Wineskins Archive

November 26, 2013

Letters to My Son (May-June 2005)

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By Michael Harbour

4 Letters written to his son on a variety of topics

What must it be like to grow up as a preacher’s kid?! You must have known some prejudice. People at school and people at church treated you differently because you were my son. They made assumptions about you. You and I both know that evaluating a person is a delicate and difficult task.

You have surprised people with the fact that you are not a plastic, one dimensional character. You have enough peace in your heart to be fun loving. Only anxious people are too fearful to be playful. Your mother and I are so pleased to see you joyful. We see that as a fruit of your faith.

Maybe there was a benefit to being the son of a preacher man.

As we send you out from under our roof, there is nothing more important to us than your faith. We still want to inspire that faith. What we do most sincerely know is that faith in God is a choice that you will make for yourself every day for the rest of your life. We do not get to make that choice for you. You made your initial declaration of your faith eight years ago. You were only nine years old, but you knew then that you wanted to give your whole life to the rule and reign of God. I have no doubt that as you have journeyed though these years of early adulthood, that you have questioned that choice. Every seeker doubts from time to time. It is my opinion that those who never doubt are living too small. They are risking too little of themselves as they live. Frederick Buechner says, “Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be.

Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there is no room of doubt, there would be no room for me.” You can find this quote in John Irving’s book, A Prayer for Owen Meany (and I highly recommend that you read the whole thing!).

What I have found, son, is that God is not coercive. God is so subtle in his ability to overwhelm us with evidence of his being, that we have the capacity to overlook it. When you are in your college courses, I hope that you will see the pervasiveness of God. As you study biology, physics, and mathematics, you will see systems of amazing complexity and order and functionality. As you study music you will be able to experience the aesthetic beauty of God. When you sing, when you make melody and harmony and symphony, your heart will resonate with the Divine. When you read poetry and great prose, you will see the hearts of humanity that in one way or another are reaching for what is right and best. In everything you read, there you may witness the shadow of the Holy One, the Creator and the true Muse. God is what we love when we go to the theatre. God is what we love about people. God is not coercive, but God is everywhere you look.


Son, you know that I have loved the Bible. I love it because of its literary elegance. I love it because of the humanity of its heroes. I love it most because it reveals God. God has a story and we are players in the story. God invites us to invest our lives in this story, to trust him with our whole selves. When we are baptized into Jesus’s death and resurrection, we are saying yes to God’s invitation.

I find that human beings (very much including myself) are unreliable. You cannot fully trust a human being. What Scripture says, and what I have also seen to be true is that we cannot trust even our own hearts. Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (17:9). Your mother and I have chosen to trust the God who is revealed in Scripture. Our view is that God is still active in our lives and in the world. We believe that we are loved by God, that we are his acceptable children. We believe that God has made us, and that he has equipped us to be useful in the world. We believe that he has made us to be his instruments for love in the world (not romantic love, but self-sacrificing, acting in the best interests of others love). I love the Bible because it gives me a touchstone, a standard useful to measure my experiences of being alive. Let your Bible, your prayers, and your church friends, be your compass and your touchstone.

Son, God is in you. I see His glory in you. As you go to college we encourage you to revel in God always. We hope that you will invest yourself in the Kingdom of God. We hope that you will continue to be in the community of Christians, living and serving there with all of your heart before the Lord. God has plans for you.
Have we told you, “You are our beloved son, in whom we are well pleased”? You are.

Another letter to my son about crisis management
There are 440 miles from our home to Abilene. It should take you about seven hours to drive home from college. We might be able to get to you in as little as six hours in an emergency. Of course, as you graduate from high school, as you leave the immediate comfort of our home, we want you to be equipped to handle a crisis on your own. Trouble, like conflict, is inevitable. We do not live in fear of trouble. Matter of fact, we are comforted by the knowledge that trouble is coming. We are not under the illusion that life is somehow treating us unfairly when trouble comes. Trouble is an equal opportunity visitor. Jesus promised, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).

My son, you learned to drive in Houston! Your mother and I have worried about the potential for chaos if you were to be involved in a collision on these somewhat unfriendly highways. We know that you would keep your wits about you. We know that you would call for help. You can still do that, in times of trouble, even after you leave for college. However, you can also predict the questions that I might ask you. You can ask them of yourself in any crisis situation. You could even make a list of the questions and put them in with your auto liability insurance card.

Are you hurt? Sometimes when we are full of adrenaline we are not sure whether we are hurt or not. You know that our natural inclination in this family is to be unhurt. That may sound funny, but it is our predisposition. Marcus Aurelius, the stoic philosopher Roman emperor, said, “Efface the opinion, I am harmed, and at once the feeling of being harmed disappears; efface the feeling, and the harm disappears at once” (Meditations IV.7). Circumstances, or people’s opinions, and even some failures do not genuinely harm you. However, if you are bleeding, that is a pretty good sign that you are hurt.

If you are hurt, physically or emotionally, what are you going to do next? Every crisis is a decision point. You know that you need to call for help right away if you are physically hurt. If you are emotionally hurt, call for a friend who can keep you safe until you can tell your story, express your feelings, and explore your options.

Is anyone else hurt? God has called you to be his compassionate hands. You may be in a position to help them through physical or emotional contact. If they are physically hurt, call for help right away. You may want to learn first-aid and CPR. It would be very good to sign up for a course through the Red Cross. If there is no physical threat, but the person is in a state of acute crisis, help them talk. Ask them about their family or friends that they could call for support. Ask them about their plans for tomorrow, or the weekend. What you are doing is orienting them, helping them to see their context, putting their thinking mind back in motion.

What are you going to do to ‘work the problem’? When we are in a state of crisis, our problem solving ability has broken down. There was a scene in the movie, Apollo 13, when Gene Kranz, the flight director, reminded the staff at mission control who were managing the shocking crisis of a major malfunction to “Work the problem people.” This is the only way to prosper in the middle of a crisis. You cannot stand still and wring your hands in regret for very long. Examine all the facts. Do not assume that you have all the information you need for a decision. Ask questions. When you are confident of the facts, look at your options for action. Ask me, or ask your friends for ideas. In every situation, people usually have more than two options. Narrow your choices and make a decision.

When friends come to you in a state of crisis, these are the steps that you will take with them. You will ask them questions. You will reassure them that they are not alone. You will help them to think through the problem and take appropriate action. Sometimes I think crisis management is one of the major activities of being alive.

Every crisis is a pivot point. A crisis is an interruption of your routines. How you manage the interruptions will determine the course of your life. There is danger and there is opportunity. In Christ we believe that you cannot fail. You are our beloved son. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have over come the world.”

Another Letter to my son: On Work
There is a Christian rule that says that we must love one another. We must love our friends, relatives, associates and neighbors. We must even love our enemies. Scripture says that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her. There is no such command for liking people! We may have no option about love (acting in another’s genuine best interest), but we can choose to like a person. Son, I like you!

With these few weeks left before the life change that comes with high school graduation, I am writing these letters to you, giving you some fatherly advice, reinforcing the things that I hope you already know. For nearly eighteen years you have been living with us. We hope to have lived genuinely. You do not hear me saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” We are far from perfect, but that, too, is a part of the genuine life. Confessing our weaknesses is a part of the life we lead.

In this letter I would like to remind you of some very important principles about your work life. You know that your mother and I are wired to work. We believe that happiness and work are inherently related. When life is hard, we work. We believe that work is the best therapy for grief, for self-doubt, or for disappointment. You know that we are up early. We are never sorry to go to work. We do not believe that work is a necessary evil. Our work is as central to our lives as anything we do (except maybe for you and Jacquie). We are not ambitious to retire. The aim of our work is not to save money so that we may do something else. Of course, we see our work as service to God and to our fellow human beings. No matter what happens, we doubt if we will ever quit doing that!

Of course, we did not know what we were going to “be” when we began. Do not be overly anxious about what you will do with your whole life. When I was your age, I had grandiose plans. Curt Broome was studying nuclear engineering and I was studying business at University of Oklahoma. We were going to create a cutting edge energy company that would benefit the world and make us rich. Neither of us finished our degrees there! Curt went on to manage hotels. I went into restaurant management. When I met your mom, she thought she was going to be a social worker and a single woman! God had other plans for us. still. We worked hard at our crafts, and yet had an eye on the horizon, dreaming about what might be next. We have been in a constant state of preparation. We still believe that there are more adventures ahead.

Three months before I met your mother, your grandfather gave me a copy of The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. The words are a part of the legacy that you receive from me. Gibran says that “Work is love made visible.” He said, “It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear the cloth. It is to build the house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house. It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit. It is to charge all things you fashion with your own spirit, and to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.” Let all of your work be filled with love!

Whatever you do, do it with all of your might. You have heard me tell the story of Chris Handy, who worked for me in the 1980’s. Chris was known as the world’s fastest table busser. He cleaned tables at Crystal’s furiously. He would throw the condiments (napkin holder, salt, pepper, parmesan) in the air as he wiped the table, finishing before he had to catch them. He ran with his buss tub. People came to the restaurant, just to see the buss boy work! They would ask him if he was a part of the live entertainment. He was not, intentionally. They would ask him if we paid him extra to work that hard.

We did not. Then they would ask him why he did it. He said, “I am a Christian, and I am working this hard because God has made me able.” Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (3:23). When you work this way, you will never fail.

I have confidence in you, son. I am so proud to be your father. Oh, and I like you, too!

More Letters to My Son:
Letter to my son about love and romance

My beloved son in whom I am well pleased, as you approach your graduation day, as you commence a new chapter of your life, please receive these words of advice from your father about love and romance.

Love and romance, of course, are not the same things. I believe that romance is a feeling; a wondrous, captivating, intoxicating, and blinding feeling. People sometimes say that love is blind, but they mean “Romance is blind.” When your mother and I were engaged to be married, we were blind to one another flaws. We had none, in one another’s eyes! We really did have flaws, as you well know, living in our household these eighteen years. The day came when, after enough exposure to one another’s flaws, we woke from the romantic dream. What is it that holds a relationship together when we wake from the dream? The glue is true love.

Love is a decision to act in the best interest of another person. If you really love another person, you will act in such a way that they are blessed. You will not lead someone you really love into sin. That would be inconsistent with true love. You will not treat someone you love with disrespect. You will not act in such a way that diminishes them in their own eyes, or in the eyes of others. Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). When you decide to marry, you are choosing to love this one woman sacrificially. You take the initiative in love, just like Jesus does with us. He takes the first step to solve our problems, and there will be problems. Love is a choice that you make. The choice to love holds relationships together.

Perhaps you have heard me say that marriage is the completion of a triangle. The points of the triangle are passion, intimacy, and commitment. Intimacy and commitment make healthy passion possible. We live in a culture that is sex crazy. Yet, unbridled passion seems to break relationships (and hearts), not make them better. The bridle for passion is commitment and intimacy.

The practice of intimacy is the beginning place for relationships. When you meet a young woman who draws your interest, you will ask her questions about her ideas, plans, hopes, and values. She will ask you some of the same questions. The more you know her, the more you trust her, the more transparent you will be as you share your thoughts, feelings, and plans. When you share your real self with someone you are communicating real love.

Intimacy is risky. You may be hurt along the way. I encourage you to risk your heart only with women who have godly values, who understand the love of God. A godly woman will never wound you just for her own amusement. Sometimes, when we have our hearts broken, we put up barriers to shield our heart from vulnerability. Resist the tendency to retreat. Healthy intimacy, shared vulnerability, is the key to a happy relationship. In a marriage we continue to risk. We can risk because we promise to be faithful to one another, to commit.

Commitment is the promise to meet her needs as long as you are alive. What does she need? She needs non-sexual affection. You are promising to communicate your love for her, to cherish her presence in your life. She needs you to hold her hand affectionately. She needs a romantic note, or flowers. You do not do these things in order to receive her gratitude. You do these things not as a means, but as an end. You do them because you adore her. You never, in your whole life, stop doing them. When you marry, you promise to choose her, always.

She needs you to be her conversation partner. If she thinks that you are the one for her, she will be eager to talk to you. Listen. Do not listen just to collect the information that she is sharing, but listen to her heart and her thinking. Do not seek to solve her problems until she asks you what you think she should do! If you are thinking about solutions while she is talking, then you are not really listening. How will she know that you are listening to more than her words? Tell her what you think you hear. In these years before you marry, practice listening with women you like! Your life will be blessed as you learn to listen!

She needs to know what is going on with you. She needs you to share your feelings and fears with her. If anyone on earth should know what your weaknesses are, it is the woman who is your life partner. Her confidence in you soars when she has the opportunity to help you. You are promising to include her in your very real life!

She needs you to work hard and provide well for your future together. She will be counting on you to partner with her in making a life that meets your mutual goals, your shared dreams. In these years before you marry, this is a part of the dating dance. The young ladies you meet will be visualizing what kind of future she might have with you.

Can she risk her future with you? Will you be a great daddy to her children? All of these things are matters of commitment. This is what you promise your wife when you marry, and what you now practice on a smaller scale in your present relationships. My precious son, if you can hear these things, and, to some degree, put them into practice, you will find success, wondrous romance, and true love.

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