An Open Letter to My Son, Kaleb

father-sonAs many of you have probably noticed I haven’t blogged a whole lot this summer. Rather, I’ve not blogged at all! The reason being that my wife, Emily and I welcomed our son, Kaleb, into the world on June 15. Since then life has been filled with changing diapers, sleeping when possible, waking up in the middle of the night to feed, burping and spit up, playing with him, watching him get tired and fall back asleep, then repeat…thus turning us into zombies for the first month of his life. In fact, I now believe that when we talk about an eminent zombie attack what we are really going to have to ward off are tired parents who are only looking for a nights rest without crying and poop.

During this time I’ve prayed often for our son. It has only been two and a half months but I’ve already gotten to see him grow so much. His personality is starting to show and his smile continues to change any bad day into the very best. To say that he has me wrapped around his finger is an understatement. I am thankful he can’t talk yet because if he asked for anything his mom and I would have a hard time saying no. As I’ve prayed, I’ve thought often of his future…the people he will spend time with, those that will invest in him, future love interests and heartaches. Obviously I can’t share any of the things I would like to about love, sex, and relationships at this time in his life so I decided to do the next best thing…I wrote him a letter for when he is 13.

Dear Kaleb,

Without a doubt the world you now live in looks different then when you came into this world 13 years ago. I can remember hearing how different the world was for my parents when I turned 13. They talked about how much the music had changed (I had MC Hammer, Madonna, Prince, U2, and Michael Jackson. They had the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley), or how technology was beginning to shift the ways we communicate (We had just got our first nice computer that was the size of giant microwave and weighed close to 50 pounds and although the internet was still not widely used, we had a dial up connection.) and they pondered how these new changes would impact me as an adult. I do the same as I write this letter to you.

As a 13 year old I thought pondering how the world had changed from one generation to the next was stupid. But, now that I am an adult and your father, I recognize the need to reflect on this very thing. I do so not because I fear the changes that will occur, but rather because I want to know how best to lead you in this ever-changing world. This letter is as much a reminder for myself as a word for you. I want to parent out of a deep desire to see you think critically, recognize beauty, and see God even in the most secular of artifacts. I desire for you to have a faith rooted in Jesus Christ, and to live the life I only wished I could have as a teenager because I was too afraid to be myself and live out my faith with conviction and courage.

So here is my attempt to share some thoughts I wish someone would have shared with me when I was younger.

No Matter What You Have Done I Probably Won’t Be Surprised

Remember, I am the “sex-guy,” the person responsible for coming into your middle school and high school to share a message on healthy relationships, media education and choosing to wait to have sex. I’ve spoken to thousands of teens and young adults in the church and one thing has happened over all these years. I’ve stopped being surprised by what I hear.

Pornography runs rampant throughout every campus I’ve visited. Whether it is a middle school, high school, college, or church, there are individuals who look at porn…and often. More and more of your peers have started to have sex earlier and earlier so I would not be surprised if you already know several of your classmates that have already had sex or are close to having sex. And I’ve seen the impact all of this has on relationships, classroom performance, sports involvement and life at home. It never has a positive influence.

I’ve learned one truth in all this time: our deepest cravings for power, money, alcohol, sex, recognition, and release are really misguided longings for God.  This doesn’t mean that what your peers, or what you, have done is okay. But I do know that within those thoughts and behaviors, there was really just a desire to be found in the one who created you.

Sex Is Not Everything That Our Society (and Church) Often Makes It Out To Be…

Sex sells. Or, at least that was the phrase that we often heard throughout my life. Movies proclaim its pursuit as the absolute most important thing in becoming an adult. They say it is the one thing that separates you from remaining a boy or becoming a man. Every decade has its “coming of age movie” whether it is a John Hughes movie from the 80’s, or one of the American Pie movies of the 90’s, or SuperBad of the 2000’s, sex and the loss of one’s virginity is the central theme.

However, in the same breath I can also talk about the church and how virginity is also a central theme. Only the message there is dead set on protecting one from the loss of virginity rather than the giving away of it. And if you choose to wait then God will bless you with awesome sex…mind blowing….body altering….sex. Or, at least that is one way it could be said.

Here is my issue, son. Both groups put too much emphasis on the wrong thing. Your virginity is not what is most important to you or your sexuality. Losing your virginity will not make you any cooler. You will still be a boy who desperately wants to be a man but lacks the character or patience needed to be a true man that loves a woman for more than her body, and himself for more than what he does with his.

Nor will keeping your virginity make you any more holy. Unfortunately, there are some that wrongly believe the first question that God will ask us when we meet Him face to face is, “Were you a virgin when you got married?” Choosing to wait for sex until marriage is about more than just our virginity.

God is concerned with your heart. Kaleb, your virginity, if not spoken of in the right context, can be a source of pride rather than an opportunity to glorify the Creator. Virginity, as a stand-alone virtue, is not enough.  This is why my desire for you is to live with sexual integrity.  And sexual integrity cannot fully occur unless you are in a relationship with Christ. For it is “In Christ” where your identity is given and determines how you love yourself, and those around you.

Sex Is Powerful!

You might think this defeats my first point but it doesn’t. Although sex is not everything that the media tells us and virginity is not the end-all most important thing about you, sex must be placed in its proper context. Then, and only then, can we celebrate its beauty and power.

At the core, sex is about creation. It is about the two becoming one. And it is about the desire to be known. What other act in life can you say does this?

The reason our culture spends so much time talking about sex and relationship is because we are searching for something. We are looking for meaning and purpose. We are looking for release and then to be filled with something new. That is why you see our culture talking about sex in such idolatrous ways.  

Sex needs to be placed in the context it was intended. In the marriage relationship.

This will be counter-culture from everything you hear but it is the boundary found in Scripture over and over. Genesis, Exodus, Song of Songs, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Hebrews all clearly communicate the power and beauty found in sex and the place it is intended to be enjoyed, in the covenant of marriage. Again, for good reason. It is meant to be an act that not only brings pleasure but also has the power to create….relationship, connection, and life. can all be found in this one act.

 My hope is that you use sex to create, not destroy.

 Your Mom and I Want To Be Google In Your Life.

There is absolutely no question you can ask us that is off limits. If it is a real question, it deserves a thoughtful response from people that love you. I don’t want you to have to go online, by yourself, to seek answers.

My prayer and hope is that we are the safe people in your life you can come to us with any question or contemplations.  We cannot force you to believe what we hold to be true, but we can, and hopefully already have, taken the time to speak from our own experience, knowledge and wisdom.  Our hope is to always share these in a loving and safe environment that welcomes dialogue on some of the most difficult, yet also the most important, topics.

You’re at an age where you are going to know everything…or think you know everything. I will be at an age when I know I don’t know everything…not even close. In fact, the older and older I get, the surer and surer I become of fewer and fewer things. However, of those things I am sure of…I am definitely sure.

Something I learned when I was working with a large corporation was that when a customer asked us (an employee) a question that we didn’t know the answer we were supposed to say, “I don’t know but let’s find out together!” This has been a powerful statement in my life and I hope it can be in yours too.

There are going to be many questions you have about life, love, relationships, sex and God. Some of them your mother and I will be able to answer.  The ones we can’t answer though we want to discover with you.

The Jesus Of The Gospels and In Scripture Can’t Be Found on Twitter or Facebook…or Whatever Form of Communication You Use Now.

I want you to know who Jesus is, really know Him. That is not going to come from a 140 character tweet or some Facebook post. My desire is that you learn to do exactly what the Bible invites you to do…meditate on and retain its words. ‘I have hidden your word in my heart’, says the psalmist, ‘that I might not sin against you’ (Ps. 119.11). Jesus said, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you.’

Remember, the only product these social networks sell is you. You are its product, delivered in large quantities to advertisers! The medium is designed to keep you constantly surfing, constantly skimming, constantly clicking. This is not how you need to be able to think in the real world. You need to be able to concentrate and critically observe the world around you. This requires context and patience.

The Jesus found in the Gospels is found by reading the Bible in its entirety. Creation, fall, redemption, and new creation are only understood when you read the Bible from Genesis through Revelation. It’s here that you will find a Savior that radically loves you, is seeking you out, and He is the only one that will truly fill your soul with any meaning.

You Have A Team That Is Cheering You On!

I saved the best for last and this is also probably the most important. You don’t just have your mother and I. You have grandparents that love you deeply. Your aunts and uncles have been dedicated to being in community with you from the time you were born until now. We’ve also been fortunate enough to invite close friends into your life that have loved you as their own flesh and blood.

Through community you will be exposed to new experiences and unforgettable lessons. In community you will know that you have more than just your mom and I to seek advice and wisdom. Out of community you will grow and become a man.

You might think you can’t do it (enter manhood) and will be afraid to express these feelings to me. That is okay. I hope, however, that because of the community that surrounds you that you will always have someone to tell how you are feeling.

The community we’ve welcomed into our life is a safe place. May it also be a place that helps launch you into the next part of your life!

Your Loving Father

Learning To Be Optimistic on Issues Surrounding Teen Sexuality

Ever listen to how a freshman in high school describes the start of their high school experience? They often talk about their goals and dreams. They are optimistic about their future and the relationships they will share with new friends. But only three short years later I listen to these same students as seniors. They tell their stories like a wounded vet. One who has stood in the trenches and had the shrapnel of life thrown at them. These once wide-eyed and optimistic freshmen are now war-torn and bruised. They are matured by their experience with pain and heartache.

This is especially troubling when I discuss with them the experience of relationships while in high school. Specifically, I am interested in the romantic relationships they’ve shared. I find that most of those who committed to abstinence or purity did not follow through on this commitment. By the time they have entered college their decisions surrounding sex have completely changed. Unfortunately, some have even had the choice of having sex stolen from them through rape or abuse.

The reality of the world we live in hits our youth hardest while in high school, or right after graduation. The number of choices compounded with a growing number of media influences and messages a teenager is faced with makes it very difficult for a teen to find success in achieving his or her goals. Optimism is replaced with anxiety, depression, fear and discouragement. However, we can’t just blame media or the teen for everything that is happening. We’ve added to this lack of optimism with our own language that speaks more of apathy then it does empathy, especially when it comes to discussions surround ing our sexuality.

Curbing this trend is important. Injecting a dose of optimism has to happen, especially in the life of the teenagers we encounter on a daily or weekly basis. We need to resurrect optimism and bring forth hope for those that are lost. If we don’t engage teens now, then the trends of earlier sexual activity, depression and self-worth will continue to only get worse, not better.

Allow me to offer five suggestions for how we can break these disturbing trends and begin helping our youth remain optimistic on issues of sex, sexuality and relationships.

First, we can never forget that teens have it rough. Too many systems like schools, churches, sports programs that were once created for youth now serve the adult. As Chap Clark mentions in his book Hurt:Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers we are seeing systematic abandonment of youth. Schools are more worried about upsetting the parents then they are the education of the child. Sports programs become more of show- and-tell for parents then they are an extracurricular activity for kids. Combine this with the pressure a teen has to be popular or find acceptance and they don’t get a whole lot of breaks.

Teens are also constantly marinating on the topic of sex. Denying this or never discussing this only complicates the issue. If we are going to begin having any hope in restoring some level of optimism when discussing this issue the first thing we have to do is realize that there is an elephant in the room and its name is “SEX.” Getting it out in the open, sooner rather than later, is the best advice I can give any youth leader, pastor and parent. We can make this one subject, if handled in a disarming way, that doesn’t have to be as rough as we make it for our teens.

Second, we have to choose language that is encouraging. I recently attended a conference where a group of teens explained their time at the event in a nutshell: “Don’t have sex cause it will kill you. Don’t do drugs because they will kill you. Don’t drink alcohol because it will kill you… don’t do anything because it could, well, kill you!” I had to laugh because this was their take-away. However, I guarantee this take-away will not be one that impacts their behavior all that much in the short-term or at all in the long-term.

Unfortunately, we much too often think of ourselves as moral policemen and policewomen. I love the way Jim Henderson describes this concept in his book Jim and Casper Go To Church, “Jesus didn’t just teach principles, He taught practices. He gave people something to do. He didn’t just teach them about forgiveness, he told them to forgive their debtors. He didn’t just talk about love as a concept (eros, phileo, and agape), he told people to love their enemies. He didn’t just tell people to think about changing their behaviors, he told them to repent (change their actions). Sure it’s challenging, but it doesn’t take a weekend seminar to understand what he means.” If we are going to see youth succeed by recognizing the beauty of waiting for sex in marriage, make wise choices when it comes to drugs and alcohol and find success in completing their goals we have to start injecting a dose of optimism with “do” statements rather than “don’t!”

Third, we have to give equal emphasis to intervention (the actions after) as we do with prevention (the actions before). I’ve been privileged to work with many pregnancy resource centers in our region. These ministries see sex as something that should be celebrated and shared in the marriage relationship. They often provide a preventive message of waiting to have sex. This is to prevent teens from experiencing the potential for physical, emotional, social and spiritual consequences from having sex early. However, a majority of the work these ministries provide is after the fact, or through intervention.

This is where our work as youth leaders can have the most impact. Sometimes the way we talk about Christian sex is more about waiting and holding onto our virginity then it is about anything else, like our relationship with Christ. Because we make it all about waiting we can make those that have already had sex feel less than human. One teenage girl said, “I’ve tarnished my virginity so why start over? I am tarnished and it’s too late for me.” She represents the voice that I think many youth share.

The reality is that we are all tarnished. That is why Jesus died for the sins of all human beings. That includes you and me, not just that teenager that made a mistake. Yes, we have to be unapologetic about the sin these teens are engaging. However, if we are going to be successful in seeing teens engage in fewer risky behaviors then we have to start thinking about how we discuss them with teens. If we are not pointing them towards the restoring and redeeming work of Christ then they will never be able to experience the rebranding that takes place when we are in his presence.

Fourth, we can’t be surrogate parents to our teens. We need to find a way to empower parents to do their job! If we are encouraging teens to make a commitment towards purity, then we need a commitment from their parents as well. No one is going to have more influence over their son or daughter’s success in remaining pure then that teen’s mother and father.

Too many youth programs I have seen do not involve parents. This blows my mind. Why would you exclude such an important element in a teenager’s life? Study after study tells us that a parent’s involvement is key to a teen’s success. For instance, a study by Fathers Direct found that kids want their dads to talk with them and spend time with them, just hanging out. The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health found that the greatest factor in keeping kids away from high-risk behaviors was the degree of closeness, caring and satisfaction they experience in relationship with their parents. Can’t we do something within our ministries to begin addressing this very serious issue?

Ironically, it is those parents that attend church more often that have the hardest time talking about sex. Using both the National Study of Youth and Religion telephone survey data and the first wave of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health survey data, Dr. Mark Regnerus, author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, has found that the more important religion is to parents, the more difficult it is for those same parents to talk to their kids about sex. Empowering parents to become the authority on this subject is a must.

Finally, we need to understand that teens today have an incredible capacity for relationship. They desire it in ways that my generation and the ones preceding it never imagined. Part of this is because of the lack of authentic and tangible relationships teens share in their media saturated world. They are lonely. They desire to be known deeply. With nothing real in their world they are left with a void. That is one reason they are so aggressive in their pursuit of romantic relationships. But I think that this also makes them perfectly ripe for the one relationship that changes everything. The relationship we share in Christ.

I’ve come to appreciate the words of Pastor Timothy Keller when thinking about relationship. Recently, I heard him speak of the need for gospel renewal. It’s this idea that if we are really going to see change in people and in the communities that we play and work that something radical has to happen in the lives of those involved. This means that Jesus has to be central to everything and every person. Often we try to stir up the crowds and use sin (fear) to get people to do the right thing. However, in this process we are not changing the heart. We are not getting to the fundamental self regard, self centeredness, and self absorption of the human heart out-of-the-way. We are just manipulating it. Unless the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is leading the way it will never bring forth change in the person or its surrounding community. According to Keller, A person who always tries to obey will never really find acceptance, however, the person that knows they are accepted finds it easier to obey.

I believe that if we are going to begin resurrecting optimism on issues of sexuality then it is go ing to have to start with the one relationship that stands above them all, Jesus Christ. Sometimes I can think this sounds cliché, but it is true. It is in Jesus that we find hope. It is in Jesus that we can find a reason to be optimistic. It is here that real change begins to occur.