A Rite of Passage

We are a little beyond ½ way through our sabbatical/rite of passage year and I have recently completed an interview for a gentlemen who works for IV Press who is writing an article for Prism Magazine. Here are some excerpts from my writings to him.

IVP: Tell me the nature of what you’re doing with your son during this sabbatical.

KW: In the fall 1989, while studying Cultural Anthropology with Dr. Darrell Whiteman at Asbury Theological Seminary, I felt like God gave me the desire and a vision to create a “rite of passage” for my son when he turned 13. In May of 1990, my son Timothy came into our family through an amazing miracle adoption. Although we had never signed up nor applied to adopt a child, we were called by a woman in our community we had once met and asked if we wanted to adopt a child. That was April 15th and on May 2nd of 1990, (only 17 days later) we received a phone call which said “you have a baby, you need a lawyer.” With a court order, we picked up our 1 day old son and were provided permanent custody one year later. From the day he was born, I kept telling him that when he reached 13, we were going to take a trip around the world to serve the poor. The purpose of the trip is as follows:

  1. To give Timothy a lens through which he can see the rest of his life.
  2. To help Timothy SEE at a young age how most of the world lives.
  3. To help him experience different cultures in the hope that he will see his own culture with perspective
  4. To give him a range of experiences which will open his eyes, his heart and his understanding of what God has called him to do with his life!

My passion is to ‘ruin him’ as a ‘typical’ American teenager and to instill in him a vision of the world’s poor that will influence his calling and shape his destiny. Today, we are living out the vision!

IVP: How did you shape the rites of passage you came up with? How would adapt them for another child? Where did you turn for your ideas?

KW: I knew in my heart that the most significant thing I could do to help my son grow is to get him out of the USA and into places in the world where “most” of the world lives. It is not enough to tell him that we live in the top 5% of the richest people in the world; I must show him how other people live and expose him to other cultures. This IS discipleship and in my view, there is no greater test to a man’s ability to fulfill the great commission and the great commandment than discipling his own son. Therefore, we are home schooling for two years (thanks to my wonderful wife) and we are learning about the world and especially the poor of the world. Together, we are studying about the poor, specifically what God’s word teaches about the poor. We are reading through books like Sharing God’s Heart for the Poor by Amy Sherman and Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider. We are also reading stories about the early pioneers of social ministry like William Booth. I am desperate for him to gain a hunger for God but I am aware that this is something ONLY the Holy Spirit can produce in him.

When the trip moved from the ‘dream about’ stage to the ‘reality stage’, I began to consult with others. I spoke with Dr. Matthew Zahniser, a former professor at Asbury Theological Seminary who was a big help and my friend David Olshine who teaches at Columbia International University was a great encouragement as well. David (who is also a Jewish believer) is doing a sabbatical this year and doing a study on rite of passage. I also spoke with several friends who only recently explored this issue with their sons. I have not heard people speak about this idea neither inside nor outside the church. Maybe I lead a “sheltered life.” Every time I’d share this idea with people, I’d hear how unusual it was. Our social system and in particular our Christian discipleship teaching (praxis) has very few examples of rite of passage. When I was 13, my mother sent me to Israel and this was a very significant time in my development. Unfortunately, I did not have a community to send me nor receive me which is SO ESSENTIAL. The experience was valuable but it did not help me grow into a man. In fact, I remained stunted as a teenager until I became a follower of Jesus at the age of 17. It was at that time that I finally began to grow up. I was ‘sucked’ into the drug culture from the age of 12 and this terrible experience distorted and stunted my emotional, mental, social and spiritual development.

In terms of adapting what I have done to another child, I can only say this: As leaders in the Church, we must inspire fathers with a vision to make time to help their children make the transition from being boys and girls to being men and women. While someone other than their father can help, there will never be anyone in their life who will have the power to shape their destiny like their father. We must tell fathers to make time and we must give them examples of how this can be done and how significant it is. God has given fathers a window and has placed it parallel to their child’s physical development. We must help fathers both see the window and also know what to do when the window (a limited time) arrives. As for helping single moms with this, I may have something to say but I’ll leave this for another time.

IVP: How does what you’re doing for your son compare to your own childhood experience? How did your mother respond to your ideas for your son’s rite of passage?

KW: The whole concept of rite of passage was never mentioned or explained to me and I really was not familiar with the idea until I was age 32. I am now 45. Although I was raised in a Jewish home and was confirmed in the synagogue (confirmation instead of bar mitzvah was the preferred approach at Suburban Temple in Cleveland), I never understood the importance of rite of passage–thrusting a young boy into becoming a young man.

My father died when I was 12 leaving my mom to raise three boys all of whom were using drugs within a year of my dad’s death. My mom died just over one month ago and she never gave me the impression that she understood my intentional effort to help my son grow into a man. She respected what I was doing (she usually respected and admired what I was doing in my adult life), but I don’t think she ever grasped the long range significance of the vision. I am committed to these values:

  1. When my son turns 18 and begins college, I want to sit back in my chair and reflect upon the past 18 years. I want to be able to say to myself “I have no regrets”. I want to be so proactive in his development that I will not live with regret of what I could or should have done. Lord help me, in Jesus name!
  2. I want to do everything I can as his father to prepare him for his calling. Today, I am aware that I only have 4-5 years tops left until I may lose his attention for several years. I know he will come back to me (if I am still living) but I am aware that once he hits 18, he may be less likely to pay attention to my voice in his life. I want to be a good steward with his life.
  3. Integrity and the fear of God. I want my son to see me for who I am and I want to live honestly before him as a man who seeks to do what is right and shuns evil. This is my definition of the fear of God. I never want to be a hypocrite nor do I ever want to lie to him. I want to BE a man of integrity and I want my son to grow up to fear God which is the basis of all human HOPE.

I am a very passionate person and I have immersed myself in full time ministry since I began Good Works in 1981 in the basement of my home. I believe God brought Timothy into our lives at the right time. I fear that if Timothy would have come during the early years when I first started Good Works, I may have ‘sacrificed him’ on the alter of helping the homeless. But I will to not do that. God has shown me that my wife and son must have a unique priority in my life. Taking a year off from the “monster” as Tom Skinner once called it (The Ministry) is one way to break the power ministry has over me, re-think the routine and reveal what my real motivations for life and ministry are. In some ways, this is a rite of passage for Good Works as well as for me. This is the first time I have left my “baby” for a year since I began the ministry. So far, this sabbatical/rite of passage has been excellent is helping me grow in these areas!

IVP: How involved has your community (friends, family, networks, institutions) been in the rites of passage you’ve devised?

KW: Very involved. I just finished sending a letter to many friends who are walking with me in this adventure. Prior to leaving Athens, Ohio in February 2003, I organized a ‘sending ceremony’ where my friends came together for two hours of prayer, worship, sharing, sending and food. Some traveled a great distance to join in with us. It was great to be in a living ‘cloud of witnesses.’ In addition, since Good Works is paying only 1/2 of my salary this year, we have had to reach out to friends for the rest of our financial need (the airfare alone this year is ten thousand dollars). So far, our friends have been there to support us financially. Some friends are providing vitamins and others have sent special prescribed medication I need. Still others have offered other kinds of help. The plan at this point is that when we return in December, we will again bring together our friends for a time of “returning to the community.” We will have a time of worship together and sharing. I am taking photos and I plan to use these both to remember the year and tell the story. We are all doing journals as well. I am also hoping to do a weekend retreat with about 10 men and Timothy sometime in the month after we return. My plan is to ask 10 friends to spend two days with my son and I and to prepare something to share on a particular topic which I assign them or which they want to speak to. I want them to impart something to Timothy in preparation of his next few years. This ‘ceremony’ is to bring some measure of closure to the event. These will be men Tim knows well. In addition, I plan to ask other men to write a letter to him about becoming a man that will be read to him during this weekend.

IVP: Rites like these seem to center around boys more so than girls. Did you see any exception to that in your preparations? How did you settle on the appropriate age to begin this with your son?

KW: I don’t have daughters and I haven’t had much discussion with my friends who have daughters about this issue but I am aware that there are some good things happening in this area in Christian thinking–such as is spoken of in ministries like Focus on the Family. I’m not exactly sure if I ever did settle on the appropriate age. I was OPEN to taking my sabbatical from Good Works sometime between when Timothy turned 12 and 15. But God, through the man who is now serving as my Acting Executive Director, brought the timeline into focus. Practically speaking, I had to balance the staff leadership needs of the ministry I am serving and my own freedom to take this sabbatical. Although I had been talking about this sabbatical/rite of passage for more than 13 years, in 1997 I formalized my request with the Good Works, Inc. Board of Directors and it was agreed that I could take a year off providing I had the leadership in place to guide the ministry. In 2001, God provided that leadership.

IVP: Obviously, governments have what are essentially a type of rite of passage–driver’s licenses, voter registrations, drinking age, and so on. Why, in your mind, aren’t such civic rites adequate to mark time for your son?

KW: Good question. Because the dominant youth culture is so powerful, it has redefined these institutional rites. Therefore, their very meaning is weak and limited in my view. While getting a driver’s license may be the most significant event a teen in the US looks forward to, it fails to have the transforming power for good that I believe a rite of passage must have. The meaning of the experience gets overshadowed by the interpretation given it by the dominant youth culture.

Don’t get me totally wrong. These institutions are to some extent what a family makes them. But when a family is inappropriately immersed in the culture of film, TV and materialism (a social disease we call affluenza), the power of the culture can easily overshadow, dull and even change the meaning of these events. I believe that a father must remove his son from the youth culture for a season, for the power of the experience to transform him.

IVP: Your own upbringing included a bar mitzvah as your passage into adulthood, but evangelicalism for the most part has nothing equivalent. How much of your desire to mark time for your son has been driven by your religious convictions or spiritual sense?

KW: Most if not all of my desire has been driven by my own relationship with God in the past few years rather than in my early upbringing. As I mentioned above, I did not have a bar mitzvah and instead went through Reformed Confirmation. I believe that my passion to ‘mark time’ (as you call it) is driven by a deep understanding of my responsibility as a father to help my son identify and understand the calling God has placed on his life and to help him embrace and enjoy that calling! We know that God called Samuel, for example, from an early age in part because his mother dedicated him to the Lord. We know that he learned to hear God’s voice at an early age and that God used a fallible Eli to shape the destiny of this man and eventually of a nation. I am believing God for nothing less.

IVP: What does your son have to say about his experience so far?

KW: Here is what Timothy has to say:

With what experiences I’ve had so far while working with the poor in Canada handing out food, I have learned how much that we have in comparison to many of these people who have so little. At times during this trip, we have become weary and homesick and sometimes kind of annoyed but God can help us get through these things because most of them are very self-centered problems. I have also learned that God can provide ways if what we are doing is his will. When we follow God’s path, the way is slowly illuminated for us. At times we learn each other’s limits and not wonderful personalities but because of God’s love and through our love for each other, we can work things out and settle problems. I feel fortunate because of us being out of the 5% of the richest people of the world. I am in the 1% that actually gets to do what I am doing. I hope that many more people will be able to and do this for their sons. I know that when my son turns 13, I’ll take him on a trip like this. I hope that this idea will be passed on and that maybe one day almost all the Christians will take their sons on rite of passages. One final thought. This time is a time of bonding between father and son and mother and we all are learning and figuring this out on the way. Please pray for us that we will learn and be safe.

–Timothy Wasserman July 17, 2003

IVP: What changes are you anticipating or hoping for?

KW: I am hoping that Timothy will gain new perspective on how God is working in the world and especially a sense of how God is working in the world through the amazing body of Christ and with that perspective will be able to SEE his place of contribution.

I am hoping that Timothy will become different than the typical American teenager who gets their meaning out of life from their material possessions (music & CD player, Game Cube, automobile, relationships/sex, computer and video games, clothing, TV, etc). I am hoping Tim will get meaning from his identity (who he is in Christ), what God has called him to do and how God provides purpose for his life as he gives his life away to others. I am hoping that sacrifice and selflessness will not be dirty words and that sharing and serving others will be core values.

I am praying for Tim to get a new hunger for God. I am asking God that Tim might have a powerful encounter (on the level that Cornelius had with the angel in Acts 10). I want God to appear to Tim and I want Tim to gain a deep sense of justice and injustice and in doing so, to learn how to speak for the voiceless and stand up for the weaker members of our society especially the fatherless, the widow’s and the strangers.

I want Timothy to DISCOVER the JOY of serving others (which IS another aspect of true spiritual worship) and to become so attached to that JOY God provides in serving that it usurps the meaning he gets from the typical driving forces in the youth culture.

I want this whole experience to prepare Tim for leadership in the Church Jesus is building in the 21st Century!

One thing you should know before I close: I remain committed to allowing Timothy to completely experience the simple joys of childhood (play) and I do not want to rush him out of that stage for my own purpose. Indeed, I want to allow him to ‘linger’ in the stage as long as he wants to knowing that he may never return again to being a child in the way he is today. Every morning when I awake, God has enabled me to begin my day with these specific prayers in my mind before my feet move to the floor. They are:

  • Lord, help me choose humility today at the cross roads of the day and NOT pride. I know you oppose me at the point of my pride but give grace to me at the point of my humility and I NEED grace.
  • Lord, help me today understand something more of what it means to ‘become like a child’ in order to enter the kingdom.
  • Lord, help me SEE people as you see them and especially help me see women as you see them.
  • Lord, what ever it is in me that must die today, help it die so that the life of Jesus can flow out of me.
  • Lord, please give me wisdom and discernment that I may glorify you in my words, actions and attitudes.
  • Lord, help me to become a better father and husband than I was yesterday.

IVP: How transferable do you think your own experience would be for other parents? Obviously not every job allows for sabbaticals, but beyond the duration what would you recommend for other parents?

KW: While my own experience may not be fully transferable, I do believe we must instill into every Christian parent a ‘commission’ to do a rite of passage. The Creator has instilled (as part of his Image) creativity into each of us and we have been given liberty with a high calling to usher our children into maturity. As leaders in the Body of Christ, we need to find a way to empower parents (especially fathers) to believe they can create their own unique rite of passage for their children. I do think that most American Christians can take a chunk of time off (I’m not ready to define ‘chunk’) when their sons reach the age of 13 or 14. I believe men (fathers) can MAKE time but this involves prayer, planning and strategy in the context of their Christian communities. We need to see more models inside Christian communities doing rite of passage and showing the body of Christ how “do-able” it really is! As leaders in the body, we must urge fathers that they can PRAY that God will give them a vision and make a way for them to take a chunk of time off to spend with their sons, that their employers will release them, that their friends in their community will support them and that God will provide the resources through the amazing body of Christ to make it happen. I think it is much more possible than the American male mind allows it to be and that the greatest obstacles are not having the time or the money but the will of the fathers and the will of the Christian Community!

Love is a verb,