Sunday, July 29, 2007


Actor Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, CSI:NY) was shooting a film in North Carolina one year when his wife and two children came to visit him on the set. The day they arrived, shooting was cancelled and everyone was told to evacuate the town because a dangerous hurricane was coming.

Thinking the airports would be packed, Sinise and his family rented a car and raced toward Charlotte. Driving down the freeway chased by gale force winds, torrential rains, and alarming lightning strikes, Sinise's wife Moira turned to him and, out-of-the-blue, said, "I'm going to go back to the Catholic Church."

On the radio show "Personally Speaking with Monsignor Jim Lisante," Sinise recalled that his reaction to his wife's statement was, "WHAT??!!"

Moira's mother had left the Catholic faith when she was young so Moira wasn't raised with any faith tradition. As a result, Sinise, Moira and their kids weren't part of any religion. But Moira was suddenly insistent on this new element in their lives. She continued, "When we get home, I’m going to go to the Catholic Church and our kids are going to go to Catholic school.” Sinise said, "I just looked at her."

The actor's only knowledge of Catholic school came from two friends who used to tell him horror stories. "Plus," he said, "these two friends of mine are just guilt-ridden all the time! So I was like 'No, no, are you crazy?'"

When they eventually got home, Moira went right to a local Catholic church and entered the RCIA program which prepares non-Catholics to receive the sacraments of baptism, communion and confirmation. After two years, Moira formally entered the church. It was an important and meaningful moment for the whole family.

Their kids also started attending Catholic school. Sinise admits, “It was totally opposite from what I had thought…I became a huge supporter of the school and started attending church with my wife and kids. It became the best thing for our family...We were kind of scattered and stuff, and it’s really brought a lot of focus into our lives.”

One recipient of that focus since 2003 is a program Gary Sinise co-founded called
"Operation Iraqi Children." A longtime advocate for veterans and a volunteer for the U.S.O., Sinise traveled to the war zone and visited an Iraqi school that had been rebuilt by U.S. troops. Hoping to make a positive difference, he later sent over school supplies that U.S. soldiers distributed to the kids. This boosted the morale of the troops who felt they were doing something useful, and also improved relationships with the Iraqi kids and parents they were helping.

Sinise decided to grow the program so that others could help too. Along with "Seabiscuit" author Laura Hillenbrand, he co-founded
"Operation Iraqi Children." People can make monetary donations to be used for school supplies. They can also make care packages themselves. Sinise said, "Church groups, schools and businesses all around the country have done this. We've received thousands and thousands of supplies."

Despite a busy acting career, Sinise remains committed to helping others and has faith that things can change for the better. Maybe that faith is partially thanks to a North Carolina hurricane that changed his family's life.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007



In C.S. Lewis's book "The Great Divorce," the author writes, "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says...'Thy will be done.'" To Lewis, hell is populated by people who refuse to see beyond themselves and their own desire for power or control.

Author J.K. Rowling presents a similar philosophy in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." The characters who are truly evil are concerned only with themselves and their souls will suffer in the afterlife. The heroes on the other hand take a greater good into consideration. Their concern for others - even though it's minor at times - allows for the possibility of redemption that will save their un-horcruxed souls.

Rowling has created an engaging world and story in the Harry Potter series but her greatest accomplishment lies in her multi-dimensional characters. Too often in fiction and in real life, we judge people based on one opinion they hold or something they've done to offend us. That one trait/incident becomes their defining quality in our eyes. Very few people, however, are truly one-dimensional and lack any redemptive qualities. That's something Rowling demonstrates throughout "Deathly Hallows."

Take Dudley Dursley, for instance. He has acted like an arrogant ass toward his cousin Harry for years. Apparently Harry's saving him from the Dementors in "Order of the Phoenix" changed his perspective. He actually tells Harry, "I don't think you're a waste of space." As Harry says, "Coming from Dudley, that's like 'I love you.'"

This is the first scene in the book during which Harry reaps the benefits of the kindnesses he's shown others, even those who didn't deserve it. These actions by Harry and friends are essentially moments of grace between people. Webster's Dictionary defines "grace" as "unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification." Harry's assistance may not be divine but it's certainly unmerited at times.

Case in point - Ron and Harry save Draco Malfoy after he tries to capture them and hand them over to Voldemort. They have every reason to let their malevolent classmate die except for the fact that it's simply wrong. Showing compassion and mercy to an enemy doesn't come naturally for most people but strength of character allows them to make that choice. Based on the Epilogue, it may even have changed Draco for the better. Not completely, but it seems he's not a total "waste of space"anymore.

Voldemort of course never chooses mercy so it's funny that choice bites him in the butt virtually every time. The most obvious is in the big reveal that Snape has actually been working on Dumbledore's side for many years. Snape had an unrequited love for Harry's mother Lily and asked Voldemort to spare her life. When he killed her anyway, that was Snape's breaking point. Most people have a line they won't cross and he had been pushed over it. Snape could no longer serve the Dark Lord and therefore became a double agent for Dumbledore. Similar incidents happen with the Malfoys and the now-deceased Regulus Black. It's ironic that showing mercy and compassion would actually have worked in Voldy's self-interest here. But the self-absorbed are always too blind to see those simple truths.

Rowling also deals with our tendency to put people we admire on pedestals and expect them to be perfect. That's unrealistic. Nobody's perfect. What makes people heroic is that they act for the good in spite of the temptation to do otherwise. And when they stumble - as they usually do, they can acknowledge their mistake and move forward doing the right thing.

That essentially is the backstory of Dumbledore in this novel. We discover that as a young man he was arrogant about his power and considered joining forces with an evil wizard who wanted to make wizards the rulers of everyone "for the greater good." Dumbledore came to realize that tyranny was really not "good" for anyone. That desire was about power and control. As a result, he committed himself to being headmaster at Hogwarts despite offers to lead the Ministry of Magic. Dumbledore realized that his weakness was power and that he shouldn't be trusted with it. In one sense, that revelation brings Dumbledore down from the pedestal on which Harry put him. On the other hand, it makes him more admirable because he was able to acknowledge that flaw and rise above it.

Dumbledore admits that Harry is actually a stronger person than he ever was because Harry has an extraordinary ability to act selflessly. He doesn't do it in a superhuman way. Harry definitely struggles with the heavy burden of doing the right thing. Yet through the love and support of friends, he is able to do them nonetheless.

Harry's selflessness is put to the ultimate test when he learns that he has to allow Voldemort to kill him in order for the Dark Lord to be defeated. Harry's acceptance of his fate is the most moving, poignant, even humbling sequence in any of the books. Harry's life was saved because of his mother's love and self-sacrifice. Now he's doing the same for his friends. His decision calls to mind the Scripture verse, “he who saves his life will lose it and he who loses his life will find it.” Or as the spirit of Dumbledore tells him, "You are the true master of death because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and he understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying."

In this case, Voldemort's curse doesn't kill Harry because he faced death willingly. Harry's love and concern for a greater good save him. Even then, Harry tries to save his enemy. He encourages Voldemort to "try for some remorse." Rowling writes, "Of all the things that Harry had said to him, beyond any revelation or taunt, nothing had shocked Voldemort like this." A man who has never acted out of love, compassion or mercy doesn't know anything about remorse. Voldemort ends up losing his life because he only cared about saving it.

In fairness, Harry Potter may be the title character but he's not the only one willing to lay down his life for his friends. In fact, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna, the Weasleys, and all the fighters at Hogwarts are willing to lay down their lives for Harry. Kind of like Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life," Harry is the "richest man in town." (And that's probably the only time you'll ever see Harry Potter linked with "It's a Wonderful Life.")

There are many more worthwhile themes in "Deathly Hallows." (For further reading, try Busted Halo, Christianity Today and Beliefnet.) But for now this post has gone on long enough. Though God is never explicitly mentioned in the Harry Potter books, the stories and characters are models of Christian values and rich with Christian imagery. If you're looking for an engaging read with some depth to it, "Deathly Hallows" - and all the Potter books for that matter - are definitely worth your time.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007


Finally there's an upcoming TV show about a Catholic priest who isn't totally screwed up; just partially screwed up like the rest of us. You can read the full article here.

The fall television lineup will include a show about Catholic priests. But it won’t be a tale about corrupt or dysfunctional priests, as some shows in the past have been.
Rather, “Vows” — now in production for the American Movie Channel — is about a priest who is faithful and is in love with the Church.
The innovative drama, whose protagonist is a Jesuit, will be aired as part of AMC’s first efforts to produce original episodic dramas.
AMC brand “Television for movie lovers” is driving the network to produce shows with strong character-driven stories with strong emotional content. Karen Hall, the show’s creator, is an award-winning television writer and novelist. Having written for a number of popular shows, including “M.A.S.H.,” “Judging Amy” and “Northern Exposure,” she has recently been commissioned to write “Vows.”

“Priests for the most part used to be left alone,” she said. “But now people really wonder what it is like to walk down the street wearing a collar, why men choose to be priests in this day and age, and what the priesthood is about. And in the recent annals of priest screen characters, a man who is faithful to his vows and in love with the Church is something that almost never comes out of religious-cynical Hollywood.”

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007


With the incomparable spiritual conviction that Johnny Cash brought to songs about God and faith, even Christopher Hitchens would be tempted to become a believer.

Okay, maybe not Hitchens. He is his own god, after all. But Cash might make some fence-sitters give the matter some serious thought.

If you're a fan of Cash's Christian songs - especially if you're Catholic, this article at Catholic Exchange is a must read.

The reason I feel compelled to write this article is due to the effect of listening to the music of Johnny Cash as a Catholic. Allow me to explain. One of my favorite songs, found on his album Personal File released posthumously, is No Earthly Good. The song begins:

"Don't brag about standing or you'll surely fall ...

you're shining your light, and shine it you should,

but you're so heavenly minded you're no earthly good.

If you're holding heaven, then spread it around.

There's hungry hands reaching up here from the ground.

Move over and share the high ground where you stood...

so heavenly minded, you're no earthly good.

The gospel ain't gospel until it is spread

but how can you share it where you got your head?

There's hands that reach out for a hand if you would..."

What an indictment against some Christians' ministry, which is solely focused upon getting people saved so they can keep a running tally of the number of salvations as they eagerly await the rapture and the destruction of the world.

Another song with a similar theme worth mentioning is A Half a Mile a Day. It is written from the perspective of a man who visits a church one evening where several members are witnessing to their salvation. One man reports,

"I'm going to heaven as fast as I can go

like an arrow from a bow."

Another says,

"I'm sailing into heaven...on a sea of blue."

Yet another announces,

"I'm flying into the portals of heaven on silver wings!

Sailing over all the troubles and trials down below straight on in."

Obviously Johnny did not subscribe to this point of view because the last person to stand is a little old lady who claims that she's making it to heaven about a half a mile a day. The woman admits the difficulties and her stumbling; the way to heaven is not rapid transit. Instead she says:

"I believe that if I'll heed the things he had to say

even I might get to heaven at a half a mile a day."

No talk of rapture here. She's too busy living the kingdom. She continues:

"Lord, when I let you lead, I don't make any speed

because I have to stop and touch the ones who need so much

and then sometimes others pull me off of your narrow way,

and by my mistakes I barely make a half a mile a day."

Powerful imagery of a Christian concerned for justice and peace.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007


I was at a Theology on Tap talk Thursday night during which Mike Hayes, our speaker and author of the new book “Googling God,” pointed out that Generation X’ers and Millennials tend to want two different experiences out of religion and/or spirituality. Gen X (people born between 1963 and 1980) crave a sense of community. Millennials (born after 1980) yearn for mystery. I believe that statistic may explain the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise – especially the new film “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” - with people of all ages. “Harry” offers viewers/readers both community and mystery.

The mystery of course involves magic and the supernatural forces that allow the witches and wizards in this fantasy story to perform all kinds of spells. Much like the Christian view of the world, there is more going on around us than meets the eye or can be explained through science.

As author Nancy Brown, an orthodox Catholic who homeschools her children, says in her new book THE MYSTERY OF HARRY POTTER: A CATHOLIC FAMILY GUIDE, “The strongest argument to be made in defense of the ‘other world’ setting of Harry Potter is our Catholic faith. As believers, we too believe in another world…a world where we can know about things others don't, a world in which we can link to people ‘beyond the veil,’ a world right alongside the natural world, called the supernatural world…Skeptics in our own world “see” things too: miracles, prayers answered, people attending church on a regular basis, the faithful relying on God for help; it doesn’t fit in with what they want to understand, and they ignore the evidence, often explaining events as the result of an overactive imagination.”

The shared knowledge of the supernatural world fosters a sense of community in the Harry Potter universe, especially in “Order of the Phoenix.” There’s nothing like a little persecution to bring people together. That’s exactly what happens when the governmental watchdogs in the Ministry of Magic refuse to believe that the Dark Lord Voldemort has returned to destroy everything that’s good in the world. Despite evidence to the contrary, they prefer to live in ignorant bliss. After all, life is good and prosperous. How could there possibly be an unseen danger that threatens them?

Harry and his schoolmates, realizing their lives are in danger, want to learn how to defend themselves. But the Ministry sends the sweetly prim-and-proper tyrant Dolores Umbridge to their school in order to clamp down on any unrest. Despite her gender, Dolores is a “company man” in the worst sense of the term.

Harry and friends band together anyway to learn spells that can help them fight “the Dark Arts.” Their secret meetings and common goal forge a bond between them that goes deeper than anything they’ve experienced before. Through commitment, trust and friendship, their spirit of community becomes a force to be reckoned with much like Tolkien’s “fellowship” in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

That fellowship and love for his family & friends is also what drives Harry to make the right choices. Harry is a complex hero who frequently struggles with the darkness inside himself especially in his final battle with Voldemort in “Order of the Phoenix.” It’s a struggle we all go through at various points in our lives. Do we follow the path of least resistance and give into our darker impulses? Or do we choose to follow “the better angels of our nature” even when it involves some form of sacrifice? When we in the non-fictional world have family, friends, and a God who loves and supports us, it gives us a better chance of choosing the right path.

That’s a message that author Nancy Brown clearly saw when she examined the stories. She writes, “Harry Potter isn’t about magic. Harry Potter is about people: who we are, what we’re on earth for, why we do good and fight evil, and how we make choices?”

For that reason, “Harry Potter” will continue to resonate with people of all faiths and all ages.

Friday, July 6, 2007


When I was younger and had to take an aspirin for some reason, my mother knew she was in for a fight because I was a reluctant pill-swallower. One day, on the advice of a friend, she tried a different approach. Mom crushed the aspirin into small pieces and put it in a teaspoon of honey. I swallowed that concoction without any complaints since it was tasty and I didn’t even feel like I was taking medicine.

The recent comedy “Evan Almighty” does something similar. It feeds you positive spiritual and social messages in a context where you’re laughing and not always aware there’s something else in it for you.

Newly elected Congressman Evan Baxter (Steve Carell) and his wife Joan (Lauren Graham) move into a new home with their three sons. Before Evan arrives for his first day of work, he starts getting supernatural messages that refer to Genesis 6:14, the story of Noah’s ark. Eventually, God (Morgan Freeman) reveals Himself to be the messenger and tries to persuade Evan to build an ark because there’s a flood coming.

As much as Evan tries to resist, he accepts the fact that this is his destiny. He proceeds in faith and follows God’s plan despite opposition from family, co-workers and society at large. And yes, hilarity ensues! That’s largely thanks to the charisma and comedy chops of Steve Carell along with a script and director who know how to use him.

“Evan Almighty” made me laugh within the first 30 seconds so I was predisposed to like the rest of the film – which I did. In an age where God is often depicted as a source of violence and hatred, it felt good to see a movie portray the Almighty more like I perceive Him to be: loving, compassionate, understanding, joyful and -at times –disappointed.

The spiritually-minded, practicing Catholic director Tom Shadyac manages to portray God with all these qualities without sacrificing the notion that God’s ways aren’t always our ways. We need to trust that He knows what’s best for us even when that seems difficult. After going through some particularly tough situations, Evan looks toward heaven and says to God, “Everything you do is because you love me...but could you love me a little less?" I for one have had that feeling many times.

“Evan Almighty” also offers a novel perspective on answered prayers. In a pivotal scene regarding the story’s message, Evan’s wife Joan – who earlier in the film had prayed for her family to grow closer - can’t get her head around what her husband is doing. God responds, “When people pray for patience, do you think God grants them patience? Or opportunities to be patient? When people pray for courage, do you think God grants them courage? Or opportunities to be courageous? When people pray to grow closer to their family do you think God sends along warm, fuzzy feelings? Or the opportunity to spend more time with family?”

I like the fact that individuals are given responsibility here. Many times, we pray expecting God to fix what’s wrong in our lives. That doesn’t require any effort from us. The movie points out that God offers us opportunities - but it’s up to us to get the most out of those opportunities. Like the old Christmas cartoon said, “Even a miracle needs a hand.”

Granted, it’s hard to miss the messages in “Evan” which are occasionally laid on a little thick. But the laughs are steady throughout so even if things feel heavy one minute, they get lighter the next.

“Evan Almighty” is worth seeing regardless of your age. It will give you some good laughs and might even leave you with a better perspective on life and God.