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Masculinity, the Mantle of Manhood

A long, snaking abrasion appeared on the face of the Oklahoma earth as the single bottom plow gouged its way along under the weight of the old Indian and the unsteady pull of a Paint war-pony converted to plow horse. A single feather dangled at the quill from the gray braid of the warrior. One to match had been tied by a leather thong to the horse’s mane. Bent over his plow and looking at the wrong end of his horse, dreams of yesteryear filled the warrior-mind of the aging man. He stopped for a moment to reminisce of prairie grass, buffalo, and a horizon that beckoned to him from the back of his pony. Now, only a furrow called to him at the end of his reservation plot. Looking into a sky of clouds the west wind etched the figment of his mind. Once again he was bareback on his Paint pony feeling the horse’s heat on his thighs and their fluid unity galloping in the midst of the buffalo herd. Feathers, hair, horse, rider, and bison moved in symphonic motion. There was life. There was calling. How is plowing the earth supposed to replace this memory of identity? And more importantly, how is an old Indian behind a plow supposed to pass on to his sons the art of being a man?

Few paintings move me and transcend me as the one I’ve just described by Wm. R. Leigh which hangs at the Woolaroc Museum in northeastern Oklahoma. With oil and canvas words the artist has portrayed a condition of the heart. How will this old plains warrior pass on the song of his soul to the ones who look to him for the treasures that will build their identities? And how will the young men pass the skills of manhood to their children if all they have are worn stories of yesterday?

Men are a complex mix of extremes. They are tough, resilient, driving and independent, but molded through close, timely dependence upon their fathers and older mentors. Disturb their routine and they flex, but disrupt the delicate transition from boyhood to manhood and they suffer immeasurably.

Boys become men by watching men, by standing close to men. Manhood is a ritual passed from generation to generation with precious few spoken instructions. Passing the torch of manhood is a fragile, tedious task. If the rite of passage is successfully completed, the boy-become-man is like an oak of hardwood character. His shade and influence will bless all who are fortunate enough to lean on him and rest under his canopy. However, if the divine plan is disrupted and no mentor steps in to pick up the mantle of responsibility, the boy will grow only to look like a man and will be faced with the unenviable, treacherous task of discovering his manhood by accident or with the "help" of Hollywood’s role models. It is God’s design that a man’s shoulders be capable of carrying a considerable load of responsibility. But the way a boy gets there is a delicate mission.

And is this some divine curse? Certainly not! It is a blessing. Within every man is a constant reminder of what God intended the Christian life to be. In weakness and fragility the boy depends upon his father to provide his strength. And once the boy is a man, blessed with strength, there is a humility in knowing it is not his strength but that which he was blessed with through his father. Is there a more accurate portrait of the Christian life? While the temptation remains constant to declare ourselves strong and independent, real fulfillment comes in recognizing that it is Christ’s strength in us and through us that makes us what we are.

But what if, in the process of achieving manhood, an inconsistent representation of Christianity is given? If the things of Christ are given secondary priority, if Christ Himself is depicted as nothing more than a figure of the faith, and religion is taught in place of personal relationship, what will become of what should be the most important priority in a man’s life? The boy will grow strong with the inherent strength of a man, but be hardened against the humble acknowledgement of his dependence upon Christ as his life. Then, while dancing the dance of life, he will struggle on his own to make real the true dream of manhood God wired into his X and Y genes.

True men are made, not born. Men fashioned as God intended when He first thought of men are not conversationalized into manhood; they are shown, guided, tutored, and mentored.

There was a time some years ago when the passage from boyhood to manhood was more clearly marked, when men were more confident in what manhood meant, and life in general guided men as they passed their blessing on to the next generation. But things aren’t quite that stable today. Character, dignity, honor, and integrity are not valued as highly as force, opportunity, avarice, and cunning in making a man powerful. Today, the reverence for and submission to divine absolutes has been replaced by a relative ethic. That is, everything is judged by how it relates to the individual and is given value based upon whether it serves the individual. Self-sacrifice, at least on society’s list, only occurs if it serves self. The meaning of "Christian man" has been fogged over, secularized, abused, and even abandoned by some. And it’s no wonder. Christian men are portrayed as smiling, somberly reverent, non-emotional, reticent, non-confronting, and non-transparent individuals who are very different at home and work than they are at church.

It isn’t any mystery why our bookstores have suddenly begun stocking their shelves with books on men. It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear of men’s groups forming all across the nation to offer support to marooned males. Neither should we wonder too long about why our young men are growing more violent and acting this out through their music, art, language, and lifestyle. Why Christianity has been tossed aside without regard isn’t really much of a riddle given that it has been stripped of esteem, value, and force. Men are in trouble. They feel it deep in their souls. They are aware of their troubled torment but are not skilled in acknowledging weakness or verbalizing fear. Inwardly they sense their calling and purpose, but outwardly they are confused, frustrated, lonely, and longing for true manhood and the fulfillment that eludes them. In short, they haven’t been mentored in masculinity.

But it is a cop out to claim perpetual, unalterable bondage to something less than true manhood because you were thwarted in your passage from boy to man. It is also a cop out to deny that you have been hurt by being deprived of a healthy transition to manhood. You are never so weak, or bound, or deprived that Christ is not sufficient. And, to acquiesce in denial is not representative of the strength Christ wants to forge and demonstrate in you and through you.

There is no doubt that the deficit a man feels within himself, or the delusion of inner tranquility that covers an insecure masculinity, are perplexing and painful issues. No one would deny that chiseling off the rough edges of deprivation is a difficult, painful task. However, the great message of God is that He is our security, strength, and refuge. In a nutshell, He is our Father. I repeat, there is not enough bondage or overwhelming weakness or bereft identity to challenge His sufficiency. Security, strength, refuge, identity: Fundamentally a man needs these. Foundationally, Christ says, "I am and will be all of this and more."

Perhaps the heaviest decision a man will ever make is to subdue his will and admit his need for Christ as his life. For the man who fidgets within, confused about his masculinity, such a decision is perhaps obvious. However, to the man skilled in the rituals of maleness and confident in his strength and power, such an admission of weakness and need might be viewed as unnecessary. Which of these two men has the greatest male need? The latter, without question. Why? He has missed the most basic lesson of what makes a male a man. It is essential that a man not forget the humble weakness of dependence upon his father. To assume as an adult male that there is any less need for reliance upon the Father is a tragic error in understanding the real strength of a man.

Life no longer needs men to ride war ponies across the Great Plains in search of buffalo herds. Life does require, and always will, that a man’s inner world reflect the God-given dreams of what masculinity is really all about. The drive for masculinity, laced by God into a man’s genetic code, is as present in today’s high tech world as it was in the day of single bottom plows. But, if plows and hunts and horses made males into men, then 1993’s computers would offer little hope; and, if men could become men alone, then manhood would not require God’s sufficiency.

Preston Gillham

About the Author

As a co-founder, Preston Gillham led Lifetime for 30 years. Preston is a writer, speaker, and leadership guide. He has authored numerous articles and several books including No Mercy and Battle for the Round Tower. He blogs on “Life and Leadership”. More about Preston, his writings, speaking, and his consulting practice can be located at PrestonGillham.com.