He is a rootless, uncommitted, self-focused consumer who wants to avoid and disengage. He only cares about the world just beyond his fingertips. He is content with personal success, and while the world goes to hell he barely lifts a finger. He is the boy in you who has never become a man.
In the book Souls in Transition (Oxford University Press), Christian Smith studies what he calls ‘emerging adults’ – North American 18-29 year-olds. Smith has noticed that unlike previous generations, this group has an extended adolescence. They are aware that eventually they will probably become mature and adult, get married and buy a house. But for now it is important to keep their options open and postpone settling down. They need to stay nimble and avoid putting down roots.
They want to have fun, are trying not to screw up the future, still believe in the promise of mass consumerism and have little sense of civic consciousness. Almost all of them are politically disengaged and are not engaging with the world beyond the immediate. A need to succeed personally becomes all-important. Confused about which paths to follow, they experience a crisis around knowledge and values.
You may no longer be young in years, but find you can resonate with this picture. That’s because 29 is not the upper limit of extended adolescence – it can continue into early middle age.
What do you need to come to terms with on this journey from the ‘boy’ to the ‘man’? How do we get out of extended, or even eternal, adolescence, and move on to fulfilling the reason that we have been born?
The wild love of God
THE BOY SAYS, ‘I must control’
THE MAN SAYS, ‘I am learning to live out of control’
If you are dominated by the questions ‘Am I safe?’ and ‘Am I right?’, you will forever remain the boy. And yet these are the questions dominating many men’s lives. God is wild in his love for you, he can’t be domesticated, and he is more than content to exercise his power to prove it. We need to step out of our need to control and learn afresh the wildness and love of God. But there is usually one block in the way.
You have to make the shift from being the one served to the one who serves
Richard Rohr talks about a deficit in men which he calls ‘father hunger’. This develops into a ‘father wound’ when not addressed. He tells the story of leading a retreat in Peru in 1977. A nun who worked with prisoners told him that she encouraged the prisoners to send cards to their mothers on Mother’s Day. She kept bringing in boxes and boxes of cards but never had enough. For Father’s Day she was ready with a box of cards, but they remained in her office. Not one prisoner asked for a Father’s Day card. Rohr writes in From Wild Man to Wise Man (St Anthony Messenger Press) that the ‘father wound’ is cut when men have never ‘seen themselves as sons of men who admired them’.
In 1959 I was told that my father had died. I was seven years old. My elder brother and I were sitting in the garden of a children’s home at the time. I am sure it left me with ‘father hunger’ and a ‘father wound’. But I became a Christian when I was 12 through the help of foster parents, and as an early adolescent I was overwhelmed by the story of God’s love for me.
I realised that I was God’s beloved son, and that the words of the Father to the Son at the baptism of Jesus, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:17, ESV) applied to me. Through all of my stupidities, blunderings and excitements, I was deeply loved.
This love and wildness of God had me church planting at 21, heading off to India when I was 24, choosing a low salary job throughout my life and starting a new organisation when I was 54. It has been great. Yet God has had me on a journey. I never had a human father substitute, but many older men walked with me and loved me in very different ways. I have had so many brothers and sisters who have shared their lives with me, helping to heal the ‘father wound’.
In the process, I learned afresh that God cannot be controlled. He is too big and full of dangerous love – propelling love. For the boy to become the man we have to learn that we cannot domesticate God.
THE BOY SAYS, ‘I must not fail because I will look like a fool’
THE MAN SAYS, ‘I will fail but I will learn from it who I am meant to be’
For the boy to die and the man to live, you need to embrace the world of mistakes. If you have not had some sort of failure, the journey towards the second half of life has yet to begin. St Gregory of Nyssa said, ‘Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.’ Risk, mistake and growth are all mixed in together.
John the Baptist was a wild man and the final prophet to precede Jesus. He did not fully understand all that was going on around him, but lived boldly. Stephen, the first martyr, reached into his heart and told the truth with his face aglow. Both of them accepted the risk of being men who say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done.
If you have once the great death, the second death can do you no harm
The invitation offered by these great men is to a life of continual struggle and wrestling. Sometimes we wrestle with God but we are always struggling with the world, our own flesh and the devil too. When I planted a church at 21, it was a near disaster. It was as if I read the book of Acts and snapped in two every good principle of church planting it contains. I was single, young, alone, broke and living in the scout hut we had just bought. After a twoweek evangelistic campaign on the first Sunday there were four people: three ladies and me. Two of the ladies had a combined age of about 170 and the other was wheeled in by her husband and left at the front. This was a time when I had to put into action every idea, hunch and survival strategy I had known. I either had to have a theology that worked in the real grit of loneliness or choose a new career. I got through by the skin of my teeth.
If you have not been sustained through your first spiritual crisis (and what a risky business that is), you have not yet begun. We rarely learn well in class or church. It is only in the middle of our real lives that we are formed. As Rohr says, we don’t ‘think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking’. At every stage of male development there are risks to take which are essential for moving from boy to man.
THE BOY SAYS, ‘I am the centre of the world’
THE MAN SAYS, ‘I am born to serve’
If we are going to journey from the boy to the man we have to cultivate self-forgetfulness. This is a challenge because everything in contemporary culture tells you to do the opposite. We are continually addressed by advertising that places us at the centre of the world.
In a cathedral, God is at the centre. In my local shopping cathedral, Westfield, it is me. Westfield has side-chapels called Apple, Timberland and House of Fraser. They are full of busy acolytes who are ready to serve me. I am the centre of their world because they want to sell me stuff.
‘He must increase, but I must decrease’, says John the Baptist in John 3:30 (ESV). Before Stephen was stoned he told a story. It was not about himself but rather the story of God (Acts 7). To move from being a boy to a man you have to make the shift from being the one served to the one who serves. Only when we have the wild love of God in our heart and head does this become a joy. Only then can you live your life out of thanks and joyful service.
The BOY says 'I am the centre of the world', The MAN says 'I am born to serve'
The boy becoming a man discovers that he is not the point of his own life – but this can come as a bit of a shock, particularly in marriage. It is a great day when a husband understands that life is about the flourishing of his wife and children and not about himself. This is the way to true greatness.
Paul offers us a picture of the possibility of saying farewell to the boy when he says: ‘Now I take limitations in my stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size – abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.’ (2 Corinthians 12:10, The Message).
Death: the place of freedom
THE BOY SAYS, ‘I don’t want to think about death’
THE MAN SAYS, ‘I need to face death so that I can be free’
Our culture tries to avoid death. We are immature about it. But I am convinced that facing our own mortality is the only way to grow from boy to man.
I have had three near-death experiences that I am aware of. The first was when I jumped onto the line at Oxford Circus underground station in 1971 to pull a blind man off the rails. In 1977 I had an emergency appendectomy in Gujurat, India, and in 1999, a heart attack while speaking at a conference in Hyderabad. And then there’s the regular near-death experience of riding my bike near my home in London. I have thought much about how I will die, and even how I would like it to happen.
St Francis said, ‘If you have once faced the great death, the second death can do you no harm.’ If we are going to change the world, then we have to engage with struggle and suffering. There will be lorry-loads of paradoxes and grief in this world before God receives all the glory he is due. But this is natural, for you have to be wounded to become a man. In all initiation rites you die before death, and this is what Christian baptism is all about: we die and are raised to new life.
There are two deaths I am talking about here: the death to self and the physical death of your body. Both have to be faced so you can be truly free. This is the freedom to say with Paul, ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20) and ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain’ (Philippians 1:21). We can face death because we know it is temporary. By the power of a resurrected life we punch through death into our final transformation.
A final farewell
So, how do you say farewell to the boy? By becoming a fresh and open child of God who lives and loves with the wild love of God. A man who accepts risk, decentres himself and anticipates death so that he can be truly free. Our affluence delays and confuses this process, seducing us into believing that we can be alive without anticipating death and the life beyond. The fear of death and all the other fears spawned by it need to be faced so that we can be free. For the boy in us to die, death needs to be faced so that life can be lived.
Jesus showed us how this is done. In his wild love he turned over the money tables and whipped corrupt people out of the temple. He struggled in prayer, submitting himself to the will of his Father and therefore living out the reason for which he had been born. He decentred himself and knelt to wash the feet of the disciples. Finally he died on the cross, rising again to an endless life as the servant saviour who calls you to put away childish things, and become a man after God’s own heart.