Editor’s note: Living Lutheran facilitated this dialogue between father-son duo Martin, 52, and Seth, 21, Zimmann. What follows is an edited version of that exchange.
What have you taught each other about God?
Seth: I’d say that Dad’s most significant contribution to my understanding of God (one of many!) is teaching me that God is not stagnant. He taught me that God, and our conceptions/relationships with God, can continuously fluctuate.
This flexibility allows me to progress in my faith with an open-minded outlook. I can accept that I may learn new things about God with time, and that I can be wrong in my faith as well.
Martin: Seth, your headmaster at the Anglican school in Jerusalem once told me that you have an old soul. He was right. I learn so much about God just by watching you learn about God.
When I come to Camp Luther and see you doing ministry in the midst of the campers, I get a glimpse of how we are intended to grow as part of a harmonious creation. I’m so grateful for the moments in this life where I have been the recipient of a life lesson from you.
What does healthy masculinity look like to you?
Martin: I think a person who performs the male gender and also is born with the male physiological characteristics is healthy if and when they cease to be bothered by the cultural norms surrounding the term “masculinity.”
According to Genesis 1, God created us male and female, but this binary interpretation shows the comprehensive limitations of Genesis’ author. I preach and teach that the binary of male/female is inherently false and that there is a beautiful diversity in God’s creation that loves and welcomes the LGBTQIA+ community.
My masculinity is not defined by the culture. My masculinity is defined by how God calls me to love and care for my neighbors and all of creation.
Seth: I do wonder at your inclusion of “born with male physical characteristics.” I would hope that anyone who considers masculinity an aspect of themselves may do so without society’s input.
“My masculinity is not defined by the culture. My masculinity is defined by how God calls me to love and care for my neighbors and all of creation.”
Of course, we are all part of society, so it would be reductive to proclaim that we must stand unaffected by society. Instead, we must recognize society’s influence over our conceptions of masculinity. Only by identifying the [toxic] masculinity that has become part of ourselves can we grow to excise those unhealthy traits.
If our God calls for acceptance and love, then we must ensure we are loving with our true selves. Only in this way can we truly accept others for their true selves.
Who taught you about healthy masculinity?
Seth: I first identified and learned masculinity by sheer osmosis growing up around Dad. He taught me healthy and unhealthy habits. It’s OK for a masculine individual to be the family cook and not the primary breadwinner of the family. It is imperative that a masculine individual be kind to all people, and willing to be accountable for mistakes.
But I do wonder at the few times that I was spanked as a child for troublemaking, or when conflicts between my sister and I were simply solved by executive decision.
Additionally, I’m a cisgender heterosexual male who’s learned a lot about healthy masculinity from my LGBTQIA+ friends in high school and college. I’m grateful for their friendship.
Martin: OK, so about the spanking thing: I wish I could have a do-over for that. Fifteen years ago it seemed normal to me that when a kid got out of line, you swatted them on the butt. I was wrong. I’m sorry, son.
And yes, there were times when, for the sake of expediency, I laid down the law without providing a full rationale. I still do. That doesn’t work as well anymore.
I’m trying to be better at finding the time for nuanced conversation about why your mom and I make the parenting decisions we do. Jesus always said that unless we become like children, we will never enter the realm of God. I’m working on that, and I hope you learn from my mistakes so you can make better ones.
What are you sure of when it comes to your faith?
Martin: I’m sure that, despite my doubts, God exists. I don’t have to possess perfect faith in God to be perfectly faithful to God’s creation. My favorite Bible verse will always be “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Of all the things I tried to do in my oft-flawed parenting with you and your sister, I’m relieved to see both of you are growing in faith. I’m sure that only the Holy Spirit living in, with and under you can accomplish this as a result of the covenant of holy baptism.
Seth: It’s curious—my faith’s evolution rarely strengthens my belief in God. Instead, my faith in humanity is further bolstered. I’m convinced that at its core, humanity is good. People commit to war and terror only out of desperation or brokenness. I believe we were each once an innocent child, much the same as the Savior. Society and circumstance can shape our paths, keeping us divided.
I think if we attribute too much of our lives to the Holy Spirit, then we allow our faith to shield us from accountability for our own misdeeds. We must instead accept our sins with humility and a desire to improve. When we seek forgiveness (like the prodigal son!), we will find much more powerful connections in humanity than we could ever imagine.
Martin: I want to challenge your conception of humanity. What if the “good/bad” designation is a false binary? What if humanity is capable of the greatest good and also the most horrifying cruelty?
Look around you in this pandemic—I think you’ll see plenty of examples across the spectrum. Faith in God helps us discipline ourselves beyond the selfish desires we so often fall back on during times of anxiety.
How have your ideas about faith changed in your lifetime?
Martin: In seminary, Professor Don Luck taught me that the journey of faith was a movement from a first naiveté to a second naiveté, where the things we were taught in Sunday school were supplanted by deeper, more complex ideas about our relationship with God and all of creation. Perhaps there are an infinite number of naivetés, because none of us can truly come to know the mind of God in this lifetime.
We are prone to arguing about many things, and I find this deeply troubling. The Sufi mystic Rumi once wrote: “Out beyond the ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. Come, I’ll meet you there.” I like to think he was quoting Jesus when he wrote those words. I hope that, someday when I do meet him there, you’ll be with me in some way, Seth.
Seth: I like that concept of infinite naivetés. I think it allows us the freedom to express our thoughts now but acknowledge that we may be wrong in the future. This, in a way, is the grace of God—the gift to make mistakes and be forgiven. Hallelujah.
How does your faith call you to respond to society?
Seth: When asked for “faith and action quotes,” this is Google’s third image result: “Faith in action is love, and love in action is service. By transforming that faith into living acts of love, we put ourselves in contact with God. … with Jesus our Lord” (Mother Teresa).
“I think if we attribute too much of our lives to the Holy Spirit, then we allow our faith to shield us from accountability for our own misdeeds. We must instead accept our sins with humility and a desire to improve.”
I would agree. I think my faith propels me to search for jobs that are about serving others, rather than accruing wealth or status. This is not to say that the desire for worldly goods isn’t human; I would argue that humanity is exactly that—a set of base desires to provide for ourselves. My faith, though small as the mustard seed, pushes me to provide for others. We are not here on this earth to dramatically tear apart the worst of society, but to reform society through good works.
Martin: God bless Google. It helps us be profound when our own words don’t seem to stand alone.
Let me hasten to add, however, that I don’t think you needed Mother Teresa to buttress your statement, because you said something very Lutheran, very profound in your words: “We are not here on this earth to dramatically tear apart the worst of society, but to reform society through good works.”
It reminds me of something Swiss theologian Karl Barth borrowed from Augustine: “Ecclesia semper reformanda est,” which means: “The church must always be reformed.”
Through our attempts at doing the good works of God in this life, we change the church, and therefore the world, through stumbling into the thing God is calling us to do.
The older I get, there are less hills I’m willing to die on for the sake of a Facebook argument, but what little energy I have is usually spent in real conversations about grace and peace with justice and reparation. And when I get my hands dirty, it is usually for the sake of serving so I can check my privilege and aspire to remove the obstacles that keep me from loving people the way God loves them.