March 19 | Lent 4 | Pilgrimage: Sheep, Mud, and Non-Toxic Masculinity


Pilgrimage: Sheep, Mud, and Non-Toxic Masculinity
Texts: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-7
Speaker: Joel Miller

When the prophet Samuel goes to Bethlehem, he has one purpose – to anoint a new king of Israel.  It was a risk.  Israel already had a king – Saul – the first king of this tribal confederation – anointed by none other than Samuel himself.  But Saul had fallen out of favor with the Lord and with Samuel.  So it was time to anoint a new king.

The institution of kingship was already something of a divine compromise, according to the book of 1 Samuel.  Up to that point the people had been led by regional chieftains or judges.  People like Gideon and Deborah and Samson – and Samuel.  Toward the end of Samuel’s life the people started asking for a king, a centralized leader to govern them and fight their battles.  Samuel reports this to the Lord, and the Lord, through Samuel, issues a warning.  If they do indeed get a king, the king will enlist their sons in his military, he will take their daughters into his court, he will claim the best fields and vineyards and orchards for himself.  He will tax their grain and flocks, and, “you shall be his slaves.”  1 Samuel chapter 8.  

Despite all this, the people still demand a king.  And the Lord concedes.  And so Samuel and the Lord find the most kingly of the Israelites – Saul, son of Kish.  1 Sam. 9:2: “There was not a man among the people or Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”

Now, Samuel is on a quest to find Saul’s replacement.  In Bethlehem there is a man named Jesse.  Samuel will anoint one of his sons as the new king.  Kingship, take 2. 

Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to join him as he makes a sacrifice.  One by one Jesse’s sons come before Samuel.  The firstborn, Eliab, looks like the perfect fit, much like Saul, but this time the Lord says to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord does not look as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 

None of the other sons are chosen.  Jesse mentions that he does have one more son he didn’t even think to bring, the youngest, David, who is out keeping the sheep.  They fetch for David.  He arrives fresh from the fields, likely smelling of grass, sweat, wind, and animal. Samuel hears from the Lord that this is the one, and Samuel anoints him right there in front of his father and brothers.  A shepherd-boy-king.

Along with showing up in this week’s lectionary, this story appears in a brief chapter by eco-feminist, Sophie Strand in her book The Flowering Wand.  Subtitle Rewilding the Sacred Masculine.  Sub sub title Lunar Kings, Trans-Species Magicians, and Rhizomatic Harpists.  It was a Christmas gift which I’m still opening.  Strand contrasts masculinity characterized by the sword with one characterized by the flowering wand of the god Dionysus. 

She writes: “The sword slices, divides, and subdues.  Its tip drags imaginary borders across ecosystems.  The sword does not embrace.  It does not connect.  It does not ask questions.  It is not an instrument of intimacy.  It either attacks or defends, affirming that every interaction is conflict, and every story is about domination and tragedy…The wand, on the other hand, makes connections” (p. 1). 

The chapters draw from mythology, folklore, and nontraditional takes on biblical stories to paint pictures of a masculinity that makes connections, especially with the natural world.  One of the stories she illuminates is the young David, whose formation happened in the fields – protector, musician, poet.      

I’ve yet to come across this phrase in the book, but the writing is an antidote to what is being referred to these days as “Toxic masculinity.”   

Toxic masculinity isn’t a new phrase and it’s certainly not a new issue.  Maybe that’s what the Lord was trying to protect the Israelites from in warning them about a king.  As far as I can tell, the phrase “toxic masculinity” goes back to the 1980s.  It was coined, surprisingly, by men – leaders in what was called the mythopoetic men’s movement.  What these men were trying to do was recover what they called “deep masculinity,” which they felt had been lost in the modern world.  Male comradery had been replaced with competition in the workplace.  The falling away of traditional rituals and initiation rites left men drifting without a clear sense of obligation to their community.  The discouraging of male emotions other than anger left men emotionally illiterate.  These men’s groups sought to recover a “deep masculinity” in contrast to individualistic, unfeeling, and violent, “toxic masculinity.”

Our understandings of gender and sexuality have become more fluid since the beginnings of that movement, but the term “toxic masculinity” has stuck.  A 2019 New York Times article titled “What is Toxic Masculinity?” answers its own question by suggesting three key components:  “suppressing emotions or masking distress; maintaining an appearance of hardness; violence as an indicator of power – ‘tough guy’ behavior.” 

As someone who loved being a boy, and feels right at home in my pale male skin, this is a conversation I’m paying attention to. 

If nothing else, I’d like my life to be an answer to the question: “What is non-toxic masculinity?”  Which, I realize, is a pretty low bar.  Kind of like striving to be a non-intoxicated driver, or a non-negligent parent, or a non-abusive husband.  You make a meal for your family and you ask “How’s the food?”  It’s good.  It’s non-poisonous.  Great job dad.

Masculinity can, at a minimum, take the Hippocratic Oath of “First, do no harm.”

But I’m with Sophie Strand and others who think there’s more to it than that.  She calls it “the sacred masculine.”  Wielding a flowering wand in place of a sword.  We could also call it healthy masculinity, or generative masculinity.   
We have wisdom for this within our own scriptures, and it seems the scriptures themselves point beyond human culture to inform and heal the masculine. 

In Genesis 2 man is formed out of the ground.  We are quite literally earth creatures.  We are animated mud, sentient soil.  The scientist Paul Stamets has estimated that “a single cubic inch of topsoil includes up to eight miles of fungal cells” (The Flowering Wand, p. 17).  These underground fungal lines channel water and nutrients as they wind and weave and connect roots of plants that look, above ground, to be individuals.  In other words, sentient soil, connection is our homeland and birthright.  We are not separate, but part of.  We are not independent, but interdependent, like the ground itself.  As our soil selves, we are cooperatively connected.  We are nutrient networks.

It is because of his origins in the fields that Sophie Strand highlights the young David as a different model of kingship, at least at the beginning. 

She writes: “He is outside – outside the roll call of kingship and outside the political system.  Instead, he is housed in landscape, surrounded by his sheep.  His initial ‘attributes’ are the outdoors and animals” (p. 90).

When Saul, still king, offers David his royal armor to fight the Philistine giant Goliath, David finds the armor doesn’t fit, both physically and metaphorically.  Even though Saul views David as his rival, David comforts Saul during his spells of mental anguish, by playing the lyre.  The young David – shepherd, musician, poet, and yes, warrior with nontraditional weapons of stone and sling – uses his power to protect, comfort, and delight.  It’s a picture of generative masculinity.  This is the David still on the outside, on the edges of royal power.

David doesn’t turn out to be the model king as he settles into the center of power.  Bethany Davey’s Advent sermon about Bathsheba brought this to light – even as she brought agency to Bathsheba as more than just someone David the powerful king acted against.

If David presents a model of healthy masculinity that loses its way, the gospel reading gives us a picture of what healing might look like.  John chapter 9 features a man who had been born blind.  Blindness would have made him unable to care for himself, a beggar dependent on the goodwill of others to survive.  He also carried a moral stigma.  What had this man’s parents done wrong to deserve a blind son?  That’s the question the disciples ask Jesus when they encounter this man.  Jesus responds by saying that this doesn’t have anything to do with sin and assures the disciples that they’re about to encounter the work of God.  And this is where the story starts to get interesting.  Here’s how John tells it: “When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’  Then he went and washed and came back able to see.” 

Along with being a common practice of folk medicine, mud on blind eyes carries rich symbolism.   And not just any mud, but mud with Jesus’ spit in it.  The dirt harkens back to creation, Jesus remaking this man’s eyes through the raw material from which we all come. Jesus mixes part of himself with the soil and thus offers the healing powers within himself. Alongside the healing powers within the earth.  Saliva merges with soil.  Divinity with dirt.  Man with mud. 

It’s a story of dirt healing dirt.  It’s a story of a man healing a man.

In our current setting, I confess, from personal experience, that masculinity carries with it a certain blind-from-birth characteristic.  Not because of the sin of any single person, and not because masculinity has inherent moral failings, but because of our how our culture – and many other cultures – centers certain forms of masculinity.  When you’re born into the center, it’s really hard to see how those not in the center experience the world.  You’re blind to it.  You simply can’t see it.   

The author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.  Big, undreamed-of-things – the people on the edge see them first” (Quoted in Tools of Titans, by Tim Ferriss, p. xvi). 

In order for the masculine to see the fuller picture of the world, it needs help.  Maybe it needs to become a humble beggar.  Maybe it needs a compassionate Jesus figure to come alongside it – a man who can already see what we can’t.  It certainly needs mud.  It needs to be reminded where it came from.  It needs to feel the cool dark earth over its eyes, spit and all, and remember that it is connected to all things:  The center, the edges, the fields, the soil. 

Masculinity needs help seeing so it can, like the man in this story, become a clear-eyed witness to the good it has seen.

So we can be grateful to those who have helped us see along this pilgrim road.  And even though the dominant word associated with masculinity these days is “toxic,” we can be grateful, all of us, for the sacred masculine that courses through our earthy bodies, in whatever way that energy manifests itself through us. 

I hope we use our power to protect and provide.  I hope we replace the sword with the flowering wand.  I hope we play our song of comfort and delight and accept whatever anointing calls us into service to our community.