INTRO: In 2012, I wrote a letter to my sons, for them to receive on their eighteenth birthday. A pastor friend of mine, a former Marine, told me how he had started the tradition annually because he was often on a tour of duty and missed their birthdays. Even after retiring from the Marines, he kept writing them letters. What would you put down in on paper if you could share with your son or daughter what you wanted them to know, about your relationship and the way you believe? Considering the answers to that question has driven me to consider what I am teaching with my words and what I model with my actions. So here is the fourth letter I’ve written in the last ten years — with an eye to the world we live in and the way I hope my boys will continue to grow.
Dear Adam and Andrew,
This is the fourth time I’ve written to you both since 2012. I figured since Adam was 5 and Andrew was 1, it probably stood to be re-iterated for you to hear now, and to read when you turn 18. Of course, at this point, you’d probably prefer I texted it to you – but your dad is old fashioned, so I’m going to write it all down in a letter. In fact, what you’re about to read is probably the fifth version – I can’t seem to find all the words I want to capture what needs said.
Let me start with this: I love you. I love you more than you’ll probably ever understand until you have a child of your own. I have loved you since I first saw you, maybe even before that. I love you with a joy that soars and a concern that keeps me up at night sometimes. I love you unconditionally, with a love that will never end. I hope that you know this.
As I write this, we’ve survived three months of the first pandemic in a century, and a movement in our country to throw off the chains of racism that have polluted our country since white people first arrived in America and thought they’d discovered it. There is so much that could be said about the way that people have or have not responded to the challenges. The truth is that this could be a time when folks look back and see all the problems, all of the difficulties, but you know that your mom and dad tried to make the most of the time. I’m thankful for the walks, the conversations, the nightly rounds of Dutch Blitz, the family movie nights, the way your Mom kept us happy and fed. I’m thankful for the way you both have bonded with your grandparents (and hope that you’ll continue to nurture those relationships). I’m thankful for the time I was able to spend being your dad, even while trying to pastor a church from home — and experiencing what it meant to change churches in the middle of a crisis! I hope that you both will constantly shine as examples of gratitude for the way that God has blessed us and shown us love. Let gratitude be your attitude.
Thanks to all of the things going on in the world, we’ve talked about many things that I never expected we’d deal with while you were 9 and 13. But it has filled my heart with joy to know two young men who recognize that racism is evil and that the church should stand as a place for all people, regardless of age, race, sexuality, gender, class, education level, whatever. I hope that you will bear the stance that when Jesus came to save the whole world, that he signalled once and for all that all really means all.
There’s no better example of that than in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You boys have not been prodigals because you have grabbed onto what your mom and dad taught you, and shared it with other people. I want you to know that the attitude of the father is how I feel about you. There is nowhere you can go and nothing that you could do that would make me stop loving you. You will always be welcome wherever your Mom and I are; you will always be safe there. Even when you make mistakes, never ever imagine that we won’t love you unconditionally. Be quick to admit your mistakes because it’s the right thing to do, and because it shows your character as people who follow Jesus.
God loves you so much because you were created in God’s image and because Jesus died on the cross for all of the things you have done wrong, all the sins committed knowingly or unknowingly. While the world tends to paint churches and pastors into a corner with a list of rules, that’s really my non-negotiable: I believe Jesus was God Himself, who lived as fully human with us, taught and showed us how to love, and died on the cross for our sins before God raised him from the dead so we’d know we have life forever with God. I am sorry for the times when I’ve failed to convey that love to you because I’m a human and I make mistakes. I love you, and your Mom may be the only one who loves you more 🙂 Don’t forget to call her.
It’s weird, the first time I wrote this letter, when you were five and one, respectively, I wanted to give you lots of do’s and don’ts, a lot of practical advice.
Things like don’t forget to eat breakfast, don’t forget to brush your teeth, don’t forget to say your prayers, don’t throw yourself into the wrong relationships or hang out with the wrong people, don’t forget to vote because your voice matters.
Things like, Don’t be afraid to say no. Sometimes, not doing something is the best answer. I’m still working on that.
Or when you get a job, tithe, because God gave you the skills and the opportunity; and save too –I wish I had started earlier. Tip big. Someone worked hard to bring you that meal.
But as you’ve gotten older, I find myself more focused on painting the broad, wide picture, because I know you’ll make mistakes and that’s okay. Your dad has made plenty of mistakes himself, even in how I’ve helped raise you, and God has clearly had a hand in how you have turned out. God made you uniquely, to be who you are, for the plan God has just for you.
That said, I’m passing this on from Mom: When you have a choice about making the right decision or the wrong one, Do what’s right. She says that we’ve taught you the difference between right and wrong. You know the difference, so make good choices. Pray about it, get good advice – not just the advice that agrees with you, and move forward. Don’t trade in your own expectations for yourself just because someone does something unkind to you. It’s not fair but it’s the right way to live. Your Pepaw always used to tell his swim teams that we couldn’t control what people were doing in the other lanes of the pool during a race, only the person (us) in the lane we were in. It’s still true out of the pool, and letting go of worrying about what others are doing will free you up to be yourself.
I don’t think I’ve always done a good job at this, but take your time. Enjoy the ride. Every stage of your life has prepared you for the next stage, so don’t worry about being ready for what lies ahead. Relax; don’t take yourself too seriously. You’ll find that there are plenty of laughs to be had when you can laugh at yourself.
Know that the road you walk is full of ups and downs, forks in the road, pitfalls, safe havens, and obstacles. I know that God has a plan for each of us but worry less about staying on the path, and focus more on following Jesus moment to moment. Your path might take you somewhere no one else has been before, or somewhere no one else expects you to go. If you’re following Jesus, none of that will matter.
Boldly share grace with the people you meet. The outcast, the stranger, even your enemy. Most of us think we have more enemies than we do – recognizing they’re just a stranger we haven’t made into a friend yet will soften the hard edges, and keep you from wasting time on controversy and grudges that are unnecessary and unhelpful. Life is too short to stay angry, so let it go. Grace is free to give but the return on investment is an abundant life of love. You don’t need to agree with someone to show them grace; you don’t need to impress on people how right you are. Learn from the people you don’t agree with.
Be for serving others. Serve in church, serve out of church. Serve people you know and people you don’t. Make service an earmark of who you are and what you’re about. You should because it is what Jesus would do, but you should want to because you have for your early lives, so why stop now? Be the light be sharing with those in need. Don’t settle for sitting and watching life go by when you can stand up and make a difference with your hands, your feet, your voice. Mentor someone who needs someone to listen to or an example of how to overcome a problem. Share your time, as well as your money and talents. You’ll end up building relationships rather than just making connections. People aren’t commodities; they’re the imago Dei standing before you.
Stand up for the underdog. Be the kinds of men who refuse to watch while someone else suffers. Use your privilege as educated white men to stand for the things that you know are right. Stand up for those who are persecuted. You don’t have to agree with them, like them, or believe what they believe, but it’s not right when the majority holds someone down. The majority can be a group of people, or just the bully on the playground. There are bullies everywhere, but they run screaming into the night when people stand up to them. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” is a good quote to keep in mind. No one seems sure who said it first, but I know Batman said it, and it’s true. Boldly pursue Jesus. You don’t need to be a Methodist if that’s not where you’re called. God will lead you where you need to go as long as you’re listening. Listen for the still small voice of God in Scripture, from your friends, in church and outdoors.
Speaking of friends: choose good ones. Good friends don’t always tell you want to hear, but they tell you what you need to hear. They will stand with you when you would otherwise feel alone; they will correct you when you are out of line. Your Mom is the best friend I have ever had, and I pray for you two that you will find a friend like her to spend the rest of your life with. People ask me how you can know when she’s the one, and I know in my own heart that you will know for yourself – and other people will see that beauty in your relationship. You are worth so much because you have God’s image on you, so don’t rush it. Enjoy the ride and when you meet the one, I can’t wait to meet her, too.
As you take off, to celebrate your birthday with your friends, and get ready for whatever comes next, I want to remind you: call your Mom, she misses you.
It’ll be on speaker phone, because I miss you too.
I love you, buddy.