My friend’s father is a godly man. She credits him, along with her mother, with the development of her Christian faith. Yet, this amazing example of faith is often not validated or welcomed by the body of Christ. Even worse, he cannot be “at home” with himself and his gifts in the church. Here’s why:
Her father is a man with creative and artistic gifts. He has expressed these through many vocations—in creative advertising, as a talented painter, and even as a wedding planner. His paint creations and wedding designs are exquisite and help tell a beautiful story. They provoke emotion and delight. I remember when I graduated from seminary, my friend gave me one of her father’s works. In the painting, a man and woman walk along a beautiful pathway through a forest. It was a one-of-a-kind gift, and it prompted me to reflect on what it means to continue on the eternal “journey” of being in relationship with God and others. The painting now hangs above my desk, and I enjoy looking at it each day.
However, he lives in the Deep South in the United States. Male artists don’t generally fit the normative cultural prescription for masculinity in this context. Activities like football and hunting are a normal part of men’s community, discussion, and ministry. My friend’s father does not enjoy these activities and as a result, he is excluded from meaningful friendships with other men. It also makes him question his own ability to be a “real man,” in the eyes of the church.
I have been praying for my friend’s father. I empathize with him, and I grieve over his struggle.
I am not a man—but I too have often not felt validated or “at home” with myself and my spiritual gifts.
As a woman, my struggle with gender stereotypes has included reconciling leadership traits and a profound love of the outdoors with my womanhood.
When I served as an army officer, I was told it was because I had “penis envy.” In searching for a place to serve in the church, I often feel like Mary and Joseph, like there is “no room in the inn” for my gifts. In our family, I love to mow the lawn, yet hear it referred to as “man’s work.” I love adventure, and exploring all God has made while hiking. It is a joy for me to abstain from putting on make-up and throw my hair up in a ponytail under a ball cap. Yet, outdoor activities are commonly associated with men and men’s ministry.
While many men and women may feel “at home” in stereotypical roles, I think it is important to remember that one size doesn’t fit all.
What does it mean for my friend’s father (the artist and designer) and me (the leader and lover of the outdoors) to be male and female? Do we have freedom to live these gendered lives while expressing the interests, talents, and gifts that God has given us?
Over time, I thought about this and found encouragement in going back to the beginning of the biblical story and thinking deeply about the meaning of Genesis 1:26-27. We are created as “male and female”—together reflecting the image of God. This was the original creation plan that humanity was to live out with their creator.
Yet, we often immediately focus on what is the “male” part and what is the “female” part of this story. We quickly skip over the “God” part.
We are to mirror the one who created us. As the image of God, we (men and women) are to be authentic representations of our source. To reflect, we need to know this source, and let that transform us—in our hearts, souls, minds, and strength—as we allow this love to overflow into the lives of others (Luke 10:27-28).
It seems to me that we are far too focused on defining our differences—on pinpointing what living in our gendered bodies as “man” and “woman” actually means. It is clear to all that I am female and my friend’s father is male. We have continued to live this out in our created selves as girl and boy, male and female, mother and father, etc. There are unique body parts we possess—because our bodies are indeed physically gendered, and have a purpose.
Is there, however, room for a broader interpretation of what it means for us all to live out our lives as men and women, and as human beings? What if we used a different measure of what is acceptable for our gifts, roles, and actions?
What if instead of the traditional measure of “men do this” and “women do this”—we simply said, “God does this… so perhaps I should do that too.”
What if the measure of fully living in union with God and others is to want to know God more and more, and then try to model and reflect what God does? I believe there is room for a holistic and unified way of living—found in simply participating with God in understanding, and then reflecting his image.
The practice of spiritual discipline by Christians throughout the ages models this:
In the practices of those who strive to be more like Jesus Christ, the focus is not on “men do this” and “women do that.”
The spiritual disciplines encourage us to simply be with our creator and strive to become more like God. They encourage Christians to journey into a deeper and more transformative way of living out our faith. As I seek to know more and we spend time together, I become more like God. Our relationship enables me to know and participate in what God desires, thinks, loves, and wants to redeem, heal, and make new.
So in the case of my friend’s father:
Spiritual disciplines like celebration, gratitude, and contemplation (waking to the presence of God in all things) may apply. God is the grand designer of beauty. He has been expressing this beauty for his people to enjoy and respond to since humanity was created. A skilled artist can help us see with fresh eyes and respond to this invitation. The beauty around us should provoke us to think of blessings, goodness, and the gifts we all receive each day. God is one who celebrates and encourages us to join in this celebration in all we do—with thanksgiving and joy. My friend’s father is part of this when he helps design weddings. He brings to life a celebratory tone that invites others to join. His gift provides a springboard for joy and thankfulness as a couple shares their life in the tradition of two becoming one. The image of marriage is used widely in the Bible to explain God’s love for his people. My friend is a part of this beautiful process when he uses his God-given gifts.
In my case:
Spiritual disciplines like care of the earth, practicing the presence, and retreat apply. The creator has invited us to participate as caretakers of creation. When I mow the grass and tend to my garden, I perform a small role in caring for what has been given to us—the animals, and the environment we all dwell in. All creation declares the majesty of the Lord, so in hiking, I position myself to see, ponder, and receive this gift. In getting outside, I can unplug from the normal demands of the day and make space to be with God in friendship, play, and awe.
As I serve with my gifts as a leader and pastor/shepherd, spiritual disciplines like practicing the presence, compassion, and community apply. My definition of leadership is simply “to stand” with Christ—reflecting the image of God.
I believe that leadership should not be chiefly about power and being in authority. Instead, it should be about humble service—modeling the example of Christ.
I care for others as a hospital chaplain by being present and willing to listen. By practicing compassion, we can reveal God’s love through caring for others. The emphasis should not be on gender, position, or title. Instead, we, as the church, should focus on practicing the presence by experiencing each moment as a gift from God. Our ultimate goal should be to live alive in union with the trinity. I open myself to community—by expressing the self-donating love of the trinity and investing and journeying with others.
In Christ, my gender is not a limitation. I truly believe that I have been given freedom through the gospel to be who God has made me to be.
So, what if?
Yes, what if we use a different measurement for evaluating how to live out our lives as the people of God, in relationship with Jesus Christ, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding us?
What if we simply say, “who is God and what is God doing? I want to know that and mirror him!”
For more on Spiritual Disciplines, I recommend Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, IVP.