Sixteen Candles (Money, Work & Rolex Wrist Wrap)

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I went on a mission trip before my senior year of high school. While away, I felt as though God spoke to me, and made it clear that I was to pursue youth ministry and do for others what Tom (who you know, and was my mentor) did for me when I was growing up.

My grandma was so bummed. She saw my success in business and thought that I should pursue a career there. “Make lots of money, like your Uncle Bill,” she’d say.

I didn’t listen, and I didn’t care.

If I’m honest, I’ve never cared much about money. At times, I have wanted more of it. I have made some bad choices with it throughout the years, but I have always had an appreciation for it. It can come fast, and it can go even quicker.

I have always known that I can earn it, though.

Call that confidence or call it whatever you want, but I am probably more free with money than I have ever been. I think, at least, I am freer than most people are.

Either way, I have never wanted money to own me, control me, scare me, or rule me.

I watch so many of my friends, with more money than I could ever imagine, completely crippled by their terror of it (or, maybe, of losing it).

My dad filed for bankruptcy, and that’s an event you can’t ever live down. It’s a question banks will never stop asking, “Have you ever filed for bankruptcy?” It’s a yes he always had to give.

I guess what I’m getting at is this: they say that, when it comes to kids, more is caught than taught.

I think I caught a healthy understanding, and I’m thankful for that.

I also think that God really does have a sense of humor, because when I finally did start a company of my own, it was a non-profit ministry organization.

As in one that relies on me asking people for money.

Whereas making money has always been easy for me, asking for it has never been.

I wanted to work at a church. Then, I wanted to start a ministry that needed to look like a church, so — at twenty-two years old — I decided on a non-profit organization. In hindsight, it didn’t have to be that way, but for twenty years now, it has challenged me to rely on the Lord in my weakness, as opposed to relying on myself, and my strength.

We put on a myriad of events. We hosted camps. We traveled and spoke across the country in exchange for speaking fees. We paid ourselves small salaries that first year — and even less the second year when we decided to hire mom — and put every last dollar back into new ideas we had for how we might be able to reach people with the gospel and tell them about Christ.

That was always the goal, and my creative Craig Brain (sometimes, I swear, all on its own) spun up new ways to figure out how to raise money for the mission. We started creating products to sell at our speaking events — everything from glow necklaces to inflatable furniture to t-shirts to chain necklaces and Fireproof-branded visors.

By the end of “Craig & Jake” — our first endeavor beneath the Fireproof Ministries umbrella — we were charging five thousand dollars for a speaking gig. I charge five to ten thousand now for an XXXchurch weekend. Maybe that sounds like a lot to you, or perhaps it would seem like a lot to someone else. Every check is made out to Fireproof, and even though we get paid through the ministry, every dollar still goes back there, first.

X3watch — our internet accountability software — came out after I started XXXchurch, in 2004. Covenant Eyes was selling a similar product at the same time that we were giving ours away. It’s not all about comparisons, but at one million downloads, X3watch boasted well over the one-hundred thousand purchases Covenant Eyes was advertising. At the same time, though — thirteen years later — we had to offload our brand, and they’ve made one hundred million dollars.

One. Hundred. Million. Dollars.

I never really thought about what that might have been like.

If I am honest, my ego couldn’t have handled it.

I wouldn’t have been able to do the things that I’ve been able to do with you and Elise had I been stuck in a big organization like that. I doubt I’d have ever been able to coach a single soccer game, let alone ten-plus seasons.

Mom probably wouldn’t be around any longer, either.

I wouldn’t trade you for all of the money in the world.

I caught a glimpse of making a lot of money a few years back — in 2016 and 2017. It was a two-year ride — like my best years with baseball cards as a teenager — but then it slowed down. It didn’t end, but it’s not a gold rush any longer. The market changed. Pogs didn’t come out and kill this one like they did my teenage dreams, but Facebook sure did get hit by Russia (not to mention our president). They weren’t honest with their users. They’d been selling everyone’s information, and I guess it’s no wonder it had been so easy for us to sell there, in turn, as well.

I’ve learned a lot these past few years — “money” lessons included. I’ve been given new opportunities to pursue interests that I’ve always had but never engaged. I’ve met new people. I’ve been able to sit in new rooms and create a few of my own. For the first time in almost twenty years, I have begun to dream anew. It has been exciting and — to be honest, coming into this new year — I felt pretty content to shut almost all of the “old me” down (or, at least, to fire myself).

I am over it, like my Scottie Pippen rookie card.

I started this letter by remembering my New Year’s Resolution: I’m not going to buy stuff that I don’t need. You read it in my set of goals the night we shared one another’s with the rest of the family.

I made that rule because I was bored. I’ve always been able to buy what I want and thought that perhaps it’d be more challenging to see what I could keep instead of spend.

So, this year, I’m flexing a new muscle. It has been an enlightening challenge.

I am beginning to understand what I actually need vs. what I want to go get. It’s a subtle shift, but it has given me a new perspective. It has given me the freedom to pursue other interests — to experiment with what I want to do more than what I’m currently doing for a paycheck — whether or not any compensation is involved at all. And it has been fun. I think that’s why the early days at Fireproof were so fun, too. It was just Jake and me, and we could use whatever extra money we had to put on some event, book our favorite bands, and tell kids about Jesus.

As I said before, my job in the ministry has always required me to ask others for money, and throughout the years, I’ve done a lot of asking.

People have given our ministry over five million dollars in donations since we started twenty years ago. We don’t roll quarters or get paid in change, but your mom has entered every single one of those donations into the computer since then. Every year, we print Thank You letters for the people who keep Fireproof alive, and sustainable.

If you want to know the truth: I hate it.

I hate asking for donations. It doesn’t come naturally to me. It bucks up against my pride. It requires putting to death my ego. To my increasing levels of dismay, I’ve got a good amount of ego left to kill.

To ask is the epitome of humbling.

People you know have given money toward our family and ministry with incredible generosity throughout the years. They’ve supported us in ways that I don’t take lightly. But I always remember, and I still think about paying their gifts back to them.

You overheard me on the phone here recently, asking for money. Next to karaoke and dancing, it’s probably the worst thing you’ve ever watched me do.

That shit is hard. Really hard.

I believe in what we do here, so I have always just sucked it up. I’ve swallowed my pride and gone out and done it. We started this non-profit in 1998. I was only a few years older than you are today, and twenty years later, I’m still asking people for money.

Maybe it’s good for me, but I’d still way rather create something and sell it than ask for donor support.

I realized that — outside of the ministry — I never ask. Or, at least, very rarely have I ever asked anyone for anything. Maybe that comes from my dad, but the difference between us is that I actually figured out how to “make it,” while he never made it past the fake it stage.

I’ve just never felt right asking something of someone without offering something of my own in return.

Elise’s dance competition this last weekend is a perfect example. I invited David Tosti, and I paid twenty bucks for his parking. He told me I didn’t have to do that, but I felt bad about him having to fork out money for something that I invited him to. He shouldn’t have to pay to watch my daughter dance. And — even though he told me that’s what friends do — neither should any of the other people who I invited (and whose parking I paid for).

Recently, too, I was thinking about how — within a couple of years of our Super Bowl trip with my dad — I sent one of my best friends, David Deann, his dad, and son to their own version of that once-in-a-lifetime dream: the Cubs’ World Series. I know that I really do love giving, but I’ve realized something else in the process:

I don’t think my issues with “asking” have anything to do with money…I believe that I simply struggle with receiving.

Constantly considering how I might give back — whether to a friend or family member or ministry partner — nullifies the gift, itself. I’d be bummed, honestly, if others were unable to accept the gifts that I want to give them, but my own feelings of constant indebtedness have left me unable to receive what has been offered to me.

I think it runs in my family. I realized that after I bought my mom a suitcase at Ross the other night. Every time she visits us, she limps off the plane, carrying a suitcase that doesn’t wheel anymore. I keep telling her that’s Ron Jeremy’s schtick (except that — at this point — his suitcase sucks so bad that he simply opted to trade it in for a Whole Foods bag).

Anyway, I bought her a new suitcase. It was fifty-nine bucks.

She had a hard time accepting the gift.

I’ve got my mom in me, too. You know that because — like the rest of the family — you say I’m hard to buy for. I know I need to work on receiving, and I will.

I told you at the beginning that I’ve been thinking about bucket lists. I even bought a book about them the other day. (It was $4.99, and no, I didn’t sell anything before I bought it, so I guess you got me there.)

You and I have worked together to fulfill many of mom’s dreams, and we’ve been crushing it. I don’t really have a list, and that’s largely because I don’t wait to receive what I want from other people. I just go get or experience it for myself. I’d love a Packer Super Bowl with you, but beyond that, I’ve got nothing to cross off that can be bought with money. Only time will tell whether I’ve done a good enough job as a father and husband to see those dreams come true.

Anyway, I started thinking about your bucket list. You shared it with me a few times now. I haven’t looked at it, so I don’t know what all has changed (if anything), but I do remember some of what’s on it.

You are sixteen years old today.


I can’t believe it.

It’s hard to think about sixteen years with you.

You have seen me at my best and at my worst. I wonder what the next sixteen will hold. You’ll see me walking your sister down the aisle. Maybe I’ll coach your son’s soccer team. Perhaps I’ll lose my hair.

I hope you and I can keep sharing shoes.

I hope we can share so much more than just shoes.

This year has been fun so far. We’re only two months in, but they’ve been a good two months for me.

We kicked off 2019 together at Round Table, where I read a letter to the family and promised to do a better job of sharing things as they come, as opposed to my end-of-the-year recap that had been my custom up until now. I also feel like it’s time for me to share some of what I’ve been learning, and the ways I’ve been growing, publicly. That all starts next week with the first episode of Craig Brain. If I’m honest, I am both excited and nervous to share my life in ways more vulnerable than anything I’ve released in the past.

My gift to you is twofold, I suppose. It’s me doing what I said I’d do — sharing my heart as I understand it, myself — and crossing something off of your list.

I didn’t tell mom I was buying this watch for you.

I thought I might be crazy. Mom would tell me I’m insane, for sure. I thought about it for a while, though (which, in my fast-paced brain, might’ve been a solid two or three days), and decided not only that I should buy you this gift, but that I want to.

I have several reasons for wanting to give this to you, but the first is because you want it. You’ve talked about it. You’ve shown it to me before. It’s on your list.

One day, you’ll understand that kind of want. It is a father’s want. I want — and have always wanted — to help you chase and obtain the things that you desire. Your lists have never been burdensome. I love watching them expand. I love seeing your diversity, and I love watching your interests — be they monetary, or vocational, aspirational — change and grow as you do the same.

You are so much fun for me. Your pursuits — be they design-oriented or otherwise — are inspirational, and it’s incredible to see your willingness to chase dreams, work hard, and cross things off of your list.

Your dreams will continue to grow and change as you get older, and you’ll likely subtract a few in the process, as well. We joke and say that your life is a bucket list. Sure, maybe so, but I see and believe in the Bible’s promise of abundant life for those of us who are in Christ. While that doesn’t necessarily mean materially or monetarily, I — while it is within my ability to do so — wanted to be a part of that abundance by giving you something that just so happens to be a big-ticket item on your list.

Receive it. And hear me — as a man who has been honest with you today — when I say, “Receive it freely.”

In a couple of years, when you turn eighteen, I will take one more thing off your list for you.

At twenty-one, one more.

It’ll be fun to watch you cross a few of your own off during the in-between (and — I hope — help others cross a few off of theirs, too).

Sixteen, eighteen, and twenty-one are significant years, Nolan. At least, they were for me.

When I was sixteen, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

By eighteen, I had left my parent’s house, and I never went back.

At twenty-one, I knew I was marrying your mom.

Let’s make these years count, because after twenty-one, there aren’t any big-deal birthdays until you hit forty, and that one kinda sucks.

Seems odd to spend your sixteenth in Vegas. It’ll be fun, but I want to be here for your twenty-first, too. Mom and I have already talked about being in a good enough relationship to sponsor your twenty-first party in Vegas. If you’ll have us, we want to club it up with you and party with your friends. We’ll see, I guess.

As for sixteen:

Happy Birthday.

I really enjoy being your father, Nolan.

I love it.

Accept this gift. It’s yours.

I hear these keep their value. Matt talks about watches quite a bit. I don’t understand them like he does (or, for that matter, like you do) but what I do know is that they were always a point of connection between him and his dad. Let this one be that to you, from me. Give it to your son when he turns sixteen. How cool would that be?

You have been wearing my dad’s watch for a while, now. Let’s trade. I’ll keep his safe while you do the same for this one. When you look at the ice on your wrist, remember that your dad loves you.

At the ripe old age of sixteen, the message that I want you to hear from me is this:

You can do anything you want to do in this life. Keep chasing the passions that others are only able to perceive as pipedreams. Let them call you crazy. Dream bigger. Don’t settle. Have fun and be smart with your treasures here on earth, remembering that no matter where this life takes you, they will never be as rich as your treasures in heaven.



P.S. Whether it’s a letter like this or a video, I’ve shared a few “memorable” moments for your birthday throughout the years. At some point, when the calendar starts anew, I always find myself Googling “Craig Gross + Nolan Gross Birthday” and tracking down the link to the letter I wrote and posted when you turned 11 years old.. I want to see if what I wrote still makes sense.

So — in addition to your “new” 2001 watch — I’m gonna get you to read a “vintage” 2012 letter. These things still play, so mess with them!



1. Please stay young

2. Work and play hard

3. Be generous. None of this stuff is ours

4. Elise is your best friend

Treat Elise like she is the most special person in the world.

5. Remember to laugh and to cry 

It’s okay to laugh (and to laugh out loud). Never get too serious and always remember how fun it is to laugh, and to make others laugh. At the same time, I feel like I have told you not to cry. There is nothing wrong with crying.

6. Girls. They are fun 

They are complicated, and they will soon by calling more and more.

7. Be a leader, not a follower 

Lead people to things that will bring them life and joy. This is natural for you. I have seen it in you for your entire life.

8. Please get to be a size 10.5 in shoes and stop when you get there so we can always share

9. Stay humble

10. Always take trips with your father

I can only remember one overnight trip with my dad until the time I turned thirty-one. After that, we traveled everywhere. Nolan, one of our first trips together was to the Wiggles front row on a flight from Michigan to Phoenix when you were just three. Since then, I don’t think we can add up all the places we have gone, but you are never too old for trips with me. My trips with my dad are some of the greatest memories I have, and I want ours to continue, as well.

11. Get to know Jesus

This is more important than church or fractions or your career. Spend time with him. He doesn’t ask for much, and he is always there. He won’t tweet back at you or FaceTime you, but you will start to hear his voice. He will help guide and direct your whole life if you allow him to. Sit and talk to him and let him know your highs and lows. Tell him how pissed you were when you got your iPod taken away for two months. Listen. You might not hear his voice out loud, but the more you talk to him, sit with, and listen to him, the more I think you will hear. The Bible can seem tough to read when you look at it as a big book, but it is full of Jesus’ words and one of the best ways you can get to know him is right there in those pages.


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