Our congregation had a potluck after services this past Sunday. Afterwards I walked out to the sanctuary and Paul was sitting alone in his pew.
Paul is quite a character. An imposing man in his late seventies, Paul’s booming voice and outgoing personality have always had a way of conquering whatever atmosphere in whatever room he enters. He’s gruff, but he’s sweet; he’s loud, but he’s lovable. He’s also a storyteller. So when I said “Hey Paul” and asked him how he was doing, he started telling me the story of his week. He talked about how he and his daughter volunteered at a local nursing home, chatting up the residents, played games with them, and wishing how they could be shown more dignity by others. When I sat in the next pew and faced him, his story drifted to his earlier days. He told of how he started smoking cigarettes when he was in kindergarten, how he spent eight years in the Navy and could drink all the coffee he wanted, how he managed the big guns and ammunition, the kind of eccentric characters he worked with, the places that he traveled, how he later spent a career working for the city as a boss for the street crews.
After talking for a bit, he went silent; he looked unsure. Then he wearily whispered “All my life I’ve been tough; I can hold my own in a scrap. Mostly I tell jokes, but deep inside, I’m chicken sh!t.”
As long as I’ve known Paul, he has embodied the stereotypical image of manliness that every guy at one time or another has attempted to project—that of the rough, tough, hard to bluff man’s man who won’t be wronged, insulted, or laid a hand on. But in this moment he revealed a reality that all guys actually struggle with—that in light of the fact that life is scary, we are, in fact, scared. Weak.
I know you’ll understand when I say his comment encouraged me. It was honest, unpretentious. He displayed an awareness that the images we often project of ourselves barely tell the whole truth about who we are, and, more importantly than that, it’s okay to discard those projections in order to see the truth; and even though the truth is that we are fearful and frail, the fact that it is the truth places us into a reality out of which we can actually begin to honestly live, unlike the false pretense of machismo we often mistake for true strength.
It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to be weak and afraid.
The apostle Paul was no stranger to scary and overwhelming moments. After recalling a long list of hardships, setbacks, and dangers in his second letter to the Corinthian church, he mentions a moment he had been made weak and he asked God to remove the weakness; God’s response was “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”
Sometimes I think we regard God’s grace as something of a wet noodle of a virtue, an excuse that’s too weak to do any good, particularly when it comes to “being a man”. It is not. Grace is that by which God facilitates true strength to those who aren’t “too tough” to ask for it, to faithfully ask our powerful Father to strengthen us His children. So Paul responds “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
This is not to glorify weakness or excuse it, but to normalize it, because once we’ve normalized it, then we can begin to live in spite of it, letting the true strength of Christ grow out and live through us. That’s the difference between what we try fabricating in our pretentiousness and what God’s forming in us; in our pretentious projections, we attempt to fabricate ourselves into some “manly” image we picked up somewhere along the way, while “the power of Christ may dwell in” us so it is God’s image and character that is actually being formed in us.
This is really a part of a larger conversation that really needs serious discussion amongst the Church and its men, particularly guided and guarded by those who know how to do it gracefully and with patience. I am not a tough man; I am a scared man. But each day I try nurturing the hope that God in His strength is faithful and that in His faithfulness I am being made strong. I hope you will share in that hope for yourselves and the men and brothers around you as you attempt to live each day.