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Fathered by God
By John Eldredge
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 John Eldredge
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Masculine Journey
Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. —Jeremiah 6:16 NIV
All I was trying to do was fix the sprinklers.
A fairly straightforward plumbing job. The guy who came to drain our system and blow it out for the winter told me last fall that there was a crack in "the main valve," and I'd better replace the thing before I turned the water back on come next summer. For the past several days it had been hot—midnineties, unusually hot for Colorado in May—and I knew I'd better get the water going or my yard would soon go the way of the Gobi Desert. Honestly, I looked forward to the project. Really. I enjoy tackling outside chores for the most part, enjoy the feeling of having triumphed over some small adversity, restoring wellness to my domain. Traces of Adam, I suppose—rule and subdue, be fruitful, all that.
I disengaged the large brass valve from the system on the side of the house, set off to the plumbing store to get a new one. "I need one of these," I said to the guy behind the counter. "It's called a reducing valve," he replied, with a touch of condescension. Okay, so I didn't know that. I'm an amateur. Nevertheless, I'm ready to go. Valve in hand, I returned home to tackle the project. A new challenge loomed before me: soldering a piece of copper pipe to a copper fitting that carried the water from the house to the sprinklers, reduced in pressure by the valve now in my possession. It seemed simple enough. I even followed the instructions that came with the butane torch I bought. (Following instructions is usually something I do only once a project has become a NASCAR pileup, but this was new ground for me, the valve was expensive, and I didn't want to screw the whole thing up.) Sure enough, I couldn't do it, couldn't get the solder to melt into the joint as needed to prevent leaks.
Suddenly, I was angry.
Now, I used to get angry at the drop of a hat, sometimes violently angry as a teen, punching holes in the walls of my bedroom, kicking holes in doors. But the years have had their mellowing effect, and by the grace of God there has also been the sanctifying influence of the Spirit, and my anger surprised me. It felt ... disproportionate to the issue at hand. I can't get a pipe soldered together. So? I've never done this before. Cut yourself some slack. But reason was not exactly ruling the moment, and in anger I stormed into the house to try to find some help.
Like so many men in our culture—solitary men who have no father around to ask how to do this or that, no other men around at all, or too much pride to ask the men who are around—I turned to the Internet, found one of those sites that explains things like how to surmount household plumbing problems, watched a little animated video on how to solder copper pipe. It felt ... weird. I'm trying to play the man and fix my own sprinklers but I can't and there's no man here to show me how and so I'm watching a cute little video for the mechanically challenged and feeling like about ten years old. A cartoon for a man who is really a boy. Armed with information and wobbling confidence, I go back out, give it another try. Another miss.
At the end of the first round I merely felt like an idiot. Now I feel like an idiot doomed to failure. And I'm seething. A counselor and author both by trade and by intuition, I am nearly always watching my inner life with some detached part of me. Wow, that part of me says. Have a look at this. What are you so hacked off about?
I'll tell you why I'm hacked. There are two reasons. First, I'm hacked because there's no one here to show me how to do this. Why do I always have to figure this stuff out on my own? I'm sure if some guy who knew what he was doing were here, he'd take one look at the project and tell me right away what I'm doing wrong, and—more important—how to do it right. Together, we'd tackle the problem in no time and my yard would be saved and something in my soul would feel better.
I'm also hacked because I can't do it myself, mad that I need help. Long ago I resolved to live without needing help, vowed to figure things out on my own. It's a terrible and common vow to orphaned men who found ourselves alone as boys and decided that there really is no one there, that men are especially unreliable, so do it yourself. I'm also ticked at God, because why does it have to be so hard? I know—this was a lot to get out of a failed attempt to fix my sprinklers, but it could have been a dozen other situations. Doing my taxes. Talking to my sixteen-year-old son about dating. Buying a car. Buying a house. Making a career move. Any trial where I am called upon to play the man but immediately feel that nagging sense of, I don't know how this is going to go. I'm alone in this. It's up to me to figure it out.
Now, I do know this—I know that I am not alone in feeling alone. Most of the guys I've ever met feel like this at some point.
My story does not end there. I had to drop the project and get to work, leaving torch, pipe, and tools on my porch out of the merciful rain—merciful because it might buy me twenty-four hours to get this figured out before the death of my yard. I had to make an important phone call at 4:00 p.m., so I set my watch alarm in order not to miss it. I made the call, but failed to notice that my alarm did not go off. That took place at 4:00 a.m. the next morning. (I hadn't noticed the little "a.m." next to the 4:00 when I set the thing.) I'd gone to bed with no resolution inwardly or otherwise, and bang—I was yanked out of a deep sleep at 4:00 a.m. to face it, and all my uncertainties. Wham—just as suddenly, I am hit with this thought: Get it right.
This is perhaps the defining vow or compelling force of my adult life: you are alone in this world and you'd better watch it 'cause there isn't any room for error, so Get It Right. The detached observer in me says, Wow—this is huge. You just hit the mother lode. I mean, jeez—this has defined your entire life and you've never even put it into words. And now here it is and you know what this is tied to, don't you? Lying there in the dark of my bedroom, Stasi sleeping soundly beside me, the broken sprinkler system lying in misery just outside the window by my head, I know what this is about.
It's about fatherlessness.
A boy has a lot to learn in his journey to become a man, and he becomes a man only through the active intervention of his father and the fellowship of men. It cannot happen any other way. To become a man—and to know that he has become a man—a boy must have a guide, a father who will show him how to fix a bike and cast a fishing rod and call a girl and land the job and all the many things a boy will encounter in his journey to become a man. This we must understand: masculinity is bestowed. A boy learns who he is and what he's made of from a man (or a company of men). This can't be learned in any other place. It can't be learned from other boys, and it can't be learned from the world of women. "The traditional way of raising sons," notes Robert Bly, "which lasted for thousands and thousands of years, amounted to fathers and sons living in close—murderously close—proximity, while the father taught the son a trade: perhaps farming or carpentry or blacksmithing or tailoring."
When I was young, my father would take me fishing early on a Saturday morning. We'd spend hours together out there, on a lake or a river, trying to catch fish. But the fish were never really the issue. What I longed for was his presence, his attention, and his delight in me. I longed for him to teach me how, show me the way. This is where to drop that line. This is how you set the hook. If you can get a group of men talking about their fathers, you'll hear this core longing of a man's heart. "My father used to take me with him out in the field." "My father taught me how to play hockey, out in the street." "I learned to frame a house from my dad." Whatever the details might be, when a man speaks of the greatest gift his father gave him—if his father gave him anything at all worth remembering—it is always the passing on of masculinity.
This is essential, for life will test you, my brothers. Like a ship at sea, you will be tested, and the storms will reveal the weak places in you as a man. They already have. How else do you account for the anger you feel, the fear, the vulnerability to certain temptations? Why can't you marry the girl? Having married, why can't you handle her emotions? Why haven't you found your life's mission? Why do financial crises send you into a rage or depression? You know what I speak of. And so our basic approach to life comes down to this: we stay in what we can handle, and steer clear of everything else. We engage where we feel we can or we must—as at work—and we hold back where we feel sure to fail, as in the deep waters of relating to our wife or our children, and in our spirituality.
You see, what we have now is a world of uninitiated men. Partial men. Boys, mostly, walking around in men's bodies, with men's jobs and families, finances, and responsibilities. The passing on of masculinity was never completed, if it was begun at all. The boy was never taken through the process of masculine initiation. That's why most of us are Unfinished Men. And therefore unable to truly live as men in whatever life throws at us. And unable to pass on to our sons and daughters what they need to become whole and holy men and women themselves.
At the same time there are these boys and young men and men our own age around us who are all very much in need—desperate need—of someone to show them the way. What does it mean to be a man? Am I a man? What should I do in this or that situation? These boys are growing up into uncertain men because the core questions of their souls have gone unanswered, or answered badly. They grow into men who act, but their actions are not rooted in a genuine strength, wisdom, and kindness. There is no one there to show them the way.
Masculine initiation is a journey, a process, a quest really, a story that unfolds over time. It can be a very beautiful and powerful event to experience a blessing or a ritual, to hear words spoken to us in a ceremony of some sort. Those moments can be turning points in our lives. But they are only moments, and moments, as you well know, pass quickly and are swallowed in the river of time. We need more than a moment, an event. We need a process, a journey, an epic story of many experiences woven together, building upon one another in a progression. We need initiation. And, we need a Guide.
Fathered on the South Platte
I moved to Colorado in August of 1991. There were many reasons involved in the move from Los Angeles—a job, a shot at grad school, an escape from the seemingly endless asphalt-smog-and-strip-mall suffocation of L.A.—but beneath them all was a stronger desire to get to the mountains and the wide-open spaces, get within reach of wildness. I couldn't have articulated it at the time, but my soul was yearning to take up the masculine journey that felt aborted in my early teens. And with that, I wanted to become a fly fisherman.
My dad and I fished together when I was young, and those are among my most treasured memories of him. He taught me first to fish with a worm on a bobber, and then to cast a spinning rod. He was not a fly fisherman, but I wanted to be. Around the age of twenty-five, I bought myself a rod and reel and began to try to teach myself—a pattern by which, unfortunately, I have learned most of what I've learned in my life. We often speak of a man who's done this successfully as a "self-made man." The appellation is usually spoken with a sense of admiration, but really it should be said in the same tones we might use of the dearly departed, or of a man who recently lost an arm—with sadness and regret. What the term really means is "an orphaned man who figured how to master some part of life on his own."
Back to fly-fishing. When we got to Colorado I learned of a section of the South Platte River known for its reputation as a fly fisherman's dream. "The Miracle Mile" was past its heyday, but still a place that the best fly fishermen headed to, and so I went. It's a beautiful stretch of river that flows through open ranchland between two reservoirs. The banks are low and spacious, with only the occasional willow—a forgiving place for a novice to learn to cast. I spent the good part of a morning in the river, seeing trout all around me but unable to catch even one. Every time I looked upriver there was this guy, rod bent double, laughing and whooping as he brought yet another giant rainbow to his net. At first I envied him. Then I began to hate him. Finally, I chose humility and simply wanted to watch him for a while, try to learn what he was doing.
I stood at a respectful distance up the bank, not wanting to appear as an encroacher on his beloved spot, and sat down to watch. He was aware of me, and after casting maybe two or three times and hooking yet another fish, he turned and said, "C'mon down." I forget his name, but he told me he was a fly-fishing guide by profession, and on his days off this was where he most liked to fish. He asked me how I was doing and I said, "Not good." "Lemme see your rig." I handed him my rod. "Oh ... well, first off, your leader isn't long enough." Before I could apologize for being a fishing idiot, he had taken out a pair of clippers and nipped my leader off completely. He then tied on a new leader with such speed and grace I was speechless. "What flies you been usin'?" "These," I said sheepishly, knowing already they were the wrong flies only because I figured everything I was doing was wrong.
Graciously he made no comment on my flies, only said, "Here—this time of year you want to use these," pulling a few small midges off his vest and handing them to me. He tied one on my tippet, and then began to show me how to fish his treasured spot. "C'mon over here, right next to me." If a fly fisherman is right-handed, the instructor typically stands close on his left so as not to take the forward cast in the ear or the back of his head. "Now—most folks use one strike indicator when they're fishing the fly below the surface [I felt good that at least I knew that—had read it in a book]. But that won't help you much. You've got to know you're getting a dead drift." Success in fly-fishing rests upon many nuances, but chief among them is your ability to present your fly naturally to the fish, which means that it drifts down with the current in the same fashion as the real food they see every day—without any tugging or pulling motion contrary to the speed and direction of the current. "The secret is to use two, even three. Like this."
After about ten minutes of coaching, he stepped out of the water to watch me—just as a father who's taught his son to hit a baseball steps back to watch, let the boy take a few swings all by himself. I hooked a trout and landed it. He came back into the water to show me how to release it. "I usually kiss mine on the forehead. Superstition." He laid one on the brow of the large rainbow and released it into the cold water. "Have fun," he said, and without looking back he went downriver about to the spot where I'd been fishing earlier and began to catch fish there, one after another. I caught fish too. And while that made me happy, there was a deeper satisfaction in my soul as I stood in the river, fishing well. Some primal need had just been touched and touched good. As I drove home I knew the gift had been from God, that he had fathered me through this man.
We aren't meant to figure life out on our own. God wants to father us. The truth is, he has been fathering us for a long time—we just haven't had the eyes to see it. He wants to father us much more intimately, but we have to be in a posture to receive it. What that involves is a new way of seeing, a fundamental reorientation of how we look at life, and our situation in it. First, we allow that we are unfinished men, partial men, mostly boy inside, and we need initiation. In many, many ways. Second, we turn from our independence and all the ways we either charge at life or shrink from it; this may be one of the most basic and the most crucial ways a man repents. I say "repent" because our approach to life is based on the conviction that God, for the most part, doesn't show up much. I understand where the conviction came from, battle it constantly myself, but still—it's faithless, is it not? We must be willing to take an enormous risk, and open our hearts to the possibility that God is initiating us as men—maybe even in the very things in which we thought he'd abandoned us. We open ourselves up to being fathered.
Excerpted from Fathered by God by John Eldredge Copyright © 2009 by John Eldredge. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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