A letter to my daughters on Father’s Day: Living a life of joy and meaning


The campus minister at our church asked four fathers to write letters to their children and read them on Father’s Day during the morning worship service. He gave each father a different theme. He asked me to write about my desire for my girls to have a life of joy and meaning. Here’s the letter I wrote:

Dear Ella & Annie,
You may wonder why I often thank you for picking me to be your dad, as if you had a say in the matter before you were born. I don’t know the dynamics of life before birth, but it’s fun to imagine that you get a choice in picking your parents. I can picture you flipping through some cosmic catalog of potential parents and putting your finger on me and your mom saying, “I’ll take these two, please. They look teachable.” And, then, when you’re thirteen and really annoyed with how un-cool you think I am, I can say, “Well, you did pick me, you know.”

Regardless of how we ended up together, I am honored to be your dad. And I’m humbled and a little overwhelmed when I think of the challenges ahead in guiding you as you grow into young ladies. If I don’t always think so clearly in what will be teachable moments for you (and for me) in the future, here is what I want you to know about living a life of joy and meaning:
"Daddy, we thought your keys would float..."
"Daddy, we thought your keys would float..."
Jesus said you must become like a little child to experience heaven. Well, right now, you know a lot more about heaven than I do. If you can live your adult lives filled with the sense of wonder and joy you now have, you will be remarkably happy and remarkably unlike the vast majority of people.

So, what I want for your life is more of the joy you have now enriched by the insight and understanding that will come through a life well lived. I wish for you an authentic, awake, abundant life.

I think joy is your default state. It’s not something to attain. You’ve always got it. Anxieties and distractions may obscure it’s presence, but you don’t have to strive for joy. Just drop what’s keeping you from experiencing it. To return to that default state, simply Be still and know” as the Psalmist says. I certainly don’t have that mastered. Grown-ups seem a lot more still on the outside than kids, but peek into our minds and see how agitated our thoughts are.

Create opportunities for stillness throughout your life by embracing regular doses of solitude and by constantly returning your attention to the present moment. It helps if you can get lost in activities you love for the joy they bring you, not for the approval or applause of others. For example, when I watch you drawing or coloring now, I see both of you so blissfully engrossed that the rest of the world falls away. (By the way: Annie, do please remember to keep your art on the paper, not the walls or floor. Please delay your career as a mural artist a bit longer. Seriously, it’s getting to be a problem…)

Follow a path that makes you truly come alive. It may seem selfish, but if you focus on living an abundant, authentic life and pursue work that feels like play and relationships grounded in selfless love, your joy can transform and awaken those around you who are sleep-walking or struggling through life.

The challenge for me as your father is to “do no harm” to the wonderful start you have as a wide-awake child of God. I want to get out of the way as much as I can. When I try to force or control I know I’m heading in the wrong direction.

The lessons you learn from me and your mom will be from who we are and how we live rather than from what we say. So, please remind us that we need to be more like you. We need to take time to sing and dance and play and laugh with all our hearts the way that you do. And may we be more intentional about simply being fully present with you. To truly listen before responding. To try to understand instead of judging. To know that we don’t have to solve all your problems, and we don’t have to offer a lecture every time things go awry.  May we seek to be kind rather than seeking to be right. May we say “Tell me all about it” instead of “I told you so.”

Finally, I want you to know that God is not some distant grandfather in the sky. And I want you to know that heaven is not just a place to go when you die. Heaven is here and now. God’s kingdom is within. And God is in every face you see and every leaf and flower and sunset you admire. Like the poet said, we should constantly be taking off our shoes because, if we saw clearly, we would see that every where we stand is holy ground.

So, thank you, girls, for picking me to be your dad. I am grateful for the adventure and the enlightenment you have already given me. I’m looking forward to many more great adventures to come.

I love you.


P.S. It’s appropriate that I was asked to write about “joy.” The grandfather I never knew (your great-grandfather) was named Joy. It’s an unusual name for a man, but I’m told he embodied that name well. And my mom, the grandmother I so wish you could know, was Joyce. Her joy was remarkable and rippled through the lives of more people than I ever imagined. I know she is delighting in your joyful lives even now.
Joy Gresham
Joy Gresham
Joyce Johnson
Joyce Johnson

9 thoughts on “A letter to my daughters on Father’s Day: Living a life of joy and meaning

  1. Wow. Simply wow. Thanks for sharing that.

    (Oh, and perhaps Annie could put her mural talents to work on the walls of the VC. Just give her red, black, white, and gray/silver markers. I’m sure she would do it free of charge.)

  2. EJ,

    I really enjoyed reading that! Happy Father’s Day! Hope your summer is going well. Tell the family that I said hello. Be blessed.


  3. Eric,
    That was beautiful! Your girls are so blessed to have you and Shanna as parents. I know God has special plans for the Johnson family!!!!
    I love you all!!!

  4. Everytime I read anything you write, I am so moved. Thank you for this. You are a wonderful parent/teacher/mentor all in one, and I personally think, your girls made the right choice in choosing you.

  5. I guess it’s fitting that I starred this on my Google Reader until I had a quiet moment to read through it alone. Very fitting. Absolutely beautiful, just like everything you’ve taken the time to write on here.

    And as someone who’s never picked your brain on religion and its interaction with the zen mindset and all…this was more than welcome. Ella and Annie will grow up before you (and the rest of us!) know it, and they’re truly blessed to have y’all as parents. I’ll be seeing you around those hallowed halls of the Four Towers!

  6. EJ-
    I’m so glad I stopped by to read this. A beautiful letter to your girls. I’m sure they will treaure it always.

  7. Thank you EJ-
    I have not read your blog in a while, but as I sit in my cubicle I am in need of some inspiration, and you never let me down! And I second Greg’s comment that Annie’s first masterpiece should be the VC.
    You’re a remarkable father figure to many!

  8. Fantastic! Thanks for sharing this Ej. Ella and Annie are truly going to appreciate this when they read it again and again as they get older. Great stuff!

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