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…”

One-Track Mind

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

I am writing this column from my parents’ log house in rural Michigan. Yesterday our Airedale Bruno and I drove 12 hours to get here. Half the time I listened to the news on Minnesota and Wisconsin Public Radio.  

Public radio is in frustrating entity for me, and this long drive was no exception. On one hand, they interviewed interesting people about compelling topics and told wonderful stories that kept me awake and alert all morning and into the afternoon. On the other hand, nearly every story was presented with a left-leaning worldliness and a persistent godless optimism, as though this past year (and the previous three) were truly unprecedented and hellish, but now the right people with the right ideas, wielding power in the right way, can finally fix everything. Nearly all of the interviews were political, some were explicitly pagan—and none mentioned God in any meaningful way, except to reference the road not taken.

This is the divide that concerns me in our society. This is the fundamental, irreconcilable issue upon which there can be no compromise: Either God is real and created the universe and humanity according to His law and purpose, or He didn’t. Both views have profound implications on how we live together in this world.

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A Fool for Christ

Note: I am an emotional guy. I am a bit self-conscious about the number of times in my posts I “choke up,” tear up or flat-out cry. But the Psalmist cried a lot, too. Also, this post appears as the bulletin column for this Sunday, January 24, for St. Michael and St. Albert parishes.

Two Mondays ago, a friend and I discussed God’s desire for simple obedience. As a man who is constantly trying to make sense of things (and who often worries about what others think of me) this has been a long, hard lesson. I often analyze the promptings of the Spirit, worried that I’ll look foolish if I carry them out.

No one likes to be laughed at—but perhaps we should expect it:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 4:10

Later that same day, the Zach Williams song, “Fear Is a Liar” came on. My mind immediately went to my elder daughter, Emma, who is a freshman at the University of Mary in Bismarck.

“Fear Is a Liar (Official Live from Harding Prison” by Zach Williams

That’s not a completely random connection: Emma used to have a quote from that song on the wall of her bedroom: “Cast your fear in the fire, ’cuz fear, he is a liar.” But this wasn’t just a pleasant memory conjured up by song lyrics—I felt a strong urge to pray for her and to tell her I did so. Immediately I lifted Emma and her needs and intentions to Our Lady to bring to Jesus.

That was the easy part. Then I grabbed my phone to text my daughter: “‘Fear is a Liar’ is on, and as soon as it began, I felt moved to pray for you.”

I stopped briefly and thought, Is this weird? I hit Send, and began to type again: “I have asked Mary to intercede for you.”

Again I stopped. I wanted to type, “Do not be afraid,” but I couldn’t. Seriously, I thought, what if she’s having a quiet morning enjoying a late breakfast or hanging out with friends? What if nothing’s going on? How weird is it to have your Dad text, “Do not be afraid” when you’re not worried about anything?

And then, a whisper in my heart: Trust Me.

I typed, “I have asked Mary to intercede for you. Do not be afraid!”

I quickly hit Send. Then I typed and sent, “I love you, daughter,” set down my phone and walked away.

A few minutes later I heard it buzz. I returned to see a message from Emma. My text arrived just after she had delivered a short speech to her speech class, and she had been anxious about it beforehand.

“Thanks dad,” she texted. “I love you too.”

Tear welled in my eyes to think that God was there, in this ordinary moment, when His daughter and mine was worried about so small a thing as a class presentation, that He used me to love her in that moment, and all I had to do was text her.

It’s so easy to share God’s love. What are you worried about?

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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Last Call: A Christmas Dialogue

This year’s Christmas poem is a conversation and a modest attempt at Shakespearean style. The inspiration popped into my head several weeks ago: an imagined meeting of the World, the Flesh and the Devil, who are sharing a pint of “Christmas cheer” at the end of a seemingly successful year of sowing strife and division. The line that came first to mind was from the Flesh: “The spirit is weak, and the flesh is always willing.”—which survives in a modified form.

For whatever reason, I remain taken with the idea of Satan struggling to accept that he has been defeated by an Infant and His Mother. A few sparks from literature and pop culture also came to mind, for example, C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” Scrooge’s promise at the end of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to discuss Bob Cratchit’s situation “over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop,” and the exchange between Captain Jack Sparrow and Gibbs in the Tortuga tavern in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

It may be easier to print and read in this format. Apologies to the Bard—I hope a few of you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!

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Scene: A dark corner of a noisy tavern, lit by melted candle stubs and a large, crackling fire. A table with three chairs and three tankards. Two figures are seated: the World, slight, anxious and in constant motion; the Flesh, immense and languid, with eyes that rove around the room. A third figure, the Devil, well-dressed with a commanding bearing, approaches, and the first two rise.

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