Jane Tompkins and I have one thing in common: we both love westerns. What we do not share is her fanatical dedication to the genre. I read a Louis L’Amour to relax my mind and refresh my spirit; Tompkins is a professor at Duke University who studies L’Amour and Zane Grey and Elmore Leonard to find trends and deeper meanings in their writings. That’s what brought her to write “West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns.” She watches “High Noon” and “Shane” for hours on end, searching out what these popular films tell about the characters they portray and the culture of modern life they produced.
At its heart, a Western is “antilanguage,” Tompkins writes. “Doing, not talking, is what it values.” The men who make up the old west’s heroes do not have vast vocabularies purchased by costly degrees. They don’t read all that many books. The men in these stories speak sparely: “Turn the wagon. Tie ’em up short. Get up on the seat.” (Red River) “Take my horse. Good swimmer. Get it done, boy.” (Rio Grande)
That may tell us something about Westerns, but for my money, it tells us a lot more about men. At the core of his being, a man trusts action rather than words. In fact, he is suspicious of a man whose livelihood is about words. That’s why preachers and politicians get short shrift in men’s stories. Which is fine with me, because even Scripture warns, “My little children, let us not love in words or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (I John 3:18) When you get a free hour, count the times in the Gospels where our Lord urges “doing” the will of God. That’s as opposed to talking about it, approving it, reading, hearing, thinking, reflecting, liking. “Just do it” was biblical long before it became commercial.
“Last summer my wife and I met a couple at a restaurant. After an enjoyable lunch, the women decided to go shopping, and I invited the man to go sailing. Later, while we were out on the water, a storm blew up. The tide had gone out, and we were downwind trying to work our way back through a narrow channel. At one point the boat grounded and we had to climb overboard and shove with all our might to get it back in deeper water. As my new friend stood there, ankle deep in muck, the wind blowing his hair wildly, rain streaming down his face, he grinned at me, and with unmistakable sincerity said, ‘Sure beats shopping!'” (From the Reader’s Digest, quoted by Jane Tompkins in “West of Everything.”)
The magazine that ran that story printed it among jokes and humorous tales which readers submit. But it’s no joke. It’s the way men are. Soaked to the skin, mired in mud, wind and rain beating down, they are having the time of their lives. Their hunting and fishing excursions across horrible roads into deep woods–which would be considered punishment to their wives–pumps more energy and adrenalin into their lives than a hundred good days at the office.
A friend e-mailed the other day asking me to recommend a book on what it means to be a man. He needed some help with a talk he had been assigned. I suggested one he will not be able to put down, a book which can change forever how he looks at himself. “Wild at Heart,” by John Eldredge, ought to be read by every man who is in danger of forgetting what he was created to be, by every woman who needs help in understanding the person she married, and by every parent of a son.
“When all is said and done,” Eldredge writes, “I thnk most men in the church believe that God put them on the earth to be a good boy.” So, we strive not to drink and smoke and swear, to help with the dishes and be a good provider, and think we’ve done it.
Eldredge asks his men readers, “In all your boyhood dreams growing up, did you ever dream of becoming a Nice Guy?”
Being made in the image of God, Eldredge writes, must mean something special. God has put three desires so deeply inside my heart that to disregard them is to risk losing one’s soul: man needs a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.
Here are a few quotes which Eldredge sprinkles throughout his book.
Philip Yancey: “How would telling people to be nice to one another get a man crucified? What government would execute Mister Rogers or Captain Kangaroo?”
Howard Macey: “The spiritual life cannot be made suburban. It is always frontier, and we who live in it must accept and even rejoice that it remains untamed.”
Proverbs 20:5: “The heart of a man is like deep water….”
I’ve seen Paul Harvey in person once in my life, in 1963 at a large auditorium in Birmingham. One of the greatest public speakers of our generation, Mr. Harvey began by describing an island in the Pacific, a veritable paradise where the natives provide food and drink and clothing and safety to everyone at no cost whatsoever, an eden where you would never have to work another day in your life. No passport needed, money unnecessary, available to everyone. “Want to move there?” he asked. After a long pause, he said, “Alcatraz.”
Paul Harvey’s message that day ploughed a furrow down the center of my life. “Man’s search in this world is not for security,” he said, “but for insecurity.” Man is driven to explore, to climb, to take risks, to battle enemies, to achieve at great cost. To be and to do, not to watch others and cheer. Man was made for bigger things than La-Z-boy recliners and overstuffed couches in front of high definition televisions. He was blueprinted as an achiever, not a spectator. A player, not a fan. A worker if you will, rather than a retiree.
I still remember the day Bob and Johnny came to me with an unusual request. They wanted my permission as pastor to begin a men’s breakfast meeting in our church the first Sunday of each month. I said, “Fellows, no, if it’s going to be a ‘meet and eat’ affair. We don’t need another one of those. But if you will get these men together to do things in the church and in the community, I’ll be your biggest supporter.” The results were outstanding, and provide a clue for men’s ministries everywhere.
Twenty-five or thirty men and boys meet the first Sunday of every month at 7:30 am at the First Baptist Church of Kenner. No matter whether today is “time-change-Sunday” or a holiday or everyone was at church till midnight the evening before, they are going to meet the first Sunday without fail, count on it.
After a breakfast of the kind you might eat at a hunting lodge–a full month’s quota of cholesterol at one sitting–they begin the meeting. No guest speakers, they don’t have time. Mitch reports on what’s going on at the trailer park just beyond the airport where some of the men and their wives are ministering. Bob calls for construction volunteers for next Saturday on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans where Global Maritime Ministries is erecting a new port ministry center. Tony tells about the prayer walks throughout the neighborhood around the church each Saturday. Robert calls for five men to assist in the Bible-giveaway next Saturday in front of the church. When everything has been covered, they pray and go home to get their families and return for Sunday School.
If you want to kill a men’s meeting–or have it be stillborn–make it the kind where no one does anything but talk. Something in the heart of man craves action and quickly tires of chatter.
Read the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel and you can see in a moment what drew the hardnosed fishermen and earthy types to Jesus. In Capernaum, he stood and taught, but like no one ever had. With authority, is how Mark put it. When a demon-possessed fellow entered the building, Jesus did not ask for permission, but rebuked the unclean spirit and ordered it out. Later, in the home of Simon Peter, the Lord healed his mother-in-law of a deadly fever. Throughout Galilee, we’re told Jesus cast out devils and healed lepers. When someone complained because Jesus was wasting his time out in the hills praying when sick people were lining up back at the house–“You’ve got work to do, Lord!”–he walked away. “Let’s go to the next town and preach the gospel to them. That’s why I came.”
People heard him gladly, we read in the gospels. He was a man of words, but far more, a man of action. What he did earned a hearing for the words he came to share.
A favorite passage from Shakespeare is found in Henry V where the king addresses his troops just before doing battle against the French at Agincourt. In fact, on a shelf in my office, the volume of Shakespeare’s plays lies open to page 588 where these words are found.
“This day is called the Feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day and live t’old age
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, ‘Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars
And say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
(Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3)