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"Happy 59th Birthday Father - April 10, 2005"

Today is my father's 59th birthday. It's another bittersweet day for my family because unlike most birthdays where a party is prepared, family and friends gather, and the guest of honor is present, we have one main problem - the person we want to honor can't be here.

In our family, birthdays have always been a very special occasion. As a young boy, I remember my parents telling my brothers and I, "it's your birthday so you can have anything you want." We actually didn't get anything we wanted. It was simply a bold statement they made intentionally to communicate that "this was your special day and we celebrate your life."

On the day of our birthdays, there was always a feeling of excitement and anticipation. My parents went out of their way to make the day extra special. With family and many of my close school friends in attendance, it was a wonderful time. Mom always prepared special foods just for that day. There were plenty of games to play and presents to open. I particularly recall the thoughtfulness that went into the gifts my parents selected. As small as it may seem, even their gifts communicated their love for me. Every detail was thought of, all for the purpose of saying, "we treasure you and celebrate the day you entered this world."

On this day, I wish I could prepare a special celebration for my father. I know what I would do if he were alive today. Although it's only his 59th birthday, I would prepare a wonderful surprise birthday party for him. I would invite my relatives and his closest friends, letting them know we were going to make this an extra special day for him. Then I would go to the store and buy some of the finest imported foods at our local Italian store. Whenever my parents had guests over, my dad or mom would go to the local Italian gourmet store to purchase some of the finest imported foods. Imported foods aren't cheap, but for my parents, it was a sign of how much they valued their guests. (As a side note, in the early church, eating together was a sign of intimacy, an indicator of a close friendship or, if it was their first meeting, it was an invitation to enter into a friendship.) My parents loved to host guests and it was fun to watch how well they used their home to welcome people and make them feel valued.

It's very hard for me today to realize I can't do anything for my father today. I can't prepare a special meal for him. I can't give him any hand-selected gifts. I can't take him out for lunch or go for a walk as we used to do together. I can't dream with him about the upcoming summer and the plans we had as a family.

There's a lot of things we can't do today, but at the same time, there are some things we can do to celebrate his life. If you're in a similiar situation, here are just a few thoughts that come to mind:

1. Begin With Gratitude

I must first thank the Lord for placing such a special man in my life. In addition, although I can't tell him face to face, I must communicate my thanks to my father for his willingness to love me, in spite of me, not because of me. In spite of my short-comings, he graciously loved me and continued to love me even when I failed him.

2. Reflect on his life

Reflection is so important. It forces me to stop what I'm doing and better see the significance of his life within mine. Looking back allows me to see the heritage that was laid for me. But to stay there is to miss something very important. In looking back, reflection allows me to look forward with better clarity. It prevents me from just looking at the specifics. Instead, it allows me to see the larger scope of things and see the overall picture.

3. Share his life with others

Telling wonderful stories about my dad with my family and others is a wonderful privilege for me. His story inspires me to be different and make a difference in others. His story also inspires others to look at their lives and see how they can make a difference also.

4. Write him a letter

Even though I can't see my father in person, writing down my thoughts and feelings is quite therapeutic. It gets out what is felt inside. Sometimes we don't realize the pain we've buried beneath the surface and, whether we believe me or not, it does affect how we live day to day. It definitely hurts to go there, but until you face head on those things which are weighing on you, it will be harder to move forward and, you won't be of any help to others.

5. Touch one life today

With my father's spirit within me, I want to touch the life of another today. Make someone smile. Go out of your way to encourage one individual. Send an email, text message, or write a letter and tell someone why their life impacts yours.

I could go on with other suggestions, but I'll leave that up to you. It's a sad day for us, no question. But as my father did, with the future as his backdrop and God in the forefront, he looked forward with a healthy optimism. He never let the worst of circumstances discourage him or derail his calling. I must choose the same.

Happy Birthday Father,

- Justin