By John K. Lee
It’s a little past Midnight. I just got back from the first day of the Act Like Men conference and I don’t know how to feel about what I’d just experienced. Pastor James Macdonald appeared to be the point man for the evening. Until this conference, I’d never heard of this gentleman, but his alpha male charisma and hipster wardrobe instantly gave off an air of casual gravitas that I could see people being drawn to. While I must admit that all of his raspy, drill sargent-esque, RAH, RAH, RAH got me riled up, he struck me as a hulking Goliath where I relate more to underdogs like David.
Famed evangelist, Greg Laurie, would follow. He did his usual thing–solid gospel message punctuated by an altar call. Pepper in some spirited praise music, and everything was tied up with an introduction to, and some witty banter between, the entire roster of speakers from today and for tomorrow. That was the end of the first session.
Leaving the Long Beach Convention Center, I felt a little numb. Though I wish I walked away having learned more about manhood, the truth is the whole time I’d been thinking about the man whom God originally entrusted with this task–my father. The only reason I was taking the unpleasant stroll through memory lane was because I knew there would be no Day 2 of the conference for me. Instead, I’d be seeing my father for the first time in almost two years.
I’ve always had a tumultuous relationship with my old man, and about two years ago, it got to a point where I just couldn’t take him anymore. That’s when I decided to cut all ties with him. I don’t want to get into the details of what triggered the final blowout, but the point is, I was distracted during the conference because I was recalling the many dysfunctional lessons I’d learned over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was as bad as it could be, but at 34-years-old, there are a lot of painful situations that I will never forget.
I believe my dad’s approach to manhood was heavily influenced by his time in a South Korean military system where Cold War paranoia justified practices that would now be classified as human rights violations. To be specific, I’ve been told that beatings and other sadistic forms of discipline were de rigeur. While the fathers of most of my Korean friends fulfilled their years of mandatory military service as low-ranking privates, my dad was a hard charging officer who never had to taste the wrath of being bottom man on the totem pole. Perhaps that would explain why it appeared so comfortable for him to make me feel so awful.
I was raised on the mean streets of Diamond Bar. So there wasn’t a lot of street creed to be had when compared to buddies who came up in grittier parts of Los Angeles. That said, amongst friends who knew of my father, it was generally acknowledged that while I lived in a soft neighborhood, I had grown up in a rough home. In fact, my house was the one friends would never visit. My dad’s reputation as a scary dude even extended to church. In the early days of my father’s faith, he had a stint as the Sunday school teacher to all the older boys who were known as incorrigible knuckleheads. The details of what he’d do to them are vague, but I would regularly be approached by these boys with words of sympathy and a free pass from the bullying that they would regularly distribute to my peers. While other kids I knew whined about their tiger moms, I had to contend with the wrath of a dragon dad.
The fact that my father was a Christian only served to add confusion to the fear. His faith was an odd mix of extremely conservative Presbyterian and hyper-Confucian Korean. This unholy milkshake of values translated to an almost bipolar approach to parenting. Up until high school, I’d grown accustomed to my father always being mad, but it was downright discombobulating when he supposedly recommitted to God in his mid-forties.
You see, he would go to A LOT of church revivals. So in the afterglow of his spiritual highs, I was afforded a brief respite from the tyranny that was commonplace in our house. There would even be super awkward hugs and surreal scenes where he’d tell me he loved me (think about the hug scene between Dr. Evil and his son Scott in Austin Powers International Man of Mystery). However, these hallmark moments wouldn’t last. It could be that he had a bad day at work, or that he didn’t appreciate the way that I’d greeted him, but eventually he’d be on me like a mongoose on a snake. Therefore, I’d come to see his zeal as transient and not transformational.
Whether he intended this or not, my father laid the foundation that God’s judgment was even more exacting and infinitely more devastating than anything he could ever conceive. My dad’s draconian methods reinforced that, no matter what I did, I would never be good enough and I was fully deserving of any suffering I would incur. Now, the biblically knowledgeable readers might be noting that all my conclusions were actually theologically sound ones. The problem, however, is my father was only effective at presenting half of the gospel message. Condemnation and punishment were readily available, but grace was nowhere to be found.
As such, my twenties were characterized by the attempt to flee from my father’s influence–that especially included going to church. The problem was, the faster I ran away, the closer I was to becoming just like him. My temper was legendary. Along the way, I’ve made many horrible decisions, burned a lot of bridges, and hurt more people than I’d like to admit. It’s a surprise that I never got into any real trouble, but the worst part of all of this was how frequently I had upset the woman who would become my wife.
For a long time, I was so angry with God for the home I was raised in, for the fact that I was so ill-equipped to handle the world outside of my family home, and for the many circumstances where I found myself in very dark and lonely places. However, through the birth of my first son, God had begun to do things that would soften my heart and open my eyes. The Father would help me understand that the low points in my life were the only means for me to find healing from the events of my childhood. It’s my sincere belief that, had things been easier during my twenties, I would never comprehend how damaged I was and would’ve passed on the same hurt to my sons. Not to mention, all of these things prompted me to feel the need and desire to find a church home where I, with my family, could set down some spiritual roots.
So when I see my dad tomorrow, I don’t know what I’ll say. Maybe I’ll tell him, that despite the mistakes he’d made, I would grant him the grace he never extended to me. If I’m strong enough to do that, it won’t be due to my being a better person than he was. It’ll happen because, for whatever reason, my heavenly Father, showed me what my earthly father has not yet seen. Even though I can’t say that my dad was the one to teach me the right way to be a godly man, at this stage in my life, I can accept that he probably meant well and did the best he could. Be that as it may, I can’t model manhood on the good intentions of a broken childhood.
As a result, even if it was for a day, I’m glad that I was able to go to the Act Like Men conference. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t get more from the messages I’d heard. Nevertheless, the opportunity to get acquainted with some of the brothers who also went, makes me excited for the future. While I’ve only been at Trinity for a few months, I’m convinced that this church has been uniquely blessed with sincere men who are attempting to soldier together and live according to God’s will. Whether it’s reaching out to the local community, or reaching within to support new and old members alike, I really appreciate that our church’s focus appears to be on deepening brotherhood, and not promoting buzz. I’m still a long way from being the kind of man my son’s can look up to, but I have faith that I’m in the right place to help me get there.
This post is part of a series of reflections written by the men of Trinity Church in response to the ACT LIKE MEN Conference and the topic of Mens Issues within Christianity.
Other posts include: