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The Broken Chopstick: A Manhood Blessing

My son, Caleb, graduated from high school this past May. I wanted to celebrate the milestone with an event that would foster a sense of dignity about becoming a man while also conveying responsibility and vulnerability in regards to power. 

Months earlier, I told my friend Jon about my son’s imminent adulthood. Jon described how he hosted a manhood blessing event when his son turned 18 years old. He gathered a group of men that had spent time with his son. He called it Knights, Warriors, and Barbarians: The Commissioning of Sam. There were copious amounts of grilled meat. And each man spoke a blessing over his son. I loved everything about it except the name. Chivalry, protection, and courage are vital aspects of manhood but violence has a tainted narrative.

The process of planning and executing this event was greatly meaningful to me. So much so, that I debated whether and how to write about it. My indecision finally broke after I recounted the manhood blessing night to my friend Jon weeks after the event. He loved that I did it and asked me to do him a favor: Share it with others. Inspire and instruct other dads to do the same for their sons. That is the purpose of this post.

The Set-up: The most important requirement to hosting a manhood blessing event is having men in your son’s life who have positively impacted him. If your son is young, help him build those relationships. One of the best reasons for your son to play sports is to expose him to male role models (coaches) that are not you. It’s why Boy Scouts is an incredible organization - structured mentoring relationships are foundational. It’s a big reason for your son to get involved with church activities. For Caleb’s manhood blessing, I invited youth counselors, sports coaches, youth pastors, both Caleb’s grandfathers, my brother, my brother-in-law (Judy’s sister’s husband), family friends, and some men from our Life Group. I despise planning but I knew this part was crucial - to find a date far enough in advance to ensure maximum attendance. My priority was to lock up Caleb’s youth pastor, who was moving out of the area. 

Enlist your wife’s help if she’s willing and available. In my case, Judy provided tremendous support without me asking. She bought the meat, made the salad, bought dessert, got the utensils, plates, sliced fruit - you get the picture. She is amazing.

Here’s an excerpt of my email invitation:

Every boy needs many fathers in his journey into manhood. You have played a pivotal role in shaping Caleb's conception of what masculinity means. During this time, we'll have a time of blessing where each of you can share some words of affirmation, a favorite memory, and then a blessing on his life and future. We'll then lay hands and pray for him to conclude the evening.This is a rite of passage that I've heard of other dads doing as a way to send off their son into adulthood. Caleb's post-graduation plans are uncertain but regardless, I think it's vital to give him our blessing as he moves forward in life.

I didn’t copy Caleb on the original email and finally told him about the manhood blessing night about a month in advance. If memory serves correctly, he shrugged at first, unsure of how to respond. I told him who would be there and he seemed to get a little more excited. The day before the blessing ceremony I told him it would be great if he could share some words of appreciation for the men gathered. In retrospect, I could have done more to increase his investment in the evening and build anticipation. I could have asked him to help buy food, or prepare some written remarks, or something like that. 

The Broken Chopstick: Having witnessed a Bar Mitzvah and admiring the ritualism and ceremony of Boy Scouts, I knew I wanted symbolism to be part of the blessing event. Unfortunately, my religious life doesn’t incorporate many symbols. And I knew as a second-generation Chinese American, I wanted an image that paid homage to my ancestry and cultural heritage. I love that chopsticks are used as a pair. The Chinese character for people “ren” is one brush stroke leaning on another.  Finally, I wanted an image that emphasized brotherly interdependence. Symbols can be super cheesy but I like that.

Every man is broken by his father. He is broken emotionally, spiritually, and physically, by his father’s absence (like what your paternal grandfather experienced), his presence (like what you experienced with me) or some combination of the two (like what I experienced with my dad).

But every man is broken by his father and it is impossible for his earthly father to put him back together. There is a gap here. And Caleb, you have suffered because of me. Just like I suffered from my dad. And just like every man suffers from his earthly father. 

And then I handed Caleb’s broken chopstick back to him, along with some tape, and said:

So Caleb, here you are. Tape yourself back up together. Notice how weak the tape is. You are still very much broken. Every boy needs many fathers. You need other fathers because you’re broken and this tape is not going to hold you together.

And then I addressed the men gathered:

After each of you is finished speaking, you will add your chopstick to his and at the end we’ll bind them all together because we need a community of fathers to heal, bind up, and set straight a broken man.

Caleb, I hope you’ll keep this as a symbol of what manhood is - that every man is broken, that no man is an island, and that every man depends on many fathers to teach and guide him and give him wisdom, support, meaning, and purpose. 

From Sonship to Brotherhood: It’s always hard to be the first-born because all your parents’ mistakes come to you first. So I didn’t say the following but in retrospect wish that I did: 

My prayer is that all of these fathers including your truly would point you back to the ultimate Father, God, and His unconditional love. I pray we would be but dim reflections of the ultimate father’s acceptance. Your journey as a son begins where I end. Thus, your journey into an adulthood is a journey away from me but towards God. And finally I pray you find, though today we are many fathers, to increasingly view us as your brothers who are all on a journey back to our Father. We are all on the same migration path. We share the same brokenness and have the same destination, towards our Father’s heart. 

The Night: The evening started somewhat awkwardly as these functions tend to go. Like weddings, it’s a gathering of people who have a mutual friend in common but don’t know each other. None of Caleb’s coaches showed up, which was a little disappointing but I didn’t make a special effort to reach out to them and in retrospect, that would have been helpful. I also sense the heavy faith element might have turned them off and not knowing the other men would have been intimidating.

I started the blessing time by giving the first speech. I don’t remember everything I said about Caleb but I hope he'll remember it. After I finished, there was a prolonged silence and then my dad went next. And then my father-in-law. And then my brother. And then my brother-in-law. Afterwards, one of my friends asked me if that was intentional - to honor the grandparents and family by letting them go first. That was not my intention at all but I sense some of the men, who serve/attend the church where my dad was an elder, naturally deferred to him and I believe, my dad decided to go first because he sensed he was expected to. In the future, knowing this might be an expectation, I would announce that the grandfathers would go first, and so forth in order to get things rolling and eliminate any confusion over how to honor the family hierarchy. There were meaningful words shared and many of the speeches has similar themes honoring and affirming Caleb’s character. I appreciate the admonitions towards courage and risk-taking. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of what each man shared - observations and memories of Caleb, often citing scripture passages, and encouragements concerning the future. It was powerful. 

We closed by laying hands on him and praying for him. Those times are never physically pleasant for me since we’re all gathered close together and it gets uncomfortably hot and uncomfortable after a few minutes.

Notes: If you're Asian American and want to use chopsticks, make sure to buy the old-school wooden ones. I could not find the thicker, unstained wooden (bamboo) ones that I grew up with. Many of the chopsticks sold in Asian markets are either plastic, steel, or slender, tapered wooden ones that are difficult to mark up and frankly, more difficult to use. Finally, ask someone to take pictures. That’s not your job. You’re the host and master of ceremonies. Judy reminded me and I asked one of the men to take pictures and he did. He recorded video of each speech. I’m grateful this event was captured because I would like to remember what was said. 

At one point, I looked around and thought to myself: What an embarrassment of riches. What a privilege to have so many fathers who reflect the image of God and His love. What a wonder to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and to be cheered on. May God raise up a cloud of witnesses - of fathers who are brothers - in your son’s life. 


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