In my experience one of the most effective antidotes for a foul mood is the simple exercise of listing things for which I am grateful. A thoughtful review of such a list can cure a bout of self-pity like nothing else.
Creating real gratitude lists, mentally or in actual written form, is a common exercise this time of year as we celebrate Thanksgiving. Its one of the things that makes Thanksgiving such a healthy holiday.
Due in large part to the constant bombardment of advertising on TV, radio and social media, we spend so much time thinking about what we don’t have or what we wished we had that we often fail to enjoy and appreciate what we do have. And as Americans, we generally have way more than we need.
Its unfortunate that we only have one holiday that encourages us to consider how blessed we are. Perhaps even more unfortunate is that Thanksgiving is followed so closely by Christmas, a holiday that continues to be celebrated in a way that encourages unnecessary, wasteful spending. And this unhealthy spending quickly drowns out any small bit of gratefulness we may have cultivated around the Thanksgiving table.
Today I will refrain from putting together a gratitude list. Instead, I’d like to attempt to capture for you two moments in the not so distant past during which I caught a glimpse of the magnitude of my good fortune. In both instances I was with one of our two children. Both have grown into responsible young adults and are pursuing paths that Leslie and I are so proud of.
I am all too familiar with the sad, disheartening stories of many young people who have lost their way in this deluded and misguided world. Why, to this point, our children have avoided such a fate is beyond my understanding. And it breaks my heart that other parents live in worried angst over the lives of their children. I earnestly pray for these parents and situations and genuinely hope that ultimately the outcome will be joyous.
Harrodsburg, Kentucky – September 30, 2018
It’s the last day of September and the air remains slightly sullied by the last of summer’s humidity. Intermittently, mosquitoes, unaware that their days are numbered, annoy me with their high-pitched buzzing as they hover about my face. The air is still and the rays of the setting sun extend more and more horizontally as the bedazzled ball of orange eases ever so slowly down toward the western horizon. Apart from the rushing and gurgling of the nearby stream, the woods are still and quiet, interrupted only sporadically by the barking of a squirrel or the sharp cluck of a woodpecker.
The perspective provided by my perch some 20 feet above the leaf-strewn forest floor is a fitting reward for the awkward, wobbly climb I made moments earlier. Fortunately, my 26 year old son, Ben, coached me through my weak-kneed ascent up the hickory tree and into the stand from which we hope to harvest a deer in the dwindling afternoon daylight.
Earlier in the day, Ben had made his way into the woods to mount a stand for me near one of his own previously placed stands. And moments before, we had crept quietly together into the woods trying to conceal our presence as best we could. I soon caught a glimpse of the two stands from which we would hunt. A sort of quiet joy rose in me as I noted the close proximity of the two stands. I would be positioned in a tree only a few feet to the right of the tree Ben would occupy. Once seated, Ben would be to my left and just a few feet below me.
Perhaps you can understand the elation I felt that warm Sunday afternoon. That my 26 year old son had invited me to hunt with him would be enough to make most any dad smile. Add to that the fact that we would be hunting in close proximity to one another was icing on the cake.
You deer hunters out there are shaking your heads in disbelief. Placing stands that close together minimizes the chance that at least one of the hunters will bring home a prize buck. And furthermore, sitting near other hunters is an invitation to talk and talking is really a bad idea if you hope to have a successful hunt.
Well, I have a confession to make. While I really enjoy hunting, it’s not the primary reason I tramp through the woods in freezing temperatures, stumble across icy streams in total darkness, sprinkle deer urine on my boots and risk life and limb ascending my climbing sticks to sit for hours ensconced atop a tiny 16″x 20″ platform.
No. The chief incentive for this outlandish behavior is simple. To be with my son.
Before having children, never did I realize the joy of being a dad would run so deep. The memories of all the challenges and struggles of raising a child slowly fade into the background as you see your child gradually transform into a mature adult. I am so proud of my son, Ben.
Ben’s wife, Marriah, and their two boys, John (3 years old) and Tony (one year old), are well cared for as a result of Ben’s deep love and commitment. Their home is filled with warmth, security and joy.
A strong work ethic has always been one of Ben’s most prominent traits. As I have spent time at the mechanic shop where Ben works, it is obvious to me that he has become a respected leader there as well as a valued teacher and mentor for others. His work environment can be challenging at times. Ben is surrounded by many young men who are struggling with addiction, dealing with broken relationships, or are just generally off-track. I have seen Ben compassionately come alongside more than one of these young men to try and support them in difficult circumstances. And I know that he has brought light and life into their lives.
One only needs to spend a few minutes with either John or Tony to see how happy and secure the boys feel. And on top of that, I am so proud of the way Ben and Marriah have lovingly disciplined the boys so that the boys are not only obedient but also polite and respectful (well, most of the time…).
And I am overjoyed to watch the loving sacrifices Ben and his family make in order to care for Tony. You see, Ben and Marriah began to provide foster care for Tony when he was discharged from the neonatal intensive care unit in August 2017. Born as the third child of a drug-addicted mom, Tony barely survived his premature birth and continues to deal with the challenges of a baby born to an addicted mother. But through all the obstacles, Ben and Marriah have persisted in loving and caring for Tony. Now they are pursuing adoption. In a world filled with seemingly insurmountable problems and unimaginable pain, I greatly appreciate that my son and his family are doing what they can to make a positive difference.
Speaking of family, Ben and Marriah are strongly committed to their extended family. They make a special effort to spend time with their aging grandparents on both sides of the family. The joyous effect that their genuine love has had on Leslie’s 92 year old mom is especially moving and is making her final years on this earth so much richer.
And finally and perhaps most importantly, Ben (and Marriah) are insuring that the young Littrell family is firmly rooted in their faith in Christ. As a result of deliberate choices in how and with whom they spend their time, Ben’s family is well-supported not just by their extended biological family, but perhaps more critically, their spiritual family found in the body of Christ, the Church.
Perhaps you now understand better that deep sense of joy I felt when entering the woods on that late September afternoon. It is impossible to express the depth of gratitude I feel for being Ben’s dad. And on that Sunday afternoon, Ben’s placement of our deer stands communicated to me that, perhaps, Ben enjoyed being my son. What more could a father want?
Cahuita National Park – Talamanca, Costa Rica – June 16, 2017
Refreshed by a much anticipated night of air-conditioned sleep and a warm indoor shower, I found myself almost oblivious to the oppressive heat and humidity that had hounded us since our arrival 10 days earlier. We were in Talamanca, the remote and rural canton (think “county”) located in the far south-eastern corner of Costa Rica.
Leslie and I, along with two other friends from our church, had traveled to the tiny Costa Rican village of Shiroles to encourage and assist missionaries Kimi and Raul Molina. The Molina’s run Esperanza, a highly impactful missions organization with a focus on the under-served population in rural Talamanca. Our church has a long term relationship with Kimi and Raul.
Leslie and I had been drawn to visit the Molina’s by a more personal consideration. Our daughter, Bailey, was midway through an eight week stay with Kimi and Raul. Two years earlier Bailey had traveled here with a larger group from our church. As a result, Bailey decided to return on her own the following summer for a three week stay. And this summer, she was spending a full eight weeks here. So Leslie and I were also in Talamanca to pay a visit to our daughter and have the opportunity to serve alongside her.
Today, we were at the end of our 10-day trip, preparing to depart for home the following day. The previous evening had been spent in a small, family run hotel of sorts situated on the southeastern coastline of Costa Rica. We had come to this seaside hotel to spend some time debriefing about the experiences we had during our short trip.
Following a delicious pool-side breakfast that included (of course) rice, beans and plantains, we had followed a path set back about 30 yards from the ocean shore. We meandered along the path through the sea-side jungle enjoying the sound of the waves and hoping to catch a glimpse of the ever elusive sloths that call that area home. I felt strangely as if I had stepped on to the set of Gilligan’s Island.
The deep blue sky visible through the green canopy of the jungle and the accompanying sound of waves crashing into the sandy beach seemed almost unreal. We soon ventured out of the jungle and began to walk along the beach. Before long my heart was bursting with joy and thanksgiving as I replayed over in my mind numerous scenes of the past few days in which I saw Bailey more fully alive than I had ever seen her.
I had witnessed little Costa Rican children, who upon seeing Bailey, ran to her with excited squeals calling her name. Each child’s enthusiasm was rewarded when Bailey, stooping down to their level, received them into a warm, loving embrace. The broad smile on Bailey’s face and the brightness in her eyes clearly disclosed the genuine joy in her heart at being reunited with these children.
And Bailey seemed even more comfortable interacting with the elderly villagers. Old frail women would reach out gently to take Bailey’s soft, golden brown hands into their own hands which had been darkened and wrinkled by decades of hard, physical labor, rough living conditions, and the unrelenting sun. I saw in their old and venerable eyes and heard in their low, gentle voices the tender familiarity usually reserved for family members and close friends: my daughter had clearly won their hearts in the weeks preceding our visit. And Bailey had given them her heart in return.
I could not have been more proud – or more grateful. In fact, the gratitude that I felt in those moments of recollection was nearly overwhelming. It was during one of these moments that Leslie snapped the picture shown above of Bailey and I walking along the shore together.
The shy, subdued daughter that I had always tried to shield and protect had become quietly but undoubtedly vibrant and self-confident. All week, I had struggled with the heat, the humidity, the mountainous terrain, and the lack of all the comforts of home. But Bailey seemed unconscious of these things. In the midst of these difficult living conditions, Bailey was exuding joy and contentment. I kept thinking, “She is in her element.” By “element” I do not mean Bailey’s physical environment but rather her role there of serving, encouraging and supporting.
The path that had brought Bailey to this place had not been some sort of typical transitory teenage fascination with “missions” or a selfish desire to spend a summer in tropical paradise. No. Bailey had prayerfully and thoughtfully sought the counsel of several adults in the months before making the trip. She had also worked tirelessly during these months to raise the money for her trip. She had worked a part time job at Chic-fil-A, hosted a large yard sale, sold clothing and other items on consignment, prepared and served meals for small groups, sold floral arrangements at a church charity sale and parked cars at a large private Christmas party. She had sustained her interest and commitment over time and had taken a mature, responsible approach in preparing for her trip.
What more could I have hoped for in a daughter? Bailey had become more than I ever dreamed or imagined. She had become a young woman whose joy was most complete in serving others in the name of her Lord. Her desire was not for trendy clothes or popularity. The goal of her summer was not simply to relax or spend all day at the pool or on the beach. No. She was living in less than comfortable conditions in order to serve some of the “least and the last.” Wow.
Bailey continues to amaze me and her mom. Since returning from that summer in Costa Rica, Bailey has sacrificially served in Paraguay, Thailand and the slums of New Delhi, India. She is now in her sophomore year at the University of Kentucky and is doing well academically. She consciously has made the choice to live at home while in school in order to save money to support her travel in the summer. All the while, Bailey continues to live out her faith by immersing herself deeply into the Christian community at UK. She is also being faithful to her commitment to her home church, Centenary, by faithfully attending and serving on the Global Impact Team.
Finally, Bailey is now becoming an endeared aunt to her two nephews, John and Tony. Affectionately known as “Aunt B” (John came up with that on his own without any apparent influence from Opie or Andy). The boys squeal with joy when they see Bailey. I suspect as these boys grow up, they, undoubtedly like many others, will be grateful to have had such close relationship with such a remarkable woman. And like me, at some point they will experience the overwhelming sense of gratitude for being able to be a part of Bailey’s life. I know that I am certainly blessed to be the one she calls Dad.