I’m watching my four-year old son, Sam, dueling with Eric, the ten-year old boy from the apartment unit immediately bellow ours. At the moment, Sam has the high ground and, hence, the advantage. He stands perched atop the brown leather coach that sits in the corner of our living room by the bookshelf. He’s clutching the cheap dollar-store foam sword in his right hand, raising it high above his head, preparing to deliver the killing stroke. Before I can say, “Easy Sam!” he whacks Eric across the face with the foam blade, sending him stumbling back to the opposite end of the room. Thankfully, Eric doesn’t cry but he is understandably annoyed. Red-faced, he scolds Sam for the headshot (a move which I had declared illegal before their game began) and quickly readies himself for the second round of the duel.
As I glance between the faces of Eric and Sam, I can’t help but think how closely they resemble one another. Although by no means related, their eyes are similarly shaped; their hair and skin tone closely matching. As they tumble around our little living room together, careening off the furniture, the word “brothers” briefly comes to mind. Not only do they look somewhat similar but they play and scrap and fight like brothers too. Clearly, Sam is in thrall with Eric. He follows his lead in the games they play. He mimics his actions and copies his speech. In fact, every once in a while I’ll catch Sam saying something that I identify as an “Eric-ism”- the way he pronounces a certain word or the manner in which he uses a particular phrase. Indeed, Sam probably sees Eric in much the same way that I- the youngest of three boys- viewed my two older brothers: as archetypes of cool that I longed to pattern my life after.
As a father, I hope to be among the main forces in the shaping of my son’s character. For this reason I endeavour to, by my words and actions, show him what a mature, adult male looks like. However, I’ll never be cool in the way that a big brother is cool. Sam will never strive to imitate me in the same way that he so consciously and deliberately strives to be like Eric. Exhibit A: This past weekend Sam, Eric and I were in the apartment, getting ready to go to Rainbow Park here in Saint John’s South End. I was trying with all my might to get Sam to put on his shoes- bribing and threatening him, using every parental hack known to man- but to no avail. Then, the obvious occurred to me. I simply asked Eric to put on his own shoes and, immediately, Sam did the same. Conclusion: Big brothers and big sisters wield a kind of influence over children that fathers and mothers- with all of their rules and power- cannot. Indeed, most children, including my son Sam, are insightful enough to perceive that being an adult sucks. They’re boring and pedantic giants who not only live by a list of endless rules but seek to tyrannically impose them on everyone smaller than they are. “Big-kids” and teenagers, however, possess an enviable freedom. Not only that but they have cool. They think, talk, look and act in such a way that is worthy of emulation.
It’s interesting how emulation- the practice of patterning ones life after that of another- is at the heart of Jesus and his relationship to his twelve core disciples. The twelve didn’t merely meet with their teacher on an occasional basis. They walked with him daily- labouring by his side, sharing meals with him, soaking-in his teachings, all the while observing his actions closely. And as they listened and observed, there’s no doubt in my mind that they emulated him- perhaps doing so just as intentionally as I sought to emulate my big brothers and Sam seeks to emulate Eric. Indeed, Jesus not only gives them permission to copy him but an injunction to do so: “For I have set you an example,” he explains to them on one occasion, “that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Jesus was like a big brother to the twelve- not only a source of wise teaching but a pattern, an archetype, and ideal to be studied and copied.
Let me take this idea one step further. I believe that the big sibling/little sibling mentoring relationship that Jesus establishes with his twelve disciples creates a paradigm for how new Christians are to be guided into maturity of faith. The word for this, as some of you may know, is “discipleship.” Discipleship takes place when an older sister or brother in Christ intentionally makes time and space for younger sisters/brothers, not only offering teaching and instruction but a living example of what it means to be like Jesus. Based on what we read in the New Testament, this is clearly what the first generation of Christians did. Take what Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, for example. Here, Paul praises them for their willingness to imitate, not only Jesus, but himself and the other apostles: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). Another example: The author of Hebrews enjoins the readers of his letter to “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
As I wrote above, I am the youngest of three boys in my family. I have never had a younger brother. It’s perhaps for this reason that I have consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) spent my life searching for one. I’m not kidding you: I have an almost visceral need to hang out with guys a few years younger than I am, to buy them a drink and offer them sage advise. The wonderful thing about our ministry is this: To some degree, Jasmine and I are able to offer such mentoring to others. We’re both part of a non-denominational youth group that, with the help of several others, have managed to set up here in the South End. We also have each managed to establish a couple of mentoring relationships with younger Christians- people whom we’ve allowed into our lives, not only to teach, but to observe us as we strive (imperfectly) to be like Jesus. My hope that, in watching us in action, they themselves may endeavour, in their own way, to imitate Christ. And who knows: Perhaps they may even come to think of us as cool.
By Terence Chandra