My son John Paul just turned 18 years old. I fired off my first letter to him when he was four days old. “All of this is to simply say that you were wanted and we are so glad that you have arrived,” I concluded back in 1996. When he turned 13, family friends wrote him encouraging notes of advice as he experienced a non-kosher version of a Protestant bar mitzvah. “I don’t suppose that anything magical happened when you woke up and had officially turned 13,” I wrote. “Nevertheless, this is an important time for me to tell you again how much I love you and how unbelievably proud I am of you.”
As he packs up for college, this is some of the letter I wrote to him (shared here with his permission).
Dear John Paul:
Rolling Stone recently published a fascinating profile of Annie Clark (who performs her rock ‘n’ roll under the stage name of St. Vincent). When she was young, Clark’s grandmother baptized her in a kitchen sink “with a cigarette in one hand and a martini” in the other. Her parents were not particularly devout Christians, but the baptism meant a lot to the grandmother and her parents believed “it wouldn’t do any harm.”
I laughed because of the similarities and dissimilarities between her experience and your baptism. Your mom and I wanted your grandfather to perform this ancient ritual because it is an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace that brews within you. When your grandfather baptized you in the waves of Maui, those of us on the beach and the nearby sea turtles were witness to this sacred moment.
The difference between Annie Clark’s parents and your own mom and dad is that we actually believe that your baptism is significant, sacred, and spectacular. When times are tough, I hope you can remember your baptism. It directly links you to innumerable generations of believers before you from every culture and from every tongue around the globe.
This letter is not meant to be a trite rah-rah cheer for Jesus. You are now an adult. Your life is a runway before you. Take off. Fly. You can choose your own path, cut your own trail, and make your own decisions. Sometimes that will be sweet relief – and at other times it will be exhaustingly miserable.
Life is not easier with God, but life is better with Him. You will not be richer, more handsome, or more successful with God in your life. That is a sexy lie. But when the sludge of life gets heavy, you will have a Sacred Heart to turn to. God’s not a genie in a bottle; not that predictable. Do you remember in The Chronicles of Narnia when it was asked if Aslan was safe? Mr. Beaver responded, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
That may not mean much at this moment, but later on in life it will become more profound. In this life, you will be faced with those who lack decency, self-respect, and compassion. Don’t follow their example. Reject cynicism. Reject apathy. Being good is tough. Doing good is a life’s calling. Live out your calling.
“I believe there’s a force of love and logic in the world, a force of love and logic behind the universe,” Bono observed. “And I believe in the poetic genius of a creator who would choose to express such unfathomable power as a child born in ‘straw poverty’; i.e., the story of Christ makes sense to me. … As an artist, I see the poetry of it. It’s so brilliant. That this scale of creation, and the unfathomable universe, should describe itself in such vulnerability, as a child. That is mind-blowing to me.”
It is mind-blowing. There is Love and Logic and Poetry in this life. In the midst of all that animates human existence, you are about to set off on a grand adventure. Seek truth. At the same time, do not be squeamish about living in awe of mysteries. Lean on love.
Your mom and I are so proud of you. You’ve grown up into being such a great man. I rejoice in everything that you have become.
We believe that you were fearfully and wonderfully made. You were not an accident. There is a loving Creator who handcrafted you into sheer awesomeness! Don’t lose touch with Him. The very power of the resurrection literally resides within you.
Don’t lose touch with your soul. The spiritual patron of our family is St. Patrick. Remember his simple prayer: “Christ beside me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.” If that is too cumbersome, simply remember the prayer of the old bluesman Blind Willie McTell: “Lord, have mercy.”
Always stick up for the outcast. Smile broadly. Defend the weak. Laugh frequently. Live honorably. Show respect. Tip generously. Spend wisely. Listen to James Brown and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Walk in love. Explore the world.
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Heschel. “Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
You are amazing. We love you and we will always be there for you.