A few weeks ago I spoke for another retreat. This one was for men. Just men. All shapes and sizes. All kinds of backgrounds. I’ve done this is Texas, South Carolina, Ohio, Florida, California, and a dozen other states. I have spoken to fathers and sons, promisekeepers, men with a mission, biker’s for Christ, and sissies for the Savior. (Okay, I’m just kidding about that last one.) I have talked to men in recovery, men in ministry, and just men.
There are some things I have noticed about men’s retreats. For one thing there is just as much hugging as their female counterparts but it is a lot louder. Hug. Three loud, manly smacks on the back. Let go. That’s the accepted formula for men. On the other hand, men’s retreats are usually quieter. Not a reflective, meditative kind of quiet. Just a, “I don’t want to talk about it” quiet. I think we probably have as many hurts, habits, and hang-ups as any women’s group but with a much smaller vocabulary to express that.
“How’s it goin’?” “Good”
“How’s the fam?” “Fine”
“ Gonna’ be a good year for the Titans.” “Yup”
“Any thing I can do?” “Nope.”
“Well, good talkin’ to ya.” “Me too.”
So here’s the deal. After speaking to all of those men’s retreats, and after being one for all of these years, I’m still not sure what makes a man a real man. What really does separate the men from the boys? Or from the girls for that matter? I mean apart from the obvious biological differences (which we DEFINETLY don’t talk about) what does a man do that makes him a man?
I know what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t cry. Real men don’t eat quiche. Real men can’t jump. Well, actually only white, real men can’t jump. They never let you see them sweat. They never say never. They never quit until the fat lady sings. It just goes on and on, the things that we know that men are not supposed to do. But what do men do that makes them, well, men.
I don’t know, but there are three things that come to my mind. First, they work. Now I know that some jobs are different from other jobs. Some men where suits and some men suit up. Some men get their hands dirty and some men get their nails done. I know great stay at home men. I know retired early men. I know men that were wounded in battle and unable to work since. But, when it gets right down to it, all men have buried in the double helix of their DNA the unquenchable thirst to be productive, to matter, to work.
Now, don’t get your panties in a wad, I know women work too. They work hard. They work more than one job. They never stop. But for men it’s different. For women, work is what they do. For men, work is who they are. “Hey, my names Mike. So whadda’ you do for a livin’?”
There is something in men that calls us to work. And when work is going well, life is good. When it’s not, we’re not. I have this conversation with men almost every week. “So Bob, what brings you to see a counselor?”
“I don’t know. My wife thinks there’s something wrong with our marriage. She’s just not happy.”
“Do you agree?”
“Well, we don’t spend much time together. She seems to cry a lot. I’m not really sure.”
“So, tell me Bob, how about you? Are you happy?”
“Me? Sure. I’m great. Work’s good. Got a promotion last week. I’m good”
We are men. We work. And that work defines us whether we like it or not.
The second thing that men do is play. More than women, men focus on, get involved in, subscribe to, obsess over play. Maybe God made us this way because we need the relief from the work gene, but whatever the reason, men are good players. I know men that would miss the birth of their third child for opening day at the stadium. I have a friend that has season tickets to every team in town and can balance his schedule like an accountant so that he doesn’t miss a game. He may not remember his wife’s birthday but he knows what time they drop the puck on the next home stand.
We know batting averages and fantasy draft stats. We fish and hike and run and lift. We might not be able to quote John 3:16 but we know what number John Riggins wore for the Washington Redskins, (44, so did Reggie Jackson, Chuck Foreman, and my college roommate). Women do stuff to be with other women. Men do stuff to do stuff. We play.
And finally, one of the things that men do, we die. Okay, I know that women do to but men do it sooner, more often, and more spectacularly. We were born to die. James Dean, Billy the Kid, John Kennedy, John Lennon, and those guys that are lifting up the flag on Iwo Jima. Men just die. Have you ever been on a cruise when they take you out at the beginning of the trip and give you the lifeboat speech. “Here’s how you put on your life jacket. You are to go quickly and safely down this corridor to boat number 12A. Don’t take time to pack your belongings. And, oh yes, women and children first.” To which every man on the ship puffs out his chest and looks at his buddy proudly, “Yes, we die.”
As clearly as we feel the need to work and the urge to play, men have the capacity to die. Not just to die but to die with purpose. In John 13 it is not coincidental I think that Jesus says, “Greater love has no man than this; that he lay down his life for his friend.” Jesus knew that women live sacrificially. They do that far better than men. But men are hardwired to fall on the grenade, to take the bullet, to give their lives for their friends, their family, and their country. We may not do much else right but, when the time comes, we die.
So if that is true, if that’s what real men do, then how do we live? In a world where it takes two incomes to survive, where leisure has become a business, and playing is an industry, and where frankly, there are nearly as many opportunities to die like a hero as there once was, how are men to be real men.
Well, this may be the longest blog I’ve ever written so let me just give you three examples. There are three men that come to my mind that I would call real men. Three men, fairly obscure that frankly I would be proud to pattern my life after. They are Sammy, Jerry, and Pa.
Sammy is my step-father. He is a good man. A simple man with simple tastes. And he works. As long as I have known Sammy he has worked hard. Getting up early every morning, rain or shine, being on the job long before other men punched in, and staying to clean everything up long after others were gone. Nashville Wire, Krogers, Sammy has worked hard and always taken great pride in his work. I can’t tell you how many times he has been named employee of the month or the year. The wall above his tool bench in the garage is covered with plaques. He is a hard worker.
In fact, Sammy works too hard to be doing it for some company. I think he works too hard to even be doing it for the money. Somewhere, deep inside Sammy there seems to be this conviction that the way he works is a reflection of his character as a man, as a Christian man. He may not be eloquent. He doesn’t get up and sing in church. But everyday Sammy testifies to the integrity of God by the way he gives his very best effort to his work. He is a living expression of, “Do all that you do as unto the Lord.”
Jerry is my cousin. And Jerry plays. He is one of the funniest people I know and I come from a family full of funny people. (And some of us that just think we are.) Jerry’s funny is soft, understated, self-effacing, just enjoying the situation kind of funny. He brings a smile and a chuckle into every circumstance. He brightens a room by walking in it. And he laughs so that he can help you laugh.
Jerry has seen his share of hard knocks. His job hasn’t always gone great. His dad died when he was way too young. He has dealt with disappointment and disability. But he has always played. Dancing on a desk when Ann (his wonderful wife) was worried about finances, putting a dead bird in the salad when his mother was taking things to seriously, and giving me a coke tab instead of a wedding ring during my wedding, (he was my best man), Jerry has taught me to play my whole life.
But Jerry doesn’t play because he doesn’t care. He cares deeply. No, I think he plays because he trusts. I think he is so sure that God is able, that God is in control, that he is willing to relax and leave the outcome to the One Man who can make a difference. “And our God is able to do exceeding, abundantly more than we can think or imagine.” If that is true then we should feel free to play.
Finally, Pa is an example of a real man to me. Pa dies. Now Pa by the way is 124 (at least it seems he’s been around that long. Actually, Pa is 87 and his name is not Pa. His name is Charles Cantrell and he is my father-in-law. He is a good, deeply devoted, Godly old man. And he dies, daily. As long as I have know him, well over three decades, he has given his life to God and to others without reservation. He is a walking example of, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live.”
Every time I hear Pa pray he says, “Only one life, will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” And he lives that way every day. He has given his last dollar to strangers. He has gone out in the middle of the night to pray with broken men. He has shared his faith and his heart with more people than we could ever count. He has literally given his life away for the sake of the Gospel. Not for recognition or reward but because He just loves Jesus. He dies like a man in all that he does.
Well, in these three men, and in dozens of others that have spoken into my life I am beginning to see what makes a man a man. And I hope I am beginning to find a model to try to embrace in my own life. I want to work well, play hard, and die for the Kingdom. If I do then perhaps my sons can look at me and say, “He is a man.”