I’m flying high from a successful defense of my dissertation yesterday. Literally, I’m flying on a plane home from England as I’m writing this. And by the way, that is the proper use of the word “literally” because 1) it is not a metaphor or exaggeration and 2) I wrote it down.

I guess I have to be picky about my language now because, well, I have a PhD! Honestly, for most of my life I never thought this happen and some things that happened in the past few months really made me concerned that it wouldn’t. I knew the process of getting a doctorate would be a lot of work, but didn’t expect the emotional rollercoaster that it became.

The lowest point in the journey came just a few months ago, in January, when I thought I had submitted my final draft. I had mistakenly thought the dissertation was to be 60,000 to 100,000 words and that examiners preferred shorter dissertations over longer ones. My different supervisors read various chapters at a time but nobody saw the whole thing until I put it together and sent it out. It was a little shy of 60,000 words. I immediately got an email asking where was the rest of it, and did I know it was supposed to be between 90,000 and 100,000 words?

I was on a plane to Florida when I got that email. I began to cry. After working four years on this, how was I supposed to come up with 50% more content? Plus, I had some pressures at Franciscan (at the time) that meant I needed to be finished by MAY.

Though I tried to be prayerful throughout the whole process, that was a moment of true surrender. I thought of the young boy who gave his five loaves and two fish to Jesus. On its own it wasn’t much, but Jesus did something incredible with it.

Over the next six weeks, I lived in my office, working crazy hours. I often went to bed praying that angels would keep typing for me while I slept. I was blessed to have a number of speaking events that let me hide in a corner and continue to write. Numerous friends comforted me with words of encouragement and constant prayers—I can’t tell you what that support meant to me! By early March I felt like the dissertation was really strong, better than it had ever been. I checked the word count… 95,000 words. An incredible blessing from God!

My supervisors signed off on it, but warned they didn’t think it was quite ready enough. There are a number outcomes for the defense of a British PhD: the award is given right there, the need for minor modifications (three to six months), the need for major modifications (six months to a year), the need to resubmit and try again, the granting of a second Masters degree (with its own category of minor and major modifications), and complete fail. Obviously, the last three categories are the nightmare (I had that nightmare more than a few times). My supervisors suggested to expect certainly minor and likely major modifications. I wasn’t so concerned about potential minor revisions—we had been cautioned since the beginning that a very small percentage of students gets away with a direct award—but the major ones could keep me busy for up to another year!

Another different thing from the British PhD system is that, unlike PhDs in America or much of Europe, you defend in front of strangers, not the people who helped you write the dissertation. They think this makes the defense more rigorous, as there could be some bias with those who know you and have already given input on the thesis. (This is not at all to suggest that American and Europe PhD defenses aren’t extremely difficult! But I think the way England does it is far more terrifying—and my friends with PhDs from the US agree.)

So yesterday I found myself at a moment I had envisioned for the past five years—the defense of my dissertation. That morning I prayed in the Sacred Heart Chapel that Blessed John Henry Newman had built (pictured above). I offered Jesus my loaves and fishes, knowing it wasn’t much but it was all I could do, and prayed He would do something amazing with it. Then I prayed a rosary, not to ask for help, but in thanksgiving for what I knew God would accomplish. He didn’t bring me this far to leave me.

I was escorted into the meeting room, met my two examiners, and we talked about my dissertation. The time flew by. They pressed me on a number of issues, but overall seemed satisfied with my answers. It was a really amazing conversation with other scholars about my work. I actually enjoyed myself!

Then I was told to leave while they discussed. My supervisors were in the other room, with my wife, all eager to hear how it went. I said I thought it went well. Dare I hope for minor modifications?

I was asked back in and was told the incredible news: award directly given, no need for modifications. “Congratulations, Dr. Rice.” I was so stunned I had to ask him to repeat it. My supervisors were shouting for joy. It was an incredible moment I will never forget in my life.

Maryvale-PhD

One of the great blessings of that moment were I the people I knew were there with me in spirit. One of my closest friends sent me an email before my defense: “Know that as you sit and begin to present – the sudden calmness you will feel rushing over you – is the love and faith of so many people who hold you in prayer.” That is exactly what happened.

So know you can call me Dr. Bob Rice, an achievement that happened through a lot of hard work, the support of friends, but most of all through the providence of God. I pray (and have confidence) that God will use this to continue to further the Kingdom. To Jesus be all the glory!

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.

 

 

A few years ago I was invited to be a part of an “Evangelization and Outreach” task-force that Franciscan put together. Barbara Nicholosi, a scriptwriter from LA (among other many talents), was brought in to discuss how we might create different kinds of media to evangelize youth and young adults. She made a simple statement that had a profound effect on me: “The best parables never mention God.” Up to that point, I hadn’t noticed that the majority of parables that Jesus told were about sowers, seeds, lost sheep, fathers and sons, and fig trees—but not specifically about God.

We decided in that task-force to create media that would be more of a parable than a teaching. There is nor shortage of “teaching” media in the Catholic Church, and I’m not remotely saying it isn’t important. But Jesus used both teaching and parables, and the latter is often missing in Catholic media today.

From a media standpoint, it is WAY easier to teach than to tell a story. Media focused on teaching can be done with a simple set, a few chairs, and educated people talking about a subject (like we have on the EWTN show, “Franciscan University Presents”). Telling a story means scripts, actors, directors, production schedules, location shots, makeup, audio, soundtracks, etc. It would take more time and money to make. It was also a bigger risk: the “enjoyment” of the story would be subjective, as tastes can differ drastically from one person to another. I was really proud that Franciscan took the leap.

The first fruits of this effort is called “Judgmental Moose”. The concept was to tell a parable about the seven deadly sins using the stuffed head of a moose as a “Jiminy Cricket” type of “voice of conscience”. The audience was young adults and we went for a fun, quirky style of story telling. We have two more series in the works… but more on those as they get released.

I’m really excited about the final product. It was a huge learning experience! I had no idea how much work and how many talented people were necessary to do something like this. I’d love to hear your feedback on these videos, and please share them with others!

 

Jesus has risen from the grave! And so have I!

Yes, this has always been true in the spiritual sense, but “resurrection” has meant for more me this year. As many of you know, I’ve been toiling away at my dissertation for the past four years, and more intensely this past year, and even more intensely these past few months. In January I submitted what I thought was my final draft—but apparently it was way short of what it needed to be. So since then I’ve been spending every extra hour in my office and every minute of the day focused on writing the dissertation.

I’m thrilled to share that on Holy Wednesday I offically submitted the dissertation. It was strange waking up on Holy Thursday and realizing there wasn’t anything else I could do about it. By the time Easter came around, I felt like I was alive again.

This process has caused me to strip away things in my life, one by one. It began with things I enjoyed but didn’t need to do (like this blog). Then it moved to things that were more important but not immediate, like working out. I cut down social time with friends until I barely saw anyone these past few months. With the exception of watching the new Star Wars a couple of times I essentially stopped going to movies or watching TV, and any book I read had to do with my studies. By the end, even time with family had to be cut back—a painful choice! But I was comforted in knowing that 1) I was doing this for my family (keeping my job, promotion, etc.) and 2) it was only temporary (though it didn’t feel that way!).

The one thing I clung to and that got me through was prayer. “Seek first the Kingdom of God” was my mantra, especially as I was continually tempted to ditch Mass or prayer time to squeeze in a few more moments to finish a thought or read another source. I was certainly not perfect in that focus but that, above all, is what got me through.

Now that the dissertation is behind me, I feel like I can breathe again. I’m spending more time with my kids. I’m hanging out with friends (the first Geek Night of 2016 was last night). Started running (though my brain thinks I can run farther than my body agrees with, at least for now). I’m catching up on all the emails I’ve not been answering these past months (sorry if I owe you one). And I’m watching Daredevil on Netflix with my boys without feeling guilty about not studying. Life is good!

Thank you for all your prayers during this time. I’ve got one more hurdle: I’m defending the dissertation in England on July 2nd. However, things are out of my hands now. Not that they ever were! That’s something I’ve learned through all of this.

I’m alive again! Hallelujah!

I have had many ask about what I thought about the new Star Wars movie, so I’ll take a brief break from my dissertation work to share a few thoughts. Here is my spoiler free summary: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun, action-packed, and wonderful return to the Star Wars universe. New characters and clever plot twists breath life into what is, at times, a too familiar story. 8 out of 10.

Okay, that’s as much as I can say without spoilers. Personally, I tried to avoid any spoilers about the film so I could just enjoy it, and I’m glad I did! I highly recommend you see it that way, too. So if you haven’t. go go see the movie and come back later.

For those of you that have, here’s what I thought…

This genre of “space opera” is great for the director, J.J. Abrahams’s style of filming. His movies have wonderful casting, look, and pace, but he has a tendency to leave gaping plot holes that frustrate some people (like me). Thankfully, this movie played to his strengths, not his weaknesses. It also helped that the Star Wars universe is so established that he could point to the canon of what has been done before and build on it. Lucas gave him such a low bar with the prequels that almost anything would be a welcome improvement.

This movie isn’t just better than the prequels, it really stands on its own two feet—something the prequels didn’t do. The new main characters that were introduced were fun, dynamic, and engaging. Rey was wonderful. It was great to see a female character in such a strong position. Loved Finn! I really appreciated in this movie the moments of humor that endeared the audience to these characters. That was missing, not just in the prequels, but even in the original trilogy. It felt like it took a good page from the kind of snappy dialogue that Joss Whedon has become famous for.

The look of this movie was fantastic. Abrahams really captured the vibe. It felt we were back in a far away galaxy a long time ago. The score was excellent though I have to say it wasn’t as striking as Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace. I didn’t leave humming a new melody line as I had from previous Star Wars movies.

Some great plot turns. Really fascinated by the story of Kylo Ren. As I said, I avoided all spoilers so had no idea he would be Han and Lea’s son and, by that relation, the grandson of Darth Vader. When they were standing on the bridge I kept thinking “will he? Won’t he?” and then he did. Having Finn be a storm trooper with a conscience was also a nice twist.

The action was incredible. Loved the monsters in the freighter, the space ship battles, and the lightsaber battle at the end.

Overall, a great movie!

So… why an 8 out of 10?

A great sequel (or prequel) needs to walk the line between giving the audience what they liked about the previous film but also give them something new to cheer for. The Force Awakens gave a lot of new things to like. But it came to the final battle: small X-wing fighters against a planet-size weapon that destroys other planets? We’ve seen that in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. I have to say, when they were standing around a graphic of the planet and talking about how to destroy it, I was really disappointed. On one hand, you could argue this was a homage to the original trilogy done over thirty years ago. And perhaps, if I hadn’t seen it since then, I would agree. However, I saw those movies on Sunday. When Po flies into a trench (A New Hope) and then into the area where he starts blasting away (The Phantom Menace, Return of the Jedi) it was too familiar. All these decades since Star Wars was first released and we can’t come up with something better than the original movie did? I was far more invested in the Kylo Ren/Finn/Rey battle since I didn’t know exactly how that would turn out, unlike the spaceship battle where I had seen the conclusion two (three counting Phantom) times before.

Han and Lea have the ULTIMATE PARENTING FAIL. When your son becomes a mass murderer and stabs you with a lightsaber, your last thought has got to be, “Maybe I should have spent more time at home…”

Not a fan of the last shot of the film. I was so hoping Rey would use the line Po had with Kylo Ren at the beginning: “Is one of us supposed to say something?”

And then there are the unanswered questions Abrahams is famous for. This is less a critique and more a concern, because we’ve got two more movies to unpack things. But Abrahams track record isn’t great here, so I think it is worth mentioning. The obvious one: how did the rebellion get so small? I looked like they were operating out of a MASH unit. What happened since Return of the Jedi when it looked like the Empire was destroyed and the Rebellion in charge? I liked learning about where Storm Troopers came from—I wish there were just a couple more moments like that in the movie, and perhaps they will come in forthcoming episodes. Of course, this is part of what Star Wars is about: say what needs to be said in the opening text crawl, then dive into the action. As I stated before, a perfect fit for this director.

My biggest concern going forward is what will happen to Kylo Ren. Will the third movie end with him being a good guy and saving Rey from Supreme Leader Snoke? I hope not, but after seeing the “Death Star” battle, again, I fear that is where we are headed.

Those are my thoughts. I haven’t read other reviews so perhaps there is something original in what I’ve said or maybe everyone else is saying the same thing. I would put Force Awakens on the same level as Return of the Jedi, and under Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope. That’s one of the best things I can say about a movie! I’m willing to forgive some of it’s problems because I’m so in love with the Star Wars universe and so happy to have it back! I can’t wait to see it again.