It all started with one shimmering pair of pink cowgirl boots.
My then two-year-old princess, clothed in her leotard, would tug them on with a grin, then twirl with delight. And melt this daddy-heart of mine.
A tradition began, inspired by a row of cowgirl boots I’d seen in the home of a mentor years before. Each Valentine’s Day, my Abigail and I now head out on a date for her to select a new pair of cowgirl boots for the year. This last trip, I shared with her my request that when the day comes for her to leave our nest, she is welcome to take with her all the pairs that still fit. But the ones she has outgrown—those she’ll leave for me so that I might savor the years long passed, treasuring our memories of daddy and daughter in my heart. To relish with both ache and longing the reminder C.S. Lewis offers to us parents:
“Children are not a distraction from work. They are the most important work.”
Today there are already more outgrown cowgirl boots on the shelf than my heart can readily bear.
As a wise elder once said,
The days are long, but the years are short.
Never has a truer word been spoken.
It’s been said we only become the fathers we long to be by fathering. In the wise words of Dan Allender, it’s children, after all, who raise parents.
I’m not yet the father I long to be. But I am the father she has today. And I choose to be here.
On this day, I still have her. She is nearly 10, and radiant. Brimming with life, beauty, wonder, questions, and emerging shoots of wisdom set to burst forth.
Several months ago, Abigail confided in Cherie that she wanted a “promise ring.” We are still not sure whence the inspiration came to her. Though I too had a ring in mind, my original intention was for this day to wait a few years. But I have learned too slowly,
“Many are the plans in the heart of a man. But is is the purposes of God that prevail.” Proverbs 19:21
To be a student of her heart is one of the great invitations and sacred trusts of my life, and the life of every dad.
Her heart is now asking deeper questions, wondering deeper things about the heart of her dad and the heart of her Father in Heaven. So this day has come upon me. And I choose again to roll the dice of parenting and venture along the frontier of mystery and risk. Perhaps, in the words of Roosevelt, I may fail as I often do—but at least I will fail by daring greatly.
What is the promise this ring is intended by Heaven to signify? I have heard of girls who are given a “purity ring” when they come of age. A ring that seems to carry a sense of their pledge to keep themselves sexually pure until they are married.
But that is not the ring I have in mind for Abigail.
The ring that I want to bestow upon her is not an effort to make her promise something to me. Rather, I want to give her a ring that would communicate my promise to her. What am I promising? After prayer and inquiring of my wife’s wisdom born of the decades, I sensed this was my promise:
I choose to never, ever revoke my delight in her.
No matter what. I will not conditionally wield my delight in an effort to conform her choices to my will. No, I offer her my delight and extend to her a sacred place in my heart without condition. I promise that my favor and delight will always be hers.
The day came for me to present this ring to her. And as I looked into her not-yet-10-year-old eyes, I glimpsed a flash of future moments reflecting back to me. I felt warm tears on my face. Then, with the rush of whitewater rapids, the scenes cascaded through my imagination:
The first was her driving away in a car with a young man I barely knew, heading off to a school dance.
The next was an aisle at a wedding. Her wedding…and an aisle the end of which I never wanted to come.
Then I saw her at my bedside. I was an old man. She was radiant, the splendor of her maturity altogether lovely, offering me care beyond words.
I was nearly overwhelmed by the emotion of these unexpected glimpses around the bend of time. I did everything to come back to the present moment. Storing these up as treasures in my heart, I endeavored to simply offer the portion that was for this moment on this day.
Abigail, this ring is the symbol of my promise and devotion.
You are the delight of my heart,
and I promise that I will never withdraw my delight from you.
Nothing you do or don’t do,
nothing you say or don’t say
will ever justify me withdrawing my delight from you
or closing my heart to you.
With this ring, I give you the promise of my delight.
You are the delight of your father’s heart.
And with this ring, I give you permission and invitation.
I invite you to tell me if you ever experience me withdrawing my delight.
I promise to listen to you and to respond.
It is my hope that God will one day provide a husband for you who will nourish and cultivate your feminine heart in all its depth and wonder.
Yet today this is my promise:
With my sword and my strength,
I am with you to the very end.
I will always protect and always provide.
You are safe.
You are loved.
You are known.
And you will never be alone.
You are the delight of your daddy’s heart.
Though my flesh and my heart at times will fail,
Our Father will always be the strength of our hearts and our portion forever.
May this ring be to you a symbol of my enduring delight and the place you have in my heart that is yours and yours alone.
And with it, I pledge to always point you to our Father, who is the Father of us all.
May you experience Him chasing after you.
He has you, Abigail.
Your soul will always be safe in Him.
Hours later, I came into the house from a project in the garage to find her at her art table, creating another piece of beauty. I caught a sparkle from her ring in the afternoon light. Its shimmer compelled me upstairs to her childhood room to look at her collection of outgrown boots yet again.
I felt the paradox of grief of years lost and the hope of what time I do have. I consecrated my life to God again, quietly and simply, as a daddy. And I asked Him to lead me, as if He were me, living my life. Asked His life to flow into me and through me to my daughter’s heart.
On this day and in this decade, I ask you, Father, would you guide me in bringing Your heart as Father to the heart of my little girl?
Father, I confess how often I blow it as a dad. Father, I ask that where I lack maturity I might excel in affection and pursuit of her heart. I am deeply in need of growing as a student of her heart. Cultivate in me an increasing capacity to see her as You see her, to delight in her. Father, apprentice me to become the kind of father who is no longer capable of withdrawing my delight.
So that she might receive time and time again the miracle of validation—the gift of being known and received for who she truly is.
So that through me she might know You as Father, and in every circumstance, find rest and restoration for her vast and ever-expanding feminine soul.
Through my pursuit and my delight, by day and by decade, may her heart grow to know,
“There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring to a flourishing finish on the very day God appears again in his fullness…” (Philippians 1:6 MSG)
Abigail, may you and every daughter be able to say, from the depths of your being, far deeper than words,
I am the daughter of a King.
My Father is with me
And goes before me.
I will not fear.
I am His.
We are not yet who we will one day become. Yet we are the fathers they have today.
What will you do to communicate, to model your unconditional delight in your daughter?
What will you do to become the kind of father in a decade who offers even deeper delight to your daughter?
Justin – A special thanks to you for making these pictures possible. You capture soul with your camera and work in the unseen spaces in the lives of so many to bring light into darkness and to give voice to the sacred in all things. Thanks for your strength. It’s changing the world…