Self-Mastery: Poker and the Holy Life


Self-Mastery: Poker and the Holy Life

Originally posted for  Reverb Culture  on December 19, 2015

Originally posted for Reverb Culture on December 19, 2015

I’ll never forget the first time I dropped $500 in an underground game. I lost it all in about a half hour. I was 18 years old, ambitious and crazy addicted to the game of poker.

Imagine a time when you knew you were in deep sh*t and you continued on like nothing was wrong. Imagine if you knew exactly what you were doing, and knew that it was part of the game to continue as if losing $500 as an 18 year old kid had no affect on you. 

You don’t forget those kinds of feelings. It was precisely the game of poker that suppressed these feelings, because that’s what the game demanded. You lose a big pot, you forget it and bulldoze your way through to the next hand. I found out that concupiscence, conversion, and the confessional operated similarly to how I played poker.

Greg Raymer 2004 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion. This picture was taken at a tournament we both participated in.

Greg Raymer 2004 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion. This picture was taken at a tournament we both participated in.

Some consider winning in a game of poker as an exhibit of one’s luck. I, on the other hand and many like myself, know it as a skill game. I remember some days, if I wanted to go home a winner, I would do nothing but bluff my way into winning pots; that’s if the cards weren’t falling for me. Don’t get me wrong, the cards definitely factor in, and it sure made for some eventful sessions when they fell in my favor. But when they didn’t, I had to make my own luck. Not “luck” in the traditional way we all know it, but “luck” insofar as making things happen on my own. Knowing that at a precise moment in the hand, I needed to raise and push some guy off his hand; because if I didn’t it was my @ss that would take the hit.

The game itself was addicting. The feeling one experiences when he can manipulate another person’s decision with a wrist-flick of chips into a pot was exhilarating. While I acknowledged that the game was addicting, I would have never admitted to having a gambling problem. Is it a gambling problem if you’re winning? I associated a gambling problem as a disordered and reckless approach to handling money in a game that relied solely on luck; such as, roulette or craps. Poker did not fit that criteria. Poker was all about self-mastery to me.

Sure, it was about the money too, but a large component was the ability to compose myself at will. Being able to conceal physical reactions, intentionally behave in certain ways, express interest, disinterest, or perhaps play up that kid at the table who had no idea what he was doing, and pounce when the opportunity arose. Poker required complete and utter control of self.

“Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion.”

— CCC 1809

This sort of self-mastery was eventually demanded of me in an entirely different way. I stopped playing poker when I decided to serve as a missionary with NET Ministries. I simply couldn’t drive to a casino for a normal six hour session, or make my way to one of the local underground games. I stopped playing poker because it wasn’t accessible to me anymore. I remember my NET Team once hosted a retreat in South Carolina, and word got out that I used to be this “quasi-poker pro.” Naturally my small group on the retreat wouldn’t shut up about it until I shared some stories.

I shared how often I played, how much money I played with, my biggest tournament win, my biggest cash game win, the scariest moments I ever had, etc.  These middle schoolers were ogling over my stories, so I decided to turn it into a teaching moment. I pulled a “Fr. Larry Richards move” and turned to one of the kids and asked,

Me: “Hey, do you love God?”
Kid: “Yeah…”
Me: “Oh, awesome. Have you prayed today?”
Kid: “ I forgot.”
Me: “Well, that stinks. Have you eaten today?”
Kid: “Duh, of course I have.”
Me: “Sounds like you love food more than you love God.”

I turned to a few more kids and did the same thing. One kid in the small group then said…

Kid: “Hey, Nic! Do you love God?”
Me: “Of course.”
Kid: “Have you prayed today?”
Me: “Duh, I’m a Netter right now.”
Kid: “Have you played poker today?”
Me: (with a perplexed look) “...No.”
Kid: “Wow, you love God a lot.”

This was by far the most memorable moment on the road for me. I was 7 months into a new life in Christ and it took a twelve year old kid to make me realize the radical change I had gone through and where my self-mastery was oriented.

Growing up, I was very, very poorly catechized. I went to NET training completely ignorant of some basic and fundamental doctrines of the Church; how I was accepted into NET Ministries was beyond me. I was quickly introduced to a daily habit of prayer. Though, my flesh wanted otherwise, it took the same skill at the poker table to orient my ways to the ways of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

To me, the fused words of “self-mastery”, implies that one is Lord over oneself. I had trained myself to be in complete control and was capable of making something out of nothing at the poker table. Just because I wasn’t holding the best cards didn’t mean I couldn’t win the hand. While desperately trying to wean away this dependence I had upon myself, Jesus Christ made it known to me that true self-mastery can only be attained if submitted to His Lordship.

“Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.”

— CCC 1804

I played a lot. I was good. I won a lot of money and as a result maintained a pretty significant bankroll as a teenager playing a man’s game. I don’t play like that anymore though. I stopped playing at that intensity for many reasons, Just because someone’s got talent doesn’t mean he can’t be beat. Barry Greenstein, a long-time poker pro once said, “Math is idiotic”. We consider mathematics to be precise and to-the-point, because numbers don’t lie. Just because Barry Greenstein was a large underdog to win that pot didn’t mean he had no percentage to win. Math is idiotic because it doesn’t matter how improbable the situation is at the table, your opponent’s 1% chance of catching his card on the river, or hitting runner-runner to beat you is still a possibility.

I had every opportunity to return to the game when I left NET Ministries; but my newly reformed self-mastery enabled me to choose otherwise. I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t gone back a few times. I like to indulge every now and again. I remember one time in college, around the Spring of 2014, I couldn’t shake the urge to go play. I tried everything from playing online for funny-money to watching it on Youtube. Finally, it got to the point when I called Emily (my fiance at the time) and asked her permission to go play; I had already considered my money to be her money, so I needed her approval. She approved so long as I made enough to buy her some new shoes. She knew my past in the game all too well.

It was already 10 P.M. and I had an 8 A.M. class the next morning, but I had to go. I hadn’t played live in a while and only loaded up for $200 at a $1/$3 Pot Limit Hold ‘em game at Running Aces in Minnesota. For the next three hours, I shook off pots, made some moves, and was all-in-all rusty as hell. I was up to $300 at one point, down to $55 at another. I managed to climb my way back to ~$140 and thought to myself “I’ve had my fun.” With my itch seemingly scratched, I tried to pull away from the table but my pride got the best of me. I decided to stick around a while longer and see if I still had it in me to make things happen like I used to.

I ended up getting back to my dorm the next morning around 6 A.M., took a two hour nap and zombied my way to my 8 A.M. class. I haven’t played like that again since. It was awesome. I felt like an ex-athlete who proved to the world that he still had it. When I went through my years on NET I made it a point to distract myself from that game. I’ll indulge every once in awhile, but the occurrences come few and far in between. I had bought in for $200 and walked out with a little over $900 that night. I texted Emily with a picture of the cash asking, “Is this enough?”

While nights like those used to be a regular occurrence for me, I now take pride in the nights I spend with Jesus instead. We all know it’s not easy staying disciplined. Staying near to Jesus is probably one of the most difficult things one could undertake. All it takes is just one slip-up and we’re back in the confessional. There were four things I constantly had to ask myself when playing poker:

1) What do I have?
2) What don’t I have?
3) What do I need to do?
4) How do I need to do it?

I now find myself asking the same questions every day in prayer as I strive to orient myself back to Jesus. The will is an amazing faculty. One of my professors in Rome, who happened to also be the Pope’s Moral Theologian, once said, “The will goes beyond it’s limits to attain a good, but we need to form the will by training the virtues of fortitude and temperance.” One shouldn’t willingly allow disorder in his life. It took a lot of fortitude and temperance to master myself at the poker table, and I’m going all-in to say that those virtues are absolutely necessary to sustain a holy life.

“To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).”

— St. Augustine of Hippo


What’s the next fad in Worship music?


What’s the next fad in Worship music?

Quick, stop everything you’re doing! Turn off Netflix, put that jelly donut down, shut up you’re cat, and think of your top three P&W songs. (I’ll give you 30 seconds. I’ll know if you go over time. Continue below once you’re done…)


Now that you’re done: Was that fun deciding your top 3? Or did it hurt you in your innards? Do you feel like you betrayed all of the other songs you left out and Paul Baloche, being butt-mad about it, is going to hunt you down for leaving out his song Open the Eyes of My Heart?

If you’re like me then you absolutely, positively, without a doubt, hate it when someone demands to know your favorite P&W song. I usually default and give an answer along the lines of, “Well, uh… it changes a lot… and uhh… you see I’m in a weird funk with oldies P&W so, uhh…. yyyyyeah.”

For some reason I get really defensive and self conscious when that question is brought up. I begin to worry how my response will be received and I treat the question as if I’m  exposing a side of myself that I normally don’t share; which is odd considering half of my job at my parish is music.

Originally posted for  NET Ministries  on Oct 6, 2015

Originally posted for NET Ministries on Oct 6, 2015

Personally I just don’t like being limited, especially when it comes to music. Asking me my favorite worship song makes me feel confined and unsure. Perhaps I’m just communicating a fault of mine in that I have weird commitment issues... with just music, I hope.

For example, those that know me well know that I have a problem, nay, an infatuation with rearranging rooms. I actually haven’t decided if I’m any good at it, but what I have found out is that I do have a fascination with pushing the boundaries of a limited space. Of course there’s only so many ways my office can be arranged, and I know I’ve surprised my co workers in doing so. In fact, after a recent rearrangement of my office, the Business Manager at my Parish once said to me, “You know, Nic, you’re probably changing up your office so much because there’s something going on in your life that you can’t change.” I just laughed it off after gathering myself from the floor, whilst almost having a midlife crisis, and having an inner dialogue telling myself “I don’t have commitment issues… I don’t have commitment issues…” But then again, maybe I do.

You see, I think there’s a feeling of “unsettling” that we all must possess. You can ask my wife, because she has said over and over, “Nic, you wanted to get married, we did that. You wanted a baby, we did that. You wanted a house, we did that. NOW YOU WANT A TRUCK?!?” Aside from the objective truth that every man inherently desires a truck to haul stuff in, while accompanied with his dog, (oh… btw, Emily, can we have a dog? Ok, sweet, thanks. I love you.) there is something beautiful in the fact that we all should always be wanting more in life. Though it is important to note that there’s a distinction to be made with an imprudent desire for more, which leads to materialism and maybe ultimately depression, and on the other hand, a disciplined and ordered disposition, which ultimately ought to lead one further into truth, which Dei Verbum eludes to truth no longer residing in propositions but something much more than a sheer argument, but rather a person; that person being Matt Maher… wait a minute, that’s not right. Uhh...

When it comes to the genre of P&W music, or whatever you want to call it, I tend to gravitate towards the musician who seems to be pushing the boundaries; doing something different, something new. Similarly to my desire of “always wanting more in life,” I also want the exact same in my music life.

P&W music has gone through some pretty drastic changes. I’m not claiming to know everything there is to know about the history of P&W music, but I’ve been around long enough to tell you that something happened in between the time Jesus Is My Friend by Sonseed came out and Pat Barrett’s Good Good Father was released. Granted, Sonseed might not have had the same intention that Pat did when writing music, but the question is: how did P&W get to where it is now? And how many “fads” did we go through to get here?

I’ve assembled some videos here for your viewing pleasure to show you just one fad I believe P&W is currently in, but also to see if you can notice the similarity I see in them. I can almost guarantee that one of your top three favorite worship songs you thought of earlier also has the same similarity that I’m trying to make known in the videos. GO!

Taste of Eternity, Bellarive

Make It Loud, Ike Ndolo

Future/Past, John Mark McMillan

All the People Said Amen, Matt Maher

To give it away, since the early 2010’s there’s been a weird draw to recording music videos while having every musician in a circle with people “praising” in the background. Yes, go back and watch all four videos, even Good Good Father, to make sure I’m not lying to you. Whether you noticed this or not, it’s a thing right now in the P&W world. The lighting, the filter… they’re all relatively the same.

My motive is not to come up with the next fad in Worship music. But I can’t help but wonder what’s next to push the boundaries? When is it going to get here? And who is going to be the one to introduce the new thing? What’s key here, is that hopefully someone doesn’t try to come up with a fad. The best Catholic Speakers out there right now became what they are because they felt called to share truth. For example, Jason Evert speaking on Chastity. Who else was the “Chastity Guy” before him? I’m sure there were other Chastity speakers out there, but none of them dominated the target audience like Jason did.

My point is that someone was called, not by their own will or prideful desires, but they were called to share authenticity to the world. What I see most in the “circle worship music” is a screaming plea to bring Worship music back to what it was meant to be. A lot of you are probably familiar with the song Heart of Worship by Michael W. Smith, and as much as the song is outdated, it still provides an enormously relevant message for all P&W Leaders and Praisers; that Jesus is the Heart of Worship. This is the very reason why Michael W. Smith wrote the song. He saw a shift in P&W music that was straying away from the real reason why he and other artists first began to write music.

God in the flesh through the incarnation, AKA the “hypostatic union” (if you want to speak like a legit Theologist), literally pushed the boundaries past its limits. What’s to stop us from doing the same? Paul says, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1) Whatever the next fad in P&W is, I pray that it be the same thing that Michael W. Smith prayed for; that Jesus be the focus.

You see, I’m not content with being limited, and neither is our true Worship. For, to truly Worship means to be receiving Jesus, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Yup, you guessed it, God figured out a way to stretch the confines of this world even more than becoming just a man. Talk about boundaries, dude.

So, now I’m calling on all of those who seek to push the boundaries to it’s limits with me. I’m not talking about rearranging furniture, but rather encouraging you to reveal truth, show Jesus, live an authentic life. Whether you’re a P&W leader, you raise kids, or you have a weird obsession with thrifting, Jesus desires no fads. Jesus doesn’t need our Worship. Jesus wants us. Plain and simple.

“I came so that they might have life, and have it to the fullest.” John 10:10

“You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.” Psalm 23:5

***Originally posted for NET Ministries on Oct 6, 2015


The important stuff about Lumen Gentium


The important stuff about Lumen Gentium

To begin, I want to make it absolutely clear that the "important stuff" I mention in this post is what I've found to be, for me, the highlight points of the document, or in other words, the crucial points the document makes. Addressing the Triune God's activity in founding and sustaining the Church, while looking at the justifications for those claims,  along with the relationship to the mystery of the Church to its people, and all the way to the "marks" needed to identify a church/ecclesial body will be addressed to further understand what we mean when Catholics refer to as their "Church". 

For starters, God the Father, in His "utterly free and mysterious design of his wisdom and goodness, created the entire universe" (LG, 2), and He chose to raise up men and women to share in His own divine life. Despite man's fall through Adam, He never abandoned them, but at all times offered them the means of salvation (through Christ obviously). "Prefigured at the beginning of the world, this church was prepared in marvelous fashion in the history of the people of Israel and in the ancient alliance" (LG, 2). And it is in this Church which will be brought to glorious completion at the end of time.

Paragraph 2 of Lumen Gentium truly harps on the fact that God indeed prefigured this. One can't help but also look at the paragraph 1 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and breath in the resemblance of the two...

"God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life" (CCC, 1). 

Going on...

Jesus now comes into the picture in Paragraph 3 of Lumen Gentium. The principle objective for Jesus is to carry out the will of the Father. As far as the Father is concerned, it was in Jesus Christ that it was most pleasing for Him to restore all things; and Jesus indeed did just that. It was the will of the Father that Christ inaugurate the kingdom of heaven on earth and reveal his mystery to us. Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God, and the Church ultimately declares the Kingdom of God has come about in Jesus' Life, Death, and Resurrection. Therefore, when Jesus decides to leave, the Church can continue preaching this utterly amazing truth.

Last but not least, the Holy Spirit is surely not left out of this shin-dig. The Holy Spirit has been given marching orders to see to it that this proclamation of Jesus (Life, Death, and Resurrection) is carried out strongly to the end of time.

Smack yeah, you read that right.

The Holy Spirit was also given a mission, that it can't bear (or is able) to be unsuccessful in, to allow Jesus' promulgation of his Father's Kingdom see the end of time. "By the power of the Gospel he rejuvenates the church, constantly renewing it and leading it to perfect union with its spouse. For the Spirit and the Bride both say to Jesus, the Lord, "Come!" (LG, 4).

Now that the declaration of God's masterminded plan has hit the record books, we can't ignore Christianity's many interpretations of what Jesus said and came to do. The universal church is seen to be "a people made one by the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" (LG, 4). It is precisely this that drastically separates our (a Catholic's) theological thinking compared to one of our beloved Protestant brothers and sisters. For Catholics, the Holy Spirit came to vivify the Church, make it new, make it living. The Church is an act of the TRIUNE GOD, each one playing a desperately crucial part. On the other hand, for Protestants, they will conclude that the Church is only an act of Christ.

In order to address the justifications and sources for the claims that the Triune God sought to bring about the Church, and not just Christ, can be found in none other than Sacred Scripture (which has beautifully dispelled from Tradition). Scripture identifies the Church as many things. It uses symbols and metaphors to attempt to articulate for us what the Church is. Though not limited to just these interpretations, Lumen Gentium gathers from scripture that the Church is: a sheepfold, a flock, a farm, a field, a building, a holy temple, our mother, the spouse of Christ, and so on. Since this Living Word articulates the Church in this way, we must use Theology to help probe it's metaphors. Theology helps us understand how these images work well, but also how they don't (Just a small little Theo plug).

"The mystery of the holy church is already brought to light in the manner of its foundation" (LG, 5), meaning that since the Lord Jesus inaugurated his church by preaching the good news of the coming Kingdom of God, the Church has been equipped with one absolute mediator and "the way" of salvation. "For the Church is driven by the Holy Spirit to play its part in bringing to completion the plan of God, who has constituted Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world" (LG, 17). 

Finally, the membership of the Church is determined by the mediation of the Sacraments, and in this unique Church of Christ, which we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, has firmly been rooted into history. It's foundation cannot be blemished. The Church will see to the end of time. The Church has always been one. The Church has always been the means of sanctification. The Church has always pleaded universality. And lastly, the Church has always and will always be prevalent in history.