an open letter to my wife on calling

a few months ago, i was asked to speak to a group of mothers on calling. i’ve never thought about how to speak to moms on this topic, and i realized the person i should start with is my wife. so i wrote this letter to jen and read it aloud to introduce my talk. i’m sharing it here in hopes that it stirs up some helpful conversation where it’s desperately needed.

hey hun,

so i’m giving this talk to a group of moms on calling, as you know, and i’m realizing i have not actually given much thought to how i would explain calling to you—even though you’ve heard me speak on calling, you’ve read my writing on this topic. how I tend to think and talk and write about calling, I am realizing, has largely been for myself, not you.

i’m slowly realizing that so much of the way that i think, write, and talk about calling has more to do with me—my giftings, my passions, my hopes, my dreams—and less to do with you. in my most fearful moments, i worry that i’ve masqueraded my hopes, ambitions, and aspirations as God’s call—the ultimate trump card. i realize now, having been asked to speak to this group of moms, that the way i think about calling has not always served you well.

i’m sorry for that, hun.

i realize also that i’ve written and even taught others in a way that has, if not explicitly, at least implicitly suggested that God calls me more than God calls you—or at least that God’s call on my life is more important than on your life. for that, i’m deeply sorry, hun. if God calls either one of us to anything, God most certainly calls you just as much as me.

i’m sorry for not doing a better job of giving you time and space and voice to follow God’s Voice, even as i have been so caught up in the work of listening to God’s call on my life, and helping others do the same for their life. i’m sorry for living in such a way that has most likely led you to feel as though if God is calling out to you it’s somehow less important than God’s call on my life.

my heart aches to think that i have, unintentionally, given you a picture of a God who cares more about my life than yours.

i hope that this opportunity to speak on calling with other moms will challenge me–and not just this once, but continue to challenge me to think about how God is calling out uniquely to you, how i might give more space to encourage you to listen to this call, and then encourage you to live faithfully into that call.

thanks for believing in this crazy call on our lives all those years ago, hun. thanks for continuing to believe in me, even when i struggled to believe in myself. i could not do this without you even for a day.

yours for always,

ryan

a letter to hudson

hey hudson,

you were due to arrive the day i first sat down to start writing this letter. we welcomed you into the world a full week later. now that i’m finally wrapping this up, it’s been three weeks since you breathed your first breath of air–a good sign that you’re arriving in the right family.

Hudson's birth

these are the first words i have ever written to you, and the mere mention of that fact is enough to steal my breath. we have a whole lifetime of words ahead of us to exchange, but these are the first. i will do my best.

before your sister was born, i wrote down some things i wanted to make sure she knew. several years later, it feels presumptuous to think you would want to hear what i have to say, or that what i have to say would be of value to you.

perhaps that is simply the passing of time, but i now feel i have less to offer than i did just a few years ago when it comes to worthwhile advice. time will tell.

the story of my life will not be the story of your life, of course. and yet, the story of my life will undoubtedly give shape to yours. so i thought i might start by telling you what life was like when you first arrived into our family.

life when you arrived

we’ve been living in the bay area for just six months at this point, so it still feels new to us in many ways. and after moving four times in the past five years, life has felt transient for a while now.

before we arrived in california, and before we left our home in washington state before that, we lived in england for two years, and then north carolina for a couple more after that. i had been studying theology in both. our time in england was so rich and full and, in many ways, unbelievable that i wrote a book to do my best to keep it all from falling through my fingers. one day i will have many stories to share with you from that chapter of our life.

your sister, emma, was born just after our time in england, and so she spent the first two years of her life in north carolina. two years of learning how to do life as a family of three. how to crawl. how to walk. it all happened there. by the time we were packing up our things in durham, i found myself wanting to boil the curtains and make a soup out of all the memories we made in that home so that we could take it all on the road with us.

after four years of school, and a year back in washington state, we moved to the bay area so that i could take up a new job–which suddenly sounds very grown up and dad-like of me. how does that happen?

i have found myself wondering lately what you will think when you find out one day that i was a university minister when you were born.

will you find that strange?

will you find that fitting?

that i am working in ministry at all–and in a church, no less–has been one of my life’s great surprises. it wasn’t always the case, which is likely why i’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact. but so it is.

my workdays are a combination of hearing from college students about their life (mostly) and their faith (sometimes); doing my best to speak meaningfully into their lives on the difference a life of faith in Christ makes in an often faith-less life; and, at times, reading and writing.

even in the surprise of this work, i often struggle to imagine something that would be more meaningful to me. perhaps one day you will know what i mean.

at the end of my days, i follow so many other commuters home along i-80, past the golden gate bridge standing tall and proud on the westward horizon. when i finally arrive home, i am greeted by your sister, now a dizzying three and a half, and your mother.

your sister often runs to the door, greeting me with a wide, watermelon slice grin. your mother also often looks happy to see me, but her smile, i am sure, has more to do with the fact that she knows that she can now be “off” for a bit.

this is, hands down, the highlight of my days.

when you are one day old enough to read this, hudson, you will likely know them both better than i am now able to put into words, but here’s what their lives looked like before you arrived.

emma

your sister has chocolate brown hair that reaches just past her shoulders, with curls on the ends that dance when she runs. her smile is a gift from your mother, and it is enough to stop me dead in my tracks and lighten my foot steps at the same time.

Emma & Hudsonemma is a wizard at puzzles and matching card games, and she is now asking us to read beatrix potter (“peter rabbit”) at bed time. you cannot keep her dry near a pool.

she has already told us that she wants one, make that two dogs. and a cat. we’re doing our best to hold out, but we have no idea how long that will last.

we have been talking about your arrival for some time now, hudson. we’ve been telling emma that you’re coming, so that you don’t completely sideswipe her.

the evening we found out we were having a boy, emma made a disgusted face. “i thought we were having a girl,” she said. which is funny, given that she had already been telling us she was going to be having a brother long before we knew.

when we tell other people your first name, she frequently corrects us. “you mean hudson james,” she says in a teacher’s voice.

she is also, even at three, one of the most thoughtful people i know. it’s not infrequent that we’re in a store and she grabs something, returns to us, and insists that you’ll need it.

emma has been telling us about all the things she’s going to teach you as your big sister: how to brush your teeth, how to do puzzles; important stuff. just the other day i walked in on her wearing her green fairy wings and reading a picture book to a doll seated on her lap. you can add reading to the list.

Emma reading at 3 and a half

as you will learn, emma is quite sensitive, like her parents. be careful with your words, will you? if you give her time and your undivided attention, she will adore you.

the last few weeks before you arrived, emma would often start the day by staring at your mother’s pregnant belly and shouting, “hudson james, come out!”

your sister has been anxious for your arrival. so has your mother.

your mother

i did my best to paint a portrait of your mother in the letter i wrote to your sister upon her birth; maybe you can look over her notes. but there are a couple things i want to tell you about your mother, since i have your attention.

Jen & Hudsonfirst, your mother is the best woman i have ever met. i mean it.

i’ve known your mother for about half of my life at this point, and never before have i met anyone whose heart i trust more. in a world where trust is hard to come by, your mother has been a rock.

but it’s her love that you will most likely come to appreciate most. your mother’s love is tough and strong. it is one of the most patient, steady, and at times sacrificial loves i have ever experienced. there will come a day when you will know this is true, and you will be as grateful for her then as i am today.

i mentioned this to your sister in my letter to her, but your mom, as you will come to learn, is also much tougher than me. i cried like a baby at our wedding; she didn’t lose a single tear. already i’ve gotten into the habit of calling you sweetheart, which she pointed out to me doesn’t sound masculine enough. so i grew a beard and kept calling you sweetheart.

of course, your mother has her rough edges just as much as the rest of us. i’ll let you discover those for yourself.

a few things to avoid, though, when it comes to your mom: early mornings, if you can; unnecessarily expensive gifts; and the spotlight. also, she’s still working on taking compliments.

if you do happen to cross her, chocolate peanut butter sweets do in a pinch.

life: ball lightning, your voice, & paying attention

as i mentioned, i feel reluctant to tell you much in the way of advice. perhaps it’s a growing sense of my own naivete, or perhaps it’s an even bigger question of whether or not you’ll actually be interested. either way, i have my doubts. i’ll keep this short, but here are some things i’ve noticed when i look out at the world.

Dadda & Hudson

first, you should know that my life has not unfolded according to some well executed plan on my part; it has exploded with surprises. apparently there are actually those most enviable people for whom life seems to go according to plan. but for me, life has been more like ball lightning: exploding here, exploding there, and then, darkness and silence.

in the seeming chaos of it all, you will most likely find yourself wondering, what in the world was that about? but then, after some time, you will look back and think, my God… that was beautiful.

knowing this, in advance, can save you much heartache.

do your best to surround yourself with the kind of people who can put a finger on the ball lightning moments, trace them to the next, and tell you a story. friends are the ones who give meaning to the ball lightning chaos of life.

second, and in absolutely no order, i have to tell you something that will sound like something i have to tell you. i know. but here it is.

you are a male, and a white male at that. which means that you will have, by nature of your birth, a voice. do not take this lightly.

things are changing by the day at this point. in the last couple of years, we have seen the kind of racial violence we haven’t seen in 50 years. i hope to God that things have improved by the time you’re able to read this, but experience shows that these things take time. and lots of hard, intentional, proactive work.

if things have not improved, it means your voice will be heard at a whisper when others are shouting from the rooftops. if you do not use that for good, i have failed you as a father.

and lastly–i promised you i’d keep this short–i cannot hope to know what will bring your life the kind of hope and joy that i desire for you. you will no doubt be influenced by those things that have brought hope and joy to my own life: books, authors, people, places. but i hope you hear me here: when you happen to come across those things that steal your breath and bring you surprise tears, pay attention. pay attention to your life, hudson.

if life is for you anything like it has been for me, the rush of it all will beg you to keep moving. it will tell you that to stop and take it all in is to fall behind.

do not listen.

if you can, pay attention to that which brings life to your life, and point.

music & books

two of the things that have brought life to my life have been music and books. perhaps it will be the same for you.

so you know, the first three songs you heard were “ara batur,” by sigur ros; “drift,” by kim janssen; and “love is all,” by the tallest man on earth. you could do worse than these three.

i do hope you have a deep appreciation for words, as i do. in the way of writers, your taste is not likely to be the same as mine, but here are a few who have left a mark on my life.

frederick buechner encouraged me to see the holiness and grace in everyday life. in the most ordinary, routine moments just as much as in the highest peaks or deepest valleys. that lesson has made each day, no matter how mundane, worth living into deeply.

c. s. lewis once showed me that it is okay to be a thinking christian. maybe, and hopefully, that will sound like a given, but that lesson changed my life in tangible ways.

and dietrich bonhoeffer not only wrote, but lived in such a way that showed me that our God-given gifts are not to be used merely, or even primarily, for ourselves. they are to be poured out for Christ’s sake, which is to say, for the sake of the world. if we try to keep such gifts for our own gain, they will not only spoil, they will turn us sour with them.

there are more writers whose work i would like to share with you, of course. i am sure you and i will discuss them in the years ahead. but if you take your time with these three, your life, and the lives of those around you, will be richer for it. of that i am sure.

not looking the other way

one last thing before i go. at the moment of your birth, your doctor welcomed you into the world and placed you into your mother’s arms in one beautiful, sweeping motion. in an instant, i found myself simultaneously laughing and crying.

Dadda & Hudson first sight

the head nurse was there, standing opposite me, on the other side of your mother. she turned her eyes from you to me and said, “you look as though you didn’t know he was in there!”

i knew you were “in there,” of course, and that you would soon be with us. but if i were being honest with you, hudson, i’d tell you that life has been so busy, at this point where my feet stood waiting for life with you in it, that i had worried you were going to arrive and i would find myself looking the other way.

but here’s the thing, when you arrived, it was impossible for me to be looking anywhere else. i was staring straight at you, but it was you who were looking the other way. and as i spoke to the back of your head, laughing between tears, you picked up your head and turned to face me.

in that moment, as best as i can describe it, i knew the gratuity of God’s grace. one day, i hope, you will know the same.

and years from now, when you take your first steps; when you learn to throw a ball; when you spell your own name for the first time; when you pick up a pen and tell the world a story; when you tell me that you’ve met someone; when you give your heart away; when you receive it back again in pieces; when you come to us and say you’ve decided to step out in faith; i promise to do my best not to be caught looking the other way.

i love you, hudson. we all love you, so much. and in you i see God’s gratuitous grace. if you know nothing else, know that.

i hope you can forgive the trite nature of any or all of my words. i am still new at this, but i am working on it.

your dad,

ryan

meeting frank: practical theology

we bought a car shortly after arriving in durham, and shortly after we bought our car, we realized something was not quite right.

it struggled to start. not just in the mornings, but always. i assumed it was the battery. i hoped it was the battery.

so i found a local shop online with a string of good reviews and made an appointment to get it checked out.

when i walked into the small shop on wednesday afternoon, i was greeted by an older man sitting behind a desk in a cramped, hot and stuffy office / waiting room.

frank was his name. his silver hair was clean cut, and he wore a red polo with a pair of black ray-bans around his neck.

it came out in conversation that i had recently moved to the area to start school. a woman waiting for her car’s oil to be changed–the only other person in the room–asked what I was studying, and i told her i was studying theology.

“geology?” frank asked, from his swivel chair behind the desk.

“oh, no. sorry, theology,” i said, noticing the hearing aid behind his ear.

“oh, I see,” he said. “well that’s abstract!”

“you think so?” I asked. “i think it’s incredibly practical.”

“you know, i’m sorry, but i just decided at a very early age that it’s made up,” he told me. “i think people believe it because they need to believe it.”

our conversation was interrupted when his mechanic entered the office to hand in the keys for the woman’s car. her oil change was now complete.

later on in the conversation, it came out that frank had lost his wife just three months earlier.

“she had a bad heart,” he told me. “and then, one day, she was shopping…” his words slowed, “…and she fell. she hit her head . . . and the next day she was gone.”

there was a moment of silence. a long one. and then i told him i was so, so sorry for his loss.

“what was your wife’s name, frank?”

“pamela.”

“how long were you and pamela married,” I asked him.

“51 years,” he told me proudly.

“shooo…” I mouthed. “frank, I am so terribly sorry. i cannot even imagine…”

we were disrupted again, when his mechanic came in to let me know my battery was seven years old and hardly holding a charge. he told me it looked like my alternator was running fine, so i’d just need a new battery.

i thanked him, and i told him i’d like to have that taken care of. he smiled, nodded and returned to the shop.

frank and I talked about a lot of other things that afternoon. about farming in eastern washington–he grew up in a small town in the same state i was from–, about joining the airforce, about being a fighter pilot, and about meeting his wife while he was stationed in england for four years, where i had only just returned to the states from.

i laughed at the parallels between our stories. and then i told him about hayley.

i told him how it still hurts, even two and a half years later, and how i could not imagine the pain he was now feeling.

he told me it did hurt. he told me he was constantly reminded of her absence. by things he’d remember. by things he know she’d say, if she were still around. and how those reminders made it even worse.

i nodded, and i told him i didn’t know how he was hanging in there as well as he was, in light of his loss.

“well i’m here,” he told me, looking around the office. “if i weren’t, i’m sure I’d be a vegetable.”

i nodded, again.

frank continued to tell me about pamela.

“she was an incredible woman,” he said with a smile. “everyone loved her. she used to be a secretary at an episcopalian church here in town, until she retired. everyone loved her.”

then, turning to me, he asked me if i believed in the after-life.

“yeah, absolutely,” i told him. “i don’t think I could do theology if i didn’t.”

“yeah, I suppose so,” he said.

he thought for a moment, and then asked me another question.

“when we die,” he continued, “does our spirit… go up?”

i could tell, from his question, frank had not much experience with the church. and i appreciated his honest question.

i told him it probably depends on who you ask, but that i believe that things do not end when we die. i told him i believe things continue on for us after we die.

he nodded, slowly, and sat back in his chair. i could tell he was thinking.

the mechanic returned, to tell me my car was now ready for me, but that I’d need to replace the two rear tires, as winter was coming up, and they were too worn.

i asked frank if he could help me with that, so he did a search online while i waited and gave me a quote.

we talked for a bit longer, and then he said something that took me completely off-guard.

“it’s really been a pleasure to meet you,” he told me, voicing something i had been thinking about him. “you’re really easy to talk to. it’s like i’ve known you for some time.”

then he asked me a question i often get, and that i often struggle to answer.

“what are your plans for your theology? are you going to be a minister?”

“oh, yeah. well, i’m not sure yet,” i confessed. “i am on the academic track, to teach, but i’m not sure. i’ll probably end up somewhere in the middle.”

he looked confused.

“in the middle?” he asked. “what does that mean?”

“well, maybe doing some teaching in a church,” i continued, “and maybe some in academics.”

again, frank looked at me with a face of confusion.

“well you should be a minister,” he told me, matter-of-factly, which surprised me, given that he had just told me he thought religion was “made up.”

“you’d make an excellent minister.”

“wow… well thank you,” i told frank. “i really appreciate you saying that.”

frank finished my paperwork and handed it to me, from his spot behind the desk. and then i spoke up again.

“i’m not sure what you think of this, frank,” i told him, “but for what it’s worth, i’d like you to know i’ll be praying for you. i really can’t imagine how difficult this must be…”

his face suddenly became very serious, which made me nervous. i wasn’t sure how he was going to react.

but then he began to nod. and his eyes welled up with tears.

“thank you,” he said, sniffling. “i really need some help.”

i reminded him that he had my phone number, and i told him it would be a pleasure to talk with him some more, anytime he was interested. he thanked me again, and i smiled to him as i made my way out of his hot, stuffy office, into the refreshing afternoon air outside.

and as i walked to my car, i began to pray for frank, with tears now welling up in the corners of my own eyes. i struggled to imagine the depth of frank’s pain after losing his wife of 51 years.

and then, as i prayed, i began to smile, slightly. as something cs lewis once wrote came to my mind.

“i warned you that theology is practical.”