Archives For Love

You Are What You Love

Jason Micheli —  July 29, 2016 — 1 Comment

political-conventionThese next two weeks I’m teaching a class for licensed pastors at Wesley Theological Seminary. While reading the participants’ papers in the evening, I’ve been listening to bits and pieces of both parties political conventions. Every now and then a social media notification from a Facebook Friend or Twitter Follower will flash across my laptop screen. When it’s not an invitation to play Candy Crush Saga, it’s most often yet another tweet or post perpetuating the culture war antagonisms in our country.

Convention season has me thinking not of The Donald or Hillary but Augustine.

St. Augustine of Hippo was the kind of dude whose pre-Christian biography The Donald and Bill Clinton could resonate. In other words, he was a narcissistic horn-dog. But that’s not why I’m thinking of Augustine.

I’m thinking of his long work of theology entitled The City of God, written in response to the fall of Rome.  In it, Augustine characterizes Rome’s fall as inevitable by drawing a contrast between the earthly city (Rome) and the heavenly city (God’s Kingdom).

What distinguishes citizens of the two cities, Augustine argues, is not beliefs but love.

The earthly city is necessarily finite, even doomed, because its citizens’ love is directed towards finite ends whereas what distinguishes the citizens of the heavenly city is a love aimed towards God.

For Augustine, our primordial orientation to the world as creatures is not knowledge or belief but love. We are not led in the world by our head. We instead feel our way in the world with our hands and our heart. As creatures we are not mere containers for ideas or beliefs.  As creatures our lives are dynamic, aimed outward from ourselves to the world.

Another way of putting this is that humans are not primarily rational creatures we are intentional creatures; that is, we are aimed towards an object other than ourselves.

For Augustine, we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love. And it’s what we love that defines who we are. Our ultimate love is what constitutes our identity. It’s not what I think that shapes me; it’s what I love.

Augustine’s way of putting this is that we are teleological creatures. ‘Telos’ means end. We are creatures directed towards an end: God and God’s Kindgom. That’s how we’re wired from the Day One of creation (and this is what Sin is: to have our loves directed towards something other than the Kingdom. Sin isn’t the absence of love it’s misdirected love).

We’re teleological, End-driven, creatures. We’re not pushed by beliefs; we are pulled by a desire. It’s not that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster up the heart to follow Jesus. It’s that we’re attracted to a vision of the End that Christ gives us.

The ancient Christians had a way of stating what Augustine is after:  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

It means, literally the ‘rule of prayer, the rule of belief.’ This was their of remembering that our worship- the practice, disciplines, and habits of worship- do not flow out of our beliefs and faith feelings but determine them. They shape them.

What we do forms what we think, believe, and feel. The way to our heart, recalls lex orandi, lex credendi, is through our bodies not through our heads. Our worship precedes our beliefs. What we think and believe about God flows from, not to, our love God.

For Christians at least, the caveat embedded in lex orandi, lex credendi is that our hearts aren’t just shaped by Christian liturgies they’re shaped by every sort of liturgy. All of our embodied practices and habits shape our hearts. What we do daily, in everything we do, shapes our desire. In other words, if our habits do not calibrate our hearts for God they will draw hearts towards something else.

Our hearts will worship, desire, want, and love.

Our heart, Augustine says, needs a lover.

But it doesn’t have to be, and most often is not, God.

Our habits determine who/what we worship, desire, want, and love. Correlatively, our habits reveals who/what we ultimately worship, desire, want, and love.

So listening to the conventions the past two weeks, I can’t help but wonder if what Christians should be concerned about is not The Donald vs. Hillary winning in November nor which issue is the issue over which Christians must distinguish one another. I wonder if the danger is how the practices of our U.S. politics, the habits of our election seasons, the pageantry of our political conventions shape our hearts more. Because, of course, if so then, as James KA Smight says, we just might not love God as much as we think we do.

heresy_GMSI’ve had funerals and death on the brain this past week. It comes with the job. I’m just happy that for the first time in over a year it’s not my own death and funeral that’s lingering on the brain. It’s most often in the context of death that I hear some hackneyed version (‘God has a plan for everything’ or ‘There’s a reason for everything’ or ‘I know it was a horrific life-altering loss for you but God must’ve needed one more angel in heaven.’) of what I’ve concluded is the most common heresy among Americans, Christian and Non- the fraught, turns-God-into-a-prick-that-his-Son-should-depose bullshit belief that God can do whatever God wants.

No.

No, God cannot do whatever God wants.

The notion that God can do whatever God wants is called ‘Sovereignty’ by Calvinists.

The notion that God is free to do whatever God wants is called heresy by the ancient Christians.

 

As I’ve said again and again on this blog, God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change. God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic. Behind the doctrine of immutability is the more foundational doctrine of Divine Simplicity; that is, God is not composed of parts whether spatial, temporal, or abstract. To be composed of parts, the ancient Christians held, implies that God is not the Composer.

Another way of putting it is that God is Simple in that there is no distinction between God’s Nature and God’s Will.

Or, to channel Forrest Gump, God IS as God DOES.

And God cannot DO in contradiction with who God IS.

The ancient Christians held that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

They derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.

So:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. Unknown

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

The heresy that says God can do whatever God wants is called ‘nominalism.’

In contradiction to the ancient tradition, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

According to nominalism, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature. Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will. To want. To choose. Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God. Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A Christian answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.

 

10917296_10205661027787221_3674691722071054151_nA Eucharistic Meditation ~ 

Dear $@#holes,

It’s me, Jason- Tamed Cynic. You know, the Christian whose blog you hacked.

What’s that? You don’t remember me? There were thousands of other random, anonymous victims just like me?

Oh, I see.

I guess that’s a valid excuse. Of course- and this is just a word to the wise- it’s a not a compelling excuse, morally speaking. It’s like Ray Rice explaining that he’s hit so many women, he can’t really recall the one in the elevator. See my point?

But you still don’t remember me?

Fine, never mind. Let’s just indulge my narcissism for a moment and pretend you do.

Now that we’re speaking one-on-one, maybe I should begin where you began and take you to task for your big, bold header you left on my hacked homepage:

‘Muslims are Not Terrorists.’

I get it. I even agree with you, Muslims aren’t terrorists. Terrorists are terrorists, and some of them happen to be Muslim and some of them (more than we care to remember) are Christian and most of them are motivated by something else entirely (politics, economics etc).

So I agree with you, but it’s like Marshall McLuan said way back at the time of the Shah and SNL: ‘The medium is the message.’ 

Following McLuan then, the fact that the medium in this case is a cyber terrorist hacked website belies the message you want to lead with in your headline.

You could post ‘Mom’s Chocolate Chip Cookies are the Best’ in that header but your creepy, comic sans-meets-Osama-hacker-font still would make us wonder if maybe Mom was a baby-eating witch who lived in a hovel deep in the Black Forest.

You see, you want your message to be that ‘Muslims are Not Terrorists,’ fine, but your hack-attack medium makes it inescapably obvious that at least one Muslim IS a terrorist.

You.

You’re lucky I’m a Christian, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist.

I’d love to torment you with the irony of you declaring that Muslims are not terrorists whilst cyber-terrorizing me, but then it wouldn’t really be fair to ridicule you when the fundamentalists of my own tribe don’t do irony well either. After all, Christ’s non-violent cross was painted on chainmail and swords long before Mohammad came on the scene.

While we’re at it there’s the other little irony that the instigating sermon in this case wasn’t critical of Islam at all.

Indeed you hacked me for a sermon that wound its way to telling Christians that they needed to love people like you.

Well played, Mr Islamic Cyber Idiot.

When it comes to those Christians who question the veracity of your headline that ‘Muslims are Not Terrorists,’ your I-didn’t-read-all-the-way-to-the-end, irony-laden screw-up speaks volumes more to them (to indict you) than anything I said to them (to love you).

Way to take a semi-decent, conscience-afflicting sermon and let all my listeners feel like they were justified for suspecting it was just a load of horse s@#$.

‘Because,’ they’re all thinking now (thanks to you), ‘we can’t love terrorists.’

Speaking of which- and I ask since this is your area of expertise, what’s a few notches down from terror? I mean, the feelings you induced in me weren’t exactly terror, yet it was more than inconvenience. While it’s true the craptastic havoc you wreaked on my blog was a giant pain the @#$, it was (a bit) more than a bother you made feel.

For starters, you scared my mom a little more gray, and (thanks to you, again) now I’ve got to text her every night, like a cub scout away at camp, that we’re all okay and not, say, bound and gagged inTurkey.

Your shenanigans provoked feelings in others too.

I can’t tell you how many finger-wagging notes I got messaged to me scolding:

‘This is what you get for letting them worship at your church.’

You see, thanks to you, a whole bunch of otherwise open-minded Christians think its defensible to assume that the old guy at Starbucks or the lady who drives the neighborhood ice cream truck are probably party to an Islamic terrorist network.

Hearing this, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist, should irritate you at least as much as it irritated me. But irritation is not what you made me feel either.

After all, my kids’ faces and names are buried there, in bits and bytes, in my blog. So is my wife’s. And, a bit further down, as you no doubt already know, is our address. Where our credit card number is to be found as well.

I’m not trying to play the martyr, that’s your forte. It’s not like I ever felt my life was in danger, and I’m definitely not suggesting I’m on the front line of freedom. We’re talking about a freaking blog, let’s not forget, I’m not on the front line of anything. Still, you made me- anonymous me- feel…vulnerable.

Yes, I think that’s the right word.

Vulnerable.

I can’t help but think, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist, the feeling you made me feel is exactly what so many of my neighbors and friends and congregants feel all the time. Vulnerable.  And when you’re feeling vulnerable, convinced that yours is an exceptional situation, I can tell you it’s not long before the rationalizing kicks-in, reasoning your way away from Jesus:

Surely we can’t forgive that person… It would be irresponsible to forgive that sin…

Jesus doesn’t really expect us to turn the cheek in this situation…

What am I supposed to do, just give them my children’s cheeks too?

Loving this enemy is no strategy to make them no longer an enemy, it will only get you killed…

Jesus must be talking about life in the Kingdom not in this world…

Our enemies sure won’t abide by any of these commandments…

Those were the thoughts running through my head in the hours and days after your ‘attack,’ Mr. Islamic Cyber Terrorist. They’re all thoughts similar to the ones a good many of my friends and congregants hold, and, truth be told, I used the word ‘rationalizing’ above for a reason.

They’re all incredibly reasonable rebuttals.

They make a lot sense; in fact, truth be told, they make a hell of a lot more sense than Jesus.

And that wouldn’t be a problem if Jesus was politely removed elsewhere, a figment of history or an absentee lord. We could raise our reasonable, real-world rebuttals to his teaching and then get about dealing with the likes of you. Conscience cleared.

The problem is Jesus has this annoying tendency to show up.

That’s what makes him different from your prophet.

You might not know this, Mr Islamic Terrorist, but the night before he dies Jesus sits his twelve disciples down and he says: here’s bread, here’s wine. Eat. Drink. Do this.

Do this and I’ll be with you.

Admittedly, this is irrational and it can’t be explained and it can’t argued with.

And maybe that’s the point.

Maybe it has to be that way because people like me are always going to have to deal with people like you.

Maybe Jesus knew that without bread and wine, we would forever think and argue and rationalize the claims he makes on us as a way of keeping him from us.

Maybe Jesus knew we’re no different than those two disciples on the way to Emmaus, who’d heard all the stories, who knew all the beliefs, who could recite the Easter Gospel and yet had no intention of doing a damn thing about it, who were quite content to say ‘isn’t that interesting’ and not have it change their way in the world.

Maybe Jesus knew that without bread and wine we’d always find a reason to reason our way away from him.

So then, maybe Jesus gives us- Christians, I mean- bread and wine not so we can get close to him as we- Christians, I mean- so often imagine.

Maybe Jesus gives us bread and wine because it’s the only way he can get close to us.

And therein lies my problem, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist. You see, I know how I feel about you. I know what I’d opt to do to you had I not made the mistake of giving my life to Jesus, and I can come up with several dozen cogent reasons why you and your ilk warrant an asterisk at the bottom of the sermon on the mount.

My problem is that I can mount my own reasonable arguments against you, but I can’t argue away what Jesus says about you (worth dying for). I can’t avoid how Jesus would regard you (with grace, for you not what you do) or deny what he’d tell me to do about you (love and mercy).

And, like I said, this wouldn’t be a problem if Jesus had conveniently absconded to the great by and by, but tomorrow is Sunday, Mr Islamic Cyber Terrorist.

Tomorrow I’ll set the table with bread and wine. We’ll all ask Jesus to come join us at the table. And if there’s one thing the Gospels make clear: Jesus never refuses a dinner invitation.

Tomorrow, Jesus is going to show up, real and present. It’ll be the same the Sunday next and the Sunday after that ad infinitum, or at least to the eschaton.

I can come up with all kinds of good reasons why you should be the exception to Jesus’ teaching, and I’d be happy to list them for you someday, but what in the world am I supposed to say to Jesus tomorrow morning when he shows up in bread and wine?

How can I tell Jesus to his face that he’s wrong about you?

How can I tell Jesus that you don’t deserve grace or mercy for your sins when he’s sitting right there at my table?

Talk about an awkward dinner conversation.

Like a lot of dinner parties I’ve been to, to be stuck with the host often means you’re stuck with the other guests too; likewise- and you can be damn sure I never saw this coming- when I gave my life to Jesus, I also in some odd way gave it to you even though I’ve no reason to expect you to treat it well. I guess that counts as another irony.

Anyway that’s my problem, Mr. Islamic Cyber Terrorist. I don’t want to love you; I don’t think you’re lovable.

I don’t even know what it means, practically speaking, to love you.

But tomorrow morning I’m having breakfast with Jesus and I know, if it were up to him, he’d save a seat for you.

So maybe GI JOE was right all along: knowing is half the battle.

Maybe whatever it means to love you starts right there, with bread and wine, and knowing that whenever we invite Jesus to dinner he invites the likes of you.

Maybe the first step in no longer seeing you as an enemy, the first step towards regarding you as a friend, is seeing you as a fellow undeserving guest.

The Gospel in Glasses

Jason Micheli —  February 12, 2014 — 1 Comment

Jason PouringHere’s my sermon for Valentine’s Day based on Genesis 29:

Alright, so men, just so we’re looking out for each other: Valentine’s Day is in 5 days.  The last thing you want to do as a guy is forget Valentine’s Day or give the kind of gift on Valentine’s Day that implies you forgot about Valentine’s Day until the very last minute.

 

I mean, I’ve never done that, but I’ve got a friend who has and he tells me you don’t want to forget Valentine’s or give the kind of gift that says ‘Geez, I almost forgot about you.’

 

Valentine’s Day is crazy.

 

Did you know this year Americans will spend approximately 17.6 billion dollars on Valentine’s Day? It’s true.

 

And the average American will spend $126.03 on their special someone- an amount that makes me look ‘thrifty.’

 

Five days from today Americans will give 224 million roses to each other. They’ll spend 1.6 million dollars on candy, 4.4 million dollars on diamonds and the average American will spend $4.52 on a Valentine’s present for their dog.

 

And I haven’t even mentioned the Valentine’s Cards, which in 5 days will number about 145 million units- 145 million boxes of cards.

 

Hallmark alone will sell nearly 1500 varieties of cards.

 

And some will come with hearts and others with flowers. Some will be sappy and others will try to be funny.

 

And the kids cards will come laced with sugar and preservatives.

 

And all 1500 of those cards will look slightly different but behind every one they all have the same basic message.

The same basic message that the Beatles first gave us:

 

That love is all you need.     Love is all you need.

 

Now I know some of you are excited about Valentine’s Day and the last thing I’d ever want to do is burst someone’s bubble, but you know that’s a lie right?

 

It’s a nice sentiment for a pop song or a rom-com, but as biblical truth it’s what theologians call ‘complete crap.’

 

Far be it from me to be cynical, but the message that love is all you need is a lie. It’s not true.

 

Love, whether we’re talking about your love for your spouse or your love for your children or their love for you, is NOT all you need.

 

The money we spend on Valentine’s Day just reflects a culture that tells us love is what gives our lives meaning and value. We live in a culture that tells us you’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you; consequently, some of us will let any body love us.

We live in a culture that tells us if we just find the perfect person- or have the perfect child- then everything else that’s empty in our lives will be filled.

 

Love is all we need to live happily ever after.

Those are all lies.

You can call me cranky if you like, but you know I’m right.

Anyone who’s ever been married or had children knows love isn’t all you need.

 

On your wedding day you say with a twinkle in your eye: ‘Of all the people in the world, I choose you.’

 

But after the day you say ‘I do’ there are other days when you just want to pull your hair out and scream: ‘Of all the people in the world, I chose you?!’

 

Just ask my wife.

 

So, no. Love is not all you need to live happily ever after.

It wasn’t enough to keep the Beatles together.

It wasn’t enough to rescue some of your relationships.

And it wasn’t enough to keep Jacob’s life from unraveling and damaging everyone in it.

Speaking of Jacob, just as an aside, you need to appreciate the degree of difficulty I’m dealing with today.

 

A few of you may already know that I have a certain affinity for those silly, crude and even offensive parts of the Bible. So you should know that today’s scripture passage contains the Hebrew equivalent of the F-word, as when Jacob says to Laban: ‘I want to ___________ your daughter.’

In Hebrew, Rachel is described as having a ‘hot body’ while her older sister, Leah, whose name means ‘cow’ in Hebrew, is said to have ‘nice eyes,’ which is a Jewish colloquialism for ‘she has a nice personality.’

And then, to top it off, Jacob, the hero for whom the People of Israel are named, gets completely wasted and hooks up with the wrong sister.

Can you even begin to appreciate how difficult it is for me not run wild with this story and offend everyone in the process? It was all I could do not to title my sermon ‘Beer Goggles.’

 

As tempting as the silly parts of this story might be for me on other days, today I want to take the story straight up. I want to be serious.

 

Because once you push aside the preposterous Jerry Springer parts of the story, this story is more common and more relevant for our community than you could possibly guess.

 

By my conservative estimate, I’ve done about 1500 hours of counseling with couples during my ministry: couples jumping into marriage, couples struggling through their marriage, couples jumping into parenthood in order to fix what’s broken in their marriage, couples getting out of their marriage- after a long time or not long at all.

 

Confidentiality means I can’t tell you who those couples are. I can’t point to them or tell you if you’re sitting next to one of them, though some of you are.

But that doesn’t matter because I can tell you: when those couples come to my office, there’s a better than even chance their names are Jacob and Leah.

So, I think it’s important you know their story.

 

[Pull out two glasses. ‘Leah’ is half empty and ‘Jacob’ is full] 

 

Jacob and Leah’s story- it has everything to do with the stories they brought with them to their marriage. It almost always does.

The story starts with Jacob.

Jacob has an older brother.

Jacob’s Dad always preferred his brother to him. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

When you get past all the drama and bad decisions in Jacob’s life, that’s what it boils down to.

 

His Dad always insisted ‘I love you both the same.’

But even when you’re a child, you know better. You notice. You notice if your parent’s are really listening, really paying attention to you, really enjoying you.

 

So Jacob grows up in his brother’s shadow, and the anger and hurt Jacob feels because of his Father gets expressed as resentment towards his brother. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

And Jacob’s Mom, she deals with it the way all abusive families cope. She tries to compensate for what her husband won’t do. She turns a blind eye. She pretends the problem doesn’t exist. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

But that never works.

 

Eventually it comes to a head. It always comes to a head.

 

So when Jacob is older, he hurts his brother- in a way that can’t be taken back. And, if he’s honest, he does it to spite his Father.

 

In just one self-destructive moment: his brother hates him, his relationship with his Father is ruined forever, and his Mother is forced to take sides. She doesn’t choose his. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

Jacob’s never had his Father’s love. He’s lost his Mother and brother’s love. He has no sense of God’s love.

 

He has no one in his life. He has no direction to his life. He has no meaning for his life.

 

He leaves home, completely empty inside. [EMPTY his glass]

 

The next part of Jacob’s story starts at a well.

 

But it just as easily could’ve taken place at a college or a club. In an office or at a party. Or over the computer.

He meets a woman. [Leah’s CUP]

 

He takes one look at her and he convinces himself:

She can fix what’s broken in my life.

She can give me what I’m missing.

She can fill the emptiness inside me, he says. And he calls that love.

He’s like an addict, using the idea of this person to escape the pain in his own life, which makes him vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

 

Maybe he doesn’t realize it, but Jacob’s not looking for a soulmate.

He’s looking for a salve. Or a savior.

 

Jacob marries this woman, hoping she can fill what’s missing in him.

 

His need keeps him from seeing who she really is. He doesn’t see that she has an emptiness insider her too. [hold up her glass] and that she can’t possibly fill what’s empty in his life. 

 

[pour her water into his so that he’s only half-filled].

 

So after they get married, he finds that emptiness is still there inside him.

 

And that brings conflict. It’s not long before he’s shouting at her:

‘You’re not the person I thought you were.’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

‘You’re not the person I married.’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

‘Why can’t you be more like this….’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

Eventually he stops speaking to her much at all. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

Until finally Jacob’s married with children and discovers he’s even emptier on the inside than he was before and he’s long way from happily ever after. [EMPTY his glass]

Then there’s Leah’s story. [FILL her glass]

 

On the one hand, she’s the causality of Jacob’s need, but on the other hand, she does to him exactly what he did to her.

 

Leah grew up in the shadow of her little sister.

 

Her sister was a knockout, always the center of attention. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

Compared to her, Leah was unlovely. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

Or at least that’s how Leah saw herself; such that, she didn’t believe anyone would ever love her because she didn’t believe she was worth loving. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

 

And one day she meets a man, whose heart has an emptiness every bit as big as her own.

She meets him at a well, but they could’ve met anywhere.

 

Even though she knows he doesn’t really know her, doesn’t really see her for who she is, she marries him.

 

She marries him because she thinks he’s the only one who will ever marry her.

 

So she pins her hopes for happiness on this man, only to find one day that her emptiness is still there.

 

And that he can’t fill what’s missing in her life. [pour his empty glass into hers]

 

It’s not long before the marriage starts to suffer and strain from the emptiness both of them bring to it. [empty her glass completely]

 

So what’s Leah do?

 

She thinks children are the solution.

 

She thinks kids will fix her marriage and win her husband’s love.

So she has a little boy.

She names him Reuben, and she says to herself: ‘Surely, my husband will love now.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

But no, it doesn’t work that way. Never does. Though you’d be surprised how many think it will.

 

She tries again. She has another little boy. She names him Simeon.

And this time she says to herself, ‘Surely my husband will pay attention to me now, will listen to me.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

 

But with each child she’s pushed further into unhappiness.

 

She has another boy. She names him Levi. And she says to herself: ‘With three kids, now my husband will become attached to me.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

 

But kids can never fix what was broken before they were born.

 

Three kids later, Leah finds herself still empty on the inside.

 

 

It’s not in the story today, but I can tell you how the rest of it goes because I’ve heard it too many times.

 

Leah turns to her children to bring her the happiness her husband hasn’t, to fill what’s missing in her life, to give her life meaning and purpose.

 

But no child is big enough to fill what’s missing in their parent’s life. [EMPTY the shot glasses into Leah’s glass, should only fill her 1/4 of the way

]

And no kid should have to bear such a burden. They’ll only get crushed underneath your expectations.

Because if you look to your children for validation, to fill an emptiness inside you, you’ll need them to be perfect.

 

And when they’re not-because no child is- there will be conflict. [EMPTY Leah’s glass completely]

 

And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.

 

And a long way from happily ever after.

Love is NOT all you need.

 

 

Psychologists call this a lack of differentiation, a lack of the ability to be a complete, fulfilled individual within the context of a relationship.

 

But Christians-

 

Christians call this idolatry: Looking to others to give you what only God can give.

Let’s not beat around the bush. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how long you’ve been married or whether your kids are young or grown.

 

For a lot of us, this is the primary way we break the first commandment.

For a lot of us, this is the primary way we break the commandment: You shall have no other gods but God.

 

Scripture says God is love; it doesn’t say love is god.

 

You can’t replace God with your spouse or your partner.

And you can’t replace God with your child.

 

No spouse or friend should have to love you that much and no kid can.

Until you realize that, you’ll always be frustrated with your kids and you’ll never stop complaining that you thought you were marrying Rachel only to discover you’re living with Leah.

 

For some of us, our relationship or our children play too big a role in our lives precisely because God plays too small a role.

 

I mean, we forget that the first vows a bride and groom make aren’t to each other but to God.

 

If we make too much of our marriage, or of our relationship, or of our children, we make too little of God. And when we put too much pressure on our marriage and children, we depend too little on God.

 

I’m not saying you should love your spouse or your kids less. I’m saying you should love God more. Because the bitter irony is that when we make too little of God in our relationships, we cut ourselves off from the source of Love.

 

Trust me, this is just on-the-job knowledge: focusing too much on your marriage or your relationship or your children is the best way to undermine them.

 

I mean, some people need Jesus Christ to come in to their hearts not so they can go to heaven when they die but so their relationships here and now will stop being a living hell.

 

Because you can only be generous with what you’ve got in the bank to give. If your only source of meaning and love and purpose and happiness and validation and affirmation and worth is another person, then you can never really love them.

 

The only way to say ‘I do’ and keep on saying ‘I do’ day after day is to first be able to say: ‘I’m a sinner saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.’

 

When God has the proper, primary place in your life-

Your friend can let you down, and sure it upsets you but it doesn’t undo you.

Because you know God will never let you down.

 

When God has the proper, primary place in your life-

Your spouse can speak the ugliest truths about you, and you don’t have to run away.

 

Because that (the cross) has already spoken the deepest, darkest truth about who you really are and from that God said: ‘I forgive you because you have no idea what you’re doing.’

 

When God has the proper, primary place in your life-

You can have patience with- and even forgive- the flaws and sins in someone else.

Because you know God has been gracious to you.

When God has the proper, primary place in your life-

Your spouse or your friend can take you for granted, and yes it will disappoint you, but it won’t demolish your self-image.

Because you know to God you are infinitely precious and worth dying for.

 

 

     [Pull out another glass and baptismal pitcher.]

 

There’s another story.

 

Jesus was on his way to Galilee, and along the way he stopped in Samaria.

 

At a well.

 

Jacob’s Well.

 

Jesus meets a woman there. She’s carrying an empty bucket.

 

But it’s the emptiness insider her that Jesus notices. The emptiness has carried her from man to man to man to man to man…

 

And Jesus says to her: [Pour water into glass, let it fill up and then overflow out on to the floor until pitcher is empty.]

 

I am Living Water.

 

What I can give you is a spring of water that never stops gushing, never stops flowing, never dries up.

 

I can fill you, Jesus says.

With love. With meaning. With purpose. With value and healing and worth and validation.

 

I can fill you, Jesus says.

So that you can give love, not need it.

 

And she left that day, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her.

 

She learned that day what the Beatles never did and what Hallmark still hasn’t:

 

The only way to live happily ever after is to first be happy with who you are in Jesus Christ.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeYesterday, I concluded a series of posts I’ve been writing on Marriage. And in my church we’re in the midst of a sermon series on Counterfeit God. In a way, this seemed like an appropriate Post Script to both those series.

While I’m not in a congregation or a denomination that harps on sexual purity, abstinence and what not, because I’m a pastor, I do know for a fact that young people, particularly women, still struggle with guilt and self-image problems as a result of being sexually active. Particularly when those relationships don’t work out or when bad choices get made. And, because I’m a pastor, I know many married couples struggle with their sexual relationship and often because its predicated on unrealistic expectations.

Tony Jones has a thoughtful piece written by an anonymous commenter, pointing out how both pornographers and abstinence-only Christians turn sex into an idol, giving it far importance and power over our lives than it has in reality. Ultimately both can create illusions and expectations that are destructive. Here’s a clip from his post:

1. That the world fetishes (as in ascribing magical powers to a mundate object) sex, but then so does the church. If there’s any wisdom in the worldly teenage rush to rid oneself of virginity, it’s that it unmasks the object and robs it of some of its power. Meanwhile teenage Christian guys struggle with porn because sex is mysterious and powerful, and God cares just as much about sexual “purity” as he does about people getting tortured and killed or going hungry or without shelter, apparently.

2. The message of the Christian sexual ethic shouldn’t be “save sex for marriage and everything will be great,” because it won’t.

3. Virginity doesn’t have the moral value attached to it that we think it should have. If that really weighs into how you value a person, you’re not even seeing that person. In fact, your view of other persons is depraved.

4. No one ever talks to Christian youth about how lame sex in marriage can be. (See also 1 and 2) Sure it can be great, but for many, many people at some greater or lesser time, because of stress/kids/sickness/etc. it isn’t. No one ever talks to them about how or why affairs happen. I think it’s cruel to let someone go about building their life on completely unrealistic expectations because no one cares to mention to them that the story might be different.

 

Click here to read the rest.

Myth_of_You_Complete_Me#1 Dust Jackets

Many engaged couples I meet have only vague goals for their marriage:

We want to be happy. We want to have a family. We want to be best friends.

That’s all well and good but how in the Hell do you measure goals that airy?

Likewise, I’ve met with many married couples who describe their marriage as ‘stagnant’ or ‘stuck.’

And you know why?

Because they have no idea where they’re trying to go.

You only put your car in Drive to head towards a destination. Otherwise you leave it in Park. Or Neutral. 

And if you’re not headed to any particular, specific destination, it’s not long before you’re wondering why you’re wasting your time sitting in a car that’s not moving. 

And it’s not long before you get annoyed with all the commotion the kids are making in the back seat.  

Theologians use the term ‘telos’ to describe human life. It’s Greek for ‘end.’ By it they mean that, having been made in God’s image, a life well-lived is one with a trajectory that points to and proceeds towards Christ and his Kingdom. Sin is literally something that gets our lives off track.

Just as our individual lives should have a specific trajectory so too should our marriages.

Husbands and wives should have specific, concrete goals for their marriage. Not only should couples have micro goals for each stage of their marriage, they should have macro goals for their marriage as a whole.

It’s just common sense. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can end up anywhere but there. And if you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, it’s very easy to get hung up on things that don’t matter and to compromise on things that do.

I tell engaged couples to imagine their married life as a story or memoir. As a book.

What do you want the dust jacket to say?

What do you want the summary of your story together to be?

And I tell them to be damn specific. I tell them I don’t want to hear something like ‘Dick and Jane were just so happy together because they loved each other so much.’ That’s usually what their first drafts will say.

I tell them they should choose, together, 3-5 things they want to accomplish in their marriage and weave that into dust jacket summary:

Dick and Jane built their dream house at X.

Dick and Jane traveled to Y.

Dick and Jane worked to make sure their relationship was always characterized by Z, that nothing ever changed blank about them. 

And, sure, those 3-5 things can change as life happens and things change, but you’ve got to be intentional about identifying what the new 3-5 things are when that happens. You’ve got to be intentional about what the rewrite on the dust jacket says now.

This isn’t about married people having a bucket list.

It’s about married people having a compass to steer by.

You have to have an agreed upon basis by which you’ll make decisions and set priorities as a couple. You have to be able to say as a married couple: ‘These are the 3-5 things we compromise on in our marriage.’

Because, the truth is, if you have those goals in your marriage upon which you won’t compromise, it’s less likely that other things will compromise your marriage.

So that’s it. That’s number the 1 thing I’ve learned about marriage.

You’ve got to know what you Dust Jacket says. 

For a marriage to be successful, you’ve got to know what you’re marriage is about. 

 

I waited patiently for Jason to post his last sermon – the one with the glasses of water.  I immediately sent it to my son and his fiancé who are recently engaged.  While their relationship is amazing and beautiful and their commitment solid, I want to make sure they have the Great Bridegroom right in there with them.

Not unlike many of us, as they begin to plan the wedding, they start with the easy stuff.  Choosing flowers and a menu is so much more pleasant than dealing with the expectations and questions of where and by whom they should be married.

It seems they are both bringing some pretty complicated religious baggage and like many of us don’t fit neatly into a denominational box.

I was moved to tears by an email that I received from him recently asking me how I felt and if I had any advice about finding someone to marry them.  (Most priests and many ministers won’t marry couples unless they go through some sort of pre-marital counseling process, which makes complete sense to me.)

But, with all the demands of life, school, work and family, they are just as comfortable going to a Justice of the Peace.

Wow….where do I start on that one?  

You see he grew up as a Methodist….kind of….with a father who is Catholic and a mother who grew up Mormon.  I say kind of because it wasn’t until he was older that I decided that making the effort to go to church was worth it.  That helping him learn about a loving and merciful God might be important.  (The consequences of which is an entirely different post).  By then I had to compete with hockey practice, all sports, girls and any number of things I already had working against me in the get to church department.

I walk a fine line here not wanting him to regret asking. I want to look him in the eye and beg him to bring in Jesus NOW in any and every way possible. He is your Hope. He will hold you together as a couple and as a man.

If I tell him less than that I dishonor Christ.

I have to give him an answer that has some meat.

The Answerer.

None of us need one more thing in our lives to let us down, to disappoint.  If we come to Christ with less than all of our hearts, we will get less of Him.

And less just isn’t enough.

Less will always bring us to our knees.

I love it anytime Jesus offered truth so simply.

“If it were not so I would have told you”

“I tell you the truth”

As Keller put it so beautifully, “His are the only arms that will give you all your heart desires”.

Not your beautiful, wise and loving girl.

She will have her bridegroom Christ as well!

I know his beloved as a wise woman already:  She listens to her mother.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeI’ve been married nearly a dozen years. I’ve performed I don’t know how many weddings, presided over even more pre-marital counseling sessions and refereed an equal amount of relationships as they were coming to an end. So I’m not Dr Phil but I’ve learned a thing or two. Or ten.

 

#3: The Finish Line

In the Roman Catholic tradition, marriage is one of the Church’s seven sacraments. Husband and wife are right up there with bread and wine, and water.

 

A sacrament, in case you didn’t know, is what St Augustine defined as an outward, visible sign of inward, invisible grace.

 

During the Reformation, Protestants pushed redact the sacraments according to their principle of sola scriptura. For Protestants only those sign-acts which were clearly instituted by Christ in the scriptures count as sacraments. Jesus told us to baptize and he spent the night he was betrayed making himself our Passover.

He didn’t marry anybody.

Therefore, in the Protestant Church, marriage hasn’t been considered a sacrament.

It’s a covenant.

A covenant, in case you didn’t know, is the term the Bible uses to convey a promise.

A contract.

Sacrament vs. Covenant.

You may be wondering what difference it makes. Why quibble over arcane theological terms?

Here’s the deal.

Tragically, I know a lot of couples, whether they realize it or not, who have a ‘covenantal’ notion of marriage; namely, they think the goal of their marriage is to cross the finish line of life together. As long as they stay together ‘til death do us part’ then they’ve kept the covenant- they think. To divorce would be a breach of contract. 

And/or a sin.

Of course, people’s lives and marriages are more nuanced than this suggests. Nevertheless, there’s a truth in the generalization that I see all the time.

Thinking of marriage in contractual terms leads to couples who define ‘success’ in their marriage by staying married. By remaining together. By crossing the finish line. By holding their breath and pinching their noses until the clock runs out.

You can imagine the sorts of marriages this produces.

Homes where couples pass by each other as ghosts.

Words- or rather, tones of voice- you’d never give a stranger spoken without second’s thought.

Children playing proxy or needing to fill what’s missing.

Couples determined to stick together even though they couldn’t be further apart, convinced they’d have too much to lose in a divorce but not realizing something more important has already been lost.

A sacramental notion of marriage couldn’t be more different.

If marriage is a sacrament, if the purpose of marriage is for husband and wife to love each other in a way that makes visible the way Jesus loves us, then just keeping the contract and sticking it out does not count as success. Theologically, it doesn’t even really count as marriage anymore.

Here’s what it boils down to.

 

If you regularly treat your spouse in a way Jesus never would or if you allow yourself to be treated in a way Jesus would never treat you, then your marriage is a far cry from being a sacrament.

And if you or your spouse can no longer muster the interest or energy to recover the sacramentality of marriage then you probably shouldn’t be married. Just like water stripped of its baptismal context or bread and wine on a shopping rack instead of on an altar, your marriage no longer signifies what it was intended to do. It’s lost its purpose and thus its meaning. 

Sadly, that’s one of the things I’ve learned in life and in ministry. Some people shouldn’t stay together. Some marriages should come to an end. Because marriage is about so much more than crossing the finish line.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeI’ve been married nearly a dozen years. I’ve performed I don’t know how many weddings, presided over even more pre-marital counseling sessions and refereed an equal amount of relationships as they were coming to an end. So I’m not Dr Phil but I’ve learned a thing or two. Or ten.

 

#4: The Power of One

Married couples rarely come to my office when their marriage is in a good place.

That’s a shame because- let’s face it- it’s when neither spouse is hostile, defensive or bearing grudges that both of them are most likely to hear honest feedback. It’s only in the absence of threat that people are willing to change their habits and try out new skills.

Nonetheless, like an overweight 55 year old who waits until it feels like an elephant is standing on his chest to go in for a routine check-up, most couples wait until their marriage is about 5 calories away from quadruple bypass to seek counseling.

When couples wait that long, no matter the issues in their marriage, the conversation usually plays out the same way in my office. I feel like a referee at a tennis match, watching the accusations and hurt volleyed back and forth with neither willing to stop until someone declares the match in their favor.

Marriages can get like that, tit for tat, tit for tat, tit for tat. The resentment and recriminations build until you feel powerless NOT to respond. The hurt becomes habituated and before you know it the tit for tat just is your marital banter.

The Apostle Paul has verse about marriage in his letter to the Ephesians. Because it’s been used to endorse traditional- even oppressive- gender roles, it’s not a scripture that most Christians turn to anymore. But there IS wisdom in it.

Paul says that “husbands and wives should submit to one another…out of reverence for Christ.”

A lot of times couples stuck in the tit for tat will contend that they won’t change until the other changes. While that may sound like equity and justice in another context, in the context of a marriage it’s insanity. It’s mutually-assured destruction. 

Here’s what I’ve learned about Paul’s verse.

For marriages stuck in the tit for tat spiral, it only takes one to begin the process of change and healing. That is, for marriages experiencing strain and sadness, marriages bowing under the weight of bad habits, healing can begin with only one of the spouse’s buying in out of reverence for Christ. 

I’m not suggesting that a spouse should tolerate abuse to keep the marriage together.

No, I’m saying that love for Christ can motivate and empower a spouse to decide by themselves to act differently, to shed habits, to refuse to return the tit with a tat.

If being a Christian means thinking of yourself less and if being a Christian means turning the other cheek (again, don’t freak out on me- I don’t mean literally), then certainly being a Christian within your marriage means not having to be right all the time. Not having to win. Not having to respond to the tit. I mean tat.

One of the things I’ve learned about marriage, one of the things I’ve seen with my own eyes, is that, yes it takes 2 to make a marriage, but it only takes 1 to start the process of healing and change.

And sometimes just getting that process started is enough to change the dynamic and break the logjam in a relationship.

Sometimes.

Because of course, the math has a corollary.

 

It only takes 1 to prime the healing pump. 

But it also only takes 1 to end a marriage too. 

And therein lies one of the reasons I believe it’s important for couples to have- or be working towards- a shared faith. Because if ‘reverence for Christ’ isn’t a shared value, then it becomes harder, I think, for the 1 + 1 to forever be 2.

After all, without Christ I’m predisposed to worry most about, to protect, guard and defend the 1. As in, myself.

 

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeI’ve been married nearly a dozen years. I’ve performed I don’t know how many weddings, presided over even more pre-marital counseling sessions and refereed an equal amount of relationships as they were coming to an end. So I’m not Dr Phil but I’ve learned a thing or two. Or ten.

#5: Do Over

I’ve done a few vow recommittals over the years. I’m actually surprised more people don’t do them. I can tell you I like them 100x more than I like performing weddings. They have a simple, tender elegance to them. No ridiculous flowers, pricey DJ or annoying photographer humping the floor to wiggle his way to the exact spot I told him I didn’t want him during the ceremony.

 

And I like recommittal ceremonies for the wrinkles, warts, and wisdom the couple bring with them to the moment, all of which somehow seem to breathe new life in to the ancient vows.

 

For example, I usually hate- and refuse if possible- reading 1 Corinthians 13 (‘Love is patient, love is kind…’ at weddings. It always gets heard and quickly dismissed as sentimental schlock, the scriptural equivalent of the Gibrain’s ‘The Prophet.’

But when 1 Corinthians 13 is read for a couple who want to renew their vows after 20, 30 years…suddenly it sounds like Gospel- because after a life lived together the couple knows only Jesus really measures up to the love of which Paul writes. And only Jesus makes such love possible in us.

 

Here’s what I’ve learned from both recommittal ceremonies and simply watching couples’ marriages change, grow and sometimes deteriorate. Marriage requires you to say ‘I do’ not just to the person standing in front of you on your wedding day. Marriage requires you to say ‘I do’ to whomever and whatever that person will become, something unknown on your wedding day. 

 

On the one hand, that’s the great risk a person makes by marrying someone. You don’t know who they’re going to be 20 years hence. All you CAN know is that they won’t be the same exact person. On the other hand, that risk is what makes weddings beautiful and marriage an act of faith.

 

Marriage requires spouses to recommit- either informally or liturgically but always intentionally- at key junctures along the way of their lives together. Your spouse won’t be the same person at 45 they were at 25. They won’t be at 65 who they were at 30.

 

I’ve seen too many couples throw in the towel because their spouse has changed yet they never took the intentional steps of determining how they can best love their spouse as they are now and help them grow in to the person God wants them to be.

 

I’ve seen even more people’s marriages whither on the vine because they assumed what got their marriage to the 10 year mark will get them another 10 years. They never develop new habits, new skills, new goals, new ways of relating and emoting for the place they find themselves now in their marriage. And the marriage atrophies until the couple are no longer truly married so much as they’re cohabitating.

 

You’d never plant a seed in the ground, water it a little, and then walk away assuming the rest will take care of itself and that little seed will grow in to mighty impressive tree. 

 

But I see people all the time treat their marriage that way. 

 

Marriage requires you to say: I Do. And then: I Do.  And later: I Do. And probably a few more times along the way: I Do.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeI’ve been married nearly a dozen years. I’ve performed I don’t know how many weddings, presided over even more pre-marital counseling sessions and refereed an equal amount of relationships as they were coming to an end. So I’m not Dr Phil but I’ve learned a thing or two. Or ten.

#6: You Don’t Love Your Spouse For Who They Are

As a pastor I’m often in the position to ask couples: ‘Why do you want to get married?’ You’d be shocked- then again, maybe not- how few people can answer that question beyond some vagueness about how ‘we’re just so deeply in love’ or how the other person ‘completes me.’

The answer I get most often though is this one:

‘He/she loves me for who I am.’

To be fair, I suppose I couldn’t articulate much more than that when Ali and I got married.

Just as often as I get that response, I do my best to quash it:

 ‘Well, that’s no good because once you’re married it’s going to be his/her job

to make sure you don’t stay who you are.’

 

That comment usually meets with equal parts confusion and disgust. But dammit, it’s honest-to-goodness bible true. Pop culture has convinced us that true love accepts us exactly for who we are and- goes the rest of the unspoken assumption- leaves us exactly who we are. Pop culture has convinced us that true love doesn’t expect us to change.

That may be love as Taylor Swift defines it but it couldn’t be more different than how Jesus loves people. Yes, Jesus accepted everyone for exactly who they were: Zaccheus, Matthew, the Rich Young Ruler. But accepting them as they were, Jesus’ style of love never left people as they were. Never left them unchanged. 

And, don’t forget, married love is meant to be sacramental. We’re supposed to love each other in a way that makes visible and tangible the way Jesus loves people.

Therefore, marriage is all about changing the other person. 

And it’s not simply a by-product of marriage. It’s the vocation of marriage. It’s what marriage is for. 

St Paul wrote to the Corinthians that anyone ‘who is in Christ is a new creation.’ Anyone who’s a Christian can tell you that doesn’t happen in an instant or even very quickly or easily. It’s a long, hard, slow process of throwing off sin and growing into who God intends us to be, who God has always intended us to be, who we will be in God’s New Creation.

The purpose of marriage- it’s Christian calling if you like- is to offer the sort of friendship that helps your spouse grow into their best self. Their future, new creation self.

 

It’s the vocation of marriage to see in your beloved the work God is doing in them, the promise in them of new creation, and to join God in that work.

 

Put another way, marriage- Christian marriage- is analogous to how Michaelangelo described the craft of carving David: ‘I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.’ 

 

Marriage is about trusting another to see and notice how God is taking away the bits in you.

It’s about trusting another to join God in taking away those bits, to help turn your raw material into something magnificent.

 

#6: You Don’t Love Your Spouse For Who They Are.

You Love Them For They Will Be(come).

Myth_of_You_Complete_Me#7: Love isn’t a Feeling

If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?

Of all the things in our lives our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life. If love is a feeling- love for a friend, love for a husband or wife- if love is a feeling, it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

When you turn to the New Testament, love isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another. When the lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’ The night Jesus washes his friends’ feet, Jesus tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’ And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians he commands husbands to love their wives and wives to love their husbands.

Those are all imperatives.

Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another. Paul doesn’t tell husbands and wives to try and love one another.

They’re imperatives. They’re commands.

Here’s the thing.

You can’t command a feeling. You can’t command an emotion. You can only command an action.

‘Love one another’ Jesus commands.

Jesus takes a word we use as a noun, and he makes it a verb. In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Which is the exact opposite of how the culture teaches us to think about love. We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us like measles, something we fall into like a pool and out of like chair.

The culture teaches us to think of love as a noun, which means then we think that its our feelings of love that lead to acts of love. So if the feeling we felt for someone is no longer there, all too often we assume we must be with the wrong person. So all too often we give up and get out, looking to find that feeling with someone else. Or, even more often, you stay together but you don’t stay in love.

In 10 years of ministry I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve met who treat love as a noun, who’ve let the culture convince them that they must feel love first in order to give it. And that’s a recipe for a broken relationship, and, oddly enough, one we would never practice on our children- we do loving things for our children every day whether on a given day we feel like it or not.

Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts. And of course the rub is the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second. And I’m not trying to sound like Mr. Un-Romantic.I know that its a feeling that sparks a relationship, but the basis for an enduring relationship, the basis for a relationship that can last a lifetime is making love…a verb.

Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it.

That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb.

Jesus says: Where your treasure is that’s where you heart will be also. In other words, where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow. You do it and then you feel it.

So, in your relationship you may not feel tender but you act tender.

You may not feel sympathetic on a given day but, just as you would your son or daughter, you listen and show them your sympathy.

You may not feel patient and kind tomorrow evening but tomorrow evening what you do is muster up some patience and kindness.

You may not feel very forgiving the next time the two of you fight but forgiveness is exactly what you offer.

You can’t promise the feeling of love. That’s not the covenant. The covenant is that you promise the action of love every day. Love is something you do and you trust the doing to transform your feelings.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeI’ve been married nearly a dozen years. I’ve performed I don’t know how many weddings, presided over even more pre-marital counseling sessions and refereed an equal amount of relationships as they were coming to an end. So I’m not Dr Phil but I’ve learned a thing or two. Or ten.

 

#8: You’ve Got to (C)leave

When the Bible talks about marriage, it says a man and woman will cleave their mothers and fathers and cleave to one another.

Cleave.

It’s one of those insanely illogical yet strangely efficient words (come to think of it, are there any other examples?) with two mutually exclusive definitions.

 Cleave:

  1. To split or sever, especially along a natural grain.

  2. To stick fast to

 

This is the word scripture most often uses to describe what God wants us to do by being married. We’re supposed to sever ourselves from our family of origin and stick fast to the new family our marriage creates.

 

We’re meant to cleave and then cleave.

By a safe estimate I’ve done about 1500 hours of couples counseling in my ministry. And if my math is correct, I’ve spent about 106,000 hours in my own marriage. I can tell you on good authority that God knew what he was after with this whole cleaving business.

 

Example: The Christmas Tree Cleaving Story

I tell this to every couple getting married.

Growing up, Christmas was always a stressful, toes-on-eggshells time of the year. My Dad’s drinking and absence and my parents’ eventual divorce meant my Mom struggled knowing we weren’t having the sort of Christmas she thought other families gave their children. It stressed her out. Disappointed her. Frustrated her. Every year it would come to a head while we decorated the Christmas tree. Trimming the tree invariably ended with things being shouted, tears being shed and the treetop angel being thrown on the floor.

That’s an experience that proved hard to shake, like how a smell can conjure a certain memory.

When I first got married, just the errand of getting a Christmas tree stressed me out and decorating the tree with my wife- and later my kids- called up in me, for no rational reason, all those feelings from my childhood and teenage years and meant I acted like a prick to those I loved.

I couldn’t help it (I thought, wrongly).

And it sucked for my wife.

And, as she pointed out, it wasn’t fair.

To her.

This whole cleaving business meant I had to bury those ghosts, consider them wounds that could be licked no longer, and get on with the family I’d created just by saying ‘I do.’

 

I see couples struggle with this all the time. For some, they drag the baggage of resentments and abuse from their first family into the next where they play themselves out all over again. For others, the goodness of their first family becomes its own baggage, meaning they never really (c)leave to cleave.

 Marriage is about creating new families, new traditions, new values and dreams.

And making all that newness your priority.

 

You’ve got to cleave, God says.

 

And then you’ve got to cleave.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_Me

Last week, I transferred my blog WP.com to a self-hosted site. The process has had a few glitches. Today a bunch of old posts got resent to different subscribers. Sorry for that…problem solved. And now with no further ado. 

 

I’ve been married nearly a dozen years. I’ve performed I don’t know how many weddings, presided over even more pre-marital counseling sessions and refereed an equal amount of relationships as they were coming to an end. So I’m not Dr Phil but I’ve learned a thing or two. Or ten.

#9: No One Marries Their Soul Mate

In fact, you never even marry the right person.

When teaching about Heaven, I frequently stress the point that ‘soul’ is a concept foreign to scripture. As far as Judaism and Christianity are concerned, you don’t have something called a ‘soul.’

It therefore follows that you don’t have someone called a ‘soulmate’ out there either.

I know we all like to go weak-kneed thinking (a la Jerry McGuire) that there’s a specific, special person out there meant just for us who will ‘complete us’ and that, if we only find them-and they us, we will have married our perfect match.

Happily ever after.

Like two puzzle pieces being fit together.

But here’s the problem:

Puzzle pieces don’t change. Everything else about puzzle pieces, save that missing space, remains the same.

People, especially married people, do change.

If you had asked me twelve years ago if Ali was my soul mate, if she was the perfect person for me, I would have told you without pause: ‘Damn straight.’

But here’s what I’ve learned from my own marriage and from watching others’ marriages. Here’s the point and beauty of marriage: marriage is a means of grace; like the eucharist, it’s one of the means by which we grow and become more perfect creatures.

We don’t pick our perfect match because we ourselves are not perfect the day when we say ‘I do.’

Such perfection is only possible through a life lived with our spouse.

We never marry the right or perfect person, we never start out with our ‘soulmate’ because marriage doesn’t allow us to stay the same person we were when we started out. Sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, a life lived and shared together makes us different people.

Marriage isn’t two puzzle pieces coming together.

It’s more like two rough diamonds being polished and perfected over a lifetime.

You don’t marry the perfect person for you.

Your marriage creates the perfect person for you.

You don’t begin your marriage with your soul mate.

God willing, you end up with someone who is your soul mate.

If you had asked me twelve years ago if Ali was perfect for me, I would’ve said yes.

But I was wrong.

I was wrong because back then I couldn’t have anticipated how my life with Ali was going to transform me in unexpected ways. She’s made me a better person. Thus, she’s more perfect for me now than she ever could have been then.

Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian whose own memoir testifies to both the redemption and the pain marriage can bring, puts these same thoughts this way:

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person. just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge is…learning to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeThis week for our Lenten Sermon Series, Counterfeit Gods, I’ve been studying the soapy, Jerry Springer-esque story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah in Genesis 29-30. Talk about a train wreck of a relationship, yet there’s also something frighteningly relevant about these characters once you get past the Jersey Shore trappings.

Because I’ve had my bible cracked open to Genesis 29, I’ve also had my mind on the subject of marriage. And so, I’ve decided to start another series of posts: Top Ten Things I’ve Learned about Marriage.

I’ve been married nearly a dozen years. I’ve performed I don’t know how many weddings, presided over even more pre-marital counseling sessions and refereed an equal amount of relationships as they were coming to an end. So I’m not Dr Phil but I’ve learned a thing or two. Or ten.

#10: Nobody’s Ready for Marriage

I say this all the time in my wedding sermons, but weddings are about the worst time and place for a sermon (or advice-giving). No one remembers a single thing the preacher says, especially the bride and groom.

I dated my wife for 8 years before we got married. If it was possible for any couple to be ready for marriage, it would’ve been us. We knew each other, trusted each other and had grown up together. We had a solid friendship and shared values upon which to build a marriage and the blessing of our families.

Still, we weren’t ready for marriage. Not by a long shot.

And that’s not a bad thing. Not by a long shot.

I don’t care how old or young the couple is, how much money they have socked away, how long they’ve known each other, how secure their careers are, or how stable their families of origin are.

Nobody’s ready for marriage. Not really.

Because only marriage makes you ready for marriage.

Marriage is a covenant of trust, intimacy, fidelity and self-sacrifice for ever. No one is ready for a covenant like that until they’re thrust into the middle of it and forced to find their way in the dark. No one can be prepared for what promises like that mean in the concrete, everyday moments of leaving the toilet seat up, not forcing the other to play bad cop on the kids and saying I’m sorry before saying goodnight.

Marriage itself- because it’s both a means of grace and often a crucible of sorts- is what transforms you over time to be the sort of person prepared for marriage.

And in that way, being married isn’t a hell of a lot different from being a Christian.

“TO love is to suffer; to be happy is to love. So must one suffer to be happy?”

Richard Friedman, a clinical psychiatrist, asks that question in this article in the NY Times. He says: “This syllogism won’t win any prizes in logic, but it accurately describes a curious paradox of human behavior: the allure of unpredictable romantic partners.”

Wondering why it is we’re so often drawn to people whose love is inconstant, Friedman cites a study a colleague conducted that involved giving participants water and juice and watching on an MRI how those drinks affected the reward circuits of their brains. The experiment showed that the water and juice elicited greater activation in the reward circuit when the reward was unanticipated.

Friedman concludes by saying

“These data might explain, in part, the paradox of people who complain constantly about their unreliable lovers, but keep coming back to them, time and again.”

What I find interesting is that sentence right there could very well a description of the God of the Old Testament or, for that matter, the Father of Jesus’ parable, ready to embrace a prodigal who fails to return his father’s love. 

Friedman’s contention is that we’re hard-wired to seek out unpredictable love, love that won’t always be returned, love that will surprise us, love that requires us to take risks and risk our own vulnerability because it might not be reciprocal.

That doesn’t make us gluttons for pain or disappointment; we’re addicted to the hidden pleasure of inconstant love.

Friedman’s interested in how our brains make us that way.

What I wonder, theologically speaking, is if our brains make us that way because we’re made in the image of God who himself takes delight in the risk posed by loving us. 

 

As a parent, I’m constantly making decision, weighing choices and thinking of the future in terms of what’s in the best interests of my sons, Alexander and Gabriel. By ‘interests’ I’m usually, unconsciously, thinking about what will get them the best education, get them into college, get them a good career etc.

This language of best interests is how our legal system makes judgments and sets policies considering children too.

But is ‘best interests’ a big enough category? A high enough goal? A big enough ambition- for Christians?

Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion has just put a compilation of essays entitled ‘The Best Love of a Child: Being Loved and Being Taught to Love as the First Human Right.’

The essays, coming across disciplines, try to change the target by asking the question:  ‘How can we best love the child?’

Its not enough to feed, clothe and educate children, they argue. We must love children, in our families and as a society, for as Stephen Post says: ‘Loved people love; hurt people hurt.’

Shifting from language of interests to love has an interesting implication in this book. Just as its our responsibility has parents and society to love children, it’s also our responsibility as parents and society to teach them how to love, how to be ‘bearers of sanctity.’

After all, I don’t only-or even firstly- want my boys to be successful and happy. I want them to be compassionate, kind and generous. Framing parenting in terms ‘best interests’ risks raising kids who may be healthy, have good teeth and educations but who are nonetheless narcissists.

I’m certainly not one of these Christians who think we should have religion being taught in public schools; they’d only muck it up, watering ours- or someone else’s- faith down to the point of impotency and unintelligibility.

However, these essays do raise in me the question of the cost of an increasingly secular society; that is, does a neglect of religion bring with it a failure to teach children how to love others? And if so, is our consumer, materialistic society a symptom evidence of that failure?

It could be, this book makes me wonder, that the Church is now the best hope of teaching children not just love but an otherwise civic function- communal responsibility.