This morning, before getting out of bed, I checked my email. It wasn’t my work email—wisely, I have kept that from my device, for just this reason: the temptation to check it before even getting out of bed. I don’t usually check my personal email in this way, either, but today I just felt an urge, so I went with it. And sure enough, there was something good on there: my soon-to-be six-year-old nephew’s birthday list.
Most of you probably know this, but birthday lists have really evolved over the years. As a tot, my list-making was a pain-staking process of elimination. About a month prior to November 17th—the magical day—my mother would give me a copy of the JC Penney’s catalog. I’d fly through the women’s clothing and brassieres, flip through the home and bedding sections, and land gloriously in the seven or eight page toy section. By today’s standards, it was woefully bereft, but to my young eyes it was a treasure trove of potential pleasure. The catch? Well, I would only get one item from the catalog—sometimes two if my mother felt especially generous or had encountered some good fortune at work. So I would tediously work through the pages, smudging them with fruit snack residue as I touched the pictures, willing them to come to life.
Typically, I’d find a handful of items—remote control cars, robots, a professional baseball uniform from the costume section, Lego’s—and I’d give them a circle with a red color pencil. Then came the excruciating task of ranking and re-ranking, until I had them alphabetized according to my longing. Each day, I’d wake up, pull the magazine out from under the pillow, and begin assessing yesterday’s choices and making today’s revisions.
My mother would allow this for about a week, and then ask me to turn in the magazine, “Just put it on my bed when you are finished,” she’d guide lovingly, but flippantly. Did she know the anguish I was in? This deadline was a cruel thing indeed. But at some point, I’d stagger down the hall, into her room, and leave my fate behind, placed neatly on her pillow.
These days, lists get emailed out to loved ones, with hyperlinks to pictures, descriptions, and ordering information. And the list isn’t one meticulously circled item, but a closetful of gadgets and blocks and balls—shimmering things, moving and talking and effortlessly showing up and stealing away a childhood.
And with eleven uncles and aunts, five grandparents, and his immediate family, my nephew Asher will receive most of the playthings on his itemized list.
But probably not from us. Because here is the thing with us, my wife and me. We look at his list. We even like his list. But we do not always respect his list, for his list is made up of the things he thought up. He didn’t have a JC Penney’s catalog to guide him or introduce him to new things via well-lighted pictures and descriptions. No, Asher makes his list in a moment, rattling off to his mother whatever things he’s seen on television lately or what his classmates are toting around—things they got for their birthdays based on things they had recently seen on television or what other classmates were toting around. What you have sadly is an ignorant cycle owned and operated by six-year-olds. It isn’t that they are wrong, they just are innocent—they don’t have the whole picture or know the endless wonder of possibility.
So my wife and I, we go to the store. We begin with an idea from the list, but we end up finding all sorts of wonders that Asher—poor thing—didn’t even know existed! He didn’t know what a Jeep was until we got him a remote control Jeep Wrangler last year. Did he cry that it wasn’t on his list? No, he drove that sucker into the wall with gusto, totally forgetting the Pokemon backpack that he saw Trevor at school wearing one day. Screw Trevor and his naiveté, we said, let us handle this!
It is pretty simple. We know Asher pretty well, and we also know the world much better than he does. We are older, and most times, we are wiser. We got this, pal. Send your little list, sure, but mostly just sit back and relax. We got this.
You see, we want better for Asher than he wants for himself. Sure, he thinks he’s got a pretty great list, but he only has a soon-to-be six-year-old’s vantage of things. He doesn’t know about helicopters or the fun that can be had in your first indoor Ninja Turtle tent. The things he asks for are fine, but they aren’t best, and because we love him we aren’t going to give him simply what he thinks he wants; we are going to aim much higher than that—we are going to give him what he really wants without even knowing it yet . . . what he needs.
This morning, on the commute to work, I was thinking of all this, and something else too. It was this: this is what God does to me. Sure, I pray for stuff. All the time, really. I email Him up my little list, and I’m pretty dang sure I have it all right. If He’d do his part, all would be good with the world. But, man, He seldom gives me that stuff. It is easy to get upset, to claim He is an absentee-father or that He doesn’t check His email, but so often the things that He does give me are so far and beyond the things I asked for. They are things I didn’t even know existed as possibilities. The things I wanted to fill my world with were not the things He gave me. And as mad as that makes me, when I step back and look at the world He’s given me—the town I’m in I wouldn’t have chosen, the job I have I wouldn’t have envisioned, the wife I have I wouldn’t have drawn up, the home I’m in that isn’t what I thought, the friends I have, the family I love, the car I rattle around in, and on and on—I realize that He knows a bit more than me. And, beyond just what He knows is what He wants: He wants better for me than I want for myself! That is why when I want all sorts of worldly things, He denies me and instead gives me Himself. I want happiness, and He up and offers me joy. I want everything to just work out, and He has something better, He has peace whether things are “working out” or not. I want stuff, and He gently shakes His head and gives me a package containing life—not the replica but the real thing.
So in the next few weeks, we’ll be in the local toy stores deciding what will open up the world for Asher. We’ll take his list for reference, but we will not settle for those items at the expense of something better. And I pray God keeps doing the same in my own life—giving me what He wants, and growing me to trust Him to do so.