Wednesday, December 28, 2011

'Touchdown Jesus!' or 'Does Tim Tebow Kneel When He Throws a Hail Mary?'

There has been a lot of talk lately about Tim Tebow, the current quarterback for the Denver Broncos and a Heisman trophy winner during his college career at the University of Florida. Most of the hullabaloo has not been about how he plays football, however, it has been about his unashamed expressions of faith. He can be seen kneeling on the sidelines and praying before, during, after games and somehow, this is controversial. On a local radio show leading up to his game with my beloved New England Patriots (who won, by the way) they were talking about Tim Tebow and I heard a caller say “I mean, this is America and you can believe whatever you want, but don’t go pushing it on me!”, and I thought, what? The guy is expressing his faith, how is that ‘pushing it on you?’. As a Catholic Christian, there are several things a day that I am exposed to, and offended by, that secular society is definitely trying to ‘push on me’, however, we live in a country where free expression is supposed to be valued and protected. But more and more it seems if you speak out about your faith in the most minuscule way, or are guided by the word of God, you are expected to sit down and shut your mouth.

The other thing I’ve heard said about Tim Tebow is, “Why is he thanking God? Do these people (Christians) really think God cares who wins a football game?” When people keep saying that he is thanking God for winning a game, this allows them to reduce it down to the argument that God doesn’t care about the outcome of a football game, which allows them to dismiss all prayer. But as someone of faith, I would not guess that Tebow is thanking God for the victory as much as thanking God for the gifts he was given, his health and athletic ability, and his safety as well as that of his teammates. In that sense, if you consider the attention his faith is getting from his expressions on the field, he is acting as any Christian should. He is using the gifts he has received, to glorify and praise the God who gave them to him.

This made me rethink my discernment process. ‘Wait a minute!’ I hear you saying, ‘we know you’re married with two daughters, isn’t it a little bit late to go through discenrnment?’ Well, obviously, I have discerned that most important of vocations already. I knew from an early age that I would someday be a husband and father. I don’t know that I bargained for two beautiful daughters that I would someday need to protect from teenage boys, but that is a different story.

No, I am very happy with my vocation as a husband and father. But as anyone who’s been reading these posts knows, I am not in the right place, or even the right industry, when it comes to my career. I have been prayerfully considering what God’s next step is for me for a while now and coming up empty. A short time ago I had a friend suggest that this truly is another type of discernment process as long as I can accept that I am not too old to do whatever it takes to ‘switch horses mid-stream’ so to speak. That shifted my perspective. Rather than just asking God what my next step should be, I need to be seeking it for myself. I mean, how will He show me the path if I’m not even walking?

So taking a page from Tim Tebow, I see that he is using his gifts to their full potential, and regardless of the outcome, he is glorifying and praising God through those gifts. God may not care who wins a football game, but what of the parable of the servants and the talents (Mt. 25:14-30) or the lamp lit to be put under a bushel basket? As Christians, we are called to take the gifts God has given to us, and through our use of them, glorify Him, praise Him and spread the message of the gospel. You do not have to be an NFL quarterback to do this. And using these gifts may not even have anything to do with how you earn a living. But by focusing on what we can do to serve the Lord, we give Him the chance to put us where He needs us most.

So how will I apply this to my discernment process? The first step would be to make an inventory of the gifts that God has given to me and get a clear picture of how they might work together with my primary vocation as a husband and father. Then I need to figure out how I can best apply those gifts to glorify the Creator, and spread the good news of the gospel? Wow, that makes it sound pretty simple, doesn’t it? But it's not. Particularly for a guy who has taken such joy in beating himself up for a long time. It’s a pastime that is making a comeback for me, so this exercise is probably exactly what I need. To take an honest inventory of my talents would force me to see how I AM useful and perhaps the thought that I am seeking to glorify God would light a fire in my spirit and renew vigor for whatever I am called to pursue.

Here’s hoping!

God bless,

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lessons from Brother Vinnie or Yoda....The 'Barbarian'

It was a warm September morning. I was a 14 year old kid who had gone to public schools his whole life, and I was about to have my first religion class at Central Catholic High School. I was nervous because I was a freshman, I was over dressed because I'd never had a dress code for school before, and I had no idea what to expect. I walked into the room and there was....Yoda.

Okay, so it wasn’t REALLY Yoda, but he certainly looked like Yoda. His name was Brother Vinnie. Or, as he occasionally reminded us, Brother Conan (as in 'The Barbarian') Vincent Dinnean. He was roughly 4 feet tall, with an under bite that made him look a bit like a bulldog, and ears that were a little pointy, like Yoda. And to us young boys, just entering adolescence, he very well seemed to be roughly 800 to 900 years old.

Brother Vinnie had been at Central Catholic for a long time and had served in many capacities. At that time, aside from his duties of teaching us the basics of catechism, he monitored attendance. He had been doing this for a long time and had a couple of interesting stories about excuses for tardiness so outlandish that he had approved them on the basis of their creativity alone. His attendance duties added to the enigma of Brother Vinnie as well. You see, Brother’s cassock was just long enough that when he walked, it brushed along the ground and you couldn’t see his feet, creating the illusion that he was floating down the hallway collecting the classroom attendance sheets. Now that I think of it, to this day, I cannot say with 100% certainty that he was NOT floating down those hallways.

I remember Brother telling us some of his cautionary tales. For example, during a discussion about ordering our class rings, Brother told us of one evening a few years before, that he had gone to a grocery store dressed in his cassock. The young lady ringing out his purchase asked him if he was from ‘Central’, and when he told her he was, she said, “Oh, I have one of those!”, and proceeded to pull out a keyring with the ‘spoils’ of relationships with several boyfriends: class rings from various local high schools. The message was clear. Your class ring belongs to you. If you want to keep it for posterity, do not risk making it part of some girl’s collection. Although, in the battle between Brother Vinnie's advice and common sense verses hormones in a 14 or 15 year old boy, the deck is most definitely stacked, so I suspect some of my classmates now wonder where that damn ring went.

I think that all of us managed to develop an affection for Brother Vinnie. First of all we appreciated his teaching style by which he would give us a list of questions and answers, and then a week or two later give us a test, which was basically him, in the front of the room, asking those questions in the same order and having us write down the answers. But more importantly than that, we could tell that there was not a mean bone in his body. This man who had inadvertently chosen a name during his ordination that would become inextricably linked with a fictional ‘Barbarian’, had struck a balance between an easy-going authority and a keen sense of humor. I think he truly saw each of us boys as having great potential that he did not want us to squander and he did not want to crush. Some of that may be a nostalgic revision of Brother Vinnie, or maybe I'm starting to realize what it was. As I work my way closer to Yoda age and look at the upcoming generations of young men, I feel like I see that promise and I hope that they don’t squander it, despite being in a world encouraging them to do so at every turn.

There are two stories that Brother Vinnie told us that strike me more poignantly as I grow older and since I returned to the faith. The first was a story he told us about a time, many years before, when Central Catholic hired a teacher who was Jewish. I have never understood why Christians have issues with people of the Jewish faith. I particularly do not understand why Catholics would have an issue with them. Not only have we held on to some of the beliefs that the other Christian faiths have jettisoned from the Old Testament, but every week, we celebrate what is largely, a Seder meal, since Jesus used His last Seder meal to give us the gift of His body and the real presence of the Eucharist. In any event, when Central hired their first Jewish teacher, there was an uproar and they received quite a bit of less than enthusiastic feedback from concerned parents. One of these parents found Brother Vinnie in the office and started to express his displeasure. Brother Vinnie, who was never wanting for 'chutzpah', was totally frustrated with these complaints and told the parent, and I paraphrase, that, 'all comments regarding this situation were now to be directed to the Jewish lady on the front lawn', and gestured out the window to the statue of our Blessed Mother. The parent reluctantly retreated.

The second story has impacted something I do every day. In a discussion about prayer one day, Brother talked about how he remembered during World War II, the churches were full of people praying for the end of the war. Then, when the war ended, the streets were flooded with people celebrating, but the churches were empty. It reminds me now, of the gospel story where Jesus heals the ten lepers and only one comes back to give thanks. Though many came to God when they wanted something, no one came back to Him in thanksgiving. This has shaped me in that, every time I pray I start by thanking God for the gifts He has given to me. Now let’s face it, sometimes life is difficult, you can feel overwhelmed, like you’ve had too much piled up on your plate. Sometimes it seems like you have nothing to be thankful for. At times like that, however, if you start prayer with thanksgiving, it can focus you on the fact that when you think you have nothing to be thankful for... you’re just plain wrong.

A while ago I checked in with my old Alma mater and found out that Brother Vinnie had passed away in 2007. He was 91. I wasn't surprised , of course, I mean, although he wasn’t actually as old as Yoda, he was apparently in his 70's when he taught me and I was in high school.... well..... let’s just say it was a while ago. A few years after I graduated, Central Catholic went co-ed, they’ve expanded and I imagine they are charging a little bit more for tuition these days. I know that there are many beloved teachers there doing a fantastic job. I just can't help but to think it’s interesting that the teacher who had an effect on my daily life and spiritual development, turned out to be, Yoda....The Barbarian?

God bless you Brother Conan Vincent, in dedicating your life to teaching us, I'm sure I am not the only young man whose life is a little bit better by your example.

God bless,