Fifteen Years of “I do”

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anniversaryWe honor the passing of time by fives and tens.
Milestones. Markers we use to bestow a greater sense of honor and praise.
Fives and tens.

Well now our marriage has one of each.

I love telling people that I’ve been married for “almost 15 years,” and always for the reactions. Wide-eyed looks of shock and disbelief, quick mathematical calculations to determine how old I could have been, “What were you 12 when you got married?”

“No that’s crazy,” I’d reply. “We were 13… but we still had to get our parents permission!”

Sure, we weren’t actually 13 but we were still young. Two kids in their early 20s staring at the unknown hand in hand, “ready for anything.” If only we had known what that really meant.

For us, those markers hold a multitude of stories and experiences that have molded us and shaped us into who we are today: Five adventurous cross-country moves, ministry experiences that went beyond intense, great heartache and loss, new friends and fellow travelers who have revealed new perspectives and ways of seeing and interacting with the world, health scares, the exhilarating birth of our daughter, and the tragic death of dreams we once gripped with a fierce tenacity only to watch evaporate in our hands. We are not the same two naive kids who said, “I do” fifteen years ago–although I still believe they’re lurking in there somewhere cheering us on, “ready for anything.”

“I do.”

Two tiny words which carried us across this threshold of life and thrust us into an adventure neither one of us saw coming. Two tiny words full of promise, overflowing with a commitment to stay faithful and true, to grow together, to challenge one another, to support and encourage one another, to go wherever God may lead us…

Fifteen years ago I didn’t have the slightest inkling of what those two tiny words really meant. Sure I knew that it was a promise, but the depth of that promise, the fullness of that promise? These were words laid out in abstract. Words of a future my imagination was unable to conceive or comprehend.

With each passing year, with each new experience, new milestone, heartache and tragedy, those two tiny words take on a richer meaning out of which a new and more profound vow emerges.

“I do.”

You, Tracy Monts, have been the adventure of a lifetime.
Here’s to fifteen more years of “I do” and beyond.
Happy anniversary.

Four: A Dad Reflects on His Daughter’s Fourth Year of Life.

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a dad reflects
She sat there with her book wide open and looked up at me with her big brown eyes and melted my heart, “Papa. I love you. I missed you.”

I cried. I missed her too.

I have been traveling for the past week leading up to her fourth birthday and in a year filled with tremendous transition from moving across the country, to working on a dissertation, to Tracy’s job transitions, to changing pre-schools and having to make new friends; Elliot has been a champion throughout this entire season of crazy. Her third year of life was full of so much change.

Change is hard and as I look at this little girl who is growing up right before my very eyes I am caught between tears of sadness for what has past—note to self, don’t look at old pictures of your daughter the day before her birthday unless you want to sob—and with joy and pride for who she is becoming. She is resilient and with the big situations in life, she’s patient. Of course she still wants her cookies RIGHT NOW! But don’t we all? I find myself at times given to sadness by the amount of change she has had to experience in such a short amount of time. There’s a large swell of guilt that I feel for creating such a monumental amount of change in her life. A guilt for not being able to make it easier on her, for ultimately being responsible for all of this. Parental guilt is hard, real hard. And yet in the midst of it all there is this sweet and kind and smart little girl who seemingly takes it all in stride.

I sat there with her as she laid in bed, her music playing softly in the background, I asked, “Elliot, what are you most excited about by turning four?”

Without pause she responded, “I’m excited to start listening to you and momma!”

You see, for a little over a year now Elliot has promised that she will start listening to us when she turns four years old… you know, when she “grows up.” And she remembers this promise… and the night before her birthday she’s excited to follow through. And so am I. But as I think about this little moment, she knows how much this little promise means to Tracy and I. We’ve talked about it pretty regularly over the past year. And here, on the night before her birthday she’s thinking about us. She’s thinking about what she can give to us instead of thinking about herself. It’s as if this promise is her fourth birthday gift to us. And that seems to be a core part of who she is as a person. In fact, just last week she was busy helping put together her birthday party goodie bags for her friends and as she put different items into the bag she would remark, “Oh they’re going to love this!” That’s my girl!

Later that night I snuck into her room. She had crawled out of bed and made a nice and neat bed right in front of the door and fallen asleep. I scooped her up, laid her back in her bed, brushed her wild and curly hair aside and whispered into her ear like I do every night, “Papa loves you.” I stood in her doorway and watched the last few minutes of her third year of life pass by. I took a deep breath and let a couple of tears escape.

She’s four. (And now she’ll start listening to us!)

Who Is On Your Spiritual Mt Rushmore? (Pt. 1)

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my spiritual mt rushmore
Earlier this year the question was posed to me, “Who have been the most influential spiritual leaders in your life? Who is on your ‘Spiritual Mt. Rushmore?'”

Such a great question!

There have been many influential people in my life, helping me become who I am today. They have helped me see in different ways the person God created me to be, pushing me and challenging me, caring for me and loving me well. And so to answer that question felt like an impossible proposition! To help me identify those people, I decided to answer the question based around who is actually on Mt. Rushmore (history nerd alert!).

Etched into the stone of Mt. Rushmore is George Washington, the “Father of the country”, Thomas Jefferson, the “Author of the country,” Theodore Roosevelt, the “Explorer of the country”, and Abraham Lincoln, “The Great Emancipator.” Each of these designations translate well into the life of faith and speak volumes into how we are shaped and molded into the image of Jesus.

Each of us have a spark of identity within our being, placed there by God at the dawn of our existence. We can either smother that spark or gently tend the spark so that it can catch fire, ultimately expressing the true nature of who we are. I firmly believe that I am who I am because of how others have helped me tend to that spark of identity, expressing well my God given nature and identity.

“The Father(s) of my Faith”
I want to start off by breaking my self-imposed rules just a bit and etch two faces into the stone: my dad and my grandpa. My grandpa has always modeled for me a silent faithfulness, modeling a posture that is quick to listen and slow to speak. I’ll never forget the moment he pulled me aside one day to tell me, “Aaron, I just want you to know that I pray for you every single day.” That was all he said. No explanation, no indication of what he prays for me about, just consistent, faithful prayer.

This was a foundational moment in my life, leaving an indelible imprint on me that expanded my understanding of the spiritual life: We are not in this alone, we should not be in this alone. The spiritual life was never meant to be a solo act, a private event reserved only for the self. Rather, the spiritual life must be done in community because we cannot do this alone. That simple sentence, marked by a life of consistent and faithful prayer, opened my eyes to this new reality and revolutionized my worldview. It revealed to this hyper-independent person that even when I don’t think I need anyone else, there are people surrounding me and doing work for me and my soul that I don’t recognize. It revealed to me that I have never done anything independently, I have never been alone. As the patriarch of our family, my grandpa has faithfully modeled a beautiful faith in Jesus to us all.

The second etching belongs to my dad. I remember thumbing through my dad’s Bible which was always full of fresh new highlights and perfectly underlined passages and verses (he had to have used a ruler, no one can make lines that straight!–Which goes to show the deliberate nature of his study and reading.) My dad is the one who talked with me about Jesus and about baptism. The one who encouraged me to go to Bible college–“Just try it for a year,” he said–and ultimately my decision to join the ministry. Even to this day he encourages me to simply, “follow God wherever he leads.” (Which is a big part of why we moved to Seattle. There is a great freedom in that, a freedom to pursue God no matter the cost. This has led to great joy in my life, and even some great pain–none of which I would trade for anything because through it all I have seen the faithfulness of God played out in great ways throughout my life.

These two men are the Founding Fathers of my faith without them I would not be the person I am today, nor would I be where I am today. It is because of them that I am who I am.

There have been a lot of people who have influenced my faith journey in ways both great and small, and so I will be starting a new series called “Thank You Notes” to express my gratitude to the many who have played a part in shaping me and my faith.

Three: A Dad Reflects On His Daughter’s Third Year of Life

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THREEI stood in her doorway to watch her sleep. She was bigger now and yet somehow just as tiny as the day we brought her home from the hospital. Her sweet and mischievous attitude painted all over her tiny little face, and her adventurous/daredevil-ish spirit marked up and down her legs from leaping off the furniture, rolling around and tumbling outside in the grass, and sprinting through the house with a carefree spirit squealing like a banshee. That’s my little girl: my silly, crazy, bright, joyous, wonderful little girl. I stood there silently in her doorway mourning the passing of her “two’s.”

That moment sunk in heavy…

That’s the strange thing about time, it passes along slowly, rhythmically, regularly, always rolling, always ticking, always moving, and yet the milestones that arise with the passing of time always sneak up on you. Time seems to lull us into a sense of security, a sense that nothing will ever change… and yet the reality is: with the passing of time, nothing will ever be the same.

I stood there in the doorway and smiled as tears welled up in my eyes. I love this little girl more and more every day. I love reading stories to her at night—which is more about her making up stories about the stories we’re reading than actually reading the stories right there in front of us. I love praying with her as we tuck her in—you get a beautiful glimpse into her sweet and tender heart, the love that she has for people and the astute awareness she possesses for what is actually going on beneath the surface of people’s lives. I love her carefree spirit and her fearlessness—unless it involves eating meat, she just won’t eat meat (“papa, I just don’t like it!”), and somehow that makes me feel like I’ve failed her as a father. I love who she is and I love who she is becoming; which inevitably involves change.

Oh change.

She is changing right before my very eyes and I don’t want to blink!

I love fatherhood. I love the ability, the opportunity, the responsibility you have to shape and mold a little person, but it’s also a delicate balancing act: molding her into who you want her to be versus who she really is. I am learning more and more about the delicate nature of these scales: to not impose who you want her to be or think she ought to be, but instead to help her steward the life she has been given, to help her see who it is that God has created her to be, to help her listen to the inner voice of love that permeates her being, and let her life speak. Because when it happens, when you actually let her life speak, you begin to see just how special a gift she is to the world. It’s a big responsibility as a parent to help your little one learn how to steward their life and at the same time it’s a huge honor. I love this honor, I love helping her steward her life, and I love helping her be the person she was created to be.

I stood there silently in her doorway as she slept. I mourned the passing of her “two’s” and I welcomed in a new chapter of change: my little girl is three-years old.

Two: A Dad Reflects on His Daughter’s Second Year of Life

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Two Year Old
Two. Years. Old.

Seriously. My little Elliot Grace is two years old.

It seems like only yesterday that we brought her home from the hospital. Only yesterday that we wondered why on earth the nurses were okay with letting two completely inexperienced parents leave the hospital with a brand new baby girl. “All they made us do was sign a paper? That’s it?! What are they thinking?! Why, oh why didn’t we take those parenting classes?! Now what do we do? What’s next?” Only yesterday that our eyes were opened wide with fear to the realization that we were on our own now. The fear of newly minted parents had grabbed us with a force beyond recognition as we gingerly walked away from the safety of the hospital and into the waiting world of possibility.

My little girl is two years old and I can’t believe how much she has changed in the past year. She doesn’t walk and stumble along anymore, she runs. She doesn’t string together a few random words and sounds expecting us to understand exactly what she means, she weaves together stories. She can count to 20, she knows her ABC’s, loves the “Happy Meal Song”, can sing most of the Frozen soundtrack a capella from memory, and even has a couple of her books memorized so when we skip pages to expedite putting her to bed, she calls us out on it. It seems like only yesterday that we were celebrating her first year of life, that I was reflecting on this newly minted state of fatherhood, and now we have a toddler.

We have a toddler who loves being around people, who continually asks to go outside so she can “go make friends”. We have a toddler with such an adventurous spirit that she always climbs up and conquers the biggest slide on the playground, always demands to be pushed “higher papa!” in the swing, and loves to ride the rides at the county fair. We have a toddler whose smile can light up a room and whose giggle is contagious. We have a toddler.

Becoming a first-time father in your 30’s, after 10 years of marriage, isn’t the easiest change one can go through. Rhythms are set, life has a routine about it, you have become comfortable and certain degrees of selfishness are easily overlooked. Elliot Grace has changed all of that for me. She has forced me to confront my selfishness, confront my unhealthy rhythms of life, confront my self. Elliot Grace has made me a better person. And that may sound strange to hear, but this I believe, is one of the great gifts she brings to the world.

This little girl is growing up, and with each passing day she captures a new part of my heart that I didn’t even know existed. I am blessed beyond belief to be her “papa” and I look forward to watching her grow into the little girl God made her to be.

Twelve Years Ago…

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twelve years ago

Twelve years ago she walked down the aisle. I cried.
Twelve years ago she said, ‘I do.’ I cried.
Twelve years ago tornado sirens rang out in the middle of our wedding ceremony…

I can’t believe we’ve been married for twelve years. I always thought that those people who had been married for a decade or more were old people… and now… here we are… we’re those people. (What happens when we hit 20 or 30 or heaven forbid 50 years?!)

It’s hard to believe it’s been this long but at the same time we’ve lived a lot of life together these past twelve years. Four cross-country moves, pastoring in six different churches from California to Chicago to Central Illinois, heartache and pain, death threats and burnout, side-splitting laughter and smiles that last so long they hurt your cheeks–and you forget what you were even talking about in the first place–long conversations that last deep into the night, sharing our dreams, our hopes, our desires for what it is that God has for us in this life together.

It’s funny, because all of this, this life that we’ve built together, strangely resembles our wedding day. Like when the tornado sirens went off and the two of us looked at Neal wondering what on earth we were going to do? Was he going to keep going? Was he going to stop and direct everyone to take cover? Were we going to finish this thing in the basement? Instead, he pressed on with a steadfast determination as if to say, “Nothing, absolutely nothing will come between you two… certainly not some siren raging on a few hundred yards away!” He set a tone that day in our ceremony, a tone that I think we’ve followed every day since. In the midst of whatever surrounds us, in the midst of whatever looks to consume us or overtake us, nothing, absolutely nothing will come between us.

As Uncle Bob closed out the ceremony he gave us this charge from Hebrews:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

This has been our passage of grace for twelve years, and the grace of God really has been the center of our marriage hasn’t it? I like how Buechner puts it, “The grace of God means something like: ‘Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.'”

I guess I’d never really thought much about how our wedding day has resembled our life together until just recently. And I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I knew then what I know now about everything we’ve faced together, I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t want another person by my side to walk through the perils and joys this life has to offer. Here’s to another 12 years and beyond, if we’re so lucky… Happy anniversary my little pimento loaf.

One: A Dad Reflects on His Daughters First Year of Life

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First Year of Life

She turns one today. My little Elliot Grace is all grows’d up and she’s all grows’d up. I can’t believe her first year of life has already passed us by.

One year ago today, Elliot Grace entered the world and shattered my naiveté about fatherhood. Sure, I’d been brought up to speed about the untold sleepless nights, the endless crying, the difficulties of feeding, the moments when you simply cannot console your child. I’d been told the horror stories of tantrums and wails in the public square accompanied by the judgmental stares of strangers perched in their towers of superiority. Diaper blowouts at the grocery store that leave you in a lurch looking for the closest bathroom in which to hose her down, massive amounts of spontaneous spit-up that run down your freshly pressed shirt just as you’re about to head out the door, the first moment of defiance as she throws food in your face because she’s tired of eating pureed peas, the adjustment in friendships as you focus inward on your family for a season while attempting to discover this new rhythm of life; I was prepped for all of these moments and more.*

I was one of the privileged few fathers able to experience the joy and agony as a stay-at-home dad–sometimes both joy and agony occurred simultaneously, I think most stay-at-home parents can identify with this seemingly contradictory emotional state. I will never forget those first 10-months** but during that time I was confronted with something unexpected: myself. No one ever told me that day-in and day-out, as a parent, you would be continually confronted with yourself, with your own selfishness, with your own unmet desires and unfulfilled wishes, with the fact that you are continually forced to choose: her or me. Parenthood is a perpetual cycle of self-sacrifice and every day, if you pay close attention, you die just a little bit more to yourself as you give more and more of yourself to your child. It’s actually a beautiful image of the gospel taking root in your life.

There is nothing that I wouldn’t give for this little girl. There is nothing that I would not sacrifice to make sure that she is okay, that she feels safe, that she knows she is loved. There is nothing that I would not do to prevent her pain, to protect her, to make sure that she has everything she needs. And perhaps that has been the steepest learning curve: I do have the capacity to love another person more than myself.

In her short year of life, this little girl has changed my world teaching me more than I ever expected possible. She continually brings joy wherever she goes and has this tremendous ability to make people smile making friends with anyone and everyone—especially strangers who are instantly captured in her web of joy. She has such a vigor and excitement for life and an inherent love and concern for people. I look forward to watching her blossom into an amazing woman whom I have no doubt will leave this world a better place than before she graced us with her presence, for she has already changed mine.

* I was able to handle some of these moments with more grace than others… but I maintain that the older gentleman at the Whole Foods who stared at me over his glasses with such an air of arrogance and superiority while squawking, “could you please keep your child quiet?” totally deserved the over-the-top sarcastic-laden scolding I gave him. I will admit, watching him walk away deflated with his tail between his legs was quite satisfying. (Elliot approved too. She wasn’t even crying when the man entered into his momentary ignorance, she was just really exuberant and excited to be at Whole Foods learning about fresh produce.)

** I believe those 10-months solidified her as a daddy’s girl!