Posted on June 26, 2014


I like getting compliments on growing a beard.

Mostly this is because beard creation is something I had very little to do with.   All I did to grow a lustrous pelt of facial hair was stop shaving.  That’s it.  I didn’t rub Rogaine all over my face with a paint roller, drink Gatorade laced with buffalo testosterone, or join a semi-pro lumber chopping team.  I  just created a Facebook event called Beard 2014 and sent invites to my old buddies Genetics and Sleeping In.

Facial hair compliments are the easiest compliments I or any male will ever receive.  Most of the time, if you get a compliment for not doing something anymore, it’s because you kicked some terrible habit that was wrecking your life and stuffing your friends’ Internet search history with queries like ‘intervention, whose house to pick’. But with the beard thing, your path to affirmation goes nowhere close to doing something hard.  There’s nothing  resembling actual work in growing a beard unless you count resisting the temptation to shave, which is easy because most guys hate it anyway.  “Quit raking this tiny samurai sword across my face every morning?  I’ll… see if I can resist.”  It’s like giving up showering and then getting complimented because it turns out you naturally smell like a Cinnabon stand.

And as much as I love beard compliments, it does sometimes feel weird to hear someone call out “Hey, nice beard!” when I did nothing but let my Punnett square run amok.  I always feel guilty, like there should have been more to it than me just foregoing part of my morning routine.

STRANGER:  Rockin’ beard, man!

ME:  Thanks, I appreciate that.

STRANGER:  How’d you grow it?

ME:  What?  What, man!?!  How’d I grow it?  Let me tell you, friend:  I grew it by not, repeat, NOT, playing by the rules.  By being MY OWN MAN, by not bowing to the standards of a society that say you gotta be CLEAN SHAVEN!  I’m a rebel, a non-conformist, an outlaw among outlaws in our play-by-the-rules, don’t-try-this-at-home culture, and this beard is how I show it.  THAT’S how I grew it, my brother!

STRANGER:  Really?

ME:  No, I just quit shaving for awhile.  Keeps my face warm, though.  Sorry?

Not everyone, of course, can grow a beard as thick as the canopy of an Amazon rainforest and just as awe-inspiring.  I’m thinking primarily of babies here.  Also, women.  Luckily for both of these groups, another area exists where one can get compliments for very little effort:  eating healthy.

Hearing praise for nutritious eating is a step up from beard-growing in that you do exert some effort of will, namely in buying and consuming food that is good for your body.  But the work there is still pretty minimal thanks to our low expectations.  To get a dietary compliment, mainly all you do is not buy and eat nothing but Toaster Strudels and Reddi-Wip.  That’s all.  The whole subtext of the statement “Wow, you eat so healthy!” is “Congratulations on eating something besides any of the other horrible things you could have chosen!”  It’s basically like setting up an eHarmony account that just says “Not currently in jail or an aspiring DJ”, then immediately getting 68 winks or shoulder wubsies or restraining orders or whatever.

I very, very occasionally get the healthy diet compliment because I eat Paleo.  Paleo is a dietary paradigm under which you eat only what might have been available to a theoretical 10,000 years-ago caveman.  It excludes grains, breads, processed or artificial foods, and added sugars, while being heavy on vegetables, fruits, nuts, natural fats and animal meats.  The idea, as far I gather, is to fuel your body by eating natural, nutrient dense foods while at the same time talking about Paleo so much that your friends’ eyes roll so violently that it sounds like a bowling alley.

I’ve heard that sound many a-time.  People love to hear me talk about eating Paleo, as you can probably imagine if you often imagine things with huge amounts of sarcasm.   I assume this is because I’m very strict about what is and is not Paleo.  When deciding what to eat, I allow myself three, and only three, exceptions.  The first two are pizza and pie.  Especially pie.  I have the same feelings about pie that many parents have for a child who returns home after college to live, namely that I love it and want a good life for it and am most pleased with it when it is no longer hanging around.

The third exception is ‘everything else’, and for obvious reasons it’s the one that wipes me out most often while trying to maintain a semblance of Paleo integrity.  In fact, if I’m honest, the thing about eating Paleo is this:

I never actually do it.

Not for long, anyway.  I can keep things super-strict Paleo until I’m in an adjacent zip code as some banana bread, or I’m at a party where any variation of the ‘nacho’ food group is being served, or I’m just near a coffee shop with a functioning debit card in my pocket.  When it comes to Paleo I follow the 80/20 Rule, meaning 80% of the time I’m staying disciplined, 20% of the time I’ve got a candy bar in my hand.

All this presents me with a interesting reality.  See, I’ve bought the whole Paleo eating dogma.  I’m converted.  I genuinely think it will, over the course of my life, keep me healthier, leaner and more athletic.  I’m actually convinced that it will lower my risk for diabetes and heart disease and obesity and every other so-called “disease of the West” that comes with  eating a standard American diet.  I’m 100% committed- except when I’m not.  I’m doing it- except when I’m not doing it.   I believe- except when I don’t.

Mercy is our mathematical virtue.  When the Bible talks about forgiveness, it talks about it in terms of a ratio. (Luke 7:47)  Our mercy for others will be in proportion to our understanding of our own need for it.

Ratio is really the root of the entire Christian endeavor.  We get infinite grace, infinite love, infinite forgiveness, for infinite sins, infinite failings, infinite distance between who we are and who we ought to be.  Infinity in, infinity out.

When I’m killing it on Paleo, it’s good for me and my health.  But, if I let it, it’s terrible for my ratio.  I start feeling superior.  I start thinking about how, if I can somehow muster the grit to eat well, surely other people can do the same.  I forget about all the ways that’s not true- about the deep brokenness that sometimes leads to overeating, about other cultures that value food as a love language, about the myriad ways that life taxes our willpower until it breaks on something as trivial as a giant bag of Sour Patch Kids, about maybe just not having the information to make wise choices.  My ratio shrinks.  I’m barely screwing up, so surely you can.  Get your act together.  Straighten up and fly right. 

One can argue, then, that part of being merciful is being creative- letting your mind entertain all the possibilities for why a thing is the way it is.  That creativity is fueled by ratio- regularly seeing the infinite ways in which we ourselves need and receive grace, which then trains us to think that way about others.

There’s a reason why Eph 2:8-9 says that faith comes as a gift “so that no one can boast”.  There’s a deep-down spiritual connection between what I could boast about and what I will boast about, where I can alter my ratio so that I only need a finite amount of grace, and where I will.  Even on something as ludicrous as healthy living.

Paleo is about my ratio.  How my inability to not eat my roommate’s pizza at 11:30PM secretly keeps the math of my faith in proportion, reminds me that it is always infinity in, infinity out.  That my ‘infinity out’ is sometimes warped by sin into finite, flawed, inconsistent expressions of mercy is no matter.  The alternate ratio is finite in, finite out- and the result is a clipped, amputated, uncreative heart that is closer to nothing than it is to something.

The guy I think about for this is the apostle Thomas.  I know Peter is sort of the go-to guy as a Scriptural mascot for lovable goof-ups, but when I think about mercy, I think about Thomas.  Because before Thomas was the famed doubter, he said this in John 11: “Let us go with [Jesus] so that we can die with him.”  That’s a bold statement.  It’s a long fall from there to six chapters later, when he says, “Show me his scars.  I’ll never believe otherwise.”

And so I sometimes wonder if Thomas was the most merciful disciple.  I wonder if, as he walked alone along desert trails and mountain bypasses from village to town to country sharing the good news of Jesus, he remembered those two moments where he boasted and where he fell short.  If he remembered saying “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14).  If, as he went, he thought about how much he’d been forgiven.  I wonder if with each step mercy flowed up from the ground, into his legs, into those memories, into him, so that wherever he stopped he was, if nothing else, a merciful man.  It might be.  I hope so.

Look, I’d like to keep eating Paleo.  Stay healthy, stay athletic, stay confusing to my friends, etc.  But I also want to love people, which doesn’t mean that I go eat Taco Bell all the time.  But it does mean that when I do look up and have a gordita in my hand because I forgot that I have rules I’m supposed to follow, I’ll take a double blessing:  mercy for myself, and the preserved ability to give to others my Paleo ratio.

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