Monday, October 29, 2012

Valuable men

Today I am pondering what it means to live intentionally.  In a conversation about a week ago, a mentor of mine said he was dealing with the question, "What would the next ten years look like if I lived intentionally?"  I think it is a great question.  It makes me think of something I heard many years ago -- that the Hopi of the American southwest have certain men in their tribes who they call "valuable men."  I think it's a great term.

Fueling this particular ponder is the fact that I am grieving the loss of two valuable men.  Both are men in their 80's who have influenced me deeply, who are now at the end of their lives.

The first of these men, Tom, passed away last night as his body gave in to the ravages of cancer.  His wife and children have told me over and over again what a good man he is, how he has cared for them and led them, and how he has modeled excellence in every area of life. I have seen these things in Tom's life with my own eyes.  I have only known him for a couple years but I have been so impressed with his intentionality, his desire to stand for unchanging values, his positive spirit, and his unflinching love for Jesus.

The second of these men, Morris, is probably in the last hours of his life as I write this.  He came into my life because he is the father of my earliest friend (Kevin), whom I met the day I started kindergarten.  I was in and out of his house throughout my childhood.  I ate countless meals in his kitchen and attended church, concerts and other events with his family.  I sat in their living room during family devotions and heard Morris pray for his family and for the world.  I helped with milking and played in the hayloft of his barn.  I observed from very close range the deep relationship between Kevin and his dad.  I have known him nearly all my life, and I have been so impressed with his intentionality, his desire to stand for unchanging values, his positive spirit, and his unflinching love for Jesus.

Every young man needs older men to teach him, to call him to account, to tease him, to set him an example to follow.  So if you're going to go looking for an old man to adopt, what do you look for?  (And of course you can also read this in reverse -- if you're an old man reading this, what qualities in your life can bless younger men who might adopt you?)

First, find a man who loves Jesus.  There are plenty of old men out there who are just living older versions of lost lives.  A man who knows Jesus has a solidity, a stability that self-reliant men don't have.  There's also a humility in this kind of a man, because he knows he needs help beyond himself.  A lot of old men who know Jesus won't talk about that relationship much, sadly.  However, you can watch him for a while and see what's going on under the surface.

Second, find a man who is positive but not deluded -- someone who isn't afraid to say when something is good.  There are plenty of negative old curmudgeons out there, and they will not often bless you.  A man who can give thanks for the blessings in his life is an amazing gift.

Third, find a man who hasn't had all his rough edges worn off.  If you find a man who looks too perfect, it's probably better to stay away.  You're going to get sucked in and fooled by a shiny exterior.  No, as a role model you want a man who is still dealing with some issues.  Maybe he's a bit of a controller.  Maybe he rails against some of the things that are wrong with the world, or with you, or with himself.  Maybe he cusses or chews or picks his nose.  He might well tell stories that make you look around to see if your mother is listening.  None of these are deal breakers; in fact, if he doesn't have some rough edges he probably won't be of use to you.  The best role models are the ones who have come to grips with the fact that they're not perfect and are comfortable living in their own skin, even if that makes you a little uncomfortable.

Fourth, find a man who stands for solid values.  You don't have to agree with all his values, but you can learn a lot from listening to him talk about what's important to him.

It's worth mentioning that you will probably benefit most from a man who has done something with his hands.  Not to say that he can't be a teacher or a lawyer or a minister -- I've adopted men from all three of these categories.  However, even if his career has been behind a desk, he should probably be able to shoot a muzzleloader, or sail a boat, or rebuild an engine, or build a bunkbed, or something useful.  These kinds of hands-on activities anchor a man in the real world.

If possible, find a man who has a decent relationship with his own kids.  This means that his kids are independent and strong, but they choose to stay connected to him, and he's figured out that most difficult of manly tasks, how to give his kids freedom without totally cutting them off.  Certainly there can be some brokenness in these relationships -- there always is -- but you're looking for someone who can be a bit of a surrogate father to you, at least in some sense.  If his dysfunctions have driven his own kids too far away, you might want to reconsider.

Some of you reading this are fortunate enough to have one of these men for a father, or a father-in-law, or maybe a grandfather or an uncle.  That is a precious gift.  Don't make the mistake of neglecting these valuable men just because they're in your family.  Dig deep into those relationships and mine all the gold you can.

If you have an old man who meets most of these criteria, he's probably worth your time.  Figure out where he connects -- whether in the duck blind, the garage, an auction sale, or at a hole-in-the wall restaurant he frequents because they have good pie.  One of the best old men in my life has been a North Dakota farmer who used to stick his head into my office at church once a month or so and say, "You got time for pie?"  We'd go out and discuss the world at length and I would ask stories about how things used to be and how he sees things now.  Those were invaluable times!

While it's okay to study the heroes our culture lifts up, it's far better to find a valuable man and get close to him.  Listen to what's on his mind.  See things through his eyes.  You will learn more than you expected.  One of the most important lessons these valuable men will teach you is the one that Tom and Morris are leading me through today.  How do you walk open-eyed toward your own death?  How do you live life intentionally?  These men have figured out how to face the hard stuff, to work through the trials and difficulties.

One of the specific goals in my life is that I want to be an old man.  Not to say I'm so eager to live into my 80's -- this is not about length of life, but rather about quality.  When the time comes -- and I don't get to decide this, it is rather determined by younger men who see something in my life they desire -- I hope to be an old man, to be able to bless someone's life the way I've been blessed.  I want to live the kind of life someone else might find valuable.


  1. One of my most valuable men taught me to smoke a cigar in the Boundary Waters. ;-). And I also believe he fits all of the qualities you mentioned. I owe him a great deal of gratitude.

  2. Gotta watch out for those cigar smokers, Nate! Sounds like some pretty rough edges, and some great memories. And I know you are well on your way to becoming an old man yourself, in the very best sense of the word. Great to hear from you!