There be dragons!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Becoming a Man

This is a talk I gave to the Middle School boys:

Audio Clip

The Topic I’ve been asked to speak on is “What makes a man?” Or “What do we seek for you as a graduate of our high school?”

I think of no greater example of a real man than my father, Rollin A. Lasseter III.

My father honored those things most worthy of honor; church, family, the truth.

I remember that when I was very little, it was summer, and I was playing in the alley, running the hose down to make lakes and muddy pools in the warm sun for my soldiers. And I remember my father, striding out the door with his suitcase in hand. “Where are you going, daddy?” I said. “I have to go to my mommy’s funeral,” he said. And it struck me that here was my daddy honoring his mother.

We want all of you to graduate from here as men who honor family, freedom, your country, your church, the truth; all those things most worthy of honor. So I urge you, Become honorable men.

See, when I was young boy, my father was incredibly strong. I thought of him as a giant among men. I have a very vivid memory of him building a walkway down to the lake and heaving railroad ties about, 7 or 8 feet long, as though they were Lincoln logs. I remember him paddling a canoe into the lake in early spring to hack away at the ice with a small axe, his sleeves rolled up and chips of ice zinging through the air and clipping him in the face. I remember him carrying me in his strong arms up the hill when I lost control of my sled and slammed into a tree, cutting my scalp in a long, bloody line.

Being a man does mean being strong. Strength of arm. Strength of mind. Strength of soul.

We desire that all our young men graduate strong, robust, full of vim and vigor and energy. Good at sports, strong of arm, swift of leg. Mens sana in corporo sano. So Become strong.

But there’s also sacrifice. I remember that my father made a point to attend every one of my soccer games in high school. That cost him time. I remember that my father worked an eight-class teaching job and still taught at the local college on the weekends just so we could make ends meet financially. That cost him time and effort. I vividly remember my father coming through the door on a winter morning with his beard rimed with frost. He had been outside shoveling and salting the walkway so that us kids could walk to the car without having to trudge through the snow. That cost him in time and effort.

Sometimes, to be a man, means sacrificing your own time and effort in order that others might do well. Being a man means going out of your way to help those around you; putting others before yourself; working so that others might prosper even more than you do.

What we desire for you as men is that you come to put others before yourself; that you work for the good of other people and other things first. Become selfless.

When we were growing up in Three Rivers, MI, my mother raised a victory garden in our backyard. It was so successful that she bought some land across the road and started another garden there. We grew sorgum, pumpkins, potatoes and watermelon. And the watermelon grew and one in particular grew so big that we were going to eat it on Labor Day and have a big ol’ feast. Unfortunately, the garden was near the road and someone in the night came by and stole our watermelon. My father was remarkably self-controlled, though, and merely said that we would grow more. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” he quoted, “blessed be the name of the Lord.” He was frequently this way; exhibiting those Roman virtues of dignitas and gravitas that were the hallmarks of self-controlled, civilized men.

We want our young men to be equally self-controlled. No running in the halls. No chewing gum. Be on time to class. Keep your uniform and hair neat. Follow the rules. These things promote self control. The more you can be self-disciplined the easier it will be for you to enter into that road of education which you will follow. Become self-disciplined.

My father had an office that was paneled all in cedar panels. The smell was exquisite. And as kids we would sneak back there to watch TV, or stare at the fire, or just be in his presence as he worked through the mountain of papers on his desk. Around the lentils of his room, though, he had stenciled the phrase, “Underneath are the Everlasting Arms.” It was a message of great trust in the Lord which has stuck with me ever since. Dad trusted God even when he didn’t understand Him or agree with Him.

Our young men ought to become men of faith. Trust in the Lord is no small thing, as you will discover with time. But it is an important part of being a man. We must trust that the Lord knows what He is doing, even when we do not see it or do not agree with what we see. To do this we must cultivate our faith through practice and through understanding. Become a man of deep faith.

You must take the time to listen to the world; observe the world; be still and know who God is. My father was the first person to teach me to draw. He taught me the crafts of poetry and of writing and of speaking. And in all these things he would tell me, “don’t draw what you think is there; observe it, and draw what is there.”

As young men you must learn to observe the world in all its glory and all its horror. Don’t shy away from knowing things because they are frightening and don’t abandon the beauty and glory of the world because things don’t seem to go your way. See the world for what it is, not what you want it to be. Become observers of what really is.

Yet action is vital too. My father took me to see Star Wars in 1978; it is a treat which I am sorry none of you will ever experience – seeing the first Star Wars when it first came out. We rode to the movie theater in our beat up old green Toyota; the sun was shining in through the backseat where I rode without a seat belt not knowing what I was going to be seeing but looking forward to it. The movie was, as you know, spectacular. I saw the first and then the second with my father. In the second movie Yoda says “there is no try. There is only do.”

My father followed this maxim even before Yoda did. He was always tinkering, gardening, writing, reading; he cooked and cleaned dishes, he was a chauffeur and a mechanic and an outdoorsman and a homebody. When he saw something that needed doing, he did it.

We want our young men to graduate from here being doers not just spectators in life. See what needs doing in the world! How much needs you and your talents. Become a man who is a doer, not just an observer.

We want our young men to possess strength of mind. I remember my father giving me the farewell sendoff given to all the graduating seniors of Trinity School in 1988. Each senior had a faculty member “send them off” with a little speech at dinner. My father referenced works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey and Aristotle and Luther and Aquinas and Rousseau and Tolkien. I was proud and stunned at his erudition. How wise he was and how much he knew. But in that speech he said to me “Welcome to the conversation of men, fellow traveler on the way.”

The men that we graduate will, hopefully, know much, understand much, and join with the conversation that has gone on for generations. Attend to your studies; sure you’ll get into a good school, that happens – but more to the point is that you will be a young man who understands the world and joins in that great conversation of men that has gone on through the ages. Become men who are scholars.

Finally I remember my father facing his own death. The cancer was terminal, spread throughout his body; the infections had spread causing sepsis and toxemia; the tube was up his nose to help keep him from vomiting; the ostomy bag, the blood pressure monitors, the heart rate monitors, the bother of machines that made him seem to us, the observers of this giant among men, to be weighed down with sorrow. And as I sat with him on that last Saturday, in the grey light of morning when he was drifting in and out of morphine sleep, he turned to me suddenly and said, “All is gift. All is love.” There was a man. He died two days later. God rest him.

He proved in those last moments that his life was one of great love. To be a man is to be able to love, freely. All else is subordinate to that great task.

One day each of us will face death. Our hope for our young men is, sure that they graduate well, attend university, have a family, job, etc. But mostly it is, that in those last moments when you wrestle with the fate that faces us all, you too will be able to be free enough to say, “All is gift. All is love.” That is what it means to be a man. Become men.

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