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A close shave

Vanity made a strong case, but courtesy conquered

A close shave

Big deal," those who know me would say. And they're right; ever since I was a sophomore in college (keep reading to find out how long ago that was!) and clumps of near-black hair matted the shower drain, I have been losing hair. Genetic destiny has "cut" my slowly graying hair for me.

Except on my face. And last month it was facial hair that I almost cut. You see, for years I have been clean-shaven. Sure, I experimented with various configurations of facial hair back in my 30s, but after a few months' insanity I would come to myself and shave it off. At least that is how my wife tells the story. But I now have a moustache and beard.

I grew them for good reason. Along with a dozen others from my church, I am traveling this week and next to North Africa on a service trip. Early this year our missions director appealed to the men on the team: "Grow a moustache. It's the cultural norm for men where we are headed, so grow one. You'll fit in better."

Her logic was impeccable. I couldn't help but think of the Apostle Paul's servant philosophy of becoming "all things to all people, that by all means I might save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22). The idea wasn't new with him; the great originator was God Himself who became "like us in every respect" in order to "atone for the sins of the people" (Hebrews 2:17). Theologians call it incarnation; missionaries call it contextualization; in the case of facial hair, since I have no illusions of grandeur, I call it common courtesy.

Simple courtesies accomplish much in this world. The Apostle Paul wisely tells us as much when he reminds the Corinthians that "love is not rude." But Paul's words fall flat in our American world. Courtesy is passé in a "have-it-your-way" culture. How does courtesy help you "make a statement"? Aren't you putting yourself on hold when you listen rather than speak, yield rather than step on the gas, say "please" and mean it? Do common courtesies enhance efficiencies of the bottom line? Can't you hear Dogbert chide, "Courtesy? What does that leverage for you?" Darwinian efficiencies and bottom-line tyrannies are no friends to courtesy.

But here's the problem: My heart is no friend to courtesy, either. And that's why I almost shaved last month. It wasn't a Dogbert voice that demanded, "Get rid of it, now." No, instead, it was plain old vanity: "You look so ancient with all this gray." And I do. I remember the sting of a friend when a previous facial hair experiment came to a razor's end: He bellowed from across the street, "Wow, Ristuccia! You look 10 years younger!" The mathematics of age work in direct relation to facial gray: If gray is present, add years; if absent, subtract. Why, then, would a 53-year-old pastor like me want to look older? Vanity almost conquered courtesy.

People-fear almost conquered it, too. Pastoral leadership is not easy these days; it never has been. Innocuous things like suddenly-one-Sunday facial hair can irritate congregation members. I have yet to look in the morning mirror and say to myself, "Hey, let's go pique some church members!" No one, myself included, likes to fall under another's umbrage. So, while it might not be ideal, it is nevertheless realistic for a pastor growing facial hair to ask, "How will the so-and-so's react?" Honestly, why should I complicate my role as spiritual leader with something as sketchy as a moustache and beard?

Courtesy was almost conquered-until I remembered the bigger picture. Love is courteous. God became like us in every respect. Paul was all things to all people. So is it too much for me to embrace a courtesy that considers the people of a different culture more important than myself? I don't think so. I still have the moustache and beard. I owe it to someone. Or Someone.

-Matt Ristuccia is a pastor in Princeton, N.J.