what the 80’s taught me about manhood.

I’m a fairly typical guy when it comes to action movies from the 1980’s.  I’m literally a “Die Hard” fan of the genre.  Give me some Predator or Aliens to watch and I’m good to go.  The prototypical tough guy served well as my stereotypical hero.  I loved these guys and I wanted to emulate them.  Mostly brawn, little brains and cheesy catch-phrases was the tried and true way to finding and rescuing a girl on the big screen, so why not real life?

Unfortunately, this recipe for “success” helped carry me into a high school social scene that was frankly devoid of girls.  What was up with that?  Not that I had big muscles or great hair.  In fact, my ears stuck out like antennae and my buzz-cut did little but attract the local Marine recruiter.

The idea was planted and germinated that if I look tough, act tough and speak tough then everything is just going to magically go right.  I took a “Boyz in tha Hood” approach to respect: if you want it, you have to give it.

What happened over time was that this idea infected more than my notion of respect but eventually my notion of manhood.  I needed to have an answer for everything.  I should be able to fix every problem and if I didn’t have an answer to a problem, I would get one.  The idea of being comfortable with the “unknown” was entirely foreign to me.  Why trust in others when I can do it myself?  Why not be like Jean-Claude Van Damme who could train a little harder, run a little faster and do crazy nasty splits to prove how much of a man he could be?  Believe me, I tried to do those splits and let’s just say my manhood wasn’t cool with that.

I eventually left Mr. Miyagi’s waxing techniques behind as I grew up but I didn’t leave behind the idea that being tough was surely the key to success.  The directorial vision of my post-adolescent life was more characteristic of the late Tony Scott, rather than his brother, Ridley: a “Top Gun” Tom Cruise versus a “Legend” Tom Cruise, if you will.

This isn’t to say that the 80’s lacked balance.  Who can forget John Hughes’ ‘Breakfast Club’?  In fact, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson portrayed a transformation in two hours that is taking me 31 years.  They initially conveyed an exterior toughness.  That kind of toughness which helps to preserve a rather frail masculinity.  That kind of toughness which makes your eyes and mind wander from insecurity to insecurity.  That kind of toughness which demands far more energy than the human heart can afford to spend.  At the end of the movie Estevez and Nelson are like two different people, emotionally vulnerable and empathetic to their peers.  Good grief, it’s at this cathartic point in the movie that I wish art imitated life…my life!

I have learned, indeed am learning that my toughness, my emotional insecurities, my need to always have an answer is a poor excuse for masculinity.  Who wants to be around that person anyways?  Those women in the 80’s action movies were paid to portray a helplessness that didn’t reflect reality.  I don’t think that women are looking to be rescued, I think they are looking to be respected.  That respect doesn’t come at the end of a demand but rather at the end of a sacrifice.

My role model for masculinity didn’t get paid $20 million to star in a blockbuster action movie.  He didn’t drive a 1961 Ferrari GT California like Hughes’ other 80’s star, Ferris Bueller.

Rather, my role model for masculinity submitted himself to death, even death on a cross.  He hung between sky and earth, dejected and without fanfare.  His vulnerability knew no end.  His masculinity was submissive and without category, peer or demand.  His eyes didn’t wander from insecurity to insecurity.  He was meek but not frail.  He knew his own belovedness and could expend that energy without fail.  He was and is Christ.

For too long, I’ve allowed a definition of masculinity derived from popular culture to dictate my thoughts and actions.  Who knows where that definition was first formed and cultivated, whether nature or nurture?  Who knows and who cares?  80’s movies aren’t exactly the most relevant topic for today’s increasing eclecticism in media saturation.  However, emotional vulnerability, selflessness and humility are relevant and increasingly so.

I’m convinced and have decided to define my masculinity apart from the glow of the TV screen or the lights of Time Square.  I’m convinced and have decided that my masculinity will be shaped by the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table, both broken and poured out.  I’m convinced and have decided that I am most masculine hidden in the lap of my Heavenly Father, letting him speak that same belovedness to me that He does to His Son.

In the Breakfast Club, Estevez’ character tells everyone “We’re all pretty bizarre.  Some of us are just better at hiding it.”  I completely agree.  It’s just that I don’t want to hide it anymore.  There is the beginning of masculinity and there is the beginning of it all.


teaching a perfectionist to pray.

Leave it to a perfectionist to mess something up like prayer.  I’m convinced that perfectionism isn’t just a personality characteristic, it’s a barrier to freedom.

In my eternal struggle to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’, I was recently reminded that prayer isn’t about that.  More about that reminder in a second…

Muslim prayer beads

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My theological definition of prayer:

The nature of prayer, it’s very essence, is communication with God.  It is the means by which we turn the attention of our mind, body and spirit toward heaven.  The purpose of prayer is to connect the created with the Creator.  Every time we pray, we submit ourselves to something greater, far above any one of us.  Prayer to an unseen God is itself an act of faith. 

It’s hard for perfectionists to pray.  Just like every other aspect of our lives that must be aligned perfectly with some unknown, unseen, impossible expectation, so too do our prayers need to line up.

What I needed to be reminded of:

Not having the exact words to pray will never negate the effectiveness or hope that is wrapped up in the words themselves as it is the heart of these words that pleases God.

Prayers don’t have to be formulaic either for informal/spontaneous or for formal/liturgical contexts.  Some of the prayers that I could cognitively articulate (or muster) from the depths of my grief were simply the words “Oh God, oh God, oh God…”  Some of the prayers that spilled from own my lips in a corporate setting even surprised me as I couldn’t seem to think what I was saying and yet it ministered to those listening.

Prescribing formulas in prayer (as well as in theology) tend to be more for us, the people praying, as opposed to God who transcends our formulas.  There are books, journals, sermons extending well into church history examining the nature and purpose of prayer but at the end of the day, I’m learning that God just wants to hear from us.

So how can a perfectionist like myself learn to pray? 

  1. First, in remembering that I can’t impress God with fancy words, I’m free to just be myself.  Even in my quiet moments where I have an audience of one, I have to quiet myself.  The noise of the day and the busyness of life often slowly and steadily creep into the corners of my mind.  The need to impress God, along with everyone else in my perfectionist life, will continue to be a hindrance to my sense of peace.
  2. Secondly, I have to resist the temptation of relying on my own mental lexicon of synonyms to explain the same idea over and over.  In fact, if I was to repeat anything over and over it would be His praises.
  3. Finally, I have to let the Spirit speak those inarticulate, unutterable words to, through and from me.  I believe the Spirit knows the difference when our prayers begin with “Our Father who art in Heaven…” and when our prayers are more or less vomited from the gut.  I believe the Spirit comforted the Jews of Auschwitz as they breathed their last prayers just as he comforts the parents of Trayvon Martin today.

Faithful prayer takes a variety of shapes and sounds.  It can be directed toward God in praise, for ourselves in petition, for others in intercession or for our enemies in imprecation.

Prayer is far more cathartic than I’ve realized.  This is why even secular counselors and therapists will recommend prayer as a means of healing.  Wiccans pray, Muslims pray, Hindu’s pray, and even atheists will pray when the situation warrants it.

A perfectionist like myself will pray best when I lay down my pretenses and self-expectations to simply dwell in the height, depth and love of the Creator’s attention toward me, His creation.

My reminder to pray:

So what was my reminder?  It was listening to the prayers of a child.  Simple, heartfelt and poignant, their prayer was this:

“God, thank you for my friends and my mommy and daddy and my bed and let Pastor Jonathan be nice.”

Yep.  That was the reminder I needed.

So what are your thoughts on prayer, perfectionism or both?  Continue the conversation in the comments below or find me on Twitter and Facebook and let me know there.


Wikipedia: Facebook is a social networking service and website launched in February 2004, operated and privately owned by Facebook Inc., Facebook has more than 845 million active users.

love sick_an elementary curriculum_part two.

Thank you to the incomparable Iris Hartness for writing this lesson!  Please note the Creative Commons License at the bottom.

1 John 1:5-2:2

The key to forgiveness?  Confession! Continue reading

beavers, prodigal brothers and hope.

Line art drawing of a beaver.

Image via Wikipedia

Aren’t personality tests fun?  I’ve been an INTJ, explored the Big 5, and discovered my strengths include ‘learning’.  I’m an introspective, rationalizing, coordinating mastermind which kind of doesn’t sound good.  According to Ezekiel, I’m an eagle; according to Galen, I’m melancholic; according to Kretschmer, I’m insensitive.  Finally, according to Renovatus, I’m…a beaver.  This is definitely a first.  The leadership team here took a personality test that divided us into four different animals: lions, otters, golden retrievers and beavers.  You’ll have to ask each of the leaders what they came out to be but I will say this, there were some surprises.

I ran my results by Amy to discern the legitimacy of the outcome.  Sure enough, she said it mostly hit the nail on the head.  So here are some general highlights of a beaver:

  • Following procedures are a way of ensuring quality and orderly work; we can be depended upon to follow rules.
  • Beavers want to know the “rules” to follow them; they may become upset when others continually break the rules.
  • We follow policies (hence my frustration from the last post).
  • Objective and realistic.
  • Beavers prefer an environment dictated by logic rather than emotion.
  • Finally, beavers may have a low trust level of others.

The evening of the test, I picked up Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son“.  I’ve been slowly making my way through the book and it’s been a fantastic study of the parable.  However, it was when I came to the part on the elder son that it hit too close for comfort.  Here are some of Nouwen’s keen observations into the elder son’s life:

  • As the first born, he wanted to live up to the expectations of his parents and be considered obedient and dutiful.
  • He wanted to please his father.
  • He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hard-working.  But on the inside…
  • When confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface.
  • Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself…

After some reading and contemplation I concluded that the elder son would probably have been a beaver.  It feels a little corny to compare my personality to that of a biblical character, especially one who was figurative.  Yet, this figurative character has somehow found a literal home in my life.  Nouwen brilliantly points out that this parable could just have aptly been titled, “The Prodigal Brothers.”  He says, “Not only did the younger son, who left home to look for freedom and happiness in a distant country, get lost, but the one who stayed home also became a lost man.”  What do beavers and prodigal brothers have in common?  They can build walls of resentment and unforgiveness.

So how does hope and redemption fit in to this narrative?  The parable is left open-ended for the listener and the rest of the family’s life is left for our interpretation and imagination; kind of like our own lives.  For us, the answer lies in the True Elder Son and the Father.  All we like sheep have gone astray; all we like the younger son have tasted lack and empty promise.  Nouwen finishes his observation of this ultimate predicament with these words: “…the disciplines of trust and gratitude reveal the God who searches for me, burning with desire to take away all my resentments and complaints and to let me sit at his side at the heavenly banquet.”  Hope for both the younger son and the elder son rests on the Beloved Son “on whom God’s favor resides.”

So what does all this mean?  I can be a happy beaver after all.

don’t make me angry.

The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962). Cover art b...

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I have a counselor and mentor who spent a lot of time working in a maximum security prison as well as treatment facilities for sex offenders.  Almost two years ago now, he once asked me, “Do you know what the common theme is for all the inmates I’ve worked with?  Guys in prison for pedophilia, rape and other sexual deviance’s?”  I thought for a few seconds about what it might be.

My first thought was that these guys all had daddy issues.  They must have grown up in dysfunctional homes, been exposed to abuse themselves, emasculated by a distorted gender identity or some other term from the DSM IV and then never appropriately coped.

What the counselor said next took me by surprise.  He said, “Anger.  They are all very angry and don’t know how to deal with it.”

Now, he wasn’t for one second saying that anger was a justifiable excuse for the atrocities that imprisoned these men.  He was, however, saying that anger became a framework for expressing all the crap that had built up over time.  Was anger in and of itself the culprit?  Hardly.  Was it always the healthiest expression?  Nope.  Then this counselor/mentor, with his Charles Xavier-like mental probe, poked my heart and asked, “How’s your anger?”

My mouth was frozen and I started to numb a little.  I literally felt the weight of the past bearing down on my chest.  Have you ever been in those situations?  Where the air in the room suddenly gets hot and thick.  I know for a fact that God uses men and women like this to call a ‘time-out’, where all the other stuff you’re doing, working on, creating suddenly becomes distant and less important.  I wanted to get out of there and fast.  Here’s why…

I’m not a crier.  It’s not how I typically navigate my emotions.  Frustration for me doesn’t lead to tears or a pouting lip.  That’s not to say I haven’t in the past but as I’ve changed over the years, crying is less and less of an emotional response for me.  If you do see me cry it’s usually from one of two things: 1) I’ve just watched the closing scene of Braveheart (it get’s me every time) or 2) because I’m hurting pretty deeply.  Since I don’t cry easily it leaves me with another emotional response that does come easy: anger.

Not just angry in a loud annoying way but in an intentionally mean way.  Almost like the “where is this coming from” kind of way.  It really does make me think of when Ted Cassidy narrated the opening scene of the TV version Incredible HulkDavid Banner would say “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry.  You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”  That is me!  You seriously would not, will not like me when I’m angry, specifically in my self-righteous exertion to be right all the time.  It takes so much energy to be right all the time, doesn’t it?

So is anger wrong then?  Of course not!  There is legitimate anger at the injustices of the world.  That dead Somali children are lining the refugee trail to Kenya enrages me.  That almost 1 million people die every year from Malaria is heart breaking.  This is where we hear the Psalmist most acutely, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?”  However, the expression of anger that I’ve struggled with over the years and discuss in this blog is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

It’s the kind of anger that doesn’t produce the righteousness of God.  Thinking of my past and perhaps that of the inmates my counselor mentioned, I discern one summation: that hurt begets hurt and what I do with that hurt is what defines the outcome.  My challenge is to surrender the need to be right, the need to be justified, the need to hurt another just to make myself feel better.  Want to strip the Incredible Hulk of his power?  Ask yourself, “Why am I hurting…?”

Let me finish with this true story: A few years ago we built our first house in Cleveland, TN.  A proud moment for a young newlywed couple.  In this new neighborhood were more empty lots, including the two on either side of ours.  One Sunday, coming home from church I found two guys randomly mowing my grass.  Looking at my yard, I realized they had driven their truck through our front lawn to drop off cinder blocks in the next lot.

Not only had they damaged my fresh grass, they were trying to cover it up!  I proceeded to stop and ask one of them what was going on and who they work for.  Through broken English, I got a sarcastic response and that’s all it took to set me off.  The green monster had awoke.  I proceeded to curse, yell, threaten deportation and other very non-Christ-like things.  I was on the border of calling the police and having a heart attack at the same time.  It was a bad day.

What’s funny is that here we are a few years later and lo-and-behold, the lot next to ours is under construction.  Mowing my grass yesterday, I watched as one of the workers drove his Bobcat through my yard.  The green monster was itching,clawing and growling to come out…but I remembered something called mercy.  I remembered that I had surrendered my right to hurt another just to feel better.  I remembered that it’s only grass.

I once told a cabin full of boys on the first day of camp, “You don’t want to see me angry.”  One of the bolder campers immediately spoke up and said, “Yeah, he turns into a big hairy butt!”  Thank you, Jeremiah.  It’s still true.

what’s your temperature?

Picture of milk thermometers taken by User:Tij...

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Has anyone ever asked you, “How are you doing” and then upon responding “Good,” they then ask again, “OK, how are you really doing?”  Don’t you hate that?  Now, not only do I feel bad for answering in a perfunctory way but I have to show my true feelings and ‘fess up to my imperfections once again.  Darn those people who really care about me!  All sarcasm aside, there are people who know me and can read me like a book.  You know the kind…one good stare and suddenly the room feels a lot smaller.  Some of them even enjoy the freedom to share what their “reading” without giving me a chance to think up some good excuses.  I could stay stubborn and insist that “Yes, all is truly well and good.”  I’ve even perfected those actions and behaviors that fail to betray my true feelings or thoughts.  However, over time I’ve also learned that there are some things I cannot fake and if truth be told, I do not want to fake.  In fact, I’ve begun to explore a place of security where I actually want those invested in my eternal good to ask the hard questions.  It’s from that place of security that I offer you a brief analogy for how I’m really doing…

The point of a thermometer is to read our temperature.  If we have a fever, the thermometer will show it and to what degree.  If it is too far above or too far below our normal range of homeostasis then action is needed and rapidly so.  Either we need to cool off or we need to warm up.  It is a useful tool that has been around for a long time and has even saved lives.  My analogy is this: Is there a thermometer for more than just my physical body?  How can one take the temperature of someone’s emotional or spiritual well-being?  If you didn’t really know me but wanted to take those respective “temperatures” what would you look for?

Recently, our pastor preached on Revelation 4-5 and the role of worship in revelation.  This powerful sermon illustrated several important facets of worship including how worship reveals the heart of the Father to us and vice versa.  It was after pondering this point in our small group that I came to this conclusion: if you really wanted to know how I am doing and if you really wanted to gauge my temperature as a leader then all you have to do is ask me, “How is your worship?”  Let me break it down this way – I can fake a lot of things and make it seem like everything is hunky dory but one thing I can’t and won’t fake is worship.  Worship in this context, building upon Romans 12:1-2, is no-holds-barred passionate love-making from a humbled creation to his Holy Creator.  If tears are shed or hands are raised then so be it or if I have to sit in quiet reflection without an uttered word then so be it.

This worship thermometer doesn’t gauge my temperature on what you see on the outside but it does have a read on my unabashed exuberance for Christ.  Let me say it this way: the classic way to define sin is “missing the mark” but I think another way to define sin is “anything that interferes with my worship.”  I may be able to look you in the eye and I may be able to say everything is alright but if I’m not chasing after God with my whole being then something is wrong.  Before you begin to cry “legalism” here, understand first what I’m saying: God’s worthiness of worship has nothing to do with my ‘performance’.  In fact, the very rocks will cry out His praise if necessary.  My point is simply this: that if you truly wanted to take my spiritual temperature, if you wanted to get a read on me and if you wanted to take my pulse as a leader then all you would have to do is ask, “How’s your worship?”  By the way, how is your worship?