I’m angry about International Women’s Day, and you should be too

International Women’s Day (March 8th) really got under my skin this year.

Let me tell you about that, please.

I saw some of my (mostly white) fellow men protesting that it was unfair.

That there isn’t an International Men’s Day (there is). Or that International Men’s Day doesn’t get the same attention.

That some of the posts and work I posted, by other people, about the objectification and mistreatment and injustices that are the daily reality of women everywhere skewed the picture unfairly because men are victims too.

Men do experience injustice. Of course we do. I have experienced injustice. I meet many men who have been or are on the wrong side of the scales. Those injustices need to be addressed.

I suffer from a disease that seems to disproportionately target men, for reasons no one quite understands – and that receives relatively little research next to other conditions. That’s an issue. The epidemic of young/middle-aged male depression and suicide is a health emergency that urgently needs money and attention. In my professional capacity I have dealt with several cases where men are the victims of domestic abuse at the hands of women; its devastatingly painful to watch and needs more attention to solve, to help men report, seek help with. For years I have been involved with work amongst those who are homeless – who are usually male. All these and more are true and important, and are issues at which I continue to work.

But today I find myself staggered that so many white men can’t see our privilege, or that we need to consciously lay down that privilege so that people who are not like us – women, and men of other ethnicities – have more access to what we have always taken for granted. That means saying no to things for which we consider ourselves equally or better qualified – and yes, that may include lucrative jobs or ego boosting speaking opportunities. That means calling out other men on their sexism, their contributions to rape culture, their mindless entitlement to privilege – and allowing other men to call us out on it in ourselves. That means expressing sorrow to women when they experience daily acts of sexism. That means following the example of a Middle Eastern Jewish man who gave up rights and status in order to serve; who sought to alleviate the injustice of others rather than complain when he was on the receiving end; who identified himself, one without sin, with those wracked and ruined by sin; who consciously emptied himself of privilege without complaint or self-validation.

It’s my responsibility as a white male husband, father and church leader to side with the one who called me and actively pursue justice for those who are so often on the wrong side of it. Sometimes I will be on the receiving end of injustice; in those moments I will know that He (and sometimes others) will side with me and somehow come to my aid.

But the world is unjustly balanced in my favour; my voice is easily heard; I am safe most places I go; I have more opportunities and more protection than any other demographic on the planet. I am one of the most privileged people in the history of humanity. In all these ways and more, I am rich – so it is hard for me to enter the kingdom of heaven. My only hope is to serve the Servant, and serve Him in those who have less than me.

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Of children, idols, suicide and lament.

Very little that is good starts with “I posted something on Facebook…”. Nevertheless that is how I am starting.

A few days ago I posted an article on Facebook. I do that quite a lot. I do so not necessarily because I agree with everything in the article but because on some level I feel that the article expresses something interesting and of importance. In this case the article pretty much hit the nail on the head for me – it was a simple comment piece expressing a dis-ease with the way it can seem to those of us without children that society revolves around the needs of children and their parents. It provoked a (to me) staggering response in the form of 49 comments – comfortably a few times the average of what a post of mine might more normally produce. Many of them were from people who are parents of children, angered or hurt by the article, feeling misunderstood and telling stories of how difficult it is to be a parent. You can read that article by clicking here. It should be noted that it was written by someone who has had her own children. Interestingly after I posted the article  I was privately contacted by a few married people without children and single people who wanted to thank me for raising an issue they were afraid to raise even with their closest friends.

Later in the day I posted an article on the epidemic levels of suicide among men – especially young men – in the UK. It reflects well on how gender stereotypes can have serious consequences, and that our views of masculinity are causing major problems. The result of posting this urgent and important article (which you can read here)? 2 comments.

Now this is unscientific. There could be all manner of reasons for this. I’m not pretending to draw something definitive from those statistics alone. However one of the commenting parents (let’s be honest, she and some of the others did come to start to see something helpful in the article) did ask me to write something expressing what I thought the article on children was trying to get at. So this is me trying to do just that. It’s that contrast in the level of responses that has given me a place from which to start.

I like children. Many of my friends have children whom I am glad am part of my life in their own right. My wife and I do not have children – a fact of our own choosing. This is not because we don’t enjoy children, but because we feel it’s not right for us. It does not mean (as we have been told) that we are selfish, rejecting God’s plan for marriage, that my wife is unfulfilled as a woman, or that I worry about my old age (I don’t know either). As a pastor it does not mean (as I have also been told) that families will not join a church I lead (our Sunday School is growing and I’ve started a monthly all age service). It just means we don’t want children of our own.

In all this time as a married couple without children, and as a church pastor, I have never – ever – been asked by parents of young children how they could make my life easier as someone without children (I don’t mean in terms of not asking their kids who are making a noise to leave the dining room – that they do – but I mean the big stuff of life). I’ve never had a parent in any church ask what they could do to help make church better for those without children.

It is inevitable that a life-event as huge and long-lasting as having children fundamentally changes the way you see everything. I know that – I really do, although many don’t believe me. I’ve walked the road of longing for and then finally having children with friends often enough to see that to be true. I can’t fully get it because I don’t have my own kids, but I get the point. Of course there’s always more that can be done by churches and other groups to help those with children; but to those of us without children it can feel that even the slightest expression of exhaustion or stress at having to sit in a noisy environment with kids around me is selfish. If you don’t have kids you probably don’t have that innate parental ability to tune out loud kid-generated noise; so sometimes I’ve just had to leave a cafe or a church service or a park because I can’t hear myself speak, let alone think.

That’s not enough, though. Because there always more steps to take, more resources to spend, more planning around how to engage kids and families in church and society. Which is fine. As I said, ours is a church which is doing that.

As the article on male suicide pointed out, however, if a new virus was killing in the way suicide is killing men in the UK, we’d see waves of public funding aimed at it. More than that, I suggest, there’d be church programmes to help those affected by this new killer; there’d be theologising; there’d be public debates. The cry would go up … ‘How do we protect our children from this?‘ Family pressure groups would start, charities would fundraise off the back of it.

The point has been made time and again about the prevalence of male suicide and people just don’t seem to get worked up. There’s a sadness … but that’s it. No real action, no pressure, little in the way of money spent or raised. Stick a child’s face on a marketing campaign and watch the donations roll in.

God hates it when blessings become idols, when a precious gift from him becomes a subtle replacement for the energies, the resources, the time we should be pouring at his feet. Which is part of why Abraham got to the point of having his knife hover over the beating chest of his precious son in one of the Bible’s most troubling passages. He needed to prove to himself that his eyes were still on the giver, not the gift. Lest we say that this was barbarous of God, He went one step further and allowed the murder of His own Son, apparently sitting by as nails tore flesh and bone. His son felt abandoned, anguished, sweating blood in anticipation of what was to come.

It’s easy to allow our knowledge of both these stories’ happy endings suck the shock out of them. A parent about to kill his son; another letting his son be killed. We’d never allow that, would we?

Meanwhile, as families plough thousands of pounds, dollars and rands into their children, fervently hoping and praying the sons will grow up into strong, capable fit young men, another 4,000+ men in the UK will kill themselves in the next twelve months.

I don’t know what the solution is, but like all great causes, it will start with lament. Lament for the sons lost at their own hands.

Jesus, Marriage and Christian Submission

It’s all about context, as it so often is. More than context, in fact. It’s about context and the well-meaning, not-the-whole-truth, section titles slipped into our sacred text.

Thus …

Rules For Christian Households.

Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife … ” (Ephesians 5:22ff)

It’s that section heading that’s the problem. It’s not what Paul wrote. It was added by someone on the way to the printer. On a horse, probably. It’s meant to help us but too often it controls how we understand the text.

Now that’s not to say that the section heading is intrinsically a bad thing. If you want to find the Parable of The Prodigal Son but can’t remember the reference then it helps to have it in italics at the head of a paragraph. Except, of course, when we come to read it properly. Jesus never gave the parable that title. He just told a story. It’s as much about the (F)father or the elder brother who’d been at home all that time, unaware of the father’s riches that had always been at his disposal. Thus in the case of the parable we don’t so much miss the point as shrink it.

So to submission in marriage, that the husband is the one who calls the shots, is the spiritual leader of the family. That’s how this understood in many Christian circles, especially evangelical ones. I believed it for a little while, because that’s what the text (and other texts) said, right?

Now’s not the time for word studies or extensive theological investigation – others on all sides of the argument have done that much better than I ever could do. Here’s the thing for me, though. The model is Jesus, right? So it says anyway, just the other side of some those pesky and artificial section divides I mentioned earlier. It’s not about marriage first; it’s about Jesus and then it’s about how our relationships can reflect Jesus to others.

The call is to submission out of reverence to Christ … then it’s applied for the original readers in three very particular ways, giving us a way of seeing how this might work in practice. What did Christ, the model and only worthy object of reverence, do? He tossed aside His rights, considered himself nothing, put His Father’s glory and my needs first despite not wanting to drink from the cup. To quote a passage my wife and I had read at our wedding, He:

made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant   (Philippians 2)

It seems to me that in taking texts like this and saying, this then is how marriage should be in all places at all times – wife submitting to husband – we’re missing the point. For the Ephesians it may not have been missing the point. That was a society whose very stability was built on men in charge, women subservient. So Christ’s people needed to be seen as contributing to society, not messing  it up – but still different, still challenging it and calling society to be better. So the challenge was for husbands to actually love wives and not treat them as property; for wives to seek to bless their husband instead of silently resenting one who treated her like dirt. All sorts of change became possible if people did that.  It was a radical kind of way of blessing society but also challenging it.

Things are different now. Society, it seems to me, does not depend on submission of wife to husband; or certainly not any of the ones that I’ve lived in. So we model ourselves on Christ in a different way. We do so by thinking about Jesus in a slightly different way.

I’m going to talk about Jesus here in a way which may offend you so that you can see what I’m getting at.

We might say that Jesus submitted to us. Not that we tell Him what to do; but that if we understand submission as it should be at its best – one laying aside needs for the sake of another – then that’s what He did. He gave up His right to be honoured and worshipped in order to be whipped and mocked. He gave up His right to be understood as truth in order to be gossiped about and executed on a trumped-up charge. So that we could be with Him. At a wedding feast.

So the challenge is for men, women, all of us. To give up what we consider to be our rights for the sake of the ones we’re in relationship with. Might I think, as a husband, of having a ‘right’ to sex with my wife. I suppose I might do (in the days of social media, I feel duty bound to point out the ‘I’ is not necessarily me, and I said ‘might’ not ‘do’). But what if my wife needs an early night? What if it’s better to talk or watch a movie together? I give up my ‘right’ and do what will build the relationship; not to get sex later in the week but because it’s good for the relationship. Because that’s what Jesus did. He gave up rights for the sake of relationship with Father and us, and in doing so gained greater honour, more worship. This, in marriage, is upholding society but still challenging it – liberating men and women alike, but challenging our all to easy fall-back position of rights with something all-together deeper.

Important point, here. Do not misread this, as this text is often misused, as an injunction to those who are being abused sexually, emotionally or physically to submit to that abuse. No. If you are being abused, get help and get out. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

This is about the give and take at the heart of all healthy relationships. Recast that as submission, and yes – husbands should submit to wives because Jesus submitted His right to honour for the sake of relationships with us  – and in the end gained great honour. In that context, wives submit to husbands – it’s the mutual give and take that makes relationships. It’s not about positional leadership; it’s about making a relationship between two unique creations work.

Apply it to marriage, to parenting, churches, to politics, to workplaces, to sports, to paying taxes, to how you treat shop-workers or waiters or people who sleep outside. How might it look to submit to one another in those relationships out of reverence for the one who made Himself nothing?

Exactly.

That’s why I spell Him with a capital H.

“Everybody knows … “: Men, women and the deep dangers of universally accepted truth

Everybody knows that men are obsessed with sex. Our predominant temptation is lust. The danger of being sucked into a dangerously coercive relationship with pornography lies around every corner or click. I must train my eyes and constantly monitor the film on repeat play in my head. You know it, I know it, we all know it. Sex is used to sell to men and to women (because what’s being sold will make them more sexually capable or desirable or both); men think about sex every seven seconds. Pull that last often-quoted statistic out in the company of any group containing men (or women, for that matter) and someone will inevitably reply … ‘What about the other six seconds?‘ Laughter, knowing nods and smiles. Men and women alike now Understand Something about themselves and each other.

It’s true.

Only it isn’t. It’s utter nonsense. It’s a fabricated myth spun around a kernel of half-truth with the status of near-divine revelation.

It’s a myth-as-fact proclaimed implicitly from magazine covers and advertisements, from preachers and counsellors. I’ve heard sermons based around it; I’ve experienced marriage preparation use it as a foundation for the evening spent discussing intimacy; I’ve been told – repeatedly –  it’s how I function; I’ve heard it said that my wife must understand this if we’re to have a fulfilling and intimate marriage.

I do not think about sex every seven seconds. I don’t even think about sex every week. I’ve never really had a problem with lust; I am not an especially visually stimulated man. What more often stimulates me are kindnesses, time spent, words uttered. I love my wife deeply and truly and am attracted to her and desire her. That waxes and wanes as it does in all relationships, but after 14 years of marriage I know that our intimacy is far deeper and truer than simply what we do with each other’s bodies.

Sometimes I think about sex but can’t act on it because I experience chronic arthritic pain. More often I experience chronic arthritic pain so I won’t even contemplate sex or pretty much any sort of movement. Sometimes I just don’t think about sex because I’ve got plenty of other really interesting things to think about like work or a conversation with my wife or a movie or the dog to walk or the house move or the emails I need to send or the food I’m cooking or just about any of the other fascinating, thrilling, disturbing, inconvenient things which make up my life.

What am I to think, then? Am I not a proper man? Am I lying to myself? Am I pretending I will never sin sexually? Am I a deviant?

No.

Imagine my relief at stumbling across something resembling actual proof that I am approaching normal. I like busting myths; I like discovering something assumed to be true isn’t. It brings a special kind of freedom. Experience plus the article you can read if you click here leads me to a confident conclusion that there’s little to back up this particular ‘fact’. As the article states, the Kinsey Institute’s research suggests that around 43% of men think about sex a few times a month. That’s a lot of men not thinking about sex a lot of the time.

Not quite every seven seconds, is it?

Now this report and article isn’t definitive; and to be clear I’m not ever suggesting I won’t fall into sexual sin, because I’m human and I may. I’m not suggesting I won’t ever find lust a problem, because I may find myself there. I’m not suggesting that every man who says he does have a problem of this nature is lying, because he may well do so. However my experience, my private conversations and what I’ve read suggest a deeper truth.

The truth is this. We have bought a lie, sold ourselves into captivity. We are liberated prisoners running back to prison. We do it as individuals, as preachers, as churches, as citizens, as partners. We do it as consumers and protestors. We do it in relation to sex, work, emotions, thoughts and almost anything we can relate consciously or sub-consciously to our identity as a man or a woman.

The truth is that we will accept definitions of what it means to be men or women so that we can fit in, not stand out, get help and be accepted into the group. We will do so to the extent of agreeing that we have a problem with something even if we don’t. I know because I’ve done that; I’ve nodded sagely at the preacher saying ‘All of us men here tonight have struggles with lust’. I’ve asked people to pray about it with me, totally convinced myself of having a problem that needs to be addressed.

I’ve done it, and other men have told me they’ve done similar. It makes you feel accepted by the church, you’re proclaimed as honest and down-to-earth and ‘real’. Because that’s what real men are like.

Best-selling Christian and non-Christian books alike proclaim this and so many more ‘facts’ about men and women as to leave you buffeted into submission. Men are this way, so this is how your church should be; men want to rescue and women want to be rescued (there’s even a course you can do). Men’s weekends away are full of outdoor activities and outdoor food, women’s with crafts and women’s food (yes, really). The often italicised caveat is that not all men or women are alike; it’s so brief you miss it in a blink and forget you even read it because actually saying that won’t sell, won’t get applause or laughs or money in the bank.

Men and women are different. Of course they are. Try to generalise that, apply it broadly and you end up with all manner of problems. What matters to me is not what all women are like; it’s what the woman I share my life with is like. What matters to me is not what all men enjoy, but what will bring life and hope to me or to the man I’m trying to understand. What matters is the person in the moment with me.

The wisdom of the lives of other men or women will help me. It will not define the other, though. It may shed some light, it may grant a glimpse of insight; but each unique creation is as spectacularly, gloriously different as the other. Men and women were not made to fit a shape; we were made to explore a creation, to bear the image of the eternal, to be saved by One bleeding and dying and rising to give us abundant lives, who said we could do greater things than He.

We will have problems and brokenness, fear and failure; we will sink into sin and messes of our own making. They are ours, though. They are unique to me and you; I may gain help or comfort or encouragement from a shared struggle. Or I may not.

However I do not walk alone. Which is enough.

Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.  (Hebrews 4:14-16, The Message)

Enough

So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (The Bible)

There must be more to life than stereotypes. (Blur)

The great John Stott, one of the grandfather figures of Western evangelicalism, a man you couldn’t be in the same room as without being struck by his humility and graciousness, titled his brilliant book on the Sermon on the Mount ‘Christian Counter-Culture’. Those three words speak volumes about Stott’s prophetic vision for the church. One where church and Christians are so devoted to Christ’s call to a radical self-redefinition and compassion that a vision is painted of how life can be that’s compelling and luminous. It implies a way of living as Christians which calls us to something subversive, something liberating, something hard but offering eternal rewards. Stott was a man of conviction with whom you could disagree – which of course meant he was far more likely to win you over in the end.

This Christian faith to which Stott devoted his life takes as undergirding and forming it a book and as its object of worship a God who is so beyond us that He makes Himself accessible to us by living amongst us as a human being. It’s a journey of faith replete with revelation and mystery, with liberation to be who we are called to by our creator to be and of radical self-giving to neighbour and enemy. It’s what God’s done first for us, and it’s what He calls us to model towards others in His power.

It’s a majestic vision of life. It’s one I can’t live up to, but I love trying to because doing so sets me free. It’s tempting as one who’s been called by God through the church to exercise leadership within the church to simplify the call. At times, of course, it’s right to do so. Sometimes pretence and pomposity needs to be stripped away and unvarnished simplicity must shine through. God can do anything and often does; we are saved; Jesus is the Way. God forbid self-aggrandisement obscures the King of Kings from view, even if it is through a glass darkly. With that, there’s a temptation to strip mystery away and make it all easy. Do this and more people will be healed. Do this and you’ll have more Sunday School volunteers. Do this and you’ll have a better prayer life. Deep down we all know it can’t work the same way in every case, but it’s no less tempting to portray it as such.

Still, I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of much of this over-simplification, of what should be a vision of counter-culture instead being a pale imitation of the sea we swim in. That takes many forms; for me, today, it’s about being reduced to archetypes and stereotypes.

There’s a few foundational truths about humanity in Scripture; the first is that we bear the stamp of the creator. His signature is written on our souls and bodies: on mine, on my wife’s and  on every last single snowflake unique human being ever to grace creation. It’s a signature that at times seems smudged and illegible; that’s my fault and our fault, not the artist’s. Why, then, do such vocal parts of what should be the Christian counter-culture persist in such a shrivelled vision of our mutual gendered image-bearing? Why do we shrink the culturally specific and historically located complex individuals like David, Moses, Sarah and Delilah into examples of what men and women should be thousands of years later? Biblical people are just that – people trying to figure out how to follow God in a specific place and time. They don’t show us that a man has to be a warrior or a woman must wait for a man to win her.

I’ve had enough of Christian books and talks and articles about men and women taking their templates from fairy tales and movies, then reading those back into scripture, shrinking God’s image-bearers into versions of pop-quiz pseudo-wisdom that belong more properly on the back of a cereal packet. I’ve had enough of marriage being reduced to who obeys whom, when Scripture frames it as mutual submission and leaves us to figure out the rest in the awkward ambiguity of squaring eternal words with two people living together in a time and a place. I’ve had enough of women being told they are all waiting to be rescued and men being convinced they are the ones who have to do the rescuing. I had enough of the unbearable pressure that puts on anyone who feels that somehow they don’t quite fit. I’ve had enough of lazy analogies about roses and thorns, of stereotypes about being passive or active, of big name preachers going on and on about sex and intimacy, about his role, her role. I’ve had enough of single women being told they are being prepared for something that may never come, so missing out on God’s rich and deep calling to them. I’ve had enough of men’s groups that always seem to revolve around curry or outdoors activities, alienating fifty per cent of men.

I’ve had enough of a reductionism in Christ’s name which bears no relation to the expansive new creation I read of God bringing about in the pages of Scripture. I’ve had enough of God’s mutual image bearers being reduced to seven quick tips for a peaceful marriage. I, you, we are graced by the image of God; we also obscure it. We’re preciously, dangerously unique. We’re called to express that and also hold back from expressing it in mutual submission to those with whom we live. We’re called to read the God-inspired words of Scripture with brains and hearts and bodies – all of which are alive now, so of course it will need some interpreting.

Yes, it’s hard being called to be part of bringing to birth a new creation which we only see fleetingly.

Who said that which is hard isn’t worthwhile, though? It’s easy to swap the words of eternity for glossy magazine-style quick tips. It’s tempting to trade wisdom for one word answers. Jesus is the Way. That’s a process, a journey, not a cop-out.

Enough, then. I’m trading in answers for wisdom, solutions for ways, archetypes for endless variety.

Enough.