Lily and I had the gift of celebrating my mom’s 73rd birthday (January 7) and my dad’s 75th birthday (February 9) in person this year. With each passing year, I cherish them more and more, and see the beauty of God in their character.
This week, I pause to honor them and share tributes that I wrote for their birthdays. I hope they encourage you to stop and give thanks for gifts in your own life. Happy birthday, Mom and Dad! Thanks for loving and leading me so well.
Lastly, on February 1, my friend Etsegenet Berhanu launched the Parenting Forum in Addis Ababa, a monthly event to help parents become more intentional in how they raise their children and thus shape the future. I’m excited for her groundbreaking work and offer these tributes as a grateful testimony to the power of parents who build homes founded on love in their own limited, lovely ways. Congratulations, Etsegenet!
Teach Me to Love in My Limited, Lovely Ways
Like all couples, my mom and dad have an imperfect marriage. Growing up, I remember Mom expressing discontent with my dad’s emotional distance.
They loved each other, and that was obvious, more often than not, at least. They had five kids, and Dad worked a 9 to 5 job for forty years at Met Life. He was the rock of our family.
But Mom longed for Dad to talk and listen to her more, to pray and connect with her more, to show more interest in her inner life and spiritual depth as a person. Mom sometimes expressed feeling unknown and lonely. In heated moments, she questioned whether Dad cared for her at all.
But then everything changed.
On October 17, 2013, Mom had a severe stroke, and she was never the same. She lost all use of her right arm. She can barely move her right leg, so she walks with great difficulty. She lost the ability to smile. Her physical appearance was radically altered. Her personality significantly shifted, and she became much more silent and reclusive. She rapidly gained weight. As time goes by, Mom continues to lose mobility. Dad and I had to lift her off the driveway after a fall a few weeks ago.
And through it all, Dad has been precisely the husband that Mom so desperately needs. He is unwavering in his care for her. He never complains. He has never made her feel bad for no longer being able to cook or clean or do other basic tasks. He tells her she’s beautiful. He cherishes her – bringing her coffee everyday, cooking for her, taking her on road trips and to spend time with their grandkids.
Dad is always with and for Mom.
I often wonder if a more emotionally connected man – a man more like me – would crumble under the weight of Mom’s post-stroke condition and needs. Would he be consumed with grief? Resentment? Loneliness? Disinterest? After all, Mom herself now no longer likes to have long, deep conversations. She just likes to be together and reminded that everything is going to be okay – somehow, someday.
I don’t know why Mom had her stroke. Why doesn’t God erase strokes from our wretched world? I have no answers for evil. I hate strokes.
But I do know that Dad has been the perfect husband that Mom has wanted and needed ever since October 17, 2013. And I see God’s strange, severe mercy in this.
We love in our limited, lovely ways. And that turns out to be enough.
For Dad, that’s not usually long conversations or deep emotional connection. That’s just being with you and for you – no matter what. Without wavering. Often in very practical ways.
When my first book came out last September, Dad didn’t say congratulations. Frankly, that stung a little. But he’s driven to the airport for us six times in nine days during a polar vortex. That’s how Dad loves. And it’s lovely with all its limits.
We need each other. We don’t all love the same way. We don’t love everyone in every way that they need love. None of us does. None of us can. And that creates seasons of ache.
But we can love in our limited, lovely ways. And that is a holy, beautiful, wonderful gift and task. In the end, that is enough, if we don’t give up.
Dad, happy 75th birthday. I love and respect you so much. Maybe one day I’ll be half as strong as you. Thanks for loving Mom so well, and each one of us. You inspire me to love in my own limited, lovely ways.
Mom, I Love You: 7+3 Reasons Why on Your 73rd Birthday
- Mom told us she loved us and hugged and kissed us every day. I grew up knowing that my life was precious. This upbringing profoundly shaped my most basic moral conviction as a Christian and human: it’s good to exist and human life is precious and meant to be loved and cared for, not neglected or harmed. I have never felt embarrassed to speak and show affection as a man because of her.
- Mom taught us that Jesus loves us and to love Jesus. She read the Bible to us in the morning and prayed with us at night almost every day. We memorized Scripture from an early age. I grew up hearing mom sing songs of thanksgiving to God as she washed dishes and went about her daily life. This upbringing taught me to practice God’s presence and follow Jesus in every situation – not just at church. I learned to live a unified life rather than a religious show.
- Mom loved to see us grow. She took me to basketball, music, and art classes, and I never remember her complaining about the time, energy, and money it required. She celebrated our development. I also don’t remember her ever pushing me to be “the best” or making me feel guilty for not being better or losing, even as we were taught to do our best and aim for excellence. Mom taught me the value of “great to good” without using the words. I learned to do things because I love and value them, not to gain money or prestige. This is probably the root of my passion for mentorship: human life is meant to grow, and that happens through intentional personal relationship and self-giving investment.
- Mom always asked forgiveness for her mistakes. Mom could have a temper under stress, but she always asked us to forgive her when she lashed out. I learned from an early age that authority isn’t rooted in perfection but being the first one to admit wrong. This lesson remains extremely important in my life. It could actually heal mass violence and prevent war. But I’ve observed that many leaders have never learned this vital lesson: true authority is rooted in honest confession, the humble request for forgiveness, and trying to improve, rather than pretending to be perfect and never admitting wrong. With Mom, I became comfortable admitting I’m a broken, imperfect person who needs to confess and ask for forgiveness.
- Mom didn’t tolerate lies. We grew up hearing, “Tell the truth even when it hurts.” This has been a crucial pillar for my moral values and personal character. I believe telling the truth makes trust possible, and trust is the oxygen of intimacy, friendship, and cooperation. Without trust, life shrinks down to the calculation of personal advantage. If a Nazi came to my door and asked if I were sheltering a Jew, I would most certainly tell him no. But that is to protect others from murderous, cynical pseudo-“truth.” Truth is paramount and the bedrock of decent society. I see societies radically impoverished by the suspicion and corruption that come from normalizing lies. Mom taught me another way.
- Mom taught me that everyone learns at their own pace. I didn’t start reading confidently until I was nine years old. But for mom, I wasn’t “behind” or “abnormal.” I just wasn’t ready. I became a voracious reader and went on to earn summa cum laude from the best Christian college in America and earned a PhD from a university ranked #9 in the world. Growth is different for everyone and requires patience and nurturance not force and fear. My vision of education was profoundly shaped by her teaching.
- Mom raised us to defy “the herd mentality.” She home-schooled me all the way from the beginning to college. A lot of people made fun of that, but it tremendously enriched my capacity to be an independent learner and freethinker. Her fashion was bohemian, and most of her clothes were bought from garage sales and thrift stores. She took us to public, peaceful pickets against abortion. All of this shaped my sense that individual conscience and independent opinion are fundamental to true character. Never do something just because everyone else is doing it. Be fearless in breaking from the crowd when it’s worthwhile and shows care for others.
- Mom modeled a devoted marriage for the last fifty years. Her relationship with dad wasn’t always perfect or free of heated argument. But I never feared she would walk away, and they always made peace. She taught me that covenant is unconditional – not contractual or built on convenience. This commitment has seen Lily and me through hard days in our marriage.
- Mom taught us that an ordinary, Christian life serves others and the common good. We made meals for other families, shoveled snow for our neighbors, stuffed envelopes, called our senators, and much else. I was raised believing in and practicing service. At Wheaton College, I won the highest award for public service, and these values were instilled in me from the start. This is also the root of my service in Ethiopia, which has always been free and required me to live by faith in God and the generosity of others.
- Mom always practiced hospitality with home-cooked meals. We’d cook in the kitchen and clean the house together to get ready for our guests. Most weeks someone or a whole family was invited over, and we’d spend hours together around the table. This taught me to practice hospitality. Home is meant to be shared with others; it’s not just a sanctuary for us. My theology of hospitality – seeing God as the ultimate Host of creation and Christianity as a practice of welcoming others – began at home with mom.
Mom, I love you. You’ve taught me the most important lessons in my life. Whatever I’ve learned or am doing now is building on the foundation you laid in my childhood and ever since, even when I take a different path. Thank you for loving me, our family, and so many others for over seven decades. The world is richer, wiser, and more full of love because of your life. I thank God you were born and that you are my mother.
Happy birthday! As our coffee mug said growing up, God danced the day you were born!