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!

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.

I was doing a gig in Venice, Florida where I met this amazing guy named Andrea Molinari (yes, it’s a guy’s name). We have a lot of things in common: we love Jesus, Catholicism, our family, role-playing games, and comic books, just to name a few.

Well, he just got a set of comic books published and they are really incredible. Here’s the synopsis:

After Professor Lawrence Miller’s teenage son Val’s tragic death from a drug overdose, he cannot shake the sense that his son’s soul is lost and wandering between heaven and earth. Grieving and deeply disturbed, he commits suicide, pursuing his son into the afterlife. Lawrence’s soul awakens and immediately encounters his deceased father who has arrived in order to help him transition. Lawrence rejects his father’s offer, choosing instead to stay in the ‘seam,’ the middle ground between heaven and earth, so that he can find his son and seek retribution. Lawrence embarks on his search for Val, beginning at his son’s grave. Lawrence begins to wage a brutal campaign of retribution against those responsible for the drugs that killed Val. His existence becomes a terrifying conflict between his unchecked anger… and his instinctive knowledge that he has lost his way.

It is daring story-telling, certainly dark. I love the supernatural element of it. Sometimes I feel that Catholic (or Protestant) story tellers aren’t willing to play with the supernatural genre which is so popular with audiences today. For example, from a theological perspective, can a person have supernatural powers and encounter living people from the afterlife? Yeah, probably not 🙂 But the “Catholic” elements of the story lie not in the narrative details but in the themes the story brings forth: redemption, forgiveness, and hope in the face of despair. Really great stuff.

I’ve included links below to check it out. Might not be your “cup of tea” as my British friends say, but if you are into this kind of stuff it is certainly worth your support. We need more of this out there!

Amazon. Comixology. Drive-Thru Comics.

 

Over the past few months of travel I’ve gotten to talk to three different couples who have dealt with infertility. One couple just adopted a baby; the other two were praying about it. Infertility is a difficult cross for a couple to bear and I think many times we (as a society) are insensitive about it. It is very easy to ask a couple struggling with infertility the question, “Why don’t you adopt?” as if that was the simple and logical thing to do (regrettably, I think I’ve said something like that in the past).

My perspective on this radically changed a few years ago when we adopted our son, Joey. In our case, the question people asked was the opposite: since you have kids of “your own” already, why are you adopting?

Wondering why a couple struggling with infertility isn’t adopting a child or why a couple who has biological children is adopting reveals an underlying societal assumption that adoption is a consultation prize for people who can’t get pregnant.

But I’ve come to understand that adoption is a calling, regardless of being fertile or infertile.

I am grateful that Jennie and I were called to adopt Joey as he is such a blessing to us. And my prayers go out to all those who are discerning adoption (and I pray that more would be open to that call).

“In love (the Father) destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved” (Eph 1:5-6).

good-samaritan-icon

This morning’s Gospel reading is the famous story of the Good Samaritan. After mentioning that we must “love our neighbor as ourself” a scholar asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus tells the story of a man who was beaten by robbers and left by the side of the road to die. A priest and a Levite see him but stay away. But a Samaritan man has pity and helps him.

Jesus then asks the scholar, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37.)

The thing most people get from this parable is that we should help people in need. But there’s a deeper meaning that Jesus is communicating.

The context of the parable is, “who is my neighbor?” The Law said you were to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18.) Look back at the question Jesus asked the scholar. The neighbor was the one who “treated him with mercy.” Jesus is the neighbor we are to love as we love ourselves.

And then, by telling the scholar to “go and do likewise,” Jesus shows that the poor are our neighbors also. And by loving those in need, we are also loving God.

The Catechism says, “There is a certain resemblance between the unity of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God” (CCC 1878.) It later emphasizes that the Ten Commandments, “must be interpreted in light of this twofold yet single commandment of love, the fullness of the Law” (CCC 2055.)

We begin by the one on the side of the road, helpless and dying, and are saved by Jesus, the Good Samaritan, the Good Shepherd. This is our love of God. Then, once healed, we are to “go and do likewise” by helping those in need. This is our love of neighbor. And Jesus tells that, “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40.) Which brings us full circle back into the love of God.

This is what I was attempting to convey in the latest VCAT video, “Love God, Love Each Other.” I know my previous post was about who made it, this post is about the “why” it was made.

May we all “go and do likewise” today!

good-samaritan-icon

This morning’s Gospel reading is the famous story of the Good Samaritan. After mentioning that we must “love our neighbor as ourself” a scholar asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus tells the story of a man who was beaten by robbers and left by the side of the road to die. A priest and a Levite see him but stay away. But a Samaritan man has pity and helps him.

Jesus then asks the scholar, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37.)

The thing most people get from this parable is that we should help people in need. But there’s a deeper meaning that Jesus is communicating.

The context of the parable is, “who is my neighbor?” The Law said you were to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18.) Look back at the question Jesus asked the scholar. The neighbor was the one who “treated him with mercy.” Jesus is the neighbor we are to love as we love ourselves.

And then, by telling the scholar to “go and do likewise,” Jesus shows that the poor are our neighbors also. And by loving those in need, we are also loving God.

The Catechism says, “There is a certain resemblance between the unity of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God” (CCC 1878.) It later emphasizes that the Ten Commandments, “must be interpreted in light of this twofold yet single commandment of love, the fullness of the Law” (CCC 2055.)

We begin by the one on the side of the road, helpless and dying, and are saved by Jesus, the Good Samaritan, the Good Shepherd. This is our love of God. Then, once healed, we are to “go and do likewise” by helping those in need. This is our love of neighbor. And Jesus tells that, “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40.) Which brings us full circle back into the love of God.

This is what I was attempting to convey in the latest VCAT video, “Love God, Love Each Other.” I know my previous post was about who made it, this post is about the “why” it was made.

May we all “go and do likewise” today!

Bob and Bob Photo (600dpi)

I’ve had the blessed opportunity of collaborating with my friend Bob Lesnefsky, aka “Righteous B”, for almost 15 years now. We first met while he was helping with the Steubenville Youth Conferences. He became a youth minister in a neighboring parish to where I was doing youth ministry and we often ran combined retreats and events. For many years we travelled around the country doing improvisational comedy (some of the best memories of my life!) We’ve also collaborated musically. I’m proud to have been a part of his first studio recording when we wrote “Set Free” together, the theme song for the 2002 Steubenville Youth Conferences (back when we had theme songs). He and I were also in a band, albeit briefly, called “Backyard Galaxy”.

So when I wrote a hip-hop song to go along with the first “Morality” video of the VCAT series, he was the first person I thought of doing it. Of course, he did more than record it. He took the lyrics I wrote and, well, made them much cooler. Look, I listen to bluegrass, okay? I play the friggin’ accordion. Rap is not my thing. But he is awesome at it and he took my idea and ran with it. He also brought Born, who is one of the teens who is a part of his Dirty Vagabond ministry. You can hear him laughing at the end. I invited Taylor, who sang with me this summer, and the next thing you know we had a pretty cool song.

Dan Bozek recorded it at his studio and brought a friend of his, Harrison Wargo, who made a great beat. And then it was sent off to Cory Heimann at Likable Art who put it all together to make this:

considerthecall

I’m excited to say we’ve come to the end of another year of videos in the VCAT series. Last year we had twelve videos on the creed, this year twelve on the sacraments. We’re half way there! As I travel around the country, it’s great to hear how many people are using these in ministry.

This last video took a look at discerning a vocation to the priesthood. There are a number of “vocation” videos out there already, so I wanted to do something different.  I tried to capture the kinds of fears and distractions that I’ve known teens to have over the years. My hope was to be subtle: have the audience figure the message out, even though the main character didn’t. It’s always tricky with these catechetical videos to not be too preachy and yet still have solid content that’s helpful. Did I hit the mark? I’ll let you tell me 🙂

Kudos to my friend Bob Perron who came up with such a great name for the video!

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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!