Raphael the fearless
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3
Early on in our work in Brazil we made a lot of rookie mistakes. One in particular led to a wonderful story of the fearless faith of a child. I think it might just encourage the shark wrangler hidden within you.
We had begun our first outreach using a building belonging to a little church. As we reorganized the space to make space for our material we encountered a room full to the ceiling with used clothes. Clothing had been collected for a bazaar and these were the leftovers. The clothes were in good condition, but no one was quite sure what to do with them. So after getting permission from the pastor, we set a date to take the clothes and distribute them in a favela (slum neighborhood) adjoining the neighborhood where the church was located. On a typically balmy Brazilian summer afternoon we loaded the clothing into the back of our pick-up truck and headed out. My two boys, Michael (9) and Raphael (7) were riding along, as well as Pastor Tiago, my friend Marcelo, and another boy from the outreach, Adriano.
A Just Cause
As we pulled to a stop in the neighborhood we were immediately approached by curious children and then adults asking what we were doing. When they realized we were giving things away, the word went out and in an instant a sea of humanity surrounded us. People pushed and shouted as we tried to distribute the clothes in some semblance of order. About that time the door of the pick-up opened (I had forgotten to lock the door in the confusion) and some children jumped in and started grabbing at whatever they could find. My soccer ball went first and then one of them grabbed my handsaw and took off up the street. My youngest boy Raphael saw the whole thing and yelled to me, “Dad, that boy stole your saw!” I told him we had bigger problems and that we just needed to lock the doors now so that my wallet wasn’t next. He insisted, “But that wasn’t a donation! That’s stealing and it’s wrong!” Again, I told him to forget about it. Next thing I know, there goes by little boy, barefoot, up the street, through the favela after the saw. He didn’t hear me when I called to him so I asked Adriano to tail him and make sure he didn’t get into any trouble.
After a few minutes I was getting worried. The throng began to subside as the last of the clothing was carted off. Where was my son? I looked up and my heart jumped as I saw Raphael walking back toward the truck…with a triumphant look on his face and my saw in his hand. As scary as that was for a dad, I learned a lesson that day. When our mission is just and godly we cannot let fear stop us.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27
In the following chapters we will explore what this might look like in your life. We will hear testimonies of men and their families who are engaged in the fight in very real and practical ways and hopefully encourage you to step into the fray.
Chapter 5 – Of Bull Elephants and Shark Wrestlers
To begin unpacking Psalm 68:5-6 we need to first explore what it means to be a “Father to fatherless,” the critical role the church can and must play as the last man standing. We will see how that is reflected in the life of a godly man and, should he be blessed to have one, his family. We will also examine the role for the godly woman and the local Christian congregation in what at first may seem like mostly a “guy thing.”
Elephants behaving badly
Those who know me well know that I love a good story, especially a true one and extra-especially one with dangerous animals involved. My mother would tell you that not much has changed in that regard over the 42 years of my life. I am hoping that you like them to because I have a couple I’d like to share with you. This first one made headlines back in 1999 when it appeared in a report by CBS news. The tale goes something like this,
In South Africa’s Pilanesberg Park, white rhinos began turning up dead in astonishing numbers, nearly forty to be exact. This was alarming and confusing: alarming because it represented 10% of the whole population of white rhinos, and confusing because the deaths hadn’t been the result of poaching. The latter was made clear by the fact that the highly valuable ivory horns had not been removed. A little bit of investigation led the park rangers to the culprits, juvenile male elephants. But why? This was not normal behavior for juvenile elephants at all. What could possibly have led them, as was subsequently observed, to form into violent groups and rampage through the park, molesting, tormenting and eventually killing white rhinos? The answer to the question can be found by looking at the history of the park as well as elephant social structure.
For the sake of full disclosure, I am not an expert on elephants, but this story intrigued me so I did some reading. In elephant “culture” the young are raised by the females of the herd until a certain age. We’ll call that age adolescence. At that point the male elephants are pushed out of the group and will seek out the older bull elephants of their family (grandfathers, father and uncles presumably) in the wild where they will essentially, “learn what it means to be a bull elephant,” which, by the way, does not include murdering rhinos.
Street Thugs of the Savannah
So what went wrong at Pilanesberg? For that answer we need to travel back some twenty years from the time of the rhino killings. In those days another large reserve in South Africa, Kruger National Park, was having an elephant over-population problem. A government veterinarian (it just had to be the government right?) developed the ingenious plan to sacrifice the adults, because they were too difficult to move, and instead relocate only the babies. Where to? To Pilanesberg of course.
When these now “fatherless” baby boy elephants reached adolescence; they went out into the wild to look for their male “kinfolk.” When there were no bull elephants to be found these youngsters stuck together and formed gangs. Yes, gangs. Interestingly enough, one of the things older bull elephants do for their juvenile counterparts is to discourage them from mating too young. This keeps their testosterone in check and, as a result, diminishes some of their more aggressive impulses. Without older bull elephants to lead the way, the young bulls began mating and seeking to mate at a very young age, stimulating their testosterone levels through the roof and, just like that, dead rhinos and other such mayhem. Sadly, several of these delinquent elephants were put down before someone finally had a stroke of real genius.
Elephant Big Brother Program
Using modified trucks, larger, older bull elephants were trucked in from Kruger Park by rangers. What happened then must have seemed like a miracle. A new hierarchy almost immediately emerged as the older bulls quickly established themselves as dominant over the younger, smaller bulls. Through sparring with the younger elephants, the older bulls successfully discouraged them from being sexually active. This, predictably, lowered testosterone levels and the rhinos, once again, were safe to roam the savannah. In fact, since the big bulls arrived on the scene, not a single rhino has been molested.
Taking a page out of the playbook
Is this so different from what is happening with fatherless children in communities all around the world? It is precisely what we described when we talked about “street activity” and the missing “strong man” in our communities. So what is the lesson here? Fathers are important? Yes. Youth, and boys in particular, are trouble if left alone without supervision? Clearly. We’ve already established that the “strong man” has been tied up and what the ramifications of that are for our children and society. But this is more than a wild kingdom mirror image of what is happening in our communities and around the world, it is a road map for how the last man standing, the church of Jesus Christ, could and should respond.
Our neighborhoods are overflowing with fatherless children, both boys and girls, who are in desperate need of interested adults: in need of a provider, protector, teacher and friend. Remember what we said previously, it cannot be just any old mentor but a godly father figure, one who is committed to modeling a Christ centered life, is equipped for the battle and one who is engaged in actively teaching the truth within the context of a loving and safe relationship.
These children are waiting for the old bull elephants to come and put things straight. Whether they realize it or not, these “youth gone wild” are desperate for an old bull to come along and say, “Whoa there boys, not the rhino’s. That’s not how we roll. You follow me and I’ll show you the way it’s done.”
Fatherless girls need to hear an old bull say, “Sweetheart, you are precious in GOD’s eyes. You are loved. Don’t let those young bulls fool you into giving away your heart. Don’t throw yourself at them. Give them time to mature. Stick with me and I’ll protect you and value you for who you are, not what you can do for me.”
Several studies published over the last twenty years have focused on children identified as “students at risk” for behaviors ranging from out-of-wedlock pregnancy, drug use, and alcohol abuse. The students who did not get involved in those behaviors identified one common reason; someone took a personal interest in them in such a way that they felt loved and connected. Children at-risk are in need of some old bulls to ride in and say to Satan and his workers, as Jesus did in Matthew 18:6, “If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Can it make a difference? Can you make a difference? Let’s see.