Bob and Sunny

PHOTO: Me and Clayton Farris, who plays “Sonny”, on the “Ask J” set. 

There was a time when adolescence was considered to be a moment of asking the Great Questions in life: Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why is there suffering in the world? In previous generations they’d ask family members, a teacher, or a friend for the answer. But today, they ask Google.

The challenge with the Internet is that you can find any answer you want to any question you ask. Many people don’t realize that “information” is not the same as “wisdom”. Deluged by a variety of opinions, blogs, and posts, it is easy to see why this generation is so relativistic—how can there possibly be a right answer when there are so many possibilities?

At Franciscan University, we wanted to create a web series that, we hope, would make a young person realize that perhaps Google doesn’t have the answers to the “big” questions we ask. And that’s where we came up with the idea for “Ask J”.

“Ask J” is a five part video series that follows J, a new employee at the Internet, as he tries to answer questions like “Why is there suffering in the world?” and “YOLO, right?” The hope is that it could be used as a discussion starter in youth or young adult settings, or something that could be shared on the Internet with a friend to start up a discussion about the bigger things in life. I got to serve as the executive producer of this project and it was a real blessing to be involved in such a high-quality production.

When Jesus taught, sometimes He explained things directly; other times He used parables. I think a lot of Catholic media does the former but misses the latter. I can see why: it is cheaper and easier to film a talking head explaining this or that Church doctrine. It takes a lot more work and expense to tell a story. Yet young people respond far better to narratives than lectures, and so we tried to create a funny story with engaging characters that might draw the viewer into thinking about deeper issues.

The more these are watched and shared, the more likely we will get to keep doing projects like this at Franciscan. So please, link to these via your social media and share them with friends. We have a lot of other great ideas we’d like to bring to life!

Last week I had a great time in Cleveland speaking at a Theology on Tap. I was asked to talk about, “Proclaiming Christ to a Pagan World”. There were so many questions I didn’t have time to answer them! So I said I’d put them in a blog, and behold, I am a man of my word.

What is a good way to talk about Jesus to a friend who has fallen away from the Catholic Church?

I think that would depend on why he or she fell away from the Catholic faith. A doctrinal issue? A moral disagreement? Apathy? All of those might require different approaches. But the one thing in common would be a witness of love and joy. I don’t think those kinds of situations are usually changed because you can argue a point effectively. If you are frequently sharing (and showing) how Jesus has given you an abundant life, that is the best “conversation starter” to get to the heart of why your friend might no longer be into the Catholic faith.

As a young mother or father with a quickly growing number of young children, your priority is to your family. However, to what extent and in what ways are you called to evangelize during that stage of life? 

Holy families are a powerful means of evangelization! I love sharing with strangers that I have seven kids. They always react in shock: “Did you say seven!?!” I immediately reply, “Yeah, it’s awesome!” That makes them even more in shock. So many of them expect me to joke about how I have no time or my life is crazy. Too many times in society we treat marriage or family like a punchline. Another example: I have a t-shirt that says, “I Love My Wife”. Someone came up to me, laughed, and looked at the back of my shirt, expecting some kind of joke… but there is nothing there. I just actually love my wife and I’m not afraid to wear a t-shirt that says so. I think one good way to evangelize is to not play into the negative, anti-life and anti-marriage stereotypes that are common in society (like “marriage is the end of freedom”, “kids ruin your lives”, etc.). Our priority is to our family, but there is not a conflict between family and evangelization when we realize that the witness of a holy family is a powerful way to share the Gospel.

How do we evangelize as Catholics? Isn’t a lot of what you discussed common b/w Christians without the “weird” stuff of Catholicism? (Mass, pope, priests, rosary, etc.)

I assume this question is because I talked a lot about sharing Jesus but didn’t mention things like Mass, pope, etc. It’s a great question! Since we all read the same Gospels, I think the initial proclamation of the Good News is very similar among all Christians, whether they be Catholics, Evangelicals, Baptists, etc. We proclaim Jesus Christ, Son of God, who became flesh and dwelt among us, died for our sins, rose for our salvation, seated in glory and calls us to be His disciples. I think it is important that we “claim” this message as Catholics and not avoid talking about Jesus because we fear it sounds too “Protestant”. The saints of the Church had been proclaiming this message for over a thousand years before our family became divided. A significant difference between Catholicism and many other Christians is how we encounter Jesus and what it means to follow him. Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters focus on the personal relationship—”me and Jesus”—the kind of faith community you join is optional. (BTW, there are thousands of different Christian denominations in the US, so forgive the generalization!) Catholics see the Church as an integral part of experiencing Christ, especially through the sacraments, intercession of saints, apostolic tradition and authority, etc. So as a Catholic I would share how Jesus Christ has changed my life and how I’ve been transformed by the sacrament of the Eucharist, or how my understanding of how to follow Jesus has been beautifully shaped by the writings of St. Theresa of Avila. The focus is still on Jesus, but my witness brings in the elements of my Catholic faith.

How do you get your “regular” Mass attendee to become more involved in parish life beyond the “minimum”. 

They have to fall in love with Jesus. We do the “minimum” when we think we are a part of an organization. We do more when we realize we are a part of a family. I think we need to do a better job of proclaiming the love and mercy of God and witness to the joy of following him—the kind of things Pope Francis so beautifully expressed in Evangelii Gaudium. One way of showing that love to the “regular” attendee is to change the attitude that is prevalent in many parishes: people are there for us. We sadly often rely on people coming to our faith communities because they are obliged to. What are we doing to help those who come to our Church? When we start serving others, just as Christ did, people will respond by getting more involved.

How do you recommend dealing with discouragement when efforts to evangelize make no perceived change?

Humility. Success or failure isn’t up to us—conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit. We need to be open to sharing our faith with others, but He is the one who is doing the “heavy lifting”. And remember that people turned away from Jesus. Seriously, if people wouldn’t listen to the Incarnate Word, why do you think they would all listen to you? When Jesus told the parable of the sower and the seed, it was the minority of those who heard the word that ended up bearing fruit. It’s more like playing baseball than taking the SAT. People who hit 1/3 end up in the Hall of Fame! So I might humbly lower your expectations, and don’t blame yourself if it doesn’t seem to work. (I mean, it might be your fault, but I’m assuming your not a jerk that tells everyone they are going to hell.)

How do you continue to get back up in times of weakness? 

Cling to His mercy! I think this is so important and one of the great examples of Pope Francis. He often talks about being a sinner and forgiven by God. Though this is tough to admit, it is a great way to evangelize. If people see us as “super Christians” then we become untouchable, and they wonder why God loves us but not them. St. Paul said, “His power is made perfect in weakness”. The difference between a saint and a sinner is that the saint got up after he or she fell. It is all about clinging to His love and mercy that never comes to an end.

I hope that helps! If you have more questions, or if I didn’t understand what your question was actually about (I had a hard time with some of the handwriting), feel free to ask in the comment section and I’ll try my best to respond.

 

 

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Sometimes I write scripts and something special happens.

I originally wrote this script to introduce the “sacraments of healing”: Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. We decided to tell the famous story of Mark 2:12 because it includes both the forgiveness of sins and a physical healing. This Gospel story beautifully shows how the two go together.

I wrote it as a period piece. The film’s producers were going to try to recreate the look of Galilee 2,000 years ago. Quite a challenge!

But then the movie, “Son of God” came out. And the fear was that the script I wrote was going to look too similar to that film. So Becky Groth took that script and modernized it to be a contemporary look at the Gospel story. I think the end result is pretty cool and more fun than a “straight” retelling of the story, especially because those versions already exist. This is something new, makes you look at the story from a different way, and I’m proud to share the story credit on it.

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Though I’ve been delinquent in updating the site, Outside Da Box and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston are doing a great job by creating new videos every month to help teens understand a different element of the Catechism, and I’ve the honor of writing the majority of those scripts. I really loved this last one they did. It’s a “whiteboard” video about how to go to Reconciliation, and the emphasis is that it’s not just about confessing your sins—it’s about what you do before and after that is equally important. I hope you’re blessed by it!

But one of my favorite scripts ever brought to life was the “Palm Sunday” video I wrote for Outside Da Box a couple years ago. And since that’s coming up this Sunday, it seems a good time to re-post that as well.

Feel free to share these around the Interwebs! And have a blessed Easter!

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It was the summer of 1994 when I first set foot on campus at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. I had been hired to speak at a Steubenville Youth Conference, something I hadn’t even heard of until a few months before. At that time I had been playing concerts and working at an improv comedy club in Orlando, Florida, “The City Beautiful.” So pulling into the polluted air of “The City of Murals” was quite a shock. “I could never live here,” I thought.

And somewhere up in heaven, God laughed.

That was the first summer Steubenville had two youth conferences. Other locations for youth conferences hadn’t started yet. I was there to help a group of students called the “Work Crew” (which later became “Young Apostles”) and do some comedy to lighten the mood of the weekend. I and another friend dressed up like friars—I was Brother Steub, he was brother Ville, and together we were Brothers Steub and Ville. We kept saying things like, “Back in Vatican I, before there was a sequel, we didn’t kneel on grass. We knelt on broken glass! And we loved it!” Oddly enough I got asked back the next year. And the next. And I’ve been involved in youth conferences in almost every different role a guy can do (speaking, hosting, entertainment, giving workshops, speaking at men’s sessions, I even spoke at a women’s session once, and leading music)  for the past 20 summers. It has been one of the greatest blessings of my life.

That first summer, I heard our blessed Mother speak to my heart while I was praying the rosary. She told me to drop everything and move to Steubenville. I didn’t hesitate—I knew God’s will was always the best. I thought it was to do youth ministry, but God had even more planned for me. I completed my Masters in Theology and met my wife, who I married in the campus chapel in 1997. And after 7 years of youth ministry in Latham, NY, Franciscan asked me back to be a part of the faculty to teach about two things I was passionate about: Scripture and Youth Ministry.

I took over the music ministry for the on campus conferences in 2005. Once again, it was something I never expected to do. I had done plenty of concerts before, but lead an entire weekend of worship? I had spent the previous years hosting conferences and really enjoyed doing that. But once again, I knew God’s plan was the best, and I’ve been so grateful to play music that has blessed tens of thousands of people!

This summer the conference office wanted to audition a new worship band and asked if I wouldn’t mind hosting the conference instead of playing it. I love doing music but I was thrilled to have a chance to host again—I hadn’t done it in eight years. And by God’s providence, that was the first conference that my oldest son was attending. Jon Niven (the musician for that conference) invited me on stage on Sunday AM to play one of my “classic” songs: Behold the Lamb, the theme song from 1997. For me, it was the perfect ending for that weekend, and a great moment of nostalgia as I thought about the 20 years I’ve been blessed to sing and speak from that stage.

I few years ago, I got over the shocking revelation that I had been doing ministry longer than all the teens in the room had been born. I don’t feel old at all—I feel young. I love sharing the love of God with young people, using every talent I’ve been blessed with.

I got asked a number of times, “which do you like better, hosting or leading worship?” Do I have to choose? I’m thrilled to do them both. But I have to admit, there is nothing more exciting for me than to tell people about how Christ died for them and be the person who gets to invite them into a deeper relationship with Him. I had a chance to do that this summer, and I’m grateful for the friendly folks at steubenville.org who caught it on tape:

I know that many people are blessed by the Steubenville summer conferences, but I can’t imagine anyone more blessed by them than me. Praise God!

Or at least I can say I’m a script writer of award winning films 🙂

Last week the John Paul II Film Festival in Miami, FL awarded the video, “Zombies Vs. Jesus” an award for the best short film. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was the main script writer for the video, even though it turned out to be different (and better!) than I had imagined it.

This is the second time a short film I was a part of has won an award! Last year, the short film Palm Sunday won a Telly Award for best religious short film.

Two things in common with both films: Eric Groth of Outside Da Box produced it, and Rob Kaczmark of Spirit Juice Studios directed them. As a script writer, it’s exciting to work with people who have a great combination of faith and creativity to pull of the hard work of bringing stories to the screen.

But the best thing about winning awards is it gives people (like me) an excuse to promote the films again. In case you haven’t seen them, take a look!

Here’s a video I wrote as a reflection on the love that God the Father has for us, based on a true story that Dr. Scott Hahn uses as the introduction of his book, A Father Who Keeps His Promises. Produced by the ever amazing folks at Outside Da Box.

Since I relaunched my site through WordPress a couple months ago, the question people have asked most is, “What happened to the 35 Day Spiritual Workout?” Now, at long last, I can break the silence.

The 35 Day Workout has been transformed into… the 40 Day Spiritual Workout iPhone App!

I am very proud of it. It was designed by FUZATI (who also designed the Steubenville Youth Conference app) and sponsored by Franciscan University.

For those of you who don’t know, I first wrote “The 35 Day Spiritual Workout” in the late 90s as a follow up to the Steubenville Summer Youth Conferences. When I was a teen and attended a Young Life camp, my youth minister recommended a book called, “My First Thirty Quiet Times.” It was a thirty day devotional that got me into the habit of prayer. I thought that kind of devotional would be great for teens that had a powerful experience at a youth conference but didn’t know what to do when they got home.

Since writing it, over ten thousand people have gone through it and have shared how much they were blessed by it. I was able to offer it for free on my website after the original publisher went out of business.

This summer, the Steubenville Youth Conferences began to look into resources they could offer teens after their conference experience. They created a great website, steubenville.org, and an app to go along with it. I proposed that I could update the 35 Day devotional and they could turn it into an app.

There are a lot of great things with the 40 Day Spiritual Workout App. First, because it’s an app it is a lot more interactive. My favorite thing is that a teen can put their youth minister’s email address in it so they can share with them (or their friends on Facebook) their progress in the workout. It looks really cool, too.

But more important than how it looks is the content. I didn’t just add five days, I went over the whole thing based on feedback I’ve gotten over the past few years. I trimmed back some of the verses, removed days that weren’t as strong as the others, and added stories—many of the stories that I posted on the previous blog (such as my story about the pledge card or St. Reuben, the rich young man.) I also was able to incorporate the five forms of prayer that the Catechism talks about, something that was part of the published book but didn’t translate when I first put it on-line.

But enough of me talking, why don’t you check it out? It’s available for free at the App Store.

No iPhone? No problem. You can also click HERE and sign up to get each devotion through email.

I’m hoping this will bless a new generation of teenagers. I’d be grateful if you could spread the word, and giving it a good review on the App Store might encourage a young person to download it and give it a try.

I am proud to say, I am a geek.

This should not be a surprise to any who has known me or read my blog. But in case those reading this might need proof of my geek cred, I offer the following for evidence:

  • I’m in a role-playing group two nights a month.
  • I have a replica Doctor Who sports coat which I will occasionally wear to my place of business.
  • I prefer bow-ties over neck ties and, if I had my druthers, would only wear bow-ties.
  • I play the accordion.
  • I use the word “druthers.”
  • I can be found most evenings lounging around the house in my Star Trek bathrobe.
  • I’ve read the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings numerous times.
  • I can quote most lines from Star Wars.
  • I’ve accumulated over 10,000 “geek points” at thinkgeek.com.
  • I read comic books and still have all the ones from my childhood.
  • Was the first point really not enough for you?

It seems silly to have to defend one’s geekiness, since normally admitting you were a geek was proof enough that you were one (just like a man who admits to being a bronie, a male fan of “My Little Pony.”) But apparently that’s not enough for some, or at least for one. Last week the geek world was set ablaze by an article that berated some attractive, young women who the author claimed were just faux geeks looking for attention. It’s quite a statement on the world that there might be women who would fake being into comic books/sci-fi movies/RPGs, etc. to look “cool.” My first thought: where were they when I was young?

My second thought: what does it mean to be a geek?

I’m not the first to ask or try to answer such a question. My usual operating definition of a geek was someone who was really over-the-top passionate about something that wasn’t mainstream. But John Scalzi, popular science-fiction author who has won a few Hugo and Nebula awards and hob-knobs with other famous stars in the geek universe, adds an important nuance to that:

Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think — and my experience of geekdom bears on this thinking — that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.” When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.”
Any jerk can love a thing. It’s the sharing that makes geekdom awesome.

Being a geek is not just over-the-top loving something. It’s over-the-top sharing about it as well. And that made me think: how can we be geeks for Jesus?

I’m not proud to admit I’m more familiar with the geography of Middle-Earth than I am with the United States. But can we get as excited and knowledgeable about our faith as we do about our fiction? I met a wonderful, faithful, young Christian who told me they’ve read the Harry Potter series three times over but, in further conversation, admitted to never having read all (or even most of) the letters in the New Testament. Why?

Let’s be honest, the first letter to Timothy isn’t as exciting (to most) as the first book of Twilight. The US Bishops commented on that in their national document on catechesis:

Most people today, but especially young people, expect learning experiences to be entertaining and tend to judge the effectiveness of those experiences on the superficial level of how entertaining they are rather than how humanly enriching or authentic they are. Young people are taught both by the excitement generated by technology and by the effervescence of popular culture to reject something if it bores them – and often the only things that do not bore them are those that seduce or titillate. (National Directory For Catechesis p.16)

Before we get into the deeper meaning of this quote, let’s first tip our hat to the US Bishops who found a way to use both the word “effervescence” and “titillate” in the same sentence. Double Word Score.

Now on to the deeper meaning: I think this hits a bulls-eye. We have been raised to be amused. In the 70s, Pope Paul VI said the following: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and to teachers only if they are witnesses.” But I think a more modern rendition can replace “witnesses” with “being entertained.” I know some brilliant teachers at my university who many students don’t like because they are “boring.” But those who pay attention discover how intelligent they are and really get a lot of our their classes.

I spend a lot of energy trying to make what I do to pass on the faith both educational and entertaining: short movie scripts, dramatic presentations, song-writing, and even some comedic things I do in class to keep my student’s attention. But if someone is to grow into spiritual maturity, they’ve got to go beyond only what “titillates” them. Falling in love with someone means going deeper than what infatuates us and often involves a struggle. It’s not always “entertaining.” It is so much better. But if our passion for Jesus Christ doesn’t surpass our excitement for pop culture, then our spiritual lives will be shallow and our evangelization ineffective.

Can we be as geeky with saints we are with superheroes? As knowledgeable of doctrine as we might be with Doctor Who? Are we willing to enter into the world of holiness as much as we are the Hunger Games? Or as devoted to prayer as we are to pop culture?

But here is the real challenge for an amusement-addicted culture: are we willing to allow times of “boredom” with God in our spiritual lives, as He detoxes us from the constant stimulation of superficial entertainment, so that He can lead us to a place of deeper intimacy? Of course, the spiritual life is not actually “boring.” As Fr. Thomas Dubay once wrote, “People who are in love are never bored.” But a life of prayer is not seductive, titillating, or entertaining. And if that’s all we’re used to, then spending time with God can be very difficult indeed.

A geek is someone who is not only over-the-top passionate about something, but also over-the-top passionate about sharing that with others. If that’s an accurate definition, then I think it’s appropriate to call the Apostles and all the saints as “geeks.” The question before us is, are we willing to be one as well?

If I can paraphrase the call to the “new evangelization:” we are all called to be geeks for Jesus. And while I don’t mind that people know I collect comic books, enjoy science-fiction, or play role playing games, what I really want to be known for is being a Jesus geek.

These past few days, I was blessed to be a part of the Catholic Youth Ministry Training Convention, sponsored by Life Teen. The theme of the conference was “Radiant Joy.”

What surprised me about my experience at the conference was that it was so… restful. It shouldn’t have been. I flew to Arizona right after finishing a weekend conference (which was preceded by a week of intensive sound-checks and practices to prepare for it) for a quick two day trip. I had to give two workshops (both at 7 AM each day) and an afternoon keynote. Since it was being videotaped, I had to put extra time in my powerpoint presentation—something that took numerous hours of work. All told, it had all the makings of a hectic weekend.

But it wasn’t. It was anything but. It was wonderful, restful, and joyful.

Much of that was due to the conference itself. The folks at Life Teen are the most hospitable, professional, and altogether excellent folk a person could hope to work with. The liturgies were beautiful, the prayer was intense, and the speakers were inspiring.

One of my favorite talks was given by a friend I hadn’t seen in years, Tom Wilson. He gave a talk about how to guard your joy, or more specifically, to unguard it. He encouraged us to share our joy with the world and not hide it under a bushel. He talked about the importance of a sense of humor when approaching life and how humor is a sign of a healthy spirituality. It reminded me of a quote from St. Teresa of Avila: “Take God very seriously, but don’t take yourself very seriously at all.”

Tom also clarified that having a sense of humor is not about being funny. Funny people tell jokes and have a quick wit. But people with a sense of humor have a balanced perspective on life. To have a sense of humor you have to be humble. He quoted C.S. Lewis: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”

There is often a stereotype that to be more holy you have to be more solemn. But that is not the example of the saints. Those who seek and find holiness are radiant with the joy that only God can give.

Then Mark Hart followed by inviting us to pray for deeper joy in our lives. He gave two great quotes from two great saints. “The only reason to take this life seriously is if it’s the only life you have,” said St. Francis. And Blessed Mother Teresa said, “Joy is the net by which we catch souls,” “starting with our own,” Mark added.

Jesus said, “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) Happiness is often based on happenings, meaning that it depends on if things are going well. But joy is a state of being that isn’t hampered by the negativity around us. Tom shared a personal story about his wife who, coming out of her fifth surgery in her struggle with breast cancer, was still able to make jokes. Where did that humor come from? Her love of the Lord.

My gratitude to everyone at Life Teen for letting me be a part of that experience. And I was so blessed by the participants at my workshops and the people I got to connect with between sessions. May we all continue to radiate the joy of Jesus Christ.