Every year, my birthday falls in the midst of the finals rush. May 6th is a popular time for exams, research projects, and other common end of the year gifts given by professors.
But perhaps the coolest part about my birthday has nothing to do with the academic calendar. I am one of those blessed few who happens to share a birthday with a parent. In 1985, on his 36th birthday, my dad got the freshest birthday present ever: me.
(even the crickets are silent)
Over the years, we have shared birthdays together and shared them apart. But the best thing that my dad shared with me was not his birthday, though to be honest, they stopped being about him the moment I was born. After me, all his birthdays were belated because he shared it with his child. That's just the sacrifice of a parent, I suppose, and not one I fully appreciated until I started to enjoy celebrating my godsons' holidays more than my own. Buying presents for those you love, even when it takes focus off of you, truly does bring joy to the day.
But what my dad gave me, the gift to which I owe the greatest of debts, is faith. Of course, as a good Lutheran, I believe that the gift of faith actually comes from the Holy Spirit in baptism. Yet, from that moment, my father encouraged a life formed by faith.
As a small business owner, his faith kept him offering insurance to employees even after it zeroed out any profits for business improvement. He valued the life and health of the people he worked with more than a growing economic footprint.
As a citizen, he always sought to vote in ways that reflected God's goodness in the world. Even when we disagreed about how that worked out politically, I could always trust that he was trying his best to be faithful to God first.
As a husband and father, he sacrificed constantly for our family. Paying for education and vacation, encouraging exploration and experimentation, he allowed us all luxuries he rarely took himself. He lived self sacrificially.
Perhaps my favorite story about my dad is this one: We we're once Christmas shopping, just the two of us, at Belden Village in North Canton, OH. I was probably a middle schooler. We ate a Joe's Crab Shack (that classy establishment), and our waitress was wonderful, if a bit distracted. As we got to the close of our meal, we saw someone, presumably her mother, walk in with a young boy, probably eight or nine, who she sat at an out of the way table with some crayons and a Sprite. We asked about him, and she said it was her son, who her mom could no longer watch because she had to work, and whose dad had left a few months before. She was working this job and another to help care for him, and had stopped her college studies in order to ensure he could continue his own education uninterrupted. We thanked her for sharing, said we would pray for her and him, and she handed us our check. Soon after, without flinching, dad left one of those tips that you hear about, the ones that are like five times the cost of the meal. As an eighth grader, a few hundred dollars at Christmas seemed like laying out Fort Knox.
But here's the kicker that I learned later on in life. Only a few years before that time, our family had lost money in the stock market, in large part because of a decision by our broker, but on which my dad had approved. I didn't know it when I was young, but one day we had seven figures of money, and then it was all gone.
And my dad still, at Christmas, chose to make a radical act of love to someone who needed it, even though we no longer had the same kind of financial cushion. We weren't ruined, but I distinctly remember a time when our spending habits changed. But my dad's giving habits didn't.
The gift my dad gave me was the example that faith mattered more than security, that living his baptism carried beyond personal struggles or stock market meltdowns. The gift my dad gave me was the image that trusting Jesus mattered more than what I got for Christmas, that the livelihood of this young woman and her younger son mattered just as much as what kind of Christmas we might have.
So, here a week after my birthday, after our birthday, I am most thankful for my father who showed me what it was like to trust our Father in heaven.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.