It is Father’s Day and there is a light and gentle rain ushering in the morning. After so many weeks of thinking about the conspiracy of wicked men to kick strong and independent women out of their proper spheres—the factory, the office, the convent, and the pulpit*—and of enduring The Book of Longings wherein “Jesus” helps his dear wife Ana** “find the largeness inside her,” when I clicked on the lections for today, I must say I was a little bit shocked. The vagaries of Sunday morning Bible reading being what they are, many of the exhausted faithful will be treated to a taste of the sorrows of Job without having had to endure the whole book over the course of many weeks. Mashed up against Jesus calming a storm and healing a demoniac, we get God’s sudden arrival on the scene to finally have it out with that poor beset and ruined person.
You remember Job, don’t you? Sitting there in the ash heap, scraping himself with a broken piece of pottery. He has lost everything—his children, his wealth—but his wife. And his faith. Though, in the long and terrible conversation with his “friends,” that too has gotten to be painful and difficult. ‘I’m not bad,’ he says over and over, as they press upon him that he is, indeed, very bad. He is the very vilest of men, else none of the evil that has fallen upon his head would have. That’s how the world works. Good people get good things, bad people get bad ones. Toxically masculine men are the very worst of all, crushing orphans and widows under their booted heels and taking food out of the mouths of the poor. For thirty-seven chapters this goes on, which, for the modern person trying to read it, must be a worse suffering than that of Job himself.
Finally God comes along to straighten them all out. And this is the part that really shocked me. “Who is this,” asks God, though surely he knows, “that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.”
Like a man? What is that? Is that like a woman though not as good? Doesn’t God know that what anyone wears is only up to them? What sort of action? Will it be violent? Or contentious?
Job lifts his weary and defeated head and considers the wonder of the God who comes to question him, to put him in his place, his proper sphere, which is always a painful kind of experience. The questions come fast, one upon another, and are all unanswerable. What about the foundation of the earth? Who laid it down? Who measured it? What about the morning stars? The sea? The clouds? The waves? What about the dawn? Divine sarcasm drips down upon Job’s sick and sorry head. Surely this wise and righteous mortal man has been down to the source of the very oceans themselves. He must know how it all works, and how to sustain it. Surely he must know how to make the sunrise, the earth spin, the animals on the heights give birth, the sea creatures in the depths find what they need. What is his problem? Why doesn’t he stand up and do something about it all?
And Job, as you know, though that part won’t be read in church this morning, bows his head, and repents. Already ruined, he admits his own defeat and accepts that God is God, and that he doesn’t know or understand or have control over anything—even his own possible or impossible goodness.
Much later, of course, that other man, sleeping in the bottom of a storm-tossed boat, will stand up and, already dressed for action, will, where Job was mute, speak. The wind will stop, the waves will die down to a placid stillness, and the other men in the boat with him will find themselves afflicted with the same brief speechlessness which is the property of all those who behold the majesty and might of God.
And that is the great and terrible irony of being a man—of being human at all, of course, but of being a man in particular. You wake up and “dress for action,” whatever that might look like, slipping on a shoe, digging through a bin of unfolded laundry for a rumpled shirt because your wife was overwhelmed and meant to fold it and didn’t, certainly the ironing board was as far removed from her as the very cliff heights of the mountain goat. You set your face towards your work but at the end of the day, because you are only a man, you are as completely dependent and possibly ruined as every other man, as Job himself. You might work your whole life and in a breath it will all go away. Indeed, you yourself will go away, down into Sheol, no matter how hard you strive to avoid that terrible moment.
And yet, you are meant to stand up and “be a man.” Except more and more the world would like you to keep silent, to not intrude yourself upon the “largeness” of other people (women) expressing themselves and being important. You must know your place. Your masculinity, if indeed you have any, whatever it looks like must certainly be “toxic.”
And, of course, because all men are sons of Adam, there is a lot of toxicity wrapped up in the expression of their character and nature. When they set about to do anything, whether good or evil, because they can’t control the future or the present, because they can’t make the sun rise, they will often fail. When they try to do good, they will not be able to control the actions of others to bring that good about. And sometimes they don’t intend good, but go out of their way to afflict the poor, the women, the children, and other men.
All men are sinners, and if you are a man, you are also a sinner. That is why you need Jesus, that other kind of man, the kind that was “born ready.” He is not only a man, but the God who orders the cosmos by the word of his mouth, who saves sinners by his death, whose resurrection is the ground of the breath of every person who manages to wake up this morning and stagger to church—that same Jesus is the redeemer of all the helpless and dependent. He is the one who makes it possible to repent and then to speak, to declare his true goodness in every corner of the world. He is the one who lifts up the ruined and crushed head. He breathes strength into the hearts of those who want to act, who want to do what they should, who want to be good.
“For the love of Christ,” writes Paul, “controls us.” And more, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” All the helpless ruin of being a man who cannot make any good come about is taken up by the one who “knew no sin” so that he, even he, can become “the righteousness of God.” What a large and strange and glorious exchange. And how curious for me, because the rain has stopped and there is a ray of sunshine, and I must go and dig out a less rumpled shirt for the person who has to dress for the peculiar action of declaring God’s glory to the world.
Happy Father’s Day to all you fathers out there!
*Bit of sarcasm brought about by wrangling with The Making of Biblical Womanhood for weeks and weeks and weeks.
**It’s a novel for those who haven’t heard of it.