If you had added our ages together when we first met, it wouldn’t have reached 30.
We caught each other’s notice as teenagers for similar reasons. We were both tall, quiet, thinking people. We wore the same size of jeans. You played basketball, rode your bike, and loved your dog, but mostly you were not like other teenagers I knew. I didn’t know other boys who had real jobs building robots alongside 40-year-old engineers at age 16. Not many kids read physics textbooks for pleasure or skipped high school pretty much altogether. You were quiet, as in, I had to ask you to speak up to hear your voice on the phone, but the words you spoke mattered and rang of truth and kindness.
Your story began in quietness. Your parents held the tiny secret of you, their firstborn, tucked safe in your mother’s womb for many months, praying for and cherishing their treasure alone, together.
You were born into a rich heritage. Generations stretched out on every side, filled with men and women who loved God and their neighbor, walked in faithfulness, spoke truth, and crossed the country and continents to bring good news to the brokenhearted.
Your great-grandmother traveled to India as a single young woman to rescue baby girls from a life of temple prostitution. Your grandparents founded institutions like Multnomah University and Eagle Fern Camp. Your dad has been a camp counselor for at-risk youth, a rural high school metal shop teacher, and a medical doctor specializing in spinal cord injuries and amputations. Military veterans, teachers, pastors, artists, musicians, and missionaries are scattered throughout your family tree. But more important than their actual job titles, your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins work hard at whatever task God assigned them. They are men and women of courage and integrity and do everything in love.
I spent many hours with your family, figuring out the Dryden ways. I learned that Drydens work first, then work some more, then have something to eat, then work some more, before they play and eat ice cream. To hang out with you meant participating in activities such as pulling rocks from a quarry to build a retaining wall, digging ditches, laying roof shingles, laying and stamping concrete, shivering in a cold garage while rebuilding an engine, tearing stuff down, and building stuff up, over and over again. Your mom was a force to be reckoned with, the first to pick up a tool belt, and the last to lay her shovel down.
I met dozens of relatives and friends who regularly circled your family’s table for nourishment of body and soul. Your mom’s hospitality and your dad’s way of drawing people close with his kindness and a well spoken question set people at ease in their home. Laughter rang out but so did serious discussions. All four of you are preposterously intelligent. Your brother Andy both amazed me and drove me crazy with his audacious achievements and confidence.
I’m not sure how I got to be the lucky one that you loved. I know I didn’t deserve it – the deep, steadfast, single-minded loyalty you fixed on me before I even got my driver’s license. It almost frightened me, the depth of your affection. I couldn’t help but be wooed by it, even as I told myself I sure enjoyed just being your friend. When I finally made that leap from friend to girlfriend, I knew it was for life.
And life with you has been beautiful. Both of us have changed from those teenagers who accidentally fell fast in love. We laugh now at how little we knew, how shallow and self-centered we were, and how God saved us and continues to save us from ourselves to create a good marriage and a good life.
Life with you has been less like tumbling through white water rapids, and more like a meandering journey by canoe. We are ok with slow and steady. We have slipped past quiet, fern-laden valleys and breathtaking peaks. We have paddled through scarred, clear-cut lands and endured long stretches of cold and rain. We added a couple explorers into our canoe and figured out how they fit and delighted in the ways they changed our adventure. We took a sharp turn, added another member, then said goodbye.
You have always been our guide. We take turns calling out ideas and inspiration, but you are the one who prepares, counts the cost, identifies the risks, checks every box, measures twice. You keep us safe. You make things work.
When our friends encounter a problem, they ask themselves: “What would John do?” (Or, “Whoops. What would John have done?”) When in doubt, they invite you over or send you a text to discuss the problem, and examine the project or broken item. You are called on for such tasks as helping a teenager with his math homework, building a deck with a relative, diagnosing the noise in someone’s car, and discovering that the source of flies in a friend’s home is a decomposing, maggot-filled possum in their crawlspace (I’m looking at you, Brosnans).
But who you are is more than a 40-year-old kindly, smart, Mr. Fix-it. Every one of us is stamped with the image of God, and what he dropped into your soul is a piece of his unbreaking, compassionate, steadfast, sacrificial, chesed love. Your heart breaks with what breaks the Father’s.
No one has to explain or convince you of your role as a privileged white man, because the rhythm of your heart beats to the drum of justice for the oppressed. You have to be careful what you fix that heart of yours onto, because you intuitively know that nothing here on earth will last, nothing is certain, and to love here on earth often means joy, but it always comes with pain.
I flit here and there, calling out the opportunities, the beauty and possibilities, ignoring the dangers. You like to remind me,
“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
You sometimes say that if you hadn’t met me, you would have built a treehouse in the wilderness and lived as a self-sufficient hermit amongst the trees and rocks, probably with a dog and books lining every wall. I can picture that, and I think heaven might look a bit like that for you.
Instead you chose a life of love. You let that big heart of yours break many times over for me and the kids, for your family and friends, and for deep hurts in the world that you have never seen but have not shut your eyes to.
When we became foster parents, my biggest fear was what it would do to your heart. Your love for Baby Boy was evident to everyone. Watching you cradle and care for someone else’s son without holding back or protecting your own heart was a picture of the immeasurable, sacrificial love of God. When you had to let him go, you felt the Father’s pain of releasing his Son, and his love for sons and daughters who are lost to him.
You have more gray hair (and less hair altogether) than when I first met you. We no longer wear the same size of jeans. But you are stronger, more handsome, and more worthy of praise than you have ever been. Your wrinkles remind me of where we have been and what we have accomplished and endured together.
Your 40th birthday comes in a year etched with sorrow, and no number of candles can make your wishes come true. But there is Happy to be found on this Birthday. Happy wife, married to the man she always wanted. Happy daughter and son, whose dad takes them on grand adventures, instructs them not only in algebra, physics, and geology, but in kindness and generosity. Happy mother and father whose son fills them with gratitude. Happy baby who knew the love of a father from his earliest days. Happy brother, friend, cousin, grandparent, and uncle who have in their cell phones the number of a man who can be counted on, can answer any question, and will speak the truth in love.
Happy Birthday, to you.