I wasn’t strung out on drugs, at the end of my rope or overwhelmed with a sense of my utter depravity. I didn’t see or feel the flames of impending hell and therefore run to Jesus. It was much simpler and more powerful than that. You ready for it? I came to Jesus because I saw two teenage guys (older high school peers) with their arms around each other.
Let me explain. You see, I grew up in the South, in southern gentry culture where masculinity was defined by anything but touchy, feely affection. I rarely (if ever) saw my father or other grown men cry. Through grade school, a boy had to be tough. Though fights were rare, they weren’t unheard of. Bullying was common. I remember getting pushed down in the hallway of school or on the schoolyard on several occasions. Once in the seventh grade, I went to school with a new shirt that zipped (instead of buttoned) up the front. While standing innocently at my locker, a guy rushed at me and zipped my shirt completely off exposing my gloriously white and concave bird chest to the universe. I never wore that shirt again. Now that I think of it, that’s probably why the zipper shirt never took off: bully magnet.
And then there’s Karate Kid. Do you remember the scene when “Daniel-san” is being chased by the guys in skeleton costumes…in the dark…backed up against a wire fence? Much of the feeling I carried through middle school (Karate Kid came out when I was in middle school) was perfectly represented by that one scene. Scary. Threatening. Trapped. Violent. I was Daniel-san. And I wanted to be brave under the threat of menacing bullies.
Anyway, guy to guy affection was limited to high fives and handshakes and maybe an occasional chest bump. I never saw anything more. I didn’t even know that I needed to see more. So, I certainly wasn’t aware of my own need for more. I have two sisters whom I absolutely loved and terrorized as we grew up. But I was brother-less. Every two years, on average, we moved to a new city, a new school, a new group of strangers. We stopped moving when I was 12. Middle school. Not exactly the warm, welcoming arms saying, “you belong.” Throughout my childhood years, I had many different guy friends, but because I became so used to leaving them, my heart grew increasingly adept at self-protecting. I wasn’t aware of this, until I was 15 years old at my first summer youth camp. I was not a member of the church, but had been invited by a couple of friends who were. I was ok with that. I was used to being an outsider.
On the last night of camp, the high school boys’ Sunday school teacher Barry Cook took the stage, straddled a darkly stained wooden bar stool and pulled the mic stand closer. I didn’t know what was about to happen. He picked up his guitar and began to play a song he had just written that week. The song was a long ballad of tribute to each of the senior high school students who were at the doorstep of their next big adventure. No more high school. No more youth camp. It was a farewell song. Every graduated senior didn’t just get a mention or a line in the song; Barry Cook wrote a stanza for every person. That year there were at least 20. The song was very long. By the end, there wasn’t a dry eye amongst the 120 or more of us.
And then I saw it. And it seared an image into my soul that persists to this day. It awakened a hunger I did not know was possible or even permissible. Three rows in front of me, two of these seniors—two eighteen-year-old guys who appeared to be tough, masculine, strong and confident—had their arms around each other. One leaned his head on the shoulder of the other. I lost my breath. My eyes welled up with tears. I knew…at that moment…that Jesus was real. And I wanted him. Because I wanted that. I had witnessed a miracle in my southern-tough-boy culture. Two heterosexual boys felt the permission (or courage) to publicly display their affection and friendship with each other, and three rows back, a freshman loner was awakened to the possibility of manly affection. And awakened to the reality of Jesus. I have hungered and searched for deep-affection relationships with guys ever since.
Three years later, I would have my own stanza in a Barry Cook song. I cried like a baby. No one had ever (or has ever since) written a song for me. Leaving youth camp that year, with my eyes set on college, Barry Cook spoke these words into my heart, “When you get there, find a church. Let that be your number one priority.” I knew what he meant: Never give up searching for and pursuing deep-love relationships. I don’t know why, but certain words people speak over you just stick. And they magnetize you to attract the very thing spoken. I don’t really know how it’s happened—I can’t take credit for it—but I have become very blessed to have dozens of other men comrades I would gladly lay down my life for, and I don’t doubt they would say the same.
Perhaps you haven’t seen or experienced male-to-male affection in healthy, vulnerable or appropriate ways. I still think it is one of the most powerful witnesses for the good news of Jesus that the world is still waiting to see more of. I bless you with healthy doses of deep love, manly affection and public demonstration for and among the brothers in your life. Put a hand on someone’s shoulder. Squeeze their arm. Look them in the eyes long enough to break through Awkward—that hard-calcified-but-fragile shell that keeps forming around our eyes and hearts. And give them a hug. For yourselves, of course, but also for the onlookers who don’t know what they’re missing.