Monday, August 27, 2012

Instructions for How to Live a Life: Pay Attention...

American poet Mary Oliver wrote “Instructions for How to Live a Life,” a poem I read on the day of my Sport and Spirituality class.  Its message applies to all of us.  She writes:
  1. Pay attention 
  2. Be astonished 
  3. Tell about it
So simple, yet so profound.  Why? Because it’s both true and it’s challenging.  Both the spiritual and the sporting life can benefit from these instructions.

In 2012, the first step is remarkably difficult.  It seems to be the world is doing all that it can so we don’t pay attention.  The music in many restaurants and department stores is so loud, I can barely think.  Flashing TV screens, billboards and other ads flood the public sphere.  The smart phone is certainly the perpetrator under the greatest attack, and often for good reason.

One can look through photographs, send text messages, read email, play games, and check their bank balance at one 2 ¼” by 4 ½” device.  Joe Posnaski, the auhor of “Paterno" named the power of this distraction when he described a scene the night Joe Paterno was fired. "Students and others had silently gathered at the Paterno statue, and Posnanski conveys the ultimate sign of 21st-century respect for this quintessentially 20th-century coach with a choice detail: A girl of twenty or so felt her phone vibrate but did not answer it.”  Indeed, she was paying attention.
When I look only at my iPhone, I fail to see the world around me as it is coming and going.  I remember that my friend was so busy taking photographs of Barry Bonds from his phone when he broke the homerun record, that he felt as though he missed the moment. Something was compromised. The sad fact is he did miss it; none of his photos turned out. Upsetting but also the material for a good story.

Life offers us so very much to pay attention to.  I know I need a reminder.  Fortunately several recent events in San Diego reminded me of step #1.
I saw the Giants play the Padres at Petco Park last weekend.  I love watching a road game.  What always takes some adjustment however the sound of the game!  Cheering is not necessarily a good thing (while fans can cheer for great defensive feats, offense generates a stronger audible response).

My friends and I arrived to purchase our tickets shortly after the game began.  I heard the roar of the crowd and thought “oh no, the Padres already scored?  Wait, I thought the game started a few minutes ago.”  You could only imagine my confusion when I arrived inside the ballpark to discover the Giants had already scored and it was still the top of the first inning.  What I heard, wasn’t a great defensive catch from a Padre.  No, what I heard were San Francisco Giants fans cheering on their team.

Petco Park is dubbed “AT&T South” for good reason. The amount of orange and black inside the yard was inspiring.  I delighted in knowing the Giants fans were so loud that even from outside the park, they made an impression.
  • I paid attention. 
  • I was astonished.
  • I couldn’t wait to tell about it.
After the game, my friends and I were standing outside the ballpark, debating where to go.  We were talking on a side street, when I noticed the two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum was walking toward me.  Had I been reading my text messages, I would have missed seeing “The Freak.” I may not have been paying attention to anything in particular, but I wasn’t distracted. 

I was so astonished, I didn’t react.  I couldn’t grab my phone to take a photo because I was so taken in by what was happening.  It is exciting to see someone you feel as though you know, in public.  One hundred thoughts entered my mind such as I can’t believe how thin he is and his clothes certainly reflect his personality.

I couldn’t wait to tell others about it.  And yes, the irony is I did so by sending several text messages!  It’s 2012. I get it.

The spiritual life is no different.  To notice the hand of God at work in our lives requires patience, rest, time for prayer and reflection and intentionality.  During Sunday’s homily, the congregation was told “don’t forget to find blessings in the busyness.”  So simple and yet so true.  Another good instruction on how to live a life.

As we move from summer into fall, I encourage you to pay attention.  Pay attention to the little things, the joy of sports and the beauty of spirituality.  You will be astonished.  Tell me about it.

Photo Credits
Mary Oliver

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Best Way to Know God: Sports

The best way to know God is to love many things. 
--Vincent Van Gogh

The faculty and staff of St. Ignatius College Prep reconvened on August 24 for fellowship, professional development, meetings, and mass to commence the 2012-2013 school year. I am grateful we were given time for reflection, prayer and personal sharing before the chaos of the new year unfolds.

In our time together, we were asked to consider three questions:

  • What experience—event—image—from the summer gave you a glimpse of God or of love?
  • In light out our theme, “loving,” what is one hope you have for this new year?
  • What is your reflection on the call to be loving (in this morning’s talks, your experience, or  quotations below)?
One of the quotes was from a surprising source, the impressionist artist, Vincent Van Gogh.  He wrote, “The best way to know God is to love many things.”  I thought what a beautiful insight; its truth spoke to me.

I have always believed that creation is a reflection of the creator.  God’s goodness is reflected in God’s awesome creation—the Badlands, Yosemite Valley, a new born child, my friend’s dog—Lucky Dog—a Labrador and Border Collie mix.  Indeed, many people and tragedies challenge this belief, I am sure the good Lord agrees.

However, I write today because my immediate response to Van Gogh’s insight relates to Sports and Spirituality.  I thought “that’s right.  So many sports, so little time.”  Sports reveal creativity, joy and even a glimpse at immortality.  Different sports speak to different people—cultures and ages, personalities and mindsets.  To love sports can reflect a love of God, because I believe sports can build community—relationships and friendships like no other.

First and foremost, sports are a form of leisure.  Leisure implies freedom or choice; it is not obligatory (even though work or effort may be involved).  When we are at leisure, we are at play.  I have worked with young people long enough to realize that when they are at play, more often than not, they reveal their true self.  Am I honest? Considerate? Grateful? Competitive?

Sports put us in contact with people and places we might not otherwise know.  I think of basketball and its CYO programs.  The sport draws a wide demographic of boys and girls of all ages.  For example, St Vincent de Paul in an affluent neighborhood of San Francisco (Cow Hollow) plays the same game against the inner city's St Paul of the Shipwreck in the Bayview.  Neither child may have been to the other’s neighborhood had it not been required league competition.

Indeed, sports teams hold stereotypes.  Tennis, lacrosse and golf have often attracted “people of privilege” because of the access and pricey equipment that facilitiates the development of skill and mastery.  However, I am proud that our country has a commitment to public recreational programs and facilities, that many of us may take for granted.  Great athletes like the Billy Jean King and Arthur Ashe benefitted from public courts.  The Williams Sisters career began on the courts of Compton; today they sponsor tennis academies in the inner city.  And thank God they do, as we know the commitment and upkeep to our cities “park and rec” is under siege.  Other creative programs like “First Tee” and “Lacrosse for LIFE” are not state/federally funded, they are nevertheless responding to those needs in different ways.
At SI we encourage first year students to cast a wide net and try out for several sports for a reason. We know that our teams are places where new students can easily build and hopefully build confidence in a new community.  I was approached by one student who when cut from volleyball decided she was going to try out for girls water polo.  When she didn’t make that team she asked if she could run with the cross country team.   That young woman found a home with the team and loves the sport.  

Sports also reveal the unique talents of the human person.  I have no “hops,” I could never hit a curve ball, and I can’t dribble a ball in either soccer or basketball to save my life, but flip turns in swimming, running 26.2 miles without stopping or crushing a tennis ball with my forehand cross court shot has been almost second nature.  I heard the renown swimmer Haley Scott DeMaria tell an audience at Notre Dame’s Play Like a Champion conference that she grew up in a home that didn’t ask “if you would play sports” but "what sport would you not play?"  The world was their athletic oyster! 
This summer I took six students to Camden, NJ on an urban challenge to learn about poverty through Romero Center Ministries.  The entire week gave me “glimpses of God and of God’s love,” but one image has stayed with me I am reminded of Van Gogh’s quote.  

Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, the concept of a warm rain in the summer was foreign these young people.  A typical east coast summer storm one early evening became an invitation for play for these six teenagers.  While most of the larger group stayed inside to keep dry, my students played Frisbee for nearly an hour in the pouring rain.  Whether they knew it or not, they were basking in the glory of God’s creation: the day, the warm rain, the ability to run and laugh, to jump and throw, to be with one another.  To love God is to love many things—Frisbee, rain, summer and each other.  Sports are often the vehicle that gets us there. 

Thanks be to God.

Photo Credits
Van Gogh: Self Portrait

Friday, August 17, 2012

Notre Dame Football's New Uniforms: Not a Moral Issue

Notre Dame unveiled the uniforms its football team will wear on October 6, 2012 in the Shamrock Series game against the University of Miami. The reaction from Irish fans, simply put, is outrage. I too love the classic, traditional navy and gold, but let’s remember people: this is not a moral issue.
Moral Issues involve questions of right and wrong, life and death or good and evil.  What ought I to do or what should I not do are questions associated with moral issues, and necessitate a reflection upon situation (what choices are available, how much freedom does the person have), principles (values, moral rules or duties) and intention (what is the motive or intention). 

What Notre Dame athletes wear on game day is a matter of preference.  Preference is akin to taste.  Other non-moral issues include Should I name my dog Farley or Zahm?  (Answer: depends on its gender). Should I make this sandwich with chunky or creamy peanut butter.  (Answer: chunky.  No contest)

I ask Notre Dame faithful to save your moral outrage for issues like world hunger or more specifically hunger here in the US.  Since working with students at the Food Bank of South New Jersey for but a few days, I have yet to view food in the same way.   I have been blessed with a food secure home my entire life.  I have never once wondered where my next meal will come from (unless I forgot it).  The reality is different for too many Americans.
Or in the realm of Sports and Spirituality, please save your indignation for matters like the number of high school athletic programs that have been cut due to budgetary deficits.  If you are not convinced this qualifies as a moral decision, Michael Wilbon wrote a provocative piece about the relationship between diminished high school programs and the LA Riots. 

For those who do perceive the change in uniform to be a moral issue, perhaps some information will assuage your anger.  Former Notre Dame quarterback Frank Allocco spoke with my seniors last spring about “Lofty Dreams and Buried Blessings.” We met for lunch before and discussed coaching, athletes today, Notre Dame and more (Frank is the head basketball coach at De La Salle High School in Concord CA). 
He sits on an advisory committee with Nike and has learned that one component of Oregon’s recent success—believe it or not—is attributed to their flashy uniforms.   One reason today’s athlete becomes interested in certain schools and choose them over others is because of the uniforms.  It sounds crazy I know, but it is also important to understand that today’s athlete IS different. These young men and women want style.  The zanier—e.g. the University of Maryland’s uniforms feature their vibrant state flag—the better.  With first hand knowledge of this reality in mind, Frank told me that Notre Dame should consider doing away with the traditional, preppy uniform and update its look. 

Does a uniform translate to victory?  Maybe not, but it certainly doesn’t hurt in terms of recruiting! And I hate to say it, but for many Irish fans, winning and losing is a matter of right or wrong.
It is always difficult to change tradition. Tradition is revered because it is tradition. Notre Dame has unveiled other uniforms before; on special occasions or big games the Irish have dawned the “wearin’ o’ the green.”  And we’ve had opinions about that as well.  The tradition rests in the colors—navy and gold for Our Lady, green for the Fightin’ Irish and excellence for Notre Dame.  In all that we do and what we wear our motto remains: Onward to Victory!

Photo Credits
with Coach Kelly

Monday, August 13, 2012

Rory McIlroy Lives Up to His Name: Red King

Rory McIlroy approached the 18th green at the 2012 PGA Championship knowing a win would put his ranking back at number one in the world.  He also knew that his margin of victory was contending with a 22-year-old record set Jack Nicklaus. He turned to his caddie J.P. Fitzgerald and said, "I'm going to win this one by eight, as well."  He did so by sinking a 25-foot birdie putt.  However, does he know what earning his second major title revealed about him?  Rory McIlroy lives up to his name. 
When golf analyst David Feherty said, “the name Rory in Gaelic (or Irish) means red king” I almost couldn’t believe what I heard.  I looked at the television screen and saw a 23-year old red headed golfer wearing a bright red polo shirt.  Sportswriters commented ad nausea that the champion wearing the red shirt wasn’t Tiger Woods.   I can’t understand how they have missed what I saw.  Golf has a new king.  
McIlroy is now ahead of the majors pace of Woods. McIlroy turned 23 three months ago; Woods won his second major, the 1999 PGA at Medinah, when he was 23 years, 7 months old. All speculation aside for what is or is not to be, on Sunday I caught in a glimpse into the human reality that sometimes, we really do live up to our name.

Names are tremendously personal; they are not insignificant.  We are not numbers.  Isaiah 43:1 says I have called you by name and you are mine.  Our first name is one of the first gifts we receive from our parents.  They can reflect our heritage or honor a family member.  Others may stem from of one’s faith tradition. For example, many Catholics use names inspired by holy men and women—the Saints. 

One of my favorite movies “The Shawshank Redemption” reveals that the dignity of the human person is inextricably linked to the fact we have a name. The first night new prisoners, including Andy Dufresne arrive, the veteran inmates bet on who will “crack” first. After hours of taunting and heckling, one inmate can no longer take it.  He wails and screams, begging to go home.  The guards remove him and beat him so badly he dies.  The next day at breakfast, the men have plenty to talk about.  Instead of mocking the victim, Andy inquires “What was his name?” Another inmate, Heywood replies, “What did you say?” Andy says “I was just wondering if anybody knew his name.” Indeed we are known by our name.  We are remembered by it too.

The name Adam means “first man” and the angel Gabriel declared that the virgin Mary would give birth to a son. “He will be called Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”  These are but two names that are as fitting the one I learned about as golf history was made at “Glory’s Last Shot” by the red king, Rory McIlroy.

Photo Credits
Rory and his Da

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Spirit of the Olympic Games

Many people are surprised to know that American athletes receive $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze by the United States Olympic Committee—a private, nongovernmental entity.  Should they?  Does that run counter to the spirit of the Olympics? 
Others ask should all American athletes who make the Olympic team get paid?  I know several members of the men’s basketball team believe they should.  When the U.S. men's basketball team took the Olympic title Sunday, it won the 46th gold medal for Americans in London, their highest total at a "road" Olympics. The U.S. -- winners of 104 medals overall in London, easily the most of any country -- won 45 golds at Paris in 1924 and Mexico City in 1968.

The daily report of the US gold medal count was an interesting and provocative component of the 2012 games.  With no cold war enemy, I believe we contrived a new one in China.  I wondered Should I get this fired up about leading the pack?  I found myself identifying the sports we would dominate to increase our medal lead.  In the next moment, I wasn’t so sure my thinking was in the spirit of the Olympics.

What is the spirit of the Olympics? Over the years, it has been subjected to commercialization, exploitation and used as political ammunition if not blind patriotism.   Is it glory in victory?  Is it about your sport or your country?  Fortunately, the motto Citius, Altius, Fortius!  gives us a clue.  It is Faster, Higher, Stronger!
As reported in “Elevating Your Game” Jim Thompson states, “The premiere competition in the world—the Olympics—isn’t about being fastest, highest, strongest.  Even if you are the best in the world in your event, you still want to get better. For the best, “better” is better than best.”

The Olympics and its spirit are about the strife.  It is not only about achieving the goal, it’s about the pursuit.  In a conversation with Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin who was not invited to swim on the 400-meter medley relay, Savannah Guthrie asked her about trying out for the 2016 Olympics.  Would she retire? Natalie replied that she actually likes the training and at 29 years of age, she believes she still might have something in her.  Her goal, should she decide to pursue it is no different than the Olympic motto. 

The spirit of the Olympics also includes peacekeeping or truce.  This was particularly relevant for the host city due to the arson and looting that left five dead and hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed in August 2011.  “It took four nights and nearly 20,000 police to regain control. The unprecedented disorder led to 2,000 arrests and fearful talk of a feral, criminal underclass that the state is powerless to contain.” 
Consequently, six weeks before the Olympic Games began, London Citizens and Catholic Church leaders announced “100 Days of Peace,” reviving the ancient Olympic idea of a truce. "They will hold town hall meetings in boroughs across London and Birmingham to use the games as an opportunity to establish more CitySafe sites and zones as safe havens.” (Austen Iverleigh, Mending Broken Britain). The Olympic games can and should inspire peace.  The joy of hosting and celebrating the achievements of the worlds greatest athletes is fertile ground for conversations big and small of how to make that happen safely, peacefully and organically.

It would be remiss not mention that the spirit of the Olympics can be best understood through the participants in these great games. The reactions to victory and to defeat, the inner dynamics of teams and the example of true collaboration, the support of coaches and parents, and the competition itself speak louder than words: what the spirit of the Olympics is all about.
The Olympian who inspired my love for Sports and Spirituality revealed this spirit in what he did—running and winning the 400 meter race and what he did not do--run on the Sabbath.  "When asked whether he had ever prayed that he would win a race, the Scottish runner Eric Liddell replied “No…I have, of course, prayed about the athletic meetings, asking that in this, too, God might be glorified." 

I hope during the past sixteen days you saw athletes push one another to be faster, higher and stronger.  Perhaps the 100 days of peace the churches called for in London will remain for another 100.  And when you recall the 2012 summer Olympic games, I hope you are able to recall a competition in which God was glorified through an athlete’s pursuit of greatness.  That defines the spirit of the Olympics past and present.

Photo Credits
US Men's Basketball Team wins gold

Natalie Coughlin 
London Lootings 
Usain Bolt 
True Spirit of the Olympic games