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Masculinity Redeemed: Servanthood, Not Power, Reflects the Example of Jesus

by Jon Trott | December 05, 2008

“Jon, this isn’t good,” said Harmony’s anxious voice on the other end of the phone. “Your wife just fell on the stairs over here. She’s cut her head open. You can see her skull.”

“I’ll be right over,” I said, rescued from emotion by the need to move quickly. 

My wife, Carol, loves garage sales. And when our fellowship held one just across the street from where we live, she went to look for treasure. Carrying a large storage bin down some stairs, she missed the final step and fell forward into an oak door frame. Dazed and bleeding, her first confused words were about her “prizes” in the storage bin she “needed to sort.” Friends instead led her to a couch to wait for me.

After I’d run a few blocks for a car and then taken her to our local hospital, I sat next to her in the emergency room as a doctor stitched her scalp. I could indeed see the white bone of her skull before he started. My mind played very unpleasant “but what if” scenarios in my head. “What if she’d struck the door with her nose? Her glasses?” Splintering bone, glass fragments…ugh. By Grace, this had not happened.

I held her hand, looking at her and chatting about election polls, anything just to distract her. She winced and squeezed my fingers.

I thought about other times we’d faced hospitals together. Carol is a survivor of both breast and thyroid cancer, I the frightened passenger as she, the courageous one, carried us through both of those ordeals. 

I don’t often consciously think about mutuality in our marriage, but this physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual bond between us — a bond that speaks of fragility and vulnerability as well as strength and endurance — is rooted in an understanding of love that necessitates mutuality. 

As a male, I am over and over again told that my role is to lead. This day, I did lead. I took my wounded mate to the doctor; I moved my chair to her bedside to hold her hand. Back at home later on I even told her, in a rather authoritarian-sounding voice, to please stop getting up from our couch to serve people coffee when she should be resting instead. But none of that leading was predicated on my “role” or “status” as a male and therefore leader by divine right. It was not a display of my power that Carol needed; she required my service while she rested and healed.

One day I may be the one in the bed, the one perhaps even with cancer. Who will be fragile then? Who will need to be led gently to the bed, or even (in decades to come) to the bathroom? What if I suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s and forget even her name, while she continues to love me? What sort of “roles” do human beings actually need to fill, other than to love one another out of reverence for Christ? Does gender matter in the face of mortality, death, and decay? What meaningless babble we utter in the face of our ever-present frailty!

Masculinity Then and Now

The chopping up of life into neat boxes, theological compartments where everything can be filed in the proper folder and nothing is mysterious or out of place…that is a mean, small world I can no longer endure. My own heart cannot survive it. I find in this world such pain, such sorrow and dismay at what we do to one another (often while waving a self-constructed deity at our enemies), that I simply refuse to continue thinking or living that way. I aspire to be a disciple of Jesus, which I often make a mess of. But I won’t stop trying, because Jesus in the end is not only Love, but the only answer to the doubt-filled terrors of my heart.

Jesus Christ, the Living Word, God the Son in full Deity yet also the Son of Man in all this human fragility, chose to pour himself out as a ransom for many. He chose not power, but suffering. And he chose the powerless to serve. He chose a woman to wash his feet with her tears and her perfume, and a disreputable woman at that. He chose women to be first to see the miracle of resurrection. Yet I doubt very much that their gender mattered to him; what mattered were their hearts, their love, and their faithfulness.

Our emphasis on gender and gender roles today undermines the example of Jesus and other figures in the Bible. John, the beloved disciple, reclined on Jesus’ chest during the last supper. Was this “Son of Thunder” effeminate? Dear God, that I would do so if given the opportunity! What roles did John violate with such unseemly emotionally-based (and therefore feminine?) responses to the nearness of his Lord and Beloved? Must all affection for men be sexual in nature, or can a man love another man without sexual overtones? I dare hope my own feelings on this are also the feelings of millions of other men, Christian or not. Are we as men permitted to love? To be held in the arms of Jesus Christ is as far as my imagination of heaven can take me.

I feel the nearness of these boundaries, these societal and — worse — church-defined roles working to prevent me from becoming my true self in Christ. I feel the redemptive power of a love that transcends society’s gender-based (and power-based) roles. I read my Bible with new eyes these days, eyes that see in Paul and other New Testament writers a radical belief in agape that reorders human relationships. To lead is to put oneself at the mercy of others, not to expect their adherence to my understanding of our shared reality. I need no “role” over or above Carol, or any woman. Nor do I want it. The idea sickens me.

Scars

My wife is scarred not just from her fall a few days ago, but older scars from a caesarian, and scars not quite as old from two cancers. She also carries invisible scars. When she was younger, a co-worker attempted to rape her, tearing at her pants and ripping her blouse as she fled from his car. The next day, with Carol present, he bragged of the incident to his fellow workers. Another man exposed himself to her in a public park, masturbating while his expression burned with hatred for her. She was terrified. And yet another man attempted to date rape her, again her flight being the only thing to stop him. As a young child, cornered by a grown male relative in her room, 
she was rescued by her own knife-wielding mother.

These men believed they had permission to do these things. The question is, who gave them that permission? I need to know that Christianity is not a religion that encourages violence against women, but historically the evidence sometimes seems to suggest the opposite. When I look into my dear one’s eyes and know the incredible tenderness of her personhood in that glance, I cannot endure one second more of oppression dressed up as doctrinal correctness. 

The True Head of Our Marriage

Christ leads, and we both follow. When my darling says to me, “I think God may want us to…” I am all ears. I want to hear what God may have said to my wife! If it is of him, I pray I will hear it. And if it is not of him, or I think it is not, I voice my doubts and we wait for further confirmation before moving any direction. Waiting is a very important biblical concept. “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…” (Isa. 40:31, KJV). And of course this also works when I am the one who thinks he has a leading from God, and offer that leading to my wife for her to think on and pray over. No one holds an ace. “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). Yes. Our mutuality in and because of Christ brings him into the midst of us.

My bride is that everyday woman who at times makes me laugh with how she typifies old school clichés about women. She serves with her hands, she communicates with cookies and coffee, she can’t wait to hold our granddaughter, Naya. But then come the numinous moments, and there are many of them. 

I touch her flesh next to me and as we rise together I am not at all sure whose body is whose. Am I the typical male, penetrating, or “merely” human, melting together with my beloved and in fact being engulfed by her and Agape simultaneously? Mutuality allows for both, yet the most memorable moments are those where we nearly become one another and blur the line between self and the other. This mystery is pure and deep and seems to me only available to 
one opened up to the mutuality of love.

I see Carol framed in a doorway, leaving for work. She turns, smiling. As she does so, something turns in my soul like a key. The physical world stretches, deepens, pregnant with meaning. My eyes are able to see God. And I see God in her, dangerously close to being her. My heart is in my throat, I stop her to explain. But the moment fades, she calls me a poet, blows a kiss at me, and goes to work.

Mutuality is work. And in the work love requires, I find  a sense of redemption. I find joy in loving her, and because of her love, being able to love others. As a man, her co-leadership frees me to become a man, yes…but even more foundationally, a human being. To my wife, my mother, my sister, and all the women who have pastured me and taught me how to walk as a man and as a human being…I apologize that in trying to thank you, my words run dry.