Mark Twain once observed that “at the age of twelve a boy starts imitating a man, and he just goes on doing that for the rest of his life.”  I suspect this is truer today than in Twain’s day.  There is no time or event that signifies a boy’s entrance into manhood.  Our culture provides no ritual of passage.  Facial hair and pubic hair let a boy know he is developing physically, sexual interest may signal an emotional transition, but there are no clear road signs that declare when a boy has crossed the border into manhood.  Of course, becoming a man is not an event.  It is a process, and that process includes the modeling of manhood by other men.

Recently I had the honor of officiating at the home funeral and the graveside service of a man who was instrumental in that process for me.  Ted was unlike the men I knew growing up, which made him all the more powerful.  He was retired Air Force and physically imposing.  He was generally quiet, but there was never a doubt he was in the room.  His wisdom took up lots of space.  We entered each other’s lives more than 30 years ago.  I was 26.  He seemed ageless.  I realized at his service that he was younger than I am now when we first met.

He was strong without being rigid.  He was vulnerable, but not weak.  He was open to all things, but careful and discerning in what he believed.  From my perspective, his life seemed full of adventure, travel, daring, and heavy responsibility.  He learned the lessons from those events, and he shared those lessons in the form of stories.  Yet his greatest service to me was to witness without judgment my struggles with growing into adulthood.  The important words here are “witness without judgment.”  He listened with an open heart.  He let me rant, whine, sulk, cry, and be utterly confused with my life. He provided no answers.  What he provided was openness and support without any judgment.  He knew the fear of being lost.  He knew how easy it was to resort to anger or blaming when things didn’t work out.  He didn’t let me get away with that.  He knew I was tired of trying other people’s ways of living.  He’d been there before.  He knew I had to find my own.  He kept his hands symbolically, and sometimes literally, on my shoulders as I moved forward.

He also allowed me to witness his struggles.  I saw his anger and frustration.  I watched him cry and laugh.  He let me in on his confusion about being a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a son who had unfinished business with dead parents.  In that way we moved together.

William Willimon expressed the grave concern, “It may be possible for a generation to move into adulthood with a minimum of adult interaction, but let the record show that we are the first culture to try it.”  He laments the fact that as a culture we provide few possibilities for personal, substantive interaction between boys and men; for boys “to look over the shoulders of adults and thereby get all the clues they can for adulthood.”  Without that we get grownup boys who spend their lives acting powerful while feeling powerless.

While fathers can provide crucial lessons for sons, the father-son relationship is often too convoluted for both to provide the clarity needed for mentoring into manhood.  In fact, too often, the father is a grown boy still imitating a man.  One of my deepest wishes is that somewhere, somehow, along the way my son finds someone like Ted to help him with the crucial tasks of becoming a man.