Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace,
We heard this week
that federal regulations
prevent immigration shelter workers
from comforting small children.
And we heard a Bible verse that says
the governing authorities
“have been instituted by God.”
Let us now hear the teaching of the passage
that verse begins:
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor;
therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
For those workers who feel bound by regulations
not to love,
let us back up a paragraph:
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
And let us hear the exhortation that begins
this whole section of scripture:
“Do not be conformed to this world
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that you may prove what is the will of God,
what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Come what may, O Spirit of Life,
May we live by the vision of beloved community
expressed in this section of the book of Romans:
“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,
let us use them:
if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;
if service, in our serving;
if teaching, in our teaching;
if encouragement, in our encouraging;
if giving, in our liberality;
if helping, in our devotion;
if acts of mercy, in our cheerfulness.”
And may we hold in our hearts the passage
of that same Biblical book
used 450 years ago to support Europe’s first
declaration of religious tolerance:
“Faith comes by hearing,
and that hearing by the holy word.”
In the Spirit, by the Spirit, with the Spirit giving power,
so may it be. Amen.
READING: “The Demiurge’s Laugh” by Robert Frost
It was far in the sameness of the wood;
I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail,
Though I knew what I hunted was no true god.
It was just as the light was beginning to fail
That I suddenly heard – all I needed to hear:
It has lasted me many and many a year
The sound was behind me instead of before,
A sleepy sound, but mocking half,
As of one who utterly couldn’t care.
The Demon arose from his wallow to laugh,
Brushing the dirt from his eye as he went;
And well I knew what the Demon meant.
I shall not forget how his laugh rang out.
I felt as a fool to have been so caught,
And checked my steps to make pretense
It was something among the leaves I sought
(Though doubtful whether he stayed to see).
Thereafter I sat me against a tree.
“It was far in the sameness of the wood” –
“sameness” suggests conformity, blending in,
and he’s “far in” conformity, blending, hiding –
he “was running with joy on the Demon’s trail,
though [he] knew what [he] hunted
was no true god.”
Our first thought of a “Demon” is of an evil spirit that possesses a person, like in a horror movie, or of a devil carrying out the due torments of hell in some medieval painting. An older, less sinister meaning – often spelled with an “a” before the “e” – is that a daemon is a divine being whose nature is between gods and humans. The ancient Arian heresy was to imagine that Jesus was such a creature. Another meaning of daemon is of an attendant spirit or inner inspiration. “[He] knew what [he] hunted was no true god.”
What is taking shape in the first lines of Frost’s poem is an allegory of adult male experience as prescribed by the conventions of our culture. By those lights, a man’s identity is bound up with work, and a career is a hunt for something that, if you caught it, you might not know what to do with it, but your job is to track it, and – having gotten the job – you run after it joyfully, knowing in your heart that what you’re chasing isn’t something you’d go after for yourself – it’s not of intrinsic value to you, not really fulfilling, not your heart’s desire – it’s “no true god.” But your effort will be appreciated, you hope, by your employer.
The chaser is alone in the wood – except for this Demon – so what will in fact be appreciated is his report of what happened. At the end of the day – “just as the light was beginning to fail” – the Demon is heard, not seen, behind, not before. The laugh that rings out – unforgettably – sounds sleepy, half-mocking, uncaring – like a corporate employer, perhaps – and then it is seen, rising from the mud where it has been wallowing, brushing dirt from its eye. It says no words, but “well [our hunter] knew what the Demon meant.” Its laugh was “all [he] needed to hear.” Many a company man will recognize this experience, and its aftermath:
“I felt as a fool to have been so caught,
And [made] pretense …
(Though doubtful whether he stayed to see).
Thereafter I sat me against a tree.”
Picture a husband and father of children, with all the expectations of those relationships, sat against a tree feeling foolish and trying not to look it. Or picture him bluffing and bullying his way through life. How many ways do men try to cope with patriarchy and systemic oppressions we are trained and expected to uphold?
I have often joked that the diagonally-striped tie symbolizes the patriarchal oppression of men. You’ll almost never see me wearing one of those. But back of my mind when I say that is the sort of dilemma of unfulfilling conformity that Frost describes in “The Demiurge’s Laugh.”
I think it’s important to realize how deep oppression runs in our culture, and that men do not escape it. But oppression takes shape with a certain subtlety when it acts on the people it privileges. We are learning about that in the arena of race and white supremacy culture. We also – for the sake of fathers and their children – need to learn about it again in the arena of gender and patriarchy.
Sociologist Michael Messner noticed twenty years ago that by the late 1970s, “men’s liberation had disappeared. The conservative and moderate wings of men’s liberation became an anti-feminist men’s rights movement, facilitated by the language of sex roles,” he said, while “[t]he progressive wing of men’s liberation abandoned sex role language and formed a pro-feminist movement premised on a language of gender relations and power.”
I remember that men’s liberation movement from my teenage years, and how the Demon mocked it with a laugh. How men were ridiculed for embracing it.
I remember in my 30s – in the mid-1990s – being part of men’s groups in UU churches. About then an organization was founded called UUMeN, whose purpose was “to build a mature, liberal religious masculinity: male-positive, pro-feminist/womanist, gay-affirming, culturally and racially inclusive and diverse.” It provided resources for men’s groups, small group ministry for men, and resources about how to meet boys’ developmental needs in religious education programs. Its newsletter featured reflections by people of all genders about sons and fathers. It was dissolved in 2011.
Back in the day, I met with different kinds of men’s groups. The early ones were full of men earnestly seeking escape from what felt like a straitjacket of gender role expectations. We did things like the “Who Are You?” exercise, where two men sit facing each other, maintaining eye contact, and one asks the other, “Who are you?” And the other answers, and after a pause the first asks again, “Who are you?” And the other has to answer again. And they repeat this through several more iterations. And then they trade roles. In this and other ways we powered through confessions of our selves and our hearts. We talked about the Hero’s Journey, read books like King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, and other things aimed at male self-discovery. Later groups I was part of were more relaxed, and involved beer.
Serious cultural dialogue about what we used to call “masculine maturity” has long since melted away. Something like the illusion of a “post-racial” society that set in ten years ago when Barack Obama became President, has set in around patriarchy – just like an illusion of freedom set in after the Civil War, or the illusion of a Great Society set in after World War II. Such illusions come with their own woods of sameness and a Demon to chase through it, that in our solitude mocks us and makes us feel foolish. Or angry. It’s a good idea to step back from such illusions, once we recognize that we have them, because they distort our view of what is good.
Also: Feeling foolish makes it hard to get energized. The energy of anger is hard to channel constructively. We need to get out of this wood.
I think we all need to stand ready to help the fathers among us to discern what masculine maturity looks like in them. We need to be ready to be welcoming and supportive good listeners when a father wants to think out loud about what fatherhood holds in the way of challenges and purposes and rewards. We need to be as ready for fathers as for any of us who wants to be their best selves. For we all have a role in the lives of children.
Being male in a patriarchal culture is a challenging, subtle thing. Being a father in such a culture is its own kind of challenging and subtle. It’s past time for us as a society to take that seriously again. Because fatherhood – parenthood – is not just personal: it’s political.
May we collectively find our way back to dismantling patriarchy and making better men. May we remember that all oppressions intersect and are part of a larger, undesirable pattern. May we be not conformed to this world but transformed by the renewal of our minds. So may it be. Amen.