Sunday, January 29, 2012

Spiritual Time Out

Perhaps you felt this way after watching 5 hours and 53 minutes of incredible tennis at the 2012 Australian Open men’s final, but standing inside American Airlines Arena in Miami last March, I could hardly believe what I just saw. In just 15 seconds time, the Heat extended their 16-point lead over the San Antonio Spurs to 20-points with dramatic and dazzling back-to-back slam-dunks.

Dwayne Wade brought the ball down the floor only to pass behind and to his left to LeBron James. LeBron single-handedly stuffed the ball inside the basket with a right hook that hung in the air for close to a third of those 15 seconds?! Just moments later, Wade’s keen defense and quick hands stole the ball and again he was off and running to the basket. Wade kept the ball and as he slam-dunked it, he brought down the house with it.

In that moment, the Spurs did what they had to do. They called a time out.

I don’t know of another sport that relies on or reveals momentum more palpably than basketball. The timeout, be it a full or a thirty second timeout, is critical as both an offensive and defensive strategy to control it. The Heat were up and their spirits soaring; their adrenaline kicked in. Players were giving one another looks and finding each other all over the hardwood. The Spurs however, needed to regroup and refocus. They needed to return to the game with another plan of action and a fresh mindset. It was, for them, a time out well spent.

I have given a lot of thought to the power of the timeout since that time. As I watched the Forty-Niners battle the New York Giants, I had my eyes fixed on the number of time outs remaining. Watching the longest grand slam final in tennis history today, I thought of how much Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic could have used a time out after many demanding, lengthy rallies. Tennis players have “time” every other game as they switch sides, but there is no way to officially take a break during the play of the match. Because of that, it’s difficult for a player to control the speed and momentum of the game.
Fortunately, in life, most of the time we can take a time out. Children know those two words all too well as a means of discipline. But the grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation revealed to me another perspective–the spiritual timeout.

I don’t remember what I was confessing—how convenient, no? but in our conversation about how I wish I had been more loving and patient, kind and empathetic, the priest counseled me well. He told me when I confront that ever-so-brief but real moment as I am tempted to sin, I should call a spiritual time out.

For example, if I am arguing with my sister and it's gaining momentum, I know exactly what I can say that will “push her buttons.” I am more than aware of the words that will hurt her. This is exactly when I should take a spiritual time out. Maybe it will call me to breathe deeply, maybe it will help me weigh my options—is it really worth it? Maybe it’s to gather the strength to do what is more loving. The spiritual timeout can help me refocus and in the words of the Church to live the words of the Gospel and sin no more.
My next posting will be about failure. In this life we will fail—be it in a basketball game, on the tennis court and in our relationships with one another and God. We all need tools to succeed, learn and grow to improve and excel. I hope what Father Stephen Maria once told me in the confessional is but one tool for you to consider.

Photo Credits
Wade Dunk
LeBron Dunk
American Airlines Arena

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Stay Stoked in 2012: A New Year's Resolution Worth Considering

When I read that "learning how to surf" is the New Year’s resolution of fashion icon Tory Burch, I thought, “of course it is.” She can afford to travel to the warm, desirable locations where one can do that. Surfing will also provide her with the opportunity to sport her 2012 Resort Collection. Tory doesn’t know how to look anything less than beautiful in a swimsuit; I have no doubt she is the “Surfer Girl” the Beach Boys sang about. But according to her fashion blog Tory wants to learn to surf so she "can go with my boys instead of being a beach bystander." If Ms. Burch follows through on her resolution and I hope she does, she will find something much more than an adrenaline rush. She will encounter a sport that is as palpably spiritual as the community it draws together.

Surfers fascinate me. And as opposed to Tory Burch, they are often iconoclasts (wait, she’s a fashion designer…excuse me!) Their nature is fearless, and yet their sport makes them acutely aware of their limitations. They love and respect “Mother Ocean” and understand the role we all hold as stewards of God’s creation. Although surfing is a sport of one man/woman and one board, it’s rarely a singular endeavor. No, surfers form a community. A community that speaks a common language, that participates for the love of the sport (autotelic) and is one that exemplifies devotion.In the surfing documentary “Riding Giants” Sam George speaks of surfers in an important way when he says If you applied the same amount of devotion to a real pursuit like religion, do you think anyone would call you a religious bum? Probably not.

When you consider that surfing is really more than anything, a faith and devotion to that faith becomes paramount in your life, there is no such thing as a surf bum.

In this way, I think all Christians have a lot to learn from surfers. With surfers, it’s easy to identify their passion; it is central to their life. Essentially, their life bears witness to the truth what you do is who you become. And if you spend enough time around surfers you will realize that is always supported through community.

It is no different in Christian faith. In the article “If We Stop Loving People We Are in Terrible Trouble” Theodore Cardinal McCarrick states “We have to…hold youngsters close to the Lord and give them the opportunity of growing in their love of God and grow in the understanding that we are not made as individuals; we don’t save our souls as individuals, we save our souls as part of a community.”Catholicism in particular is distinguished from other Christian traditions in its understanding of and commitment to the principle of community. In "Catholicism," theologian Richard McBrien states “Even when the divine-human encounter is most personal and individual, it is still communal, in that the encounter is made possible by the mediation of a community of faith. For Catholicism, there is no relationship with God, however profound or intense, that dispenses entirely with the communal context of every relationship with God.” I have a strong suspicion that surfers understand this claim based on what they love, what they do, and how that is shared with others.

But many of us think, “it’s between God and me. I can work on my relationship with God on my time.” In our fast paced world, this is a scary proposition to me. The first thing that gets cut on a busy day is time for quiet, in prayer. Or many claim they get more out of an extra hour of sleep or their “alone time” than in going to Mass. But there's a big difference between being a bystander and a participant. Community benefits from our presence and in sharing our gifts. At its best, it will support us in our limitations and struggles, celebrate our joys and triumphs. At its worst, we may not "get a lot out of it" but to draw from a surfing mindset, it might be wise to "ride the wave" and keep your eye on the horizon.

Whatever your New Year's Resolution, I hope that you too may get a chance in 2012 to move from being a bystander to a participant either in surfing or in your faith tradition. I hope you spend time with Mother Ocean and God the Father. And like any surfer would say "Stay Stoked." 2012 is full of promise and potential--it is, after all, the year of the Dragon!

Photo Credits
Community of Surfers
Tory and Surfers
Riding Giants
Long Board

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Who's Got It Better Than Us? The Harbaugh Family Mission Statement

Jack and Jackie Harbaugh had a lot to celebrate this past week. In addition to their middle child Jim’s NFC divisional playoff victory in San Francisco on Saturday and their first born son John’s win in the AFC title game in Baltimore on Sunday, they celebrated 50 years of marriage on Monday.On the eve of the 2010 SuperBowl, I wrote about a remarkable man and a mediocre coach Mike Singletary. Why? He is the only father I know who has drafted a family mission statement that hangs in their home. Today, I stand corrected. Whether or not they recognize it as such, the Harbaugh family has one too. It may not be formally written or framed but it is a lived reality, with them and San Francisco Forty Niner fans.

Perhaps you’ve seen it posted on Facebook or as the title of several YouTube highlight reels. But the Harbaugh family mission statement is actually in the form of a question, one I saw for the first time just 24 hours after their epic victory. Printed on the back of the shirt of a man sitting in front of me at mass was “Who’s Got It better than us?” This is not a rhetorical question. The answer was in bold capital letters: NOBODY! 2012 NFC West Champs. Undoubtedly, this is what the Harbaugh family said as they raised a glass many times this week. But it’s also something they have said for years. Rather than recap the story, it’s worth reading.
But, for the Forty Niner faithful, the answer to their question has been “everybody” for some time. But that also speaks to the reality of "Growing up Harbaugh." Jim moved 16 times before he graduated from Palo Alto high school. As Dan Brown writes, "In the early 1970s, the family lived in a ramshackle home in Iowa that barely topped 1,000 square feet." Despite the challenges, this family made the most out of what they did have. They were rich in love, they were encouraged to dream big dreams, find and follow your passion all while supporting one another.

Part of me wonders if perhaps the hungry crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach asked themselves this question before the multiplication of the fishes and loaves. Or did those at the wedding feast in Cana as they ran out of wine? or Mary and Martha as they waited for Christ after their brother Lazarus died? They should have. Irony alert, this is where miracles occurred and lives were transformed.

One need not be familiar with “the Harbaugh family mission statement,” to know in Niner country the answer to that question is once again “nobody!” For one, the Niners are featured on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated with the title “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise.” This team wasn’t even favored to win last Saturday. The Saints, a wildcard team on the road was expected to win by three. Second, the memory of game itself will stay with Niner fans for decades. We commemorated the 30-year anniversary of “The Catch” just a few sunny, warm days prior. Now, Forty Niner Faithful will reminisce about another catch for years to come. Third, we will host the NFC Championship game this Sunday. Because the SuperBowl is at a neutral site, this is as good as it gets in our house.

For my fellow Niner fans, I hope you savor this time before Sunday’s game. And despite Sunday’s outcome, I challenge you to live the Harbaugh family motto. Clearly, it too is a "home of champions."

Photo Credits

Harbaugh Family
Who's Got It Better Than Us Logo
John, Jim and Joanie
Jackie and Jack Harbaugh

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Vernon Davis: Prodigal Son

In his review of the Broadway revival of Godspell, Rob Weinert-Kendt writes “When my theatergoing companion, a secular Jew, asked me to give him a rundown of some parables before the show, I found myself unable to retell the parable of the prodigal son without getting choked up with emotion."

I was surprised to read this popular Biblical tale evoked such a strong response. Choked up with emotion? Really? And then I recalled my favorite moment from Saturday’s NFC West championship game. Every time I replay that moment, tears fill my own eyes. I too get choked up with emotion. Is it the story of the prodigal son? Yes and no.After catching a 14-yard pass to put the Niners in the lead with 9 seconds in the game, Forty-Niner Vernon Davis ran to head coach Jim Harbaugh at the sidelines. With tears in his eyes, the tight end met Harbaugh’s whole-hearted embrace. Thanks to a colleague who reads lips, I came to learn that Coach Harbaugh said “You did it!” three times (include one expletive in there). However as much as I love this image in the way I appreciate Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son, it’s not the same story.

For one, the Vernon Davis that Harbaugh knows is not akin to the younger son profiled in the parable. This Vernon Davis didn’t squander his talents and abilities under a man I hope is named the 2011 Coach of the Year. This is not the same "Vernon Davis," as he often refers to himself in interviews, as the one who had little guidance of what it took to be a real winner. That Davis got into scuffles during training camp practices. That Vernon Davis--first round draft choice out of the University of Maryland--was sent to the locker room mid-game. That Vernon Davis inspired a tirade by former head coach Mike Singletary after his first game as head coach.

Coach Singletary said
I will not tolerate players who think it’s about them, when it’s about the team. And we cannot make decisions that cost the team and then come off the sideline and its nonchalant. No. It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them. Cannot win with them. Cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win. I told him that he would do a better job for us right now taking a shower and coming back and watching the game than going out on the field. Simple as that.
When Vernon Davis publicly admitted "I don't miss Singletary” after Singletary was fired, I started to think—wow, he too held in contempt all that he had been given.

According to Samuel Lam in 49ers TE Vernon Davis credits Mike Singletary for guiding him to this point “What Singletary did was prepare Davis for a great moment like that on Saturday. Since Singletary's first game with the 49ers, Davis had transformed into a better teammate and a better person. This season, Davis attended every practice, lifted up teammates and continued to work on his craft as a football player. That all may not have happened had Singletary not given him a reality check by sending him to the locker room back in 2008. And that game-winning 14-yard touchdown catch might have only still remained as an unattainable dream."

And truth be told when asked about Singletary's impact in his career, Davis admitted he now understands what his former coach wanted out of him. According to an interview on KNBR he said, "I'm glad he was aboard from the start because I learned so much from him. And not just about football, but about life, about the team, being a part of a team, and I take my hat off to him. I learned so much from him."
It seems to me this once brash, bold, gifted son came to realize the error of his ways. If I could change just one thing from Saturday’s game, it would be that the man meeting Vernon Davis on the sidelines was the respectable and honorable Mike Singletary. No, I don’t want to return to a Niner team under his leadership. Yes, I realize the Niners would not still be playing if he were the head coach. But because Singletary, a virtuous devout Christian who epitomizes what the father in the parable does, I would love to see him welcome this gifted athlete home. Home to excellence and to victory. Go Niners!

Photo Credits
Davis-Harbaugh embrace
Rembrandt's Prodigal Son
Coach Singletary and Davis

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why I’m Not Writing About Tim Tebow

With a blog about Sports and Spirituality, people want to know one thing: what’s your take on Tim Tebow? And lately I’ve been asked one question: When are you going to write about him? I’m here to tell you why I am not writing about number 15, the devout Christian both on and off the field.First, it seems to me that everyone else is writing about him. The quarterback has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated eight times! In fact, I did a double take when I received my December 13, 2011 issue. Didn't I already receive this? No. He appeared on the cover just two weeks prior; that’s right--twice in three weeks.

One has to try hard not to read about Tebow as you will find features with creative titles like “High Praise,” “The Tebow Effect” and “Are Tim Tebow and Justin Bieber making Christianity cool?” in everything from the Wall Street Journal and US Weekly, to religious periodicals like America magazine and more. One can also read information by him. His autobiography “Through My Eyes” debuted on the New York Times hard cover nonfiction bestseller list at number six.

Second, the other reason for my radio silence is because I simply don’t understand the controversy. From what I have gathered, people have one of two major complaints about him. One is that he just isn’t that good. The other is that people find his public displays of faith (PDF) as either inspirational or inappropriate. And like most controversial topics when it comes to matters of faith, I hear more people find “Tebowing” to be offensive or wrong. With that, I suppose I will eat my words and weigh in. I’ll begin by clarifying...

Fans and experts (in their own mind?) claim that he hasn’t mastered the most basic skill of his position-- he throws for too few yards and he does so inaccurately. Others say he’s too slow or that he’s not a great athlete. And yet, his achievements on the field suggest otherwise.

Tebow led the Florida Gators to not one but two NCAA football championship titles. He won the Heisman trophy. He earned the starting job from a player who is a great athlete, Brady Quinn; his jersey now reads “Riding Pine.” When Tebow took over at starting quarterback, the Broncos had a 1-4 record. Under his leadership, they climbed into a first place tie in the AFC West (and finished 8-8 in the regular season). One of Tebow’s jerseys was the league’s best-seller this past Christmas season. The other one says “Jesus” which alludes to the other area of concern.Many have referenced Matthew 6, 5-6 to address why Tebow’s public praise is wrong. It reads And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at street corners for people to see them. ... But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place. --Matthew 6, 5-6

We know that Jesus ate with sinners, lepers, tax collectors, and befriended a prostitute. He was loving and compassionate and yet He was clear in his disdain and judgment against one group of people: hypocrites. Men and women who lack integrity; people who show a public face that is other than their private self.

If there is one consistent remark about Tebow, it’s that he is authentic. His faith is front and center of his life. His missionary work in the Philippines, his morals and values and how he lives them out on and off the field verify he is anything but a hypocrite. He reminds me of another devout Christian athlete, Kurt Warner. In the article “Does God Care Who Wins The Superbowl?” Warner said “If you ever really want to do a story about who I am, God’s got to be at the center of it . Every time I hear a piece or read a story that doesn’t have that, they’re missing the whole lesson of who I am.”

For Tebow to not give thanks and praise would be to miss out on who he is. I have thought long and hard about what my reaction to Tebow or any athlete who gives public praise says about me, (and less about them). As a Catholic, I believe my faith tradition does not put a tremendous influence on praising God. To some degree, it doesn’t speak to my personality either. But when I do, I know that it feels good. It is as though my soul is lifted!And one athlete whose words of praise lift my soul is Eric Liddlell, a Scottish runner. In the movie “Chariots of Fire, he said “to win is to honor Him.” How often do I think about honoring God? Is winning really honoring God? And does that mean to lose dishonors God? Far from it.

Tebow, Warner, all the men who will take the field in the AFC Playoff game have been given great talents and abilities, that’s why they are professional athletes. In striving for victory, Tebow knows the source of his life and livelihood is God. He will be happy to share with you on and off the field with both his words and his actions why this is true for him. Now that sounds like a story worth writing about….

Photo Credits
Tebow looking up
SI Cover
Missionary Work

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What the Notre Dame Women's Basketball Team Helped Me Understand about 't'radition

In Advent 2011, the Catholic Church adopted the new English translation of the "Roman Missal," the book that contains the text for the celebration of the Mass. The reason for doing this was to provide the faithful with a more accurate translation of the original Latin text, the language of the Roman liturgy.

People don’t like change. We take comfort in the ritual, universality and timelessness of the mass. But, our responses and prayers are part of the tradition small 't' of the church. Catholics often write Tradition with a capital 'T'to mean Sacred Tradition. But small 't' traditions, or customs, are not part of Divine Revelation and are subject to change. If there’s one place that knows tradition small or capital 't' it’s the University of Notre Dame.The Irish pride themselves on some dynamic and meaningful customs that have been passed down for over 150 years now. One of our best is the fight song. But watching women’s basketball team defeat the University of Connecticut on Saturday January 7 made me realize it’s time for another change. Here’s why...

UConn came into Purcell Pavilion ranked two in the nation; they hadn’t lost a regular season Big East game since February 2008. In overtime, the Irish, ranked three ended the Huskies’ 57 game win streak.

The only reason I caught the game, which was nationally televised on CBS is because a friend sent me a text letting me know it was underway in South Bend. Meanwhile, the Notre Dame Alumni Club of San Francisco was hosting a game watch to cheer on the unranked men’s team against the Louisville Cardinals.

I am one of the board members who assist with game watches. When I realized the missed opportunity for alumni and fans to gather, I hung my head in shame. Why am I not thinking of watching women’s sports? What is it going to take for me to broaden--no, to change my perspective? Why am I not leading the club to capitalize on the social opportunity that big games like this provide? I don’t have an answer.

And by no means is this my first offense. On Thanksgiving Day, I asked a former student who is now a junior at Notre Dame if Ben Hansbrough was really the BMOC (big man on campus) last year. That team was exciting and had a great regular season; I figured Hansbrough in particular must have captured student excitement and attention. My student looked at me and said “no…not really.” I could hardly believe the 2011 Big East Player of the Year was low profile. I responded by then asking, “how about Tim Abromaitis? “ “Um, well I know his girlfriend” he said. Just as I was thinking “what’s wrong with students today” Connor said “You know who’s really popular though, Skylar Diggins. Students are very excited about the women’s team.”Of course they are; they should be. This is the same team that beat powerhouse programs: the University of Tennessee in the quarterfinals, the University of Connecticut in the semifinals. This team made it to the NCAA championship game where they lost to the Aggies of Texas A&M.

They are a team that is led by an incredible coach and former player Muffett McGraw. The first line of her coach’s profile on the website reads: "If we searched for an entire year. I don't think we would find anyone better suited for our program." With those words, former Notre Dame athletics director Gene Corrigan announced the hiring of Muffet McGraw as the third head coach of the Fighting Irish women's basketball program on May 18, 1987. I like the coach, I like the players, and in another stroke of honesty, I like a team that wins. For years Notre Dame was only regarded as a football school and it has improved in every possible realm—athletics, service opportunities, study abroad programs, diversity, and athletics.

Notre Dame has recorded 26 national championships, 18 by men's teams, five by women's teams, and four by combined teams. Apart from the combined titles (in fencing) the most recent men’s championship was in football in 1988. Since that time, the women have won two national championships in soccer and one in basketball. Truly a crown jewel of improvement can be found in female athletics.

And Notre Dame has been co-ed since 1972. The fight song says, “While her loyal sons go marching onward to victory.” Informally my friends would sing “while her sons and daughters go marching…” If you take out loyal and insert daughter it can work. And as far as I'm concerned inclusive language here trumps the virtue. My friends were right; this is a tradition that needs amends.

The fact of the matter is Notre Dame’s daughters are doing just that—winning on the court and off. The success of our basketball team has helped me realize changing a tradition and a mindset isn’t often a bad thing; it’s necessary. Go Irish!

Photo Credits
Coach McGraw
Irish Win
Tribute to Skylar