My Birthday Essays

Each year I write a reflective personal essay on my birthday. Perhaps a bit self-involved, but it’s become a fun tradition on my blog.

Turning 30

It seems appropriate that I’m turning thirty this year. I have to smirk as I write that, as if I had a say in the matter. What I mean is since my last birthday I’ve found myself in the midst of one major life event after another. Since turning 29 a year ago Kathy and I got married, we moved from Florida to Colorado, I started a new full-time job with The Navigators, and somewhere in there I launched my own small business. Going from one decade to the next? Yeah, that seems par for the course right now.

With all those recent changes you would think watching the odometer turn over wouldn’t feel all that momentous. Not so. In fact, I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around this new number. It’s like each January when you have to start writing the new year on everything. It just looks funny at first.

Usually in my annual birthday essay I try to reflect thoughtfully on the big themes of my life from the previous year, but this time I’ve decided to reflect on my twenties as a whole.

Years ago one of the men who discipled me in college told me that your twenties are for figuring out what you’re good at, to see what makes you come alive. I tend to agree. I found my twenties to be a decade characterized by impatient self-discovery. I just wanted answers; I didn’t want the process. But he told me one other thing, something that really stuck. During your twenties, as you’re trying to sort everything out, it’s okay to fail.

No one had ever told me something like that before. It’s okay to fail. Now, he didn’t mean to act recklessly and throw all caution to the wind. He was trying to impress upon me that I didn’t have to get it right the first time. He didn’t want me to live in fear, to choose not to act, waiting for all the planets had aligned and a can’t-miss opportunity. Those situations just don’t come around, not on your first trip out, at least not for most of us.

I took his advice as best I could through my early and mid twenties. Of course, I came to find out that just because it’s okay to fail doesn’t mean it feels okay to fail. By far, the hardest part of my twenties was each time I had to decide it was worth risking heartbreak all over again.

One of the elders at my church in Tallahassee had a particularly strong influence on me during my mid-to-late twenties, a very difficult time in my life. To keep things brief, let’s just say that by then I had grown sick of failing. Having permission to do so had become a moot point. This man read me like a book and cut right through my cynicism. He had a lot of poignant and challenging things to say to me through the years but one stands out in my mind. Over and over he urged me to live my life with curiosity and compassion, to engage with my own heart and the hearts of others. By the same token, he would nearly always pair that advice with Proverbs 4:23, to guard my heart above all else.

I look back now and realize my error. While I strove to find my future I was careless with my heart in the present and, as a result, I became paralyzed by my past failures and disappointments.

I’m happy to tell you that things took a turn for the better as I closed out my twenties. First, I had to become reacquainted with the Gospel. Fear and shame were speaking a lot louder than grace. It was a process to believe—really and truly believe—what I claimed to be true. From there I started paying better attention. This same elder counseled me to be the expert of myself and to stop trying to be the expert of everyone else. In other words, quit reading between the lines and figure out your own heart. I was surprised just how difficult it was to do this in real time.

It just so happened that I was learning these truths about the heart and putting them into practice right about the time I started dating Kathy. Funny how that worked out. God is good.

I listed earlier all the new beginnings that have entered my life in the past year. Each is a tremendous blessing and I’m incredibly thankful. But the start of my thirties brings something else too: new blind spots. I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m a total novice at how to do this next season well. It’s intimidating to say the least. I have to remind myself that I have a faithful God, a supportive wife, and a host of family and friends who want the best for me. Come what may, I already have what matters the most.

This post is part of an ongoing series of birthday essays. Each year since I began blogging I have written a reflective personal essay on April 3.

Turning 29

Today is my birthday. I am turning 29 years old and, for once, I feel every bit my age. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer ministering on a college campus to students who are several years younger than me. Maybe it’s because earlier today I had to put Icy Hot on my neck to alleviate pain that I presume was caused by all the strenuous sleeping I’ve been doing. Or maybe it’s all in my head. Like I said two years ago my dad has a theory that you feel older on odd number birthdays. Maybe he’s right.

As I reflect on the previous year I can’t help but begin by observing how faithful God has been. Perhaps you recall the passage of scripture I sensed He was laying on my heart when I wrote last year’s birthday essay. It was Luke 13:6-9, which reads as follows.

And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Towards the end of 2011 my feelings were telling me to run away, to reboot my life in a new place with new people. I was persuaded by this passage to hang in there, but to make dramatic changes. But here’s the thing. The passage doesn’t say whether the efforts taken by the vinedresser yielded any fruit on the fig tree. Likewise, I couldn’t convince myself that this passage was somehow God winking at me, that everything would fall into place in short order if only I would add this and quit that. It was more a call to humility and obedience than anything else. God was saying, “Will you trust me? Even after everything you’ve just been through, will you trust me?”

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Turning 28

Today I turn 28. I am waist-deep in my late-twenties. I am growing increasingly aware of the generation gap present when I’m around the college students I work with and minister to. I find myself in more and more conversations that subtly (and not-so-subtly) inquire why I’m not yet married. I’ve had a brooding sense of stagnation, a feeling that only in recent months has begun to lift. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I went back and read the birthday essay I wrote last year and was struck by just how optimistic my outlook on the year ahead seemed to be. It was the epitome of looking at the glass half full despite my typical proclivity to the contrary. I chose to focus on what was good in my life. It was an especially difficult choice because at that time I was in the middle of some painful and uncertain circumstances. But even in the midst of those events I can remember thinking to myself, “Well, at least things can’t get any worse.” Of that I was wrong.

I will remember the year between my twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth birthdays as the most difficult and most formative year of my life up to that point. It was a year when I came face to face with my demons, my idols, and my savior, none of whom seemed to want to leave me alone. Throughout 2011 I found myself becoming increasingly distraught with disillusionment, losing any sense of direction and understanding of my life that I’d had prior. I experienced God’s discipline and his faithfulness; I found him to be true to his word in ways I’d previously only read about. He fought for me even when all I could do was wait and hope he would come through.

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Turning 27

I turn 27 today. My dad says he always feels older on the odd number birthdays. I’m not sure I get that vibe. I will say it’s strange to think I’m entering my late twenties. I think I’ve reached the age when well-meaning individuals feel well within their right to question why I haven’t done this or that with my life yet. I’m not looking forward to those conversations.

My nonsensical cynicism aside, I can honestly say I’m excited about the coming year. And I think what surprises me the most is that my excitement doesn’t have to do with some big milestone or event that’s on the horizon. In fact, I thought I’d be traveling overseas again this summer, but the trip I planned to go on was called off. In a way it makes my outlook on the coming year even more unexpected.

I’m excited because, for the first time in a long time, I have a strong sense that I’m a part of real community. In the birthday essay I wrote a year ago I talked about how much I wanted to live a great story with my life, to strive for great things even in the face of adversity, and I still want that. But as I reread that essay I notice a sad lack of emphasis on the people who would live that great story with me. I don’t want to have a bunch of great adventures with an ever-changing sea of extras or, worse yet, with no one else at all. I want great costars in my story.

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Turning 26

I don’t think anyone ever imagines himself or herself being twenty-six years old. It’s not much of a birthday. I’ve been told starting when you turn twenty-five the only birthdays that matter are the ones divisible by five. I can see that being true. It’s sad to think that eight out of ten birthdays will lack a sense of grandeur from now on. Also, being twenty-five seemed a lot cooler than being twenty-four, and so far twenty-five seems a lot cooler than twenty-six as well. It’s nothing more than additional age. A year ago I still felt closer to twenty than thirty. That’s no longer true. To be fair, I don’t have any idea what it feels like to be thirty, so even saying it like that is a bit screwy. What I do know is I no longer feel a strong association with the collegiate version of myself. Furthermore, I don’t miss that guy. If given the choice, I wouldn’t go back. I have no desire to trade down.

The tone of the birthday essay I wrote a year ago is one of extreme optimism and triumph. I went back and read it today before I began writing this essay. I had keyed in on the desire to live life with purpose. I was asking myself if I was willing to rearrange my life in order to grab hold of what I wanted the most. I had formed a plan, and it was a good one. I knew what I wanted and I knew what I had to do to get it. Today I see a couple things in my hopes of a year ago that I didn’t see back then.

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Turning 25

I chose not to review my previous birthday posts before writing this one, so I could be wrong when I make this claim. But I’m pretty sure each year around my birthday I dwell on the same questions. Do I feel older? Am I really any wiser? How am I using the days I’ve been given? What’s my direction, and did the past year’s direction take me where I thought it would? I become very introspective (and even a bit emo, I’m ashamed to say) whenever my birthday roles around. This year is no different, so let me pull back the curtain a little bit and tell you what I’m thinking about here on my 25th birthday.

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Turning 24

If you’re a longtime reader of my blog then you know that I’m not typically a big fan of my birthday. I’ve had this blog for my last four birthdays and have written about my disdain for the day each time (read: 20, 21, 22, 23). There have been two major reasons. First, I would rather be celebrated for something I do than for who I am. Second, the quality of relationship I experience on my birthday is generally very poor.

Recently, however, my views have begun to change.

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Turning 23

Each year since I started keeping a blog in 2004 I’ve written a little post about just how much I dislike celebrating my birthday. Okay, I suppose I didn’t have a rant when I turned 20 but that was because I was new to this whole blogging thing. When I turned 21 I was in a bad mood. No one wanted to celebrate my birthday because the Pope had died the day before. What a jerk. A guy only turns 21 once. And it’s not like I wanted to get smashed, but it would have been nice to have to fight off people trying to get me drunk.

This was also when I first outlined my idea of the perfect birthday. “Here’s the bottom line: the perfect birthday would be if my friends were to hang out with me so long as it wasn’t something done for me. Something they would have done anyway and they simply included me in it.” To put it another way, I don’t want to be celebrated. Not for my birthday. This is coming from a person who craves attention and for years was willing to invent any sort of crazy story just to get it for a fleeting moment. I don’t mind receiving attention if I feel like I’ve done something to deserve it. But on the day of my birth the only person doing anything worthy of this sort of attention and celebration was my mom. Send her a gift.

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Turning 22

It’s strange how birthdays work, not to mention the passage of time in general. Two years ago I felt older than dirt when I turned twenty. I was leaving my teenage years once and for all, and while it was a day I had looked forward to for a long time I couldn’t help but feel like I was leaving something behind that I was going to miss. Last year I was completely apathetic towards my twenty-first birthday. The fact that I could legally buy alcohol was not as amazing a milestone as everyone had made it out to be. This year I was actually looking forward to today, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it’s because this could be my last birthday spent in Tallahassee, and I’m looking forward to seeing who shows their appreciation for me and how they do it. I think it’s more likely I’m just going soft as I get older.

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Turning 21

Last year at this time I was feeling very old. I was officially leaving my teenage years and was beginning my third decade of life. Now here I sit at 21 years old and I don’t feel nearly as old as I did a year ago. I can’t quite explain it. On top of that, everyone told me that this was supposed to be one of those landmark or milestone birthdays. Whatever. So I can drink. I’ve had alcohol before today. So I’m able to buy alcohol. I’ve legally bought it before, just not here in the U.S. There just isn’t any drama to this day. Just another birthday, just like every other birthday is just another birthday.

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