This is a picture of my baby girl who just turned four years old. I remember the exact moment and where I was when she entered my life. Her name is Elizabeth (“Ellie” for short) and she is my second chance at being a dad.
It’s not that I was a bad dad the first time around. I was just distracted.
Like most young men, I was all about proving myself and moving up the ladder of success in my chosen profession. My job was being a minister on a church staff. Since that job centers around the needs of people, you really could always be doing more if you wanted. There’s no cut-off point to human need.
So I worked and pushed. And as my kids grew up, I attended their athletic functions and piano recitals just like any other dad.
I say “attended” because much of the time, my mind was someplace else. By being there, I was doing something I considered mandatory to be considered a good father. But too often, I did it grudgingly and did as little as I could to get away with.
Dear young dads reading this: for the record, I was a fool.
Most of the jobs I coveted and won never lived up to the payback they promised. I’d get to a new church, thinking, “This is going to make me feel significant.” After several months there, I felt nothing but empty and frustrated. Often, I thought it was the job’s fault—that there must be a fatal flaw in that particular church.
Now I know the fatal flaw was in me.
I was like too many men before, like my father before me. I’d reached for personal success and the respect of peers, only to find the success didn’t matter and my peers didn’t care.
The only people who really cared about me were the ones I took for granted at home every day.
As my kids grew into their teenage years and started graduating high school, a sick feeling grew in my gut. I knew I had missed it all, done my own real-life rendition of the Cat’s in the Cradle. I had reasons and excuses why, but I knew there was no one to blame but me.
I had bought the lie Satan tells every man. I’d sought for significance from everyone, but from the very people who felt I really was significant—my wife and kids. They never blamed me for it, but I do blame myself.
Fast forward, and now I was quickly approaching the age of 50. I was stuck in a job I hated, at a church I found disappointing. The work was unchallenging, and the low standards of my fellow employees made me feel like a loser by association.
So I decided to start over, in my career and with my family. Yeah, just like that.
I left that church and started a new one. It was a much smaller number of people, and the money was the least I’d made in years. But I finally felt like I was doing work that mattered. I was truly helping people find God.
For the first time in years, I left Sunday’s service feeling like a hero. In my own small way, I was finally changing the world.
But God starting doing something else once I had stepped out in faith. One day in that new church, a teenage mother cried with my wife over her baby that had been taken away from her. The hospital determined the young, unwed girl was ill-equipped to raise a baby properly. The newborn girl was now with strangers, and the mother was inconsolable.
I watched the scene out of the corner of my eye across the room. I remember the distinct feeling God was tapping me on the shoulder and saying,
“That conversation your wife’s having is about to change your life”
Did I hear God speaking? Not exactly. I think he actually may have been laughing.
Just about a year and a half later, I stood in a courtroom as my wife and I were made this same little girl’s adoptive parents. At this point, I was 53 years old.
Oh, and in addition to my older three kids who joined us for the celebration, there was also in attendance a little 4-month-old baby. She is the baby sister of the girl we just adopted, and we decided to adopt her as well.
I think God just laughed out loud again. I guess I have that effect on him.
A friend my age saw us in a restaurant recently with the whole gang (3 teenagers plus the babies). He’s divorced and dating, living it up. He looked at my table and said, “God bless you, Dave. If it were me, I couldn’t do it.” He shook his head and walked away.
While I appreciate his sympathies, they’re completely unnecessary. God’s giving me a second chance on all the joy I missed the first time around. I’ve finally stopped obsessing about job success, how big my church is, and what my peers think of me…if, in fact, they even bother to.
As I’ve always heard, “You wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you knew how seldom they ever did.”
My wife and I smile while pushing a shopping cart through Babies-R-Us, as the other “young parents” look on curiously. We laugh when people tell us how beautiful our “grandchildren” are. We snort out loud when someone in a restaurant presumes the kids belong to my teenage daughter and her boyfriend, and watch her face turn red.
We’re loving life right now.
And it’s all because God let a bunch of my selfish dreams die. He’s now replaced them all with much better dreams that actually bring me immeasurable happiness.
How am I doing? My heart is so full it’s about to burst.
So there was a great birthday party for my little girl the other Sunday right after church. As little Ellie attempted to blow out her candles, she was surrounded by her sister Gracie and a room full of our friends.
Oh, and there was the one other unseen Guest, laughing his head off at me, as usual.
Dave Gipson is a husband, father of 4 adopted children and one biological child, former foster parent, and pastor at Naples Family Church of Naples, FL. An author, Dave's new highly acclaimed book, "The Seven Surprises: Everyday Epiphanies on Being a Better Human Being," is now available. He also contributes regular commentaries to the Naples Daily News as well as other international publications. He has served churches for the last 25+ years, from Florida to the inner-city of Chicago. Rev. Gipson holds his ordination in the Southern Baptist denomination, and has two earned Masters degrees in Religion and Divinity. Read more at http://davegipson.net.Follow him on Twitter at @realdavegipson.