Who Told You That?

How many of us boys early on got the message that big boys don’t cry?  And just who told us that?

 In our house feelings were not allowed, certainly not tears.  I still vividly remember the time Grandpa died.  He had gone into the hospital for a hernia operation.  I was too young to understand what that meant, but had the feeling that this was a “normal” thing for older people to have, and wasn’t all that serious.  Not like cancer or a heart attack.

Within a couple of days, it was a complete shock to the family when the news came that he had gotten a blood clot somewhere and had died.

There were whispered conversations around the dinner table about how to take care of Grandma, about a funeral, where he would be buried.  I don’t remember much from that somber day when a black limousine arrived from the mortuary and picked our family up at our house.  We were escorted to the front row of the church.  It was very quiet with the organ playing something softly.

Grandpa was one of my childhood heroes.  He had been the postmaster of Lodi, California, until FDR was elected.  Grandpa was a Hurbert Hoover appointee, and after the election was fired by “That Man.”  The name was not to be spoken in our household.

Grandpa would take me and his little Scottie dog Mini down to the corner drug store most afternoons when we were up in Lodi and buy me a soda.  He would tell me about his life in the post office work, and later as an ambulance attendant and then working for Wells Funeral home printing out all their announcements.

But more than all that, Grandpa taught me about the world.  He was an avid stamp collector and got me started in the hobby.  As he would show me the stamps from far away foreign lands, he would tell me about them.  We could spend hours leafing through the pages of his stamp album.  It’s how I learned about the countries Germany overran in WW II.  I learned about the various European colonies in Africa and Asia.  I learned about the new “republics” incorporated into the Soviet Union and about the 1917 Revolution. 

So, this was how the reality of his death hit me with great distress.  Since we couldn’t talk openly about this in our family, after the service, in shame at the tears welling up in my eyes, I shut myself in my closet and cried my heart out for several hours.

When my mom finally noticed me later on, wondering if I was okay, I lied, “I’m okay.”  Of course, I wasn’t okay.  Far from it.  But I had learned to stuff my feelings.  After all, big boys don’t cry.

What’s wrong? my wife asked somewhere in the first weeks of our marriage.  I was obviously upset about something.  “Nothing,” would come my abrupt response.  “I don’t want to talk about it.”  It’s a wonder I didn’t drive her crazy that first year.  Fortunately, with lots of counseling, over the years I have become better with feelings.

But what had been deeply instilled in me was deadly.  That false idol I served, without even realizing it, might have worked momentarily but over the long haul it was loneliness and death.

Such sacrifice to this notion “manliness,” this masculine ideal, is the altar on which we still offer up our boys.  This idol of self-sufficiency, through isolation kills.  It is a god of death, an unforgiving master, robbing our young men of their souls.  Notions of being in control rob us of connection.  No one likes to be around a “control freak” for any length of time.

The god of male infallibility is a jealous god that destroys all it touches.  Such notions are an idol, a false god.  This deity does NOT redeem.  Hear the words of Isaiah of true redemption and of the One who restores.  Hear the word of Isaiah concerning this idol.

“Thus says the Lord, the king of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts.  I am the first and I am the last, besides me there is no god.”

Sometime ago there was a movie of a family going through divorce, “The Children are Okay.”  This was an overriding concern of the mother in the chaos of that time – that the children, in the end, might somehow be okay.

Well, the children – at least our boys, are NOT okay.  The author of a new study, reported in Science News, contends that in our concern about girls, we have missed the struggling of boys.[1]

Depression — the destruction brought by the god of self-sufficiency young males are taught to honor – manifests itself in boys very differently than in girls.  Girls exhibit signs of sadness, and mental distress.

Depression in young males manifests itself as emotional suppression, anger, aggression, alcohol and drug abuse, sleep disorder, destructive, promiscuous sexual behavior, risk taking and suicide.[2]

It should be no surprise that virtually all our mass shootings are perpetrated by men – men, who as boys growing up tended to be loners, and as grown men were reported to have few if any close friends.  Many had throughout their lives exhibited the dysfunctional behavior manifested by male depression:  scrapes with the law, poor academic achievement, job instability.  Many had, Neo-Nazis and other radical fringe political hate groups attract an overabundance of these males.

It has been shown that we males, by the time we’re in our teens have already developed a loyalty to a beer, a brand of automobile, and a sports team.  I sure had – with the fervor of worship.  In a healthy way, that is the time that many, if ever, make a commitment to Christ or a life of faith.  That’s the reason this is the age for confirmation in many churches, bat mitzva and bar mitzva services in Judaism.

St. Augustine says what we are all born with a God-shaped hole.  Unfortunately, we too often try to fill it with that which is less than eternal.  When this need for self-worth and affirmation goes off the rails, the death-dealing god of our cultural promises and expectations can be deadly.  Your cool car, your over-inflated opinions, or your trophy girlfriend will not save you in the end.  Or guarantee you any long-term happiness.

It is John Calvin who warns us that the most powerful idols we serve are not of wood or metal.  He says, “the [human] heart is an idol factory.”  The mind, as well.  

“[The human] mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.”[3]

The ideals and conceptions we hold and serve can exact a terrible toll – fake gods all.  Especially, our distorted images of masculinity.  There is no “Prince Charming” – and you’re not it!

I can still vividly remember our diocesan convention held one year at Juneau.  I hadn’t been paying much attention to the proceedings when I noticed somewhat of a commotion up at the presider’s table.

Someone had come running up to where our bishop, who was chairing the meeting, and Holly, the secretary of the convention, were seated.  Everything stopped.  There was a very audible gasp and scream from Holly.  She and others quickly fled the room.  After a few moments Bishop Charleston asked that we pause the proceedings for prayer.  He announced that Holly’s son, Chad, had been shot and had died.  No one knew the particulars.

I knew this young boy.  He had been at the camp I ran in Southeast Alaska on numerous occasions.  I knew his parents as well.  They were a solid family.  How had this happened?

Later I got the story from his father.  The father had been working in his home office at the time when he heard the gun shot.  He rushed into Chad’s room to find him dead in his bed, a gun at his side and a hole in his head with blood everywhere.

Neither mother or father had any idea what demon their son had been wrestling with.  He had exhibited no mental illness, though looking back at it, he had seemed withdrawn and somewhat morose.  But he had said nothing about what was the matter.  If asked, the answer was typical teenage: “Oh, Nothing.”

Our researchers in the Science Magazine article report that we are now getting a better handle on male vulnerability.  Doctors and therapists are adding new questions to their repertoire to ferret out the signs of male depression – questions about anger and irritability in addition to those concerning hopelessness and substance abuse.

High schools, even junior highs in some cities, now host Alateen meetings for students knowing they have a problem with alcohol or drugs and want to find and maintain sobriety.

“Alateen is a place where members come together to: share experiences, strength, and hope with each other to find effective ways to cope with problems. discuss difficulties and encourage one another; help each other understand the principles of the Al-Anon program through the use of the Twelve Steps and Alateen’s Twelve Traditions”[4]

In fact, there are “recovery high schools” with faculty trained to meet the needs of this group of students.  In our high school, peer counselors were given training to approach fellow students who seemed withdrawn or having a bad day.  And it works!

All such efforts are the outflow of a Gospel of Life, that our most vulnerable thrive.  Would any such efforts have saved Holly’s and Bob’s young boy?  No one can say.  But, when I was on the school board, we had the testimony of many students at our high school who had been helped.  The magic sauce was peer support. 

I heard a quote from a famous sports writer the other night on The News Hour of PBS which rings true – certainly in working with young men, “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much they care.”  And that, my friends, is testimony to the love of our God who created the heavens and earth, who brought us up from bondage in Egypt — and in Mississippi.  This is the God of Loving Connection.

In the end it comes down to that Grace-filled Call from beyond ourselves — in the words of the hymn, “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew//He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me;//It was not I that found, O Savior true;//no, I was found of Thee.[5]”  May we daily live into that reality.  Amen.

[1] Sujata Gupta, “The boys are NOT okay,” Science News, July 1, 2023

[2] Op. cit., 19.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Ed. John T. McNeill.  Trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960). p. 108.

[4] Teen Corner (Alateen) – Al-Anon Family Groups, http://www.al-anon.org/newcomers/teen-corner.

[5] Words by Jean Ingelow, 1863.

St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach
2855 Sterling Avenue, San Bernardino, CA 92404

July 23, 2023 – 8 Pentecost, Proper 11

  “Who Told You That?”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17

Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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