First Teachers

Anyone who has heard me give a presentation to parents knows that I love to quote the prayer over the parents that happens at the end of a baptism in the Catholic Church. It’s the part where the priest or deacon tells mom and dad that, in addition to having to buy diapers and formula, books and blankets, tuition and car seats, they are the “first teachers in the ways of faith.” Okay, to be fair, the rest of that isn’t actually in the prayer, but I swear it is implied.

First teachers. That’s heady stuff. There is an implication there that mom and dad have a clue as to what they are doing in their own faith lives. “You cannot give what you do not have,” the wise man says. So if mom and dad haven’t read the catechism or learned their prayers, they may want to spend that first year reading up on the Good Book so they are prepared.

I thought about that first teacher stuff the other night when I took the children to the track behind their school for movie night. The littlest really wanted to go and once she promised the eldest she would not sing along to every song in “The Greatest Showman” (which was the movie of choice), we had a deal. We picked up some chicken and some drinks, packed the folding chairs in the van, and set off. Mom was flying back from a trip and Friday night is movie night anyway, so this might prove to be fun.

It was a circus.

Actually, it was a circus happening around a movie about a guy that starts a circus. There was as much chaos in front of the screen as there was on the screen. Some kids chose to play basketball instead of watching the movie. Others chose to run around and scream on the playground. One little group of girls – all with light-up sneakers – decided to chase each other in and around those who were actually watching the movie. When one of them hit the inflatable screen for the third time, I thought my second youngest would lose it.

“What is wrong with these people?” he asked.

“Their parents,” came the response from the eldest child.

No one was in charge. No one had control of the situation. As my children sat there watching the film, I began to wonder why they were so irritated. It wasn’t because they wanted to run around, it was because this was billed as a movie night for families and since we’ve had movie nights for years, they knew how this should go: start the movie, pause it for snacks and bathroom breaks, and otherwise sit quietly and laugh, cry, or fall asleep. But running around, tripping on the tie downs for the screen, and generally shrieking about was never on the agenda for my kids.

It turns out the movie was a backdrop. An excuse to get families together. We went expecting one thing and what happened was something else. That’s not a bad thing, but the realization didn’t help ease my irritation.

At one point, I remembered, as I was trying to pass out Oreos to those kids sitting around us behaving themselves, what Ron Rolheiser says about those times when screaming and yelling of children irritates us. He calls the unabashed outpouring of noise and merriment “joy” and says that it can irritate us because this joy gets in the way of our own misery.

“Was that true?” I wondered as I sat there in the cool fall night? “Was I miserable in some way? Was this joy around me irritating me because there was something inside me that needed to change.”

“No,” I finally concluded.

These parents should be watching their kids.

Being a first teacher is hard.

-pjd

Looking Up

This time of year always makes me think of the early followers of Jesus. Perhaps it is the combination of Easter, new life, springtime, and allergies. Trust me, it’s all connected in my head.

The readings for this season are all about those early days, how an experience of God-through-Jesus led people to faith. There are stories about how those experiences led to inclusion, exclusion, joy, and suffering. How persecution gives way to stronger faith and how conversion leads to a paradigm shift that gives the early church new leadership.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about the movie Paul, Apostle of Christ(which is well worth seeing). The article cited a remarkable fact: when Paul died in A.D. 67, there were 2,500 Christians. By the year 350, there were 34 million. Think about that for a second. In a time when you would be killed for professing faith in the Risen Jesus, the Good News spread, more people came to faith than left it, and the church flourished.

Then Constantine came along and institutionalized the faith into religion and things have never quite been the same. It seems we might have been better off when we had to tell the story than when we were allowed to tell the story. More on that another time.

This week, we will read about those early followers standing alone, looking at the sky, waiting for Jesus to return. They did not know when he would return, only that he had promised to return. So they stood there, staring at the sky, missing life around them.

The family continued our trek through the Marvel movies this weekend with Dr. Strange. In some ways, it was a typical superhero story: an overachieving protagonist is really a jerk at his core, arrogant and narcissistic. Then his world comes crashing down and he comes face to face with the one incontrovertible fact we all face at some point: life is not all about you. That new perspective requires a basic change in position. We no longer live for ourselves. We live for others.

The early followers figured this out. For them, it was never about gathering for Mass, making sure it only lasted an hour and then screaming at each other when one donkey cut another donkey off in the first-century parking lot. No, it was about serving others in the name of Jesus. It was telling the Jesus story. It was about the family meal where we remembered the sacrifice and sacred instruction. It was about taking care of the widows and orphans, the least among us, and caring for the basic needs in society. There was no right or left, only the Christ I see in you – and that required an action. It required selflessness. It required love.

Spoiler alert: the Jesus story still requires all those things. If only we could stop staring at the sky and get to work.

~pjd

Outcasts

For the Donovan family, Friday night is movie night. It has been that way since the oldest was a baby. The children (and parents) still miss the seating and the set-up from our family theater in Delaware, but like all first world problems, we muddle through with a large screen and comfortable seating.

Several months ago, we began to watch what we thought was the next movie in the Captain America series but within a few minutes realized we had no idea what was happening. With a little research, we discovered that you are not supposed to watch the Marvel movies in order of release. They tell a story and to understand it, you have to know which movie to watch and in what order to watch them. We are about fourteen weeks into this adventure and some of the movies are just fantastic. They speak of family and sacrifice, loyalty and redemption. They are worth the time and money it takes to rent them.

This weekend, however, we added another movie to the mix as we finally sat down to watch The Greatest Showman. It is a hybrid of Hollywood and reality and tells the story of P.T. Barnum, who lived and is buried just down the road. While it skips most of his time in Bridgeport (as mayor and legislator), it does tell the story of his relationship with those most vulnerable – and detested – in society.

I was a fan of the circus until the day it closed. We used to go every year near my birthday. In those early days, the title “circus’ was given to Barnum’s gathering of oddities as a term of derision. The people he gathered (and exploited) were among those that no one wanted to be around: the bearded lady, the tattooed man, the tall man, the short man, the fat man, and the hairy man, the conjoined and the dark-skinned. These are the people, the movie tells, that Barnum befriended with a smile and who helped him put on the greatest of shows.

In typical Hollywood fashion, he forgets his roots as the poor son of a tailor. He seeks fame and acceptance among the upper class. Only when tragedy strikes is he reminded what family really means, as he is encouraged to come home and rebuild. There is crucifixion and resurrection all wrapped up with songs you will be singing all week.

But the reason I loved the movie goes beyond the song and dance, though child number two couldn’t stop singing and child number four couldn’t stop dancing. There is a scene where Barnum’s youngest child meets the bearded lady and, while everyone else is laughing, she takes a cue from her father and looks past the lady’s shame and directly into her eyes. Barnum calls the bearded lady beautiful. His daughter smiles and maintains eye contact.

It made me wonder what cues my own children would take from me. Do they look upon those whom society ignores with love or do they change lanes to avoid eye contact? Do they treat others with respect or, like the crowds in the movie, yell, “You are not wanted here; go home?”

As my children grow, will they be among those outside the tent or among those who serve and are loyal to those singing and dancing?

Children watch. They don’t always listen. But children watch.

Sometimes it frightens me to be so powerful.

-pjd

Family Update

Child number two won second place in the science fair this week. Her project had something to do with whether girls were smarter than boys. The irony that a boy won first prize was not lost on her. Still, we are very proud.

Child number one did not place but did an excellent job on her project, “Can you survive a black hole?” The principal said that many of the judges found it fascinating and he wondered aloud if you could indeed survive a black hole. I told him I would let him know when teenage years were finished.

Child number three got a haircut that is too short for him. He complained that the stylist did not listen to his request. Good thing he’s a good-looking kid. He can pull it off. Dad…not so much.

Child number four was painting last week with child number three, when her sibling took the paint she was going to use. Rather than asking for the paint to be returned she whispered, “Sleep with one eye open, buddy, because I’m coming for you.” Too much Internet access for that child.

Maureen got home from a week away so our schedule of staying up late binge watching Monk on a school night will have to end. The kids said I was the best Dad ever every single night. The ice cream might have helped.

As we move towards Lent, we have been discussing what we could do as a family. Child number one suggested that we give up movie night but was horrified when I offered Stations of the Cross as an alternative. When another child suggested Taize prayer at our parish, all agreed, most of all the eldest. We also opted for more time in prayer each night and I have promised to get back on the exercise bike.

To cap out week, we went out to celebrate Dad’s birthday last night. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone six and a half years.

May your week be blessed and your Lent begin with humility and peace.

God Saw How Good It Was

It is a dad-only week as mom travels to Pittsburg for her organization’s annual meeting. I have caught up on laundry, mostly because Maureen did nearly all of it before she left. I have tried a new recipe for slow-cooker oatmeal, which the children voted “not as good” as the last recipe. And I let them have garbage for dinner one night while we watched the documentary, Planet Earth (and no, the irony of mankind’s treatment of the earth and the effect of dinner on their bodies wasn’t lost on the eldest).

It is only day three.

But there was moment in Mass yesterday when I was listening to Father John read about salt and light, that I began to think about how my children are lights in the world. The oldest is fascinated with the possibility of alternate universes and wants to study quantum physics. I’m not sure I could spell the word “quantum” at eleven.

Child number two wants to be a teacher. I have never met a child who could turn anything into “playing school.” If she helps her sister study, there is an imaginary classroom involved. If they are playing with Legos, she’s building a school. I’m not sure if she wants to impart wisdom or just likes being bossy.

Child number three will illustrate the next great graphic novel. He has taken a cue from his eldest sister and fills sketchbook after sketchbook with illustrations. When he isn’t drawing, he is casting spells from Harry Potter on all of us. I think he wishes the school would add Parseltongue to their foreign language choices.

Then there is the youngest. We are hoping the upcoming celebration of Reconciliation curbs her ability to lie to your face (“You were gone for thirty seconds and I’m not deaf, so there is no way in the world you brushed your teeth!”). Still, her gymnastic abilities are amazing. Her confidence is overwhelming. The lying will pass, I am sure, but I pray the playfulness never leaves here.

I look at these four amazing children and pray their father doesn’t screw things up. I pray that they will grow to cherish their relationships with each other. I pray that they will change the world in powerful, pervasive ways. I look from my chair to the four of them sitting on the couch, eating Chex mix and popcorn (we were out of ice cream) and I realize they are the light of the world. They are the light of my world.

And it is very good indeed.

Movie Night

The launch of the Institute was a great success. This week I hope to get the video of Chris Padgett’s reflection online. It was raw, honest, and one of the best presentations I have heard on the many ways we encounter Christ in our family, our work, and our world. The evening was a wonderful celebration of a new adventure in the life of the Diocese of Bridgeport.

This weekend, a long weekend for parents and children, gave us a chance to put Christmas decorations away and unpack the few remaining boxes that have been shoved aside as our busy lives left little time for such things. It was like a second Christmas; opening a box and finding toys we haven’t missed and decorations we forgot we had. I finally found the other glove I have been missing – and with a Saturday’s snow of an inch of so – and more on the way, matching gloves were a welcome sight.

As many of your know, movie night is a staple here at the Donovan home. Someday I will finish my next book, “Movies I Want My Kids To See” (or at least that is what I call it in my head) and finally write down the movies we have watched together and those I recommend for a family movie night with children of varying ages. This past Friday found us watching Disney’s newest remake, this time retelling the story of Pete and his dragon, Elliott. We had watched the original Pete’s Dragon from 1977, which starred Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, and Jim Dale some time ago, and I was afraid of what the remake might do to the original story. I remember going to see the original at West Town Theater when I was seven and I have always loved that story.

The new movie was great and I wish we had bought it instead of rented it. The music had the children dancing to the credits and I was pleased to see even the oldest child, who stopped dancing somewhere along the way, join in the fun. In fact, I am not sure when the dancing after movies stopped in the last year, but it did. I was so happy to see it return.

School begins again tomorrow and the next break comes Presidents Day Weekend. Maureen flies out in the morning to Spokane and there are projects waiting at work. But if you get a chance, try the new Pete’s Dragon for movie night and listen carefully for the words of the song in the final credits.

If you’re lost out where the lights are blinding
Caught in all, the stars are hiding
That’s when something wild calls you home, home
If you face the fear that keeps you frozen
Chase the sky into the ocean
That’s when something wild calls you home, home

May your week be filled with dancing.