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!


So Grateful Tonight…

Yesterday morning we loaded the Suburban, picked up Bren’s girlfriend Olivia are 7:45 a.m. Central time, and headed to Bismarck to fetch our eldest from University of Mary. Olivia rode shotgun (five bucks who can explain why I decided to call her “Coach”) to the campus, and we played the letter game, the license plate game, talked, sang along to the iPod, and ate Hardee’s for lunch in Jamestown, N.D.

We reached UMary and Gabe and Olivia retrieved Bren from his dorm. He came out with a box, a backpack, a duffle bag, a cased guitar, an uncased mandolin, and his heavy Carhartt jacket. We had room for the duffle bag and the guitar–but we stuffed it in, crossed the river into Mandan, and headed south by southwest to the Dennis Ranch in Red Owl, S.D., for supper. Bren and Olivia held the guitar at bay with the backs of their heads. At dusk the deer were moving along the roads; darkness fell quickly, and fog rolled in, so we lost time peering in the the gray-black, watching for movement.
We finally rolled up to Robert and Cindy’s new log house around 6:30 Mountain Time. The whole clan was there, waiting, including Fr. Tyler, who escaped his parishes for a Thanksgiving with his folks, his brothers Tate and Chance, and their families. Cindy, Hope, and Cass finished dinner, wrangled kids, and entertained Jodi, Emma, Trevor, and Olivia, while Bren, Gabe, and I help Robert and his sons move in a massive plank table edged in natural bark just in time for Thanksgiving. We enjoyed burgers and hotdogs, chips and salads, carrot cake, and Emma’s best oatmeal caramel chewies, and good beer (90 Shilling , picked up in Mandan). 
We visited and laughed together until around 9:30 or so, while Lily and little ones explored every corner of the  then rearranged the gear in the Suburban and loaded up for the Venjohns. Gabe needed night driving hours, so he took the wheel, with me navigating. The fog was thick, cutting our speed in half at times, but we rolled into Black Hawk and the house on Suzie Lane at 11:30  or so.  The adults were asleep, but cousins, greeted us. (Such is life: these days the adults turn in early, and the kids stay up to greet the latecomers.)
I woke this morning at 3:30, then again around 5 or so. Dozed until a little after 6, then showered and came went upstairs. Grandma Venjohn was next up, then one by one the rest of the family rose: everyone here but Jason and Carmen, who were hosting her family in Sioux Falls. Carmel rolls and coffee (and a little orange juice) for breakfast. Chris and Tally ran a Turkey Trot in Rapid City. Grandma, Matt and Brenda, and Brad and NaCole worked on snacks and dinner and watched the parade on TV, while Grandpa and our crew headed to 9 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Black Hills.
Their regular priest, from Poland, was sick; the old priest who celebrated Mass looked familiar, and his deep baritone and easy humor called to me from the past. Finally, halfway through the Mass, Jodi whispered, “I think that’s Fr. Bob from Wall,” meaning the priest who was at the Catholic church in Wall, S.D., when we first met and she first lured me back to Mass. I knew as she said it she was right.
He’s on oxygen now, and didn’t stand for his homily. He reminded us we are a thanks-giving people, and that Eucharist means Thanksgiving–then he told the story of a Thanksgiving day in the service, spent in the shadow of an armored personnel carrier in the Mojave Desert, eating MREs. The men were hot, the food (pork and beans) was crummy, and guys were already scarfing it down when their leader asked Father is he would bless their meal. So he did–and it struck him that we expect to feast on Thanksgiving, and to give thanks for all we have, but some people don’t have. He ended the petitions the deacon led with “For all those who only have pork and beans today, we pray to the Lord” and then, “For those who wish they had pork and beans today…”
During the sign of peace, I never more sincerely wished peace to those around me–and I’ve never felt more blessed to receive the Eucharist. We spoke to Father afterward. He didn’t remember us, of course, but knew we knew him, and (I hope) felt the love we have for him.
We got home just in time to watch the Lions-Vikings game. Gabe, Emma, and Trev were wearing Honolulu blue and were heckled by the bulk of Jodi’s family, who are diehard Vikes fans. It was a good game; Lions won a bit before dinner, and we prayed together over the food.
Not pork and beans, but turkey, ham, potatoes, stuffing, rolls, and squash. We ate, we played games, visited more, and some of us dozed. When the girls finally decided it was time for pie, we called Brendan upstairs to sing to him–he turns 19 today. Five different pies (apple, pecan, cherry, pumpkin, and pumpkin cheesecake) and real whipped cream. Brendan got a fleece blanket in UMary colors, three books, a capo and electronic metronome for his guitar, cards, and money. Some of us took a walk, others played Shut the Box and other games. At one point I went downstairs to find Bren, Olivia, and Gabe starting a rosary, so I joined in. Such peace–and such joy that they do this by choice.
We ate a little more a little while ago. Now most of the family is playing cards: Phase 10 in the dining room; Texas Hold’Em in the kitchen. I’m surrounded by voices and laughter and love. Such joy. So grateful tonight.
And we’re here ’til Sunday.
Friends and family, I love you and am grateful for you. God bless you tonight and always.

The Feast Before the Feast

Alarm at 6. Hands inside a semi-frozen turkey at 6:05, breaking free the neck and extras. Stuffed and in the oven by 6:20. Sun’s not even up yet. Maybe I should head back to bed — it’s a holiday, after all.

Nah. Coffee and a quick post about the Feast before the feast.

Each year, the church offers a special Thanksgiving Mass on Thanksgiving morning — the perfect start to a day dedicated not so much to fats and football, but to that most precious of human expressions: gratitude. We are blessed people. Blessed to be breathing. Blessed to have a God in heaven who cared enough to create us, to give us an ordered world in which to live, and the freedom to strive, fall, and strive again.

In The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, Scott Hahn reminds us that the sacrifice of the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, takes its name from the Greek word for thanksgiving: “Man’s primal need to worship God has always expressed itself in sacrifice: worship that is simultaneously an act of praise, self-giving, atonement, and thanksgiving (in Greek, eucharista) (p. 26).”

In the early Church, the Eucharist would have been the most distinctive and outlandish characteristic of “the Way,” and the Church today reaffirms the sacrament as the source and summit of our faith. Our greatest expression of thanksgiving is a re-presentation of the greatest sacrifice ever known: God’s own humiliation and death on a cross.

Thank God it didn’t all end there.

Hahn goes on to write:

Perhaps the most striking liturgical “ancestor” of the Mass is the todah of ancient Israel. The Hebrew word todah, like the Greek Eucharist, means “thank offering” or “thanksgiving.” The word denotes a sacrificial meal shared with friends in order to celebrate one’s gratitude to God. A todah begins by recalling some mortal threat and then celebrates man’s divine deliverance from that threat. It is a powerful expression of confidence in God’s sovereignty and mercy (p. 32).

Our own family feasts of gratitude, then, should also involve a sacrifice, signifying that what we have is not ours by right, but a gift from above. We should give something back. And lest we think we’ve faced no mortal threat from which God has delivered us in this past year, we should remember Christ’s victory over death and Hell — the fundamental threat of our mortality, which none can escape except through God’s grace.

So instead of scarfing the last of the potatoes on our plate to beat our siblings to the last piece of pie, or skipping cleanup to ensure we get the sunniest couch cushion on which to nap, we should give and serve. We should make a point of saying Grace and sharing our blessings. And we should avail ourselves of the Feast before the feast: the precious Body and Blood of Jesus, at our communal table, the altar.

Time now for a shower. If I don’t see you this morning, may you have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Reflections

Above: Trevor’s turkey art project…or, “the cursed Indian,” as he calls it.

Stuff For Which I Am Thankful*: my beautiful bride; my astonishing children; two sets of happily married and loving parents (Busia and Dziadzi; Grandma and Grandpa Venjohn); a newly married sister and a new brother-in-law and nephew; my sister’s kids who double as godchildren for us…

* * * * *

A year ago on Thanksgiving, my sister was driving Jodi to the ER while my Mom and I finished dinner and greeted our other guests. I pulled each aside, and explained in a choked voice that we had intended to deliver the good news that we were expecting our fifth child, but that something wasn’t right, and Jodi was headed into the clinic to see a doctor. Was is ordinarily a favorite holiday for feasting and frivolity took a sudden turn: life became very real and close that afternoon, and our blessings, though numerous, seemed worth counting one by one.

It may seem odd to speak of the blessings that flowed from the loss of our little Jude, but there were many, and they began that very day, when the emotional tension reached a point that I called together everyone who was at our home — both sides of the family, adults and children alike — and asked them to pray for Jodi and our baby. We say Grace before every Thanksgiving feast, but this was something different, a deep and heartfelt prayer of petition, and I was moved by our loved ones and touched by God in that moment of profound peace.

In the year since, much has changed. For one, we were forced to take a serious look at our family and discern whether we were called to have another child. With Jude, we had been open to life, but since we had told the kids and had seen the joy in their faces at the prospect of another sibling, we needed to decide if a fifth child were something we would actively pursue — and talk with our doctors about the likelihood that we could lose another. The doctors’ answers were all positive; it didn’t take long to decide, and even less time to again learn we were expecting. On or about Dec. 14 we will welcome a fifth Thorplet — Samuel Firman or Lillian Clara, depending — and our house, our family, and our friends will rejoice. Join us, won’t you?

* * * * *
… all our other nieces, nephews, and godchildren; countless aunts, uncles, and cousins (including in-laws and outlaws; Polish and otherwise); our friends and family in Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, Colorado, on both coasts, and everywhere in between…

* * * * *

Today is also Brendan’s 14th birthday, and in his opinion, it doesn’t get better than turkey and ham, mashed potatoes and stuffing, a chocolate cake from his mom, and his own personal apple pie from his godmother, Aunt Brenda. I can’t talk about pregnancy, Thanksgiving, and Bren’s birthday without recalling this day 14 years ago. The following account originally appeared in The Pioneer daily newspaper on Tuesday, Dec. 2:
At long last, we have a son

Few mornings compare to Sundays in October, except perhaps the last Monday in November.
On November 24, 1997, at 9:59 a.m., Jodi and I gave birth [Blogger’s Note: In retrospect, my role was more coaching and cutting the cord] to our son, Brendan James. First he was a tiny patch of hair, dark and slick (“I can see the head,” I cried, and Jodi pushed) — then an immense, misshapen head, and then a baby, wriggling and purple, with blood in his hair. He was tiny and yet strangely huge above Jodi’s shrunken tummy, struggling to make verbal the light, the cold and that infernal bulb syringe moving quickly about his head, from cavity to cavity, removing excess fluids.
Though he did not find the words, he made his case, and gave the face a voice; he cried, and from his cheeks slowly out to each extremity, turned scarlet.
“You have a baby boy,” the doctor said when we forgot to check or ask.
Brendan James Thorp.
We learned a short while late that weighed nine pounds, nine ounces, and measured 21-and-a-half inches long. These measurements seem important, especially to women and more so to those who have given birth to babies nearly as big or bigger. The weight was a source of some pride for me — I weighed in at nine pounds, 15 ounces, so of course he talks after his old man.
As for length…well, it has conjured up old fishing analogies — “He’s a keeper,” I say, and a friend tells me he’d be legal even for a pike.
His head measured 38 centimeters — again, a source of pride, but when I heard this, I wondered who would ask about head circumference.
It was question number four from Jodi’s mom, just behind weight and length. [Blogger’s Note: And the unstated but essential, “Are mom and baby doing well?”]

We never counted fingers and toes — wouldn’t his hands and feet look odd if he had extra or too few? And wouldn’t we still love him with six toes?
I still have counted, and now that twinge of doubt and anxiety that is becoming all too familiar has me wondering if I should…
His feet look like miniature versions of adult feet, which is nothing profound, I know, except that they are not chubby little baby feet at all. They are long, with distinct arches and heels and large big toes. He has wide hands with long, thin fingers like his father (my dad says I was born with a man’s hands). My mother — his Busia (Polish for “grandmother,” and my mom is Polish) calls them Thorp
He is the first male child born to my generation of the Thorp clam that will carry the family name, and my father and I are proud.
The specs — length, weight, etc. — are important, of course, if for no other reason than we are conditioned to ask and to tell. The other things — his hands, his feet, his name — are important because these things have stayed the same.
Our son is changing before our eyes. He has been with us one week now, and each day he is new again. His head has assumed a more regular shape; his color has gone from pale purple to jaundiced yellow to a healthy reddish hue (when not crying — he still turns scarlet when he screams). He is more awake and alert each day, and each day he eats more, sleeps longer, and cries less.
It feels as though the bus will stop at 880 Maple tomorrow, and Christmas Eve I’ll be wrapping Grandpa Thorp’s old Winchester Model 94. After months, weeks, and days of watching, waiting and timing, we’re wishing time would stand still for a moment and let us enjoy our infant son.
Like my white-haired Dziadzi (Polish for “grandfather,” and my mother’s father, like all Galubenskis, is Polish) and my father, I find myself sitting still with Brendan warm on my lap, staring down at him — watching him yawn, cry, sleep and stare back at me. Will he be a wrestler? A scholar? A fireman? He grabs my fingers and squeezes, and I tell him he is strong. I hover over him like other me do, and I’m careful — he is the heaviest nine pounds I’ve ever carried, and no doctor will convince me he’s not delicate and doesn’t need my constant watchfulness and protection. And he shall have it.
If I ramble, it’s because I don’t know what to say — we’ve only just met, and already I’m in love.
We have a son.
* * * * *
…also, a snug house and steady job; our Schnauzer, Puck; our Catholic faith and Life in the Bubble
* * * * *
I never planned to be a father of five (or four, or six), but I am grateful for the call and the opportunity. And today, on this feast, I am grateful to live in a country where Jodi and I are free to make this choice. To be sure, there are many who think we should’ve stopped at two, or one (or even before we started); I have no doubt that I work with several, although thus far they’ve kept their opinion to themselves. I’m grateful for the surprise of gender, knowing that we can welcome whichever wee one emerges with no pressure from society or the State.
I was browsing an online exchange featuring a young soldier speaking out against the Occupy Wall Street protesters and a liberal columnist responding to him. The columnist, as I recall, claimed that liberals dream bigger than conservatives — that they dream of employment and fair wages and health care for everyone, regardless of background or ability. It’s noble sentiment — Christian, even, on some level — but I don’t believe it’s true that this liberal has bigger dreams than me. We have the same dreams, but very different methods of pursuing them. For example, if I could opt in or opt out of the various programs and initiatives designed to save and protect us, fine — I’m free to choose. 
“But,” someone will object, “if people can opt out of these programs , not enough people will participate, and the programs will fail!”
Exactly. If people don’t want help, get out of the way.

I’ve blogged about the pursuit of happiness before. I don’t want anyone to presume to know what’s best for me and my family. I don’t want to be forced into participating in programs or activities that don’t correspond to my values or my faith. And I don’t want to outsource my good life or my responsibilities to love my God, my neighbor, and my enemy. I want to learn to do these things myself. And today I’m thankful to live in a country where this is still possible, and a community full of great examples: people who live each day as both a blessing and a prayer.

The end is the same. But we get there through conversion, not coercion, so that people don’t resent doing right.

* * * * *

…home-brewed beer; books and music; laughter, tears, and prayers…shall I continue?

* * * * *

Finally — although Thanksgiving isn’t really about football — I am grateful that the Lions are a legitimate team playing a meaningful game this afternoon. I am concerned, however: if you watched the pregame for the Monday night showdown between the Vikings and the Packers, you know that if you took the very best attributes of every great quarterback in football history (including Bradshaw’s, not Brady’s, hair) and constructed a Super-Quarterback, you might begin to approach the greatness of Aaron Rogers. With Rogers and the Packers already predestined for the Superbowl, and Ndamukong Suh designated as the “dirtiest player in the league,” I think we’re going to see the NFL enforcing it’s new rule implemented just a couple of weeks ago. Brendan and his friends first noticed this during the Monday night game:

Happy birthday, kid, and happy Thanksgiving, all!

* * * * *

*A partial list in no specific order…