When I was growing up, I remember that my dad always tacked a three-by-five note card to a corkboard in his home office. Neatly, he had printed words with a black felt tip marker:
He does not delight in the strength of the horse; He does not take pleasure in the legs of a man (Ps. 147:10 NASB).
The card meant the world to him; it moved wherever our family moved, and we relocated a lot. Dad looked to it as a reminder that his identity wasn’t in designing custom homes, skillful carpentry, or owning a successful construction company. God’s words, transcending time, place, and personal circumstances, reassured him as a mysterious disease destroyed nerve fibers and interrupted impulses between his brain and spinal cord, slowly wrecking his muscles.
I hated Multiple Sclerosis for weakening the man who once swooped me upside down so I could walk on the ceiling. I knew I could not stroll from the edge of the yellow gingham curtains on the kitchen ceiling to the light fixture hanging in the family room without his strong arms holding me up. I loved my dad for wanting women and girls to succeed. I loved my dad for wanting me to do the impossible.
Until adulthood, I did not realize the significance of my parents running a construction company together. Although Dad oversaw the construction workers and site, he and mom collaborated in all other areas of the business—client meetings, architectural and interior designs, and finances, among numerous administrative and creative tasks. I grew up watching them share and trade jobs while winning awards in the Parade of Homes and growing their successful business.
Behind the scenes, my father’s immune system was wreaking havoc with his body, causing scar tissue and weakening his legs to the point that he needed a cane. Flare ups and remissions required constant adjustments by our family. Mom shouldered increasing responsibility for the business and my dad spent more time resting in a recliner.
As the disease progressed, Dad struggled to get in and out of his chair and truck. It became harder for him to hold a hammer. Sometimes he fell and needed help getting back up again. Mom, my sister, and I stacked towers of phone books so he could prop himself up in a chair. Glasses of ice water cooled his system until he regained limited use of his legs.
It became impossible for my dad to move around construction sites. Forced into closing the business and no longer earning an income doing what he loved, Dad slipped into depression. He struggled with his worth as a man. On the opposite side of the coin, my mom gave up her ideal of being home and worked full time at a doctor’s office to support the family.
I grew up believing that it’s normal for husbands and wives to work together, side by side. Each partner must embrace many different hats for the sake of the whole. As life unfolds, adaptation requires sharing and trading headgear, including crash helmets. For this reason, I have never known what to do with the gendered categories of “ideal masculinity” and “true womanhood.” From my perspective, real life rarely supports rigid gender roles outside of Western, white 1950s sitcoms. Some people are able to choose these traditional gender roles and do so willingly, but I cannot believe it is more biblical for them to have the option of fitting into tidy roles. My world has just never been tidy, and to this day, my family has never looked “traditional.” We grew too used to swapping our various hats back and forth across the table.
According to some standards, my parents have fallen short of biblical manhood and womanhood. Trading off at the helm of our family business did not model male leadership. My father exercised shared leadership with my mother as common sense, sacrifice, and circumstances required. Often messy and never perfect, their marriage took work. It took the wisdom of two, leaning into Jesus. I would often overhear my dad advising young engaged men at church: “Just remember to listen to your wife. My biggest regrets are when I have not paid attention to my wife’s wisdom.”
Mom grieved when she could no longer work from home. She wished she could be there when my sister and I finished with school. She never dreamed of managing a doctor’s office and an art gallery. Eventually, doors opened for her to manage a Christian foundation where she has thrived, supporting ministries all over the world for the past fifteen years.
Dad passed away several years ago, having lived forty-two years with M.S. We mourn his absence and celebrate his life knowing that he is zipping around in heaven with Jesus. We remember his integrity, kindness, generosity, and talents as an architect, carpenter, and contractor. We celebrate his enormous love for his creator, family, friends, and community. The fact that he didn’t work, earn a living, protect his family in a conventionally masculine way, or contain his emotions for the last twenty years of his life doesn’t make him any less of a man or any less a man of God. He was a great man because he understood the call of the one who displays power through human weakness. His masculinity was rooted in Christ, not in gender-biased social prescriptions.
Through it all, I gained sensitivity for people whose lives do not fit into neat little boxes. The God I know compassionately works in broken circumstances and people without setting impossible, exclusionary standards. Rigid human thinking about gender roles creates shame for many men and women whose lives do not add up to “ideal masculinity” or “true womanhood,” or who choose different paths. God wants us to break free of the human traditions that try to contain us in tidy boxes.
For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:5-6).