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?


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.














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.




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.



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.


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. 


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. 


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.


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.

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

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

The answer I get most often though is this one:

‘He/she loves me for who I am.’

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Therefore, marriage is all about changing the other person. 

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

You Love Them For They Will Be(come).

Myth_of_You_Complete_Me#7: Love isn’t a Feeling

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

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

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

Those are all imperatives.

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

They’re imperatives. They’re commands.

Here’s the thing.

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

‘Love one another’ Jesus commands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


#8: You’ve Got to (C)leave

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


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


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

  2. To stick fast to


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


We’re meant to cleave and then cleave.

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


Example: The Christmas Tree Cleaving Story

I tell this to every couple getting married.

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

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

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

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

And it sucked for my wife.

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

To her.

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


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

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

And making all that newness your priority.


You’ve got to cleave, God says.


And then you’ve got to cleave.



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


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

#9: No One Marries Their Soul Mate

In fact, you never even marry the right person.

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

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

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

Happily ever after.

Like two puzzle pieces being fit together.

But here’s the problem:

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

People, especially married people, do change.

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage isn’t two puzzle pieces coming together.

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

You don’t marry the perfect person for you.

Your marriage creates the perfect person for you.

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

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

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

But I was wrong.

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

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

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


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

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

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

#10: Nobody’s Ready for Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody’s ready for marriage. Not really.

Because only marriage makes you ready for marriage.

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

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

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