Chuck DeGroat was one of my pastors at City Church in San Francisco. I owe much of my spiritual formation over these past three years to his teaching and generous thinking. He is a man of many roles: pastor, teacher, counselor, author and blogger. (Not to mention husband and dad.) As always in this series, having him here is an honor.
Encountering God in the Feminine
Sara and I will be married 18 years in just a week. And we have two sweet little girls – Emma (11) and Maggie (9). Suffice it to say, I live in a feminine world. No, we don’t play with Tonka trucks or have wrestling matches. These days, I get to admire their nail art and perfect cartwheels and their admiration of a female hero named Katniss. And I love it.
There is something so beautiful and unique about how the feminine captures the image of God. I’m told that when European Christians stormed the shores of South America with a sword in one hand and a Bible in the other, the natives rejected their faith. That is, until they learned of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Who could reject a Gospel with such a central and significant feminine character? Any God who could be born of a woman must be real!
In today’s church, some of us still appear so insecure that we’ve not been able to let go of our swords for the (dare I say it) more feminine soul of Christ himself, who offended the men (particularly religious men) of his day with his abundantly gracious and boundary-breaking presence. Perhaps the most well-known parable of the prodigal son demonstrates this remarkable Incarnation more vividly than any other, picturing God as a Father who betrays his culturally masculine role to run, graciously and even embarrassingly, to his rebel son, an impulsive and emotional act characteristic not of the stern, judgmental man, but of a loving Mother. This is the picture of the Incarnation, according to Jesus.* No wonder women found Jesus safe, and men couldn’t comprehend his passive, self-sacrificial surrender to crucifixion. This spirituality of surrender is much-needed for men like me to grow into maturity, even in to proper masculinity. But our aggressive, boundary-drawing, authority-demanding, surrender-averse masculine natures often don’t allow it.
The great Scottish Presbyterian pastor Samuel Rutherford wrote extraordinary theological works (including the great Lex Rex) during his years of ministry, exile, and even at the Westminster Assembly, where in the 1640’s he added his pen to the construction of its confession. He is a hero to many pastors. But we often fear discussing his many letters, almost scandalous in vulnerability, called the “nearest thing to inspiration” by Charles Spurgeon. Unafraid of his own feminine soul, Rutherford wrote a good many letters, often to women, unabashedly bold in his poetic, even romantic, union with Christ. To Lady Kilconquhar, he wrote
O that the world did but know what a smell the ointments of Christ cast, and how great his beauty. Certainly where Christ cometh, he runneth away with the soul’s love. O that Christ would be so large in sweetness and worth, and yet men will not take him! They lose their love miserably who will not bestow it upon this lovely one. Let us come and fill ourselves with Christ. ‘Welcome’ sayest our fairest Bridegroom. O that I were misted and bewildered in the Lord’s love. O that I were fettered and chained to it! Woe to the heart not sorrowed for the want of a soul’s fill of the love of Christ!
Rutherford goes on, using increasingly more uncomfortable language, particularly for men, speaking about Christ pressing down on him and kissing him. When I was reading an extended passage in a seminary class, one student stopped me to say, “Professor DeGroat, I will not be forced to have a homoerotic relationship with my Savior!” We, men, are simply uncomfortable embracing the depth and breadth of God’s image, even in us.
Perhaps, this is why the mystics are so often ignored by men. They talk of union with God as a love story. Generally, men are comfortable with the language of territory and tribe, of black and white, good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. To surrender ourselves, even becoming one with Christ – this is a violation. We’d much prefer to “storm the gates” rather than to allow “the ocean of love to overwhelm us,” as Rutherford says. And yes, perhaps we even whisper so that no one will hear, “Dude, do you think Rutherford was gay?”
When the prodigiously loving father of Luke 15 bursts through the cultural barriers of masculine pride, bringing shame upon himself (read alongside Philippians 2!), he breaks the barriers for us, too. Fear and avoidance of this beautiful vulnerability only polarizes. It leads to an insecure hyper-masculinity, on the one side, and a reactive hyper-femininity on the other, which deprives us all of genuine and holistic image-bearing, in all its equality and complementarity.
But we need to allow this prodigious Father/Mother to break through the barriers of our own hearts, too. You see, the polarization isn’t merely sociological, it’s also psychological. It exists within us, with all our fear. As Fr. Martin Smith writes, “What chance is there of loving and respecting others if I refuse to meet and listen to the many sides of myself? How can I be a reconciler if I shut my ears to the unreconciled conflicts within myself… Now I begin to see that the spiritual life is based on a basic honesty which enables me to recognize that everything I find difficult to accept, bless, forgive, and appreciate in others is actually present within myself.”
What my wife and daughters, as well as the other extraordinary women in my life, are teaching me, is that to be fully human, I must allow the one who broke the barriers to dwell deeply (and wholly) within me. What I knew as a young man was to live heroically, with strength and boldness. This was good, even necessary, as a young man. But maturing in faith means embracing my powerlessness, learning to surrender, however scary this is, particularly as a man now in my 40’s.
As I navigate through mid-life, I pray that God’s vulnerability continues to grow in me.
* For more on this, read Kenneth Bailey’s The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants.
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Chuck DeGroat has enjoyed a fluid combination of pastoral ministry, clinical counseling, and seminary teaching for the past 15 years. He is the founder of the City Church Counseling Center, and co-founder of Newbigin House of Studies, where he serves as Vice-President, and teaches courses including The Urban Christian and Spiritual Formation in an Urban, Secular Culture. Chuck holds a PhD in Psychology with a special emphasis in the psychology and theology of soul care and spiritual formation. He blogs at The New Exodus. His is book is Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places.