All Is Gift


I wanted to tell you yesterday all the things I’m grateful for this year. I rose at 4 a.m. to stretch, pray, and write—but the Bearded Wonder (my eldest son Brendan) is home from college and rose at 4:30. We sat in flickering candlelight and visited for a couple hours, until Jodi got up to start the turkey. Then I left her and her boy alone and greeted the dawn with Bruno. Our walk was unusually peaceful: silent except for the whine of the distant freeway; we saw a total of four cars, a jogger, and a neighbor with the same idea: walking his dog in the quiet of the new day.

The rest of the household was stirring when we returned home, and the rest of the morning was spent going to Mass (the Feast before the feast) and preparing for dinner. We cooked, we ate, we watched the Lions get trounced by the Vikings. (Sorry, fellow Lions fans: to me, the game didn’t feel close.) My folks were supposed to be here, but Mom got sick and they returned home—we arranged for a friend to bring them Thanksgiving dinner, and enjoyed a beautiful, grateful phone call with them in the early afternoon.  We laughed and listened to music; we napped, walked Bruno again, and ate pie.

And yet, when evening fell, I felt unsettled. The one thing I hadn’t done was write. So while the family played games in the dining room, I attempted to journal. Instead I listened to Jodi and the kids joking, arguing, and laughing together. After a while, Brendan stepped away from the games and took up the mandolin, picking and strumming snippets of songs we knew. I closed my journal and vowed to write this morning.

* * * * *

Today Brendan turns twenty. I rose again at four, acutely aware that I have now been a father for two decades—nearly half my life to date!—and unsure about what that means for me. I went downstairs to let Bruno out; stepped into the cold, black morning, and breathed in the clean air. I need to write, I thought.

About what? About all of this.

I brought Bruno back in and shuffled into the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror to see myself. At 4 a.m., I look lived in: a little worn and disheveled, sagging here and there, but comfortable and still functional. I leaned in closer to peer into my own eyes—windows to the soul, they say—and in an instant, they filled with unexpected tears.

Gifts. All of it—my bride in our bed, our beautiful offspring, the pup downstairs. Our aging suburban split-level. The still unfinished tree house out back. All gifts.

I am working harder these days for less money, and yet I feel better—freer—than I have in years. Gift. We have friends who never get sick of our company, family who love us, and a great God in Heaven who keeps the very rhythm of our hearts in time with His own. All gifts.

The tears brimmed but didn’t fall; my chest swelled but didn’t burst. Sure signs that I have not yet fully grasped the magnitude of my situation: the all-powerful and ever-present Creator of the universe is making room enough in me so He can dwell there. The One who is Love is carving a God-size hole in me, chipping away, flake by flake, at my stony heart.

* * * * *

With all the many gifts I enjoy in this life, perhaps the thing I am most grateful for this year is perspective. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Look around you. Have you seen this place?

Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? — Job 38:4-7

We are so very blessed and have done nothing to deserve it. Sure, we’re good people, as far as that goes. But lots of good people suffer, and a fair number of not-so-good people seem to thrive. I cannot earn these blessings or somehow make them happen—I cannot avoid illness, accident, or tragedy—any more than I can make Brendan’s beard grow. I can only look on with wonder and thanksgiving, and join my song to Mary’s: The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name!


Forty-Third Birthday, Extended and Remixed

I am still a such a kid when it comes to birthdays. I still love the food and fun, the off-key singing, the warmth and glow and light and presents. Yes, I know that material wealth does not avail, but I love receiving (and giving) gifts. I can’t help it.

At the same time, birthdays are also a bit melancholy. As each year passes, I find myself reflecting on those things I have not yet done, and the speed with which time seems to pass these days. That mix of joy and anticipation with reflection and blues often leaves me quiet, recollected, and prayerful—which, in the end, is not a bad place to be.

Nevertheless, when my 43rd birthday rolled around on Friday, I struggled a bit. Jodi and I worked during the day, which is not unusual, but Gabe needed to work late afternoon through early evening. In addition, a couple of conversations with my bride (one somewhat veiled, one not so much) led me to believe that she was struggling to come up with a gift of any sort, much less the one she hoped to purchase. It was shaping up to be a subdued celebration.

So when Emma was offered a babysitting gig for Friday evening, I sighed and surrendered. We would celebrate Saturday, gift or no gift.

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These Least Brothers of Mine…

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? — James 2:1-4 

Last night Jodi, Brendan, and I joined a friends of Brendan’s and his parents at Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis to celebrate their senior year, their acceptance into the college(s) of their choice, and a backlog of birthdays. Fogo is a carnivore’s paradise, with such an abundance and variety of fire-roasted meats that I kept thinking of Scripture’s forgiving father ordering the slaughter of the fatted calf to celebrate the prodigal son’s return. Server after server stopped by our table with skewer after skewer of beef, pork, chicken, and lamb, carving portions for us until we flipped our green coasters to red to signal, “No mas!” (or “não mais,” I supposed, in Portuguese).

We had a great time with the boys, and ate a delicious meal the likes of which we are unlikely to enjoy again any time soon, given the price. All the way home, however, and all through last night and today, I’ve been haunted by a man I do not know. I saw him only in passing as we looked for a place to park, but the impression he made is indelible.

We drove past the restaurant on Hennepin, and three or four blocks up, turned left to loop around and look for parking garage. As Jodi turned the corner, I saw what I thought was a youth seated on a skateboard, leaning against a building. As we drew nearer and went past, I beheld a man. In those brief seconds as we passed, this is how he appeared to me.

Ecce homo: Click to view full-size sketch.

He was legless, in a grubby t-shirt and dark pants cut short and sewn shut or folded under. His face was of no obvious age, but worn and creased with hard living, and his thin hair stood up in patches from his scalp. I saw that his left hand was on the sidewalk to stabilize and propel himself. His other arm was raised as though gesturing — it ended abruptly in a rounded, red stump several inches short of where his right hand should be.

Brendan saw him, too. We discussed briefly how hard it must be to live in the city, presumably on the streets, in such a condition. Then, determined not to spoil the boys’ celebration, I dropped the subject. We turned left again, backtracked a few blocks, parked, and went in to feast.

As we ate, surrounded by such abundance, I thought of him. As we paid for our decadent meal, I thought of him. As we left Minneapolis in a rush of cars, under the yellow glare of a thousand street lights, I thought of him.

Today it occurred to me that maybe some sense of injustice over the pleasures we enjoyed at dinner exaggerated his state in my memory — but I believe that was the Devil trying to lull me back to complacency. When I showed the sketch above to Brendan, he said it’s what he recalls, too. A few moments on Google turned up this brief newspaper article: apparently he’s been downtown at least since this spring.

Perhaps he is a homeless vet our country has forgotten. Perhaps he is a junkie. Regardless, no man deserves to live with their last good limb pressed to pavement, unable to see above the hoods of the stopped cars as he crosses the busy streets. How will he stand to move about the city in winter, when the salt and road grime stings his fingers and the wind bites his cheeks? Does he take the bus? Who helps him get aboard? How does he keep his skateboard with him, use the restroom, avoid those who would cause him harm? How will he survive?

Had we been walking past, not driving, I’m not sure what I would have done for him. How could I have helped? Given money? To what end? Traded shirts with him? Perhaps, on the feast day of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, I would have stopped, hunkered down, and acknowledged him, eye to eye, man to man.

Or perhaps I would have avoided eye contact and kept walking, then muttered a guilt-ridden Hail Mary under my breath.

On the way to church this morning, I urged the kids to try offing the Mass for someone in particular, to see if that helped them focus their prayers and remain present the entire time. I committed myself to offering the Mass for this man, whom we drove past and may never see again, but who has cracked my stony heart. I had not previewed the readings for this Sunday; now that I’ve heard them, I am convinced the Lord is working on me. While it is not sinful to enjoy in moderation the pleasures of earthly life — food and drink and friendship — we must not be blind or unkind to those who seem unlovable. If we prefer the company of others to the company of those in need, we fail to follow Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, you teach us, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Help me, Lord, to hear the cries of the poor and to show kindness and mercy in word and deed. Forgive those times I have failed to love those you love, and strengthen me to do the hard work of charity among these “least brothers” of yours. Help me to step outside my comfort zone and serve and comfort them in prayer, word, and deed. Amen.

Blessed Mother Teresa, pray for us.

Bren Turns 16

Our first child turns 16 today. My Facebook statement sums up my sentiments nicely: “Hard to believe my eldest son Brendan turns 16 today. He is smart, responsible, strong, gentle, persistent, respectful, and faithful — and I love him.” But don’t take my word for the type of young man he is (outstanding in many ways) or what motivates him (faith, food, personal goals, and a particular brand of ginger soda). Consider how he’s spending this special occasion:

  • The movie Cinderella Man and pie last night, and the actual Braddock-Baer fight from 1935 on YouTube this morning.
  • Breakfast burritos this morning, football this afternoon, stuffed pasta shells this evening, chocolate bundt cake for dessert — all here at home, with family.
  • No driver’s license until later this winter or early this spring — he’s got school, wrestling, Confirmation classes, and taxidermy work to earn money for a pilgrimage to Rome next summer.
  • On his birthday list: several Catholic books; the movies Big JakeCaptain America and Here Comes the Boom; the book Cinderella Man, and a “Vires et Honestas” (Strength and Honor) t-shirt from the Art of Manliness website.
  • Theology class tonight with his friends.
He opened his gifts this morning: a secondhand army dufflebag containing the following:
  • two 12-packs of Vernors, plus a book called The Vernor’s Story and a vintage Vernors recipe guide from the 1960s;
  • a handful of 100 Grand candy bars;
  • a jar each of smoked black pepper and hot dill pickles;
  • Fr. Richard Heilman’s books Church Militant Field Manual: Special Forces Training for the Life in Christ, Fortes in Fide: Church Militant Prayer Book, and Strength and Alliance: Church Militant Field Journal;
  • The Naval Academy Candidate Book: How to Prepare, How to Get In, How to Survive;
  • Three movies: Here Comes the Boom and the two recent Sherlock Holmes flicks;
  • and a set of keys to all three vehicles and the house on a Captain America key ring.
Some of it he asked for, all of it he’ll enjoy — and sweet 16 in this case is a relaxing day at home. He’s growing into a fine young man, and we’re proud of him. Much love to you on your birthday, son!