To Christopher on his 35th birthday

Christopher and Bill at LJ.jpg

Christopher, today you turn 35 years old. There are so many things that I have come to admire about you in your first 35 years, and one of the smaller ones is how you have written letters to and about your two sons on their birthdays. When I first saw that you were doing that, I thought it was a great idea. What a gift for Jim and Liam to read as they get older. I also felt bad that I hadn't thought of doing that for you and Taylor and Shari during all your growing up years.  I don't know that this is something that I'll continue (I probably won't), but 35 seems like a good time to write this. I missed 25 and 50 is too long to wait.

Thirty-five years ago, we experienced extreme fright, excitement, and uncertainty. As you know there were complications toward the end of your mom's pregnancy that placed her in the hospital. After getting Kathy settled in, I went back to the doctor and asked if our baby's life was in danger. He replied "the baby's life and the mother's life are both in danger." His words shot through my heart like a dagger. There's a lot I don't understand about prayer. I don't think there's a magic number of people praying that impresses God, or that the prayers of well known people count more, but I do know that very quickly there were many thousands of people all across the country praying for you, including everybody from the Billy Graham team to NFL teams. Doctors and nurses worked to stabilize your mom enough for you to be born, and the night before your original birthday, the doctor told us to be prepared for you to be a small, struggling baby, but he said he thought you would make it. Later than night two nurses came back into the room and confessed that they weren't supposed to be doing what they were about to do. They said they weren't trained to read X-rays, but that they had seen enough of them to know what they were seeing. They said they knew what the doctor had told us, but they didn't want us to worry. From studying the X-rays, they assured us that you looked like a big healthy baby.

They were right. You were big and healthy and full of life from the beginning. We were excited and thankful beyond words. As you now know yourself, nothing prepares you to be a father. After a couple of days of being well cared for in the hospital, I couldn't believe it when a nurse put you in the car with us and said goodbye. That was crazy. We didn't know how to be parents. We would learn quickly.

As you know, I was camp pastor for Centrifuge youth camps when you were born, which meant you didn't even get to spend a night at home until you were 11 weeks old.  We went straight from the hospital to North Greenville College where our staff training camp was just starting. I have always found great fulfillment in ministry, and that continued, but it was amazing how fulfilling other things suddenly were - like getting a good burp out of you after giving you a bottle. After 11 weeks of being the youngest Centrifuge "staffer" ever, you finally got to spend a night at home. For one night. Then we headed out for a couple of weeks of ministry on the road. 

The first two years of your life we spent over 250 days a year on the road. You could have written a book on "Church Nurseries Across the USA." It was challenging, but it was also great family time together for the three of us. I was amazed at how your mom took such good care of you under our strange circumstances. When we moved to Columbia for me to go on staff with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, we came home late one night after a weekend at some church somewhere. As we walked into the house, you groggily looked around and said "I want to go home." We told you that we were in our new home, to which you replied, "I want to go to a hotel." Apparently you were OK with the travel.

I could write a book of such stories, most of which you've heard. Instead of continuing with stories, I think I'd rather just write about you. Ever since that uncertain, exciting entrance into this world, you have been an incredible person. When some people think of incredible people, they may think of someone who is an amazing athlete or musician or some of the things that our world  clamors over. You're a good athlete, an OK musician, etc. and an outstanding writer,  but your real gifts are what I consider quieter gifts and abilities. You are kind. You are intelligent. You have a great sense of humor. To be such a great all around guy, you are genuinely humble.  You have a very tender heart. You are sensitive. You have a strong sense of right and wrong. You desire mercy and justice for all people. You pull for the underdog. You love. Man, do you love. Every father should be so fortunate as to know the love of his son as I have. It means the world to me that in our family we not only love each other but even like each other and genuinely enjoy being together. Thanks for helping to set that example.

In order to write this, I stopped writing the script for Thursday night's drama at Seesalt. (My goal was to finish it before going to bed tonight. Not going to happen.) Spoiler alert: this year's drama includes a story of a prodigal son. In writing for the father, I'm thankful that I've had to draw on my imagination and not my experience. For years I dreaded what it would be like for you to go off to college, but when you "left us," it felt like that was exactly what was supposed to happen. And we went right on loving each other and spending good quality time together. For a long time we both thought that you would carry on Concoxions, but several years ago you decided that God was leading you to do other things. You taking over our ministry would have been something I would have enjoyed, but it was never an expectation. I expect you to follow God, not me.  Even more recently you moved from half a mile away to hundreds of miles away to become a student pastor in Nashville. Your mom and I miss you and EA and Jim and Liam like crazy. But we've never felt like you "left us" as a prodigal son. We remain confident in your love for us even as you share that love with so many others in other places. It has been good to watch you carve out your own niche in a new place of service where you've been very much on your own.

I really need to get back to that prodigal son script as you can well understand, so I'll start wrapping up by saying that I love you... I started to say more than you can imagine. But now that you've become a father, I've seen you love your sons so beautifully that I think you can imagine how much I love you. You know there's a special love between father and son. When you were born, I thought a new word needed to be invented for how i felt about you. And as much as you love Jim and Liam today, believe it or not, it will only grow stronger. That has certainly been my experience. Little boys grow up. But that doesn't mean they have to grow away.

From what I hear (and I agree) you and I are a lot alike. I hope that hasn't been too big a burden on you. I've worried about that, but you've handled it well.  I'm thankful you haven't chosen to rebel too much. But I know that you are your own man. We don't always agree on everything and that's OK. Neither of us is perfect.  But I have always been immensely proud of you and thankful to call you my son. 

You probably feel like you've been around a long time now, but at 35 you are hopefully just getting started. I pray that you will have many more years of being a great husband, a great dad, a great minister, a great friend, a great brother, and a great son. It won't always be easy, but keep growing, keep learning, keep loving, and keep being all that God created you to be.

Celebrating 35 years in one letter has not just been hard. It's been impossible. So...

Happy birthday, Christopher!




Two from a two at a zoo

Asher at zoo.jpg

Each time over the last year and a half that we've visited Shari, Robin, and Asher in St. Louis, our visit has included a trip to the impressive St. Louis Zoo, recently named the "top free attraction in America" (we like free). We also like zoos. No matter how many times you go, the unpredictable behavior of fascinating animals keeps the experience fresh. 

Today had another fresh twist. Asher turned two years old today, and for Kathy and me, this was his first time of not being confined to his stroller or the arms of a parent or grandparent. Asher loves seeing animals at the zoo, and as soon as we passed through the front gates he successfully petitioned his way out of his stroller. Freedom! Free to run anywhere and do anything that the herding team of Shari, Kathy, and me would allow.

Asher not only loves zoo animals - he loves life in general. And as much as he enjoys animals, it also seems he enjoys everything else at the zoo. With each step (or even half step) there was a fascinating rock, or leaf, or stick, or wall, or sign to stop and behold. He definitely has to poke any glass sign that lights up to see if it's a touch-screen monitor. We were inside the zoo for more than 20 minutes before actually getting to see any non-squirrel animals. We'd probably still be there sans animal sightings without occasional gentle nudging by his mom. 

This continued throughout our visit (and lest you misinterpret this, I loved every minute of it). Asher is even more fascinated by people (especially those close to his size) than rocks, sticks, leaves, and touch-screens. Asher almost didn't even see the huge grizzly bear that swam over and suddenly put its face six inches (including several inches of glass) in front of Asher's face. Asher was too busy noticing the little girl standing next to him. Same thing a little while later at the polar bear tank. The animals were coming close today. Including the monkeys. As crazy as Asher is about monkeys, even they had to compete for his attention with the stroller confined four-year-old little boy who didn't seem to appreciate that Asher kept calling him "baby."

In observing all this, I quickly realized two take-aways that interestingly are somewhat opposite each other:

1) How often do we miss some of the most important parts of life because we're so focused on less significant stuff? At a zoo you can see amazing animals that you rarely get to see any other time or anywhere else. Or you can be so focused on little things that you can see every day and everywhere to the point that you totally miss the amazing. Two-year-olds usually outgrow their fascination with rocks and leaves, but I imagine we've had more than one guy at our Seesalt or Chillipepper student conferences who missed out on a potentially life-changing face-to-face experience with God because their focus was on the girl sitting next to them. Sometimes we need to turn off the TV, take out the earbuds, disconnect the devices... They may be distracting us from experiencing much more amazing and important things.

At the same time...

2) How often do we go through life and miss the little everyday things along the way that can bring us enjoyment? Stop and smell the roses - or the rocks, leaves, sticks...  I need to finish writing a script in the next few days. It's a big undertaking. It's important. I'm often thinking about it even when I'm not writing it. But it's not so big and important that I can't enjoy rocks and sticks. Especially when I can enjoy them with one of my grandsons. Beyond our own enjoyment, paying attention to the little things can make a big difference in important ways.

Take as much or as little as you'd like from #1 or #2. Or even both. Experiences from the St. Louis Zoo are free.


Birthday list

Every day our local newspaper has a birthday list of somewhat famous people. Kathy and I read the paper online during breakfast and often comment on whose birthday it is.
Bill: Jesus didn't make the list.
Kathy: He probably wasn't really born on December 25.
Bill: I know, but in parenthesis they could have said this is when his birthday is traditionally celebrated.
Kathy: They just put people on the list who are alive.
Bill: Well?
Kathy: You're right - he should be on the list.
Merry Christmas! And happy birthday to the one who has his own exclusive list!