. He’s off to China where’s he’s getting big money (much of which will be spent in the Ivory Coast) and will dominate the field, just as he did in the Premier League. Will he still flop? Will he still let his emotions get the best of him? Will he still be unfocused? Sure he will. But in the grander scheme of things, in a world where professional athletes are treated like gods and many of them fall into immorality and materialism, Drogba’s legacy will not be as much about the goals he scored but the lives he saved.

My good friend, Gene Monterastelli (who really taught me to love the game) summed it up best:

“He can lack focus. He can flop and moan. He can do amazing things with a silly little ball. And somehow lets opportunity slip by him on the pitch. None of that will ever matter. If we could all be so bold as to take advantage of the opportunities and platforms we are given in the name of love and peace.”

A thought on Memorial Day

A veteran is someone who, at one point in his or her life, wrote a blank check made payable to “The United States of America” for an amount of “up to and including my life.” 

I celebrate today with sincere gratitude for all who served and even died for the sake of my family’s freedom, and I pray for all those who are active in the military.

If you’re one of those people, thank you.

Reflections on “Unholy Night”

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Maybe some of you have seen previews for the upcoming movie, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” It is based on a book by Seth Grahame-Smith who also wrote the novel, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” As you can tell from those titles, Grahame-Smith likes to take a familiar topic and add crazy mayhem to it.

So I was interested when I heard about his latest book, “Unholy Night.” It’s the story of the three wise men… or maybe I should way it’s the untold story. In Grahame-Smith’s book, they weren’t “wise men” at all. They were thieves who unwittingly found themselves in Mary and Joseph’s stable as they hid from Roman soldiers. One thing led to another and they decided to accompany the Holy Family to Egypt, protecting them from Judean soldiers, Roman armies, and even the undead.

To state the obvious, it’s not very Biblically accurate.

Grahame-Smith takes a lot of liberty filling in the gaps of what is not discussed in the Bible and a few liberties with what is. But more significant than what he got wrong was what he got right. Mary and Joseph are portrayed as people of extreme faith who truly believe that their child is the Son of God. I thought he treated them reverently and respectfully. It is clear that there was something special about their child. Since I don’t have a high expectation of Christian themes being accurately portrayed in a secular book, I was quite pleased by the general direction of that storyline.

And then there was the violence. Lots of violence. These kind of depictions seem to be part of Grahame-Smith’s “signature” as an author. I thought of giving some examples… but they’re just too gross. Speaking of gross, one notably disgusting and creepy character is King Herod. He’s about as vile and despicable as a person could be—and probably a pretty accurate account of who he was in real life.

But aside from the violence (which might be hard for many to put aside) the novel also takes a look at what it means to have faith. The protagonist of the book is Balthazar, also known as the “Antioch Ghost” because of his clever thievery. He had long since given up his “childish” belief that God existed. He thought Joseph was a fool for believing Mary’s “virgin birth” story and that the two of them were fools to think there was anything miraculous about their child. But then things start to happen that make him question his belief…

I don’t want to spoil what happens for those of you who might be interested in reading the book, but don’t expect a tidy “Christian” ending where everyone accepts this baby as their personal Lord and Savior. Different characters in the story react differently, just as they do in real life. That’s one of the things I liked about it.

This book sits right at the intersection between faith and culture, but it does so more from a cultural perspective than a faith one. But here’s my question to you, dear reader: Is it ever appropriate to use the Holy Family in a work such as this?

Yes, the author portrayed Jesus, Mary, and Joseph with reverence… for a novel that was focused more on “kill your enemies” than “love your enemies.” I’m glad that Grahame-Smith didn’t have the Holy Family partake in the violence they were surrounded with. And though his story created a lot of violence, you could argue that much of the violence was already there. The Bible is filled with it. Innocent babies were slaughtered in Bethlehem when Herod heard about the newborn King.

As a Christian, I’m concerned that the book uses a sacred story as a vehicle for a novel filled with graphic violence. But if I wasn’t Christian, I might think that, amid the other violent books I hypothetically read, this one had a really cool faith element. So is this an example of inculturation of the Gospel message or manipulation of a sacred event?

I’m inclined to think it’s more the latter than the former but I can’t blame the book for that. It’s clearly not the author’s intention to bring us deeper into the mysteries of the Christian faith so it would be unfair to judge it by missing a mark it never aimed for.

So that’s my “reflection” on the book. Here’s a brief review.

Without going into all the caveats about the subject matter that may or may not offend a Christian reader, I thought that as a story it was pretty good. Good but not great. Unfortunately, it lets down a bit at the end. Though the idea of using Biblical characters in this kind of story was clever, the book gets bogged down by trying to make too many connections to the New Testament. I’d give it a three out of five.

Behind the Scenes with Zombies Vs Jesus

The behind the scenes video of “Zombies Vs Jesus” (to be released sometime in June) was just posted. It amazes me how much work goes into a three minute film! What I also love about this video is seeing people who are passionate, not just about making a cool film, but doing ministry that will impact people’s lives. It’s worth the three minutes to watch it… even if you don’t like zombies.

The Avengers and Catechesis

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I assume that most of you have seen The Avengers since it’s broken about every box office record it could. Personally, I thought it was the perfect comic book movie: a great blend of humor, action, and epic story telling.

I remember sitting next to someone at a movie theater a few months ago when an Avengers trailer came on. This person turned to her friend and said, “It looks just like the Transformers.” The tone of her voice made it clear that it wasn’t a compliment.

I wanted to turn to her and say, “This movie is nothing like Transformers!” But then tried to see the trailer through her eyes: Lots of explosions, big city buildings getting knocked down, and huge creatures fighting each other. Yep, that’s Transformers alright.

I didn’t like Transformers, either. So why was I excited about this movie and she wasn’t? The answer was simple. I wasn’t going to see the movie because I wanted to see New York City destroyed. I wanted to see what was going to happen to the characters.

WIth a big budget and a good special effects team, any studio can make movies where things blow up. But the novelty of disaster films has worn off. How many times have we seen Grand Central station destroyed? Yes, the final battle of The Avengers is pretty spectacular from a visual point of view. But that’s not what makes it exciting.

What makes it exciting is that Bruce Banner finally finds a way to control the Hulk. The Black Widow has a chance to do something good to make up for her past. Iron Man learns what it means to sacrifice for the sake of the team. We don’t just root for the bad guys to get destroyed, we cheer for the heroes who have discovered something in themselves and have made the right choice. To put it simpler, we get excited about what they do because we know who they are.

This is a great lesson, not just for any story teller, but for anyone who wants to pass on the faith. Msgr. Eugine Kevane once wrote that “catechesis is about being acquaintanced with persons.” The most effective way to catechize is not by teaching topics but by talking about people.

The person we should talk most about is, of course, Jesus Christ. And our faith is filled with amazing stories of men and women who have conquered their own personal demons to do something great for God. Isn’t that the same kind of drama we saw in The Avengers?

In passing on the faith, don’t just talk about the what. Talk about the who. I imagine that every Christian knows what Jesus did on the cross. But do they really know who He is?

That was one of my few critiques with the movie, The Passion of the Christ. It was a lot of what but only a little who. As a result, many Christians who knew Jesus had a powerful experience watching the film, but people who didn’t know Christ thought (to use the words of a non-Christian I know who saw the film,) “it was just a movie where a guy got the crap beat out of him.”

The Gospel has been rightly called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” A great story has great characters: the incredible love of Jesus Christ, the struggle Peter has to know what it means to follow Him, the betrayal of Judas, the sorrow of His mother. The main reason I wrote my novel, Between the Savior and the Sea, was to try to make that drama come more alive in a contemporary literary genre. Because as I travel around the country (yea, the world) sharing Gospel stories, that’s what people respond most to.

I imagine that many people look at Catholicism the way the woman next to me watched the Avengers trailer: a montage of images and people that didn’t make any sense unless you already knew the characters. It’s up to those of us who pass on the faith (which, by the way, is all of us) not just to talk about what we believe, but Who we believe, and how we’ve been inspired by the stories of others who have done super-heroic things through the grace of the One they believed in.

Chris Padgett is the worst Jedi ever.

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Those of you who know me personally or follow me on Twitter (isn’t that the same thing?) know that every other week I have “geek night.” It’s something I always look forward to. It’s when a bunch of my friends get together and do a roleplaying game. A few weeks ago, we did one of my favorite RPGs: Star Wars. Both Bob Perron (a regular) and Gene Monteracelli (special guest player) were a part of the fun.

I happened to be the game master that evening and Chris Padgett played Winter, a human Jedi. Winter has a lot of skills. He can use a lightsaber. He can use the Force to sense if someone is telling the truth. And he has a very high “acrobatics” rating which Chris tries to use in every encounter.

I now insert you into the story of the game…

Winter and his companions enter the atrium, expecting a meeting with Darga the Hutt. But the doors suddenly shut behind them. The adventurers hear a whistle blown in the distance and four large carniverous birds with razor sharp claws attack! One of Winter’s companions recognizes the whistle—it is used to command the birds. Winter realizes that if he can take out the person blowing the whistle he can stop this attack before anyone gets hurt.

He fends off one of the birds with his light saber and runs into the dark forest of the atrium, Jedi senses keenly attuned to any movement.

“Okay,” said Chris. “So I want to use my power of the Force to see if I can sense where this person is.”

“Roll a d20,” I said. (A d20 is a twenty-sided die for you non-gamers out there.) “I’ll let you see something if you roll a ten or above.”

Chris rolled the die. “Crap,” he said. “I rolled a three.”

Winter could see nothing in the darkness as he wandered the atrium, lightsaber in hand. Meanwhile, his companions were getting severely hurt by the carnivorous birds that flew in and out of the shadows.

Just then, a blaster shot came out of the darkness and grazed Winter’s shoulder, barely missing him.

“I use my acrobatics to dodge the shot!” Chris said.

“It already missed you,” I explained.

“But now can I see where the person is?” Chris asked.

“Yes, their blaster shot gave away the location.”

“I run towards them!”

Winter, honing in on the location where the blaster shot came from, ran towards the mysterious person. Meanwhile…

“No meanwhile, I want to catch up to this person now.”

“You’re too far away.”

“Not if I do an acrobatic leap!”

“Chris, you’re in a dark indoor forest. There’s no way you can reach the attacker this turn. Just wait for the next one.”

“No! I’m going to do it!”

“You’ll need at least an eighteen to make it.”

Chris stood up. “I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna do it!” The other players began to clap in a slow rythym as Chris shook the d20 in his hand.

“COME ON, BABY!” he said as he cast the die upon my wooden table.

It was a one.

Winter actobatically lept into the air… and got caught in a tree.

“NOOOO!” Chris cried. “I can’t believe this is happening!”

Meanwhile, the carniverous birds attack the wookiee…

“I want to get out of the tree,” Chris said.

“It’s not your turn. And you’re losing a turn because you’re trapped.”

The birds make numerous attacks the other heroes. Two of them go down. Winter, the not-so-acrobatic Jedi, finally gets out of the tree and spots the person behind the attack. It was Kaylar, the female gang leader they humiliated outside of the spaceport.

“Is she close enough to reach?” Chris asked.

“Yes, she is,” I said.

“I jump in the air—no, wait. I run up to her, put my lightsaber against her neck, and tell her to call off the attack.”

Winter sprints towards Kaylar and points his lightsaber at her neck. “Call off your attack,” he says. Kaylar dropped the whistle and the birds disappeared into the darkness.

“Why are you attacking us?” demands Winter.

He can see the anger in Kaylar’s scarred face in the glow of his lightsaber. “It is because you humiliated me by the spaceport,” she says.

“Liar!” Winter screams as he—

“Wait, you want to… what?” I ask.

“Cut her hand off!” Chris says. “Make her tell me the truth!”

“But she’s defenseless!”

“Do it!” Chris said.

Winter slices Kaylar’s hand off. She screams in agony and collapses on her knees.

He points the lightsaber back into her face. “Enough of your lies!” he says. “Tell me the truth!”

“I did tell you the truth, you moron!” Kayla says, cradling the charred stump where her hand once was. “You humiliated me at the spaceport and I wanted revenge!”

“Is she really telling the truth?” Chris asked.

“Why don’t you use your Force power to check,” I suggested.

Chris rolled the d20. “I got a seventeen,” he said.

“Good,” I said. “Because that was such a high role, I’m going to let you realize two things.”

Winter the acrobatic Jedi closes his eyes and uses his knowledge of the Force to discern whether Kaylar was telling the truth. In doing so he realizes two important things. First, he senses that Kaylar was, in fact, telling the truth about her reasons for attacking. And second, that he just cut the hand off a defenseless prisoner.

“Move your Force meter down by two,” I told Chris. “You’re going to the dark side.”

“But how was I to know she was telling the truth?” Chris asked.

“I don’t know… maybe use your Force power before cutting appendages off?”

“I just got excited,” Chris meekly said.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Chris Padgett is the worst Jedi ever.

This is Wrong on So Many Levels

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It started with this:

Which lead to this:

To be honest, I’m not so much offended by the cover of Time as I am embarrassed for the poor kid who will be haunted by this picture for the rest of his life. Can you imagine what his friends at school will say?

UPDATE: Apparently the kid is home schooled. But… still.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Apparently that’s not his mom, just an actress, making this kid the smoothest operator since Squints made out with Wendy the Lifeguard.

FINAL UPDATE: There’s are some things in this blog that aren’t entirely accurate.

The Lines Have Never Been More Clear

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Yesterday, the Internet and news media was abuzz with the latest news from the White House: Obama has publicly stated that he is in favor of gay marriage. This comes a few days after Vice President Biden said he thought gay marriage was okay—clearly testing the waters for Obama’s announcement.

I think this is both very good and very bad.

Let’s start with the good: I’m glad he’s being honest. Though I don’t agree with same-sex unions I don’t automatically think people who do are “evil” or “bad.” What I don’t like is when people say one thing and mean another, which is sadly the way the majority of politics gets done these days (on both sides of the isle.) Obama is for gay marriage and he’s made it public. I’m glad because now his position is crystal clear, as it is also clear in regards to the HHS mandate and pro-choice beliefs.

At this point Obama is not just doubling down but tripling down on his liberal policies. This upcoming election isn’t going to be about subtleties or suggestions. It’s going to be a straight up, bare-fisted, one man left standing brawl.

I know a few Catholics (okay, two) who felt tricked at the last election. They voted for Obama because they thought he would have more of a pro-life impact than McCain would. He talked about a “common ground” that would unite a divided America. But now there is no question about what Obama believes or what he will use his political power to achieve. This means people will either really, really believe in him or really, really disagree. So now you know what you’re voting for, or voting against.

So that’s the good. And that’s also the bad.

Usually elections have both candidates trying to fight to be the “moderate” candidate. But in the next few months I think the left vs. right rhetoric will be crazier than we’ve ever seen. No matter who wins we’re going to be left in an extrememly divided country with a large group of people furious that the other person one. Because this is no longer a fight about economy or foreign policy…

This is a fight about morality.

With a poor economy and a fragile foreign policy that’s always one terrorist act away from becoming another political quagmire, it makes sense that Obama would head into this arena that most politicians would fear to tread. He’s positioning himself to be the leader of the new civil rights: the right to abort, the right to birth control, the right to insurance, and the right for homosexuals to get married. Economic failures and foreign wars, the usual front lines of political debate, will be left behind. This is about right and wrong.

What is insidious is that he’s making himself and the government the Modern Truth and the Church and religion the Out-dated Lie. Have you seen “The Life of Julia” on his webpage? It tells the story of a woman who would grow up under Obama’s policies, and the horrible things that would happen to her if she grew up under Romney. William Bennet made the following comment on it:

Julia’s entire life is defined by her interactions with the state. Government is everywhere and each step of her life is tied to a government program. Notably absent in her story is any relationship with a husband, family, church or community, except a “community” garden where she works post-retirement. Instead, the state has taken their place and is her primary relationship. (You can read the whole thing here.)

That’s Obama’s vision for America. Churchless. Faithless. Religion can be kept inside the Church but has no place in public policy. And people who disagree with is vision aren’t just disagreeing with a political vision, they are morally wrong and hurtful to people like “Julia.”

If all of this is making you reach for your heart pills, then I have a better medication: faith. Remember what Jesus said: “In this world you will have hardship. But be courageous, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) I don’t know what the future holds or who will win the next election. But I know that the Gospel has survived (and even thrived) in worse civilizations than this. Many saints are forged in the fires of such persecutions.

And that’s what we need right now: Saints. Men and women who are unafraid to boldly live the gospel message in both word and deed. We need people whose witness of selfless love will confuse those who think we are close-minded or bigoted. We need scholars whose words of moral clarity can cut through the lies of post-modernism and relativism.

“Fear is useless, what is needed is faith.” (Mark 5:36) That’s what Jesus said to Jarius when he was told his daughter was dead. And that’s what He says to us who are afraid that all is lost.

The battle lines are drawn more clearly than they have ever been. This is a good thing. And this is a bad thing. It’s bad because this threatens to divide our country in a way we’ve never seen in our lifetime, no matter who “wins.” It’s bad because people of faith will be the target of constant attack and accused of being hypocrites and uncaring homophobes.

But it’s good because the light shines brighter in darkness. It’s good because it’s never been more important to be a Catholic in this country. It’s good because… God is good. All the time. And His glory is not diminished by what happens here on earth.

To conclude with the words of St. Paul to St. Timothy:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

Sleep Depravation

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According to current US Government and Military guidelines, a prisoner must be allowed to get four hours of sleep every twenty-four hours or it is considered “torture.” Sleep depravation is one of the most popular and effective forms of torture—keeping someone awake for over 48 hours makes them numb to pain, hallucinogenic, and highly susceptible to suggestion. One in such a state will answer almost any question you ask them.

If that’s true, then feel free to answer any question about me that you’d like and I’ll tell you.

For me it began on Saturday. I had an early morning flight to Minneapolis the next morning so I went to bed early, about 9 PM. But my son had some friends over, one of whom threw up at about 11 PM. That made the rest of the boys queasy and things got messy. Literally. Not quite the “barf-o-rama” proportions of Stand By Me, but still not good. I was kept awake until the wee hours of the morning.

I figure I got a little under four hours of sleep before I was up to catch my flight. Unfortunately, I don’t sleep on planes—or at least I don’t sleep well. Landed in Minneapolis and drove an hour and a half to a youth event in Durand, WI.

love going to Durand. I’ve been blessed to have been there the last five years. Though a bit drowsy, it went really well. Part of my payment for the event is with Wisconsin memorabilia and cheese curds. Every year they give me more cheese curds. It’s fantastic! (BTW, I don’t like cheese curds, but my wife and kids really do.)

Gave my last talk and was on my way back to the airport. Had a lovely dinner with my “hostess” at the Mall of America before I left.

Connecting flights and a delay in Chicago got me home after midnight. I was happy for a great day but pretty tired. I don’t even remember falling asleep.

But I do remember being woken up by my kids at 7 AM. Yesterday I felt like I was playing a character on the Walking Dead. Meant to go to bed early but got caught up in grading. Still, I figured a good night’s sleep was all I needed to reset my clock.

A good night’s sleep was not what I got. My four year daughter came in at 1 AM wanted me to cuddle with her. So I did. Then she wanted me to cuddle her in her bedroom. So I did. (Remember that people who don’t get much sleep are highly susceptible to suggestion.) I was phasing in and out of consciousness until I heard the words, “I just pooped in my pants.”

That woke me up.

Poor thing had diarrhea and stomach cramps all night long.

For a second night in a row I don’t remember falling asleep but certainly remember how I woke up this morning. My wife came in and said, “Didn’t you have a final at 8 AM this morning?”

It was her use of the past tense that hit me like an electrode panel of a heart defibrillator. I shot out of bed.

Thankfully, it was only 8:05 (for all I knew it could have been noon) so I threw clothes on and made it to class by 8:15—much to the disappointment of some students who hoped if I missed the final they’d get an automatic A.

I’m fairly lucid right now but doubt that will last. Honestly, I don’t remember being this tired since we had babies—and my prayers are with all those sleep deprived parents who are going through that joyful stage of your lives right now. I’m sure I looked like crap when I showed up to class this morning but I know I wasn’t alone. Many of the students are going through their own form of sleep depravation torture also known as “finals.”

Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up 5 Hour Energy shots.

Looking over this blog I now realize it has no point whatsoever and probably was as much of a waste of time write as it was for you to read. Sorry about that. I’m glad I said the thing about Durand, though. It was a great event and blessings to everyone who was there.

To conclude: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this concerns all mankind.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) I promise the next post will be better :)