<![CDATA[ I have to say — I’ve been noticing beauty in some unexpected places.

But before I get to that, I must admit: Like many adult males between the ages of 18 and 30, I have developed a serious ESPN habit. I love the stories, I love the rich analysis and colorful anchors (“No, really… what’s your real name?” … “Really… it’s Trey Wingo”). More than any of that, though, I love the way ESPN identifies major stories of sports and culture and provides compelling reasons to listen, pay attention, and care. I listen to ESPN radio, and I’m on ESPN.com all the time. It’s a good thing I don’t actually have cable, because if I did, I’m sure my roommates would be planning an intervention by now.

In particular, I am a fan of Tony Kornheiser, the cantankerous, fiftysomething, bald, orange-complexioned co-host of ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption.” In addition to that show, he also hosts his own radio show, which, over the course of a year or so, I’ve become addicted to. I love hearing him rant about stuff, especially really petty stuff. It’s hilarious. I love hearing him take a hard line on an issue, while at the same time admitting that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I love it because it’s all so authentic. There’s really no schtick involved. He’s just being himself.

When ESPN’s Chicago affiliate displaced the third hour of Kornheiser and the first hour of Dan Patrick for two hours of the Jim Rome show, I actually had enough temerity to call the station and complain. I’d grown so attached to Mr. Tony and all of his idiosyncrasies, that not only could I identify most of his regular guests just by the sound of their voice and the topic of conversation, but I briefly toyed with the idea of working in his mailbag theme song into an offertory piece at church. Distraught with righteous indignation, I eventually took the moral high ground and did the only thing I knew how to do in that situation — which was, of course, nothing. And now I’m starting to dig Rome now.

The best way to listen to sports talk radio is, of course, at work. Why? Because half the fun of listening to sports talk radio is being able to talk about whatever is being talked about, laughing at the funny stuff and occasionally making up your own funny stuff. Because unless you have roommates who are really into sports (and who are home during the hours when the show is aired), odds are you’re not going to be around anybody who cares enough to want to talk about it. And the interactivity of it all, that’s part of the appeal. Have a take on something? Think LeBron James could be the Antichrist? Think David “Bend It Like” Beckham should dump Posh Spice and get with Anna Kournikova? Dial up our number and spew. That’s what it’s all about.

It’s the same reason why I was really feelin’ Barbershop when it first came out. In his review, Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter said the movie is all about having a third place in life to be. The idea is that, in addtion to the places where you live and work, everyone needs a third place devoid of duty, where your only responsibility is just to be. To relax, be yourself, and talk about whatever you feel like talking about. To just be totally and completely honest about who you are and what you’re about. To shed societal expectations of behavior like a closet b-boy in middle management might, at the end of the day, trade his corporate uniform for a hoodie and his favorite kicks. Just being who you are in your own environment…. well, to paraphrase an old Keds commercial, it just feels right. And that’s what I love about it.

(Of course, I should add that I also really enjoyed Ice Cube’s portrayal, though I found it especially amusing to see his Calvin character protesting the use of profanity in the barbershop: “Quit cussin’; this ain’t Def Comedy Jam!” This from the man who recorded the gangsta rap landmark recording AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Riiiiiiight, Cube. … Next thing you know, a reformed Hugh Hefner will be on Charlie Rose protesting all the nudity on HBO.)

Men, of course, usually need an activity for this kind of honest interaction to take place. Cards, dominoes… NBA Live 2003 on the Xbox, whatever. It doesn’t even necessarily need to be competitive. It could be the weekly band rehearsal, or a monthly trip to the hardware store with that one dude who knows all about tools and stuff. Or whatever. The point is, we need some sort of ostensible activity, program or agenda to get down with before we feel comfortable enough to share our thoughts, ideas or feelings.

And even then, it’s usually strictly on a surface level. We’ll talk about work, or what the heck is wrong with our favorite team’s upper management, or traffic patterns on the local freeway or turnpike. But we won’t talk about our fears, hopes or dreams. We don’t talk about the things that keep us up at night, or the things that we really worry about. For many men, the threat of rejection, even in a casual, just-kickin’-it environment, is so strong that we’ll guard our grills with vigilance. I don’t exactly know why this is, although I suspect that it has something to do with spending so much time in the competitive social environments of academia and corporate America. In both cases, emotional honesty is tantamount to tactical vulnerability. It’s much easier to be strictly business and keep to yourself. It’s like a lyric from Soulheir the manCHILD:

“Why do we all walk with heads down and Walkmans up to 10? / Afraid to let a stranger in every now and then?”

We’re too busy bragging about keeping it real to actually do so.

Why do I bring this up now?

Because it’s a beautiful thing when brothas can actually get together and really communicate. Psalm 133:1, kid; it’s the truth. I recently embarked on a journey of prayer and accountability with several guys from my church, and I’m telling you — it’s like a breath of fresh air. Because when I’m there in the circle, I’m just one of the guys. I don’t have to act like my game is tight and I got my act together. I can take off my hats labeled “Christian Rapper” and “Worship Leader” and just be Jelani. I’m just another dude with struggles and issues. And I can be honest.

As I’ve started creeping into my late twenties and eventually toward my — dag, yo! — early thirties, I’m realizing that I just don’t have time for triflin’ anymore. I just don’t. I don’t have time for putting on a front like everything is fine when inside I’m adrift with hopelessness. I don’t have time for sweeping things under the rug. I don’t have time for “Oh well — maybe that problem will just take care of itself.” I don’t have time for that. I just don’t.

As men, God calls us to be leaders – leaders in our homes, in our workplaces, and in the church. Any book on leadership will tell you that effective communication is a key component of good leadership. How are we supposed to sharpen one another (Prov. 27:17) if we can’t talk about our weaknesses? We can’t. We’ll rail for hours on end about the sad state of political affairs, or about how media concentration has homogenized commercial radio, or about the philosophical and theological ramifications of The Matrix trilogy, but we won’t dare broach the very subjects where we have the most trouble. We won’t touch on pornography, or gambling, or alcoholism, or anything terribly controversial. Our idea of controversy is Jaci Velasquez appearing in a (gasp!) PG-13-rated movie.

It’s no wonder that our nation is in the shape it’s in today. Even William Bennett, architect of The Book of Virtues, apparently didn’t feel safe enough to reveal problems he had with gambling. And if he couldn’t do it, if Mr. Virtue himself struggled in silence with his addiction, then it’s no wonder the rest of us are keeping our lips zipped. We don’t want to be ridiculed, judged, or made fun of. We don’t want to be made an example of. We just sit back, thank the Lord that it wasn’t us that got caught red-handed, and hope it never happens to us or anybody we know.

Well, I’m putting out a challenge: QUIT. Really. Stop frontin’. If you’re in a small group because that’s what’s expected of you, or because hosting one is the only way you’ll consistently keep your living room clean… quit. Drop out. Don’t do yourself or the people you supposedly care about such a disservice. If that’s why you’re there, then don’t be.

But if you really want to grow in Christ, if you really want to see a breakthrough in the areas where you’ve been stuck, if you can’t stand the thought of maintaining the facade another day, then begin to invest in the Godly relationships you have. And if you don’t have any, pray for some. God is faithful; He’ll bring people in your path who can love you and pray for you and keep you accountable. Sooner or later, you’ll start to care more about crucifying your flesh than about protecting your reputation. You’ll care less about being nice, and more about the truth.

But you can’t wait for others to make the first step. It’s scary, but go ahead and put yourself out there. Because courage is a funny thing; it’s like what George Clooney’s character said in the movie Three Kings: “First you do the thing that you’re scared s—less of, then you get the courage afterwards.” And when that happens, when we dare to buck the trend and violate social norms, when our lives become conformed to the likeness of Christ, and God gets the glory…

It’s a beautiful thing.


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