One of the deficiencies of Western culture is that there is no objective marker for young men to know when they have passed from "boy" to "man." There is no rite of passage, no initiation ceremony. Some think marriage is the dividing line; others that it is finishing one's education; others when you are allowed to vote, or buy alcohol; others tag it to subjective markers like taking responsibility for one's actions and choices. There is little agreement, except that we've lost something important. Perhaps I'll blog on that next.
But what this ambiguity about adulthood does, practically, is leave our mature males to be "boys-in-men's-bodies"; irresponsible, piddling around with follies, instead of moving the football of cultural dominion down the field and into the end zone. Some folks have wisely begun to objectivize for their sons when they become a man--and then start expecting them to act accordingly. Some of these attempts at a manhood rite can end up being cheesy and more than a little embarrassing for the kid. I resist the urge to describe some of them--though it is tantalizing--because we cannot despise the day of small beginnings. We don't want to discourage steps in the right direction. But many have been sensible, and truly honor the young man.
Recently a friend, and our church's missionaries to Alaska, gathered some men together to mark his son's passage into manhood. The men were to bring a word of exhortation to Sam. Since I wasn't present, I sent this letter.
Resources tend to ebb and flow. Sometimes there is plenty, and other times there is want. But have there ever been enough men? There have always been plenty of males, and frankly, too many of them. But it seems that there is always a shortage of men, no matter what century you look at. Some centuries produced more of them than others, but there never seems to be enough.
So what is the difference between being a man, and being merely male? Well, one stark difference is that males live for themselves. They crave sex, and they go out, like brutes, and get it. They crave food, and they take it. They want leisure, so they let others do the work. They want a name—for some reason this is really important to us—and are willing even to be notorious, just so long as they are not forgotten.
But Jesus Christ is the first true man. He laid down his life for others. He worked scary hours, was often sleepless, was a man of prayer, a man of conviction, a man who would stand against tyrants, the embodiment of truth, and the soul of compassion. He was no lisping mystic, but a man with calluses, who knew hunger and thirst, and who rules now with a rod of iron. He was willing to be the lamb of God, and because of that was crowned King of Kings. In all that he does, he offers himself up to God as an act of worship. He was victorious through death, and not by circumventing it.
If you want to be a man, Sam, there is no getting around the call to die. And dying begins with the little things. We are willing to die for big things. What young man has not daydreamed of being the one who overcomes all odds and saves the day? This is natural--God made men to be little saviors (small “s”; or “heroes”). But we have a problem. We think little sacrifices unworthy of us. But we do not have the character to die “big” until we have died for ten thousand smaller things. Like weight lifting, we have to build up to big sacrifices. We start by sacrificing small things like sleep, and convenience, and stuff (I’m thinking of things, and the money that buys them). We try to be faithful to give our lives for others in every small way. We obey our parents, even when we know they might not be seeing clearly. We are faithful with little. Then the Lord tests us with a chance to rack on some bigger weights. We might find ourselves having to lose a job in order to do what is right, or get mocked for loving Christ, or for staying sexually chaste. Or perhaps, like Athanasius, we will be called on to cling to the truth when the whole world is against us (Athanasius contra mundum). But Athanasius, who was exiled five times by four different emperors because he would not capitulate to the Arian heresy, was not always Athanasius contra mundum. He began as Athanasius contra Athanasius. He began by letting his little sister have the last bit of dessert that he had his eye on. He began by denying himself, and not despising little crosses. Little crosses lead to big ones.
Sam, the world needs men, and I have great hopes that you will transcend mere maleness into real Christlikeness. That is what I aspire to, and no doubt what these men gathered tonight aspire to. Walk with us, brother. Take up your cross, and follow Christ.
With fraternal affection,