Tag Archives: marriage

If creation were friendly, how would you love?

It is not that easy to be a human, easy to be married, or easy to love your neighbor as yourself when you forget to love yourself. And it is strangely easy to just forget about love altogether.

John O'Donohue: How he loved and how he died - Irland News
John O’Donohue (1956-2008)

Sometimes, when I am attempting marriage counseling, I would like to send the couple off with John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (1998/2022) until they can feel the possibility of another context for loving than the one they inherited from America or their  traumatized and confused parents.

A soul friend to yourself and others

When O’Donohue begins his lovely book, he tries to describe a place in which to live that is hard for postmodern people to imagine. He wants us to return to a lost place the Celts knew well. He says of them:

“Their sense of ontological friendship yielded a world of experience imbued with a rich texture of otherness, ambivalence, symbolism, and imagination. For our sore and tormented separation, the possibility of this imagination and unifying friendship is the Celtic gift. “

Every marriage will be better if the partners have a sense of “ontological friendship.” That is, the sense of living IN Friendship with a capital F. That is, not sorting out the world or trying to get some power over it, but being a welcome and welcoming part of it — curious, receptive, awestruck, and creative. If we listened to our mate (and everyone, of course) from that context, it would be great.

Instead, we often come to our relationships from our “sore and tormented separation.” And the way we evaluate one another’s words more than feeling with someone beyond their words keeps us wounding others and creating distance. Sometimes I try to force a partner into a new way to listen and they realize they really do not want to give up their wound or their distance. If they lose their aloneness, they are not sure who they will be. Moving into an unknown place with trust in God and others is one of the things O’Donohue wants us to relearn.

John O’Donohue can’t help being poetic. When I bought Anam Cara (“Soul Friend”), I have to admit I was disappointed to find out it was not a collection of his poems. But as I read, I realized I was not disappointed after all, because his prose is basically poetry. I have arranged his following paragraph as a poem. In it he offers two important things I wish couples would learn so their conversation and experience of each other could get closer to the longing of their hearts.

If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us.
We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person or deed can still.
To be wholesome, we must remain truthful to our vulnerable complexity.
In order to keep our balance, we need to hold
the interior and exterior,
visible and invisible,
known and unknown,
temporal and eternal,
ancient and new,
together.

No one else can undertake this task for you.
You are the one and only threshold of an inner world.
This wholesomeness is holiness.
To be holy is to be natural, to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.
Behind the façade of image and distraction,
each person is an artist in this primal and inescapable sense.
Each one of us is doomed and privileged
to be an inner artist who carries and shapes
a unique world.

Interiority

Our “vulnerable complexity” takes time in silence and vulnerable dialogue to form an “interiority” that is fearless and pliable enough to connect with someone else. To have a better marriage, explore yourself.

Since we, unlike the Celts, generally live in an unfriendly world, we struggle to be friendly and struggle even more to get some friendliness. We’re very external these days: a picture on social media, a presentation at an interview, a constant smile (or fear of one) that is always looking for a safe place to land. All that energy pouring out leaves us accustomed to emptiness, but hungry.

I heard a person say once they broke up with a long-term dating partner because they both realized they just did not have enough substance to give to a relationship. They were both hungry, but they had no food to share, they were starving together. But their brilliant, honest analysis did not still their hearts. Being truthful about often being out of balance and hopeful about reality beyond our control often provides the stillness where we can be known to ourselves and others.

Picture
Fleurs et mains by Pablo Picasso

Threshold

To have a good relationship, we need some wholesomeness to share. That holiness develops when we accept we are “doomed and privileged” to carry and shape the unique life we have been given. We are the threshold into the unique territory that is each of us. Holiness/wholeness is being formed in us – or not. No matter how many SUV commercials lure us to look for some rare wilderness where we will have an external experience that nourishes us, it will always be a false hope. The wilderness is in us.

People say the pandemic made everything that was getting bad get worse. I think one of the things it made worse was our fear. There is a lot of talk lately about how a child’s freedom to play has been declining since the 1980’s. You may have never been allowed to play on your own recognizance by your fearful parents and now you are not confident enough to goof around with your mate. You’re frustrated that what you think should come naturally just doesn’t. It feels difficult to welcome someone over the threshold.

The huge complex being built at Broad and Washington in Philadelphia is mostly studio and one bedroom apartments. We don’t even plan for families, partners or groups anymore. We’ve institutionalized fearful aloneness. Part of the reason we are so alone is we are conditioned to keep people on the other side of the threshold of our hearts. We could justly blame that attitude on the world around us, but when we do we are more likely to be subject to the unfriendly, unbalanced world within us. Acting in faith and friendship with God, ourselves and others is the beginning of being the artists we are created to be.

Friendly creation

Our interiority will haunt us” and “You are the one and only threshold of an inner world” could seem very threatening if we are committed to living alone, or just trying to survive an unfriendly world. It surprises me how many marriage partners feel resigned to their “sore and tormented separation.”

But O’Donohue inspires me by telling a truth I think we can feel. We bring beautiful things together in ourselves. We create wonder alongside God when we love others. The world is on our side, providing for and encouraging my wholeness.

When I bring that view of myself and my partner to our dialogue our “sense” of “ontological friendship” brings us together. It might even allow us to play. It would undoubtedly improve the depth and pleasure of sex. And it will eat away at the fear that is eating away at us.

Adele on marriage: Four takeaways from Easy On Me

Adele in 2021

I am not a big Spotify user. I first downloaded the app so I could listen to the Tea Club’s latest album (still highly recommended). I made a visit to the site recently and discovered the lists. I love “top 100” lists of most kinds. And there was the most-streamed songs list on Spotify — and there was Adele with Easy On Me, still on the list after six months. She put out the album, 30, just after the deadline for the 2022 Grammys, so she didn’t get any awards last night. But she might still be in the top 50 in 2023.

On YouTube the official video for the song has 261 million views. I know a couple of people who had it on repeat as soon as they heard it. I caught on to it because one of the repeaters was a client who could relate to her lament of breakup and liberation. As a result, I got interested in Adele for the first time. I even found myself watching her as Oprah dug into what was happening during her years of recording silence.

Mental health issues

She’s been depressed. She’s been anxious. She got a divorce. She became a single mom spending half-time with her child; she had to think about whether to buy a 9 million dollar home in Beverly Hills.

I wonder if she has also been interested in her role as the unofficial poster-person for mental health issues. Like I was saying last time, the WHO says depression is the #1 disability in the world. You may be feeling it yourself right now. It has been a hard two years; go easy on yourself, baby. Adele’s album is all about her pain and recovery; she’s a forthright woman.

I have to admit, I suggested to one client that listening to her might not be a road to wellness for them. It was more likely a way to keep the trauma fresh and deepen the narrative of despair which was creating a canyon in their brain from which it might be hard to deviate when they wanted to move on.

Adele’s guidance

But I might be wrong about Adele being a bad influence. Music is such a natural cathartic and integrative experience. If one sang along with Adele rather than just being formed by her, Easy On Me might be useful.

If we look at the words, I think we can find some takeaways that might help us on our own tragic journeys.

Go easy on me, baby
I was still a child
Didn’t get the chance to
Feel the world around me
I had no time to choose
What I chose to do
So go easy on me

Adele probably said what the words of this famous chorus mean during her extensive publicity tour. I did not hear about it. But here is why I think people love them so much. We feel them. Even if you want to get out of a relationship, breaking up feels terrible: “Please don’t make this any harder than it already is, baby,” And if your marriage or other relationship is breaking down and you can’t see your way back, “Please, baby, go easy on me. I can’t stand any more criticism, contempt, defensiveness or withdrawal” (the four main relationship poisons).

Every one of the couples I counsel are experiencing the childhood wounds with which they arrived when they were married. We could all say “I was still a child” in one way or another, and our inner child is still with us! Adele had the common experience of significantly growing up in her 20something marriage, alongside her young child, Angelo (who will be 10 this year). Many young mothers are depressed after giving birth, and feeling constrained by a child can be a shock to their system. “Where are my choices?” and “Did I choose this?”

There ain’t no gold in this river
That I’ve been washin’ my hands in forever
I know there is hope in these waters
But I can’t bring myself to swim
When I am drowning in this silence
Baby, let me in

I’ve met with many individuals and couples over the years who sang this verse. “Where we are at feels intolerable. I can’t see any hope, even though I hope there is some.” They’re  too depressed or otherwise upset to swim. “I’m sinking. We can’t talk. The isolation and loneliness I feel is overwhelming.”

There ain’t no room for things to change
When we are both so deeply stuck in our ways
You can’t deny how hard I have tried
I changed who I was to put you both first
But now I give up

Adele spent years trying to figure out what to do. Her song is not about a snap judgment! She finally gave up. Sometimes you have to give up. I sometimes think people hold on too long, and sometimes if feel they gave up right when they were dealing with reality for the first time. But when enough is enough will never be my call to make. If you are walking with Jesus, the Lord could turn your greatest loss into your greatest growth. It happens all the time. That miracle could happen in a renewed marriage or a divorce. Either way, there will be pain.

The family at Disneyland

Four takeaways for people who don’t want to give up

Adele gives beautiful voice to our pain and that’s why Easy on Me keeps being streamed. But what if you don’t want to give up? What if you don’t want your partner to give up? Adele alludes to some roads not taken in her song.

1) Go easy on your partner. If you feel bad, they probably do too. Learn how to be taken care of by God and cooperate with his care. Depression is a fight. If you go easy on your partner and yourself, it might make you easier to live with and might give you some space to see some good in your partner — and yourself. You might be able to do something good for the relationship, not just feel bad about what it is right now.

2) It’s a river. If you aren’t finding gold the way you are panning or not finding it where you think it should be, move down the river. Adele can sense hope in the water because things changed. She  changed. Relationships can change and grow when one person has the courage, like Adele, to grow up. No one needs to drown in a relationship. But it is likely the relationship will drown unless both partners are going for gold. There is often a way.

3) Keep talking. It sounds like Adele feels like she did a lot of talking, but her husband withdrew — “Baby, let me in.” When he did that, she got more aggressive and he built more of a stone wall to protect himself and the relationship. This may have made her feel abandoned and made him feel rejected. It is hard to talk about feelings as deep as abandonment and rejection, but marriages are built on the love we make when we keep talking.

4) If you are defensive, your shame button may have been pushed. When she says, “You can’t deny how hard I have tried,” I am sure I believe her. But life is not failure proof if you just try hard enough. Behind that defensive statement there might be some shame about not being good enough, capable enough, lovable enough, or not trying hard enough and failing — any of which is intolerable to feel. It is easy to imagine her partner saying, “I can surely deny how you tried hard enough. What is your standard? Are you blaming me for what you have done?” Now he’s defending against feeling shameful.

I hope Adele and her husband got the best marital therapy money can buy, since she’s worth $190 million. Having a third party listening with compassion and noting the unique patterns of your relationship can help. Most of the time a therapist helps partners “go easy” on someone who has hurt them whether they make it through to the next steps of the marriage or go their separate ways. Many times the therapist helps them build something new, now that they are over thirty, or starting from wherever the river has taken them.

The Shape of Water: Enough already!

My one-line review of The Shape of Water for Facebook

I went for the beautiful. Stayed for the overlong, derivative, pig in lipstick movie. Del Toro snoro.

I suppose daring to put out negative reviews on Facebook invites conflict. I did it anyway, since I rarely leave a movie so irritated. Maybe I was just in a bad mood. But probably not, since I usually even like the bad ones (like Downsizing!). But I needed to say something lest everyone run out expectantly when it wins some Academy Award.

A lot of reviewers think this movie is great.

The most welcome and notable thing about The Shape of Water is its generosity of spirit, which extends beyond the central couple. Full review

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water elegantly blends whimsical fairy tale with a fresh spin on classic monster movies for a delightful experience. Full review

However, the Observer called it

A loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel.

It won two Golden Globes and was nominated for five more.  Like the foreign press noted, it does have a wonderful score and it is a feast for the eyes. I think the acting is a credit to the actors, who were given one-dimensional characters to play. I almost decided to suspend my criticism when [spoiler alert] the souped-up creature from the black lagoon mimicked Fred Astaire in black and white. (I am one of those people who brakes for Fred and Ginger on TCM). But I guess I was already homaged to the breaking point.

Instead, I ended up with two reactions:

Enough already with the magical alternative family!

Del Toro with cast. Watch out for the plaid dude, family.

Once again we have lonely lost souls creating an alternative family. Wasn’t this done to the saturation point with Friends? We’ve had fourteen more years of saturation since that show ended. OK, we get it. There are a lot of brave, lonely souls out there who can’t seem to be accepted for who they are. We are all like that and society stinks. But here we go again anyway.

The family clings together in the middle of a rotting 60’s city, rundown apartments and an overwhelming, secretive, cold war, government installation. The villain is not only a bureaucrat, he’s a suburban lunkhead and a Christian fundamentalist. I share your prejudices, but enough already!

Beauty and the Beast made $1.2 billion dollars last year. Weren’t we saturated with that story when the Disney gave us the first movie in 1991? (I was). But here we go again. Del Toro wants to take it a bit farther so his nonhuman monster becomes the romantic hero. Even they are worthy of love and acceptance. The audience is invited to kiss that beast.

I am down with love, acceptance (and I will add the crucial forgiveness). They are basic to the message of the gospel. And I understand alternative family, I have been living in Christian community since I began to follow Jesus. I never submitted to silly men and the damaging institutions they create, at least not for long. I appreciate artists expanding my vision. You’d think I’d love this thing. But this redundant messaging from filmdom borders on propaganda and us autonomous souls relating to the screen are its victims.

Enough already with the magic of romantic (mainly sexual) love!

Surely everyone interested in this film knows this, so I won’t consider it a spoiler. At the end of the movie there is a violent scene in which the lovers, mute girl and amphibian, are shot. The creature heals, gets up to slice the shooter’s throat, picks up his dying lover and dives into the water with her. In his natural element, he not only revives her, he gives her gills.

To be fair, Del Toro, steeped in religion as he is, says of this ending, “A very Catholic notion is the humble force, or the force of humility, that gets revealed as a god-like figure toward the end. It’s also used in fairy tales,” which he loves. “In fairy tales, in fact, there is an entire strand of tales that would be encompassed by the title ‘The Magical Fish.’ And [it’s] not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol.” That should make me feel better, shouldn’t it?

But I missed that symbolism completely. If you go see the movie, it will probably help to see it in that light. What I got was the final, summarizing voiceover from the narrator.

When I think of her, of Elisa, all that comes to mind is a poem. Made of just a few truthful words… whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago…:

Unable to perceive the shape of You,
I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.

That would be a great prayer, wouldn’t it? Instead, it was pictured as a moment when the male sea creature gives his mate the capacity to become one with him after she saves him to do it. That’s one problem. More generally, it is a moment when love becomes all. It shows us that the magic of our love is beyond us; it is where we find our shape. When it is actualized, we are created. The words could be straight from a Christian mystic, which I appreciate. But the visual container is free of God content. It reinforces the repetitive teaching that we must find a lover who accepts us as we are and magically makes us who we can become. They are god-like. Their presence fills us. Enough already!

I have a good marriage, but as godly as my wife is, I know she is not God. I am glad we know we are not gods and love the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ so we do not kill our relationship with expectation and despair. This movie would be a great reason to never get married.  Because we know the beasts do not always get beautiful enough to look good at the ball. The monsters do not all turn out to be healers. Magic does not begin with or reside in sexual attraction. Life is not really the way the movie taught us AGAIN.

Like the movie, this short post brings up more to talk about than it attempts to answer all the questions. The film tells a story. It is a love story on many levels, which is nice. I have a story of my own in response. And I link my story to Jesus, not hidden in the fine print, not symbolized in the fish, but Jesus right out there for everyone to see, the one who can truly remake us into the shape to love and who is present with us when we can’t or don’t, too.

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Life management: Meeting Jesus at the heart of it.

Getting serious about one’s life might start with time management, but it needs to end with eternity. Having enough personal value to keep a schedule of our time is a good starting point that many of us never reach. But we are much more valuable than our schedule and there is a lot more to our time than what is passing by so quickly.

Good management hopefully leads to the greater good

I briefly taught the Leadership Team the other night that time management is not just in one’s mind, as if following the laws of effectiveness will really result in getting what needs to be done accomplished. “Good time management” can also lead to burn out and joyless toil. Lots of good managers are resentful, put-upon people who don’t feel like they have a life, just a schedule. For our purposes in the church (and where else is there but “in the church,” since we are in Christ?), time management is from the heart, not just the head.

I was drawn deeper into my heart to meditate on my time not long ago. I was praying about what I should do. I always have a million things to do, but almost every day I wonder what I should be doing. I was thinking about the limits of my time (for one thing, the social security trust fund is dying when I am about 80, so that’s one limitation!). While I was praying, a surprising word came to me: “keep building.”

I somehow connected that word to Nehemiah and discovered that he probably began the walls of Jerusalem when he was in his thirties, but he kept rebuilding the city until he was in his 80’s, or so Josephus implies.  I did not think I needed to keep building things — on the contrary, I hope I never get into another building project! But as I meditated, I realized what the Lord was telling me was about the process of building, not the results of building.

More things and more buildings could be important, and more well-built Jesus-followers is certainly a worthy goal. But there was something deeper. I needed to be encouraged when it came to the building that builds me. “Keep building” was about the verb, not the noun. The joy in exercising the gifts God gives me feeds my heart. At the heart of me, I am a builder. What is happening in my schedule doesn’t really change that.

Jesus exercising time management

Jesus gives us food that feeds our deepest hunger

I don’t think I will efficiently build things unless I find joy in building. My mind may be kind of useless if my heart is not in it, and even deeper, if my soul is not in it. I don’t think you will manage your time for the greatest good, unless you have a heart that loves the greatest good. The greatest good is God. We are going for being like Jesus when he said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Does saying that mean Jesus was working too hard? His schedule might suggest that. Or is he just working out who he is? What Jesus does doesn’t make Jesus who he is. Neither does merely doing our assignments efficiently and most profitably makes us good workers. We are works of God who need to work out what we have been given to be, like a tree needs to grow.

To use our time well, we need to feel our value and respect the value we bring to the greater good. No amount of scheduling will solve the problems of lack of heart, not hearing from God, and not feeling your true self. Choosing how to allot our time will always be hard, but it is only when our food is to do the work of the One who sent us that we can face the challenges with our jobs and commitments and not just bend under the load of our anxiety or fatigue.

Our twenties and thirties are crucial for developing our hearts, not just our schedules.

I often run into a lack of vision with married couples. They are strangely in their heads, even when they are trying to connect heart to heart. They want solutions, not redemption. They want a road map, not a Guide. For struggling couples, the question is usually less about how to make the little changes in relating that make life pleasant. The question is, “Do you have a heart that intends to present your mate complete in Christ?” Deeper understanding, better behavior and changes in the schedule will definitely improve things. But when it comes down to it, love that comes from Christ saves the world, not one’s love for what someone else is doing. Life is not about being pleased or being pleasing, that’s good, but the greater good is pleasing the Lord and enjoying the food that is eternal. Like Jesus told the woman at the well, “Thanks for the water. But if you asked me, I would give you water from an eternal well.”

What organizes our time? It is a big question when people are making decisions about their lives — and what 20 or 30-something person is not doing that? Are we really going to be like all the people I follow on the freeway who are reading their phone while driving? Even when we are sitting in our prayer chair, we can’t look up from our GPS and be steered by a deeper instinct! Are we more obsessed with taking the perfect next step when we could stride across the landscape, confident that we are eternal? Is time a threat or do we redeem it?  The apostle Thomas was troubled that Jesus was going to His father’s house and he did not know the way. Jesus told him:  “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Thomas may have immediately asked Siri for answers Jesus would not tell him! Even so, the truth remains: knowing Jesus provides us with a deeper sense of direction than GPS or a perfectly managed week.

When I get to talk to people about their time and having more heart than mind, they usually want to know what I am talking about. That’s nice. But when they leave the office they often fall back into their rut; they are steered by some “best practice,” or by the invisible hand, or by whatever their friends are into at the moment. I can relate to that. I have been thinking about how to use my time well for decades. But when it comes down to it, what I really need, beyond better technique, is God speaking something  into me that transcends the worries I bring to my day. One day, it was “Keep building.” I’m glad I had devoted time with God in my schedule because that was really helpful!

Lifelines for drowning marriages (and whole societies)

Kindness and so much moreI feel like I have a new friend after reading Katherine Willis Pershey’s book: Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. We have only exchanged one email, but I already hope she moves here, or at least comes over to inspire us.

I would like to quote you the entire book, in case you do not buy it immediately, but I will just do this one part today. It feels urgent that I get you to think, feel and pray about marriage, since several are falling apart as we speak, and, I think, the partners in them don’t really want them to fall apart, but they are floundering. They did not do what the following quote suggests we do and the resulting injuries feel insurmountable.

Pershey is talking about John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (another recommendation). Specifically, she boils down his work into one very Christian exhortation: be kind. If you need a Bible verse, it could be Ephesians 4:32 (memorize it): “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I agree with her. That about sums it up.

Continue reading Lifelines for drowning marriages (and whole societies)

That “other” person is someone I love!

I have traveled in the same circles with Ron Sider since I was in my twenties – actually ran into him on my son’s street a few weeks ago. I was profoundly influenced by Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I am a fan.

I say all that so my small criticism of what he recently said in Christianity Today is not taken as a slam. His article: Tragedy, Tradition, and Opportunity in the Homosexuality Debate: We need a better approach to the traditional biblical ethic on sexuality in the November 18 CT was passed around by some of my acquaintances and friends in the BIC, which made me wonder what it was all about. So I read it.

A progressive evangelical “gay” policy

Here’s the gist: 1) He wants evangelicals to admit their track record on relating to: “gays” is tragic. 2) He makes a more-generous-than-usual argument about Biblical tradition that ends with the conclusion that everyone who is not in a lifelong heterosexual marriage should be celibate. 3) He ends with seeing the present argument as an opportunity: a) to do what it takes to nurture marriage, b) to listen to “gay people” c) To be nice: “Surely, we can ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to teach and nurture biblical sexual practice without ignoring, marginalizing, and driving away from Christ those who struggle with biblical norms.”

His thoughts seem revolutionary to some people. For instance, someone wrote in to voice their struggle with Ron’s assumption that gay people could be saved (!). Ron knows CT’s audience, so I appreciate his boldness. I saw that the moderator of our denomination and a bishop posted the article on Facebook. So he got some affirmation. One commenter said that he appreciated how a person of authority stated something that he had thought for a long time.

I’m only cousins with Evangelicals

LGBTQ debate?
Is there an epidemic of early debate training?

This is the one thing I offered on FB: “I don’t think I have ever been part of the ‘we’ Ron is talking about. I’ve certainly been listening to so-called gay people for my whole adult life. Just to be clear ‘gay’ people have been ‘us’ while ‘we’ have been dithering about ‘them.’”

Someone wrote in response to my thoughts: “clear?”

I guess my problem is not clear. So here I am writing about it.

For one thing, I have never been an evangelical. I officially left that fold (to the extent I was in it) when I became consciously part of the Brethren in Christ (that’s now another whole story, of course). I am fond of evangelicals, and I have ridden on their bus at times. I just wanted to miss all the excess Ron calls tragic. I am still getting tagged with the tragedy, but I tried to miss it. So when Ron says “we” need a better approach, I want to note that I did not adopt the former bad approach along with millions of other Christians.

For another thing, so-called “gay” people have been part of my life and part of the church for as long as I have been a part. The tone of the article sounds like “they” just got discovered and people should stop being reluctant to accept their existence! My views have developed along with the whole movement in the last 30 years, but my friendships with LGBTQ people have always been just that: friendships. They have been part of my “we.” When I think of the people Ron is talking about I think of faces, not some mysterious “other.” Christians belong to a transnational, transhistorical, transcultural body in the Spirit; only people who renounce Jesus could be considered truly “other,” I think – and we are called to love even them! So-called “gay” and so-called “straight” are called to the same allegiance and the same application of it.

We have tried to stay out of polarizing debates about sexuality during the life of Circle of Hope. But even we got blamed for the “tragic” behavior of evangelicals in the local gossip column! We ended up making our statement and trying to repair the divisions the “us” vs. “them” competition for the dominant, legalized thinking of the day caused in our community. I think we were pretty successful. But I suppose I am still sensitive about getting dragged into some loveless debate about some “thing,” when the “thing” happens to be someone I love.

Marriage in the New Creation

**Circle of Hope upgrades their teaching all the time, so this post is old now, in some ways. The new work is even better!** Here is the link to the latest.

All year we have been trying to get out of the congress-type polarization of the Church’s dialogue about sexual expression and get into the grace of staying focused on everyone’s redemption. I think we are doing a good job. The pastors came up with a statement on marriage in March and taught it to the cell leaders. I think it is a good summary of where we have come so far. This post is based on that statement. What follows are three big points about marriage and sexuality and some basic ideas that might help apply them.

We need to keep the love chapter where it belongs

The apostle Paul places his famous “love chapter” in the middle of his teaching about how the Holy Spirit is making the body of Christ out of the Lord’s followers (1 Corinthians 12-14). He does not place it after his chapter on marriage (1 Corinthians 7), which he could have easily done. The placement is important to note. Paul fully respects marriage as part of the order built into creation, but it is not equally important in the new creation.

In Christ, we are all bigger than the traditions that used to make up our identities. For instance, when Paul is talking to the church in Galatia about their temptation to follow the Jewish law he says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” and “what counts is the new creation” (Galatians 5:6, 6:15).

When we are talking about the new traditions people are making and legislating about marriage and sexuality in our era, it is important to remember that what counts is the new creation. How I relate to everyone who is finding their way: relationally, sexually and otherwise, is based on this kind of thought: “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).

There is more to you than your marriage or lack of one

Making families is great, but the ultimate in family comes from relating as brothers and sisters in Christ and respecting God as our true parent. That is a reality that takes the work of our Savior and the power of the Spirit to experience.

Jesus affirms the oldest teachings in the scripture about marriage (Matthew 19:5-6). Elsewhere in the New Testament we are taught that marriage is to be honored by all; all the Bible writers assume they are talking about a relationship between a man and a woman, lifelong and exclusive. At the same time, marriage is not considered the ultimate expression of love and commitment; love and commitment come from Jesus and are most fully realized in the body of Christ.  Within that inspired and diverse body, composed of everyone who can name Jesus as Lord, “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” Every Jesus-follower is honorable and must be honored because each is given “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:5-7).

Our relationships with God through Jesus Christ are what define us. Our ultimate identity is not about how we are married or how we have sex, just like it is not about where we live or any other labels the world may slap on us.

The Church has slapped some labels on people, too.

Circle of Hope’s way of responding to our era’s new approaches to sexual expression has been based on the spirit of the preceding teaching from the Bible. At the same time, we know that the church has rarely been a safe place, historically, for sexual nonconformity. Many people have been oppressed and injured. One of the reasons people are deserting the church in vast numbers these days is not just because the members of the church do not live in the Spirit or do not express new creation life, it is because the church is even more oppressive than the world!

Because of this reality, we have tried to be even more careful to welcome every person as they are, no matter where they are on their journey, and have been committed to walk with them as they discover the fullness of what God has for them. We don’t do this just because people won’t like us if we don’t; we do it because Jesus is doing the same thing with us! Especially in regard to how people experience marriage, we don’t need that to be a big issue when we first meet someone. After all, we think that the best place to find fullness as one’s true self is as an honored member of the body of Christ, not in a sexual relationship, married or otherwise. So we try to keep our focus where the focus should be.

Some people might prefer a detailed policy statement

Our approach requires a great deal of love and personal commitment, not just careful adjudication or implementation of regulations. As Jesus-followers we need to love real, complex people with an unfolding future, not just organize identities as if we were the Social Security Administration. We want to have faith that requires our best — and loving people as they are will require our best. Being personally gracious and hospitable takes a lot of time and patience, but the  commitment it takes to work out our love in the ways we are directed is worth it.

Here are some basic applications of the scripture that answer questions people have about what we are talking about:

What about the pressure to choose a sexual identity? Sexual arousal is a characteristic of a person, not their identity. How we respond to our arousal and the feelings themselves tend to be fluid and are subject to the same temptations and maturation as are all our ways. Jesus is Lord of all our feelings and ways. We seek to honor each person as they experience their feelings and find their way along their unique journey as a member of the body of Christ.

What about the increasing experience of living together as sexual partners before marriage? Generally, sexual expression should happen within a relationship founded in a marriage covenant. Couples who cohabit as sexual partners without a public commitment should consider themselves married. Likewise, if they break up, they should consider themselves divorced. The rights the nation gives or withholds regarding marriage and other relationships are superseded by our life in faith as part of the new creation.

What about “same sex attraction?” Jesus followers who desire sexual relations with people of their own gender are no less honorable than anyone else. They are going to work out their sexuality in a variety of ways, as they are convicted and gifted.

  • Some will choose celibacy and struggle alongside Jesus and Paul.
  • Some will choose to have a committed relationship that can be a faithful response to their desire.
  • Some will marry a person of the complementary gender and not express their other attractions, as all married couples are called to do.

There does not need to be one approach to marriage and sexual expression that supposedly meets the needs and aspirations of all people. All approaches to marriage do not need to be seen as equal in value or validity. The key to unity in diversity is the work of grace that enables disparate people to manifest the Spirit for the common good.  We all experience brokenness, sin and loneliness in our loves; so we will bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). What counts is the new creation.

It’s a new creation, vato.

I think the feeling was probably in the room last night when we were together for worship. But I could not see it too well. There were not a lot of fist pumps with

“Yes! I feel that sting. I know I have been poisoned. But Death, you have no power over me!”

Lent kind of teases out that kind of reaction, but it can be a long tease for some of us. It might take even longer for people to start dancing around the room shouting,

“Yes! I feel oppressed! I understand how the law has been keeping me down. But Jesus, you have freed me!”

But it is all there in the Bible; Jesus-lovers trying to woo people into newness:

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:56).

I think it might be easier to feel guilty for sin and just keep trying to fulfill the latest or oldest law. Being controlled so often feels like we are in control.

So out of control

his rules are being challenged
his rules are being challenged

One of the reasons I try to emulate the Apostle Paul is that he is so out of control when it comes to the usual domination systems and he is so moved by the Holy Spirit. Thus, I am getting a lot from this little video parable full of seekers, vato.

Even when Paul is abused, shipwrecked or in prison, he doesn’t forget that Jesus just recreated him and his eternal destiny is just around the corner from the latest mess. The diaper, the deadline, the demand, or the disaster do not derail his delight. He does not create a law so he never has to experience trouble; he lives by a law that turns trouble into life. His wonderful insight results in some great teaching that has been an antidote to the poison of sin and an alternative to the graceless oppression of law for centuries.

Even marriage is upended

The other day we were looking into one striking example of just how exceptional it is to follow Jesus when we explored Paul’s teaching about marriage. If you have read 1 Corinthians a few times, you’ve probably noticed that Paul places his famous “love chapter” in the middle of his teaching about how the Holy Spirit builds the Lord’s followers into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-14). He does not place it after his chapter on marriage (1 Corinthians 7). By pointing this out, I am not trying to insult everyone who has had the beautiful “love chapter” read at their wedding. But I am pointing out that if you think Paul wrote it because he thought your marriage was the epitome of love, you are wrong.

Paul fully respects marriage as part of the order built into creation. But what he really wants us to know is that Jesus has inaugurated a new creation that is restoring our poisoned hearts and unlocking the manacles of our control systems. You’d think there would be regular dancing and shouting about this. But the poison is really deep and the law is so attractive to us. When Paul talks to the church in Galatia about their temptation to follow the Jewish law he says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” and “what counts is the new creation” (Galatians 5:6, 6:15). I keep trying to make this fundamental understanding basic to how I see myself and relate to others: “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).

the unmastered dead
the unmastered dancing dead

Paul teaches out of this radically new vision of the world when he writes to the Corinthians about love. He has some very practical teaching on marriage in chapter seven, but I think it can be summed up as: “Marriage is good, but don’t let it get in the way of your life in the kingdom of God.” The epitome of love is not getting married, it is when Spirit-filled people form the body of Christ and live as a new creation. Some of the Corinthians really go with this new grace in which we live. Paul has to oppose one faction in the church whose slogan appears to be “I have the right to do anything.” Paul adds, “but not everything is beneficial and I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Some things are built into creation and it is arrogant to think we can improve on God’s basic design. Other things are built into society and even if we know they are not that important, we still respect them so other people will respect us. You can’t really make a law about everything, you need to be filled with the Spirit of God and be one in love.

The Jesus way

An approach like Paul’s requires a great deal of love and commitment. It is a lot easier to be at a level where you are just negotiating with sin all the time or you are dealing with life by making a law. Paul wants a life where love makes a difference and law no long masters him. Lots of Jesus-followers think the love chapter is pretty; Paul thinks it is animating. Many people skip the messiness of relating to God and others and make connections based on mutual denial or politics but Paul is led by Jesus right into all the  relating,  sorting, struggling and time it takes to be the body of Christ! It is a lot easier to be on this side or that, conform to the laws of one’s side and skip the struggle of the third way that guides our steps though the pressures of the binary world in which we live.

The third way was definitely being followed in the room last night. It is true that some people were still considering whether they thought it was “sin” or just themselves that entangled them. Some people were struggling whether it was just another “law” or it was irrefutable truth that dominated them. Lent kind of teases out those kinds of thoughts. But I think most of us were moving toward the love of Jesus and almost ready to dance. Death comes at us and we apply all the laws we know to stop it. It never works, vato. But sometimes we discover some amazing things in the process, even dancing beyond death.

Wendell Berry: identity, autonomy, privacy, competition

We had a winter wedding and draped the sterile “sanctuary” in ivy filched from front lawns all over town and made into garlands by loving friends. We thus began our somewhat-ignorant stumble into fidelity. On the occasion of our anniversary this week, my very-deep wife found an essay by Wendell Berry that eloquently summarizes much of what we instinctively discovered and practiced. What she focused on was Berry’s piece of wisdom that we have found to be true:

“No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.” We have practiced that in marriage, family, church and city.

The essay she quoted was written in 1977 as part of his book: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Berry wrote his prophetic book as the American Empire flowered and turned to fruit, and as the society began to democratize and monetize everything. If you are a Christian who longs to be a humble creature, you might like to read it all: [link].

For today I offer you two long quotes from it that seem to go together to me. Berry makes important points about topics we have been exploring for a few years as a Circle of Hope. He is writing at a time when the adoption of the concept of “identity” and other new definitions are beginning to bud. By our time we have eaten the pie.

“The so-called identity crisis, for instance, is a disease that seems to have become prevalent after the disconnection of body and soul and the other piecemealings of the modern period. One’s “identity” is apparently the immaterial part of one’s being–also known as psyche, soul, spirit, self, mind, etc. The dividing of this principle from the body and from any particular worldly locality would seem reason enough for a crisis. Treatment, it might be thought, would logically consist in the restoration of these connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work. But “finding yourself,” the pseudo-ritual by which the identity crisis is supposed to be resolved, makes use of no such immediate references. Leaving aside the obvious, and ancient, realities of doubt and self-doubt, as well as the authentic madness that is often the result of cultural disintegration, it seems likely that the identity crisis has become a sort of social myth, a genre of self-indulgence. It can be an excuse for irresponsibility or a fashionable mode of self-dramatization. It is the easiest form of self-flattery–a way to construe procrastination as a virtue–based on the romantic assumption that “who I really am” is better in some fundamental way than the available evidence proves.

The fashionable cure for this condition, if I understand the lore of it correctly has nothing to do with the assumption of responsibilities or the renewal of connections. The cure is “autonomy,” another mythical condition, suggesting that the self can be self-determining and independent without regard for any determining circumstance or any of the obvious dependences. This seems little more than a jargon term for indifference to the opinions and feelings of other people. There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence. Inevitably failing this impossible standard of autonomy, the modern self-seeker becomes a tourist of cures, submitting his quest to the guidance of one guru after another. The “cure” thus preserves the disease….”

Wendell Berry

Berry goes on to apply his thoughts on identity and autonomy to marriage. He has a lot to say to us in a time when single parenthood or parenthood by less-committed cohabitors is common:

“…Failing, as they cannot help but fail, to be each other’s all, the husband and wife become each other’s only. The sacrament of sexual union, which in the time of the household was a communion of workmates, and afterward tried to be a lovers’ paradise, has now become a kind of marketplace in which husband and wife represent each other as sexual property. Competitiveness and jealousy, imperfectly sweetened and disguised by the illusions of courtship, now become governing principles, and they work to isolate the couple inside their marriage. Marriage becomes a capsule of sexual fate. The man must look on other men, and the woman on other women, as threats. This seems to have become particularly damaging to women; because of the progressive degeneration and isolation of their “role,” their worldly stock in trade has increasingly had to be “their” men. In the isolation of the resulting sexual “privacy,” the disintegration of the community begins. The energy that is the most convivial and unifying loses its communal forms and becomes divisive. This dispersal was nowhere more poignantly exemplified than in the replacement of the old ring dances, in which all couples danced together, by the so-called ballroom dancing, in which each couple dances alone. A significant part of the etiquette of ballroom dancing is, or was, that the exchange of partners was accomplished by a “trade.” It is no accident that this capitalization of love and marriage was followed by a divorce epidemic–and by fashions of dancing in which each one of the dancers moves alone.”

Identity, autonomy, privacy, and competition have come to “encapsulate” most of the people we know. They are concepts that form new sanctuaries and they can’t be disguised by draping the ivy chains of our Christianity over them.

May you have some time this Advent, away from the monetization of our holy-days, to do a ring dance, to spend some time in the wilderness rediscovering how you are a much-loved creature, and to celebrate your responsible dependence

  • on God (who gives you yourself and gives himself to you in Jesus),
  • on your spouse (if you are given one) and
  • on your community (which you have been given).

We are the sanctuary in which God’s Spirit dwells. During Advent, as we remember how God comes in to our creatureliness in Jesus, it is a good time to remember how that same Spirit makes us God’s dwelling place as a people in our own time and place. This is also a good verse for a Christmas card: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.  Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:16-18).

Gotye and Kimbra tell a new Adam and Eve story

You’ve all seen this video, right?

It has been viewed over 440 million times on YouTube. Which kind of made me wonder why I had never heard of it until it was already old news. It was the top song on the Billboard 100 in 2012.

I’m not sure what is better, this addictive little song called Somebody That I Used to Know or the parodies of it. As soon as I got to listening to: “now you’re just somebody that I used to know.” I also heard

People are creative — and this song apparently strikes a chord with them. When Gotye sang it at the University of Michigan, people loudly sang along with him. In an interview he said all that singing was about “Releasing pent up relationship angst,” which he thought was also kind of sad. We could also sing along at Broad and Dauphin.

To hear Wally De Backer talk about the song, it seems like it just kind of happened. He had a story to tell about how a guy is processing a break up. It was such a short song he decided he was missing the other part of the story – how the girl was reacting, so he put her in. He almost gave up on it at different times and then it ended up being his first big hit that made him famous.

The “new and improved” Adam and Eve story

I think it is famous because we are all right there in the video, at least a little bit, as the present generation rushes to “socially construct” their new, improved Adam and Eve story.  I seriously doubt Gotye intended to do this, but his song is channeling the prevailing philosophy that is making relationships what they are today.  The song is like an Adam and Eve story, only this narrative does not have God, Adam or Eve. It has Gotye as the story-telling god, then Gotye and Kimbra in a new narrative that amounts to a revised version of Adam and Eve. In this version there is only Gotye’s “red state” reverie and Kimbra’s “blue state deconstruction” coming to a mysterious, inconclusive conclusion, showing a typically distant ending to a relationship. It is the story of a new normal.

I think we should keep looking at how new narratives are affecting how we think about relationships.

adam-and-eve-rae-chichilnitskyWhat makes this an Adam and Eve song in my mind probably has to do with the fact that I am way Christian. I was at the Sleep-Eze store not long ago laying on beds to try them out and I befriended a rather odd woman who was laying on the bed next to mine. She ended up kind of trailing us as we were making a deal on a mattress. She finally asked, “You must be Christians, right?”  Gwen and I said, “Oh yes, we are way Christians.” I even see bed-buying as a Christian activity. So listening to Gotye is a similar experience for me.

That being said, I think Gotye’s song is an Adam and Eve story, right down to the title lyric. Somebody that I used to know could be titled Somebody that I used to have sex with using “know” the way Genesis uses it when talking about Adam and Eve. Genesis 4:1 says: Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. The second story of creation in Genesis 2-4 is essentially an explanation of how men and women relate the way they do. It is about sex and marriage, love and children, family and mutual care.

Gotye’s song is about sex and what it is like when the couple is no longer having it, how they don’t get to love and mutual care. They had sex; they got painted into a common picture, in this case, his common picture. Like Adam and Eve were both naked and felt no shame, Gotye and Kimbra are shamelessly naked in their video (which is probably how it got viewed 440 million times). But then the woman wakes up to the fact that he isn’t willing or capable of actually forming something that is mutual, so she gets out, gets unpainted.

The new normal of postmodern relationships

What makes this story so interestingly postmodern is this:

  1. It goes without saying that God is banished from the picture.
  2. People have sex first, then they try to form intimacy. That’s elemental to the relational landscape to which many of us have conformed.
  3. But mainly, the two people in the story are struggling over having a shared sense of what the reality they have created together means. And they don’t agree. They “don’t make sense.” They can’t even talk civilly about it.

Gotye’s audience really relates.

One of the public’s favorite lines of the song is: “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness. Like resignation to the end, always the end” — that mysterious inconclusive conclusion that marks this generation’s lives. In some sense, it is relieving when you expect something to happen, even if it is bad, and then it actually happens.  It at least comes to some kind of end. He calls his feeling a “certain kind” of sadness, since he won’t admit to anything really being anything. But this despair is so compelling that he can’t resist an extra lament, “resignation to the end, always the end.” The narcissistic emptiness of this makes me want to cry — which is something the people avoid in this sad little song, even though it is sad. It’s all in his head.

When Kimbra adds her side of the story it is equally compelling. The lack of centeredness, of substance, of commitment is making her crazy. His ambivalence made her feel like “it was always something that I’d done.” Doesn’t the whole society make you feel that way these days? I am always shocked when I call customer service for a problem and they regularly tell me I have caused the problem. When I demonstrate it was really them, they don’t apologize. I’m responsible for everything, but no one thanks me for taking care of things — another way we are like gods. People are enraged by the futility of their relationships in this context. Having sex should imply that we want to know one another but the knowing does not happen. So Kimbra moves over toward Gotye in the  video and yells: “I don’t wanna live that way, reading into every word you say. You said that you could let it go, and I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know!”

Then they just start screaming at each other musically. She lets him have it. He winces and withdraws, and keeps sticking to his story. She finally moves away, gets unpainted, and they sadly end up whispering “somebody that I used to know.” They apparently think,It’s really sad that the relationship happened to me that way.”

It is an unstisfying narrative

The postmodern narrative about how things work is all there. It teaches us that reality is inevitably made up of what we create together. That’s it. “I was lonely in your company but that was love and it’s an ache I still remember.” That’s it.  But people are angry about that. They want more and expected more.  But everyone is locked in their singularity — defensive, enraged, unsatisfied, intimate without intimacy. That’s happening to people. They think it is sadly normal. Gotye told the story and people bought it — again. And they sang it with him until they knew all the words.

The ongoing Biblical creation story continues to say that it is not good for us to be alone without God and each other. That’s the true normal we were singing about last night at our Sunday meeting. We know we need to get together, but we also need to know that we really need to get with God to get together with one another. God makes reality. We co-create with Him, but we are not lonely gods, ourselves, failing at creating love on our own — at least we are not meant to live like that. If God doesn’t create, if Jesus doesn’t get us back with God, life is just one damned thing after another. A lot of us are really enraged that we end up with people who are resigned to their godless end: cut-off and screwed over. Let’s  talk about that more next time. Until then, let’s be aware of the new narratives that are lying to us about the relational landscape.

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