Ella, you’re amazing! And you’re supposed to stay my little girl forever. You’ve grown up so much already and I’m tearing up in Starbuck’s as I write this just thinking about it. I hope it’s okay with you that this is public. I just thought of other Dads of future teenaged girls and the daughters who may need a bit of guidance too.

To me, while I rejoice in the young woman you’ve become and are becoming, I’m still going to have to hang on to you as the little baby we had to lay in the sunlight so you would grow. When that didn’t work, we put you in a special green-glowing box and finally, you grew. (Long story about a common medical thing… anyway…) Now there are moments I wish I could stop you.

I want to play with your dollhouse with you some more, and have tea and cake at the American Girl store in L. A. again, and rescue you from the deep end of the swimming pool in Florida (let’s ignore that I accidentally knocked you in to begin with…), and hike around shooting stuff in the yard with a slingshot and acorns… … sorry, really crying here… Okay! On to the point.

You’re thirteen. This is a big deal. I have more to dread, such as teaching you to drive, giving you away to the perfect guy, but those things are all at least a dozen years away still, so let me address today. I wanted you to hear, from my heart, thirteen big fatherly pieces of advice, and look back on them whenever you need to for a little encouragement. Here goes…

1. Never forget how loved, and how special you are. God planned you for his own pleasure. From eternity, your big heavenly Father had your pretty face on his heart, your future in his hands, and your very best interests in mind. He created you uniquely. He bought you and saved you with the blood of his only Son. You’re going to be tempted throughout life to wander and stray, and each time you do, it will be because you’ve forgotten momentarily just how much he loves you, and just how much I love you. So when the hardest moments of your life come along, just remember, you are one deeply loved girl!

2. You are amazingly smart. But you don’t know everything. There is much more coming. You’re going to experience pain, rejection, indecision, disappointment, and I can’t stop it all from coming at you. Just remember, as amazing and smart as you are, you can’t simply lean on your own understanding. You need to keep trusting God and acknowledging his ways with all of your heart. He will, in turn, make your pathway more clear.

3. You need people. It’s okay to be alone sometimes, but decide today that you’re not going to do life alone. Lean on me. Lean on your Mom. Lean on your brothers and your friends and your church. After all, God formed you for his family. You already know how to do this. It’s not a matter of being needy as much as it is a matter of serving people in need. Your servants’ heart will serve you well. Keep being an encourager to other people and you won’t ever hurt for friends.

4. Keep growing. I will always joke about wishing I could keep my little girl as my little girl forever, but the truth is, I want to watch you grow. The Bible summarizes Jesus’ teen years by saying that he grew in four ways – socially, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. I want you to grow in healthy ways in all of those areas. I pray for God’s protection of you physically every single day, but I also pray you’ll get even smarter, bolder, wiser, and closer to Jesus with every passing day.

5. The music of Robert Plant, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, and Fats Domino will always, always, always be better than that of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Beyonce. This is empirically true and is not subject to opinion. This information will serve you well. Oh, and listen to Hillsong and the Statler Brothers for spiritual deepening too.

6. Buckle up! And don’t text while you’re driving. #ItCanWait. Don’t feed the bears. And don’t do other stupid, risky, dangerous things that would endanger your safety, no matter how much your friends pressure you. At least this is what I wish I could say to my thirteen-year-old self. You will hopefully be ahead of the curve on this because, you know, you’re brighter than I was.

7. Your Mom is awesome. You should know this and never forget it. When you wonder how to be a godly woman, look at your Mom. When you want to know how to treat your husband, watch your Mom. When you’re sharpening your own Mamma Bear skills someday, think of your Mom. She’s really awesome and I could not imagine a better Mom for you and your brothers.

8. Wait for the real Mr. Right. This one is big, especially right now. I know that you probably notice boys and wonder what they think of you and what you should think of them. It’s okay. It’s part of growing up. You have plenty of time, so take it. Walk very slowly. You don’t need a “boyfriend” until much later. Much, much later. You do, however, need friends who are boys sometimes.

Someday you will find the boy who has been the very best friend to you that he can be by protecting you and serving you and you’ll fall in love. I know this. But I have unapologetically high standards and you’re probably going to get mad at me about it. So let me spell it out now. He’s going to love Jesus. He’s going to be respectful toward you, toward his parents, and toward your parents. He’s going to be courteous. He’s going to be imperfect, but he’s going to be honest. And while you can and should be a friend of sinners with every kind of past for Jesus’ sake, when it comes to thinking about marriage, he needs to have a lengthy track record of integrity and honesty in his walk.

And, one more very important thing. He’s going to cherish you and treat you like a princess. And… he’s going to know that I own guns and don’t mind going back to prison. (I have visited a prison before, for the record. Twice, actually.)

9. Brace yourself for failure. Girl, you gonna mess up sometimes! When you do, there is grace. There is limitless, immeasurable grace. And there is always, always a lesson to be learned from every failure, so fail forward. Get better by learning from your mistakes. And whenever possible, watch the dumb stuff other people do and learn from their mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourself.

10. I’ll fight for you, even when you fight with me. You’re going to get mad at me. I’m sure of it. You’ll roll your eyes or slam a door. And that’s not okay, but I’m still going to love you. And even when you passionately disagree with me, you should know that in every decision I make about you, in every argument we have about your choices, I am fighting for you!!! Because I love you and I’ll do anything I can to launch you into adulthood well-prepared.

11. Keep an attitude of gratitude. Life has its ups and downs. I’ve experienced both. I’ve been depressed, discouraged, and dismayed with life plenty of times. I’ve felt confusion and chaos deep in my soul. And the greatest antidote to these things is expressing thanks to God and to others for the gifts we get to enjoy. I want you to experience the peace of God even on dark days, so you must give thanks continually! It’s life-changing.

12. Live for love, not stuff. Popularity, cool toys and cars, big houses and amazing careers are all appealing. Don’t live your life for them. If God should bless you with those things, thank him, but live for love. Choose people over work, rest over constant commotion, and adventure over mediocrity.

13. Do something audacious and dangerous with your life. I know, I know. I told you to stay safe. But there is a sense in which I want you to live in unsafe, dangerous ways. I want you to say ‘Yes!’ to the mission and the purpose God has for you. And following Jesus isn’t always safe. Sometimes he leads us to gang-ridden cities in Honduras, poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Haiti, or cold, snowy Moscow where your wallet will be stolen in a subway tunnel (… just helping you learn from my mistakes…).

And sometimes following Jesus means giving your time to counsel people with serious messes because you can help them (like your Mother), or teaching in an inner-city school, or leaving behind everything safe and secure to plant a church somewhere with your husband. And on a spiritual level, following Jesus pretty much always means being challenged and changed into his awesome, magnificent vision of who we can be in our relationship with him.

From the day your Mom and I started praying for you to come into our family, long before you were born, I’ve asked God to use you to influence and change the world in amazing ways. And I believe you’re going to be okay. Especially if you read this list. Like, daily.

I’m proud of you. I have high hopes for you. I believe in you. I’m here for you. I’ll forgive you. I’ll accept and affirm you. I’ll always, always, love you. Happy 13th birthday, my little Ella.


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