A Celebration of Boyhood
It wasn’t at all what I expected.
A long driveway meandered up a gentle rise under an extensive canopy of Colorado ponderosa pines. On my left, a creek drainage harbored a well-worn treehouse. Early evening light highlighted bikes, skateboards, paintball guns, and other boyhood accessories, all of which testified to a world of adventure and play.
I was a young man, fresh out of college and brimming with questions that were only assuaged by the lives and stories of older men. I tried intently to put words to my questions and to risk the vulnerability of seeking proximity to older men to whom I could bring my curiosity.
Now 20 years later, I recognize the bedrock of my desire for proximity to elders was the longing to be initiated by a Father into the world of men.
The longing for masculine initiation is common and unquenchable in men, not by accident or cultural imposition: it is our common desire because it is for this we were made.
The elder I sought out that long-ago evening was named Mark. He was the father of five young boys and an executive for the same company where I was low man on the totem pole. Every time I ran into him, he stood out from the crowd, generating a larger-than-life atmosphere around him.
He had something. Better said, he had become something, someone. Someone whose masculinity inspired me and to whom my soul desired to be near.
It has taken me years to articulate what drew me to Mark. Now I have words for it: Mark was a man who had been effectively initiated into the world of men. He was a man who had faced the specter of death and passed through into a Life greater than his own. From that place of initiation, Mark was connected with the life of God in a measure that was unhinged from circumstances and unable to be destroyed by the things of this world.
When Mark invited me to his home, I had no idea where he actually lived. His directions had me leaving the city behind and traveling into a little pocket of nearby wild. Finally arriving at his driveway, my first thought was of the length of Mark’s commute; my second, of the length of his driveway and how much shoveling it would take to dig out after a winter storm.
Mark’s joyful greeting interrupted my shortsighted inner calculating.
After a brief exchange, I had to ask.
“Mark, what caused you to move way out here?”
He paused, considering my question with soulful sincerity before slowly responding.
“By moving here, I bought my five sons two more years of childhood.”
The substance of his response steadied my young heart. He was articulating a portion of Reality in God’s Kingdom that the world around me had all but forgotten: boyhood in all its wonder is an invaluable stage of masculinity that is worth fighting for. And it is a stage that every boy must experience and every man must recover if he is ever going to take the full journey into manhood.
So it began.
Again. Yet another category of divine disruption as Father continued the apprenticeship of my masculine soul.
In over two decades of proximity to men, I have observed a handful of themes that run through the stories of most men I encounter. No theme is more consistent—and few are more tragic—than the premature end of the stage of boyhood. For so many men, boyhood was cut painfully short as they grew up too fast and too soon.
This premature end of boyhood often happens as the result of one of two forces. The first is the agony of the unanswered question of his masculine soul, “Do I have what it takes?” For many boys, the quest to answer this essential question compels them to forsake boyhood and seek early entrance into world of men in hopes of finding an answer there.
The intolerable agony of an unanswered question is what drove my good friend Bart to lie about his age in order to be hired for a demolition job on a construction site at the age of 14. The ruthless foreman did everything he could to drive the little boy off the site. During one of Bart’s first weeks on the job, he took a fall from the top of a 10-foot ladder while removing ceiling insulation. Bart ended up in the emergency room because of a nail that had punctured his boot when he hit the ground, driving its way up through his foot until it protruded menacingly from the top. Bent on proving himself as a man, Bart was back on the job site later that afternoon; nothing would stop him from proving to his boss, to the world, and mostly to his dad, that he had what it takes.
For other men, the premature loss of boyhood is imposed upon them by abruptly changing circumstances in their family of origin. This was Greg’s story. When Greg was 12, his dad was caught having sex with the church secretary, a woman barely half his age. At the time, Greg’s dad was a pastor in their small town, and the rumors of the scandal quickly took their toll. Both their family and their place in the community began to unravel overnight. Within days, Dad fled the house and the town, choosing a new life with this younger woman, leaving Greg’s mom alone with two young daughters and a son. On his way out the door, Greg’s dad said these final words to his young son:
“You’re the man of the house now.”
Greg is 44 and has spent the past 32 years reaching to recover the boyhood he abruptly lost that afternoon on the front steps of his childhood home.
Whether at the hands of unfathered fathers or through a personal search for validation from an unanswered question, the stories of many men follow a similar narrative:
The reality of Boyhood is cut violently short.
With the loss of boyhood comes the loss of the ancient path, the tried and true road, of masculine initiation that alone provides rest for the masculine soul.
It took me almost a decade to begin to identify with why Mark chose the long commute to work: preserving and relishing in boyhood was one of Mark’s greatest aims as a father. And our Father was inviting me to make it one of mine as well.
I suppose that’s why Joshua’s first formal rite of passage in ManScouts was celebrated with mounds of Chick-fil-A nuggets, limitless cans of regular Coke, and pictures highlighting his boyhood adventures.
I rolled the dice.
As much as we might learn, there is no detailed roadmap for masculine initiation. Though the themes are similar, each man must walk his own path and lead his son as only he can, given their particular context and narrative. Yet there are ancient signposts and universal themes—and a Father who precedes us in order to illuminate a path to lead the soul of the boy into life as an initiated man.
Cherie dropped Joshua off on a winter night, leaving him to walk into a warm room filled with celebration and masculine love. His smile said it all, as he looked beyond the mounds of Chick-fil-A nuggets to the handful of the men who love me and him and with whom we share life.
“Son, tonight is for you. It is a celebration of your boyhood. You are welcome here.”
In time we shared a short film of images from his first 10 years of life, classic shots of boyhood adventure and play.
We then gathered in a circle, one of the most sacred circles of which I’ve ever been a part. My son at the center, seated on the top of a ManScouts treasure chest he would soon learn was part of the gift of the evening for his next decade.
On this night we participated in a contemporary expression of an ancient rite contiguous with preceding cultures and epochs of human history. Each man spoke words of blessing over Joshua, and together we presented him with gifts, inviting him into communion with a company of men and with a Father who orchestrates it all.
But something even more fundamental than a passage into the company of men was taking place.
Before it was a passage, it was first a celebration of boyhood. The central message we communicated was this:
“Joshua you are a boy, a delightful and radiant boy.
Tonight we celebrate your boyhood. We welcome it, bless it, and invite you to savor every bit of what the Father has for you as a boy.
And also, we begin tonight with your welcoming into the fellowship of men. I have been entrusted with only a portion of what you need as a man. But look around this room. Each man brings a different expression, a different portion of Father’s heart. Only together can you see the Father and experience His love, and only together, in a fellowship, can you cultivate a knowing of what it means to be a man. And through that discovery, you will come to know the uniqueness of the man God fashioned when He fashioned you.
You are welcome here. As a boy, you are welcome among men.
In time, you will embark on a Vision Quest and enter the trials and challenges of masculine initiation.
But today, we invite you to savor boyhood. And today we celebrate boyhood with you.”
The gifts we gave were meant as an outward expression of what we carried in our heart.
- A set of Legos to continue to cultivate play, adventure, and imagination
- A wooden sword handcrafted by master craftsmen at Bastian Woodworking—both real and also playful—as a symbol of the boyhood warrior who carries a practice sword but will one day brandish steel
- A ManScouts treasure chest to hold the symbols and story of this decade set before him, adorned with the names of God’s chosen men who will participate in portions of the initiation of his soul
Lingering. Permission. Delight.
With our bodies, our words, we said what only the Father can say:
You are my beloved son, my favorite son, in whom my soul is well pleased.
We did everything in our power to celebrate boyhood. To savor it. And through our love, to remove pressure on the masculine soul to grow up too fast and too far.
Everything is beautiful in its time, Solomon once said.
That day, the celebration was boyhood. And with both my repentance and my strength, I was able to pledge my fiercest commitment to preserve, protect, and supernaturally partner with the Father to lengthen boyhood, as long as we both shall live.
“Thanks, Dad. I’ve never felt more loved in my whole life.”
Those were the words of my son as we drove home on that snowy night.
Those were nearly the identical words spoken by Alex’s son and JD’s son as they followed suit in their own time and in their own way, fighting to celebrate boyhood for their ever-maturing sons in the months to come.
The boy needs permission and possibility to be a boy if he is ever to become a wholehearted man.
Jesus makes the impossible possible.
In the same way we too need permission and possibility to recover what was lost in our own soul as a boy.
The loss of boyhood is one of the great destructive realities that keeps most of us from ever becoming wholehearted and true. And the recovery and restoration of boyhood, for us and for our sons, is one of the great promises of the Kingdom of God. Whether at 12, 22, or 62, we are invited to turn to the Father and ask Him to restore the boy in us and to teach us to celebrate the boy in the hearts of our sons and the men we love.
We are reminded of the scandal of the Gospel in Paul’s letter to Galatians: through the Life of Jesus, we have full access to everything the Father has:
- If you are a son, you are also an heir, with complete access to the inheritance… (The Message)
- Because we are His, we can access everything He has…(The Passion Translation)
- Through this bold redemption, we have received full rights of sonship… (NIV)
And now, one of our central tasks is to practice receiving this reality and to mature into the more that is being made available in this day and in this decade.
It’s been over two years since that joyous celebration of boyhood.
We are now poised on the eve of Joshua’s Vision Quest. From the foundation of boyhood, we can now set our hearts on pilgrimage to the deeper frontier of the masculine soul.
Mark chose to move to the edge of town to recover two more years of boyhood for his sons.
What will you do for the boy entrusted to your care?
What will you do for the boy within your soul?
You are not alone.
And it matters more than we have been led to believe.
Strength and Honor,