Blessed to Live in ‘God’s Country’

This post appeared in the September 12, 2021, issue of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.

One of the smaller blessings of the pandemic was that it forced me to find topics to write about for our parish newsletter beyond our typically active ministries. As a result, the May 2020 issue of DISCIPLE (online at stmcatholicchurch.org/disciple) provides an overview of our parish history. From the beginning, the faithfulness and self-reliance of this community was evident: German Catholic families literally carved their farms out of the wilderness along the Crow River; in the early days, the paths to get here were so poor that visiting priests came on foot rather than risking a ride on horseback.

Jodi and I moved here from Michigan in 2003. I took a job in Minneapolis and came out a month earlier than the rest of our family, shopping for a house and a parish on the weekends. The home we ultimately purchased was the first one I looked at, a mid-‘80s split-level near Four Seasons Park in Albertville. The church we chose was the first I visited too: the historic Catholic church in downtown St. Michael.

I think what drew me there first was the Old-World charm—I’m a sucker for old buildings, and old churches in particular. I arrived early that first Sunday and watched the narrow wooden pews fill and fill and fill. Old folks and young families, with toddlers tumbling into the aisles. Singing mixed with the squeals of infants. The church was overflowing with life. I checked out a couple other parishes in the area, then called Jodi and said, “We don’t have a house yet, but I think I found a church.”

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Father to Five, Married to One…for 25 Years

Time is a strange phenomenon. We’ve all experienced that sensation in which the days seem long and weeks short; where the whole summer stretches out in front of us for sunlit miles…and then suddenly it’s Christmas. Marriage is like that, too. On a hot summer’s day on the South Dakota plains—August 17, 1996—in a little Spanish-style stucco church named for a German bishop, St. Liborius, two kids got hitched. The tall, slim, cleancut groom in white tails was me: book-smart and big-hearted, a little awkward and a lot emotional, with an insecure streak, a dose of self-righteousness, and a professed agnosticism that bore little resemblence to the faithfulness I was prepared to promise to this girl.

And what a girl! Jodi was, then as now, beautiful: dark wavy hair, eyes that went from brown to hazel to green and back, quick to laugh, solid and peaceful, steadfast in her Catholic faith, and willingly to pour herself out entirely for those she loved. She was a fountain flowing; I, a bottomless bucket.

One of us cried at our wedding—the one who saw too well that he was getting the better end of this deal. How could I ever love her enough?

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Extended Book Break: The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis

I was blessed, on my trip to Michigan and back in the past few weeks, to listen to The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis in its entirety. The version available on Audible, narrated by Geoffrey Howard, is approximately 24 hours of continuous listening, and worth every minute. The three books of The Space Trilogy were certainly inspired by classic science fiction of the last century, but combine these influences with fantasy, mythology, horror and Christian theology.

  • The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, is the most sci-fi of the three, delving into interplanetary space flight and exploration, extraterrestrial life-forms and more. A British linguist named Ransom is shanghaied onto a spaceship bound for a nearby planet known by its native inhabitants as Malacandra. He escapes his captors to discover multiple rational animals with very different appearances, skills and abilities, and cultures, who nevertheless live together in good-humored and mutually beneficial peace. Slowly Ransom abandons his earthly notions of power, control, and desire and strives to help the natives against the other Earthlings who seek to exploit them.
  • The second book, Perelandra, is a science-fantasy tale also involving interplanetary travel and extraterrestrial life to frame a retelling of the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Ransom agrees to travel to the planet Perelandra on an urgent mission, but with no idea what that mission is. He encounters a lone humanoid woman who lives in harmony with the world and creatures around her and is searching for her man. An old adversary arrives from Earth to tempt the woman into disobeying the higher powers she knows on Perelandra, and Ransom must again fight against his fellow man as well as demonic activity to save a pristine world from importing Earth’s sin.
  • The final book, That Hideous Strength, is as long as the first two books combined and takes place entirely on Earth, specifically, in England. It continues Ransom’s tale in a story combining dystopian fiction, Arthurian legend and horror to critique materialism, modernism, politics, education and contemporary ideas of gender and marriage. It follows a young sociologist striving to get ahead in his career by joining a new and increasingly powerful national scientific insitute, while his wife, who is struggling with bad dreams that appear to predict the future, falls in with a small band of local resistance led by an eccentric old linguist who is rumored to be contact with powerful extraterrestrials who are pure spirit and are preparing for a final battle over the fate of the Earth.
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Stretching Toward Heaven

This is my father-of-the-groom speech from Brendan and Becky’s wedding on December 28, 2019. I finally got to see this video (and actually hear what I said) for the first time yesterday, and this is one of my favorite things I’ve “written.”

A little context for what you are about to hear:

  • I had just taken our youngest daughter, who fell asleep during the wedding and was not feeling well, up to my parents’ room in the hotel. The dance had not yet started, and my dad had already turned in for the night. This was a long day for both of them!
  • There was a blizzard this weekend, so many people didn’t make it to the wedding—especially those from out of state, like Grandma and Grandpa Venjohn.
  • Gabe had given his Best Man speech just before this, in which he had joked that he felt loved by his big brother Brendan, even though none of our kids have the capacity to express love. (Our kids are often ribbed for their lack of expressed affection toward each other and their parents.)
  • I had detailed notes in my pocket, but because I was caught off-guard and was thinking about Lily, I never took them out. I had written something like this the day before, while cooking chili for the rehearsal supper in the church kitchen. We had cooked a massive amount of chili at home, then failed to get it cooled quickly for transportation and were worried about giving the entire wedding party and both families food poisoning, so we remade it in Moorhead.

I’m sure that just after this recording cuts out, I said proposed an actual toast. But the speech is what I want to share today, so my dad and Jodi’s folks can finally hear it.

“Things change…”

What Child Is This?

Note: This post appears as the January 3, 2021, bulletin column (the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God) for St. Michael and St. Albert parishes.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been smitten with the image of the pregnant Virgin Mary. When Jodi began showing with our first baby, I was struck with a notion that may be foreign to women undergoing the physical changes that accompany incubating new humans, but that hopefully has occurred to other men: Pregnant women are beautiful. The glow of the expecting mother is long established and oft reported, but the bodily transformation is no less captivating. A luminous mother-to-be, her belly impossibly round with child, calls to mind the miraculous, celestial beauty of the stars and planets—even drawing us into orbit around her.

The Pregnant Virgin Mary

This is appropriate, since she bears the future of the species, the planet, even the universe, within her womb.

If that’s true of my bride, it’s truer for our Blessed Mother. Mary’s circumstance was more difficult than most first pregnancies, but her trust and her joy were no doubt more complete. I see this young woman, innocent and unassuming, bearing the changes and challenges confronting her with simplicity and obedience, radiating the life of God within her while pouring herself out in service to her cousin, Elizabeth, and later, to her husband Joseph.

Do you see her, too? Is she not beautiful?

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