READING “Finding Iron John”  by Robert Bly

Though it was first set down by Grimm brothers around 1820, this story could be ten or twenty thousand years old.

As the story starts, we find out that something strange has been happening in a remote area of the forest near the king’s castle.  When hunters go into the area, they disappear and never come back. Twenty others go after the first group and do not come back. In time, people begin to get the feeling that there’s something weird in that part of the forest, and they “don’t go there anymore.”

One day an unknown hunter shows up at the castle and says, “What can I do? Anything dangerous to do around here?” 

The king says: “Well, I could mention the forest, but there’s a problem. The people who go out there don’t come back. The return rate is not good.” 

“That’s just the sort of thing I like,” the young man says. So he goes out into the first and, interestingly, he goes there alone, taking only his dog. The young man and his dog wander about in the forest and they go past a pond. Suddenly a hand reaches up from the water, grabs the dog, and pulls it down.

The young man doesn’t respond by becoming hysterical. He merely says, “This must be the place.”

Fond as he is of his dog and reluctant as he is to abandon him, the hunter goes back to the castle, rounds up three more men with buckets, and then comes back to the pond to bucket out the water. Anyone who’s ever tried it will quickly note that such bucketing is very slow work.

In time, what they find, lying on the bottom of the pond, is a large man covered with hair from head to foot. The hair is reddish – it looks a little like rusty iron. They take the man back to the castle, and imprison him.  The king puts him in an iron cage in the courtyard, calls him “Iron John” and gives the key into the keeping of the Queen.  This is just the beginning of the story.


So you may have heard the really big news this week. “It’s a Boy!”  Yes, the new 2012 Volkswagen Beetle has been toughened up… “More power, less flower” is the slogan that markets the car to men. The flower vase on the dash is gone and so are the pastel colors. All this so that men will buy a car.  I didn’t know the beetle was a woman’s car before!  But I do know that a good conversation starter with men is ‘What was your first car?’ Mine was a 1963 powder blue Beetle that I acquired for $700, in 1973.  And, I have to admit that I watched the Giants game last Sunday as research for this sermon. You see cars and football are classic, stereotypical ‘guy’ interests. I have to tell you it was my daughter who taught me to appreciate the game, not my father, husband or son – they really couldn’t care less about football!

Cars, football, working with power tools and mowing the lawn are supposed to fall into the category of male interests.  Add to the list: fighting wars, leading in competitive business, being in charge, and being the major bread winner in the family.  You all know the list well.  Those who promote traditional family values rely on these caricatures of men, and they reinforce the traditional roles men are supposed to play.  But thankfully we have all come a long way.  We now understands gender as something other than two polar opposites. There is indeed a wide variety of gender expression on a wide continuum than we ever imagined.  The feminist revolution’s intent was to liberate women and men from the confines of these gender-specific roles and responsibilities, as well as to stop the violence against the other that sexism promotes. The sixties and seventies saw a revolution in the way men and women thought about their identities. And forty or 50 years later, such identity work has shifted dramatically again.  

There was a time when men’s groups and women’s groups were the liveliest edge of UU congregations’ programming.  But it has been quite a while since new gender-specific groups have started here at UUCMC.  While a few longer term groups continue, I wonder if there is still a need for a men’s ministry or a women’s ministry.  One of the reasons for this sermon series on gender is to raise that question.  I do know that gender identity still matters to us.  It is still the question most often asked when a baby is born into the world.  Whatever we answer is hopefully celebrated. But we also are learning that gender can be physically, emotionally and spiritually ambiguous.  Not everyone who looks male feels male inside.  Not everyone identifies clearly as one gender or the other.  And what is male exactly?  The identity is so steeped in cultural assumptions that separating the influence of nature and nurture is tough.

Science tells us that: “Gender is a range of characteristics used to distinguish between males and females, particularly in the cases of men and women and the masculine and feminine attributes assigned to them. Depending on the context, the discriminating characteristics vary from sex to social role to gender identity.” (Wikipedia)

And the male gender is defined by the possession of an XY (as opposed to XX) sex chromosome that determines the role of the male in reproduction.  The male provides the sperm, the female the egg.  Beyond this biology, all else is more fluid. The roles, the sense of identity - these seem to be more often determined by cultural context.

A recent article in the Huffington Post is an example of the ongoing argument about gender.

Men and women are more alike than different -- that's been the consensus view for many years among the researchers who study personality differences between the sexes. But a new study claims this wisdom is wrong. By correcting for measurement errors, three researchers put forth a study that was published on Wednesday on the Public Library of Science website saying they've found that men and women feel and behave in markedly different ways. They're almost like 'different species,' Paul Irwing, one of the researchers, told The Huffington Post.

The research, conducted by Marco Del Giudice of Italy's University of Turin and Irwing and Tom Booth of the UK's University of Manchester, involved getting 10,000 Americans to take a questionnaire that measured 15 different personality traits. According to their analysis, men are far more dominant, reserved, utilitarian, vigilant, rule-conscious, and emotionally stable, while women are far more deferential, warm, trusting, sensitive, and emotionally 'reactive.' The two sexes were roughly the same when it came to perfectionism, liveliness, and abstract versus practical thinking.

But other research argues the opposite:

The consensus view, most persuasively set out in a 2005 study by Janet Shibley Hyde, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, demonstrated through a meta-analysis of 46 other studies that men and women were actually very similar, not only in personality traits, but in other realms of supposed gender difference, like self-esteem, leadership, and math ability. 

In a very practical way we each experience the outside world, and our own lives, through the lens of gender, whether male, female or some combination.  Gender is an issue, an assumption and a container for the way we move through the world. How can it not matter personally to each of us?  How can it not matter that right here in this room and down the hall in our classrooms, people who identify as men and boys are asking what matters? They are here searching for meaning and asking, “How can I live my life with purpose and true to my own self and my community?”  If for no other reason, being conscious of how gender influences our own experience may help us understand ourselves, our relationships and how the world can be made more fair for all.

The journey from boy to man, coming of age, leaving home, making a place in the world, learning a skill and using it, making relationships, a new home and a family -- these are critical issues for all men.  The roles of son, father, brother, friend and lover are not always navigated easily. Men and boys need mentors and guides on this journey.  How do men create relationships that matter? This is a critical religious question since religion is ultimately about how we are connected, bound together in community and with both higher and deeper dimensions.

I sometimes think I live too much in a UU bubble. Here gender identity is a particular diversity to be celebrated. While in our ideal world male gender does not equate with power, in the real world many still assume men have greater power. They assume a level of authority, not to mention a potential for violence and the misuse of that power.  Yet the men I know well have much ambivalence toward these assumptions.  They struggle for authenticity, for agency and for fairness.  They do not want to be in the oppressor role, yet systems of oppression are complicated and left unexamined can make any of us into something we do not want to be.  Somehow we need to find a way to talk about this in order to learn from each other’s stories and to be opened up to new possibilities. Maybe such a conversation has to start man to man, and boy to man.  

Rev. Tom Owen-Towle is a UU minister who has been a champion for men’s ministries in our congregations. He knows that the struggle for intimacy is vital for the liberation of human beings.  In his book “Save the Males” he writes, “Whereas our physical incarnation may be maleness, our spiritual vocation is brotherhood. Brothering is an intentional choice, re-visioned daily, to relate to men, women and children, indeed all reality, with the eyes of compassion and the hands of justice.”

The art of friendship is learned in religious community.  I’ve said this many times, but I need to say it again: Where else today but in a religious community, can you make friends of different generations, genders and diverse experience and outlook?  All we do is knit the ties, weave the connections between individuals and the greater story.  One piece of that tapestry is the connections between men and boys of every generation.  Sam Keen reminds us that,

We need same sex friends because there are types of validation and acceptance that we receive only from our gender mates. There is much about our experiences as men that must be shared with, and understood by, other men. There are stories we can tell only to those who have wrestled in the dark with the same demons and been wounded by the same angels. Only men understand the secret fears that go with the territory of masculinity.

And our children, boys and girls, need male role models just as much.  It was so good to see men and women teaching in our RE classes last Sunday when I visited them.  What a gift that presence is to our children. And our DRE Michelle reminded me today that she is in search of a few more teachers for 4&5 and 7&8 grades… maybe this is your call to that good work of mentoring our young people! I remember a few weeks ago, our share the plate charity was Big Brother/Big Sisters, and the presentation about the program mentioned that there is a shortage of big brothers.  Yet this mentoring, brothering, teaching role is critical for the health and well-being of all boys and the men they will become.

Being a man is so much more than the sports you watch or the cars you drive.  That veneer of stereotype falls apart pretty fast once we are in real relationship.  And once we delve into the nature of our own story and gender identity we find something true about ourselves that is precious and worthy. And by sharing yours you may help someone else uncover their own story.

The Iron John story is a Brothers Grimm fairytale that Robert Bly utilized to explore the myth and facts of the male experience.  Iron John is the wild, untamed inner self that must be uncovered to go to the depths of the male experience.  He represents the navigating, teaching and mastering of the experience of men in the world.  He is not just polar opposites of nurturing or commanding but a metaphor for the journey of becoming. This is a mythic journey that every man must explore to live through the stages of life in male form. Every man (and woman) must come to terms with the wild one that lives within us. That is the struggle in coming of age, to master the wild one with reason and tolerance, and to weave them all together into an authentic man.  It is in our stories of cruelty and kindness that true gentle men can be made.

We’ve all met the cruel one described by the poet Thomas Smith:

The Cruel One

by Thomas R. Smith

He loved to tear the wings

off flies and watch them

hobble in terror and confusion. 

He’d remove all the legs

on one side, so they could

pull themselves only in circles. 

Observing his glee, we sensed

we were nothing more to him

than a larger kind of fly; 

he tore our wings in different

ways, recited lascivious cruelties

and poisoned our empathy. 

At drunken parties in high school

he boasted of roping cats

between the fenders of parked cars. 

One could guess that he’d

been pulled apart himself,

though he resembled someone 

in all of us, the cruel one, 

self-absorbed and vengeful, for whom

the sometimes - yes, sometimes - 

no of beauty is intolerable.

What began as a natural desire

for closeness to creatures, for 

love, has become a demand,

then an active hostility

at last a soul-withering pleasure.

This can be the journey for man, at times in the not so distant past, such cruelty has been the main story, one that leads to emotional remoteness and an ethic of command and control rather than relationship. 

But there are better stories, truer journeys. Every man’s life must come to terms with love, and work, and death.  No one escapes these chapters in the story of a life fully lived.  To love whom you love, whether your attraction is toward men or women, is the challenge that begins at puberty.  It may result in a family and long term commitments or not, but the human animal seeks such connections.

Through these struggles to find work and meaning and a role in the world we learn who we are and who we are not.  Rilke wrote about his own reflection in the mirror, it speaks of the layers of identity we each inhabit:

In the arch of eyebrows some firmness remains

From long disciplined and large-browed ancestors.

Inside the eyes the fearfulness of childhood persists

And some blur also, and some lowliness, not a laborer’s,

But the humbleness of a serving man and of woman…..

The face carries so far only a suggestion of unity.

It has never gathered itself up, either in grief

Or in ecstasy, for any permanent task.

And yet, with all its scattered things, it feels

As if someone there were planning a serious labor.

In the face of every man is all that he is and all that he might be.  Our fears and our hopes live in the lines that time etches.  And a man can know there that he is not all that different from any other.

And then a day comes when the work of becoming a man is completed.  Almost as he finally knows and fulfills his purpose, he faces his own mortality.  All that growing and struggling and becoming, the gathering in, the accumulation of things and deeds that define us, then turns to another page, the page where we begin to let it all go.  The moment a man decides to retire from work and a career, or sees his children launched, is just the beginning.  But there is something about this capstone moment, the way we handle a new chapter, one that still speaks of who that man is.  Many men who retire continue to teach and mentor and to serve in volunteer capacities, in order to pass on what they have learned along the way. They make their legacy in that final chapter.

I remember well the change my father underwent once he retired, enjoying his grandchildren in ways he never could with his children, and finding joy and a measure of peace in art and nature.  That last short chapter was the best one for him. Finally he was released from the pressures and responsibilities of work.

The Iron Man story does not end with the caging of the wild iron man. He is released from his prison by a boy who steals the key from under his mother’s pillow.  And it continues as the boy, riding upon Iron Man’s shoulders, leaves his parents for good.  In that passage the boy receives a vital and important wound to his finger.  A wound he must ponder, suffer and finally learn to heal.  In spite of instructions to not touch a magic spring, he dips his finger in the water to ease the pain and his finger turns to gold.  The Iron Man becomes his mentor… or as Robert Bly says, his male mother.  In any event, it is within the relationship with other men that the boy matures and finds his purpose.

The journey of a man is just such mythic becoming.  Men and boys need guidance, companionship and mentoring.  I remember once asking a young father to be a mentor in a coming-of-age program, and his heartfelt answer was ‘But I need a mentor!’  How many men here today wish they had such a relationship?  How else can boys learn to be men?  How else can men learn from one another and find positive role models and heal the damage done from the negative ones? 

Is there room in our congregation today for a ministry to men?  Being a person of another gender, I cannot answer this for you.  I can make the conditions possible for men to support other men and to give voice to their struggles and their stories.  And I have a few books that might help you get started. Maybe this is something worth exploring again in a new way.

One thing I do know is that I am very invested in the outcome.  I know this world needs whole, good men: men who can speak up for justice and kindness, men with the skills to fix what is broken, men with the knowledge and the heart to heal what is so very wounded.  Friends, the world I want to live in is filled with people, male and female and others living in between, who are good and gentle, wise and strong. Can I hear an Ah..  (Go Giants!)

Ah…men and amen.



Congregation Common Read

Summer Read

Our UUCMC Common Read this summer is "LaRose" by Louise Erdrich. This is Erdrich's latest novel set among modern Native Americans. As the Los Angeles Times review reprinted in the Star Ledger states "In the course of 13 novels and numerous short stories, she has laid out one of the most arresting visions of America in one of its most neglected corners, a tableaux on par with Faulkner, a place both perilous and haunted, cursed and blessed. LaRose is no exception."

The book discussion is scheduled for September 10th at 2pm.