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I grew up in rural Indiana, in a small town where the only kids around who had long hair usually had reputations as trouble-makers as well. And there weren’t many of them. Back in Jr. High I decided I wanted to play electric guitar, and found inspiration from the glam metal bands popular at the time. I was a big Stryper fan. Go ahead and take a second to remember those days, if you can. Ahhhhhhhh.
Anyhow, one of the most vivid memories I have of that time in my life was when I decided I wanted to grow my hair out and get an ear ring. We’re talking 7th grade here, 1987.
My mom was always a very level person, and wise but never flashy with her dispensations of it.
I remember going into my parents’ bedroom and standing near the vanity as mom got ready for work. I said, “Mom, I think I’d like to grow my hair out long.” She asked, “How long?” I said, “Like the guys in Stryper, maybe.” (Essentially, I was asking for a six year haircut break. This is a part of how I’m wired. I don’t mind starting things I know will take years to accomplish.)
She thought about it for a while and said, “Well, okay. But you have to promise me two things.”
I was excited, “All right.”
“First, you can’t start acting like a punk or a trouble-maker.” She said.
“Okay.” That wouldn’t take a lot of work for a kid like me anyway.
“And second, you can’t get upset with people when they look at you and think you must be a punk or a trouble-maker.”
It was like a truckload of wisdom had just been delivered, and it fell to me to unpack it and sort it out. Actions have consequences. Sometimes people presume things based on appearances, and she was telling me there were usually cumulative, if not good reasons for these presuppositions.
If I wanted to look a certain way, I’d have to be willing to extend mercy to people in my hometown who formed impressions of me based on my appearance and I’d have to work to change their minds—and mom was telling me I couldn’t get upset with them in the process because, in many ways, it was a path I was choosing and I needed to understand this.
I can’t tell you how much of an impact that had on my sense of what I should demand from people who don’t know me. It has also had a deep impact on how I approach misunderstandings. It can be easy to presume misunderstandings originate because the people who aren’t getting what you’re all about are just too dense.
I recently came across a blog post from Abraham Piper who said, “When misunderstood, my goal shouldn’t be to prove the misunderstander wrong, but to discover, own, and perhaps clear the confusion I created.”
My mom spoke to my young heart that day and used my desire to have long hair as an opportunity to teach me about loving people well. I have not always taken her wisdom to heart, but neither have I forgotten it.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).