DISCOVERING THE KING
INSIDE THE KID
Failure is the greatest opportunity to know who I really am. -John Killinger
I can still remember those navy-blue camper shorts with the key chain
on the side. My brown legs, freshly oiled with a thin coat of Vaseline, protruded
out from under the shorts like chocolate marble pillars, albeit
those pillars were short and chunky, as I was about only six years old and
wrapped in a layer of baby fat. But that extra padding didn't diminish my
energy as I came running down the path that led to the bus stop, where
the school bus would pick me up. I imagined that path to be a magic conveyor
belt, but it was actually a small, narrow stretch of hard-pressed Appalachian
soil running narrowly but steadily behind my house down to
the street, where herds of screaming kids congregated each morning. It
was my first year of school, and I was excited finally to be a "big kid," joining
the neighborhood children in a rite of passage that marked the transition
from baby to student.
Now I don't have to tell you that children can be mean. If you
ever had a childhood, and I know you did, you realize that facing children
may be harder than standing before the Supreme Court justices.
One might find more mercy at a tribunal hearing or a lynching mob
than a group of kids who mask their own insecurities by revealing
Even as a boy, I think I was fairly adept at people skills-that wasn't
the problem. No, I liked people, and most people eventually grew to
like me. The real problem was finding a way to face my problems without
my peers detecting that I was a flawed, less-than-perfect little boy,
who felt safer with Momma, Daddy, and my siblings than I was around
them. While I worked hard to hide my imperfections, one secret in particular
weighed me down, and though I have had worse ones since then,
at this time my burden blocked my path. Literally.
When I came to this one spot on the path between home and the
bus stop, I found myself stopped cold in my tracks. A big rock loomed
before me in the middle of the path, a huge obstacle between me and
where I was trying to go. What made it worse was that the other boys
seemed well equipped to climb over it. Maybe I was too afraid of hurting
myself, too afraid of the bruises and lacerations that I saw in my
mind when I imagined myself trying to scale the rock. Maybe it was the
fear of tumbling down the rock into the briary patches of blackberry
bushes that flanked it on both sides. Each time I walked down the
path, those bushes seemed to wait hungrily for me to fall into them,
eager to make a fat, juicy hamburger out of my backside if I tumbled
Whatever it was, each day I would valiantly run down the path, confident
that finally I would conquer my nemesis. However, time and
again, I would stand frozen at the foot of that great rock, fighting back
tears, while all the other children mocked me. I would stare at the boulder,
humiliated and afraid, paralyzed and defeated. Eventually, my
mother or father would hear me crying and come to my aid. I would get
a kiss on the cheek and be lifted over the rock and deposited on the
other side to continue on my way.
One day, after many days of humiliation, I couldn't believe my eyes.
My two-hundred-sixty-pound father-who I thought was a combination
of the Hulk and Hercules-took a mallet and pick and went down
the path to where I was always getting stuck. All I saw was the mallet
swinging and the chipped rock flying out of his way. He hacked that
rock in good fashion, and before he left, it looked like an escalator in a
major department store. He had cut steps into the rock so that I could
get to the other side. My father was my superhero, coming to avenge my
adversary and carve a path for me.
As I grew older, I realized that even superheroes have their kryptonite,
and my father was no different from all other men. He had some
rocks he could cut through and some he could not. But from the ripe
age of six, I thought he looked like an invincible giant, and I wondered
if I would ever be able to cut through someone's rocks like he did mine
that day. And now, I realize how fortunate I was to have such a father,
willing to chisel and carve steps into the massive boulder blocking his
Looking back on that incident, I don't know what I enjoyed most: the
defeated, blank stare that the rock gave me when I returned, the blackberry
bushes' timid grin as I walked by them every day with ease now,
or the fact that I momentarily had my father's undivided attention, that
I was important enough for him to stop working and see about me. Perhaps
most important of all, this incident gave me a glimpse of who I
wanted to be-an overcomer-and a hope that no matter how large the
obstacle, it can be overcome.
Little did I know that I would spend the rest of my life with a mallet
and pick in my hands trying to help people who were stuck at their own
big rocks, helping them over their hurdles into the field of their dreams.
SHATTERING THE SILENCE
It has been forty years since I was that little boy crying at the base of a
boulder, and I have come to realize that life is full of big rocks that confront
us as men, and sadly there are not enough fathers who have the
tools-emotionally, spiritually, and financially-to cut steps into all of
the rocks we face while trying to get to the other side of manhood. I have
also learned that you can swing a mallet and crush a rock, but that
doesn't mean that you can hack through all the pitfalls of life, and if you
do succeed on occasion, you should expect to suffer a few bruises and lacerations.
I call them the battle scars of those who fought a good fight. A
good fight doesn't mean that you won't incur a bad bruise; it just means
you didn't let the bruises stop you from fighting onward anyway.
If I had only known that many of the things we face in childhood
offer a preview of what we may encounter as we travel the path to becoming
men. Too many blackberry briars, too few fathers, and not
enough time make it a perilous journey for most men, and only a few
who are brave and relentless, wise and well tested have the wherewithal
to make it past the rock. Most of us are stuck at the bottom of some intimidating
obstacle, bemoaning our fate while all the others pass us by
and mock us rather than help us learn to get to the other side of the barriers
that are inevitable in the pursuit of manhood. Like the fish in the
aquarium screaming silently as the water around them boils, we must
learn to break the silence, to overcome the rock blocking our path and
verbalize who we are and what we need. It's one thing to wait for Daddy
to come with his pickaxe and bust up the rocks in your life when you're
a boy; it's another thing when you're still waiting on him when you're
a grown man. It's time to move beyond the voiceless cries and rocky
barriers of life.
The first step, if you are willing to try to move beyond your obstacles,
is to honestly assess your current condition and get in touch with
where you really are. A man can't always locate himself: the women in
his life may think him lost; even God asks the man where he is, much
like He called out to Adam in the Garden: "Where are you?" (Genesis
3:9). Like Adam, most men hide from those who love them, hiding not
beneath fig leaves as he was, but beneath mounds of work, hobbies, accomplishments,
and anything else that will keep the issues that remain
unresolved buried deep within the Garden of Eden. What should have
been the utopia we dreamed of in our youth is now overgrown with unexpressed,
unconfessed mistakes and liabilities. You and I both know
that coming out from your fig leaves may be liberating, but it is also intimidating
as well. But, in order to move forward in life, you must acknowledge
your pain and recognize your needs and tend to your
We find one of the most famous instances of a man coming to
terms with his circumstances in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke
15:11). Here is a man whose soul was crying out, yet he sought to
drown out these cries with the many diversions in life that tempt us.
He drank, he partied, he enjoyed the leech-like friends that big bucks
attract. It was only when he crashed and found himself tempted to eat
the pig slop in the troughs he now worked that he finally realized he
could no longer ignore the silent screams within himself. In Luke's
Gospel, we find that he "came to himself." Alone at the pig trough,
with time for true introspection, he had an epiphany of life-changing
But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in the land, and he
began to be in want.
Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent
him into his fields to feed swine.
And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine
ate, and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself, he said, "How many of my father's hired servants
have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned
against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called
your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.'"
For many men, it's necessary to come to this place of abasement, to
wake up the morning after, to see the evidence of your indiscretion or
the consequences of your addiction, to see your reflection leaning over
the pig trough. While it can be a time as confusing as being lost after midnight
on the foggy country road without your GPS, you must learn to
navigate, to ask for directions if necessary (something we men find impossible
to do!), to make a U-turn and redirect your vehicle's destination.
You must be willing to get comfortable with the journey of your life and
quit waiting for life to begin when you reach a certain destination. Even
the failed choices and wrong turns in your life can be redeemed by God
if you're willing to let Him.
The Apostle Paul knew about this process of going through the fog;
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as
a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in
part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
(1 CORINTHIANS 13:11-12)
Paul's phrase "when I became a man" indicates someone who endured
a process and became comfortable in his own skin, who was in touch
with himself, his personality, his needs and desires, his strengths and
flaws, his sexuality, his fears, a man who knows that accepting himself
is just as important as improving himself. So often men improve themselves
for other people-to fit in, to look good in a way others will notice,
to change and adapt to a new environment. Some men learn what
wine to order at the restaurant to impress their woman, they get the
right suit for the job interview, they work out so that others will be impressed
with our fine physique. But what do we do to get to know ourselves
at an intimate level that isn't for external approval or perceptions
of others? To become a man, as Paul indicates here, we men must be willing
to stop thinking as a child, to wrestle with our thoughts, acknowledge
them, and learn to accept who we are. "As a man thinks in his
heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23:7).
As we explore who we are, we have conversations with ourselves,
and there are constantly thoughts that we don't share with anyone:
thoughts about money, about sex, about God. Many of us aren't courageous
enough even to have these inner dialogues
about these very important topics
with ourselves, let alone with others. It's
as if we're afraid to plumb the depths of
our beliefs, our hopes, our fears. Generally
speaking, men are much more prone to action without introspection,
a natural reflex, perhaps, but one that will eventually get you in
trouble. Come on, let's be honest. Have you ever acted first and then
wondered, "What in the world was I thinking?" I know I have, but I'm
learning that God has gifted us with intellects, with sound minds that
can reason, remember, and reflect upon the data that each day brings
into our lives. The great philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined
life is not worth living; I say that the unexamined life falls short of who
we could be and what God has empowered us to do, and makes it a
tragedy, a life wasted.
Please realize that this isn't a self-absorbed all-about-me exercise. As
Paul explains, knowing yourself is a vital means to fulfilling the purpose
for which you were created:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies
as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual
act of worship.
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed
by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and
approve what God's will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will.
How can we commit ourselves as living sacrifices, as we're instructed
here by Paul, if we don't know what's inside ourselves? We're also told
to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, but how can we transform
what we haven't informed? Like the Prodigal squandering his future
inheritance, we're in denial about ourselves, about who we really
are and what we really want.
As a man who struggles on his journey, one who's come to his senses
many times, one who limps like Jacob after spending all night wrestling
the angel for his identity, I know what it means to struggle with the
complexity of finding out who I am. The vast majority of the men I've
known struggle at some level with what it means to be a man. The stakes
are high and the consequences can be lethal if the conclusion is not correct.
Armed with no manuals, few tutors, and a bus load of critics, we
embark upon a journey to be correct and complete, but often we reach
midlife defeated by the harsh reality that the conquest is far more challenging
than we thought. This is true for men in the Bible and for all the
many men I've known: sons, uncles, friends, some now dead, many still
living, some Jewish, some Christian, some who don't believe at all, rich
men and homeless men, men as diverse as any tossed salad. I've seen men
at a bar mitzvah and soul food restaurants, men driving sports cars and
go-carts, men who are professional athletes and those who are armchair
quarterbacks. We're all on this journey together, and it's time we came
to our senses and started making our way back home.