On Bulls and Blindness and Bowing

There have been days when I could hardly stomach the very way he sets his bowl by the sink after dinner.  There have been days when I was forced to plunge my hand into a pool of cloudy broth and noodles because he stuck his dirty dish smack dab in the middle of another dirty, un-emptied dish, days I found myself cringing at the starchy residue on my fingers and the slop of old soup he has slung across the counter and, ultimately, at the grating friction of two lives bumping up against each other.

After fourteen years of getting my hands dirty on the mess of his leftovers, you'd think I would have come up with some better plan than letting the muscles in my neck flex wildly when he plops his plate somewhere that, in my never-humble-enough opinion, it doesn't' belong.  But we are a mess, the two of us, a jumble of lives that sometimes agrees on nothing more than owning this jumble as our mess.  Perhaps that's why, after fourteen years, I still tend to think that there is a right way of doing things, and then there's his way of doing things.

I will be the first to admit that in the delicate china shop of our marriage, I am the bull.  In fact, I am so stubborn that my father actually warned Sam in our marriage ceremony to be prepared for my strong will.  I am so quick to see my way and so slow to see almost anything else.  I can be rigid and selfish and harsh, and sometimes I fumble so spectacularly through our marriage that I am sure it will break apart in my hands.

On my worst days I am convinced that, when the Christian folks who love to quote those verses about wives submitting to their husbands see people like me, they huff and nod to each other that I am pretty much making their own point for them.  After all, here is a woman who writes about equality and has been known to criticize the treatment of gender roles in modern churches, and who also freely admits that her bull-headed nature can be very hard on her marriage.

And I guess it might be easy to assume, since I do write about feminism and equality, that I don't believe in submitting to my husband.  It might be easy to assume that my stubborn pride, my famously bullheaded nature, keeps my from bending to the will of this man I have married.  It might be an easy leap to make, when you read about how I think women deserve more respect, authority, and freedom, to assume that I believe some inverted system is in order, with the long suffering women taking the lead and the brutish men finally being kept under our thumbs.

But, see, that's where these arguments about submission so often get derailed because many of us who bristle at the notion of wives submitting do so not because we have some vested interest in taking charge or getting our way, but because we believe the message of the gospel is just not intended to be used to keep anyone under anyone else's thumb.  We don't believe in correcting the balance of power; we believe in the redemptive nature of exposing the pursuit of power as the dead end that it is.

There are people like me who believe that when we sing the words of "Amazing Grace," we do not mean that we once were blind to the rules but now we can see all that small print that spells out exactly how to behave.  We believe, instead, that our eyes have been opened to the freedom of submitting to a redemption that exempts us from the hierarchies set up by the world.  We are free from the rat race, the beauty pageant, the "he who dies with the most toys" mentality.  We are free from the desperate addictions to power and fame. The blindness of trying to find our worth in how big our houses are, in how sexy we look, in how perfectly we eat, in how flawless our grades are - all of that film, the distorted cataract of living in a world that runs on "me! me! me!" power, is removed.

We once were blind, but now we see.

The legacy of submission survives better in the church than perhaps anywhere else in the Western world.  We submit to this blanket redemption called grace, joints popping as we get down on knees that can hardly remember what it feels like to kneel.  We submit our bodies to the water in baptism, a symbolic death to ourselves.  We submit our lives to service, to humility, to deference to a God never seen or heard by the eyes and ears we believe were actually crafted for us by this God.  We bow our heads and close our eyes, make our very posture submissive and come to the Lord as children, crying "Father, father!" with mouths aimed down at the floorboards.

There are many of us who believe that submission is the key to having our blindness removed.  After all, the pivotal image of our redemption, the foundation for our faith, is a man willingly submitting himself for crucifixion.  Which is why someone as bull-headed as me can revere the freedom found in the act of submission while simultaneously denying the necessity of wives submitting unilaterally to their husbands as an integral component to the Christian faith.

Because we are also called to submit one to another, and there are some of us who believe the call to submit to each other is a powerful reminder that our tendencies to retreat into legalism or place our weight on the leaky lifeboat of power-as-status have no place in the relationships of people who have been freed by grace.  There are some, like me, who believe that you cannot both submit one to another and also establish a static leader-follower structure, that setting up a hierarchy within the marriage necessarily means you are not able to be mutually submissive.

Maybe there are some folks who would be surprised to hear me say that I do believe in submitting to my husband.  In fact, we are bound to each other in the mutual submission we have been called to, and every single day, I have to make the choice to temper my bull-headed nature with the humility and tenderness and patience my marriage deserves.  And every single day, so does he.

After fourteen years of cleaning soup off the counter, I have realized something about this model of shared selflessness: it allows for a level of respect and intimacy I couldn't share with someone who was propped up as my leader, someone who got to override my opinions, someone whose judgment mattered more than mine when it came right down to the tense, gritty moments of decision.

That's why I find myself taking a few deep breaths and clamping down on my tongue when my husband plops his bowl into a pool of old soup, spilling his way all over my nice and tidy idea of the right way to do things.  And it's also, I believe, why Sam gets as fired up about this whole "wives submit" business as I do, why he aches for the friends we've watched bristle and argue and even buckle under the strain of an unequal marriage.  It's why we spur each other on, why we don't feel the need to compete against each other, why we have remained a safe place for each other even in the worst moments of our marriage.

It may always be in my nature to be a bit of a bull in a china shop about things, but every day I get a chance to practice walking softly and calmly, head bowed, mindful of where I'm placing my feet and my horns and my sense of self importance.  Every day, I watch the two of us learn in a million, sloppy, hard-earned ways how submitting to each other helps keep our eyes open to the greater freedom offered by our redemption.  It helps us remember that once we were blind, but now we see.

Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License.


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