To Dad on His Birthday

This is probably my longest post to date.  This post is a tribute to my dad.

When I look at this picture I can hear my dad laughing.  I believe that my dad has the greatest laugh in the world :).  I am often the one laughing with him- the kind with tears rolling down my face, while my mother rolls her eyes.  My dad and I share the same sense of humor, much to the chagrin of my mother.  He makes me laugh like no one else can.  Both of us being such visual people when someone tells a story we see it so clearly in our imagination that it’s unbelievably funny.  Just say the word “seeing-eye pony” and you’ll have us rolling on the floor in laughter, embellishing everything we can add to the image of said “seeing-eye pony.”

When I move back to the States in a few weeks I will be looking for a car.  I recently told Dad I wasn’t sure I could buy a car right away.  He then started laughing and talking about how he was imagining me riding a tricycle down the neighborhood.  With pink streamers.  And bells.  With my knees in my teeth.  Pushing up the steep hills that make up our neighborhood.  Holding up a whole line of cars behind me.  And it went on and on and on and on.  Now I can’t look at a tricycle without getting a huge smile on my face.

Whenever something is broken he talks about throwing it out in the yard.  The kitchen sink isn’t working, throw it out in the yard.  The chair is making that oh-so-very-annoying squeaky sound, throw it out in the yard.  Don’t push any buttons you’re not supposed to be pushing, or you’re going to sleep out in the yard.  What’s ironic is that his yard is impeccably neat and trimmed.  That grass is going to stay green no matter what he has to do.  We have a yard filled with gigantic beautiful trees, right against a golf course.  Raking those leaves is a monumental task, but this remains one of my absolute favorite things to do with my dad.  It’s a form of stress relief for both of us, actually.  However, even more monumental than leave raking season is acorn season.   These two seasons seem to coincide side by side with each other.  What seems like millions of acorns fall from the trees each year and imbed themselves into the ground.  On our hands and knees we gather trash can after trash can after trash can filled with acorns.  He will not rest until every single acorn and loose twig on the ground is accounted for.  Dad and I often joke about starting a rescue mission for squirrels.  It’s funny to us in our own unique way.  🙂

My dad is my favorite person in the world.  We are so alike in so many ways, yet we are different enough to keep it interesting.  He is a great thinker with a great mind, and yet he remains incredibly down-to-earth.  He is passionately driven, knowing that the way things are is not the way things have to be.  I’m convinced that this drivenness is going to cause an aneurysm someday, but what a way to go!  While he is one who holds strong to traditional values and heritage, at the same time he challenges the status quo.  He’s funny like that.  If you want to hire someone who is safe and goes along with everything and everybody just as it has been done at this church or this college for years without ruffling any feathers- sadly to say, he’s not your guy.   Ruffling some feathers certainly doesn’t win many popularity contests, as he has learned the hard way over the years, yet he remains true to his principles and sense of integrity.  People remember that.  His standards are high, but he imposes the same standards on himself as much as the next person, if not more so.  He is refreshingly honest, and at the same time knows when to speak and when to stay silent.  He doesn’t over-spiritualize, but, rather, he stays connected with culture so that his speaking and writing remain relevant to his audience.  He can be in the world without being of the world.

With over 30 years of ministry under his belt, 35 years of faithfulness to one wife, and the father of two grown children who also actively pursue God’s plan for their lives in ministry (and his first grandchild on the way), he seems to have accomplished much.  Ordained as pastor, having received his Doctorate of Ministry as well as a PhD in Organizational Leadership, we call him “Reverend Doctor Doctor Sessoms”.  Missionary in Indonesia, pastor, vice president of spiritual formation of a Christian college, student ministry launcher, director of leadership development, speaker, writer, consultant, mentor, marathon runner, university professor, Lausanne Congress board member, pioneer of new initiatives, founder and CEO of Freedom to Lead International are just some of the roles he has assumed. He has broken bread with some of the poorest people in the world, and he has dined with millionaires looking for way to invest their money.  Yet, no matter the company he keeps, he is still seen speaking the same story and message of Christ wherever he goes.  Over a million miles (no exaggeration) traveled with United Airlines alone (never mind all the other airlines) as he has ventured to various parts of the world to be with people where they are at.  By the world’s standards people would say that he has been very successful.

As he grows older, however, he doesn’t claim to have all the answers.  Far from it.  Instead, he says this: “As I get older the less I know- but there are three things that I’m absolutely sure of: There is a God.  I’m not him.  And Jesus Christ changed my life when I was 17 years old.”  He has also said, “I don’t claim to know anything…the truth.  I just know the One who is THE Truth.”

Dad’s greatest passion is seeing the potential in other people and developing that potential to be the leaders God would call them to be.  Raising up a generation of younger leaders to follow after the leadership model of Jesus Christ himself.  Not John Maxwell or Steve Jobs or even Moses, David, Joshua, or Paul.  Christ.

He believes primarily in the power of Story.  Yours.  Mine.  His.  Someone once said that the shortest distance between human beings and truth is a story.  Dad turns another year older today.  58 years and it sometimes seems like he’s just getting started.  His story does not end here, any more than it began 58 years ago.  Because, you see, his story started long before conception and will continue long after his death.  His story is wrapped in God’s story.   It is God’s story that began before the creation of this world and culminates in the resurrection of Christ.  It is a story that changes each of us, a story that we are each called into.  A story we are then called to share.

And while being used by God in this lifetime, Dad’s impact and legacy will continue.  People have been touched by Dad, and now they are starting their own churches and ministries, raising up leaders in their own midst.  People the world over have been greatly impacted by his leadership.  I know I have.

You would say that I pay this tribute to my dad by virtue of him simply being my dad.  And that’s a valid point that sits alongside all those “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mugs.   I mean, this is a guy who dresses up like Santa Claus in the 100-degree Indonesian heat and comes down the “chimney” to assure his delighted children that Santa did not forget about them when they moved to Ujung Pandang, Indonesia!  “Santa’s hands look just like Daddy’s!” I observe as a five-year-old.

Some people caution against putting people on a pedestal.  Because inevitably that person will fall off that pedestal.  And it is heartbreaking (and in a sense a betrayal) when that happens.  While there are so many great things I can say about dad, he’s also as human as they come.  I know it and he knows it.  He’s one of the most stubborn, particular people I’ve ever known, borderline OCD if you ask any of his family.  Yet, what makes him stand apart is that he will be the first to admit to this and show just how dependent he really is on the grace of Christ.  And, frankly, in this day and age, that is a rare thing for people to confess and be transparent about.

Some people can probably make similar tributes to their own fathers.  Sadly, many people can’t.  So many of our world’s problems can be traced back to fathers and their lack of involvement and love in their children’s lives, some inflicting neglect, abuse, and abandonment.  To say that I’ve been lucky seems like a bit of an understatement.  But, I haven’t just been lucky, I’ve been incredibly blessed.

I’ve lived and worked in China for almost a decade.  When I first told my dad about going to China over ten years ago, he got so excited that he offered to buy my car, give me his computer, contribute to my financial support and come alongside me in every way he knew how.  Through the ups and downs over the past ten years he’s been there.  Sometimes not always comfortable with the choices I’ve made or the things that have happened to his daughter so many miles away (usually inflicted by people he’d rather point a shotgun at)- he has supported me.   He will be in my corner every single time.  He has challenged me.  He has made me laugh and has made me cry.  He’s my dad and there is no other.

After ten years in China I’m going home.  I’m leaving everything I’ve ever known since college to begin a brand new chapter.  Yes, friends- I’m going to go work for my dad at Freedom to Lead International.  And yes, sometimes there are complexities when family members work together on a professional level.  But, I cannot imagine a greater privilege: raising up a generation of leaders among cultures that don’t read, using story, symbol and song to impact local communities with the Story of Christ.  And I get to do that with my dad, and other great leaders partnering with the organization.

I was thinking of a birthday present for my dad all the way from China.  Something more meaningful than ties and mugs and golf balls and witty cards.  Something with a little more effort than asking mom to take money out of my bank account and give him some cash to spend.  Although he would probably prefer something monetary or a year’s worth of Krispy Kreme donut coupons (or, you know, gas), this is my gift to him.  I decided that the greatest gift I could give him was my writing because it is in writing that I give the best that is within me.  It is in writing and my own story that my dad has challenged me with over the years.  He has challenged me and developed me so that I can give life to these words of mine.  I give him the best that I have out of the best that he has given to me.

After dad reads this tribute to him I know he’s going to make some witty (some people would call it “sarcastic” :)) joke in an attempt to make light of something he secretly greatly appreciates but in which he wants to remain humble.   My mom and grandma will cry.  My brother, while trying to keep his reputation as “the funny one in the family” will say, “yep, what she said.”

And at the end of the day when the candles are blown out and dad finishes up the last of Grandma’s famous birthday carrot cake–my dad, my dad will keep on doing what he’s doing.  Because that’s who he is.

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