CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER
A Man’s Journey: To Be Fully Alive
Readings: 1 Samuel3:1-10; Excerpt: ”Every Bush is Burning” by Joan Puls;
Today on what most people celebrate as Fathers’ Day, we at Redeemer enlarge our vision to the journey of all men, fathers or not. We listen to the call of Samuel and ask what that call is to men and boys at this time.
“Samuel, Samuel, “ the call of his name wakes the boy up in the middle of the night. So, he runs to Eli the priest, with whom he is living. Eli says, “I didn’t call you, go back to sleep.” This happens a second and a third time. Finally, on the fourth call, Samuel somehow knows it is God who is calling him. Where might God, or life, be uniquely calling this young boy? To what is he being called in the face of the challenges and privileges into which he is born simply because he is a male child rather than a female child? You can see how this lesson sets the stage for today’s Celebration of Men’s Journeys.
We get a clue as to where men and boys are being called today from that famous statement from St. Irenaeus 1800 years ago, “The glory of God is men and women fully alive.” The direction, the calling is for men and boys, as well as women, but today our focus is the male of the species, to be fully alive. The calling is for men and boys to be open and alive to all that is going on in their lives: their vulnerability as well as their strength, their need for relationship as well as their independence, their artistic talent as well as their physical, the feminine within them as well as their masculine. That is the call, to be fully alive to it all.
Yet, as William Pollack points our in his book, Real Boys, 1being open to everything going on in a boy’s life is the exact opposite of what he is being told everyday about what it means to be a “real boy.” Pollack describes a “boys’ code,” a gender straight jacket, that tells you that real boys are tough, don’t feel pain, and if they do, never show it. Real boys primarily define themselves by sports and physical activities rather than those that are intellectual or artistic. Real boys are self-sufficient, can handle their problems alone, don’t whine or complain, take it like a man, are tough. Real boys wear emotional masks when it comes to fear and vulnerability with the one permissible emotion being anger. Anger is the funnel through which the full range of emotions of a real boy flows. Real boys take charge, bite the bullet and do what has to be done. Real boys distain anything that is feminine. The greatest insult you can give to a boy is to say that he is acting like a girl. Real boys relate to each other either through competition or as of comrades in arms on the fields of athletic battle. Then it is permissible for one boy to openly embrace another or to pat him on his rear end.
All of us males can think back on our childhood to times when some version of the “boys’ code” was applied to each of us. It may be subtle or ever so blatant. I can remember my father and I going to the dentist, one appointment following the other. I still remember his refusing Novocain in having a tooth drilled. I remember having a first grade buddy come with our family on a trip to a natural history museum. The memory that burns itself into my brains to this day was the way my father looked at me as I was walking through the museum holding my buddy’s hand. If looks could kill, my father’s look certainly did. What that look told me was that I was doing something very bad, so bad I immediately dropped my friend’s hand and said not a word. But, I never forgot. I can remember the fear of looking bad at sports and desperately wanting to be good. I immediately went to right field in every baseball game and prayed that nothing ever came my way. From family and peers, I got my version of the “boy code.” To fit in came at the cost of stuffing down and denying whole aspects of who I was. It came at the cost of giving up part of life, not being fully alive and having to work hard to reclaim what I could.
The way the “boys’ code” is enforced is through teasing, shaming, bullying and physically violating any boy who falls short of the code. A graphic example of this is found in yesterday’s New York Times 2at Northfield Academy in New England where the word “fag” was carved with a knife into the back of a 17 year old student by the captain of the football team and an accepted cadet at the Naval Academy in September. The victim was not gay. But, in some other way he had fallen short on the “boys’ code.” He simply said that he like the band called the “Queens” and that he knew the football captain liked it also. The article in the Times went on to describe incidents of bullying and violence among boys in other schools.
Pollack tells the story of how the “boys’ code” turned Oscar De La Hoya into a world-class boxer.3 “Oscar recalls that during his third birthday party, he became frightened by the violence of the traditional piñata game. He and each of his friends were blindfolded and then using a long wooden cane whacked at the toy stuffed doll. Oscar cried and ran away hysterically. Oscar’s parents threatened to punish him if he did not come back. Later when his father saw Oscar running from other boys trying to punch him, his father yelled at his son, ashamed of his lack of “manliness.” To toughen up the boy, the father insisted that Oscar at the age of five learn how to box. In the beginning the boy left the ring every day in tears. Eventually he got tough. The result is that Oscar became an Olympic gold metal winner in boxing, but at what a cost. The “boys’ code” did its work. At what cost?
The worst thing you can say to a boy, the one comment that will make a timid boy fight is to accuse him of acting like a girl or of being gay. One is just a flip side of the other. It is clear that integral to the “boy code” is the dominance of boys over girls, of men over women. In fact, that is the very pay off of the code.
The cost of the “boys’ code” to many grown straight men is an ongoing loneliness. Men are not supposed to get too close to other men lest they be accused of being gay. These same men cannot get close to women other than their wives for fear of sexual attraction. For most of these men the only person with whom they can share their deepest feelings is their wives. That is a lot of responsibility for one person and all of us need many deep friendships in our lives.
Clearly, the “boys’ code” has cost males dearly. Many of us walk around only half alive and oblivious to what we are missing. We have paid dearly. Yet, until the power imbalance that locks the code in place is dismantled, little will change.
How can men go about this? How can we dismantle a system that we simply inherited? One place to start is the same place, as do many white people wanting to dismantle racism by naming the power that comes to the dominant group, often without their even being aware of it. As white people attack racism by spelling out white power, so do men need to start naming male power. It is subtle. It is often taken it for granted. It is the new car salesman talking to a young straight couple and addressing all his comments to the husband. It is women being invited to attend business meetings and then suddenly becoming invisible to the men in the room. It is about unequal paychecks and glass ceilings. It is about all those stereotypes of women being too emotional, too soft, too fixated on consensus to play ball with the big boys. It is about a religion that from the beginning of its history included the male identity within its understanding of God and intentionally rejected the female in the same God. Even for most of us here, the image of God that was etched on the back of our brains as children was that of a male. We all know what that says to women.
The direction of the journey of men and boys is to own all of themselves. The call is to be fully alive. There is nothing wrong with all of those traditional male qualities; it is just that they make up only half of who we are. Men fully alive can be soft as well as tough. They can be independent as well as emotionally close to a host of other people. They can cut feelings off as well as cry like a baby in public. They can follow, as well as lead, even follow women. They can be ballet dancers as well as football players, even at the age of fourteen, without fear of shame. The irony is that when men can begin to name and love the fullness of what it means to be a man, they just naturally name and affirm the fullness of what it means to be a woman. When men are fully alive, they are no longer threatened by women who are also.
What a great example we have today of two men in a committed relationship who are on the journey to be more fully alive. Together they are taking on all the roles in creating and nurturing a family, what is often considered women’s work. Today we baptize their daughter and not only support her but also her two fathers as the three become more alive, owning more of the fullness of who they are.
I am convinced that the Journey of Men as well as Women is intensely spiritual. It means going to the core of who we are and who we can be. We in the Christian tradition have a model of manhood in Jesus of Nazareth that flies in the face of the “boys’ code.” Jesus welcomed children and gathered them around him. He hung out with the poor and the humble rather than the rich and the powerful. He told them for such is the Kingdom of God. In the face of conflict he not only overturned tables and drove the moneychangers out of the temple, but he also turned the other cheek and went the second mile. He painted a vivid picture of fatherhood, not as one of dominance but as a man waiting at the edge of his property for his prodigal child to come home and then greeting that child with open arms on the return. Forgiveness not revenge was his virtue, and not seven times by seventy times seven. Jesus had close and trusted women friends. He wept openly at the death of his best friend, Lazarus. And the central ritual of his ministry was that simple domestic act of sitting around together and sharing a meal. Jesus enlarged the definition of what it meant to be a man. In the end it was the most ruthless version of the “boy code” that tried to bully Jesus into submission. But, in the real end Jesus proved that love and justice is stronger than guns and swords.
“Samuel, Samuel,” someone kept calling his name. The truth is that the name of each of us is being called. Just as women have their unique journey so do men. And, the destination is the same for both: to be fully alive. The more men can undo the “boys’ code” and own the fullness of who they are, the more they will naturally support women in doing the same. As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is women and men fully alive.” Amen
1 Real Boys, William Pollack, PhD, Random House, NY
2 Real Boys, p. 45
3 New York Times, June 17, 2000
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