Sunday, December 31, 2017

Muscle head

I love college football too much. In recent years, I have overspent my valuable time watching games, almost always on TV versus seated in the bleachers on a crisp fall afternoon.

Yesterday, I saw something rare during ESPN's telecast of the 2017 Orange Bowl contest between the University of Wisconsin Badgers and "the U" (as in the University of Miami) Hurricanes. During the game, the broadcast team of Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Molly McGrath highlighted the off-field achievements of star Hurricane receiver, Braxton Berrios. Turns out, the talented senior graduated December 15 with a near-perfect grade point average, a whopping 3.961. That means he probably scored one B in one course while earning a double major in finance and entrepreneurship and Valedictorian ranking from Miami's School of Business Administration.

Unfortunately, you're not likely to hear many stories like this one. However, if a college baller goes to jail for a DUI, smacking his girlfriend or shoplifting a shirt from a department store, it will make national headlines. There is actually a Web site called College Football Arrest Nation that lists players who have tangled with the cops. When I Googled "college football academic stars" I don't see anything comparable. Just a list of the nations top 25 college football teams ranked by academics.

Ask any fan who won the Heisman Trophy for best pigskin player in the land and you'll get the answer before you can say "Boomer Sooner!" But quiz the same group about who snagged the William V. Campbell Trophy for 2017 and I'll bet you hear crickets. The National Football Foundation (NFF) and College Hall of Fame awards the hardware to the football player who demonstrates he's the best scholar-athlete in the land. That means the guy is also a leader community service.

With as much negative attention as the media gives to athletes who lose their way, we owe it to society to showcase those who counter the unfair stereotype. How about some high profile, front-page feature stories on the guys who earned William V. Campbell Trophy nominations? I want to learn more about these men who have developed impressive brain power while pumping iron and competing on the gridiron. What makes them tick? How do they balance school and the demands of sports? What are their dreams for life after the game?

By the way, Berrios was one of the finalists for the Campbell Trophy. University of Virginia linebacker, Micah Kiser is the 2017 winner, earning First Team All-America honors while leading the Atlantic Athletic Conference in tackles per game for the third consecutive season.

If you'd like to see Kiser in the spotlight he deserves, tune into the College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship on January 8, 2018 where he'll be recognized during the game.

Many Heisman Trophy winners don't amount to much on the NFL stage. But the guy who hefts the William V. Campbell Trophy has already done some genuine heavy lifting in the game of life.

Read more here:

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Wherever home is

Long before Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa or other forms of electronic convenience, I enjoyed the benefits of a human news aggregator. My wife, Ellen, commonly reads me lead paragraphs of news stories across the breakfast table. Ellen is ever exploring the world through the window of her smart phone or tablet.

This week, she shared bits of an article about the heartbreak of the holidays. One source estimated that eight percent (8%) of American families are estranged from loved ones. Some go years without seeing parents, siblings or children.

I had two conversations recently with dear friends who shared painful, personal struggles to reconcile with siblings after enduring repeated friction and injury. It hurt me to listen to their stories so I can only imagine their pain during the holidays.

Truthfully, few families are free of frazzled relationships. We tap dance around misunderstandings or twist ourselves into emotional pretzels as we confront resentments we've failed to let go.

If you're considering declining an invitation to a Christmas celebration, or crossing a family member off your guest list, or letting that phone call go to voice mail, consider this: there are millions who won't be home for the holidays.

I know a nurse who begs for clothing donations so her emergency room can dress homeless people after they've received care. Frequently, medical personnel have to scissor garments off inured bodies in order to quickly provide treatment. Most homeless have no one to bring them fresh duds. They're wearing all the clothes they own, and their families have often disowned them.

Meanwhile, somewhere tonight, a mother is crying because she doesn't know where her teenage daughter is. The same young face that once devoured Mom's Christmas cookies and smothered her with hugs and kisses. Another teen is halfway around the world serving in uniform and risking life and limb longing for Christmas at home, while a suffering senior rocks in a lonely corner of a nursing home wondering why she had never married.

While the rest of us sleep early on December 25th, chefs and culinary teams will head for work so sick people can receive fresh, healthy meals that day. As you're carving your roast or bird, a cop will be grabbing a coffee when his radio blares a call to respond to an unthinkable crime -- gashing the holiday spirit he's trying to keep alive in his heart.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's Day or none of the above, the chance to reconnect with those who've loved us is priceless. The reason for the season is greater than any individual person. It's an annual reminder that we are members of a family that spans time and space and that we are all inextricably connected. Something, most of us don't appreciate until there's no water at the tap; the power goes out; we suddenly lose our good health or someone dies much too young. Then we become aware and grateful for what we take for granted.

The call of Christmas is for me to acknowledge that I can be very ungrateful for my blessings. And year after year it also teaches me I have much for which to apologize; some things so selfish I can barely muster the courage to share them with my priest.

For me, Christmas is about profound humility, forgiveness and reconciliation with the source of all love and mercy.  It's the day God turned the other cheek.

So I have to ask myself, if I have been forgiven, how can I refuse to forgive? And charity begins at home, wherever home is.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

There's still time

Santa Claus visited our church today. He welcomed people at the front door; he walked with the procession to the altar; he gave gold coins filled with chocolate to little ones after Mass.

Jolly old St. Nick said, "Ho-Ho-Holy" and asked one little girl a defining question as she walked away from him, "Do you know whose birthday we celebrate on Christmas?"

She looked back over her shoulder and said, "God's!"

Hearing it, stopped me in my tracks. Indeed, Christmas is supposed to celebrate the incarnation of our  Creator, little baby Jesus born in Bethlehem.

Then why is it that we receive presents on December 25? It's not our big day.

Christmas is really about a monumental blessing of the world. The divine stepping into our skin and taking on the limits of time and space within the messiness of humanity.

Have you decided what you will give him this year? It's not too late.

We have friends back in Detroit who have spent Christmas morning having breakfast with the homeless. At the time, there were just the three in their family, so they thought the best way to grow their table was to serve the neediest in the community.

Then there are those who forgo exchanging gifts altogether and instead make a significant donation to a worthy charity in hopes of lifting up the suffering.

By far, my favorite idea comes from those who don't celebrate Christmas at all. Again this year, Detroit's Jewish Community Relations Council will team up with the Michigan Muslim Community Council for Mitzvah Day on Christmas. A mitzvah in Hebrew means more than a good deed; it's the observance of a commandment to do good and avoid evil. So, on Christmas and the days approaching it, these two non-Christian groups will volunteer at charities so their Christian brothers and sisters can enjoy their special holy day. Jews and Muslims will work for free in soup kitchens, homeless shelters and the like. They will feed and comfort and spend time with those who are sick.

And Detroit is not alone. Other communities across the nation perform Christmas mitzvahs.

Can you imagine how the almighty must feel when all those who claim to love him are united around the day dedicated to honoring his generosity.

There is still time to give yourself to the source of all life and love.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Christmas clicking

The moment I saw the Amazon box I knew the fedora inside was crushed. It was just too shallow for that hat to fit. Sure enough, when I cracked open the package, the lid inside was dimpled and damaged.

Quickly clicking the "View or manage order" button on my e-mail, I discovered there were no orders in my account! A phone call to Amazon returns revealed I had inadvertently created two accounts. Ten more minutes on hold and I had a political apology and the return label sliding onto my printer tray. Since my afternoon phone conference was postponed until Monday, it was off to the post office with the smashed felt hat in the carton and then to the mall. We couldn't take the chance so close to Christmas that the massive online retailer would get it right the second time.

Traffic in Chicago was thick on Friday afternoon as we wound our way up I-94 to Skokie for Macy's at the Old Orchard Mall.  It took 30 minutes to navigate the bottlenecks and find a parking spot but it was worth it. There were deep discounts on top of markdowns making the opportunity for great buys and brisk shopping. And the service was wonderfully old fashioned.

Gift boxes and tissue paper flowed and even offers to package our purchases for us. When I found a sweater with a snag, the clerk sent her manager to the back room too search for the right size. She returned with an armful of pristine garments to consider.

There were no coupon codes to Google, the cashier identified the maximum savings and printed gift receipts. We felt the texture of materials and judged the sizes for accuracy. The store staff engaged us in conversations about pets, Sunday afternoon dinners, the quality of the products, and color coordinating accessories.

But by far, the best came during our last transaction when the cashier asked my wife, Ellen, "Can I give you a hug?" They had swapped stories about their churches.

Make no mistake, Christmas clicking on Amazon and cyber Monday is very convenient and has lit a fire under the Yule log of American retailers. Fierce online competition is helping to re-energize the concept of customer service in stores. And I'm truly grateful! Because there's something about rubbing shoulders with the crowds, listening to Christmas carols playing in the background and exchanging good cheer with friendly sales clerks that help to make the season bright.

Happy hunting.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Channeling Your Inner Claus

Serious actors diligently research the characters they portray, sometimes hanging out with real people in unusual professions or tiptoeing along the margins of life with those living on the edge.

With some of us playing Santa this time of year, we might as well know a little about the real person we're pretending to be.

St. Nicholas of Myra was about 17 when his parents both died of an epidemic disease in a region we know as Turkey today. Inheriting significant family wealth, he faced real financial decisions as he prepared to become a priest. Nicholas gave away his riches to the poor and signed up for the clergy. By 30, he was ordained a bishop. Folks called him "the boy Bishop" because he was so young for the job.

But it was not his rank that earned St. Nick his legendary distinction. It was his humility. He was quietly generous to those in need. In one situation, he waited until night to secretly deliver three bags of gold to pay for the dowries of three young sisters whose mother had died. As the story goes, the merciful bishop tossed the money into the girls' stockings that were drying by the fire while they slept. The gifts probably came from his inheritance.

Living as a Christian about 300 years after Jesus walked the earth, Nicholas was committed to closely following him, including the instruction to keep your charity a secret. That led to Santa's late night deliveries. Tradition says he helped those starving in famine and once slapped a heretic in the face. The Roman emperor, Diocletian, imprisoned St. Nicholas because he wouldn't deny his belief in Jesus. The saint survived Rome's harsh persecution of Christians and was released when Constantine took the throne and converted to the faith.

Today, in most of the world, children receive gifts on December 6, St. Nicholas' feast day in the Catholic Church. In Holland, Sinterklaas arrives by ship from Spain and rides a horse named Amerigo. In France, he's known as Pere Noel. In Spain, Papa Noel. Russian children call him Grandfather Frost. In the United States, Madison Avenue has repurposed the patron saint of children to become the ultimate pitchman for toy companies, sugary sodas and even sultry undergarments to the suggestive lyrics of "Santa Baby."

As you slip into your long white beard, body suit and red coat, remember your playing a man some people speak to in prayer. It's important we always stay in character. Especially around kids.