Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Passing Look At Football

This is a hard article to write because I love football. I come from a family of nine: Mom, Dad, 6 brothers and myself. From late August through January, the Sunday family ritual always included football. Packers football. No question. We all went to Mass together, and when we came home, Dad gave Mom a break by feeding all of us ham and rolls from the local bakery.

Then, we settled in front of the TV for time together, united in one and the same desire for a good game and a win for our team. It was something we were all a part of. As a girl, I was not excluded. A fan is a fan after all! We loved being able to throw ourselves into the game with Dad. And he enjoyed teaching us all he knew. As a result, I can talk football with the best of them. Every game links me back to the feels, smells, tastes and high excitement of Sunday afternoons growing up.

So what is the problem? It is difficult to admit but my observation is that football today (which I still watch and enjoy) has become a kind of liturgy of the secular culture. And unfortunately, it is the only "liturgy" many people participate in on a weekend.

Humor me for a minute and consider the typical game. There is a communal gathering, most often on a Sunday. People arrive hours ahead of time, prepared to celebrate. They are willing to sit in open air stadiums, through rain, sleet, snow and even subzero temps, hoping to participate in their teams' victory. The Game begins with an entrance procession in which the specially vested (uniformed) enter the sanctuary (I mean arena). An opening hymn (National Anthem) is sung. The seating of the congregation (fans/crowd) takes place, and the beginning of long commentaries (or mini homilies) on the game play starts. The crowd has the "appropriate" responses, before, during and after. And, of course, there is special football food and drink. The homage paid is evidenced by the offering of incredible amounts of time, money and attention on both sides of the ball, by the Management, and by the fans. All elements of Liturgy, but without the Divine. Interesting.

I find myself wondering about these players today. There are many I admire, who acknowledge God for their gifts and express gratitude for His help. (I do wonder if they're given time on Game Day for worship.) But there are also many I've had to mentally "unfriend" after learning about the lack of integrity in their personal lives. This is not because I am any better than anyone out there. I have my sins too. But at the same time being gifted doesn't give anyone the right to behave like a jerk, especially as a public figure who has a part in shaping the attitudes of youth. No free passes here.

Disinhibition is a growing contemporary phenomenon that is alive and well in the world of sports. Fame nowadays seems to give stars license to do and say almost anything they feel like, with little repercussion. It can bring out the worst, just as it does on the internet, where there seems to be hardly a filter left. (Witness the commentary after any article or post. It is 90 % negative, filled with incivility and vitriol. It is embarrassing to see the level that people regress to when there is no moderating influence on them.)

Personally, I prefer to see character, not beast mode, on display. It is mortifying to see grown men behave with vulgarity and crudeness, braggadocio and temper tantrums, gifted or not. Ego can be an ugly thing to watch. And were it not for penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct, who knows how far it would go?

When I discover I have been duped by a public persona I am always disappointed and it causes me to back up. Public image does not make the man. And being gifted can create a lot of illusions we eagerly buy into. In our minds we can form one-sided, sentimental relationships with our favorite players (Hollywood star, musician, etc.), all based in fantasy. We idolize people who don't actually exist because we've made them up in our minds. In a similar way, women complain about being loved just for their bodies and not known for who they really are. So it is good to "unfriend" these kinds of ghosts.

Mind you, football, like most everything, has always had it's bad guys. And nobody who knows the game wants it regulated into a tea party. But really, when increasing violence becomes the objective, and winning at all costs is the only motivation, (witness Spygate, Bountygate, Deflategate, etc.) then something is wrong. The game is on the dangerous road to the Roman coliseum. No joke.

I find myself wondering about us too. It is a strange enmeshment. Our own identities become wrapped up with our teams. We're no longer merely fans. When we say we're going to the Super Bowl we mean it personally. And we sometimes take it personally when our teams don't do well, as if they have directly failed us and altered our lives forever. It must be a great weight for particular players to realize that thousands, perhaps even millions, are vicariously living out their own desires for success and excellence through them.

Fantasy of course, in the world of the football money changers is now big business too. And money does drive the game. But it's worth remembering that the coin of Caesar is not the currency of heaven. And Hollywood stars, sports heroes and any famous person, will not find entrance there based on their popularity, or performance in their field. They may be known the world-over, yet still hear The Lord say: "Depart from Me. I never knew you." One of my favorite quarterbacks recently said he doesn't think God "cares a whole lot about the outcome (of a game). He cares about the people involved." -A Rodgers, SI wire. I agree. As Jesus said: "What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world yet lose his soul." Mark 8:36. The measure of success in this world is hardly the measure of success in the next.

So, is there room for football on a Sunday? I hope so. With a few cautions. Like anything we enjoy, there is a temptation to go overboard and to give inordinate amounts of attention to what we love until before we know it we're in a kind of bondage to it.

It's good to remember that worship and recreation/ entertainment, are different things. And it's good to remember, as Archbishop Fulton Sheen pointed out that “If you do not worship God, you worship something, and nine times out of ten it will be yourself." (Sports can definitely become a vehicle for the vicarious worship of oneself, even as a spectator.) Archbishop Sheen reminded us, " we have a duty to worship God, not because He will be imperfect and unhappy if we do not, but because we will be imperfect and unhappy.” He also wisely noted that "All these externalizations are signs that we are trying to escape God and the cultivation of the soul". So, first things first.

In the meantime it is helpful to understand that our attraction to physical and moral excellence touches on our yearning for the transcendent, which will only be completely realized in Christ. He is the fullness of all excellence! That is why excellence is exciting to see in any area. Sports is no exception. Pope John Paul II expresses this beautifully:

"...every sport, at both the amateur and competitive level, requires basic human qualities such as rigorous preparation, continual training, awareness of one’s personal limits, fair competition, acceptance of precise rules, respect for one’s opponent and a sense of solidarity and unselfishness. Without these qualities, sport would be reduced to mere effort and to a questionable, soulless demonstration of physical strength.

“When sports are played and understood in the right way, they are an extraordinary expression of a person’s best inner energies and of his ability to overcome difficulties, to set goals to be reached through sacrifice, generosity and determination in facing the difficulties of competition.”

All lessons to be learned and disciplines to be cultivated in facing the ever present challenges and battles that need to be won in our own lives!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Destiny and the Blessing of Fathers

Deprivation can be an awful thing. There are many serious poverties in the world today.  But there is one poverty that is perhaps too easily overlooked and yet has some of the most far-reaching effects upon destiny that one can imagine.  This is the poverty that comes from the lack of blessing, and specifically the lack of a father's blessing.

Scripture shows us this from the very beginning of creation.  There is a fundamental principle which hasn't changed, a principle that is even more necessary in a fallen world: The principle:  If something is to flourish, the good must be correctly recognized and properly blessed.  Pure and simple!  God’s joyful affirmation of the work of His own hands ignites creation’s growth and development and multiplies it's  fruitfulness. Our Heavenly Father blesses our world from its inception.

The fruit of every womb too awaits blessing, a blessing that God has willed should come in a special way from fathers. Without this blessing, even mothers can find it harder to receive their children as gifts from God.   Without the blessing of fathers, millions of children never see the light of day, or, if they do, they grow up with a gnawing hunger for acceptance, for an affirmation of their very existence.

In short, without the blessing of fathers, wherein the goodness of each child is personally acknowledged and celebrated, we end up with a society of orphans.  And orphans become slaves because they have no one to protect them from the exploitation of the world at large, no one to help them navigate the world's dangers, no one to protect their dignity and keep them safe in truth and right order, no one to form them in authentic work and a vision of the eternal.

Consider the consequences:

"85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes.  The absence of a biological father increases by 900 percent a daughter’s vulnerability to rape and sexual abuse, and for boys has been linked to sexual maladjustment and greater aggressiveness or exaggerated masculine behavior.

"63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes. 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes. 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes.  80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes.  85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes.  And 70% of youths in State institutions come from homes without fathers."*

Fathers, along with mothers, have the special task of blessing and preparing their children in order that they bring forth gifts essential for our age.  The world is in desperate need of these gifts.  But instead of an abundance of meaningful talent, we see among many children and young people, a massive psychological and emotional failure to thrive and an overwhelming neediness which is actually the fruit of parental selfishness and the modern love of criticism, negativity, and tragically at times, outright rejection. These are all forms of non-blessing.

Today, there are mountains of books written on discipline and parenting.  None of these are nearly as important as understanding the power of blessing, presence and involvement in the life of a child.  It is a fundamental lesson of Genesis, where God, does not create without blessing, and where things do not increase and become fruitful without blessing.

Why does Jesus tell us to bless even our persecutors?  Because blessing has the power to overcome all that disfigures the image and likeness of God.  Blessing has the power to integrate.  Blessing has a power that moves something to its fruition in God.  It has the power to multiply goodness.  It has the power to make holy, to sanctify.  Blessing is life-giving.  It illuminates the core goodness of all God has created.

On the other hand, the fruit of non-blessing causes people to labor under unnecessary weights and burdens that can drag them to despair and eventual destruction.  This is not just a psychological principle: It's a deep spiritual one!

Imagine a marriage where husband and wife pray blessings over each other as they begin and end each day.  Imagine a family where parents regularly bless their children and where siblings do the same.  Would there be nearly as much divorce, division, self-centered squabbling? Imagine the protection from evil that would come over such a family if they called down God's blessing upon all their doings!

Would there be millions upon millions of our brothers and sisters lost to abortion if the blessing of their fathers were upon them?  Would there be close to 25 million children in this country alone who do not live with their biological fathers if they were received as a blessing and further blessed in thanksgiving?  While it is true there are women who disregard the rights of fathers when it comes to abortion, causing terrible anguish for them, are there not even more "fathers" who can't be inconvenienced and insist on having "things taken care of?"

If people want healing in their families, and by extension, in society, they must learn what real blessing is and start blessing.  Cursing and blaspheming, berating and negative nit-picking, so prevalent today as to often go unnoticed, will bring a house, a family, to ruin in no time.  Blessing will stabilize and set the foundations for restoration.  Blessing will strengthen and multiply the goodness already present.

There is no greater need today than that the hearts of fathers be turned to their children.  A child may occasionally abuse his parents’ blessing as the prodigal son did; yet it was that father’s very blessing which drew him back home and restored him.

Both men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers are called to bless.  Real mothers and fathers bless and prepare their children and then give them as gifts to the world, just as God bestowed His own Beloved Son.  There is hope.  Malachi prophesied almost 25 centuries ago (3: 23-24):

"Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet,
Before the day of the Lord comes,
The great and terrible day,
To turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,
And the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike the land with doom."

Scripture provides the warning, but also the remedy once we have lost the gift.  "...A father's blessing strengthens the houses of the children..." (Sirach 3:9), and "creation looks forward to the revelation of the sons of God" (Romans 8:19). All society awaits the peace and order and benefit that will come when fathers truly learn the transforming power of God's love which is theirs to communicate to their children.