Archives For Top Ten Things I’ve Learned about Marriage

lightstock_74897_medium_user_2741517For all the hot air Christian politicos expend on the ‘sanctity of marriage,’ you’d think Christians would- you know- be experts of that which they speak.

Political naif though I be, you’d expect that Christians would have the sort of track record on marriage and relationships which would earn them the right to speak authoritatively in the public square.

Sadly, the statistics bear out something like the opposite as Christians are, unquestionably, just as compromised in their marriages as everyone else.

Indeed not a few studies suggest church-going, bible-believing, sanctity-of-marriage-professing Christians divorce at even higher rates than the general population.

Parenthetically, I can’t help but wonder if the recent cultural swing towards acceptance of same-sex unions has less to do with affirmation of homosexuality per se and instead reveals the extent to which the Church has lost the moral authority to weigh in on marriage at all.

If the above statistics are objectively true about Christians, then, in my experience, this is anecdotally true of the same Jesus tribe:

too often we think that faith alone will secure/strengthen/safeguard/salvage our marriage.

That Christians fail at marriage at the same or worse rate as everyone else is understandable.

After all, we’re sinners. The same or worse as everyone else. Christians are just those people with the particular vocabulary that describes all people.

That Christians would think grace alone in any way guarantees a relationship’s success, however, is foolish.

God’s grace heals and ultimately perfects our human nature.

It doesn’t replace our human nature.

Faith in God’s grace can help us to forgive our spouse.

It is not a substitute for acquiring the skills necessary for a relationship to grow and bear fruit.

A faith held by one or both people in a relationship while great- I AM a pastor remember- doesn’t relieve them from learning the skills (and, yes, they’re skills) upon which their relationship will fall or rise:

How to show discretion

How to balance candor and tenderness

How to listen and how to be speak honestly

How to recognize destructive patterns and habits

How to reframe

How to talk in a way that says ‘I heard’ you

How to act and speak so as to enable your spouse to be their best self.

In the same way God’s People gleaned and borrowed wisdom from Egypt, these are all skills couples are best off learning from books other than the bible. Sometimes people of faith are better looking to Athens than Jerusalem.

Very often when couples come to a pastor or priest for help in their relationship, they bring with them the mistaken assumption- whether conscious or sub- that ‘faith’ is the key that will rescue them.

I mean, that’s why you’d go to a pastor instead of a therapist, right?

If they only prayed more or harder. If only regular worship were a part of their (read: other spouse’s) life. If only they apply their belief in love of neighbor to their spouse. If only they had God in their marriage, all would be well.

Or at least better.

Not to minimize the importance of faith but learning greater loquaciousness in prayer won’t remedy a relationship if a couple haven’t learned how to listen to each other.

Grace is necessary but it isn’t enough.

Faith, for example, is little help to a basketball player if they’ve not also learned how to dribble, post-up and box-out their opponent.

And the grace that’s more helpful to a baseball player is learning how to slide into second with your leg tucked just right, how to hit the ball on the sweet spot of the bat or how throw the perfect one-hopper to make the tag just so.

Likewise, marriage plays out in such a way that both sides lose if they’re not willing to commit themselves to learning the skills that are the relational equivalent of hitting, fielding and pitching.

So much of relationships really is about learning skills, habits of relating, and concrete practices.

And like baseball, basketball or anything else requiring the acquiring of skills, marriage can require a lot of practice, drills and awkward play before you’re participating in something whose challenge is surpassed only by its beauty.

Grace may be enough for our eternal salvation.

But it’s not enough to start, strengthen or save a marriage.

 

 

 

lightstock_74897_medium_user_2741517Christians are a repetitive people.

And yes, I recognize the irony of a preacher accusing anyone of being repetitive.

Appropriately, no where is our repetitiveness as Christians more apparent than in the weekly act of proclamation.

Preachers like me step into the pulpit 40-50 weekends a year.

Preachers like me deliver 40-50 sermons a year, reflections on scripture’s poetry and its prose. It’s snail mail and its strange apocalyptic.

After 13 years of ministry I’ve written more pages than most professional writers.

A Christian who goes to church faithfully their whole life have heard around 3,000 sermons in their lifetime, but in a very urgent sense all those sermons boil down to one sermon.

All of scripture’s stories are contained by a single- or singular- Story.

All of the accompanying liturgy and hymnody celebrating a particular theme.

The micro accenting the macro: that while we were still sinners, God in Christ died for us.

You can put it a hundred different ways:

I once was lost but now am found. 

We had to celebrate because your brother who was dead has returned. 

God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. 

Every week, every scripture, every sermon, year after year, it’s the same message.

And it’s a message we can preach with water, bread and wine as easily as with words.

The good news of God’s grace and our forgiveness.

Christians are a repetitive people.

Which suggests, I think, that the Gospel isn’t just good news but needed news-

that our facility at forgiving others requires the constant reminder that we are forgiven people.

Not long ago, a dear friend in my congregation shared with me how he and his wife had begun planning for the eventuality of their deaths. What each wanted for their burial and why.

Death has a way of pushing the BS away, and this was true of my friend and his wife.

He told me that discussing their burial plans prompted them to have what turned out to be the first religious conversation of their marriage.

Mind you, these two were high school sweethearts.

And life-long, most-every-Sunday churchgoers.

But anticipating their deaths occasioned the first religious conversation they’d shared since they’d said ’til death do us part’ fourscore or so ago.

No one had ever offered such a confession to me, yet it rung with such truth you just know it’s not an outlier:

For many couples, the first and last religious conversation they share is their wedding vows.

I make it a point never to reuse wedding sermons, but I do reuse lines because some are too money not to repeat. One I come back to again and again:

‘A life lived together can expose the very worst in people, all the flaws and foibles that come with human nature.’

In other words, a life lived together provides ample opportunity to exercise the Christian virtue of forgiveness. Because there are so many pitfalls in marriage, forgiveness is necessary to sustain friendship let alone love.

Despite our best intentions, we’re not in control of our needs and desires.

It’s only a matter of time before we injure the other, intentionally or not so unintentionally. It’s only a matter of time before we cause or feel resentment. It’s only a matter of time before we desire (or provoke a desire for) revenge.

It’s only a matter of time before a life lived together will require forgiveness if it’s to continue together.

Yet, the repetitiveness of the preaching act reminds us, the ability to forgive requires the awareness that we’ve been forgiven, which is to say, we have and and we do violate and injure others.

By what we do and what we don’t do, as the prayerbook puts it. Even the best of us, as the prayerbooks says elsewhere, are miserable offenders.

All of us, as Clint puts it in Unforgiven, ‘have it coming to us.’

I’m not suggesting that only Christians can forgive the wrongs done to them. I know many people who’ve not invited Jesus into their hearts whose hearts nonetheless are big enough to forgive others.

On a case-by-case basis.

But a life lived together…day after day…

I think Christians are on to something.

To forgive…

The heart needs reminding.

Constant reminding.

That we’ve first been forgiven.

So if you’re like the aforementioned couple, my armchair advice would be don’t wait until you’re picking your plots. Start the God-talk today. Start going to church and talking about the sermon and give thanks that it’s the same damn sermon every week.

The life (together) you save just may be your own.

 

 

 

 

lightstock_74897_medium_user_2741517When planning a wedding liturgy with a couple, one of the crueler instruments in my priestly bag of tricks has been to rule out any possibility of 1 Corinthians 13 being the scripture reading.

I’ll often scratch that off the list of negotiables, telling them that 1 Corinthians 13 should be reserved for a later time…

when their love for each other is genuine instead of just lustful.

Then I like to dispatch the future Mr and Mrs to scripture, suggesting they go and find a less cliched passage for their nuptials. One more suited for where they’re at in their relationship.

They usually return, having waded through the dysfunction of the Old Testament marriages, the X-rated content of the Song of Songs and the misogyny of Paul (‘…wives submit to your husbands…’), all the more determined to have ‘love is patient…’ for their special day.

But I still don’t let them.

And not only because wedding ceremonies fool us into forgetting that the love Paul names in 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t the love of man and woman but the love of Christ:

Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way.

Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. “

And not only because the love of Christ so described by Paul finds its embodiment not in marriage but in membership to the Body of Christ.

I don’t let them because in the euphoric context of a wedding it’s too easy to suppose that 1 Corinthians 13 describes a sentiment that already presently exists between bride and groom.

But it doesn’t.

Paul isn’t describing what is today.

Paul is demanding what you will do tomorrow. Ad infinitum.

However patient and kind bride and groom are towards each other the day they marry, they’re still a far cry from the genuine, Christ-like love Paul exhaustively catalogs for the Corinthians.

That’s because genuine, Christ-like love is not the recognition of a feeling, sentiment or emotion that exists between two people.

Genuine, Christ-like love is the recognition between two people of their obligation to always love the other.

Come what may.

And ‘obligation’ is about the last word in the minds of brides and grooms on their wedding day.

Indeed if ‘love’ is the spontaneous, overpowering emotion that catches two people up into each other lives, then ‘obligation’ sounds like love’s antonym.

It’s not though.

The obligation of genuine love makes 50 Shades of Grey seem as dull as Popular Mechanics.

But usually a marriage needs a little mileage before that becomes clear.

Whereas I hate being but one cog in the billion dollar wedding industry, no more or less important than the caterer and videographer, I’m actually grateful to be able to preside when couples wish to renew their wedding vows.

I love officiating renewal ceremonies because it’s only after a marriage has a lot of mileage on it that the enormity of a couples’ vows comes into focus.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. Whoever said that?

Married.

For sure.

For example, their vows contain no ‘if-then’ clauses:

If you love me this way, then I’ll love you in return that way. 

If you do this for me, then I’ll do this for you. 

But if you do that to me, then I will cease doing this to you.

They’re not conditional.

They’re irrevocable.

They offer the future- eternity- to the other.

And hope and pray the present leads them there.

When couples make their vows, they’re promising to figure out a way to love the other no matter where life takes them, what the world hands them or who one or the other turn out to be.

Often it’s only when couples revisit these promises decades later that both the absurdity and the holiness of such an obligation becomes obvious.

And often it’s because they’re revisiting these promises after their life together has turned out differently than they had imagined it on their wedding day.

Their marriage hasn’t been as happy or as easy as they had once expected. One or other of the couple is no longer the person they once were or, just as challenging, they’ve remained the same person.

They’ve had their ups and downs. They’ve lost possessions, arguments, jobs and maybe children.

Feelings have fleeted and then returned as of old or in a different form or maybe not at all. They’ve inflicted wounds and licked others.

They’ve forgiven and forgotten some things and just chosen to forget others.

On these only occasions, do I encourage a reading from 1 Corinthians 13.

I do so because in such a context it’s crystal clear that Paul isn’t waxing poetic about the feelings between two people; he’s describing a summons to our future behavior towards the other.

He’s naming our obligation to love.

In the name of Christ.

Who loves us the selfsame way.

Genuine love for your spouse is the recognition that you’re obligated always to love them.

 And if that sounds unromantic to you, then perhaps you’re not married.

Or haven’t been married long enough.

Because as someone who’s stood in front of couples revisiting their vows after 40, 50, and 60 years together- years that were not always happy, easy or seemingly worth it- I can tell you there’s something deeply moving about two people who know the other’s every flaw and foible promising to figure a way to move forward and work it out.

More so than that moment when I say ‘You may now kiss the bride’ there’s something applause-worthy about two people who truly know each other promising each other the future- but still possessing nothing more than the hope that the future will be a happy one.

Genuine love is realizing you’ve promised the other such a future and thus you’re obligated to do everything you can to get there.

It may contradict the arc of every romantic comedy, but people do not marry out of genuine love for each other.

That’s because only marriage makes genuine love between two people possible.

Such a genuine love is powerful, I suspect, because it’s exactly how God loves us.

God in Christ obligates himself always to love us. God vows the future- eternity- without knowing if we will ultimately reciprocate God’s love, return God’s fidelity with fidelity of our own.

And if that’s how God loves us in Christ, then the vow we make to our spouse is the holiest thing we ever do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lightstock_74897_medium_user_2741517

In case you managed to skirt your way through college without taking a literature course…

Or in case you don’t read the novels that get hawked with Oprah’s imprimatur…

Or in case your wife didn’t make you sit through the Kiera Knightly iteration last year…

Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina (‘karenina’ is Russian and can be loosely translated either to ‘at least it’s not as long as War and Peace or ‘reading this is worse than wasting away in a Gulag) narrates the story of Anna discovering ‘true love’ with Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky.

Only problem- oh yeah- Anna is already married.

And has a kid too.

After at least a foot and a half of manuscript that’s cleverly obscured by your Kindle, the smitten slave to love, Anna, chooses ‘true love’ over her marriage and her child.

Her ‘heart’ puts in her in an untenable, impossible situation however and, proving why we are still right to fear the Russians, Anna offs herself.

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy conjures a situation that is uncommon only in its extreme; in fact, it’s a dilemma that, if the statistics are right, comes to like 1/4 to 1/2 of all marriages.

When brides and grooms stand before me in a wedding liturgy, the first set of promises they make they do so facing, not each other with hands held and eyes brightly lit, but facing me.

The other person dressed in white.

As in, the Vicar of Christ.

Because they’re making promises not firstly to each other but to God.

And the promises they make in those moments couldn’t be more disinterested in their love for each other. The promises instead echo the claim made upon them in their baptism.

In weddings, Christians get real before they get to the ‘love’ piece.

That first set of promises is where we’re all reminded that the house always wins and eventually your marriage will be about poverty and sickness and forsaking all others.

In tacit recognition that those are enormous, outrageous promises to abide, that first set of promises leads right into another echo of the baptismal liturgy: the gathered faithful pledging their own vows to help these two idiots keep a covenant they could never uphold on their own.

Only after all this do the bright eyes face-to face and the hands held and the rings slipped over nervous, swelled fingers come.

But even there the cold, hard realism of the Church intrudes: ‘…for better, for worse…’

Because I get a better view than anyone else in the house (of worship), I can tell you that usually the bride and groom hear those words entirely in the passive voice.

That is, they assume they’re promising that whatever comes their way- from outside their marriage, better or worse- they will remain loving and faithful to one another.

Certainly that’s part of what the vow wants couples to anticipate.

But because I get better view than anyone else in the house (of worship) as couples leave their marriage, I can also tell you that there’s a more powerful and more problematic way to understand the ‘for better, for worse’ verbiage.

It should be translated in the active voice not the passive voice.

That is:

When couples promise ‘I do’ to ‘for better, for worse’ they’re acknowledging, face-to-face for all to see and hear, that they will soon possess the power to make their partner’s future either better than it would have otherwise been or worse.

Much, much worse.

Think about it. Once the priest declares that Jane and John are husband and wife, Jane’s future can be completely upended one day by a decision or action of John.

John can find himself facing a future he never would’ve wanted, but now he’s stuck with it, because of what Jane decided to do.

With someone else.

That’s the risk of love.

That’s why Christians don’t get married in private.

That’s the huge- ass risk every man and woman take when they say ‘I do.’

They’re trusting that this person won’t do anything to me- deliberately- to render my future something beyond my control or my wishes.

It’s a giant leap of faith, right?

That’s why we celebrate at weddings!

Not because two people are infatuated with each other, big deal.

What the a-Christian readings of Tolstoy (a fanatical Christian) miss is that Anna’s ‘true love’ exacts an unloving future upon her husband. And her child.

I often point out in my wedding sermons that the bride and groom, by making such a ‘for better/not worse’ pledge, become for all of us gathered a ‘parable’ of how we are to love.

So don’t misread me and think I meant this to be all Russian downer tragedy.

The power we posses to make our spouse’s future ‘worse’ runs the other way.

Just remember your vows. You also have the power- and the vocation- to make their future ‘better.’

As good as you can get it.

 

 

 

lightstock_74897_medium_user_2741517One of my Theological Jedi Masters (TJM for short) in school was Dr Robert Dykstra who, on more than one occasion, sagely offered this gem:

“I tell couples in counseling that the next time a fight erupts between them- the best way to break the logjam is to immediately take off all their clothes and then try to resume the fight naked.”

Perhaps references to both wood and nudity in the same sentence are not what you clicked for.

Nevertheless, Dr Dykstra’s advice is just ridiculous enough to work. And you shouldn’t let its apparent ridiculousness distract from the wisdom behind it.

What Dykstra’s counsel gets so right is the recognition that mutual vulnerability is the highest form of trust between two people. Indeed what strikes us as absurd about fighting naked is exactly what makes nakedness such a powerful reminder of the trust made explicit by shared vulnerability.

In a very real and serious way, the trust expressed by the two lovers in the Song of Songs- the Old Testament’s usually neglected erotic poem- is not unlike the absolute way in which Jesus the Son makes himself completely vulnerable to, totally trusting in, the love of the Father.

Quite possibly the only thing more vulnerable and trusting than two people standing naked before each other is Jesus going to the cross, making himself vulnerable to the sin and whim of the world all the while trusting that the Father will vindicate him.

If the Song of Songs and the Passion story show us how mutual vulnerability is the highest form of trust, then I think a for instance follows.

Trust between two people, friends or couples, does not happen immediately.

Nor should trust be granted hastily.

If, as the ancient Christians believed, perfect love is the recognition of the ‘otherness’ of another- a unique value, independence and worth the other possess apart from anything they can offer us- then perfect love requires the correlative attributes of patience and, above all else, tolerance.

The question of tolerance, however, begs another question:

How much should I conceal and/or reveal to another person?

Somewhat ironically, the ancients worried about prevailing assumptions that suggested friends (or eventual lovers) should reveal themselves completely to another person.

After all, friends should accept you as you are, right?

If the ancients worried about people thinking they should reveal themselves completely to their friends then that anxiety could be multiplied today by a factor of…I don’t say, let’s say… several thousand years.

Social Media encourages us to divulge every detail about ourselves and to do so all at once. And if we give away details about ourselves too early, it’s only logical to assume we’d then give away other precious things too early too.

All of which is maybe a cryptic way of saying that the nakedness of two standing before each other is symbolic of the deeper fact that it takes time for people to demonstrate that they are trustworthy.

Reticence not full revelation is always a better way to begin a relationship, for in a way, trusting someone too quickly, before that person has evidenced that they are worthy of such trust, reveals a lack of self-respect.

A relationship should begin with you thinking you’re worth the time required for the other person to be patient in learning more and more about you.

A relationship should continue with you thinking the other person is worth you being patient to learn more and more about them over time.

Trust between friends should be cultivated patiently.

Trust between couples must be maintained.

With every bit the same amount of care.

It’s cliche to say ‘you have to earn my trust.’ And like most cliches, it’s also true.

But what that cliche misses is the still greater value in never ceasing to demonstrate to the other that you are worthy of their trust.

To return to the bedroom metaphor then-

When it comes to trust, Christians should do it slow.

And then keep on doing it for as long as they can.

 

lightstock_74897_medium_user_2741517I’ve written before how when it comes to marriage I prefer the Catholic language of ‘sacrament’ to the Protestant language of ‘covenant.’

A covenant is a binding promise, to God and one another.

A sacrament is a visible sign of the invisible grace of God.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking of marriage as a covenant. I just think a sacramental understanding of marriage makes explicit what remains only implicit in the covenantal language: marriage is meant to make God’s love plain for all to see.

Stopping there, however, misses a still richer nuance to marriage’s sacramentality.

Sacraments- think of the bread and the wine of the Eucharist- are not merely visible signs of something invisible. Sacraments are more than pointers to or object lessons of grace.

Sacraments are means of God’s grace; that is, through sacraments other people are blessed.

Graced.

Changed.

Transformed.

If marriage is a sacrament, then a couple’s relationship isn’t meant merely to signify how God loves all of us.

If marriage is a sacrament, then a couple’s relationship is meant to be a means by which others directly experience God’s love for them.

As unlikely a segway as this may appear, allow me to make this clearer by turning to Medieval poetry.

Yep, I know.

Dante (remember him?) the author of the epic poem The Divine Comedy- which you probably pretended to read back in high school- writes that as a youth he attended a party at which he met girl.

Dante fell head over heels in love with her. She was, according to the logic of love at first sight, radiantly perfect.

Story ends there.

Until a few years later. Now a young man, Dante was walking down the street and encountered this girl, now a young woman, again. And the affect upon Dante was the same again.

Dante says he was so in love with her in that instant and in the days that followed that if anyone else had insulted or injured him, he would’ve automatically forgiven them.

On the surface, there’s nothing special about Dante’s story. We all fall in love and fall hard.

What makes Dante’s experience unique, however, is the takeaway Dante drew from it. In this experience, which isn’t all that different from an experience that comes to all of us, Dante discerned the point of his life: to be always towards everyone the way he had been in those initial days when he was bowed over with love for that woman.

From falling in love, Dante concluded that the purpose of his- our- life was to seek to be so filled with love that he was able always to love his neighbor.

Marriage is meant to be a sacrament in the sense that through the love a husband and wife share others will be loved.

Your marriage is like the chalice and the loaf offered out on the altar steps, and once the binding words have been declared (‘I Do’…‘This is my body…’) you can expect others to line up in the aisle to reserve their due portion.

What Dante points out so helpfully is that the love of your spouse is meant to be like fuel to help you love your neighbor. In other words, it’s not so much that the love of our spouse is a love unlike any other, a love we can never expect to share with anyone else. Instead it’s better to say that the love we share with our spouse is meant to provide us a glimpse of what it would be like to love our neighbor perfectly and always.

Just change the categories ‘spouse’ and ‘neighbor’ and you’ll get the radical gist of what Dante’s after.

You probably wouldn’t scream and flip your wife off in traffic for no reason, would you?

You wouldn’t walk by coldly and uncaring if you saw your husband sitting on the sidewalk begging for change, would you?

You wouldn’t gossip to others behind your wife’s back or leave nasty political comments on your husband’s Facebook page or teach your kids that your wife should be stigmatized because of the color of her skin or her sexuality, would you?

But so many of us do so many of those things when it comes to our ‘neighbor.’

There’s a Jack Nicholson film from the late ’90’s, As Good As It Gets.

Proof I have a tender underside: I love the movie for every bit of this movie’s exaggerated, telegraphed sentimentality. Towards the end of the film, the epiphany comes when Jack’s unloveable, unlovely character confesses to the woman he loves: ‘You make me want to be a better man.’

You could watch it here:

Thus it should be for all of us.

Accordingly, a good measure of one’s marriage is the extent to which your spouse enables, empowers and inspires you to love not just them.

But others.

 

lightstock_74897_medium_user_2741517Thus far as life goes, I’ve got a perfect record with the couples I’ve married. So far as I know, I’m batting better than Ted Williams. I doubt it will always stay that way; it didn’t for Ted Williams.

Even though I and many of them have long since moved away, I see their pre-iPhone wedding photos pass through my Facebook feed on their 8th and 9th and 12th anniversaries.

Just because I’ve got a streak going with the couples I’ve joined together that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen plenty of marriages torn asunder.

I remember the first couple I ever counseled, who I knew beyond any doubt, no matter what they told me they wanted, that their marriage would not survive.

I just knew.

I knew not because of what was in their past, not because of the history that had come between them. I knew not because of the way they spoke to each other. I knew not because either of them were obstinate about my counsel.

I knew the instant I noticed the way they rolled their eyes at each other.

Any relationship where eye-rolling outnumbers every other gesture is rapidly reaching its sell by date.

And sure, at some point a little gesture like that becomes habituated, it’s frequency no longer tied to the moment or person at hand.

But before a gesture like that turns to habit, it’s not little at all. It speaks volumes. Mostly it says: I, the eye-roller, no longer see the absolute value in you, the eye-rolled.

Translated into body language, eye-rolling is the very opposite of perfect love, a love that recognizes and affirms the otherness of another.

That’s what makes the Christian notion of perfect love so different from how we normally conceive of the love between friends or lovers or spouses because a love that recognizes and affirms the otherness of another is a love that disregards that person’s traits and attributes. It’s a love that disregards another person’s particularity.

It’s an absolute love; it’s a love first-floor grounded on the belief that the other has absolute value, in and of themselves, from God.

The way we usually think of the love between friends and couples is quite the opposite; it’s not a love that disregards a person’s particularity but a love directed towards a person’s particularity.

It’s a relative love; it’s a love predicated on some characteristic relative to that person.

We love this friend, this woman, this man for these reasons. Often, those reasons reflect what we have in common with them, or sometimes those reasons are differences so striking they prove an attraction.

Of course, I’m not suggesting it’s wrong for Christian couples to get married and love their spouse for certain attributes they possess. I’m merely pointing out that the basis for marriage, for Christians at least, is absolute love not relative love.

This is what I meant in a previous post when I wrote that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is, in my opinion, the best text for weddings.

The question that prompts Jesus’ parable ‘Who is my neighbor?’ reveals how we’re predisposed to distinguish between people, between the values and goods they can bring to us.

The Samaritan in Jesus’ story doesn’t aid the wounded man because he finds the victim attractive or appealing. We’ve no reason to believe the Samaritan in the story was the rare Samaritan who didn’t hate Jews nor does Jesus lead us to suppose the Samaritan thinks he’ll get anything out of helping this Jew in the ditch.

He just ‘loves’ him because, as a child of God, this Jew deserves a love that is impartial and insistent in this way.

On some very basic level then, we can never cease to love our spouses- come what may- because we’re obligated by God to love our neighbors.

And our closet neighbors are not on the other side of the property line.

They’re on the other side of the bed.

Often at weddings I’ve made this same point by telling couples that the feelings they feel for one another on their wedding day don’t really matter because, crappy luck, Jesus commands us to love.

Even, to love our enemies.

‘Which is even worse luck,’ I like to joke, ‘because any married person can tell you that sometimes you can have no worse enemy in this world than your spouse.’

In addition to their eye-rolling, I can recall that couple explaining to me how they’d grown into two different people than they were when they first met.

I remember thinking that this complaint was both very real and, in a theological sense, quite irrelevant.

After all, if we’re commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and if our spouse is our nearest, closest, most frustrating neighbor then it follows that we’re commanded to  love as spouses as we love our neighbors.

To love them at least as much as we love our neighbors.

And so, on this more fundamental level, the fact your spouse has grown into a different person doesn’t change the formula for you.

You still must seek to love, to disregard everything about them and affirm their absolute value. To love them because, at least, God loves them.

Does this mean such eye-rolling couples should stay married?

Of course not.

Does it mean I naively think spouses can assume the role of Samaritan and simply ‘love’ the problems away?

Don’t be stupid.

No, what I think is something much more basic:

The task of Christian marriage is to learn how to live with each other as people who have both absolute and relative value.

And this leads to what I suspect:

If couples entered their marriage understanding that its first and primary premise was on absolute love then they’d be less likely to leave their marriage because of relative love.

 

lightstock_74897_medium_user_2741517

There’s a lot of BS in the ministry. I doubt that comes as a surprise.

From Joel Osteen to the for-profit mission industry, from bureaucratic red tape that makes the ACA appear streamlined to stubborn institutional preservation, it can sometimes be hard to spot the Jesus germ that started it all.

But one thing that is pure and holy is the privilege to share someone’s final hours with their family and to offer up their loved one in prayer.

In gratitude to the God who gave her to them.

There’s a lot of BS in ministry, no doubt, because there’s a lot of things about ministry that are like any other job. One vantage that I alone get to enjoy is to see couples at very beginning of their life together and to see couples at the very end of one of their lives.

Weddings are a billion dollar a year industry. Weddings are the stuff of little girls’ dreams and older girls’ peer pressure. Weddings are the happy denouement to daytime TV.

Engaged couples routinely shell out a bucket full of Benjamins to pay for photographers and videographers to memorialize the romance of their big day.

I think the money could be better spent on a different day:

Having seen plenty of couples at the beginning and the end of their lives together, I can tell you with 100% counterintuitive certitude that the most romantic moments to be found are found at the end of a couple’s life together.

Not at the beginning.

When one spouse refuses to leave the other as she prepares to leave this world.

I’m familiar with the stare a bride and a groom give each other as they make promises to each other they can’t possibly comprehend in the moment, all the while thinking it incomprehensible that they could ever love each other as much they do in that moment they say ‘I do.’

Fact is, couples can love each other more than on that day they say ‘I do.’

And couples do.

I’ve seen it.

I spent some time this week and last with a woman and her husband and children as they stood vigil over her last days.

I doubt it comes as a surprise, but death has a way of distinguishing between what’s BS and what really matters(ed) in life.

Sitting next to her bed, I listened to them tell stories. And among them was this love story: how her husband in the last decade of their almost six together fed her and and dressed her and carried her. He made her laugh and he sang to her. He did her make-up and her hair and learned how to redirect her frustrated dementia with a few steps of the tango.

During at least half of those years she suffered dementia I never would’ve guessed she even had it because her husband suffered an acute case of love and made sure his wife ended her life with every bit the beauty and dignity with which she had lived it.

These past years he’s been her eyes and ears and mind and patience, and he did it all by himself and did so uncomplainingly.

Theirs was, is- who’s to say what’s the correct tense- a perfect love.

And I don’t mean that in any schlocky, sentimental way.

According to the ancient Christians, perfect love is the ability to see a person as having a life and value quite apart from your own. It’s to love without regard for how the other is or isn’t useful to you.

In other words, perfect love is the ability to recognize what it’s like to be the other. Sometimes that means being able to see that what is on the outside is gloriously radiant is on the inside fragile and suffering.

At other times, it means being able to see that what is on the outside fragile and suffering is on the inside wonderfully beautiful.

One of the ironies of our culture is that most people assume that romantic love is why we get married yet most of those same people assume that romantic love doesn’t last.

Both are wrong.

The theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote that marriage actually enhances romance instead of abating it. It’s the commitment of two people to another, come what may, that provides the space for romantic love to make spontaneous appearances in a couple’s life. It’s their commitment that hones their ability to see and love the ‘otherness’ of the other.

Marriage, says Kierkegaard, empowers us to attain what romantic love seeks but cannot by itself achieve; that is, to love another person.

Always.

That’s why, to my mind, the best damn scripture for understanding marriage isn’t 1 Corinthians 13 or that terrible Ephesians passage or the blush-inducing Song of Songs.

No, I think it’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

What too many couples and too much of culture assume is that a couple will never love each other more than they do the day they’re married.

I’ve got frontline experience that it’s actually the opposite.

Being able to say ‘I did’ is far more romantic than saying ‘I do.’

 

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.