June 19, 2011

A Letter to My Sons

I said a few weeks ago that there are occasions in our lives that prompt us to do some deep thinking.  For me at least, days like today are one of those times.  I originally wrote most of what I’m going to say this morning in preparation for Mother’s Day.  God had other plans and Sue Henshaw shared a powerful message with us that morning instead.  The thoughts I will share, however, have not changed.  As I thought about the whole idea of a parent-child dedication and the great task of raising two boys to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, I began thinking about what I would like to say to my sons if I had the chance.  You know, one of those deep parental wisdom speeches that they won’t want to sit and listen to until I’m lying on my death bed and they’re hanging on my every word.  As I grow in my experience as a parent and Noah and Josiah grow up, some of what I have to say to them will probably change, but hopefully not much.  I even thought about bringing at least one of the boys out to actually hear this.  Most of you are aware that there’s no chance in the world Noah would sit through it.  Josiah’s too young to know any better and too small to move on his own so he can’t go anywhere.  (He makes for a captive audience when practicing a sermon too except I have to remind myself that his crying halfway through means he’s hungry, not that the sermon is too boring.)  But, this is within range of his eating so he may or may not have been tolerant to sit through it.  Anyway, as something a bit different this morning, I’ll let you in my head and heart for a few minutes and then we’ll all go out and celebrate Father’s Day together.

To my boys: By the time you are able to appreciate these words very much I will probably have long forgotten that I wrote them, but all the same, here they are.  Let me start with this.  You two are a delight in Mom’s and my eyes.  God has showered quite a few blessings on us in our respective lifetimes as well as during the few years of our life together, but you two are the best of the bunch.  I know you still have a lot of learning and growing to do, but you need to know that you make us proud.  Our love for you is not connected to what you do but is entirely wrapped up in whose you are.  Noah, when you wake up singing “Jesus Loves Me” and proclaim His love for each member of our family as only a two-year-old can, my heart bursts with joy.  Josiah, when you wake up in the morning, lay eyes on one of us and break into your biggest toothless grin, my heart melts.  Those kinds of things simply never get old.  You two are a gift from God.  You are children of your heavenly Father.  And even though you don’t yet know Him as fully as you will someday, it is your Mom’s and my pleasure to create an environment where you will be able to easily come to know Him.

The only way you are ever going to really be able to come to know who He is, though, is if you get yourselves into the Word and stay there.  Learn its stories.  Study its forms.  Meditate on its wisdom.  Read it ravenously.  These are the words of life and I want for you to live as fully as is possible in this life.  To this end, I was reading some words of wisdom from Proverbs the other day and I wanted to share with you some that will help keep you on the path of life.  The book of Proverbs is full of wise sayings about a variety of things.  In the 22nd chapter are some words that seemed particularly appropriate to share with you now given the kind of world in which you will grow.  These are words first spoken by Solomon, the wisest king of Israel.  But, even with all his wisdom, his heart was drawn away from Lord when he didn’t heed some of his own advice.  Be vigilant, boys, because the world around you will proclaim loudly the opposite of what I’m about to tell you.

“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.”  Sons, we live in a world that offers one “get rich quick” scheme after the next.  I suspect that they will only increase in number and sophistication as you grow.  The mantra you are going to hear as you go through this life is that you need to get into college in order to get a good job so that you can make a decent living.  And the definition of a “decent living” will be the ability to buy anything you want anytime you want.  Your mom and I have never taught you that kind of a value and it won’t be any truer when we’re not around to enforce it.  The call on you will be to pursue wealth at any cost.  There have been people who have done this and it has uniformly left them wishing they hadn’t.  That realization may be a long time in coming for some, but it will come.  Those folks have lots of money and even a name that allows them to get more money, but there’s nothing real behind it.  Now, most folks don’t go to such lengths, but they are willing to compromise on their values on occasion to make a few extra bucks.  My sons, if you are willing to compromise on a value it isn’t really a value at all.  Having a good “name,” a good reputation that properly honors your mom and me and more importantly honors your heavenly Father is superior to this in every way.  What good is it to gain the world if you lose your soul in the process?  If you have a lot but no one trusts your character, you don’t have very much.

“The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all.”  Sons, in this culture, there is a great deal of separation between those who have and those who don’t.  This separation is intentional and it has always existed.  For those who have, they don’t want reminders of how transitory their holdings are.  They don’t want anything to remind themselves that they could be like those people who have to work hard every day and scrape and sacrifice to have their basic needs met.  They put such folks in the category of “not really people.”  It is enough to simply see some pictures on TV every once in a while and distantly feel badly for them until they change the channel.  The poor, on the other hand, want nothing to do with those rich snobs who don’t know how to get their hands dirty and haven’t had to really work for what they have.  So, the rich sequester themselves off in ritzy neighborhoods with gates and guards to keep the riff-raff at bay, while the poor gather in close knit communities where they can rely on each other and share in their misery.  And ne’er the two shall meet.  But this is not the way God sees things.  There are many people out there who are different from you.  God made them too.  The intersection of all these different groups lies in the fact that they were all created by God.  It was one God who made both the rich and the poor.  Boys, let me tell you, in this world, you are rich.  Don’t forget that.  Learn to live with your riches wisely.  A person is a person is a person and all people should be treated with the respect intrinsic to them because of their creation in God’s image.

“The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.”  My sons, there are going to be times in this life when you have the opportunity to do something you shouldn’t do.  I don’t really know how to fully explain this to you, but in those times you are going to know the right way to go.  As you start to inch your toe out in the wrong direction, you will feel something in you that says, “No.”  Listen to that feeling.  Heed that sensation.  It is the Holy Spirit cautioning you on the path you are taking.  He will not lead you astray.  He is letting you know that danger is afoot.  Continuing on in the same direction will get you hurt.  The wise person attends to this feeling and takes refuge in the Spirit.  The foolish one keeps on moving forward and falls into the trap.  He will pay the full price for his foolishness.  The best way I can think to describe this to you is this: in a bad storm, occasionally tornadoes are spawned.  In places where tornadoes are common, they have tornado sirens that warn people to take shelter before the coming winds.  Ignoring the warning voice in your heart when danger is approaching would be like hearing the tornado siren when we are out on the porch eating dinner and continuing on as if nothing was happening.  Maybe the danger turns out to be not so bad, or maybe you get blown away.  Either way, the risk isn’t worth taking. We are told to flee from temptation in this life because we are not strong enough to avoid it on our own.  God’s Spirit gives us fair warning.  It is up to us to get to the basement.  When the storms of life blow up, take shelter or you’ll be swept away.

“The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” There was once a thought that still holds sway in some places today that faithfulness to God naturally brings with it material wealth.  Since everything belongs to God, having a lot of stuff must be an obvious sign of His favor.  Boys, this has led some to equate worldly success with God’s pleasure and then pursue such success by any means necessary.  You know this isn’t the way things should be, though.  There is a grain of truthfulness here, but a small one.  God did promise material riches to many of His faithful servants in the Old Testament as a reward for their humble and faithful fear of Him.  The fact is that God created this world with a lot of good things.  He also understands the principles of economics.  The fact is that it is the Christian worldview on which this country was founded which has allowed it to reach the economic prosperity that has made it the envy of the rest of the world.  Somewhat interestingly, the economic problems we are facing (which you will hopefully only ever know as history) have developed apace of our turn from this worldview to those rooted in naturalism of some sort.  That said, if you use good business practices that are honoring of Him, material gain is a likely result.  But there is no guarantee of this.  Nor should it be your highest goal.  Remember: a good name is always better.  The rewards for faithfulness may be even sweeter when they are intangible.  Things like honor and life are pretty good as well.  The point is that while riches in this life may very well not come from humbly fearing the Lord, honor and life are pretty likely.  Yet not even these are guarantees as we would like them to be.  With a longer view on such things, however, the riches of the heavenly city will dwarf anything known in this world.  The honor of ruling alongside Christ is unparalleled by any this world has to offer.  The abundant life of the kingdom of God has no equal in this one.  Humbly recognizing God for who He is, is the secret to the success that really matters.

“Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked; whoever guards his soul will keep far from them.”  Jesus talked about this life in terms of a journey.  He said that the road leading to destruction is broad and easy while the path to life is steep, narrow, and difficult to walk.  Yet boys, there is another way to look at things.  As you walk the road of this life, you will come to may forks.  Each time you do, you will be faced with a choice.  The way you choose in these situations will have an impact on the choices and experiences available to you in the future.  Consider the Mickey Mouse game you have been watching Daddy play on occasion lately.  As Mickey makes choices, those choices impact the ability to play the game later on.  The consequences, as far as the game is concerned, are real.  In this life, the consequences for our actions are real as well—just like I tell you when you occasionally have to sit in time out.  Every time you choose to do something that contradicts the path God has laid out for you, you throw junk in your path.  A path with only a few obstacles to avoid may not seem like such a big deal, but the more times you wander off the path, the more obstacles you’ll find in the road.  In another place Jesus used the imagery of an enemy coming to sow weeds in a field of wheat to describe how evil exists alongside good in this world and will continue to do so until the harvest time.  If all that evil is there before you come along, why would you want to plant more thorns and thistles and briars to clutter up the path?  But, if you choose to follow the path of God, you will keep the road clear.  Having a clear road is always preferable to a cluttered one.  Make the choices that will keep your path clean, not cluttered with distractions.

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”  Sons, this last bit of wisdom is mostly a reminder for your mom and me.  This is a verse that’s important to a lot of parents.  The problem is that some people use it to say some things it doesn’t.  You will hear some people use it to promise that if a kid is raised in the church, he’ll eventually come back to the church in spite of straying from it for a time.  But there is no promise here.  No Proverb makes a promise.  They only reveal what is likely to happen, all things being equal, which they are not.  What it does say is this.  If Mom and I train you or dedicate you to the life of Christ according to not only the path God has laid out for you to follow, but also according to your unique personalities, the likelihood is that you are going to stick with that.  Here’s the reality, boys, you are just as broken with sin, even at this age, as your mom and me.  As a result, we are going to put boundaries and structures in place to help you not only recognize this tendency and its consequences, but also to desire to avoid it of your own volition.  We are going to try and create an environment that will prayerfully lead you to want to do the right things because you understand they are right, not just because of the consequences of not doing them.  This will look very different for each of you as you are different boys, but don’t fall to wanting what your brother has received.  Such feelings will just poison your relationship with a jealousy that will not go away quickly or easily.  Ultimately, it will be your responsibility to stay going in the direction in which we point you, not ours.  But, given that our love for you is not conditioned on anything you do, but on whose you are, you can always rest assured that our love for you will not waver, regardless of the path you take.  But boys, your best bet is to walk God’s path.  Its final destination is where you really want to go.  God’s way isn’t the only way, but it’s the only one that will get you there.

There’s just one more thing I want to share with you: you have a good name.  You both have good, strong first names, but just as importantly, you have a good, strong surname.  I’d like to think I’ve had something to do with that, but most of the work has been done long before me.  Your grandpa and uncles and grandma and great grandfather and relatives back beyond that have done a lot of hard work to make sure that when people hear your name, they’ll think good things.  They’ll expect good things.  There’s more to your name than this, though.  There’s another name by which you will one day be known that carries even greater honor than the one you currently bear.  This is the name of your heavenly Father.  He is all the Father you want and more.  He will be the Father you need when I’m not living up to the expectations on me, which will happen.  His name is alone worthy of all the glory and honor and praise in this world and beyond.  If you are known by His name, there are those in this world who will revile you repeatedly, but they won’t be able to touch the honor in which you share.  In fact, part of their reviling will be from jealousy over the honor you carry because of the name by which you are known.  Learn this name and let yourselves be known by it.  There is no better decision you will ever make in your entire lives.

When I was not too much older than you are now, there was a picture frame hanging in our short hallway (though plenty long enough to give good knock-down hugs).  I memorized just about everything in that frame.  It came to be a pretty important frame to me.  It wasn’t very big, but it had just enough room for three pictures and a poem.  One of the pictures was of your great-grandpa.  I never knew him, but you can rest assured that he was a good man.  The second was of your grandpa.  You won’t find many better than him in this world.  The third was of your grandpa and me when I was small.  I think it was a picture of me touching the then-new steeple of our church just before it was hoisted to the top of the sanctuary.  Next to these three pictures was a poem.  No one knows who wrote it.  It was at least at one time published in a newspaper from Jackson Mississippi in the 1930s.  But wherever it came from, the words have stuck with me all these years.  They capture pretty well what I’m trying to tell you about this whole name thing.  I hope you will be able to carry them with you.  Let me read these words for you.

“You got it from your father; ‘twas the best he had to give/And right gladly he bestowed it, it is yours the while you live.  You may lose the watch he gave you and another you may claim/But remember when you’re tempted, to be careful of his name.  It was fair the day you got it, and a worthy name to wear;/When he took it from his father there was no dishonor there.  Through the years he proudly wore it, to his father he was true,/And that name was clean and spotless when he passed it on to you.  Oh, there’s much that he has given that he values not at all;/He has watched you break your playthings in the days when you were small,/And you’ve lost the knife he gave you, and you scattered many a game,/But you’ll never hurt your father if you’re careful of his name.  It is yours to wear forever; yours to wear the while you live;/Yours, perhaps some distant morning to another boy to give;/And you’ll smile as did your father smile above the baby there/If a clean name and a good name you are giving him to wear.”

I guess that’s about all I want to say right now.  Let me close out by saying two more things: First, take time every day to tell your mom how much you love her.  She is a warrior for your cause unlike any you will find anywhere else.  She will teach you more about the width and breadth and depth of God’s love for you than anyone else in this world.  She will teach you the gentleness you need to temper your manliness so that you treat the people around you with all the respect and care they deserve.  She will teach you how to empathize with others such that you can love them as they need.  She is one of the greatest gifts God has given you in terms of equipping you with the skills you need to get through this life with your eyes where they need to be.  Second, I am proud of you two.  You need to know that and hear that.  You have what it takes to be proud bearers of the name you’ve been given.  There will be times when you are told the contrary, but the truth is this: you are my sons and I love you.  You are children of your heavenly Father and His love for you will never waver though all of this world should fall apart.  That is your identity.  Rest easy in that.  And as you journey through this life, that rock will be one to which you can moor your souls and weather many a storm.  That is life lived God’s way.  You don’t have to walk it, but life won’t be as easy if you’re not.  Above all else, then, remember this: God’s way isn’t the only way, but it’s the only one that will get you there.

With all my love,

Dad