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Dear Emily – The Santa Letter

December 30, 2014


I failed in 2014.  A lot.  There’s no reason to enumerate my failures, only to make some sort of amends to a very small contingent of friends who used to read This Pilgrim’s Progress when I posted with consistency.

For anyone who has followed This Pilgrim’s Progress for a period of time, you know I publish an annual “wisdom for an x year old” post for our oldest daughter, Emily.  That didn’t happen in 2014.

The truth is, I wrote a letter.  Or, really, multiple versions of the letter.  But all of them were thrown away.  When it came time to write a letter, Michelle and I were still processing the loss of our 16 week old daughter in utero and I was simply unable to write without the emotions of that experience seeping into the letter.  It just wasn’t right, so I didn’t write it.

However, 2014 afforded me and Michelle the opportunity to write an entirely different kind of letter to Emily.  Due to a very serious barrage of questions, it came time to share the truth about Santa Claus.

I won’t try to explain the relationship between Santa Claus, St. Nicholas and the Williston family.  If I was describing it on Facebook, I’d simply post “it’s complicated.”  What matters is the kids are bought in.

Michelle and I talked a great deal about how to share the news.  Ultimately, we settled on a letter.  We started with the brilliant “Dear Ryan” letter that’s been floating around the internet for the last several years.  But we knew there was more we wanted to convey about faith.  So we wrote draft after draft and, a few days before Christmas, we shared the news.

The good news is, it went well and “team Santa” now has it’s newest member. After sharing the letter with a few friends, we felt like we should share it with all of you who might find yourself in a similar situation in the years ahead.

Thus, without further ado, I present to you the “Dear Emily” letter – Santa edition.  Feel free to take it, make it your own and use it as needed.

Dear Emily,

Lately, you have been asking a lot of good questions – grown up questions. One question you’ve asked – Is Santa Claus real? – is one we’ve been waiting to answer until we knew just how.

The short answer – yes, Santa is real, but not in the way that young children believe in him. St. Nicholas was a real man who loved God and understood the importance of sharing God’s love through giving to others. This is why his real life story has been passed down, eventually becoming the magical story we tell about Santa, Reindeer and everything else.

Mom and Dad fill your stockings, pick out gifts and make footprints in magic snow. We do this to help tell a story to help you understand things like generosity and love. And we do this to help kids understand that amazing things can happen when you believe in something you cannot explain.

All of the lessons we teach you in the story of Santa are lessons that, we hope, help you understand the TRUE story of Christmas – the story that the REAL St. Nicholas shared with his life and love – that the God of the universe stepped out of heaven and into the earth as a tiny child, eventually giving up his life for us with his death on a cross.

The story of Jesus is a story of God’s generosity- the way he gives us grace and love when we certainly don’t deserve it. It is about love – love that conquers death and forever opens God’s arms to us. And, it is about believing that God has a plan for our life, even when we do not understand. This is the story that the real St. Nicholas told. This is the story that the “magic” Santa Claus helps children to understand.

Eventually, kids stop believing in Santa, the made up story. This is part of life (even Susan, Edmund and Peter and Lucy couldn’t keep returning to Narnia forever). But we hope the lessons you learn will forever help you believe in the real lessons of Christmas – of God’s love that surpasses all understanding.

Now you know the truth of how Santa visits all of those houses. His “magic” lives in moms and dads who want to help their kids understand God a little bit better. Now you know and now you’re on Santa’s team to help others understand the same.

We are so proud of you and the young woman you are becoming. We love you now and forever.

Mom and Dad

Walter Mitty and the Dream in Us All

May 21, 2014

walter mitty

Oh the power of dreams.

Last weekend Michelle and I watched Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013).  I didn’t love the film, but this isn’t a review.  It was a reasonable piece of entertainment for a Saturday night.

Here’s what you need to know:

Walter Mitty is a dreamer.  Even in the middle of actual human interactions, he finds himself drifting off into his own elaborate fantasies.  In reality, he’s a mostly normal guy whose chief deficiency, it would seem, is that he hasn’t really lived.  He gets up. He goes to work. He comes home.  He balances his check book. He looks at his woefully deficient eHarmony profile.  This is about all there is to Walter Mitty.

There is an inciting incident in Walter’s life,  one that calls him out of his stupor and forces him to make a decision to begin living (the globe-trotting, jumping out of helicopter, and out-running a volcano eruption kind of living).  It’s dramatic, silly, beautiful and it speaks to something I think we all feel at some point or another.

We’re all looking for an invitation to wake up and start living.  We all want our lives to mean something more. No one wants to be ordinary.

The stuff of childhood dreams is never a 9:00a.m. to 5:00p.m. workday that breaks up hour-long commutes.  As children, we look at the world with boundless ambition and little understanding of the challenges that stand between us and our ambitions.  Some call this naiveté, others call it purity.

The true decisions of life are the ones that determine direction and trajectory.  They are the decisions that weigh risk and reward, opportunity and cost.  We are programmed to dream big, we are conditioned to decide small.

We embrace “good enough” as, well, good enough.  Extraordinary, after all, isn’t easy and “good enough” is sufficient to lay one’s head down at night with a mild feeling of satisfaction.

At some point, we stop creating our own story and start living the ordinary.  We distract ourselves by immersing ourselves in other people’s stories.  We watch television and movies, read books and fantasize about the extraordinary stories of others, while our own stories become more and more ordinary.  Soon, we’re convinced that the extraordinary only exists in the pages of literature and the luster of the screen.

As a Catholic, I think there is a tendency to do this with the Saints.  We read their biographies, marvel at their faith and think about how great it would be to be so holy.  Unfortunately, we often stop at the wishing and dreaming.

What it would take for you to be a saint?  Is it simply faith in Jesus relegated to Sunday mornings?

When I was in Rome a few years ago, I was struck for the first time to pray for sainthood for myself and for my family.  Many evenings, as we gather around the living room for evening prayers with the kids, I pray that prayer again.  But I’m mindful that asking for sainthood in prayer and dreaming of the kind of holiness enjoyed by the saints isn’t enough.  The prayer and the dreams are, in and of themselves, a challenge to myself and to our family.  It’s a reminder that sainthood is cultivated in daily decisions for Christ.  It’s choosing the harder way that costs me something of myself.  It’s asking myself whether what I read or watch leads me closer to Christ.

It’s a reminder to choose to live in an eternal kind of way.


On #5

May 9, 2014

baby number 5

Brace yourselves…. another Williston is on the way.

That’s right, just a day after we celebrated the second birthday of our son, Nicholas, Michelle and I are proud to announce that our family is growing once again.  Baby Williston #5 is due to make his/her arrival in early December 2014 (just in time for a tax deduction, of course!).

I fully expect excitement and an outpouring of love for this little one-in-development and I also expect of few of you lurking in the shadows to mumble, “are they crazy?”

The answer – we might be – and we’re ok with that.  When we take a look around our home and the profound love that exists there, we can’t help but buy into the notion that another will only add a new and amazing dimension to our family.

Over the last several weeks, we have pondered what 5 means for and to us.  While I can’t capture all of Michelle’s thoughts, I humbly offer a few feelings that we’ve discussed.

  1. Some of the families I admire most are those that are joyfully growing. They are not afraid of having a full home.  They don’t outwardly fret about the future.  They look at the unique character of each of their children and, it seems, are inspired to find out what gifts the “next one” will bring to their home.If you know our kids, you know we already have a dreamer, a philosopher, a sprite and a charming little bruiser.What’s left?  I can’t wait to find out.
  2. After ten years of marriage and nine years of fatherhood, I still have a lot to learn.  Whatever course of life we pursue is(or should be) a lesson in self sacrifice.  In pursuit of love we must abandon selfishness and seek the true good of others.  And some of us need a few more invitations to “die to self” than others.Each and every one of our children is another gift urging us towards holiness.  They are asking me, even in moments of great frustration, to put aside myself and love unconditionally.  Occasionally, I even rise to the call.There are so many things I want in life.  There are so many things that I want to do with my time.  And few, if any, compare to giving our kids what they need to grow into extraordinary little people. It’s only when I lose sight of this reality that I begin to wonder if having a “big family” is crazy.
  3. There is this strange thing that often happens when you tell people you’re the parent of four or five kids.  I can’t tell you how often people stop, take a deep breath, look down at the floor and tell you how they wish they had more kids but couldn’t/didn’t for this reason or that.  It’s heartbreaking, really, how many people are on that side of the fence.Having kids is often crazy and overwhelming in the midst of daily life but I have never heard anyone say, “I really wish we hadn’t had all the kids we did.”  There is no one on that side of the fence.Society tries to tell us all about when  it is responsible and expedient to have a child. Yes, there is a call to responsible parenthood and all of us are called to prayerfully consider what that means for their family.  But, society often makes the mistake of labeling things that cost us something of ourselves as irresponsible.  This simply isn’t true.
  4. The other day, it occurred to the kids that our almost-two-year-old would be starting pre-school next year.“Mom will have all the kids in school,” they said, “what is she going to do all day?”“Well,” I said jokingly, “I guess we are just going to have another baby so that mom has something to do, huh?”The kids thought about it for a minute, shrugged their shoulders and agreed that was a good plan.  None expressed concerns about available resources.  No one cited a doubt in the capacity for love.  I don’t recall being asked, “where are you going to put another baby?!?”

    In a simple, childlike way, they understood – this is what family is all about.

Thank you, in advance for all of your prayers.  We can’t wait for you to meet baby Williston in late 2014.

Pope Francis is Destroying Me (in a Good Way)

December 5, 2013


Every day it seems there is another phenomenal story in the media about Pope Francis. It shouldn’t be so surprising to see someone act in such a Christlike manner and yet the actions of this man have caused the world at large to sit up and take notice.

Being a fairly outspoken Catholic, I’m often asked what I think about Pope Francis. People sometimes ask because they’ve heard of his seemingly endless charity. Others ask because they’ve heard media distortions of the Pope’s comments that lead them to believe that he is fundamentally changing Catholicism (clearly this guy bought that argument, sigh).

If I’m to answer the question honestly I have to point to how often Pope Francis challenges my heart. It’s like he shines a light on my soul, which is often more willing to engage in my faith from an armchair and a keyboard, not reaching out to the “least of these” around me. He puts my priorities in perspective and challenges me to stop holding on so tightly to the world. He reminds me what joy looks like and how fleeting many of our troubles really are. And it hurts in the best way possible. We all need to be destroyed a little bit (ok, a lot bit). We need to shatter the idol of self and turn our gaze outward. Once you see an authentic example of this, there’s just nowhere to hide.

While New Media has certainly helped spread the word of Pope Francis’s Christ-like deeds, it is the deeds themselves that have garnered the attention. There is a lesson to be learned from this for all of us engaging in New Media, and it is a message that spans the history of Christendom itself.

1 If I speak in human and angelic tongues* but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3

In this season of Advent, as the Church awaits the celebration of the birth of Jesus, I hope we look to the example of Pope Francis and understand that the world at large is also awaiting Christ in you and me. Pope Francis has showed us the way. Daily, he is teaching us what evangelism means. He, and the world, now await our hands and feet to follow his example and bring Christ into their midst.

“Go…” (Matthew 28:19).

Some Wisdom for an 8 Year Old

August 22, 2013


As has become my annual August tradition, it’s time once again to turn towards sharing a bit of wisdom with our oldest, Emily (links here in case you missed my wisdom for a five, six and seven year old).

More than ever before, I’ve found crafting my thoughts very difficult this year. I think, this is because I’m mindful that, at the age of eight, Emily could actually read them. It’s easier to dispense advice to a child who has no hope of actually processing or adopting it. Now, as in so many other areas of life as a parent, the stakes seem to be higher. I feel more accountable for my actions and more responsible for the influence I’m having on this rapidly growing person.

As I searched my heart for things that I wanted to say, I realized a theme emerging. I want to guard the heart of my little girl for just a little bit longer, even as I know that we’re about to send her into another school year of challenges.

Regardless of these challenges, I once again tackle the task at hand. I do hope you enjoy and thank you for reading.


Dear Emily,

Seriously, you’re eight now? How did that happen?

It wasn’t that long ago when I was walking your mom around the Fort Worth Zoo in 105 degree heat, trying to make you come out. Ok, it was that long ago, but I have a tough time believing it.

On the occasion of your eighth birthday I endeavor to share a little bit more wisdom – some gleaned from another year as your parent and some things I still need to learn.

You are different in the best kind of ways
You’re an odd duck, and mom and I love that about you. We love your strange obsession with cats and penchant for picking out the most ridiculous clothes in any store. There are few things more amazing than your ostrich impression. But those personality quirks that make you Emily are not the kind of “different” that I’m talking about.

You’re different because you already have a beautiful and bold faith. Last year you wrestled with the weight of your own failings and faced them with bravery in confession. I’m still learning the lesson you taught me about the joy that comes from a new realization of love and grace.

You stood up and recognized Christ in the Eucharist at your first communion and every week thereafter.

As time goes on, you’ll be amazed to find out how much this faith makes you stand apart as fundamentally different. This being different doesn’t always feel very good, but the deeper you dig into this faith, the more inexhaustible you’ll find its gifts to be. Mom and I have dug deeper than some, but we still only scratch the surface of all that is to be offered. For you, we pray the greatest gifts of sainthood. Don’t give up the gifts of faith for the oh-so-empty substitute of not feeling different.

There is nothing worse than a bully. Don’t be one and don’t be friends with one. Love them, pray for them and be nice to them, but never be a part of the chorus that urges them on.

Winning and Losing
It’s often said, “there’s a whole lot more to life than winning.” To me, that seems to say, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose. So I’ll say it a different way – there’s a whole lot more to life than determining who is the winner and who is the loser, or whether there is even a winner or a loser. We tend to see everything as a competition, like every human interaction is centered on getting the most out of someone else or beating them at some invisible game.

Nothing is more harmful to human relationships, unity or the common good than our unhealthy obsession with competition.

The success of someone else does not mean your failure. The praise given to someone else is not a slight against you.

As far as I can tell, there is no limited amount of success or acclaim. This is not an economy that must be conquered. Throughout your life I believe you’ll find that your own success is dependent on the success of others. Even more, you’ll find yourself most successful and happy when you’re helping others achieve their own success. The only people who see it otherwise are people who whine and say, “thats not fair,” or like a toddler, “mine, mine, mine.” Avoid them at all costs.

I really hoped you’d outgrow this staying up reading late into the night thing. Seriously, why don’t you go to sleep? One day you’ll wish you had slept when you could. You’ll find yourself at thirty-one years old and realize that the only time you have to do anything for yourself is between 4:00 and 6:00 in the morning and you’ll wish there was more time in the day to sleep. If not for yourself, then for me and mom… sleep!

You are the oldest Williston kid and there are certain responsibilities and expectations that come with that. In some ways, having three younger siblings makes you grow up a little faster, and that’s not always fun. But there are also good things that come with that position (like being the only one for whom Dad writes these notes).

By virtue of your position in the family you’re in a natural place of leadership. For whatever reason, God crafted an Emily to be the oldest kid and the de facto leader of the kids in our household. This is just one part of who you’re called to be. It won’t always feel good, but don’t let this responsibility chafe you as much as it could. It, like so many other things, is a gift that you have been given which can help shape who you will become.

Who you will become is beautiful, my dear. You already are and you’ve only just begun to take shape.

Until next year my not-so-little love.



New Post: The Perfect Time for Parenting

July 11, 2013

Good things are coming soon here at This Pilgrim’s Progress.  As you may or may not know, I’ve been working on many other projects that kept me from writing here regularly.  That, however, is soon to change.  In the meantime, my beautiful wife suggested that I link to the writing I’m doing elsewhere here on This Pilgrim’s Progress.

That said, I hope you’ll check out the piece I wrote over at Austin Catholic New Media today, entitled The Perfect Time for Parenting.

sonogramThe Perfect Time for Parenting  –

I’ll never forget when my wife, Michelle, told me we were pregnant the first time.  I unwrapped a gift to find tiny baby booties inside with a note that said, “Can’t wait to meet you, Daddy.”

As I recall, I just started laughing.  And then I kept on laughing.  And then laughed some more.

Read more at:


Thoughts on a new Pope

March 14, 2013

Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve been asked quite a bit what I think about the new Pope.

Honestly, I’ve been so busy with other things that writing these words are the first opportunity I’ve had to really process the election of Pope Francis.

So… what do I think?

On one level, I was surprised that the Cardinal Electors chose a Pope who is 78 years old.  Pope Emeritus Benedict, upon his retirement, said that the job was best suited for a younger man with more energy to tackle the issues facing the church.  I wondered if the electors would take that as a charge to elect a much younger man.

I was expecting the Cardinals to select a man who would be outspoken.  After all, it seems a critical moment in the life of the church and of human history for that matter.  Post modernism has done its work at eroding any sense of absolutes and, honestly, I think that many throughout the world are reeling from the disorientation that arises when you lose sight of “true north,” as it were.

However, this led me reflect on what I really expect in a Pope and, further, what God really expects of me as a Christian living my faith in the world.  Are we called to be vocal opponents of secularism and moral relativism?  Are we supposed to be on the front lines of philosophical and theological battles?  Can we wrestle this world into heaven with the weight of our arguments and the effectiveness of our speech?

In contemplating these questions I realized the genius of the pick.  A man who would choose the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, is making a statement about his own place in the world.  St. Francis was a man committed to poverty and service.  He was a man called by God to rebuild the church, and responded by doing so with his own hands, sweat, service and love.

Last fall I had the opportunity to visit Assisi.  As I think of St. Francis and now Pope Francis, my mind is fixed on the image of the tiny unassuming church Portincula, Francis’s church which stands in the heart of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.

At the heart of our own church now stands an unassuming servant ready to lead with humility and love.  Perhaps he’ll be an outspoken critic of the world, but I doubt it.  I suspect he’ll lead with the medicine of mercy and love that truly heals and transforms.  I only hope that we, as Christians, can follow his lead.


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