Sam, I know I say this often, but I’ll keep saying it because I want you to keep believing it. I’m so glad I get to call you my son! I’m pleased with you. I’m proud of you. You add joy to my life every single day!

You’re the kid for whom we prayed extra hard, and you’re one of the greatest answers to prayer God has ever given us!

But you’re not a little kid anymore, are you? You’re on the journey from boyhood to manhood, and it’s full of all kinds of twists and turns. I wanted to take an opportunity to share some big life advice with you.

What I really want to do is go back in time and put together a bunch of Lego toys again, but my role in this season of your life is to help you get ready for all of the things that are next. So on your thirteenth birthday, here are thirteen “words” from your Dad I hope you remember.

1. You’re amazing and you’ll always matter! God designed you. Your personality is no mistake. You’re uniquely crafted in God’s image and you’ve been given a purpose and a combination of gifts and abilities no one else has. When you mess up (and you will), when you suffer and go through hard things (and you will), and when you get hurt by other people (again, you will) none of this will ever diminish your value.

2. You have a pretty special mind and heart. Your mind is a temple. There are quiet, secret places in our minds where nobody will ever fully understand what we’re thinking and feeling. That’s the place where the Spirit of God meets with you. And there, within that quiet place where God’s Spirit lives in you, is all the joy, peace, confidence, and wisdom you’re going to need in life.

3. Stay close to your people. You need friends. You need community. You need your Mom and Dad and brother and sister as long as we’re here on earth together in this life. Lean in and love no matter what.

4. Don’t stop growing. Of course, you’ll have to stop growing physically, but spiritually and mentally, you’ll always have room to grow and more to learn. Don’t stop learning. Be curious. Welcome people into your life from different backgrounds. Read about outer space. Visit new places. Let your view of the world just get bigger and bigger along with your view of who God is.

5. Some things are timelessly good, like music by Credence Clearwater Revival and Miles Davis, and movies like The Last Man on Earth and the original Star Wars movie (the unedited version where Han shot first). Don’t ever lose touch with the world that was yesterday even as you boldly march into tomorrow.

6. You have permission to feel stuff. I wish I’d given you an even stronger vocabulary for it all, but it’s important that you know that it’s okay to feel things and to express your feelings in healthy ways. It’s okay not to be okay sometimes. And it’s okay to get help when you need it. You need friends (see #3 above) but you also need mentors and coaches and maybe a counselor, too. It isn’t a weakness to be helped by others. In fact, it takes a lot of guts to admit you aren’t completely self-sufficient.

7. You have the most amazing Mom on earth! She captured my heart when I was seventeen years old. We started life pretty early and did a lot of growing up together in our early years. We are both different people now than we were back then and I can testify that God has used your Mom to “save” me in a thousand ways. Honor her and you’ll live a longer, happier life.

8. There are girls. It’s okay that you take notice of girls and wonder what life will be like when you start dating. It’s okay that you wonder about all kinds of things in this area. That’s totally natural. But take it slow. We live in a world that objectifies women (reduces women to their physical appearance and diminishes their value as humans) and has historically failed to value women equally.

You’re going to be different. You’re going to treat women with the utmost respect. Cultivate within yourself the tendency to see every girl you meet as a human soul, precious to God, just like you. You will learn from women and sometimes answer to women in leadership positions over you. Trust me, this will make you a better human!

9. Give yourself grace. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to make some unwise decisions. Remember, when you do, that feeling guilty can be good for you (guilt says, “I did wrong”) but feeling shame can harm you and those around you (shame says, “I am bad”). You should love yourself, forgive yourself, and get stronger as a result of failing.

10. I’ll fight for you, even when you fight with me. There will come a day when you need to talk to me about some of the ways I may have hurt you or held you back. You have permission, now and in the future, to have those hard conversations with me. And even when we don’t see eye-to-eye and have conflict, know that I will always fight for you. I value you as my son too much to let a disagreement separate us. So when you need to talk, let’s talk.

11. Stay thankful. Nothing will bring you more peace and joy than gratitude. Every day for the rest of your life, think grateful thoughts. Express gratitude to God at the end of every day for at least three things, especially for the people who have made your life better that day.

12. Live for love, not stuff. As Bob Goff says, we’re here to “become love.” God is love and he came in the form of Jesus to show us what love looks like. Following Jesus is not about going to church or believing certain doctrines. It’s about becoming love, like Jesus. You’ll likely choose a career path and work for decades, but your purpose isn’t being a productive employee. Your purpose is to love God, to love yourself, and to love others. If you get to the end of your life having loved well, your life will have been a complete success!

13. Get upset and do something about the right kinds of problems. The world is a hard place for most people. You get to see your privilege and fight for things that matter, like justice and equality. “You only get one shot” (according to Eminem) to leave the world better for other people than you found it.

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 son!