I’m always grateful to be a part of the #sharejesus video series, produced by Redeemed Online. I’m also really glad that after I did the video they took a nice picture of me (which you can see on this site), since I’ve yet to get any professional pictures of me sans beard. I would have done the video for free, but the picture was a nice plus.
If you are blessed by this, check out some of their other amazing videos at http://redeemedonline.com.
“Hey, where’s the beard?” I’ve been getting that question a lot lately as I show up at different events. It is usually followed by, “Why aren’t you wearing a bow tie?” Fear not, citizens. The bow tie is alive and well. I wear it when I teach and on Sundays. The beard, however, is gone.
Technically, it is still there, always growing underneath my pale Irish skin, pushing forward like Play-Doh slowly squeezed through a sieve. To understand the reason it is gone, one must understand the reason it began.
It was 2004 and I had just left youth ministry and began teaching at Franciscan University. It was an incredibly intimidating job, especially since many of my former teachers were now my professional colleagues! I was only 32 so I was one of the youngest members of the faculty at the time.
I walked into THE FACULTY LOUNGE—a secret place forbidden to students but now I could have access to. Actually, it took me about two months to raise my courage to walk in there. When I did, there was a grumpy professor (who shall remain nameless) who, without really looking at me, loudly put his book down on the table and said, “Students are not allowed in the faculty lounge.” So I said I was sorry and I left.
And that’s when I decided to grow the beard. I needed to look older, and fast, or I knew I’d keep getting mistaken for a student. So in the course of a month I went from this:
Those pictures were with my daughter Elliana, who is now 12! Amazing how time flies.
My mission was accomplished: I looked older. Over time, the beard added shades of grey, giving me a more distinguished look.
However, the last few years, I have felt betrayed by the beard. It went from “pepper” to “completely white”. I would tell people I was in my forties, and they’d say, “Wow! I thought you were older than that.” I’ve noticed that more people have been inquiring if any of the college musicians I play with were my children. This is me at an event in Fort Worth, TX… one of the last known pictures of the beard:
I confess I thought about coloring it darker. I even bought a Just For Men hair dye kit. But the instructions were way too complicated, and I didn’t want to head down that slippery slope. So I lathered up and took it off. And now I look younger.
PHOTO: Fr. Chris Martin, Me, Megan Mastroianni, and Paul J. Kim
In June I was doing music for a Steubenville Youth Conference that Paul J. Kim spoke at. If you haven’t heard of him, you should check out his website HERE. He’s an incredibly talented young man who is on fire for God and has a great message for young people. During his keynote, he talked about going to a Steubenville conference as a teenager and how the host of that conference said something that changed his life. It was a powerful story.
The next day, as we were all sitting together at lunch, he looked at me and said, “Hey, I think that was you!” Sure enough, it was. Then two other people on the speaking team that weekend, Megan Mastroianni and Fr. Chris Martin, both shared how I had also been at Steubenville conferences they were at when they were younger (2002 and 1996).
This became a theme throughout the summer. Katie Hartfiel shared a picture when she was a “fan girl” of mine in high school. Oscar Rivera told a story from the stage about how he had a conversion in 1995 (and still remembered the horse I rode in on). Kris Frank, hosting a conference for the first time, mentioned that I was the host at the conference he had a powerful conversation at.
PHOTO: Me and Katie Hartfiel, 2001
I did the math and realized that last weekend was my 75th youth conference in 23 years. That number is a bit ridiculous. If you average about two thousand young people at each conference, that means the Steubenville conferences have given me the opportunity to share my gifts of speaking, music, and comedy in front of about 150,000 young people. There’s only one word that comes to mind as I let that sink in:
My first conference was in the summer of 1994. I was just out of college (Theater major from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL). I had met Jim Beckman (who was the host of that conference) a few months before at the first Catholic Heart Work Camp in Orlando (fun fact: I was the first Carpenter Commando). It was his idea to bring me to Steubenville, a place I had never heard of. At the time he said the weekend could use my gift of comedy (I was working at an improvisational comedy club at the time) to inject some fun into the weekend. But later he shared that he knew in his heart that I needed to experience the kind of Catholic ministry that Steubenville was offering. He was absolutely right.
So from the beginning there was a mutual blessing: the conferences blessed me by being a part of them, and I blessed the conferences by using my gifts in the weekend. It began with comedy but soon grew to songwriting (writing many of the theme songs of the 90s), speaking, hosting, and leading worship. In fact, over these past 23 years I’ve done everything you could do at a conference short of concentrating the Eucharist (yes, I’ve even spoken at a women’s session).
In 2005 I was asked to provide music for not just the youth but also the adult conferences as well. Since we’re counting, last weekend was my 67th young adult or adult conference. The fact that I’ve done over 140 Steubenville summer conferences really blows my mind. I still find them energizing, life giving, and powerful moments of God’s grace.
I am continually humbled and grateful for the opportunity to serve at the Steubenville Summer Conferences. I’m always excited when someone says, “I remember you from 1997!” Even if I didn’t say or do anything particularly profound that changed that person’s life back then, it is cool that God let me be a part of the team of people that blessed him or her.
This year the Steubenville summer conferences celebrated its 40th year. What an honor to have participated in 23 of those! While I don’t want to minimize the wonderful things God has done through me over these past decades at those conferences, I also realize that I have been more blessed by having the conferences in my life than vice versa. I could have said no to Jim’s invitation back in 1993, deciding instead to keep doing comedy and music in Orlando, and the conferences would have continued to grow and bless hundreds and thousands of teens. It would have been my loss!
Last weekend, just as I do at the end of every summer, I put my guitar down after the closing song of Mass and said a prayer of gratitude. There’s no sign of me stopping right now, but I also know I’m not the master of my own fate. I can’t believe it has gone on this long, so who knows?
All I know is that I’m so thankful for being a part of the ministry of the Steubenville summer conferences. I can’t imagine my life without them.
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!