The Sweet Providence of God in the Life of Our Four Sons

I asked Noël to let me use this article here. She said yes. She wrote it for World Magazine. They had to edit it pretty heavily for length, and I wanted you to be able to read it the way she wrote it. It filled me with a marvel at God’s grace in our lives. Just for perspective the boys are now 34 (Karsten), 31 (Benjamin), almost 27 (Abraham), and 23 (Barnabas). They are all standing with their wives in the name of Jesus. I am a very blessed man. Life is hard and God is good. Here is Noël’s own title and article.

-John Piper

Boys, Books, and Birth Order
On asking my 4 adult sons to list 5 favorite picture books and 5 favorite chapter books

Erma Bombeck explained birth order: the firstborn is a scholar, the second a jock, the third a game show host. Kevin Leman added the last-born as salesman.

That’s our boys. Before age four, Son 1 was reading The Little House on the Prairie. Son 2, little older than four, was outstripping the rest of his soccer squad. Son 3 (a.k.a. Hi!-What’s-Your-Name?) performed in new roles daily, aided by boots, bathrobe, and stick. Son 4 survived life with older brothers by charming everyone from day one.

Their mother rejoices that their names are in the Lamb’s Book for eternity. In the meantime, they remember few other books in common. Four boys who shared home, parents, and read-alouds—you’d expect shared favorites. Instead?—Fodder for arguments about nature over nurture.

Son 1 names only chapter books: “The picture books I remember are ones we’ve read to our kids more recently.” But his mother remembers. The first time he heard Are You My Mother?, he wept when the fledgling was scooped up by the Snort. Oh, the emotional power of words on our tenderhearted child who regularly shed tears over goodbyes. Son 1’s is the only list with books his mother didn’t know (maybe he found it more efficient to read alone?): The Great Brain, The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Westing Game, and Good Night, Mr. Tom.

Son 2, lists only picture books, mostly Dr. Seuss (“I hope you weren’t looking for the spiritual answer. These are what I remember.”) He’s the one who visualizes all sides of an object at one glance. This makes him good at building and design. It also means he sees many sides of each letter in each word on a page—dyslexia. He doesn’t list chapter books, but his mother remembers. He completed his first, Naya Nuki, after 4th grade. The Cross and the Switchblade grabbed him as he labored through it in 8th grade. Later, he asked a public librarian for help choosing a book. She asked, “What kind do you like?” He knew his genre, “Christian books about gang warfare.”

Son 3 remembers The Picture Bible, Old Testament excerpts in comic book format: “I learned all my trivia from it.” But his mother remembers another source too—for the script of one of his before-the-mirror performances. [Snarling, brandishing sword] “Come here, kid! I’m gonna feed you to the birds! “ [Rapid turn, drop sword, become David] “Goliath! You come to me with sword and shield, but I come in the name of the LORD.” He memorized his lines listening repeatedly to Stories that Live. The passionate power of words lent him a love for individual words, making us wonder whether an extrovert could ever edit a dictionary: “Stephen Lawhead taught me what being quartered means.”

The length of Son 4’s list matches Son 1’s, because neither obeyed his mother (“I’m way over five books now, but they are all so good”). Son 4 names several books that are on others’ lists—the plight of the youngest stuck with hand-me-downs? But he remembers them happily and doesn’t seem to feel put-upon. With one or another brother, he shares the Hardy Boys (“all of them”), P. D. Eastman, Dr. Seuss, David Wilkerson, J. R. R. Tolkien, and one “unnamed”: “I left off Stephen Lawhead because I like about 8 of his books and couldn’t pick one”). He also has his own favorites: Wind in the Willows, Dangerous Journey, Old Yeller, Sherlock Holmes, White Fang.

Maybe the significance of these lists is limited by what each remembered on short notice…and on brotherly maneuvering to make the most of “only 5.” Son 3 names Narnia, and his mother imagines the others saying, “I didn’t list them because I thought you would!” Son 4 names Richard Scarry, whose books they all loved when they were too young for today’s memories. And the audio of Where the Red Fern Grows is famous in our family for silencing rowdy carpool boys and eliciting muffled backseat snuffles (“Just a cold!”).

Birth order? Favorite books? Maybe they’re valid as general indicators, maybe not. But Son 1 is a poet and English teacher. Son 2 ministers in an inner-city setting, largely youth-oriented. Son 3, a songwriter, edits Web content for a Christian organization. And Son 4 lives among books, working for a Christian publisher—in sales.