Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Pals, not parole officers

Sometimes I like to mess with my two best buddies by saying to someone one of them has introduced me to, “Hi, pleased to meet you. I’m his probation officer.” Then, when the person looks surprised, I add, “Oh, he didn’t tell you?”

Pranking aside, in actuality that’s the last role I want to play in their lives, or for them to play in mine—though it’s one that is sort of promoted in some Christian men’s circles. Only, it gets called being an “accountability partner.”

I’m not saying that this kind of relationship doesn’t work, of course; I know people for whom it’s been a tremendous help and an encouragement. I’m just saying it’s not for me. It strikes me as more functional than relational. I’m not looking for a probation officer or a police officer; I want a pal.

My favorite definition of a friend comes from the late Howard Hendricks—someone who loves you but is not impressed by you. Such people are not easy to find, nor are such relationships cultivated easily. Still, I have been fortunate enough to develop a couple.

They came to life about a dozen years ago, when the wheels came off in my life. The engine dropped out, too: lots of smoke and singeing.

When life falls apart, you can do one of two things. You can waste some of the little energy you have left keeping up the pretense that everything is okay, or you can save it for what really matters and stop putting on a mask. After all, who do you think you’re kidding, anyway?

We might think we’re doing a pretty good job of looking like we have it all together, but actually it’s usually fairly obvious to everyone else that something’s off. We’re walking around in our best suit, thinking we look great, unaware that our collar is all messed up in the back and our shirt-tail is hanging out.

So, more out of resignation than determination, I decided that I had nothing left to lose in dropping the false front and letting some people see the “real me.” I’d spent much of four decades trying to work out how to do this man thing on my own and that had not gone too well. So, what was there to lose?

I began meeting for coffee with a couple of other guys and we tentatively let each other in, a bit at a time. We talked football, films, family, food, and then risked broaching the other f-word: feelings. Like, admitting that we had them, didn’t always understand them, and certainly did not know what to do with or about them.

Since then we have met on probably close to 500 occasions.

Sometimes we set the world right. Sometimes we talk sports or movies. Sometimes we read the Bible together. Sometimes we goof off. Sometimes we pray together. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we encourage each other. Sometimes we tick each other off. Sometimes we get in each other’s faces a bit.

We have learned a lot about each other, ourselves, and God. Mostly, we have learned that none of us really know, or have on our own, what it takes to be a man as God intended.

These guys can ask me anything—not because I gave them permission, so much, but because they have earned it. They don’t come banging on my door with a search warrant. They arrive with coffee and ask, “What’s up?”

Only my wife knows more about me than these men. I carry some of their deepest secrets, too. If trust were currency, we’d be wealthy. And I am richer because of them.

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