Last week I was hiking with dear friends, drinking in the autumn air and feasting on the fall colors, when the youngest in our group, Baby Finn, pointed excitedly at the loyal dog at our heels and proudly declared, "Dah!". His small voice shot me back in time 21 years. I thought of you, Aaron.
I remembered when "Dah" was your favorite word, the only word you used for quite some time; the word you relied on as you tried to translate the feelings and thoughts in your small soul into sound waves—your contribution to the wide and promising world you were beginning to understand.
You could carry on entire conversations using only the word "Dah," and we almost always knew what you were talking about. We could tell when "Dah" meant, "I'm going to go ride my tricycle, okay?" And when it meant, "Do you see the jack-o-lantern I'm making with this orange paper? I'm gluing it together very carefully." Your wide grey eyes said so much more than your sweet mouth.
I think your little heart would have liked very much to have a dog of your own.
But instead you had a pet goldfish; one you shared with your younger brother; one whose name I cannot remember because you changed it at least seven times. I do know you never named it "Dah" because your vocabulary grew with your chubby frame, and you could eventually pull from a well of words like Fred, Goldy, Snowball, and Simba (name #5, I believe) when christening your scaly new friend.
You must have had a special knack with fish because Fred/Goldy/Snowball/Simba lived years and years. We sure got our fifty cents worth out of him.
Caring for fish wasn't the only thing you had a special knack for. You were also the King Cultivator of new worlds for your "hard animals". You, Marc, and Anne would spend hours in mom's garden carving out caves, propping up trees, and channeling small streams for your plastic animal kingdom. You'd gather your small herd of rhinos, giraffes, warthogs and mustangs and lead them through dangerous territories on daring exploits. You were a plastic animal shepherd.
You grew up to be a shepherd of people, too, Aaron.
When our family traveled the world, wandering the streets of Spain, Ecuador, Italy, and Croatia, you would hang at the back of the pack, slowing our group's pace so that our curious mother didn't have to walk by herself, and protectively eyeing the men who gawked at your blond teenage sisters.
Years later, when friends on your community college track team were lonely and longed for the companionship of a six-pack of Bud Light, you'd go to their houses, sometimes very late at night. You'd listen and encourage, and even challenge. They listened to you because they knew you cared about their souls, that your soul was full of the love of Another Shepherd.
When you moved to Los Angeles to attend Biola University, you were asked to be a student leader in Biola's Athletic Ministry. You poured your creativity and wisdom into your teaching and leading, and you influenced people, Aaron. They wanted to hear what you had to say, to follow your example. I think this is because you've always known something I'm still trying to learn: that being a shepherd doesn't mean being at the front of the pack or convincing others to buy what you're selling. It means spending much of your time behind the scenes—away from the spotlight in the bowels of community—so that you can care for the needs of the wanderers, flounderers, outsiders and forgotten. A shepherd is a sacrificer of time, money, and comfort; a giver of dignity, compassion, and kindness. You love and lead people, well, Aaron. You point them to the Good Shepherd.
I know it wasn't your practice caring for fish and corralling plastic animals that made you a shepherd, Aaron. I think, when you were being formed in mom's womb, God must have said, "I have set this soul apart; he will be a shepherd of the nations, a tender to wayward hearts. He will grow into a man who understands that in my Kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and he will point people to My green pastures and streams of Living Water."
Aaron, you've lived well these 23 years because you have served the Giver of Life, the One who gave you a shepherd's heart. I pray He gives you many many more years of shepherding His beloved sheep. And when this shepherd's work makes you tired, discouraged, and lonely, and your staff begins to feel like a rough and heavy cross, I pray you would know Christ's strength, presence, and approval.
I also pray God allows you to see the seeds you've sown, the souls you've shaped, and the lives you've changed on your journey. And as you merge lives with another seed-sower and soul-shaper this spring, I pray you would find deepest satisfaction in shepherding your family as you journey together toward our heaven-home, where our souls will rest in the greenest of pastures.
And finally, I pray that one day you'll have a little boy with big grey eyes—a doggie lover, goldfish re-namer, and plastic animal herder who teaches you the joy of watching a little boy grow into a man who loves and follows the Good Shepherd.
Growing up with you has been one of life's greatest pleasures, Aaron.
I love you mucho grande.
Happy Birthday, Little Brother.