Contrition: Paterno

by Maria L. Evans

O God, the creator and preserver of all mankind, we humbly
 beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou 
wouldest be pleased to make they ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for
 thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and 
governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call 
themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and
 hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in 
righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly 
goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed,

in mind, body, or estate; [especially those for whom our prayers 
are desired]; that it may please thee to comfort and relieve 
them according to their several necessities, giving them patience 
under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

--Prayer for All Sorts of Conditions of Men, Book of Common Prayer, pp. 814-815

Truthfully, I've tried to emotionally distance myself from the whole "Penn State thing" as much as possible. Everyone who knows me, knows I am a huge sports fan, especially when it comes to my St. Louis Cardinals and my Mizzou Tigers. But mostly, I suspect the world of Division I college sports is a lot like politics, the institutional church, and sausage--one shouldn't really watch any of them being made if one wants to enjoy them. But the recent illness and death of Penn State Coach Joe Paterno in the past few weeks reminded me of how convoluted and sticky the business of contrition can be.

"Contrition" is one of those words I tend to lump in with words I think of as "Roman Catholic" words. My best friends growing up, who attended Catholic parochial schools, used the word far more than I did. It's a word that isn't so out in the forefront of our Anglican sensibilities, although it's certainly in the Book of Common Prayer, particularly referring to the Reconciliation of a Penitent.

I've really stayed away from having opinions about the Sandusky story at Penn State, and have been content to let the legalities of this story play out, and to simply pray for "healing of all involved." The above prayer, despite its non-gender inclusive old school Prayer Book language, is very rich in that regard--when I know wrongs have been committed, evil has been done, and I can't even begin to imagine what was going on in the minds of everyone involved. It is hard for me to think beyond the pain of victims, and this prayer snaps me back to a fuller understanding of the things that happen in the world that are just plain wicked.

My confession is it was easy for me to throw a rock at Paterno when this broke--so I stayed as emotionally far from it as I could. After all, I usually view legendary powerhouse teams with a certain amount of disdain. To me, the latter part of Paterno's career was more about Paterno the Legend than it was about anything human about him. I probably thought of him more or less as an "auto-icon" of himself, in the vein of Jeremy Bentham--really dead, mounted and stuffed like Trigger, in the museum of Happy Valley. I am normally not a judgmental person--in some ways astoundingly non-judgmental considering I make a living judging things to be "benign" or "malignant"--but I knew to enter too far into this story created emotions in me I did not want to approach.

So I was surprised at how I felt the pathos and the discomfort of Paterno's final interview with the Washington Post. It was clear that this scandal had an effect on him. It was clear that we were viewing a man who knew his last days on earth were imminent, but it was too easy just to brush this off as a person cutting some deals his his last days. The public nature of this last interview, frankly, made me uncomfortable--probably because I got more glimpse than I needed of someone else's private demons. It felt like an over-share of grand proportions, and I found myself wanting to turn the volume down on the audio and look away from my computer screen. I found myself wondering why he chose this public route to find his private contrition, when I knew it would do nothing to assuage the hurt and anger of many, or even change their minds about the complexity of this one iota.

But as I've contemplated this piece of the story, I've come to realize that it is part of why our Prayer Book has "A Prayer for All Sorts of Conditions of Men," and the various prayers that lead our community to pray for those people and situations and conditions that our raw pain and blind anger sever any means for us to see a picture beyond the auto-icons of our own egos. It's also why we have the Reconciliation of a Penitent--to provide a means to humanize what our nature is to dehumanize, to add a sacramental layer to transform attrition (shame and guilt arising from fear of punishment) to contrition (from the Latin conterere, literally "to grind or to rub.")

In short, contrition is a process of being ground down, and the reason we find ourselves averting our eyes at the sight of the discomfort of others, I believe, is the memory of the times we've been ground down, even if the event in question is nothing we've ever personally experienced. In short, when we pray for all sorts of conditions of humanity, we are praying for ourselves, because we feel the chafe, all the same.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

The Super Bowl as liturgy

By Ann Fontaine

It begins like every Sunday – choosing the appropriate clothing, gathering the needed materials, rounding up those who believe, starting the car or getting on the transit. Anticipation builds. The ritual commences.

The Super Bowl is the great liturgy of the United States of America and for many around the world. It binds us together across the usual divides of class and race, even if you are among those who never watch football. Like our liturgies of the church it has its own rhythms and order. Good and evil contend for our allegiances. We hear stories of fall and redemption: the player who overcame great odds to become a professional, talent wasted and then reclaimed. We sing songs of praise and victory. Churches plan their annual meetings so they do not fall on this festival day. Bishops get into the spirit of the day making friendly bets with one another.

The Packer are the heartland team – the last community owned, non-profit team in professional American football. They dropped an aging, yet one of the most talented quarterbacks in history, and counted on youth and a quarterback who returned from life threatening concussions.

The Steeler represent a town who once proudly created the products to grow a country and its industries that now seems left behind in globalization. They are led by a flawed quarterback who represents redemption from sin through good works. They have won more Super Bowls than any other team and are known for legendary teams.

Even the commercials are legendary. The most memorable ones call to our best selves. The Donkey who joins the Cydesdale Team. The oboe-playing grocery clerk who finds a dream he did not even know he had. The child who is noticed by his hero. Cat herding, which everyone remembers for the content but can't remember the company it advertised. We look forward to seeing these vignettes each year – with some going viral on youtube and Facebook or recalled for years with a word or phrase. We eagerly await this years' winners.

There are even advantages for “sports atheists,” who can shop without crowds on Super Bowl Sunday. They can count on time alone if the rest of their friends and family are fans. They are usually not harassed about their lack of interest though they may find themselves with nothing to say at parties.

Seriously, what can we learn about liturgy and community from events like the Super Bowl. Or do church and fandom have nothing in common?

Andrew Gerns has this to say.

And of course a most important question - which team will win?

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Monks, movies and futbol

Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Leo Campos

There are few religious spectacles more important, more poignant, more powerful than the World Cup. For those of you who might be following my advice from earlier notes and staying away from TV you may not know that the World Cup Finals are being held in South Africa. Furthermore you may not know that "World Cup" is the shorthand for the only truly global sport - soccer/futbol/football

I was thinking about a couple of movies which might help those who need a little extra to get them in the mood. For a game that is so appealing and so dramatic it is sad to note that there have been very few movies which actually did any justice to either the sport or to the passions it arouses. There was Victory with Pele, a pastiche from The Great Escape, and not really that good.

When I do a quick search of Netflix and IMDB for movies with the word "soccer" and "football" I get things like Soccer Buddy, about a soccer playing dog, and other inanities. But of the many movies out there I do see two which I find actually seem to bring across something of value. The first is La Gran Final (The Great Match) by the Spanish director Gerardo Olivares. It is a tale spread across the globe as people from different countries gather to watch a World Cup game: from a tribe of Amazonian indios, a family of Mongolian nomads and a caravan of Tuareg people in the Sahara Desert. It has many funny moments, and it much subtle social commentary. Overall it tries to show how, for just a little while, there is a peace, well a truce, across the globe.

It reminded me of the story from World War I, though the events have been repeated more than once, where Germans and British climbed out of their foxholes to play a game on Christmas Day 1915 to play a match, declaring a temporary truce.

But my absolute favorite movie has to be The Cup by the Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu. I am slightly biased, since the director is also a monk. It is full of richly drawn characters, with masterful performances by its young main protagonist. The story centers on a young Tibetan refugee and their misadventures at a monastery/boarding school in exile in India. While undergoing Buddhist training the young boy's mind is filled with news about the World Cup. He attempts to explain its importance and its appeal to other monks who are confused, bemused, or downright annoyed at his constant conversations about soccer players. This boy's meditation is constantly on the game.

What is the attraction of this sport, which seems to be unlike any other? Surely when you compare sport by sport it does not stand out as requiring anything special. It is not the fastest, or the most violent, or even the one that requires the most coordination or skill. There is the counter-intuitive requirement of moving a ball only using your feet, but that hardly seems to justify the strong passions it arouses.

I am content with the mystery of soccer/football. There may be no particularly logical reason for its appeal. It is more akin to falling in love – why are we attracted to some people and not others?

So there it is - I do hope you will take this opportunity during this most holy month to catch a couple of these movies - they are well worth the watch!

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

The Super Bowl, Groundhog Day and the Feast of the Presentation

By Sam Candler

I am glad that the Super Bowl occurs so closely to the Feast of the Presentation.

Tell the folks in Las Vegas that this is my wager: less than ten professional football players have ever used the words "Super Bowl" and "Feast of the Presentation" in the same sentence. While we're at it, let's throw in Groundhog Day. How many people realize that Groundhog Day is always on the Feast of the Presentation - or "Candlemas," or the "Purification of the Virgin," or whatever name our ancient and beautiful church gives to February 2.

I actually believe that all these events have something in common. They are ways that our community, our civilization, hopes for life and light in the midst of winter.

Let's start with the Super Bowl. That is where most of our North American culture will be focused this week. Consider the gatherings, the parties, the festivities around Sunday night. This is ritual at its most primordial. People plan schedules and change behavior and spend their resources for this event; in my book, such is the stuff of religion. The entities that change your schedules and order your lives and to which you offer your money are usually what we call "gods."

The Super Bowl usually falls right in the middle of winter (in North America). So does February 2, which is the Feast of the Presentation. The day falls almost exactly midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Though winter "begins," officially, on December 21, it is rarely as cold then as it is in the middle of winter - about February 2. Thus, our ancestors realized and devised all sorts of mid-winter feasts and festivals to remind them that Spring was coming.

Christians began to observe this mid-winter day as "the Purification,", or "Candlemas," or -now-"the Feast of the Presentation." According to tradition, the young child Jesus was to be presented in the Temple 40 days after his birth; other traditions have called this same day the "Purification of the Virgin" (following Leviticus 12:2,6). However, the tradition of "Candlemas" came closest to recognizing what is going on in our natural world. Whether they called it "Presentation" or "Purification," Christians lit candles on this day. At Christian churches across the world, people light candles and walk in procession; they walk toward the light, even in the deep mid-winter.

Something in our human condition will always long and lean for light. We yearn for its energy, especially when we miss it the most - in the bleak midwinter. Somehow or another, our secular Groundhog Day is also associated with the longing for this light. We are wondering just how long it will be before Spring comes. Will the groundhog see his shadow or not? Is there sunshine today -too early-or not?

I have no idea whether all the bellweather groundhogs across the United States saw their shadows or not. And, no matter who actually wins the Super Bowl, all of our country is strangely warmed on Sunday night watching the festivities.

It is wintertime now, but the world has turned toward Spring. Yes, there will be more cold snaps. There may even be an ice storm. But the earth has now turned around the sun toward Spring. I hope, and the Church hopes, the same thing about life today. Perhaps our health is bad right now. Perhaps our economy is bleak right now. But God has turned us toward light, toward health.

I encourage us, then, to present ourselves to this God of Light. Like the Virgin Mary and her husband, Joseph, present yourselves and your offspring to God in the holy temple. Go to that place which has preserved and proclaimed light even during the darkest times. Light your candles. May our lights bring forth more light, the Light of the World!

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He chaired the House of Deputies' Committee on Prayerbook, Liturgy and Church Music at the General Convention. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Practicing my "other religion"

By Donald Schell

Stacey Grossman is a priest colleague who rows with a women’s club on San Francisco Bay. She blogs as a rowing priest. We were talking about her practice of rowing and mine of Aikido, a martial art, and I described Aikido as “my other religion.” Stacey recognized the thought, said she was working on an article for her rowing club on “The Church of Rowing,” and observed that she has other Christian friends who use the phrase “my other religion” to speak of disciplined athletic practice.

Had Stacey or I been applying to a Commission on Ministry we might have used more cautious language, but we were talking of the joyful (and maybe professionally embarrassing) truth that for each of us, physical practice lives in the place of committed devotion and grace. Our conversation moved me to talk about physical practice in this season of celebrating Jesus, God’s Word made Flesh.

Aikido’s name combines three Japanese words that resonate with theology or spirituality. ‘Ai’ means ‘joining/reconciling/harmony/love.’ ‘Ki’ is ‘energy/power/Spirit.’ And a ‘Do’ is ‘a way,’ ‘a path,’ or ‘a practice.’

Hearing the name, I wondered if Aikido practice might reinforce aspects of my faith, but seeing Aikido converted me. In 1980, the year Ellen and I moved to San Francisco to help start St. Gregory’s Church, a musician friend invited me to an Aikido demonstration. Ellen says I came home from that demonstration saying, ‘I’ve got to do this thing I saw today. I’m getting a black belt.’ I do remember feeling love at first sight, but can’t recall such a clear declaration that I would do it, because I’d fallen in love with Aikido, but was also so frightened that it took me a whole year of reading about it and talking to people who were practicing it to get up enough courage to begin myself. There may be a parable there, or at least an echo of what we read in the Epistle of James about people who see Jesus’ Gospel but don’t do anything different as a result. Yes, I was scared. Scared I somehow wouldn’t fit in with a dojo. Scared I might get hurt.

Maybe it’s the rich young ruler who gets what Jesus is inviting him to and walks away with a heavy heart.

I’ve gotten over most of my fear (and find what’s left a valuable study). I had guessed right that injuries were possible. I’ve banged both my shoulder sockets badly, and pulled a hamstring so I could barely walk, so there’s risk, but nothing too bad. And what do we ask people to risk in church?

I’m there at practice every morning at 7:30. An old friend who is now seventy-eight comes as regularly as I do. Younger Aikidoists (men and women in their mid- twenties to late thirties) fill out the morning’s practice group. I was a bit older than they are when I deprived myself of the daily choice whether to attend practice and simply began going every day. I’m not talking about a ‘firm resolution,’ or a ‘declared commitment’ but something I’ve chosen to make as habitual as brushing my teeth in the morning or going to church on Sunday whether I have any priest work that Sunday or not.

A mark of practice is regular discipline and open attention to oft repeated core forms. The point isn’t to figure something out, but to learn it well enough to pay attention and find continuing surprises in doing it.

As some Christian clergy and laity work to reclaim a language of Christian practice for the sake of Christian formation and community, I wonder how willing we are to ask ourselves and our congregations to ourselves to submit to the sheer repetition and steady attention that would make anything we do together in church genuinely practice? Is our church culture too expert-driven and so focused on what we know and what we’ve been taught that it separates us from the learning opportunities (and confusion and frustration) that come with real practice?

“Practice” in professions and religion also suggests continual learning and the humility (and humiliation) that acknowledges and accepts provisional proficiency.

My two religions do shape and inform each other.

Aikido is a fiercely gentle martial art; it’s fast, aerobic peacemaking. The declared context is universal love. Our goal is to partner an attacker and take him harmlessly to the ground. I
sometimes joke that Aikido is my daily study in conflict resolution. Physically, the practice echoes loving enemies and turning the other cheek. Rather than blocking or stopping an attack, we practice joining with the attacking energy, taking straight lines of momentum
to big dance-like circles, and landing the attacker harmlessly on the ground. When we’re the attacking partner, we practice making strong, sincere attacks and then giving ourselves to the fall that our own energy has generated. In the basics, Aikido feels quite congenial to

As a Christian priest, Aikido practice grounds my whole day in a more peaceful, forgiving encounter with people and a deeper longing for God.

Lots of touch, the freedom to strike and fall, getting thrown by guys who are smaller than me and by women including my 78 year old friend, and fearlessness (more or less) in the presence of strong onrushing energy all help me feel and know my own and other people’s God-given spirits and bodies, to live respectfully in the moment where God is present and acting and, in some small way daily, to risk openness to the Presence of Spirit animating God-given flesh.

I have known such practice moments in liturgy: in the deep communion of joining my voice to the congregation’s voice for an unaccompanied singing of the Beatitudes to a Russian chant, or in the settling of my restless mind sitting in silence with two hundred fellow Christians who have just listened to a scripture reading together, and when I preside at the Altar Table praying with my hands upraised, sometimes I can feel how a presider leading the Eucharist from the table is born up on the expectant, patient prayers of friends and strangers; and sometimes, presiding or standing with sisters and brothers while someone else is leading the prayer, I feel the mighty Breath turn our ocean swell into a breaker we’re surfing together.

Like Aikido practice, these are moments of incarnated, Spirit-inspired aliveness. In a coming piece I’ll be writing about such moments when Spirit fills practice and how liturgy opens us to such moments.

For now, while watching a video of my teacher’s teacher, Kato Sensei, my body feels and remembers the privilege of having him correct my practice one of the times he’s visited us from Japan. The generosity of his throw and the gratitude of receiving such energy literally knock me off my feet. Remembering such falls today as write for others walking in Jesus’ Way, I wonder if making an attack and then taking such a fall might resonate for an eager young Pharisee tossing Jesus a challenging question and getting one of the great parables in response.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Soccer dad

By Tim Schenck

Nothing screams “suburban dad” quite like standing on a soccer field on a Saturday afternoon. It’s one thing to stand in front of a smoky grill with tongs at the ready or walk around the backyard with beads of sweat dripping from your forehead while wielding a weed whacker. But when you’re staring at a bunch of kids swarming around a soccer ball on a weekend morning when you should still be in bed drinking coffee and reading the paper, you’ve reached suburban nirvana. You may as well take out a second mortgage on the house because you’re not going anywhere for awhile.

It’s fascinating to me how the most popular sport in the world binds American families together in a common weekend pursuit. At the appointed hour thousands of cleated kids pour out of mini vans all across the country. Parents, carrying travel mugs of coffee and those fold-up soccer mom chairs, trudge out behind them. This ritual continues every weekend during the fall and spring. At least until our kids graduate high school. Then no self-respecting American could care less about soccer. Which may be why the United States has never won the World Cup.

While most of us enjoy watching our children engage in athletic endeavors, it’s amazing how many parents feel imprisoned by weekend youth sports. The constant shuttling around to practices and games, the precious moments of free time being slowly sucked away by 10-minute quarters. No one’s forcing you at gunpoint to sign your kid up, but guilt and suburban peer pressure are powerful things.

I helped coach Ben’s teams his first couple of seasons. It wasn’t too much of a commitment at first – a brief Saturday morning practice followed by a half-hour game. But this eventually morphed into an hour-long Saturday practice followed by games on Sunday afternoon. Since I work on Sunday mornings (couldn’t negotiate that out of my contract) and am pretty much spent by the afternoon, I just help out on an ad hoc basis whenever the coach needs an extra pair of hands. I particularly enjoy the pre-practice exercise where I’m the goalkeeper and all the kids take shots. At the same time.

Most coaches at the kindergarten level have little knowledge of the game of soccer. Their coaching careers began because someone had to do it. I actually love the game of soccer and in my glory days was captain of a lousy high school soccer team. But even if you imported some Brazilian soccer star to coach your kid’s AYSO squad, it still comes down to two basic concepts: kick the ball towards your opponent’s goal and don’t use your hands. That’s as much coaching as a bunch of five-year-old boys and girls can digest. The nuances of the game are, shall we say, lost on this crowd.

Nonetheless, some coaches take this stuff pretty seriously. This despite the fact that no one’s even keeping score at this level – “every game’s a tie” is the mantra for these games. But not to some of these guys; they play to win even if no one else does. They probably call the parents the night before for bed checks just to make sure none of their players are out late partying. We played one team where the coach pulled out a dry erase board between quarters to draw up plays. The kids dutifully gathered around to listen but then when play resumed they swarmed around the ball like every other group of kindergartners in the free world. I’m sorry but you’re not Vince Lombardi; step away from the clipboard.

One thing I learned after awhile is that coaching your son doesn’t work so well. Things I would tell Ben got either ignored or met with a look of complete annoyance. But when the same thing was said by a “real” coach, i.e. not his dad, he would respond immediately. As if my exhortation to throw the ball in to a teammate down the line instead of into the middle of the field was inherently flawed. But if Coach Ian said it, it must be brilliant strategy. I guess it’s the same phenomenon you run into when you hear your child was so polite at a play date, saying “please” and “thank you.” Are you sure we’re talking about my kid? There are places when not being the parent is helpful to a child’s development and the soccer field is one of them.

In beginning youth soccer, as in life, it’s helpful to keep things simple. When it comes to our faith lives, Jesus, too, urges simplicity. He distills everything down to the following: “Love God and love neighbor.” Simple, straightforward, no frills. It’s the equivalent of the two commandments of kindergarten soccer – kick the ball towards your opponent’s goal and don’t use your hands. When you remember the basics, everything else eventually falls into place. Even Pelé had to start with the basics and it’s not a bad place for us as well. We don’t have to be fundamentalists to remember the “fundamentals” of faith. Love God and love neighbor. The fundamentals are what keep us spiritually grounded and focused. So if we work hard to love God and neighbor, we’ll be in pretty good shape.

In the meantime, I’ll see you on the soccer field. I’ll be the one cursing the Good Humor truck that always seems to pull up just as the game is ending.

From What Size Are God's Shoes, copyright Timothy Schenck 2008, and used by permission of Church Publishing. The Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of All Saints, Briarcliff Manor, New York, blogs at Clergy Family Confidential.

Lessons of the Olympics

(Through Labor Day, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-daily Episcopalian.)

By Jean Fitzpatrick

What can we learn from the Olympics? Like their predecessors on Mount Olympus, the athletes offer us a larger-than-life narrative that reflects our own struggles. There's are the inspiring stories: Michael Phelps winning his 14th Olympic gold medal, breaking one world record after another. Not bad for a young man with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The women basketball players from Mali, marching in flowing white robes in the opening ceremonies. Yes, they lost to New Zealand hours later, but -- coming as they do from a country where women are subject to genital cutting, poor access to education, and domestic violence -- their presence alone is amazing.

And then there are those who try too hard: the supposedly teenage tiny Chinese gymnasts who, as the famed former coach Bela Karolyi put it, "look like they are seven and may be still in diapers." Gary Russel Jr., the 20-year-old bantamweight boxer from Maryland, who collapsed in an effort to weigh in at 119 pounds. And all those cyclists on steroids.

So much focus on striving to win always leaves me uneasy. If the last shall be first, I find myself wondering, how do you defend years of training to go for the gold? Most of us know what it means to want to be the best at school or in the office, or to get our way in relationships. These yearnings don't generally bring out our most loving or generous selves. And yet there's something in us that wants to grow, to discover the limits of our talents and sensibilities. How do we tell whether our desires are greedy or life-giving?

In the church we aren't always as helpful as we might be. Often I wonder why the most "spiritual" people -- especially women -- who come seeking my help have the worst lives. I don't mean that they are the poorest in material terms. Instead, often they seem to believe that being a good Christian means losing in life, especially in relationships. They don't voice their needs and wants. They don't speak their truth.

If I suggest that it's time to focus on themselves, I see them wince. "That sounds...proud," they say. Or "That's not very Christian."

"'Jesus said, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' I often tell them. 'You're forgetting about the self part."

When we try to manipulate or muscle others out of our way in order to have power over them, then we're like Olympic athletes on steroids. But reaching out to others in love isn't for anyone who's afraid to dive right in and try their best. It demands the strength and courage and passion to struggle, to stick with a situation and seek understanding, and to speak up for justice and truth. As Ram Dass famously put it, "We must first be a somebody before we are ready to be a nobody." I'm thinking of that as getting in touch with your inner Olympian.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., is a psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at

Liturgy and Basketball:
Welcome to March Madness

By Kit Carlson

"We want tacos! We want tacos!"

The score in the Breslin Center is Michigan State 68, Indiana 53. At 70 points, ticket holders can receive a free taco from Taco Bell after the game. The Izzone, MSU's vaunted student section (named for coach Tom Izzo), is hopping up and down, roaring. The ball slips home, the score shoots to 70, and the place explodes from floor to rafters.

Tacos achieved, the Izzone gets back to the business at hand: a highly choreographed series of actions, cheers and songs that remind me not so much of my past life in college fandom (In my day, we wore what we wanted, yelled what we wanted, and plastered our venues with rude signs. Those days are done.) as it does my past experiences in cathedral liturgies. Something like the Presiding Bishop's installation, for example, where each moment requires a specific gesture, song or prayer, done with grandeur and at top volume.

College sports are fun, exciting, adrenaline-producing spectacles. They also create ample opportunities for breaking Commandment Number One: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. The gods of college sports, be they the God of Football, the God of Hockey, or omigod, the God of Basketball, seem to demand ever-grander displays of devotion from their faithful followers.

When students enter the Breslin Center, they are vested in white Izzone t-shirts. You must wear a white Izzone t-shirt if you want to sit in your prized courtside student section. Postulants for the Izzone (freshmen!) must also vest in white Izzone t-shirts, even though THEIR section is up in the corner of the roof. If they are good postulants, they may get tickets in the courtside section the next year.

Upon entering the Izzone, each seat has a service leaflet which outlines the game ahead, the teams' strengths and weaknesses, and which players to keep your eye on. The back of the leaflet has rubrics describing how the section is to conduct itself during the introduction of players, how it is to count down the shot clock in order to confuse the visiting team, and which way it is to wave its arms if seated behind the baskets when opponents step up to the free throw line.

Like any worshippers experienced in the liturgy of the season, Izzone members know all the hymns by heart -- The MSU Fight Song prominent among them. They know all the congregational prayers, from "We want tacos!" to "I-Z-Z-O" to "Who's Your Daddy?" They even know liturgical dance -- they hop up and down, roaring maniacally when the opponent has possession, then maintain holy silence when their man is at the free throw line.

The God of Basketball seems to have been propitated by the Izzone's devotion -- the Spartans were undefeated in Breslin all season long. The business of commandment breaking, I'll leave to their own consciences.

As March Madness comes upon us, one might debate who has the greatest liturgical power in basketball: MSU's Izzone or Duke's Cameron Crazies, or the Den at UCLA. But there is no debate -- and I never want to hear again that old canard -- that modern-day young people would be confused and put off by our Episcopal liturgies. Just get them inside. They'll know what to do. I can hear them now ...

We want wafers! We want wafers!

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and was associate and interim rector at the Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, Md., for seven years.

Church v. Soccer

By Jennifer McKenzie

There’s a bullet that we’ve somehow managed to dodge for lo these many years as a family. And we knew it would hit us soon enough. Well, this week it hit. We got the word from our all-star soccer team coach via email that our big tournament games had been scheduled: Game 1 would be played on Saturday at 9:15 a.m. Game 2 would be later that day at 2:15 p.m. Ah, but Game 3 would be played….yep, here it comes: Sunday morning at 8 a.m. And, on Father’s Day no less!

I really had to think hard about the email reply: send just to the coach or hit “reply to all?” I decided to broadcast. Not to be snippy, but to be a witness. As someone who has led youth groups in the church for the past 20 years and understands the value of teamwork; as someone who is a soccer mom who roots HARD for the home team; as someone who is a priest, albeit on a mini-sabbatical between calls…I am just plain sick and tired of the level to which our kids’ organized sports has risen and the unrealistic demands that these leagues and teams place on families. So I braced myself and began to type:

“Hi coach:

We will see you on Saturday. However, Sunday is a no-go for us before noon – we’re just not willing to bend to the cult of sports on this one! (I can’t believe they would schedule a Father’s day tournament so early on a Sunday morning in the first place…). If there is an afternoon game on Sunday, let us know and we’ll get the guys there.

See you at practice tonight, barring more bad weather.”

(Can’t you just hear the “Chariots of Fire” theme song playing in the background?)

Our 12-year-old twins, who have played a heck of a season both on offense and defense – their team placed 1st in the league for the regular season and 2nd in the league play-offs – were chagrined at best when we broke the news to them. “Mooooo-oooommmm!” “Yes, guys, I know it’s disappointing, but you’ll get to play in the first two games. And, besides, soccer is just a sport; Christianity is our way of life.” Well that one went over like a fart in church.

Is it just me? I don’t think it is. Soccer, hockey, lacrosse, basketball, travel tiddly-winks – you name the sport, and there are kids staying away from church in droves because of it. “It’s just for a season,” their parents will say. “We really hate that this takes them away from youth group/Sunday School/children’s choir – but we just don’t know what to do. We’ve made a commitment to the team.” Uh-huh. Hmmph. Interesting.

Recently, I read a brilliant take on something seemingly tangential, but I think really at the heart of this hostile takeover by the junior sporting industry. Someone in an article or book somewhere smartly said something like this: (if anyone recognizes this thought, please let me know so I can give proper credit) “Parents seem to take a different approach to the faith lives of their children than to any other aspect of their development. ‘I don’t think it’s healthy to make them to go to church. I think they should make up their own minds about what they believe - but I do want to expose them to it, so we encourage them to go when we can,’ they say. But what if we took this approach with other areas of their lives? ‘I was forced to attend school as a kid and thought it was pretty boring – sometimes torturous. So, I don’t want to make my kid go to school – that would be unhealthy. We’ll take him the first couple of times to expose him to it, and then let him decide.’ Or maybe, ‘I think sports and fitness is a good thing, so I’m taking my daughter to the pool. But I don’t want to force her to swim– I just want to expose her to swimming. So I won’t make her wear a suit. I’ll just have her look at the water, maybe stick her toes in, and watch some other folks swim a bit – see what she thinks.”

This notion of “exposing” kids to faith – with a fragile level of commitment and a lack of determination and diligence on the part of parents – just seems ludicrous to me. If you don’t practice your faith, you’ll never really get the hang of it, or even know if it’s something you want to get the hang of. When you’re a member of a church, you make a commitment to the team (a.k.a. ‘the Body of Christ’) to be there – not just when you feel like it – but pretty much every darned Sunday for worship and at least occasionally during the week for ministry.

Look, I love sports. I love what sports has taught my kids. Sports are good for physical fitness, emotional development, and self-discipline. And sports can provide a good analogy for a life of faith. But playing sports is not a substitute for that life of faith. When we as parents allow sports to encroach and even supersede the practice of faith – which for Christians happens primarily on Sunday mornings – then we are compromising the most important facet of their development as responsible, compassionate, beloved children of God: an inner life of faith lived out robustly in a committed community of embrace and nurture.

The Rev. Jennifer McKenzie, keeps the blog The Reverend Mother. She is the author of “Benedictine Spirituality and Congregational Life: Living Out St. Benedict’s Rule in the Parish” from the Winter 2004 issue of Congregations Magazine.

Throwing a flag on churches

If you read Bob Lipsyte's essay about faith and football that I posted yesterday, you might wonder about the wisdom of this decision by the NFL.

The Church of Football

The great Bob Lipsyte, former New York Times columnist, and young adult novelist extraordinaire, has a terrific essay about the Super Bowl on The Nation's Web site. It begins:

Given the chance, I'd watch the Super Bowl with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who knows about Baal and ball. Twenty years ago, in Lynchburg, Virginia, at a Liberty University Flames game, Dr. Falwell told me: "Jesus was no sissy. He was tough, he was a he-man. If he played football, you'd be slow getting up after he tackled you."

He had me at "sissy." The rest was revelation. The muscularity of Dr. Falwell's evangelical Christianity was a perfect fit with football, another win-or-lose game. For Americans, war hasn't produced a real winner for more than 60 years. That's why we need football. But let's get back to Dr. Falwell. "My respect for Catholicism and Mormonism goes straight up watching Notre Dame and Brigham Young play," he told me. He hoped that, someday, Notre Dame and Liberty, his evangelical college, would meet for the national championship, thus informing the nation that "the Christians are here, we're not meek and we're not going to fall down in front of you. We're here to stay."

Read it all.

Full disclosure: I have been a fan of Bob's since I read The Contender in the seventh grade. He helped me get my first book published, and I am forever in his debt.

But it would still be a terrific essay, even if we'd never met.

The final adventure...

...of the 2006 St. Andrew's Boys Cross Country team is here. The state champs are pictured here. Both girls squads won state championships as well.

Animal husbandry

I listen to sports radio, and sometimes during football season, the newscasts are one long injury report. Someone has pulled a hamstring. Someone has tweaked an ankle. Someone has aggravated a tendon. Someone has strained a groin. (A groin?)

Anyway, in the midst of one such report today I learned something truly significant. Somewhere in this great country of ours, a professional football player is nursing a calf.

I know a lot has happened this week, but this is a breakthrough for our species, and I think it deserves wider play.

Point of personal privilege

The eyes of the sports-loving world were focused on the Bullis School in Potomac, Md., on Saturday morning for the Metropolitan Athletic Conference's Junior Varsity Cross Country championship race. And by "the sports-loving world" I mean "blood relatives of the contestants, and a few of their friends."

A story about the meet is here, and a picture of the four all-conference JV runners from the victorious team from St. Andrew's Episcopal School is here.

If you are curious about the relevance of this item, can I just point out how handsome that kid in the long-sleeved blue shirt is?

Not ready for prime time

If you visit the blog much, you know that I am under the illusion that I have something useful to say about youth sports. Almost thirty years ago, I covered the Little League World Series, as an intern at Newsday, and while I enjoyed it then, I am uneasy about what it has become. I am uneasy for similar reasons about the media's growing fascination with ranking high school sports teams. Alissa Quart, author of Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child has written an op-ed piece in today's New York Times that articulates my principal concerns. An excerpt:

"Youth competitions can certainly have positive effects. They can expand children’s social worlds, make them feel less isolated and give them a sense of mastery and discipline. But when TV cameras are added to the mix, the stakes can change. At televised competitions, I have seen children turn their faces away from the cameras so that their tears wouldn’t be visible — the pathos of the losers when forced to confront the winners being filmed. Even some of the winners responded with self-consciousness. Watching this happen in real time convinced me that high school football games, spelling bees and other pageants and competitions of youth should be witnessed in actual fields, halls and stadiums rather than on television sets. "

Sports on Sunday

Elizabeth Kaeton has raised an interesting issue at her blog, Telling Secrets, about the Sunday morning competition between churches and sports leagues. I'm both a church employee and a long, longtime youth sports coach, and I've been swapping emails with her and one or two other folks on this topic. My thoughts are distilled beneath the "continue reading" button.

Read more »

You're no Hank Aaron

This weekend, Barry Bonds surpassed Babe Ruth by hitting his 715th career home run. He is now 40 homers behind Hank Aaron, baseball home run king. I've got nothing new to say about Bonds. But I thought I could chip in a bit about Aaron.

Nineteen years ago I had a chance to spend a few hours talking with him and following him around for The Washington Post. To see the story, a long one, click on the "keep reading" link.

Read more »

back from blog break

I had to take a blog break last week to work on a research project. I hope to be offering much more regular updates this week. Any college basketball fans out there? I am a Syracuse alum, and went to the same high school in Scranton, Pa., as the Orange's star guard Gerry McNamara. Awfully proud of what he's accomplished in the last few days.

Here in DC we are gearing up for baseball season. Tom Boswell, a former colleague of mine at the Post, (and an Episcopal schools alum as I recall) has written a number of wonderful baseball books, but the one I like best is Why Time Begins on Opening Day. It is a terrific title, but, strictly speaking, not correct. If you play ball and are trying to get your 49-year-old body in shape to run bases, field grounders, etc., you've got to start before opening day or else you will be sucking wind just running out a ground ball. So I am sucking a lot of wind these days on the treadmill and in the streets of my neighborhood so that I won't be sucking wind come mid-April. And if you are involved in youth leagues, you've got to register the kids and recruit new coaches and schedule practices, etc., etc., etc.

In its way, getting ready for baseball season--my own and my kids'--deepens my sense of Lent as a season of mortification, preparation and renewal.

Morality on ice (and snow)

One of the reasons people watch sports is to feel morally superior to the athletes.

Every one of us sitting at home on the couch knows with absolute certainty that if we were competing in, say, the Winter Olympics that we would be trying harder than contestants themselves. We know we would reach every loose puck first due to the quality of our desire--not like the U. S. Men's Hockey team that was tied by lowly Lativa, or the women's team that was denied a place in the finals by upstart Sweden. We know we would never engage in ostentatious celebration after or on the brink of victory--like Lindsey Jacobellis, the snowboarder. And we are certain that were we to lose (unthinkable, of course due to the "quality of desire" clause just mentioned) that we would behave with such absolute and appealing dignity, that our loss would be remembered only as the necessary precedent of a transcendent display of grace. In other words, we would never blame it on, say, a bus driver, as U. S. figure skater Johnny Weir did, or seem not to care--like U. S. skier Bode Miller.

This, at least, is the impression I am drawing from the torrent of moral hand wringing unleashed by the lackluster performance of the U. S. team at the Winter Olympics. And I didn't even mention the me-first attitude of that selfish Michelle Kwan, who, from what I can ascertain, inconvenienced almost no one by waiting until the Games were near at hand before deciding that her injury hadn't healed sufficiently to allow her to participate.

Now I must confess that I am a card-carrying member of the "sports build moral character" caucus. Well, actually, I am a t-shirt-wearing member. The Positive Coaching Alliance, of which I am a charter member, doesn't give out cards. But it does proselytize, and I have done my share of evangelization, trying to persuade organizations and individuals to train "double goal" coaches, people who focus not only on winning games, but on teaching kids to honor the game. So I am as likely, maybe more likely, than the next person to criticize athletes for character flaws which, unfortunately, are broadcast for all the world to see.

That said, as a former sportswriter I also know that sometimes athletes just lose because they couldn't harness all of the mysterious elements that go into producing a top performance on that particular day, or because their opponents had exploited a previously undetected weakness, or because the opponent the other guys or gals were just plain better than anybody thought they were.

The unpredictable nature of athletic performance plays a larger role in competitions such as the Olympics which, from the public's point of view, is pretty much a one-shot deal. There is no regular season over which an athlete establishes excellence in the public's mind. There is just one win-or- lose moment, much as there is during the NCAA’s March Madness, or other single-elimination tournaments. This is part of the charm of these events. You sense that something is at stake, a feeling you don't get watching a mid-season doubleheader between, say, the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

And because so much is at stake, we assume that the athletes will therefore be at their best, because surely, the ability to summon a top performance for a momentous event is the mark of a champion.

Or so I read. And so, I assume, we feel justified in drawing large lessons about a person’s character from what they achieve, or fail to achieve, sliding down a mountain or standing at the free throw line on some random afternoon. But this is where we go astray. Events like the Olympics and March Madness don’t teach us lessons about athletic excellence of human character, they obscure them, the way that fundamentalists who focus on a few verses of Scripture obscure—distort might be a better word—the larger meaning of the text. The best team doesn’t win every game. The best horse doesn’t win every race. Individuals, whether they are athletes or not, very rarely reveal themselves in a single moment, except in fiction.

The temptation to which we succumb in watching sports is to read real life as though it were a novel or a film, to assume that the athletes are characters, not people—that they exist only on the screen, on the page, in the moment that we encounter them, and in no other. This isn’t fair to them, but, to be honest, I can’t usually get too worked up about that. They have been extravagantly blessed in their physical gifts. In most instances, they have been extravagantly compensated for what they do. What annoys and troubles me is the torrent of lazy moralizing that flows forth when athletes don’t perform in the ways we expect them to perform. The speed and certainty with which we pass judgment on them, and on other public figures, for that matter, says more about our character than it does about the characters of those we judge. It suggests intolerance of complexity and ambiguity, and a need to be fed fairy tales with easily digestible morals.

Every year, the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl is captured on film as he walks off the field shouting, “I’m going to Disney World.” We hate it, though, when athletes remind us through their failures that we aren’t already living in the Magic Kingdom.

God & Man on the Gridiron

Those of you who will be admitted first to heaven no doubt are aware that pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 16 days and two hours, as I write. But some of you probably watch football.

The Super Bowl will be played this Sunday. If the game follows form, some athlete, at some point, will thank his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for his success. Or he will score a touchdown and point to the sky.

What do we make of this? How involved is God in the Super Bowl? Is victory a sign of God's favor? If so, what is the significance of defeat?

As a former sports writer who travelled with a few teams, I can tell you that the good guys don't always win and that surly misanthropes and unrepentant serial adulterers are quite capable of publc piety.

All this has made me wish that athletes and other celebs would keep their prayers private. But perhaps there is value in celebrity witness? If so, is what you see on the Super Bowl the kind of witness we are looking for?

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