Archives For Marriage

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage, I’m blogging my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

Today, it’s 2.1-17.

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

I don’t even need to cite the movie; you know the scene:

Sally Albright: Most women at one time or another have faked it.

Harry Burns: Well, they haven’t faked it with me.

Sally Albright: How do you know?

Harry Burns: Because I know.

Sally Albright: Oh. Right. Thats right. I forgot. Youre a man.

Harry Burns: What was that supposed to mean?

Sally Albright: Nothing. Its just that all men are sure it never happened to them and all women at one time or other have done it so you do the math.

And then, to prove her point, sitting there in the diner Sally takes her good, long time coming into the garden of delights. To use the Song of Songs imagery.

And when she’s done…well, just watch it:

Everyone’s seen the scene and quoted the line, though in my marriage ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ is a distant fourth to ‘white-man overbite,’ ‘wagon wheel coffee table,’ and ‘_______ is quiche of the ’90’s.’

Turns out, When Harry Met Sally’s ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ scene isn’t just ubiquitous it’s theologically instructive.

Where Sally’s sated desire elicits hunger from the two-top at table 8, the young woman of the Song of Song’s desire for her lover is meant to arouse (pun intended) in us a similar desire for God.

The Old Testament usually receives critique and suspicion as being the testament that takes a dim of women generally and women’s sexuality specifically. Despite our assumptions, here in the OT of all places, a woman’s forward, sexual desire is presented in an unabashed and positive light.

In chapter, verse 3 of the Song, the young woman sings:

   With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste. 

If you think she’s talking about apples and oranges, then you probably thought Led Zeppelin’s ‘Lemon Song’ was also about horticulture.

But no, the ‘Sally’ of the Song of Songs is every bit as bold and unashamed about her desire as the Sally in the film.

By the time we get to verse 16 of the same chapter, the young woman is overcome with hunger, love and desire. The preceding verses climax by breaking breathlessly from poetry and metaphor.

With an almost asphyxiated shout she cries:

My beloved is mine and I am his…

Of course the English translation turns the lights down on how she says it.

In Hebrew:

‘My beloved- mine. Me- his.’ 

And that a poem not unlike the scene in When Harry Met Sally made it into the scriptural canon is a very good indication that when the ancients heard this young woman cry out in passion: ‘My beloved- mine. Me- his’ they heard an allegorized version of the Hebrew Bible’s primary profession of love:

‘I will be their God and they shall be my people.’

By including a long, racy poem like the Song in the canon, the ancient rabbis wanted us to look at this woman, think of our relationship to our Beloved, and respond with our own desire: ‘I’ll have what she’s having…’

As Bernard of Clairvaux observes:

“What does she say when she says ‘He for me and I for him?’ We do not know, because we do not feel what she feels. O holy soul, what is this ‘He’ for you, what are you for him?

What, I beg to know, is so familiarly and gracefully given and returned between you? He is for you and you in turn are for him.

Can you speak to our understanding and tell us what you feel?’

The Song of Songs, in other words, is like so many of the songs on the radio. It’s meant to make us long, to wonder what it’s like to be her and to have that other in her life. It’s meant, I’d argue even, to make us jealous of her lover.

 

 

 

 

Marriage: Someone Better

Jason Micheli —  January 21, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_78926_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s the weekend’s sermon from our series on marriage and relationships. The text is 2 Corinthians 3.12-18. To illustrate Paul’s point about us being transformed from degree of glory to the next, I brought in my rock tumbler.

You can also download the sermon in iTunes here under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Better yet, download the free Tamed Cynic mobile app here.

 

      1. Marriage: Someone Better

And here’s the text: 

Since this is a sermon series on marriage, let’s just cut to the chase, shall we?

Here’s my advice for a happy, healthy marriage. As Dennis likes to say: Are you ready?

Here it is:

     Always.

Always.

Always put the cap back on the toothpaste. Or have separate sinks.

Oh, and if you’re ever watching The Office on Netflix and she turns to you and asks: ‘Am I your Pam?’

Say yes.

I offer it to you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Just kidding.

Ali and I- we have a great marriage. And I think we have a great marriage because we discovered early on what was the source of conflict in our relationship. We discovered early on what is the problem in the relationship that makes us fight.

It’s…me.

I remember our very first fight after we got married. I wanted to go out with the guys like I’d always done before, and Ali wanted me to stay behind with her and cut the cake and toss the bouquet.

Ali and I recently celebrated our anniversary.

We’ve been married 11 or 12 years. We celebrated our anniversary with flowers and a romantic dinner. During the dinner I looked at her in the candlelight and I said with my best Richard Gere squint: ‘Of all the people in the world, I chose you.’

And Ali looked back at me through the candlelight and she said: ‘Of all the people in the world, I chose you?’

Ali and I have been married a dozen or so years, but we actually met and started dating 20 years ago. It was love at first sight. The first time she looked at me through my binoculars I was goner.

Actually, Ali and I first met at swim team practice. I’d like to think it was my Baywatch body and snug Speedo that first made her smitten, but if tight-fitting, inappropriate athletic clothing made people fall in love with me, then I would have a congregation full of secret admirers.

 

For our first date, Ali and I went to see Jurassic Park, a movie in which a woman and 2 children are captive to 1 juvenile man’s narcissistic, irresponsible behavior.

Back then, Ali described the movie as frightening.

Today, she describes it as foreshadowing.

20 years. That’s crazy, right?

Ali and I dated for 8 years.

8 years! Which I think demonstrates that I was really good at commitment.

Ali, on the other hand (not to mention every other woman I’ve ever asked) thinks it demonstrates that I was really good at avoiding commitment.

8 years! That’s a lot of movies and dinners out. And you know, it’s funny. It just shows the difference between courtship and marriage. In all those 8 years of popcorn at the movies and dinners out, I can’t recall Ali ever once noticing that I smack my food when I eat.

Now that we’re married…different story.

8 years- that’s a lot of jewelry too. Every birthday, Valentine’s Day and anniversary.

I think it says a lot about marriage that for Ali’s birthday this past week I got her not diamonds or gold but a lithium-ion cordless driver-drill. That’s what she asked for.

It wasn’t even wrapped in a negligee. Because she asked for that too.

I think a lot of you know I grew up in a broken home; I didn’t grow up knowing what a healthy marriage looked like.

Ali though grew up in a great family. A healthy family. A Leave It to Beaver family. The kind of family of which I never imagined I’d one day be a part.

Most husbands complain about their in-laws but my in-laws are different. Mine even let me call them ‘Mr and Mrs Keller.’

You might not know that Ali grew up Catholic.

And Ali likes to say that because she grew up Catholic, she thinks of our marriage as a sacrament.

Specifically, the Sacrament of Penance.

She says that surely a lifetime with me will be enough to get even the worst of her dead relatives out of hell.

A life of hell for some lives in hell, she likes to say.

 

Even though she grew up Catholic, it was Ali who first encouraged me to become a Methodist pastor, and back then I thought that was a tremendous gesture of support. Of course, at the time Ali assumed that pastors like priests had to take vows of celibacy.

So I’m not exactly sure what she was encouraging.

 

    Anyway, as you know, Ali and I have 2 children. Kids certainly change things.

    I like to say marriage is different now that we’ve got 2 little boys in the house.

    Ali likes to say marriage is different now that she’s got 3 little boys in the house.

 

And I suppose that’s fair.

I’m sure Ali never imagined that the shy, sophisticated, Ivy League, French-film watching gentleman to whom she once said ‘I do’ would one day be teaching her boys to burp the starting lineup for the Nationals or that he would one day be ranking her boys’ farts by both sound and scent or that he would prove genetically incapable of putting the toilet seat down.

But if she never imagined it back then, nothing surprises her now.

When St Nicholas brought the boys a telescope for Christmas, Ali knew that quickly the Ur-anus jokes in our cul-de-sac would outnumber the stars in the sky.

And when we gave Gabriel a microscope for his 8th birthday, surely she anticipated that soon, heeding the siren call of science, we would be sticking snotty boogers on slides.

Still, every now and then, whether it’s my potty humor or the sheer amount of time I spend on the potty, I can spy the question dart across Ali’s face.

Just as I’m sure every now and then, for reasons silly and significant, she sees the question dart across my face:

 Are you the same person I married?

 

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Are you the same person I married?

     And as every married person knows, that question always has 3 correct answers.

The first correct answer is: No, I’m not the same person you married because marriage changes a person.

But at the same time, the correct answer can always also be: Yes, I’m the same person you married; you just didn’t know fully who you were marrying.

And of course the third correct answer, maybe the best answer, the hard Gospel-truth answer is: I don’t know. You tell me. Because now that we’re married, you know the person I am better than I know myself.

 

I’ve been a pastor for 13 years. I’ve taken hours and hours of counseling classes. I’ve worked with I don’t know how many couples. I’ve got shelves of books on marriage in my office, but it’s in my own relationship that I learned the fundamental rule of marriage.

I call it Jason’s Rule. It’s my take on Hauerwas’ Rule

Jason’s Rule goes like this:

You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying. 

Whether you have a terrific relationship or a terrible one, Jason’s Rule always holds true.

I don’t care if you’ve already lived with the person you’re marrying or if you’ve filled out a hundred e-Harmony compatibility questions, Jason’s Rule always prove true.

You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.

And if that sounds scary, just consider that Jason’s Rule has an even more frightening corollary:

You are never as fully known as you are known by the person to whom you’re married. 

You are never as fully known as you are known by the person to whom you’re married.

     Marriage isn’t just a process in which you discover who the stranger is that you’ve married.

Marriage is a process in which you discover who the stranger is that you call ‘you.’

To borrow St. Paul’s metaphor, marriage unveils the ‘you’ you really are.

That’s what makes marriage such a beautiful leap of faith, but that’s also what makes marriage such a rough and tumble process.

It’s why even the best marriages aren’t easy or painless.

 

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(pull out the rock tumbler and his/her buckets of rocks)

Because when you’re in love, all you can see are the person’s good attributes.

You think she’s a gem. A flawless gem.

She’s beautiful and affectionate and fun and trustworthy.

 

You think he’s perfect. Perfect for you. A jewel with only minor imperfections.

He’s handsome and compassionate and tender and can make you laugh.

 

When you’re in love, not only do you see only the person’s good attributes, you develop expectations about marriage based on those attributes.

 

You think he’s thoughtful, always remembers to open the car door for you, so you expect that when you’re married he’ll always remember that your drink at Starbucks is a tall, skinny, sugar-free, decaf, soy, vanilla latte, extra hot, no whip- and if he doesn’t remember he must be sending you a message.

 

Or you think he’s brilliant. So you develop an expectation that he’ll never have a problem remembering that the proper way to fold a bath towel is first in half, lengthwise, and then in to thirds, from the sides.

 

Or you think she’s sensitive and empathetic so you develop an expectation that when you communicate like this (long, sullen cavemen silence), she will understand perfectly that what you meant was:

‘Honey, your critical comments about the messy house make me feel unappreciated for making you handmade pasta for dinner.’

 

Or, let’s say, you think she’s beautiful and affectionate and so you develop an expectation for what she won’t wear to bed. And you think he’s understanding and a flannel pi’s are so comfortable so of course he’ll understand why you’re wearing those to bed now that you’re married.

(I got that example from a friend)

When we’re in love, all we see are a person’s good attributes and then we develop expectations about marriage based on those attributes.

Here’s the other thing:

When we’re in love, before we’re married, not only do we have an incomplete understanding of the other person.

We have an incomplete understanding of our self.

We bring in to marriage a self-image that’s been formed by the judgments and praise of people who don’t know us as well our spouse eventually will know us.

Consequently, as we live our lives with someone else, we discover that we’re not the same person we thought we were.

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So what happens?

What happens when you take 2 love-blind, self-blind people and put them inside a marriage?

Because in a marriage, there’s not a lot of room to hide. You’re exposed.

All the veils are pulled away.

It’s not that there’s no secrets in marriage.

It’s that there aren’t as many secrets as we would like.

In marriage, the two of you are brought into close, inescapable, day after day contact.

And now, the other’s flaws and imperfections, which seemed small or insignificant before, now that you’re inside a marriage- they appear larger and are always right there in front of you.

Where before you fell in love with an outgoing person, now that you’re inside a marriage you can see how his outgoing personality stems from how emotionally needy he is.

Where before you only saw how carefree she is and you loved it, now that you’re inside a marriage you see that she’s not just carefree she’s unreliable.

Where before you loved how confident he is, now that you’re inside a marriage you realize that confidence is actually arrogance and makes him dismissive to you.

Maybe you fell in love with the way he showed patience and respect to everyone, but now that you’re in a marriage you notice how you’re the only person he’s not patient with.

Maybe you fell in love with how much he enjoyed children, but now that you’re inside a marriage you realize he expects you to raise them just as his mother did.

You see, it’s Jason’s (foolproof) Rule:

You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.

And don’t forget the corollary to Jason’s Rule:

You are never as fully known as you are known by the person to whom you’re married.

So once you’re inside a marriage, it’s not just the other person’s flaws and imperfections that are revealed. It’s your own.

Maybe, before, other people in your life had pointed out your shortcomings.

But it’s different with your spouse.

Because when you’re inside a marriage, your flaws and shortcomings are on display day after day.

And it’s different with your spouse because your flaws and shortcomings hurt them more than anyone else and, as a result, directly or passively, they’re going to point them out to you.

So whenever you put 2 love-blind, self-blind people into a confined space like a marriage, it’s not long before their rough edges start to rub against each other and knock into each other and cause friction and stress.

And even in the best of marriages, it’s not long before you’re wondering:

Are you the same person I married?

But notice, it’s not your spouse who’s unveiling your flaws and imperfections.

It’s marriage.

 

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I know this will come as a shock: I was a nerd as a kid.

One of the things I did as a boy was polish rocks into gems.

And so I can tell you that if you just put 2 sets of rocks into this tumbler and nothing else, 1 of 2 things will happen.

     The first possibility?

They’ll just bounce past each other, over and over, like strangers, without ever effecting each other.

You could leave this on for a lifetime and at the end all the rough edges will still remain, nothing about them will have changed.

They could spend a lifetime occupying the same space, but you’d never guess they’d done so because they’re still the same as they were before.

They’ve never done more than just slide past each other.

 

That’s one possibility if you put 2 sets of rocks in to a tumbler and nothing else.

     The other possibility?

They’ll just immediately start knocking into each other.

Their rough edges will rub against each other, chip away at each other.

Quickly, it will get noisy inside there.

Heat will gradually build up from the stress and the friction.

And if you try to add a few other rocks to the mix to save the situation, it won’t work.

 

Eventually, who knows when, they’ll break each other apart along with the rocks that came along later.

 

Tumbling requires this special grit compound.

It’s the essential ingredient. It’s what allows them to knock around inside there; so that, they smooth and polish and perfect each other instead of destroy each other.

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You can’t put 2 people and nothing else inside a marriage anymore than you can put 2 sets of rocks and nothing else inside a tumbler.

You can’t put 2 love-blind, self-blind people and nothing else inside a marriage and expect them to ever do anything but bounce past each other for a lifetime or destroy each other.

Something else is required.

Grace.

When we speak of God, the word ‘grace’ refers both to God’s unconditional love towards us, and the straight, ugly truth about us.

You can think of St Paul: ‘While we were yet sinners because God loved us Christ died for us.’

Just as when speak of our relationship with God, the word grace refers both to love and truth, when we speak of our relationships with each other, the word grace also refers to love and truth.

Grace is an important ingredient for any relationship, but it’s essential inside a marriage.

     Grace is about clarity and charity.

     Grace is the ability to tell the truth about your spouse to your spouse in love.

Grace is the ability to tell the truth about your spouse not to your coworker, not to your best friend, not to your counselor, not to someone in your small group, not to your mother.

Grace is the ability to tell the truth about your spouse to your spouse in love.

Grace is the ability to tell the truth about your spouse to your spouse not in spite, not to settle a score, not to get back at them for something they said 9 days ago- and, by the way, isn’t it interesting you’ve been counting.

Grace is the ability to tell the truth about your spouse to your spouse in love.

     Which implies you’ve already forgiven them in your heart before you ever speak the truth from your lips.

    And, perhaps more importantly, grace is the ability to hear the truth about yourself from your spouse and trust their love.

Grace is the ability to hear the truth about yourself from your spouse and not get defensive, not retaliate, not explain yourself.

Grace is the ability to hear the truth about yourself from your spouse and trust their love.

It’s is an important ingredient for any relationship, but grace is the essential ingredient inside a marriage.

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For instance,

I can be self-centered.

And selfish.

And egocentric.

I know that will come as a surprise to all of you who assumed I’m an easy person to be married to.

It did to me.

I didn’t know.

Until Ali told me.

It was a few years ago.

She told me not in anger- okay, a little bit of anger. But not in spite or malice. Not in the moment of a disagreement or when I had my defenses up.

She told me after she’d already forgiven me.

She told me, she said, because she loved me.

She told me what she saw. The flaw in me.

And how it effected her. And us. And the family.

And how it effected me, from being who I could be.

 

And I tried to hear her. And not get defensive. Not get angry.

And not joke it away, which, you’ve might’ve guessed, is another flaw I have.

Sometimes marriage shows you a really unflattering reflection of yourself and you’re tempted not to look at it or take it seriously.

But I did.

And I said I’m sorry.

And then I said thank you.

And she just looked at me as if it were the most obvious thing in the world and said: ‘That’s my job.’

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That’s just it- it is.

Her job.

     Grace- truth with love- it is her job.

And it’s mine. And it’s yours. It’s part of our baptism.

St Paul says that each of us is being transformed.

We’re moving, Paul says, from one degree of glory to the next and from there to the next degree of glory.

We’re being ‘unveiled’ of all our sin and pretenses until we meet God face-to-face.

The way John Wesley puts that: Each of us is a sinner by grace moving on to perfection.

The way Jason puts it: We’re each of us rough-edged rocks, with flaws and imperfections, being polished into the gems God always intended us to be.

St Paul says that each of us is being transformed.

Moving from one degree of glory to the next.

And St Paul says that happens through grace.

Truth with love. Love with truth.

     Truth without love isn’t grace.

Telling your spouse the truth you see about them without love- that’s not the essential ingredient. It will just add to the friction.

 

And love without truth isn’t grace.

Loving your spouse without ever telling them the flaws you see in them- that’s not the essential ingredient either. It just leaves everyone as rough and flawed and unperfected as they were at the start.

      And perfection- turning rocks into gems, moving from one degree of glory to next- is the whole point of life.

     And it’s the purpose of marriage.

     Perfection of the other, turning rocks into gems, moving the other from one degree to the next degree of glory and them moving you- that’s the purpose of marriage.

That’s why what can be scary question at the beginning of a marriage: Are you the same person I married?

Is the the very best thing a husband and wife can ever say to each other at the end:

‘I’m not the person you married. Thank you.’

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* A few of the above jokes were taken from here. For further reading, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage

 

 

 

 

Our Song

Jason Micheli —  January 17, 2014 — 6 Comments

lightstock_78926_xsmall_user_2741517Since we’re in the midst of a marriage sermon series, I thought I’d post ‘our song.’ Ali and me.

Some couples dance to Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ on their wedding day. Actually about 97% of couples.

Ali and I have this:

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage and relationships I decided to blog my way through the Bible’s own Skinemax Channel: The Song of Songs.

In 1.9-17 of the Song of Songs, the young woman and her lover voice to one another their reciprocal admiration for one another. They name their attraction. They call out what they find beautiful in the other. About the other.

9 I compare you, my love,
   to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots. 
10 Your cheeks are comely with ornaments,
   your neck with strings of jewels. 
11 We will make you ornaments of gold,
   studded with silver. 

12 While the king was on his couch,
   my nard gave forth its fragrance. 
13 My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh
   that lies between my breasts. 
14 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
   in the vineyards of En-gedi. 

15 Ah, you are beautiful, my love;
   ah, you are beautiful;
   your eyes are doves. 
16 Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
   truly lovely.
Our couch is green; 
17   the beams of our house are cedar,
   our rafters are pine. 

I once had an old professor at Princeton who shared with us how he and his (criminally young) newly wed wife spent every evening of their honeymoon reciting a section of the Song of Songs to one another.

From either side of their bed.

Naked.

I’m sure he thought something like: ‘I’m showing them how powerfully scripture and liturgy can form every part of our lives.’

We all thought: ‘Gross.’

The vomit in my throat aside, my professor was (inartfully) conveying an ancient and sweeping biblical principle:

There is no deeper knowing of another than knowing the other in their nakedness.

Two people stripped of every guise or pretense, making themselves vulnerable to another, baring every imperfection and risking to see if they are a delight to the source of their delight…

They know each other in a way that no one else can know them.

Except God.

imagesAs Rowan Williams writes:

“The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God…”

This is why nakedness in general and the Song of Songs in particular long have served as a metaphor for how we know and are known by God.

It’s this metaphor from which comes the practice of veiling the bride.

The gradual, ongoing unveiling of bride to groom and groom to bride that happens over the course of a marriage is like a laboratory of learning how God sees us.

Williams continues:

“The body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption. To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.”

The prevailing Gospel of Inclusiveness leads too many couples to presume that love and marriage means their partner should accept them as they are and never ask them to change.

Cultural presumptions aside, the fact remains that true married love changes you whether you think it should or not.

Married love changes you because, other than your relationship with God, marriage is the only place in which you are perceived as you truly are, shorn of all pretense.

In marriage alone, you are shaped and changed by the perceptions of other. Seeing you for who you really are, your spouse alone can help shape you into who God would you have be.

It’s in being seen for you really are

It’s in being seen naked, in both a literal and metaphoric sense

And yet still being loved, still being a cause of delight for your delight

That you get closest to how God loves you

And thus grow into God’s likeness for you.

Some Christians refer to marriage as a sacrament. Others prefer to name it a covenant. Everyone concurs that marriage is a ‘means of grace.’

Like the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Just as the habit of constant communion over a lifetime shapes you in unseen, untold, unnumbered ways, being revealed to another over a lifetime reveals, by grace, a different you.

 

 

 

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This month for our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships I decided to blog my way through the bible’s erogenous zone:

The Song of Songs.

I met my beloved when we were both just 15.

High School Swim Team.

Picture Day.

Love at first sight.

In the ever elongating hindsight, I like to imagine it was the sight of me in my banana hammock that set her heart aflutter.

Or maybe it was my strapping, ready-for-the-cover-of-a-romance-novel physique that bewitched her. Possibly, I reason once I’ve returned to reality, it was my virile voice, the Mother Theresa-like compassion in my eyes or my profound, wise-beyond-my-years sense of humor.

Truthfully I know that there was never a single attribute that attracted either of us to the other. There was never a discrete moment in time that led to our for all time commitment.

Neither of us ever made a conscious choice to fall in love with the other.

For both us, it was both fortuitous and has since proven gratuitous.

In 1.9-11 of the Song of Songs, the man, whom the young female narrator loves, replies back:

9 I compare you, my love,
to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.
10 Your cheeks are comely with ornaments,
your neck with strings of jewels.
11 We will make you ornaments of gold,
studded with silver.

Of all Pharaoh’s chariots and of all the other horses which pull those chariots, this man has chosen this particular ‘mare’ to love. The woman- and the reader- are left to marvel: Why?

What is it about her?

Read within the context of the scriptural canon, where these two lovers serve as a Mature Audiences Only analogy for the love between God and God’s People, the text begs the selfsame question:

Why?

What is it about Israel?

What is it about the Church?

What is it about you or me?

That God would liken us to a choice (if confounding) mare?

Just as this young woman in the Song who’s been unfaithful (not kept her ‘vineyard’) and does not conform to the consensus definition of beauty (dark skin), Israel- the rest of the canon concurs- was chosen by her lover not because she was any comparative prize.

God, our Lover, chose his People not by any rational decision nor by any arbitrary one.

God, it turns out, is a Lover much like the rest of us.

God loves Israel and the Church and you or me because…he loves us.

As Robert Jenson riffs on Karl Barth:

‘The Bible’s God is sheer contingency: he is the one who chooses what he chooses because he chooses it.

He is the one who is what he is because he is it; and for whom this contingency of fact and reason is not necessity but freedom.’

Or as Bernard of Clairvaux puts it in a less staid manner:

‘Loves suffices for itself…It loves what it loves, and nothing else moves it…I love because I love; I love in order to love.’

Thinking of God as Lover, as the Song of Songs demands, unveils how futile and impoverished are so much of our theological categories.

Thinking of God as our Lover makes clear how ridiculous is the notion that there’s anything we can ever ‘do’ to earn our Lover’s first affection. Serving the poor, while good and noble, is ultimately as futile as an unwanted box of candies.

Thinking of God as our Lover unmasks how…unromantic…is the suggestion that our ‘belief’ in our Lover could somehow suffice for ‘love’ of our Lover.

Passionately arguing the finer points of doctrine can be as false and disembodied as that picture in your locker of the girlfriend you have in ‘another state.’

Likewise, thinking of God as Lover reveals how mistaken it is to suppose we’re not obligated to do anything which reflects our love and belief. Of course we are: in love people do loving things for the person they love.

Flowers, kisses, cards, gifts beyond reason…

And if they don’t, they don’t.

We all (correctly) assume when it comes to our relationships.

Our relationship with God is no different.

Perhaps the Song of Songs shows us how our staid language of belief and doctrine should be replaced and thus clarified by the language of want, desire, pleasure and longing.

Perhaps correct doctrine requires a Mature Audiences Only way of construing God.

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships, I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

1.6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
but my own vineyard I have not kept! 


7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
where you pasture your flock,
where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled
beside the flocks of your companions? 


8 If you do not know,
O fairest among women,
follow the tracks of the flock,
and pasture your kids
beside the shepherds’ tents. 

     My mother’s sons were angry with me/they made me keeper of the vineyards/but my own vineyard I have not kept! 

     This poem shouldn’t continue.

It shouldn’t go on.

Were Dr James Dobson the author and ‘family values’ his muse, then you can be sure the poem wouldn’t persist past verse 6.

Or, at the very least, the poem would conclude with a cautionary, moralizing coda to young women about the dangers of not protecting their “vineyard,” about the mandate to keep their vineyard pure and wait for God to send them their foreordained vintner.

Something tells me Dr. Dobson isn’t sufficiently subtle for poetry but if he were then Song of Songs 1.6 might be followed by allusions to the permissiveness of modern culture and its anything goes media.

But the Song of Songs doesn’t with Hester Prynne finger-wagging. It doesn’t end at all. No poetis interruptus here. Instead the Song continues on for 7+ chapters of soft-core poetry that would make Skinemax proud.

And that’s remarkable.

That this Song continues at all is gospel.

Good news.

It’s grace.

An unmerited, unexpected gift.

Because, we’re left to conclude, this unfaithful young woman (my own vineyard I have not kept!) has been forgiven by her betrothed.

He loves her still.

His love is steadfast.

Read simply as an exchange between two mortal lovers then this poem might only conjure the worst type of Jerry Springer, Ike & Tina melodrama.

Read- as it is- as a piece of the biblical canon and thus as a piece of poetry that witnesses to God and God’s relationship with God’s People, then this poem sings with a U2-like, stadium-show volume.

The forgiveness implied within here is enough to make Easter deja vu all over again.

 Because the betrothed’s off-stage forgiveness of his fiancee parallels God’s own forgiveness of his unfaithful people.

What’s more, the physical reminder of the young woman’s sin (her dark skin which resulted from the labor imposed for her infidelity) now has become a mark of greatest beauty and pride.

Like Peter who after Easter could weave the blemish of his 3-fold denial of Christ into a beautiful declaration of God’s forgiveness, this young woman’s lover’s forgiveness allows her to rhapsodize (dark skin) that which would otherwise remain repulsive (in an ancient context).

A lover’s forgiveness makes it possible for sin and shame to become instead a part of a larger, more redemptive story.

Lovers possess the power to turn their relationship’s greatest tragedy into their greatest triumph.

Of course, the caution with the Song of Songs should always be against making poetry do the work reserved for prose alone. Nonetheless I think there’s a reminder here.

Over the course of ministry I’ve encountered a number of couples who share this Song’s couple’s struggle if not their youth; that is, I’ve encountered a number of couples encountering what could/should be a marriage ending betrayal.

Be it with another’s body or with a bottle or _________________.

The challenge in encountering such problems is also the opportunity:

To not let your partner’s sin be the end of your story.

To work- to do the work of forgiveness and then to work- towards making a partner’s sin into a larger story of mercy and love.

To work for that day when your partner’s ‘dark skin’ can be seen not as the blemish it originally was but as a cause for beauty.

In other words, to work…so that you can say ‘X happened to us, he/she did Y to our marriage but we’ve overcome it and have discovered a life even more delightful.

Certainly it’s easier to end the poem at v.6.

To go on requires…

faith?

It’s easier to end the poem at v.6, but, take Easter as your evidence, sometimes the alternative leads to a far more interesting story.

This isn’t to say every partner’s sin should follow unremittingly with the other’s forgiveness. The Song allegorizes God’s forgiving love of our unfaithful love.

It would be idolatrous to think we’re capable of God’s frequency of forgiveness.

This Song, then, doesn’t mandate our forgiveness in every instance. Rather, it points out the possibility of forgiveness in ever instance.

It points out the reality that when we forgive- when we invite forgiveness with those magic words ‘I’m sorry’- we’re participating in the very life of God.

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517

For our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships, I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

I’ve loathed much of contemporary Christian music not so music itself or the modern medium but for the message of its lyrics.

Too often the songs are limited to the first person. ‘I’ am the subject of whom I sing and God is made the object of my wishes and desires, which is exactly the opposite of how scripture typically speaks of God and us.

Frequently the songs strike me as little more than repackaged pop love songs with ‘God’ switched in for he/she.

‘Jesus in my pants songs.’

We called them in seminary.

The Song of Songs, however, causes me to wonder if I was wrong in my dismissals. The Song of Songs is most definitely not contemporary and from the very first verses it’s unabashedly a first person love song:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;
   therefore the maidens love you.
Draw me after you, let us make haste.
   The king has brought me into his chambers.
We will exult and rejoice in you;
   we will extol your love more than wine;
   rightly do they love you. 

-1.2-4

This isn’t an abstract ode to the idea of love. The young woman narrating races to first base with a demand for kisses, and, we can surmise, she hopes to not stop there.

Her lover (whether he’s king of a realm or just her heart we’re left to guess) enters in verse 4 when she enters his bedroom chambers. He must be a stud, for the young woman tells us that not only does she long for him others do too: ‘…‘rightly do they love you.’

As I mentioned before, that the ancient rabbis included this thoroughly secular, erotic poem in the canon of scripture tells us how they understood it. They and the Church Fathers after them believed it was about more than a young woman and her lover.

It was about God’s People (Israel, the Church) and their relationship with God.

What’s interesting about reading this section theologically is that the roles get reversed from what you might expect.

No longer is God the first person subject of the sentences, as God is in most of the bible.

This ancient Song sounds more like many contemporary Christian songs.

We’re the ‘young woman.’ We’re the ones speaking/singing of our longing.

And God is the ‘king.’ God is the object of our desire. Erotic desire.

The theologian Robert Jenson writes that in this erotic desire for God we can find a poetic illustration of how the Eastern Orthodox Church understands salvation:

“…the Song was a favorite way for them to describe salvation. Israel does not here long for forgiveness of sin or rescue from disaster or for other gifts detachable from the Giver, as Western theology tends to conceive salvation, but simply for the Lord himself.

The longing is aesthetic rather than ethical; it is longing for the Lord’s touch and kiss and fragrance. The Lord is simply loveable, and salvation is union with him, a union for which sexual union provides an analogy.”

One of the reasons I’ve dismissed the contemporary ‘Jesus in my pants’ songs is that I feel uncomfortable singing them.

For example, ‘I’m so in love with you…’

I love God, sure. But to say I’m in love with God? Weird right?

Except the Song of Songs makes me do a double take.

I’m driven in my faith by ideas, concepts, theology and even hands-on service.

Maybe what I’ve resisted in those ‘Jesus in my pants’ songs is what the Song here lauds as a needful part of faith- maybe the most important part:

Desire.

I can remember the tables-turning charge that hit me with my first kiss. And so, I’m sure, can you. Why would we want our experience of God to be anything less?

Shouldn’t our first kiss be a foretaste of our experience of God rather than our experience of God being only a fraction of the experience of a first kiss?

It’s always tricky to ask poetry to do the work of prose. Asking what it means in some deep way is to betray the nature of a poem. Nonetheless, having just read a news story about how 1/4 tweens are sexting, I think this is a sound takeaway:

Touch, kiss, embrace, and __________ are all approximations of our eventual union with God.

They’re holy things.

Thus they are occasions for neither shame (as is the case for many conservative Christians) nor a simple shrug of the shoulders (as is the case for much of secular culture).

They’re holy, good, sacred things.

As such, they should be treated as reverently as priest holds the host and as joyously as a parent holds their baby for baptism.

Or, as Jesus said: Don’t throw your pearls to swine.

 

 

scarlett-johansson-105aYou’d be surprised how many marriages suffer not because of money, infidelity or divergent life goals.

You’d be surprised how many marriages suffer instead because the man in the relationship would prefer to be a dude, frittering away the night’s hours…

playing with himself.

Not watching porn, mind you,

but playing…ahem…video games.

It’s- slightly- funny when it’s in a movie starring Seth Whatshisname. It’s quite the opposite when its real husbands and wives.

I heard on the news this morning that the new Playstation (4) sold over a million- what they hell do you call them…units, consoles, toys?- in 24 hours.

If you’re (not) scoring at home, that’s slightly more than hits on a Scarlett Johansson selfie in the same time period.

Not to mention Microsoft, in its ongoing quest to ignore how impenetrable are its software programs, is coming out with the new Xbox this week.

All told, it’s the best week for nerds since JJ Abrams signed on to ruin the latest installment of Star Wars (if the next SW episode involves time-travel, they might as well sub in Sydney Bristow for Chewy or Han).

Admittedly my perspective is colored by the fact that I never had a video game system as a kid, only played Duck Hunt on the first Nintendo a few times at a friend’s house and today get schooled by my 2nd grader at Lego Harry Potter on the iPad, but I found the following compelling.

And that the following comes from Mark Driscoll, my bizarro Gospel-world nemesis, should tell you something: 9fd2f25f6a96a760872a425d027134ab

“…for the young guys who spend most of their time watching television, eating chips and playing video games- we need you to undergo a cranial-rectal extraction immediately.

As you sit around with your buddies trying to battle an enemy, liberate a people, and usher in a kingdom in yet another video game, I need you to know that you are wasting your lives.

Those deep desires you have to be part of a tribe on mission to defeat evil and set captives free for the glory of a great king and kingdom are there for the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we need you on the front lines.

The faithful grandmas and moms are getting tired of holding the line.”

A Call to Resurgence 

 

 

 

cake_topper_c-445x287-300x193This past weekend I said ‘dearly beloved…’ to a small gathering in our hot, stuffy church library (ac wasn’t working/sanctuary was closed for roof repairs) as a couple who’d already been married in the Caribbean took the vows again before God and God’s gathered church.

They bothered with the trouble of planning yet another wedding service and they suffered the weather and the unromantic decor because it was that important for them to have an overtly Christian ceremony celebrated in their church by their pastor.

Do I have to connect the dots? …… They are NOT the bride and groom norm.

Among pastors, I’m hardly alone or prophetic in arguing that the partisan debate over DOMA and homosexuality obscures a far more troubling and seismic shift happening in plain sight, in black and white font, on the pages of the NY Times wedding announcements.

Namely, the waxing of secular wedding rites and the waning of liturgical ceremonies officiated by a genuine clergy person who wasn’t credentialed via the internet.

Many Christian conservatives bemoan with biblical fervor how quickly the culture has shifted on homosexuality.

Far fewer seem to have even noticed that, just as quickly, the culture has shifted to the point where a non-religious friend getting vested online by American Marriage Ministries to perform your wedding ‘event’ is no longer considered a joke.

While Christians battle over sexuality, secularism- which doesn’t dissipate with age and libido- takes ever deeper root.

Fleming Rutledge, my paramour in another life I’m certain, observes:

Setting aside the discussion about same-sex weddings, let’s take a look at what’s happening on the male-female front. The New York Times for Sunday, June 2, 2013, has notices of 34 such weddings. The overwhelming majority of them were held at “event spaces.” The Roman Catholics are holding their own, as usual; three of the weddings were held at a Roman Catholic church with a priest presiding. Several rabbis presided at weddings held in various secular “venues.” There was only one wedding held at a church with the church pastor presiding, and that one–wouldn’t you know–was held in the South.

Most remarkable, though, is the long list of non-denominational officiants. They include numerous “Universal Life” ministers and “American Marriage Ministries” ministers (“a friend of the couple became a Universal Life minister for the event”), 2 ministers of the Church of Human Spiritualism, and a minister of the World Christianship Ministries (Google that one to get a shock).

Granted, the list of couples chosen for the New York Times is hardly representative of the rest of the country–or even the city itself. But given all the beautiful New York City churches that used to be the scenes for weddings, and all the hard-working clergy of this city, one would think that we could do a better job.

Such is the power of the cultural trends.

How did these Universal Life “ministers” achieve this status all of a sudden?

How can anyone take that seriously? Wouldn’t you think that would be a joke?

During the 14 years that I was on the clergy staff at Grace Church in New York (1981-1995), I started counting the number of married couples who had met at the church. I stopped counting at 50. Most of them were married at Grace Church and all of them at a church somewhere. All were married by a member of the clergy (need I say legitimate clergy). Most–though, granted, not all–are still married. Am I bragging? not really, since the circumstances at Grace in those years were truly remarkable and God-given. However, I think a case can be made for the help given to couples by a strong grounding in the church.

This business of do-it-yourself weddings speaks volumes about the unmoored, self-created ethos of the institution of marriage today. This is a very serious matter for families and for our society as a whole. May God bless all those who are working hard to strengthen marriages in the context of religious faith and Christian community.

Influencing Your Kids

Jason Micheli —  July 9, 2013 — 1 Comment

photo-300x300This is from Elaine Woods, our Children’s Ministry Director:

Summer is here.  Kids are out of school.  Their normal routine has changed whether they are spending time at home, on vacation, or in camps.

If you are like most parents, the battle over the amount of time your child uses media is in full force.  Does watching TV for an hour mean less computer time?  What about checking Facebook and Twitter? Not to mention the time spent posting photos on Instagram.

What better time to ask yourself:

“What’s influencing my children?”

In addition to all the media options, parents should know their kids’ friends.  Who are they spending time with?  Peer pressure is strongest in the teenage years, yet even elementary children will follow the “cool” kids.

Before you throw out all the electronics in the house, or do a background check on all your kid’s friends, keep in mind this important statistic: Parents have more influence over their children than friends, music, TV, the Internet or celebrities.

We choose our children’s education, extracurricular activities, spiritual formation, and values.

We nurture their relationships with family and friends.  We create their “family” model.

Have you ever thought how your marriage affects your children?

It is probably one of the strongest influences in their life.

Not surprisingly, one of the most important gifts we can give our children is a happy marriage.

A happy marriage you may ask?  What does that have to do with raising children?

Children will learn how to treat others, how to share, disagree, compromise, and even love by watching their parents interact.

Just as we nurture our children, we should nurture our marriage.

Add up the amount of time spent chauffeuring your children from school, sports, activities……you get the idea.  Now add up the amount of time (alone) you spend with your mate.  How do these compare?  Is there even a comparison?

The framework for marriage is clear in the Bible.

Love each other.

Sacrifice for each other.

Be faithful to each other.

The marriage covenant here on earth is a first step in practicing the marriage we will have in heaven with Christ.  We are the bride and Christ is the bridegroom.  We, as believers, wait with great anticipation for the day we are reunited with our Lord.

It’s easy to forget this when we are busy raising kids.

The commitments and responsibilities can be overwhelming, and let’s face it, we’re tired at the end of the day.

However, the dynamics between parents cannot be underestimated.

Make an effort to spend quality time with your spouse.  Go on a date.  Show affection to one another.  Teach your children what it means to love your spouse.  Sometimes the simplest look, touch, or kiss can rekindle lost feelings.

The benefits of a warm, affectionate, and loving marriage will influence your children now and in their future relationships.

For in loving, forgiving, and sharing with our spouse, our children see Christ at work.

In addition to looking at media and peer influences on your children, don’t forget to reflect on your marriage.  A night out together may be just what you need.

Parents have more influence over their child than friends, music, TV, the Internet and celebrities

mainAgainst every natural and holy impulse within me, I’m marking this advent season before Father’s Hallmark Day by reading Mark Driscoll’s ebook, Pastor Dad: Biblical Insights into Fatherhood.

As I’ve oft noted, Mark Driscoll is one of those people who calls to mind that piece of scripture from 2 Peter:

 The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.

For my response to chapter 3 of Pastor Dad, “The Fruitful Vine,” I thought I would attempt what Driscoll almost always fails to bother with : consider a woman’s point of view. My wife, Ali.

So then, I offer you both my reactions to Driscoll’s screed as well my wife’s likely reactions to what she surely would have a stronger and more derogatory term than screed.

Driscoll begins the third chapter in the beginning of the bible, the book of Genesis, telling us that fatherhood and a “biblical family” are rooted in God’s command to Adam to be “fruitful and multiply.”

This means, Driscoll explains with breathtaking generalization, that “godly men desire to have children and that those children would have much fruit in their lives with God.” 

Jason’s Reaction:

Does ‘fruitful and multiply’ really mean having children, or do we read that in to the text because State’s more ancient than Rome have always had a stake in encouraging families? Might it just as easily mean our lives are to be about more than ourselves, having a multiplying, pay it forward effect? Does this mean Jesus was also taking about us spawning when he said we’re branches on his vine that should bear fruit?

Ali’s Reaction:

Nice, so Genesis is just a two-party conversation between God and Adam with Eve off doing….what? Doesn’t matter I suppose…to Mark Driscoll. Why in the ________ does he assume God only gave the command to Adam?

Next, Mark Driscoll cites the ‘cleaving’ passage in Genesis 2 to argue that only after a young man has grown up, started a career, and learned to govern his own life “is he qualified to pursue a young woman through father…young men continue to live at home, freeloading off their parents as boys who can shave, while they have sex with girlfriends that they one day may shack up with, and use birth control to prevent pregnancy or abortion to murder their own child because fools see children as a burden and not a blessing.”

Jason’s Reaction:

Let’s just ignore the unalloyed way he just equated all abortion with murder as though there’s no ambiguity on the issue. This is a surprisingly biblical justification for getting married later in life, but I wonder how he feels about the way this rationale rubs against the other biblical notion of chastity outside of marriage?

Ali’s Reaction:

Kudos for Mark Driscoll smacking down boys who want to remain boys into their 30’s, playing XBox, being mommied by women who should be grandmas soon, all the while having their ‘friends with benefits’ or their ‘baby mommas.’

Of course, any prophetic wisdom aimed at men who want to remain boys is lost by the way Driscoll treats women as completely passive objects in the transaction he calls ‘courtship, marriage, and fatherhood.‘

Pursued?”

Really, does this mean women who pursue men can never have a ‘biblical marriage?‘ No doubt Driscoll would have an S word for such women and it wouldn’t be ‘scriptural.‘

“As a general rule, single men should aspire to to marriage and fatherhood, and if they do not there is something seriously wrong with them.” 

Jason’s Reaction:

So, according to Driscoll’s construal of manhood, Jesus is extremely queer- definitely in one sense of the word and possibly in that OTHER sense of it?

Ali’s Reaction:

Weren’t the first Christians ALL single? As a way of expressing their commitment to Christ and their conviction that the community was now their family?

Don’t Christians believe we spread by conversion and baptism? New Creation rather than procreation?

mark-driscollNext Driscoll says:

“When I met my wife, Grace, I adored her and soon asked her how she felt about children, because if she was not interested in being a wife and mother who desired to stay home and raise her children, I was not interested in pursuing a relationship with her and did not want to waste my time.”

Jason’s Reaction:

As I often tell couples, your relationship with your spouse- not your kids- is your first priority. You didn’t swear a covenant with your children; you did with your spouse. You and your spouse are meant to be visible sign of God’s love for us all. Children are the fruit of parabolic, married love; married love is not the means to the end that is children.

Ali’s Reaction:

‘Waste my time…?’ Jason and I met when we were 15 and have been together over half our lives. We had no idea what the future held back then and we were no more naive than couples who meet in their 20’s or 30’s or 40’s. Love- and life- happens. It’s that willingness to step out into an unknown future with someone (whether it means kids or not) that is Christlike and faithful not finding someone to mate with. Did he inspect her teeth and forelegs first before breeding with her?

MD says:

“I wanted to have children and be a father who was the sole economic provider so that my wife could stay home with the children…[a wife whose] children praise her because she is a wise bible teacher who spends her time working hard to build their home and bless their father.”

Jason’s Reaction:

Isn’t ‘sole economic provider’ a bit of an anachronism? The cliche of the husband bringing home the bacon doesn’t really match the biblical context of an agrarian (not capitalist, market-based) economy where said bacon was literally bacon and was literally brought ‘home’ from the field next to the house, a field in which you can be damn scripture sure the woman worked in as well (see: Ruth, Book of).

Ali’s Reaction:

I’d LOVE not to have to work but pastor’s don’t make enough to support a family in an economy with an evaporating middle class. Not to mention, I reserve the right to work should I want to work and I claim the possibility that God might call me to do so in some particular fashion. If not everyone has the same gift from the Spirit, then why/how would God call all women to be stay-at-home moms? Some dads are superbly fitted to be stay-at-home parents, and homes with 2 working parents aren’t de facto bad families.

And then there’s this:  A WIFE’S JOB IS TO BLESS THE….

fATHER?!!!?

As in, her man not her God?

WTF?

Driscoll then moves on to discuss in nuanced, sensitive fashion the influence parents can have on their impressionable, ever-watchful children:

“If a wife is a nag who disrespects her husband by chirping at him all the time, then the children in that home will follow her example and become fools who ruin their lives by similarly disobeying and dishonoring their dad.” 

Jason’s Reaction:

Sigh.

Ali’s Reaction:

Nag?! %&^%&&&&^$^&&%$###%^&**^&((^$$##@#&**!

To buttress his claims about the devastating effects of nagging wives upon God’s good creation, Driscoll cites as evidence:

“…anyone doubting this descent would be well served to simply watch one of the innumerable popular sitcoms on television where the husband is an idiot and the wife trash-talks him in front of the children…” 

Jason’s Reaction:

Does anyone really think today’s sitcoms are anymore reflective of reality than Rob and Laura Petrie from the Dick Van Dyke Show? I wasn’t alive, but did married couples with children really sleep in twin beds and know absolutely no black people?

Ali’s Reaction:

Nag?! %&^%&&&&^$^&&%$###%^&**^&((^$$##@#&**!

Bravely though, Driscoll places culpability where it’s due:

“….whose responsibility is it? ultimately, it is men who are responsible because they chose their wives.” 

Jason’s Reaction:

It’s not my fault. I didn’t do anything but marry a great gal.

Ali’s Reaction:

‘Chose?’ Jason and I dated each other. We fell in love together. We decided to marry each other. It was mutual, just like our marriage.

Apparently Mark Driscoll chose his wife off a shelf at the mall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_Me#2: What God Didn’t Give Adam

If you scratch at the surface of the doctrine of the Trinity what you learn underneath is that God didn’t create humankind because needed to create. Our existence doesn’t owe to some poverty, absence or need in God.

God wasn’t lonely.

As Father, Son and Holy Spirit God already is- and has been eternally so- a community of perfect love and friendship. The Trinity is, as the theologians say, a perpetual exchange of gift and grace.

So God didn’t create us because God needed someone to love.

And God didn’t need to be loved.

Rather God creates to express and share the love God already enjoys as Father, Son and Spirit.

As I illustrate for confirmands, God’s love within the Trinity is like a fountain of water that is so full it overflows and spills out all over the place. Creation, you and me and everyone else is like the water that spills out from God.

Now: if we’re made in the image of this God then it follows that we’re to love and (pro)create as this God does. We have children not because we need someone to love and not because we need someone to love us. We have children to express a love we already enjoy and share. With our spouse.

The love of our spouse is primary and foundational. 

The love of our spouse comes first. 

And it should always come first. Even when others come into our lives later on. 

This is a lesson I’ve learned by watching couples learn it the hard way. Too many husbands and wives, because their love for each is far from overflowing, turn to their children to give and receive the love they’re not giving to or receiving from their spouse. At best that’s unhealthy and at worst its idolatrous. And that’s not hyperbole. I see too many turn their children into idols because of a lack in their marriage. No different than the golden calf, we project onto our children a need they can’t possibly fill.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday: no child is big enough to fill what’s missing in their parent’s life.  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. 

When my wife and I began the adoption process for Gabriel, our son, we had to answer a battery of questions and go through several interviews assessing the health of our relationship, the depth of our faith and the strength of our self-image. Why?

To make sure we weren’t adopting a child because we needed to have a child to make us happy. I wish biological parents had to go through the same process.

Heard the wrong way this can sound harsh but its true: your primary commitment is to your spouse ‘til death do you part.

When God lamented Adam’s loneliness in the Garden, God didn’t give Adam a child.

God gave Adam a spouse.

The person to whom you’ve sworn vows is your spouse not your kids. If you’re a Christian, the only vows you make to your kids is at their baptism when you promise to raise them in such a way that they’ll share in the suffering, self-giving life of Christ.

You can’t cultivate a marriage, or even survive one, by loving your kids. However, you can raise loved, loving children by making a loving marriage your priority.

So that’s the #2 thing I’ve learned.

Marriage is about the person you’re married to. 

It’s got to be. 

If nothing else, do it for the kids. 

 

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.