31 for 41: Buy her coffee

Dear Donovan,

I am writing this short letter late tonight because Brandon and I had a date today.  You know that he and I still try to schedule dates into our busy family schedule.  We believe it is important for us to take time away from everyone else, just two best friends on adventures.  We also believe this is one of the practices that helps us model a healthy, loving marriage to you and the twins.

When Brandon and I started dating, he quickly learned how much I love a great cup of coffee, and soon made it a priority during our adventures.  Sometimes when I felt like I didn’t really need to splurge on coffee or take the time for it, he would insist on buying me the cup of coffee.  He paid attention to something that I enjoy, and he made it a priority.

You were in on the Christmas surprise while he and I were dating, when he bought me the really nice camera, knowing how much I love photography.  Then when we began our marriage, he patiently accompanied me around Charleston on our honeymoon so that I could soak in the history and architecture.  Five years later, our anniversary trip was spent at Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg.  I was as excited as a little child on Christmas morning.  Brandon didn’t laugh at the history geek when I teared up while standing in the spot where Pocahontas probably got married.  He was excited with me because I was excited.

This is one of the beautiful things about mutual, unselfish love.  It is a giving love and a growing love.  He buys me coffee and I follow him around while he looks at fishing rods.  Neither of us does that in order to get something in return.  We do it because we know how much the other person enjoys it.  It makes our journey together sweeter, and we both feel supported as we continue to grow and develop.

This is the kind of love I want you to have.  When you find your mate, study her.  Find out what is important to her.  Show her you love her by investing in what matters to her.  Support her dreams as God directs her path.  If her love for you is true and unselfish, she will do the same for you.  She may not like coffee, but “buying her coffee” will mean that you show love in action by paying attention to the details that delight her heart.

Whether it is to your friends or cousins or daughters, be a man who reminds women that this is the type of love they deserve.  It is the type of love that Christ demonstrated, a pure and selfless love.  And as it has been designed for us, supporting your mate in her development will also develop you.  You know it’s true, since I now recognize and admire the sound of a Mach 1 engine and Brandon now appreciates the legacy of Tarheel basketball.  🙂

 My beloved is mine, and I am his.  Song of Solomon 2:16

I love you forever,

Your coffee-loving mama



31 for 41: Sound the Alarm

Dear Donovan,

I want everyone to like me.  It’s a part of who I am.  In college, I set out to accomplish goals but never wanted to make anyone mad.  Then a friend told me, “If you never make anyone mad, you will never get anything done.”  I thought maybe I could be the exception to her rule, but soon learned that I could not.  Taking a stand sometimes means making a choice to speak up for some person or some value, even though you know some will not like to hear what you have to say.

As humans, we sometimes face hesitation before we speak up.  What has given me more boldness and less hesitation, however, has been experience.  Let me give you an example.  When I started teaching, fresh out of college, I knew that I was not a psychology or sociology expert, but I was observant enough to notice disturbing behavior patterns of some of my students.  When I tried to wave a red flag, so to speak, my efforts were often met with a surprising lack of concern.

Maybe the fault was partially mine for not effectively communicating what I saw that was alarming.  Maybe the fault was partially in the hands of people who were complacent and accepting of the way things were.  Maybe the problem was partially due to the overworked and undersupported status of those who might have been able to do something otherwise.  Whatever the case, when I left that school and began going to court each day with clients, I learned how to look up pending criminal cases through public records.  I selected ten names of former students, those that I had worried about the most.  Out of the ten, seven young men already had upcoming court cases for misdemeanor crimes.

I did not find joy in being right.  I was mad that my warnings had not been taken more seriously.  I was more mad at myself for not saying more.

The experience of looking back, once sad and bad things have happened, and wishing I had said and done more, becomes a gift of boldness.  It doesn’t mean I think I am always right.  It doesn’t mean that a severely at-risk child cannot create a beautifully successful life, or that a perfectly well-behaved child is guaranteed to be successful.  It does mean that I choose to speak up when I see alarming behavior patterns in children, without worrying about which adults might not like what I have to say.

Sadly, I have seen this pattern repeated so many times through the years.  Young men and women sit in my classroom each day, consumed by anger or deceitfulness or a desire to be loved.  Some of them are very nice to me, and others not so much.  I try to demonstrate a balance of love and limits.  Some of them figure out some things, get professional help, and/or move to a more healthy home environment.  But too many take on unhealthy adult activities so closely related to the anger, deceit, or longing for love.  Some have now battled drugs for years.  Some are in prison.  Some are dead.

So you see, while I want to always be respectful and civil, I cannot concern myself too much with offending an adult’s comfort level when the lives of children are at stake.  A boy I caught stealing cookies during my very first year of teaching  is now in prison, and may never get out.  That has taught me to sound the alarm.  As I strive to be, I want you also to be a person who will choose concern over comfort, principles over social position, and people over politics.  

There will be many reasons why people will not like what you have to say, even when you come from a place of concern and principles.  You cannot control that.  What you can control, however, are two personal qualities that will give your voice more power:

First, be a hard worker.  If you have an undisputed record of a strong work ethic, then no one can say you are just trying to avoid your own responsibilities when you speak up about an issue.  Being a hard worker separates your voice from the complainers.  

Second, be a person who demonstrates authentic care and concern for others.  Then, when you speak up, others will know it is not about your own selfish interests.  They will know it is because you care about people who are hurting, in need of support or justice, or in danger.  Being a loving person separates your voice from the self-righteous.

I am so proud of you for all the times, just the ones I know about, where you have spoken up for others.  When you want to speak up, make sure you have accurate information and pure motives, and then march on!  As time tells the tale, you will never regret being a voice who tried to stop bad things from happening.  I will always support you in your own efforts to sound the alarm.

Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.  Proverbs 31:9

I love you forever,

Your unapologetically vocal mama


31 for 41: About the Police

Dear Donovan,

I remember going with a woman to court where she asked for an emergency domestic violence protective order, the 50-B in North Carolina.  I think it was actually the first time I accompanied a woman on that new job as Court Advocate.  The judge granted the order, but the woman then was directed to go see the Warrant Squad in the county where we were, as was the procedure there.

I already knew the story, so I knew just how unstable and dangerous this man was who was to be the recipient of the 50-B.  The order would evict him from my client’s home and require him to surrender his firearms, including the loaded arsenal she had discovered in the home just that morning.  I remember the warrant officer gently asking the frightened and traumatized woman, “Is there any reason to believe that when we show up to serve the order, he will be aggressive or violent?”

“Well,” the woman paused, “when I asked him to leave the other day, he told me that the only way he would move out of my house is if he is carried out in a body bag.”

My breath caught in my chest, and I looked at the warrant officer’s face to see if his fear matched my own.  All I saw was calmness and kindness.

“Okay, ” he said.  “We’ll go serve him, and we’ll call you once he has been served.”

My client and I walked out of that police station, reviewed her safety plan, and made plans to meet for the follow-up hearing.  Only later did I have time to process the shock of the warrant officer’s calm response, but also his job position.  This man does this five days a week?  I knew that it was dangerous work.  Just a few years before this time, Randolph County had lost Deputy Toney Summey when he was killed while serving domestic violence warrants.  Now, though, I saw the danger in a new light.

I saw the face of a woman who needed a dangerous job to be done on her behalf, and who deserved to have her life protected.  I saw the face of a man who deserved to go home alive to his family that night.    I had a new appreciation for the work of someone who risks his life for people of all walks of life, on a government salary, while also having his profession constantly critiqued and his motives questioned.

Donovan, make no mistake about this… people make mistakes, and someone has to do the job of responding when mistakes are made.  Remember this, too:  There are evil people in our communities.  So, there is a need for a trained and organized group that can work swiftly and efficiently to restrain evil.  

Just in my relatively short time working with crime victims, I have heard the sadistic voice messages of a stalker.  I have seen the bruises, lacerations, and bite marks that are the handiwork of abusers and violators.    I have positioned myself between a client and her husband in court as he coldly and calmly threatened her, after he had already promised her he would “kill our kids while you watch, then kill you and myself and we’ll all go to hell together.”  I have scheduled times to receive phone calls from an immigrant woman who was basically being kept as a prisoner in her home.

I will not oversimplify the issues surrounding policing in the United States, nor will I ever make excuses for any authority that abuses its power.  There is much work to be done.  Still, there are a few thoughts on the subject of police that I would like to share with you, my son.

Although I could never fully understand all that police officers contend with, as a public school teacher, I do understand what it’s like to have your profession constantly used in political power plays by politicians on both sides who have never done the job.  I find that almost everyone I meet has a strong opinion about teachers and about police, but far fewer concerned citizens seem interested in allowing highly-decorated and highly-respected teachers and police lead the discussion about how things could be better.

And trust me, good teachers and police want things to be better.  I have seen “bad” teachers at work more than the average citizen because I am a teacher.  Because I believe in the importance of my profession, and because nothing about my acceptance of this work load to salary ratio is because I want children to be hurt, it follows that I vehemently denounce teacher behaviors that harm children.  I constantly search my own set of teacher behaviors to try to avoid hurting children through some neglect or mishandling of a situation.  By the same token, good police officers believe in the importance of their profession, and they did not accept their work burden to salary ratio, nor the danger that comes just by putting on the uniform, because they want to hurt people.

The brave men and women in blue that I know and respect are individuals who vehemently denounce bad police behavior.  They also have ideas for how to make things better, but few are asking for their insight.  This is a loss to all of us, as their insight has its source in their years of experience within specific communities, and in their sincere desire to protect and serve.

If “all police are good” is an illegitimate argument (and I certainly think it is), then so is “all police are bad.”  Rather than take my side with either extreme argument, I see it through the same lens that I see arguments about the teaching profession.  If we can restore the honor of and support for the profession through a collective agreement about its value, then we can recruit the best of the best to the profession.  School principals do not like having to be “beggars” to fill empty positions in mid-August because they want the best possible people in place to teach our future.  Similarly, police departments want to be able to pick and choose the best of the best to serve their communities, and they do not want to keep officers who refuse to follow procedure or who find pleasure in power trips.  But how easy is it to recruit the best of the best to teaching or policing these days?

You know I am a person who both looks for the flaws in systems but is willing to work with others to authentically address the flaws.  On behalf of teachers and police who are like me, I want to shout, “Ask us!” when the national debate swirls around me.  The national debate about policing in the United States no doubt will continue to swirl.  As improvements are considered and implemented, of course various stakeholders with a vested interest should be included.  Still, I hope you understand the logic of giving an amplified voice to the people who actually do the job, and more specifically, to those who have proven through the years that they are doing it for the right reasons and with equal treatment toward all citizens.

I do not have all the answers about how to develop a stronger community where neither the mothers of black men nor the wives of men in blue wait up in fear on a nightly basis.  I pray that our community can move forward with both a sense of urgency and careful attention to truth and balance.  I will offer two ideas, though, for how our communities could be stronger and healthier.

Give the police more partners.

I love the idea of a community leader in uniform who can get the bad guys, help a struggling alcoholic, and mentor the local youth all in a day’s work as much as the next Andy Griffith fan.  But even our relatively small town is no Mayberry, and our local police forces face a whole host of social problems that the best of both government and private organizations struggle to address and contain.  Many police officers would love to have more frontline partners when they respond to homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking, child pornography, missing children, neighborhood disputes, impaired drivers, identity theft, suicide attempts, wellness checks, and death notifications.  Many police officers would welcome a more comprehensive and resource-backed response when they find a three-year-old and four-year-old who have been left at home alone for two days.  By the way, many would also welcome a way to not keep seeing those two sets of terrified eyes every time they try to sleep for the next few weeks after that discovery.

Get the bigger fish.

What a surprise that you don’t hear this discussed more… the reality that where there are corrupt police, they are often supported by and working with corrupt judges, city council members, business owners, traffickers, and politicians.  My son, do not forget that some of these seemingly upstanding community leaders will suit up and march with the people, but they have no true interest in rooting out the very corruption that lines their pockets.  And no one holds those individuals in higher disdain than honest police officers who understand better than you and I just how often the innocent pay for the crimes of the unprincipled powerful.  

A police officer should not be a “respecter of persons.”  A police officer should never be judge or executioner.  But we need brave men and women in blue, willing to accept the call to protect the innocent, help the injured, and hold the line.  Be a man who is sensitive to both the weary officer and to the one wronged by an officer.  Be a man who upholds just laws and never sides with the lawless.  Still, be a man who remembers that none of us has kept the law in every point, and that there must be a balance between law and grace.  After all, it is at the ultimate intersection of law and grace that we find the cross of Christ.

It is joy to the just to do judgment: but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity.  Proverbs 21:15

I love you forever,

Your mom

31 for 41: Pain’s Pupil

Dear Donovan,

One of the days in Bolivia that I will never forget was a day spent sorting through corn kernels.  It wasn’t the corn that made it memorable, but rather the sound of a girl sucking on her tooth.  Weird beginning to a story, I know!  The girl was about our age and it was her family that we were helping for the day.  She explained to us that she had a toothache, but other than that quick mention of her pain, she never complained as she worked all day and hosted us college girls.

We felt so bad for her.  All day long, we could hear that sound of a person trying to get just a moment of relief.  We did not see that girl again after that day, but we shared her situation with our field supervisor later.  Our field supervisor explained to us that the girl’s family most likely would not have the money for an extra trip into the city, much less money to pay a dentist.  The hardest part for me to hear, for some reason, was that these families usually did not even have access to ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain relief.

I thought of that girl the next year when I found myself in need of a root canal.  The nerve pain was the worst pain I had ever experienced to that point, but I only had to endure about a week of it before the root canal.  During those days of intense pain, I was so grateful for Tylenol.  I was also so grateful to know that my pain would have a definite end, since a skilled professional would soon take care of the problem.  Mentally, knowing that this pain would soon end made it more bearable.  I thought of that girl in Bolivia, sucking on her tooth, with no Tylenol and no way of knowing how or when her pain would end.

I think that experience, of hearing the evidence of her pain all day long, and then experiencing the same pain myself, was my first adult lesson about physical pain.  I have since learned that there is always a lesson in the midst of my physical pain.  When my feet hurt after walking the entire zoo path at the NC Zoo, I am reminded of the privileges I have to use disposable income for fun family experiences.  When I am alone in the night, miserable with nausea and pain from some stomach bug, I am gifted just a moment’s understanding of what chemotherapy patients are battling.  When Fibromyalgia pain is at its worst, it teaches me all kinds of lessons about family, perseverance, priorities, and grace.

These lessons extend even to my sons’ pain.  It hurts me so much to see you or one of the twins in pain.  In those moments of wishing I could take the pain for you, I am reminded of the purest love that would accept another person’s torment so that she does not have to endure it herself.

Through all of this, I see that pain is my teacher.  The lesson gives meaning to the pain.  And sometimes my own pain can even be sweet when I realize that the lesson is for someone else.  Without revealing personal details of students’ home lives, I can tell you I truly believe that some of the days when I had to limp around my classroom, it was all about particular students receiving a message that when adults are in physical pain, it does not give them a right to be mean to children.  Sweeter still is the idea that my own sons might be better men if they see their mother endure physical pain with grace.

Sometimes, the “why” behind the pain is revealed.  When I had such intense pain that a doctor was sure I had appendicitis, a scan instead revealed a tumor that otherwise might have only been discovered under much worse circumstances.  The tumor did not cause me pain at that point, and the terrible mystery illness that led to its discovery was actually a gift.  I think that sometimes we get to see the “why” so that in other times, we can trust that there is purpose in our pain when days are dark and we can’t seem to find a lesson anywhere.  

As you go through life, remember that physical suffering presents an opportunity to be pain’s pupil.  Be willing to learn its lessons.  Accept pain with grace, but also remember that how you treat your body can absolutely reduce or increase physical pain.  Also remember that all around you, there will be people fighting their own battles with physical pain.  They will also be fighting the mental battles that come with that pain.

I don’t know what the future holds for me, in terms of how much physical pain I will face with Fibromyalgia, or with other lessons in pain that may come my way.  I can tell you that I want to keep learning through pain and be an example to you and the twins.  Of course, I battle fear about how bad my pain might become.  I battle the fear of Brandon, you, and the twins having to take care of me.

I confess that I do not always handle my physical pain with grace.  I don’t always trust God as I should, and sometimes I am a very stubborn student.  But I try to let physical pain actually improve my life through the lessons I learn.  I also try to remember that my pain now is preparing me for the next life.  Singing the hymn “Because He Lives” takes on a whole new meaning, especially that line “I’ll fight life’s final war with pain” that I didn’t really understand when I was your age.  Out of brokenness comes life and beauty.  

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  II Corinthians 12:9 

I love you forever,

Your mom

31 for 41: The System and the Servant

Dear Donovan,

When you were in fourth grade, I think it was, you came home upset one day.  Your strong sense of justice had been offended.  You had labored over a practice end-of-grade test with the promise of an ice cream party for the class who scored the best on the practice exam.  You achieved a very high score, but your class did not win the contest.  On the playground, a boy who told you that he did not try hard on his test and received a very low score flaunted his ice cream in front of you, a treat he received since his class won the contest.

If we examine the contest from a distance, we observe a plan that was organized to give students an incentive to try their best.  The plan was surely born out of a sincere and innocent intention to provide teachers with fresh and accurate data about student strengths and weaknesses, with time to address needs before the real exam.  An unintended result, however, was a frustrated and downtrodden little boy who had worked so hard and received nothing in return, from his point of view, while another was rewarded for doing almost nothing.

The system had a flaw.  This is a part of the human experience.  You could go around and ask individuals, “Has there been a time when a system designed to help you actually failed you or even harmed you?”  You would soon have enough material for several volumes on this study.

A government, business, or organization seeks to produce some desired outcome.  Because the entity needs humans in order to produce the desired outcome, but the entity cannot control all of the everyday activities of the humans, the entity designs systems meant to control behavior and therefore control outcomes.  Because humans are imperfect, we can argue that systems are in fact needed.  But inevitably, systems fail in part or in their entirety, and sometimes produce the exact opposite outcome of what was desired.

Take the example of a company that is trying to produce a more positive culture among its employees who work in a fast-paced, high-stress environment.  The hope is that if the work culture is more positive and employees are happier while working, productivity will be higher, and then so will profit.  It sounds like a win-win situation, right?  A group of company executives devises a system in which verbal positive contributions from employees are intentionally noted and praised.  “If Dan sends a positive email to his supervisor about that day when Maria helped him, then we will highlight Dan at our next department meeting for being positive.”

Conversely, if an employee is perceived to be making negative comments about a procedure or another team member, he could be subject to private meetings with a supervisor or notes in his personnel file.  This system may seem fair enough for a group of professional adults.  The thing to remember, however, is that the system is both designed and carried out by imperfect humans.  A new, insecure supervisor perceives a veteran employee’s observations about the problems with a specific procedure to be negative.  The employee suddenly finds himself being chastised.  Other employees, who agreed with this veteran employee’s assessment of a problem, take note.

In just a short amount of time, an entire group of employees learns to remain quiet when they discover procedural problems, when a co-worker keeps making the same mistake, or when they have an idea for procedural improvement.  The incentive was supposed to be for positive contributions, but the system instead created an incentive to keep quiet for fear of being labeled as a negative employee.  Instead of increased productivity and happiness at work, problems go unaddressed and become worse while employees feel stifled and even trapped.

Let me offer you another example that I saw play out repeatedly when I used to accompany crime victims in district court.  At the end of 2005, the misdemeanor crime of sexual battery became a “reportable conviction” in North Carolina.  This meant that individuals convicted of this crime now had to register as sex offenders just like those convicted of felony sexually violent crimes.  That sounds like a very powerful systematic statement against sexual crime and in the interest of protecting victims and the general public, and I would never argue against the intention of that statement.

In court in 2007, however, so many of my clients who were victims of clear, evidence-backed cases of sexual battery were approached and sometimes even “guilted” into agreeing to have the charge changed to a simple assault charge.  “He will plead guilty to simple assault and you won’t have to testify.  We just don’t want him to be marked as a sexual offender,”  they were told.  Many clients agreed, understandably, to avoid having to recount the details in a room full of strangers.  Perhaps this measure did spare lots of women from having to testify.  Still, two outcomes that I repeatedly saw with my own eyes were: 1) fewer sexual offense convictions, and 2) a message sent to sexual crime victims that they should give up their own desire for truth and justice so that their perpetrators, “otherwise upstanding business men” for example, do not have their records blemished.

I saw yet another problem within a system designed to protect crime victims as I served women facing partner violence.  Because data collection through the years shows that many women who are murdered by a partner are killed by a gun and within a short period of time after separating from the partner, systems have been put in place to try to protect women when they separate from an abusive partner after an escalation of violence.  When a person obtains a domestic violence protective order, federal law prohibits the partner from possessing a firearm.  The intent of the system is to protect the abused and indeed, protect even the abuser from committing further crimes.

I do not disagree with this measure, but I did often watch what was meant to be a protection instead become a barrier.  So often, when the abused wife or girlfriend of a person who must possess a weapon for his/her profession found out that the person would lose the ability to possess a weapon if a protective order was granted, they suddenly felt that the court had no help to offer them.  Many women calculated the possible cost of that person losing his/her weapons and job, and decided that they could not ask for help or gain protection under a system that truly was designed to protect them but could not serve them.  

So what are we to do?  A society needs systems in order to function as a collective group.  Indeed, the very institution of government was ordained by God (Romans 13:1).  You know I like my own systems as good as the next recovering perfectionist.  I already have my digital calendar for the next school year ready to go, and having my clothes organized by the colors and order of the visible light spectrum just makes perfect sense!  Still, as you go through life, I always want you to be keenly aware that man-made systems have their limits. 

When you are working under a system, honor its intentions but know that there will be flaws.  When you are the one responsible for creating a system that will affect others, be willing to look past your own ideas and desired outcomes and consider who could be harmed instead of helped.  When anyone tries to sell you a system, so to speak, when it comes to government or economics or self-improvement or organized religion, remember that each system both has natural limits and should be limited by humans in the degree to which it exerts power over individuals.  The idea of a one-party system in which the government controls all resources but everyone’s needs are met might sound like a great idea to some, but I think you know how those experiments have worked out so far.

Here’s the other important thing I want you to see about systems.  Running congruent to this inevitability of systematic flaws is the necessity of a servant to remedy the flaw.  If a situation is to be remedied after a system fails, it must be because individuals intervene to help.  Imagine how you might have felt encouraged to carry on if someone had acknowledged your hard work on that practice EOG and rewarded you with ice cream, or at least had acknowledged that the situation was not fair to a little boy who took the test as seriously as he was asked to take it.  Imagine how many women might still be alive if we could address barriers to gaining court protection.

Think of those times when a system failed you.  If it was made better or made right, it was because some individual took on the role of servant.  Because of this, do not support the system at the expense of the individual.  A system can be beautiful on paper, but completely ineffective in practice.  Would you rather the twins have a kindergarten teacher whose room looks like a Pinterest pin but who does not love five-year-olds, or would you rather them have a teacher who has no posters or classroom library but who is excited about the growth potential of every single student on her roster?  Given the choice, I would choose the loving teacher with an empty classroom every single time.

Do you remember another time when you came home upset about the injustices in the world even though you had been able to pet a baby alligator?  You were in kindergarten yourself, and since you had sold enough items for the school fundraiser (aka your mama bought enough items), you were allowed to go see zoo animals in the school gym.  Every five-year-old in your class who got to go to the gym had also sold enough to pet a baby alligator (you’re welcome)… except for one single student.  Your heart was broken because his heart had been broken when he could not pet the baby alligator.  Your only consolation was in knowing that Ms. Elliott had taken your friend and made him a special alligator picture that no one else had the honor of receiving.  You see, when the system designed to raise school funds ended up hurting a little boy, it was an individual teacher who stepped in to soothe the ache.

This is why I always want you to be aware of the limitiations of systems, and the need for servant leaders.  When systems falter or fail, we need people to step in with a willingness to serve others and not themselves.  This is why I want you to be a leader who is as interested in training and supporting humans as you are in tweaking systems.

Finally, I want to direct your attention to a system of rules instituted thousands of years ago.  God gave Moses ten commandments, and hundreds of subsequent laws were added to the Mosaic Law to guide behavior.  The Law-giver was and is Perfect, but there was still a problem with this system for humans.  Being imperfect, no human could fulfill this law in all of its points.  That’s why the Servant who was Perfect came to Earth and purchased our redemption.  A Servant had to step in when the law could not give us what we needed, which was a way to be made perfect.  What the system could not do for us, the Savior did.  May you and I both live in the shadow of such grace, and may we be willing to show grace to others as servants to people who are hurting.

For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.  John 1:17

I love you forever,

Your mom










system and the savior



31 for 41: Mama Bear

Dear Donovan,

When I was working for the Victim Services division of a nonprofit organization, I was once sitting in a meeting with professionals who serve families in crisis.  A psychologist was talking about factors that help children to be resilient in the face of terrible circumstances.  I really respected what this woman had to say, as she had years of experience counseling traumatized children, and conducted forensic interviewing of children who had been sexually assaulted.

I heard her say, “The factor that seems to help children be resilient after trauma, more than anything, is having the unconditional love of a mother.”  It hit me… that’s why I made it.  Second only to God’s grace, I believe, having my mom’s unconditional love was what helped me to survive and to experience success as a young person, in spite of very intense internal struggles.  As I write more to you in coming days about my struggles, I think you will understand even more what I mean when I say her love preserved me.

On my birthday, I want to honor your grandma, my mom, for the priceless gift of unconditional love that she has always given me.  Wherever I was, in whatever state of mind I found myself, in happy times and in dark times, I have never doubted her willingness to help me or worried that I could not come home.  I dare say that no one in this world has prayed more for me, or for you, than her.

As you walk through life, I want you to remember that every single person you encounter has been profoundly affected by his or her relationship with a mother, or the lack thereof.  Some people had wonderful relationships with loving mothers.  Some people feel the loss daily of having lost a mother.  Some people still long for a meaningful relationship with their mother.  Some people are searching for their birth mother.  Some people never experienced that constant, unconditional love of a mother that every child deserves.  Some people have faced unimaginable pain at the hand of an abusive mother, or from a neglectful one. Whatever the experience, it shapes the person.  If you are sensitive to people’s experiences with their mothers, it will make you a more compassionate and understanding man.

The same conclusions can be drawn for fathers as well, of course.  I hope that if and when you are a father, you will ensure that your children always know that you love them completely and unconditionally.  Along with you living as a godly father before them and loving their mother, it is the greatest gift you can give my grandchildren.  That is also why you should let God choose your wife, setting up the best possible chance for your children to see a healthy marriage and have a loving mother.

I close this letter with a different version of a story about a girl and three bears.  In the summer of 1997, I participated in an Outward Bound tour that included a “solo” camping experience.  For three days and two nights, I was by myself with a sleeping bag, a plastic tarp and some string, my journal and pen, and one sandwich bag full of food.  One afternoon during that solo time, I was sitting on a rock bed by the edge of a creek.  On the other side of the creek, the land rose fairly steeply along the Appalachian Trail.  I heard something, and looked up to see a mother black bear and two cubs coming down that slope toward the water.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t breathe for a long time.  Since the mother had cubs with her, I was thinking there was a considerable probablity that I would be eaten once she saw me.  As I sat frozen in place, the mother bear arrived at the creek and began to drink, the two cubs clumsily bounding down to the water after her.  They never saw me, but she did.  She turned her head, looked at me, and then calmly turned around and headed back up the mountain.  The two cubs did not seem to protest or question.  They simply turned and followed their mom to the same area from which they had come, until I could no longer see the bear family in whose home I was camping.

The mama bear saw a danger that the cubs did not see.  That’s how it is with us moms sometimes.  We want our children to have fun.  We don’t mind you asking “why” as you try to understand the world.  But we are constantly on the lookout for dangers to our children, as mama bears will do anything to protect our cubs.  Your grandma has always been that way with me, and I have tried to be that way with you.  Of course, I haven’t been a perfect mom.  Still, I hope you can see that my decisions, even when they don’t make sense to you, are about keeping you safe from harm in the many different forms it can take.

I love you unconditionally, my son.  I am so proud of you, but there is also nothing you could ever do that would cause me to stop loving you.  My heavenly Father is the Perfect Parent example to us, and He has never stopped loving me, even when I doubted that.  My love for you is forever, but His love for you is forever and perfect.

The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.  The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.  Psalm 121: 7-8

I love you forever,

Your mama bear


31 for 41: When I grow up

Dear Donovan,

When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor.  That’s why I minored in Chemistry and worked with a surgeon in the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2000.  My path seemed to be set, but I struggled with doubts about whether or not I would be happy on that path.  I think meeting Ana in the summer of 2018 had a profound impact on me.  Then in 2019, another summer trip gave me further cause to reconsider my career path.

I had an internship in New York City, working for an organization that served homeless populations in the city.  I spent my mornings tutoring men in Math as they prepared to take a test to earn a high school equivalency diploma.  All of these men had been homeless, and most had been through a detox program before being ready to focus on furthering their education.  The program I worked for provided these men with housing and other services like the tutoring I was allowed to help with that summer.

These men were not lazy or careless, as some might think would be common traits of men who had been homeless.  To the contrary, as a general rule, the men I tutored were quick-witted, deep thinkers, diligent to tasks, and very personable and kind.  As I learned these men’s stories over time, the other general rule was that they all had suffered greatly from lack of opportunity, especially when it came to education and mental health care.  It was not lost on me, also, that the single most significant way in which the program I was working for was serving the homeless was by providing education in multiple ways.  The goal was to help individuals acquire a skill and a piece of paper that could open doors.

The short version of it all, then, is that I changed my mind about medical school during my senior year of college and instead decided to become a public school teacher.  That is not to put down, in any way, the incredible profession that is being a doctor, nor the countless opportunities that physicians have for educating individuals and families.  I just knew that I wanted to teach.

What I did not count on, however, was the reaction I received from many individuals who clearly thought that being a doctor would have been a much better idea than being a teacher.  Twenty years later, I think the sentiment remains the same for some people.  I do not regret my career decision one bit, and I think you know that, but I have never told you why I am so satisfied with the decision.  That’s the purpose of this letter.

Many years ago, I was watching a daytime television talk show and saw a feature on a military medical surgeon.  He was highly revered in both the military community and the medical community, and had been offered prestigious positions that would secure his exemption from having to do more overseas military tours.  Instead of accepting a comfortable position, he kept choosing to do more tours in dangerous places.  The talk show host asked him why he would make such a decision.  Summarizing with my words, his answer was this:  “When our military men and women are injured and need a surgeon quickly, they deserve to have the best doctors waiting to operate on them.”

That idea has always stuck with me since hearing his words.  I am not trying, in any way, to place myself on the same level as a teacher as this man was in his own profession.  But I do want to be a top-notch teacher and fulfill the same idea as what he was saying.  When you and the twins walk into a classroom, I think you deserve to have the best of the best when it comes to quality educators.  I think we should want that for all of our children.   If our classrooms are filled with only the highest quality of teachers, because we have put in the work to make it that way, then more doors will be open to students.  Each year that I choose to enter the classroom, I am making that statement in the best way I can and trying to be a part of that solution.  I am choosing to value children, honor their potential, and help cultivate their gifts.

Another reason that I keep choosing to teach is because of how much I cherish the beauty and importance of the teaching and learning experience.  From my viewpoint, each person I encounter can teach me something, and each person I encounter is capable of amazing growth.  Our society has lost a bit of that treasure found in having the older share wisdom with the younger, the expert teach the apprentince, and the joy of attaining a new skill.  Education should not just be about getting a piece of paper.  I try to send the message that education is about discovery, developing a strong work ethic, communication, cooperation, excellence, and maintaining a free society.

Finally, I want you to know that I keep teaching because I believe it is what God wants me to do.  And from that belief that He placed me where I am flows the desire to do my best and serve those around me.  I am clear on Who I work for, and I know that my work has meaning.  All of these things are in alignment because I am where He placed me.

I believe that each of us is created for a purpose, and that if we do what our Creator called us to do, that is the place where we will be most satisfied.  There is a place of meaning and fulfillment for each person.  So as you move through your senior year and consider that question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?,” do not look first to money or position or notoriety or comfort.  God created you for a purpose, and He knows where you will flourish and be at peace.

And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men;  Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.  Colossians 3: 23-24

I love you forever,

Your mom




31 for 41: The Pursuit of Happiness

Dear Donovan,

The fourth day of July is just an ordinary day in Bolivia.  That’s where I spent our Independence Day in 1998.  There were no fireworks or cookouts in the rural town of Colon Sur, of course.  The only celebration was just three young college girls from the United States enjoying some strawberry soda and cookies.

Our days in Colon Sur were spent visiting the adobe homes of some of the most hospitable people I have ever met, helping out with household projects and practicing our Spanish.  Many of our evenings were rich because we spent them with the children of the town.  They laughed at my funny accent, listened with curiosity when we spoke to each other in English, and played games with us.  The only child we could never make friends with was a young boy who ran and hid every time he saw us approach his house.  According to his mother, the only white woman he had encountered in person before us was a nurse who gave him a shot.

I loved all of the children, but the one I still think about the most is a girl named “Ana.”  Due to an accident when she was a toddler, she had lost her hearing.  Since there was no government program or private service to help Ana and her family, she could not communicate with others….well, I shouldn’t say she couldn’t communicate.  She could not sign, but she did smile all the time, sit dutifully in a desk each school day and mimic the other students’ behaviors, and embarrass the boys on the soccer field with her skills!  We were told there was a surgery that most likely could restore some of her hearing, but that it would cost thousands of dollars that her family could never earn in a lifetime as farmers in rural southern Bolivia.

When I start to become discontented while sitting in my air-conditioned home with indoor plumbing, parasite-free water, wireless Internet, Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, a closet full of clothes, cabinets full of food, toys that make my children smile lying in every corner, and automobiles outside, I think of Ana.  She and her family possessed not one of those things that Americans typically acquire in our pursuit of happiness, but she found ways to be happy.  Ana helped me realize two very important things about my own life:

First, my ability to actively pursue happiness in life has been much greater than that of many humans, simply because of where I was born.   Just think of how Ana’s life would have been different if she had her accident as a young girl in the United States.  Even if her family was poor, she most likely would have had both corrective surgery and years of individualized education by the time she reached the age at which I met her.

I try to keep this awareness in mind as I live my days.  You know that I love designer shoes and overpriced coffee, but I do try to stay grateful for all of the opportunities Brandon and I have to pursue happiness for ourselves and for you and your brothers.  When I sit down at a nice restaurant, I remind myself that I am among a minority of humans who get to do that.  If you can keep that awareness about you as well, it will alter how you respond when the waiter brings the wrong cut of steak.

The second realization that Ana’s beautiful smile offered me is that the pursuit of happiness doesn’t always lead to happiness.  How many millionaire celebrities could we name who had it all and epitomized the American Dream, but were still miserable?  I don’t point that out to you from twisted jealously, but out of a sincere sadness for those people with incredible talents and opportunities who still could not find happiness.   Ana had almost no opportunities, and many of her talents would surely be trapped in her silent world.  Still, she exuded kindness to others and displayed a contentment at her school desk that defies explanation.

When I started writing this letter to you today, I did not anticpate that I would cry.  But I did.  I cried thinking about just how much is lost when children do not have access to resources.  My consolation is found in a desire to teach you and the twins to make the most of your own opportunities, and help others to have opportunties.  The other consolation I have is to remember how much beauty exists in children in spite of tragedy and loss.

One day in that tiny town in Bolivia, the three of us girls were able to spend some time with just Ana.  It was early evening, so the clouds were starting to roll over the mountains, creating a beautiful backdrop to our playtime.  We had so fallen in love with Ana that we wanted her to have time away from the other children to pick out stickers that she liked and use our crayons for a bit without having to share.  (We were not allowed to give the children any gifts other than stickers.)  We started blowing bubbles, something none of the children there had, and Ana was delighted to see the bubbles float around us.

I remember Ana gently taking the bubble wand from the hand of “Mara.”  Ana dipped the wand into the bubble mix as she had seen us do, but when she blew, she blew too hard and no bubbles magically appeared.  Ana looked disappointed, and the three of us couldn’t take that look as she handed the wand back to Mara, so we decided to just keep blowing bubbles for Ana.

I will never forget the moment when Mara was about to blow bubbles and suddenly, two small fingers swiftly appeared in front of Mara’s mouth, taking measure of the strength of her breath.  That was all Ana needed.  She promptly but politely regained the bubble wand from Mara and began blowing bubbles with expert skill, while three girls from the land of the free silently fought with our emotions and our tears.

The beauty of that moment is something I cannot put into words.  Resilience.  Children have it.  It’s why they can create so many amazing things and should be offered the best we as adults have to give.

I am thankful that my sons were born in a country with so many opportunities to puruse happiness.  Be a man who wants to preserve that particular type of freedom.  Be a man who lives with a grateful awareness of what you have.  Finally, my son, remember that for all of your pursuits to obtain happiness, true joy is still a different quality that can only be found in Christ.

But godliness with contentment is great gain.  I Timothy 6:6

I love you forever,

Your mom