To Elliot, on the Occasion of His 17th Birthday

Dear Elliot,

Happy Birthday, my boy! Or rather, my man. It’s really quite remarkable how much you’ve grown up in the last several years. I still have super-clear memories of using our “Kite Light” to teach you when it was OK to get out of bed in the morning, holding your hand as we crossed the streets of Amsterdam, watching a school performance of Clowntje Piet with you in full costume, working through the separation anxiety that would crop up with every trip to the grocery store… Now, though, you’re driving cars and getting advertisements for tuxedo rental businesses during prom season and going on college visits and all that. I can tell myself that these are perfectly normal things for a young man at seventeen years of age, but it still feels strange and wondrous to watch you come of age.

Even just four years ago, I remember our trip to Lake Michigan where we talked about the defining characteristics of manhood: (1) Rejecting passivity, (2) Accepting responsibility, (3) Leading courageously, and (4) Living in expectation of a greater reward from God… and I have to confess that it all felt rather theoretical at that point. I’m glad we talked about it. I’m glad we properly initiated you into adulthood because I wanted you to embrace the opportunity to step into your future, not shy away from it. But you needed coaxing and coaching, just like our daring plunge into the icy waters of Lake Michigan. You needed care and consolation in the immediate aftermath of the plunge, too. And it was an honor to be there with you, to deliberately whisper words of encouragement and force our frigid fingers to pull the socks and shoes over our trembling toes so we could run back to heating and hot chocolate at the Drake.

Now, though, your manhood is not theoretical. It is manifest.

You’re nearly the same height as me, now. You regularly beat me in basketball, and you can run a mile faster than I can. Your “practice” ACT score already surpasses the highest score I got back in high school. You have developed your own political persuasions and moral convictions. You stand before God on your own two feet, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of you.

At the same time, I hope and pray — and fully expect — that we can still figure out ways to grow together.

I’ve recently been challenged to consider the tendency towards Consumerism in our culture, and in my own heart. I’m not necessarily talking about our market economy; I’m talking about a more general, immature, passive-aggressive way to look at the world. If something is bothersome — in education, in government, in the church, even in friendships — our Consumer Culture tells us to just throw the bothersome thing away and search out a replacement. Something bigger and better. Something less troublesome. Something shiny and new.

Instead of being Consumers, though, what if we were Contenders in our culture?

I see so much promise and potential in you, Elliot. If I figure out a way to beat you in a game of basketball in our backyard, you immediately and emphatically insist: “We’re playing again.” You’ve learned how to take a proactive posture toward the world around you, where you go out of your way to interact with others, to make friends, to strike up conversations, to ask for autographs. You give a firm handshake. You ask bold questions from authority figures. You take the lead on group projects. You argue your viewpoints with passion and perseverance. You insist on “sacking the quarterback,” even when said “quarterback” is pleading for mercy. At times, I almost wish you could be more passive! But when you are filled with the Spirit of God and contending in this way, you fill my heart with hope and joy.

I think of you often, when I read Paul’s letters to Timothy, in the New Testament of the Bible. You have the same kind of fire and focus that’s needed to change the world. “This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you… For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:6-7). I’m praying for you, as you head into this critical eighteenth year of life. I’m still here for you, as you need encouragement, empathy, support, and wisdom. But I also bless you and release you to “Go get ‘em.” You don’t need to wait for me to turn on the “Kite Light” or hold your hand any more. You’re a Grown-Asp Man, and I can’t wait to see the way God uses you in the years to come.

I love you.


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