Taking the “Man” out of Gethsemane

July 20th, 2011
This article is featured in the Men's Church/Women's Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

American manhood is in crisis. Women, our greatest observers, are now defining and decrying a new period in our development called pre-adulthood in which young men from college age upward resist all responsibility. Instead of establishing themselves in careers and relationships, they favor gap years, hanging out at sports bars, spending evenings with band mates, and encapsulating themselves in technology such as iPods, Wiis, and endless Internet surfing.

But even those of us who are not in pre-adulthood are wondering how we fit into a society which defines a man’s worth by what he owns, especially during a severe recession. Or we fight the good fitness fight at the gym and at the table, wondering why, at forty or sixty, we do not look like underwear models in clothing catalogues. We may have grown up on Arthurian stories and Robin Hood, yet we find ourselves working for large bureaucracies in small cubicles. The highly sexualized media tell us that even in middle age we should be picking up cocktail waitresses, whereas a more righteous crowd flogs us with facile solutions about marriage and family life.

Men struggle to develop deep relationships with other men, relationships that are not marked by binge drinking or locker-room dialogue. Even in the church, fellowship events are often planned by women, who also make women-only events a priority. Men are in desperate need of friendships in which they can be honest about their struggles—spiritual, relational, and physical—as well as their hopes and desires. Indeed we are in a strange state, one which I would like to call Gethsemane.

The Loneliest Garden

A garden evokes Eden insofar as it nourishes and refreshes. But the garden of Gethsemane is like no other physical place. Instead of nourishing, it sucks resources dry removing everything from friendly support to internal coping mechanisms. Instead of insisting on the interdependence of all life, it isolates and demands a descent into the visitor’s deepest interior.

We see Jesus alone and almost adrift without the apostles’ support. He seems scared or at least weakened when he asks God to “let this cup pass" (Matthew 26:39). But then he continues to pray and to contemplate going deeper and deeper into himself and his relationship with the Father. We do not know exactly what happens here, and by not specifying the precise experience, we receive a signal that such an experience will be the same but different in every life.

In the end, Jesus leaves Gethsemane. His experience then spans agony and even doubt, as reported in Matthew. Nevertheless in Luke, Jesus reaches into the most profound mystery of all, forgiveness, especially forgiveness in the midst of infinite pain and suffering (Luke 23:34). The Gospels show it is possible to leave Gethsemane, but not without anguish, prayer, and suffering. And the Church can take some specific steps to facilitate our journeys out of isolation and fear.

  1. Iconography and a Personal Theology: Finding a personal and empowering iconography is fundamental. Here the church can be a resource center, moving forward from narrowly defined doctrine and religious imagery to presenting as many sacred voices as possible. We need a new language for understanding and discussing the Divine. Religious professionals not only need to be grounded in a wide range of material but also to be available to individuals and groups as they study and discuss theological issues.
  2. The Removal of Shame: A large component of Gethsemane is shame, the willful reduction and embarrassment of a person in front of others. Sixty-year-old men weep when they talk about being chosen last for sports teams. Our bodies embarrass us. Shame is quite different from remorse. Sometimes we realize we should have acted differently, and regret and remorse underscore the lesson because they signal that we must try to rectify the situation or behave differently. But shame drives us to hide parts of ourselves, which eventually becomes more important than truly living. Churches need to support men struggling with living honest and authentic lives.
  3. A Safe Environment: People need to feel loved and valued. An institution cannot realistically replicate what should have been supplied in the parental home, but it can show new ways of behaving. Men need spaces to express our darkest secrets and deepest sorrows. Shared purpose, acceptance, and teamwork promote growth and friendship. Mission projects and church facility maintenance are good, activity-based settings in which men can connect. And a Buildings and Grounds Committee can offer instruction in the use of tools, also an issue for many men.
  4. Acceptance of the Range of Masculinities: A church should offer a place for all the different types of men: the good soldier, the hero, the artist, the fabricator, the ladies man, the physical man, the gay man, the wise senior, and even the boy-man. These are points on the masculinity continuum, and men need to understand these loci as well as their freedom to choose and move among them during our lifetimes.
  5. Powerful, Charismatic Women: Men cannot mature and grow without shining women. We need to understand that women’s issues are not necessarily our own, but we do develop together. Hearing women’s views on men and masculinity is always instructive and helpful.
  6. The Org Chart: Churches must develop new models for organization. We need not merely replicate the military, top-down pyramid model. We can create partnerships and use consensus decision making. We can explore teamwork and creative dyads distributing authority horizontally.
  7. Sex Talk: Honest and open information about sexuality must be made available. People control their bodies; ideologies do not. People need to know that sexuality is a divine gift encompassing communication and respect. Unfortunately, people must also be prepared for inappropriate situations.
  8. Work: Men must deepen their understanding of work as a self-definition, deal with the lack of work, and promote other men establishing themselves or dealing with unemployment. Job clubs, networks, and using seniors to help develop microenterprises are imperative. Men also must outgrow defining themselves by what they do and what they earn.
  9.  Respect and Reverence: Our churches are living laboratories moving us all forward and upward, inward and downward to deeper experience and more profound truth. We see the Divine as we understand it in ourselves and everything and everyone else. And we must act accordingly, in reverence for the Divine and respect for one another.

We have spent our time in Gethsemane, and now it is time for us to leave. We are moving into a time when institutions have become discredited, and the economic situation is threatening. The media offer facile, limiting solutions to the richness of human possibility and the complexity of communal life. By transforming masculinity and by becoming an honest, open context for such growth, the Church will renew itself, discovering new meaning and new triumphs. We have the roadmap; we too can proceed from anguish to prayer to communion and true connection.

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