When I finished my doctorate in Boston, my head was full of ideas. I wanted to do something to help fatherless kids. Fatherlessness was crushing my close friends and my generation. And I see it every day. In blogs, tweets, movies. The other day, LeBron James tweeted about how he cries when watching Will Smith rant about his dad in Fresh Prince. A lot of people cry over it. Me too.
I wanted to do something.
Something. I researched statistics, obscure studies, and learned mentor strategies. I read every book and article, attended seminars, roundtables, and spoke at conferences. People listened and nodded. I had the ideas, and not only ideas; I had burning passion and drive. I wanted to do something. Something. So I started in Los Angeles and created a mentoring organization.
Things were starting to happen.
One day, Kari, now my wife, asked me, “Who are you mentoring?” (No one.)
I had mentored before. I was a youth pastor in a former life. I’d mentored kids in Chicago. Hung out with another group who called themselves Misfits. But I was not mentoring anyone when she asked. Kari secretly prayed I would be. Shortly after, a single mom in our church approached me and asked me to mentor her son.
Before that moment, I was standing on the outside. I was speaking, learning, teaching, and advocating for mentoring without actually doing it. In anthropology, there are two types of field research: Etic and Emic. Etic researchers make their observations from outside the culture. Emic researchers get up-close to local customs, traditions, and beliefs.
Our temptation is to stay on the outside.
To be Etic but not Emic. To attend endless conferences, read endless books, buy endless t-shirts. To dump cold water on our heads, take a selfie and hashtag it. To be about the latest ideas, like those on Mars Hill, to be waiting to see something new, like the newest post or picture online. Ideas, when used this way, can be very self-indulgent. All the while, we remain outside the issue, and quite possibly, outside of our own story. But the great ideas – love, justice, intimacy, reconciliation – require something of us.
The people I see changing the world are doing it quietly. They have tenacity. They have the courage to move to the middle: A mentor-hero named Jill. Brothers Jed and Jacob. A policeman named Cube who serves inner-city youth. Tim and Tyler, who took a burned out, horror-filled building and turned it into a place of healing. Three girls who gave up everything to love and mentor orphans in South Africa. None are celebrities. They don’t have many social media followers. They don’t brag about it.
They simply live in the risk of the middle.
As Donald Miller writes in Scary Close:
“When the story of earth is told, all that will be remembered is the truth we exchanged. The vulnerable moments. The terrifying risk of love and the care we took to cultivate it.”
Love requires us to take that terrifying risk. To take that first dangerous step into the frigid waters. To move from head to heart and hands. To move from the outside to the inside, from Etic to Emic. Love requires us to stand in the middle.