Tag Archives: marriage

Spring renewal

Spring renewal, or, starting again when it’s too late

I had a really bad breakup once. I thought we were going to get married; I had structured my whole life for months around that plan. Then I asked her and she said no.

When you are that wrong about something that important in your life, it makes you question everything, like, “What else am I utterly clueless about?” And that was what I did: my job, where I lived, my understanding of God… everything was on the table. This went on for months. Fall turned to Winter turned to Spring, and then, as it drew close to Easter, and I travelled to visit my parents for the holiday.

Sunday morning, my dad (not normally an early riser) woke me up: “C’mere! I wanna show you something.” And he led me out onto the porch, where we looked out over a dew-covered field at the sun just peeking over the horizon, the whole sky awash in the glory of the sunrise.

My dad and I have not always had the easiest relationship, but as we stood there together, the two of us just taking it in, thinking about the Easter message of resurrection, renewal, new life from the ashes, it felt like a new beginning. It felt as if the whole world were being born again. I didn’t have to be tied to a failed relationship, to past difficulties, to anything that defines me in ways that damage me. I could leave all of that in the grave and start afresh.

We always have that chance. The message of Christ is that, sometimes, there must be death in order for there to be life:

  • Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.
  • For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.
  • Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.
  • If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation. The old things have gone; behold, everything is made new!

The worst mistake we can make is to be looking always backwards at “when we had that chance…” Yes, there are missed chances, but there are new chances too. There is no “back in my day”. If you are still alive, then today is your day.

Today is the first day after Easter. Whatever it is that you missed in the past can be in your future too.

Start now.

Christ is risen.

The end is not “the end”.

Key to happy marriage

How to save your marriage in one easy step

First, disclaimers. This is a simple post on how to have a happy marriage. It is not about culture wars, it is not about gender roles, it is not about finger-pointing or blame. I have a happy marriage. My wife and I just celebrated our 11th anniversary. I have one secret. Here it is. Enjoy.

Recently I encountered one of the best articles I’ve ever read about how to have a happy marriage.

Now understand: my wife and I work hard to have a good marriage. We regularly take time alone together, we’ve read books, we’ve gone to classes & retreats, we’ve used therapy when needed. We are each other’s top priority. All of that is important, and any one of those is potentially a good blog post, but none of it is “the secret”.

For all of the sound and fury coming out of the church these days over the state of marriage, the place I found the purest distilled essence of the Bible’s advice on marriage was in a secular article by a guy whose marriage failed, reflecting on the reasons why. It was called, “She divorced me because I left dishes by the sink.” It’s about how to sacrificially love your spouse.

What is love?

Our society gets all twisted up about love. “Love is romance,” we think, or “love is a feeling,” or “love is sexual passion.” All of that is nice, but none of it is the real point.

Here is the point: Love is a decision. Love is sacrifice. Hollywood shows us a naked couple on the screen and says, “This is love,” but the Bible shows us a naked man hanging from a cross for our redemption and says, “This is love.”

  • This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
  • For God so loved the world, he gave his one and only son…
  • But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
  • Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

As long as something else is more important to us than the well-being and growth of our beloved, we have not truly loved. Especially as long as “holding to our own” is more important.

How to love

The number one thing you gotta know about Christ is, he didn’t insist on his rights:

Much heat nowadays centers on the passage in Ephesians that says “the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church”, across the whole spectrum from those who want women to submit, to those who would rather see the Bible discarded. In either case, the passage is read without much reference to Christ, as if it could interchangeably read, “…as a general is head of his army.” The husband makes the decisions, gives the orders, and the wife says, “Sir, yes sir!” From a Biblical perspective, though, that is nonsense.

To emulate Christ in anything is to take the lowest place, the servant’s place, to empty one’s self of privilege. Here are some tips for Christlike leadership from my own marriage:

  • Walk the dog
  • Change the baby
  • Buy the groceries
  • Fold clothes
  • Do the dishes
  • Take out the trash

Important in all of this is the spirit of loving gift. A loving marriage is not made by simply sharing responsibilities or “doing stuff”. It is made by accepting our Lord’s invitation to beauty, in the bearing of one another’s burdens, by acts of Christlike splendor and Christlike grace.

In so doing, we are given the privilege of glimpsing God’s own love for us. More than any other metaphor, scripture likens the love of Christ to the love of a husband for his bride.

 

(This week’s post is dedicated with much love to our friends Neal & Mandi… Congrats you two!)

Deeper prayer life

My so-called prayer life

I’ll say it right up front: this is a posting for people who like prayer. I know of lot of us scoff at prayer, you’re all very welcome here, I would love to talk about that sometime soon, but not today.

I like prayer but unfortunately (like many of us), I am not particularly good at it. There have been moments— those prayers of earnest seeking when God is suddenly so present for one tiny instant, and then the wave crests and it all ebbs away. Or those vindictive moments when I remember to turn to God, then am shocked to discover I have found my way to love for my enemies. Those are the times when the power of prayer is like an electric force coursing through my body.

Then there are the other times… When my mind keeps getting distracted by shiny things. When I know I promised to pray for someone but can’t remember who. When I feel like a petulant child with my bullet-stream of requests, when I want to pray better but can’t think how, when I wander from topic to topic or (being honest) fall asleep.

How can we pray better? How can we have more of the immediate, intimate prayer life we want? Partly the answers must be found individually. The Christian walk is a relationship, and as there is no single secret to a happy marriage, there is no single secret to an intimate prayer life. However, there are some common threads, and I would like to highlight two that have proven meaningful for me, which are: space and intention.

Space

We live in a busy time. Everything is crammed in; nothing receives the attention it deserves. As 2013 New York Times editorial rather poignantly put it, “Being a Working Mother Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.” Little wonder, then, that our prayer times are crammed in as well. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 does instruct us to “pray without ceasing,” but again, the analogy to marriage is a good one: simple small acts of love are wonderful, but they don’t replace the periodic date night. Any healthy relationship requires genuine investment.

This is not to say that neglected prayer time is one more thing to feel guilty about. Guilt may have its place, but it’s not a fruit of the Holy Spirit. A better way to think of it is that, when we crave deeper intimacy with God, a way is available to us. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” says Christ. When that thirst for God becomes greater than the other needs that press in upon us from every side, he is there to be found.

As a practical note, one way to carve out space in our lives is with a clear start and finish. Small prayer-time rituals can have enormous value: ring a bell, light a candle, roll out a prayer mat… any such practice can reduce the muddy splashing of the everyday onto our sacred space/time.

Intention

Prayer needs to have the right focus, which is surprisingly easy to forget. During my flickers of transcendent prayer, the clearest memory is what I felt. So, the attempt to recreate those feelings is one very natural, but very wrong, approach to prayer. Because it is such an easy mistake, many Christian authors have written about it.

Way back in 1875, Hannah Whitall Smith wrote, “The common thought is, life is to be lived in the emotions. As they are satisfactory or otherwise, the soul rests or is troubled.” More recently, Bill Bright described the Christian experience as a train. “The caboose we will call ‘feelings,'” he writes, “It would be ridiculous to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way you, as a Christian, should never depend on feelings or seek after an emotional experience.”

Much of the core gospel message is concerned with love, which we think of as an emotion, but in scripture, “love” tends to be more of an action verb: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” “Let us show love, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service.”

Christian love, by definition, is other-focused rather than self-focused. The richest prayer life becomes available to us when create real space and time in our lives for it, and when our focus is on God, his work in the world, and our place within that.

 

Leave a comment! What practices help you to have a deeper and more transformative prayer life? 

 

Jesus work, fabulous luxury

Doing Jesus’ work through fabulous luxury

Have you heard the saying, “Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary”? My pastor recently spoke about that. It used to be one of his favorites, he said, but not anymore; instead, he urged us to talk about Jesus, “no matter how uncomfortable it is.”

I was thinking about that this week as I took vacation time with my wife and daughter and some dear family friends. Some see vacation time as a fabulous luxury, but despite what my pastor said, I think we were doing at least three things that express God’s design for us— building relationship, creating sabbath, using our treasure— quite apart from the need for words.

Building relationship

Recently I have realized that vacation is not “one thing”, and how people like to enjoy themselves varies widely. For example, when my 70-something parents vacation, they like to go someplace new and exotic, and suck all the marrow out of life; where they get their energy from, I have no idea. When my sister’s family vacations, they like to go to an event, like a puzzle competition or a bluegrass festival. Whereas for our family, vacation is all about the “who”, more so than the “where” or the “what”. We like to “stay-cation” at a beautiful spot about 40 minutes’ drive from home, and the whole time is spent entertaining friends and family who drive up to visit us there. We swim, we cook out, and we celebrate time together.

Is it holy? Are we doing ministry? As I reflect on it, the answer, I think, is very much of a yes, even though most of the time, nobody is talking about Jesus. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father… for I was a stranger and you invited me in.” I have written before about the deep craving for relationship that is ingrained into each of us. Meeting this need for others, Christ says, is on a par with life essentials like food and water.

Creating sabbath

Our society is stressed out. A 2013 study by the American Psychological Association says that we are “a picture of high stress and ineffective coping mechanisms that appear to be ingrained in our culture”. Stress, the study says, impacts both our physical and mental health:

  • resulting in high rates of anger, irritability and anxiety
  • contributing to ailments ranging from digestive upset to heart disease
  • compounding depression and obesity

We see the examples everywhere. The Onion just satirized it with an article entitled, “Father Teaches Son How To Fly Into Rage Over Completely Inconsequential B*******”. This week when a friend’s dog escaped and ran into the street, rather than help, a nearby stranger began screaming unprovoked invective at her, moving her to tears. She was able to offer grace to her tormentor, concluding “Be kind. Everyone is doing the best they can. I know that angry man has some battles of his own.” But none of this is what God intended for us. Part of the reason we have so little patience for each other is that we do not honor our God-given rhythms of work and rest. Ann Graham Lotz went on record this week blaming the decline of American society on all the usual suspects, but nowhere does she mention our wholesale abandonment of the sabbath. Yet the biblical commandment to honor the sabbath and keep it holy is no less strongly worded, and the consequences are far more obvious and direct.

Into the midst of this kind of world, I believe, nothing is more important than creating margin for downtime. We relax, we renew, we replenish. We invest in our marriages and our children. Again, I think it is work God would approve of.

Using our treasure

There has been a lot of talk in the U.S. in recent years about “the 1%”, by which we mean the super-wealthy ivory-tower elite. But in a global sense, I am actually part of that top 1%, and so, quite likely, are you. (Find out here.) We have a lot to share, and God commands that we do so; otherwise we are like Jesus’ parables about the rich man (“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God”) or the unworthy servant (“So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground”).

We have nice things. We like to share them. We get to vacation in a beautiful place. Why should we keep that experience to ourselves? Once, a friend’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and his kids pulled together to raise money and send their parents on the honeymoon they’d never had. We helped. Sometimes we are hosts on Airbnb, and have the privilege of helping to make that “pause from the action” happen in the lives of people we didn’t even know before. I think all of this is work that is pleasing to God, absence of a come-to-Jesus talk notwithstanding. Speaking of which…

About Jesus: uncomfortable?

When my wife was involved in Young Life, one of their core principles was “earning the right to be heard,” meaning that your advice to others is fairly meaningless and hollow if you won’t take the trouble to invest and walk alongside. The class Perspectives on the World Christian Movement makes the same point in the context of global missions. The gospel message is good news of freedom and reunion and redemption, soaked in a tonic of self-sacrificing love. It is hard to see how we have worked ourselves up into a state where talking about that should be seen as an uncomfortable chore. Jesus’ conversations about himself and the kingdom of heaven were a lot of things— transformative, miraculous, polarizing— but they were never simply socially awkward.

When our focus is on building relationship and investing in others in love, conversations happen naturally about who we are, how we live, what we believe and why. And that, after all, is what Christian faith is fundamentally about.

Related links

Be loved. I double-dog dare you.

Surviving years alone with God and “Into The Woods”

Burning anger

What to do when your anger makes you angry

I get it when I’m angry about the big stuff. Once a friend conned me out of $3500; I was angry. Once a project at work was single-handedly held up for nearly a year by a regulator who kept changing the rules on us; I was angry. It makes sense.

What baffles me is the irrational anger. Recently I read about a 120-foot rusted metal barricade, installed as a “sculpture”, that defaced a public plaza in Manhattan from 1981-89. I was furious for days. Over a problem I never saw, already resolved for more than 25 years. “Oooh, for a short time decades ago, certain million-dollar views weren’t quite as nice as they should have been!” What?

Anger is often a symptom

One of the best sermons I ever heard was in the late 1990s by Jay Mitchell called “I’m Angry! Now What?” He made the point that anger can be like a fire alarm— it is obvious and loud, but in the final analysis, it is only distantly related to the actual problem. The noise is caused by the smoke, which is coming from the fire. The urgent problem is to find the fire; only a fool would waste time trying to deal with the noise. Yet this is the most common reaction to anger: we fire both barrels at whatever set us off, without a moment’s pause to look for an actual source.

Once I was temping at an escrow office, and an agent was trying to close a deal, expecting some important documents. To do him a favor, the moment they arrived, I got up from my desk and walked them a block down the street to his office. The next day, he called my boss and demanded that I be fired. I never found out what perceived slight had made me the object of his wrath, but I have often wondered: Where in his life was the volcano of anger that erupted onto me as an essentially innocent bystander? And did he ever find it and extinguish it? (By the way, my boss did not fire me; she dropped that agent as a customer instead… “Oft doth evil mar itself.”)

“In your anger, do not sin”

I’ll never know what was going on in that agent’s life, but I can be inspired by that example to pause and reflect before I lash out in anger. Dealing constructively with anger is a part of life, and the bible has a lot of really sound advice about it, but the overarching principle comes from Psalm 4:4: “In your anger, do not sin.” I may never have sinned by calling someone’s boss to get them fired, but I have certainly blown it plenty of other times in my life. (Read: “reply-all button”.)

To deal with your anger by simply stifling it… this is little better than dealing with the fire alarm by ignoring it

The verse goes on to say, “Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent,” which, taken in isolation, sounds like advice to deal with your anger by simply stifling it. However, this is little better than dealing with the fire alarm by ignoring it; the real problem (the fire) will grow until it can no longer be ignored, when the problem will be more difficult (if not impossible) to resolve, and the destruction will inevitably be much greater. I once had a housemate whose significant relationships always went through the same pattern: things would mostly be good, but with some area of conflict. He would ignore the conflict (“take it like a man”, as he put it) until he reached the limits of his endurance, and then his verbal anger would explode, resulting in the destruction of the relationship.

The only solution he could imagine was to have unlimited endurance that could never be exhausted, so that he could continue to stifle his feelings in perpetuity. I urged him, instead, to consider trying to deal with the issue. His response to this was, “No, that’s what I just said: when I run out of patience and try to deal with the issue, that’s when the wheels come off and everything falls apart.” To him, “dealing with the issue” was synonymous with unconstructively blowing up at his partner. However, I do not think this is what scripture has in mind when it says to “ponder in your heart and be silent.”

“When the fire is out”

Instead, I think the biblical picture here is to take time, cool off, and reflect. I once had a friend who was so intent on taking Ephesians 4:26 literally and verbatim that, if she and her husband got into a fight close to sunset, she would insist on having it out right then. Some of their most heated arguments occurred that way. (A good example of the need to seek biblical advice in prayer, and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit— not legalistically.) They finally learned that, if they were having issues with each other in the evening, they were much better off going to bed (there’s a literal verse application for you: “pondering in their bed”), and dealing with it fresh in the morning. Turned out most of the friction in their marriage had come from forcing serious discussions at the end of the day while they were both exhausted.

We may try to fight small fires ourselves, but in a big fire, by far the best course of action is to find a place of safety for ourselves and our loved ones, and to call in outside help. In the same way, few of our problems are created by ourselves alone, and few can be resolved by ourselves alone. Yet we often turn to secrecy because we find our problems embarrassing. Can you imagine declining to call the fire department out of similar reasoning? Trusted friends, pastors, counsellors… all can be part of helping us find, and resolve, the root causes of our anger.

Once the fire is put out— once we do not feel that hot anger rising in our cheeks— real work can be accomplished for good. In a building, if the problem is faulty wiring, that problem will still be there the next morning, and can be much more constructively addressed then. Whereas, there is a very good reason electricians don’t try to work on buildings while they are burning.

Surviving years alone

Surviving years alone with God and “Into The Woods”

Growing up, some kids wanted to be firefighters or doctors or zookeepers; all I wanted was to have my own family. As a 14-year-old freshman, I made my plan: date in high school, date seriously in college, marry right after graduation, five years just us, first child at 28. But there was a snag you see: no one would go out with me. Contrary to my plan, I had zero girlfriends in high school, then zero in college. My first serious relationship, at age 23, ended after two months when she cheated on me and then dumped me.

As the years wore on, my timeline completely blown, sometimes people talked to me about the so-called “gift of singleness”. Sometime I raged against God. In the end, though, I finally figured it out. If that is you today— waking up every day praying, hopeful; going to bed every night exhausted, discouraged, alone yet again— I am here to tell you that there is an answer, there is hope, there is a way through. You can find it too.

Not having the “gift of singleness”

In Christianese, we have a term— “the gift of singleness”— which imagines a person, spiritually equipped for happiness through focus solely on God and his kingdom, unburdened by the need for significant human relationship. Let’s just say: as a person with a deep heart craving for marriage, that term was often a source of pain to me.

For one thing, like many pieces of supposedly “Christian wisdom”, it’s unbiblical. The closest you find is Paul’s encouragement to “remain as I am“, which is simply advice, unrelated to any sort of spiritual gifting. In the “gift of singleness” concept, there’s the slightly smug implication that love, marriage, and relationship are for those who couldn’t make the “A” grade of God’s sufficiency. In fact, while Paul does talk about the advantages of the single life, those who desire marriage have nothing to apologize for when it comes to scripture:

  • “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.” (Proverbs 18:22)
  • “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.'” (Genesis 2:18)
  • “Two are better than one…” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
Raging against God

It’s easy to talk about the years going by, but it’s really the days that will get you. In our society, there is so much promise of quick-and-casual relationship that it is easy to wake up every morning thinking that, by nightfall, maybe my situation will have completely changed for the better. By tonight, maybe somebody will love me. And days keep going by like that, one after another after another, for thousands of days in a row. Proverbs says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and that is how I felt.

I kept watching other people have what I wanted, and it just started to seem vindictive and personal. I began to get so angry at God, and I often prayed the words of Psalm 44: “But now you have rejected and humbled us; you sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from their sale.”

During all of this, my lifeline was music. Sometimes it was Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me“. Sometimes it was Alanis Morissette. In particular, almost every day, I replayed a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods called “No More”**:

No more giants, waging war.
Can’t we just pursue our lives, with our children and our wives?
‘Til that happy day arrives, how do you ignore
All the witches, all the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the good-byes, the reverses…
All the wondering what even worse is still in store!
All the children.
All the giants.
No more.

** (They left it out of the recent movie version; I was devastated.)

I had a mid-life crisis when I hit age 25 still single— a “quarter century” felt so old— and my biggest question was, “Can I survive this?” The music helped me know that someone else had felt what I faced, and had found a way through to the other side.

Making Peace with God

In prayer as in life, you may often feel there’s no answer if the only answers that “count” are the ones you’ve already decided on

At age 28, I finally thought I had met “The One”. But, after nine months, it fell apart just like all the others, and I finally said, “I give up.” By now, I was supposed to have a over decade of learning how to love. By now, we were supposed to be starting a family. I had tried everything I knew, I had prayed every prayer I could think of, and nothing was making it happen. And for the first time in my life, I had to face the question, “What if this doesn’t happen?” For the first time in my life, I starting looking for outside help. I became willing to adjust my perspective instead of insisting that the world adjust my situation.

I went through a year of therapy, and two years of a twelve-step recovery program for what is called, “SLA” (sex/love addiction). I realized that, in prayer as in life, you may often feel there’s no answer if the only answers that “count” are the ones you’ve already decided on. As in the line from The King’s Speech, if you’re waiting for God to comply with your instructions, “you will wait a long wait.”

All along, I had felt like nothing was working, because to me, “working” meant “making God hurry up.” But the truth is that God will do what God is going to do. That insight is embedded in the very name of God. So if God has a spouse for me out there somewhere, he will bring her into my life if and when it suits him. The only point at which I had any control over the situation was: how to redeem the time until then.

For the first time, I began allowing people to meet some of my needs without insisting they meet them all. I started to think, “What do I enjoy? Why don’t I do that?” I did a triathlon. I started writing. I began volunteering with kids at church. I became a big brother. I quit my job and spent a year teaching dance lessons.

By age 33, I finally started to feel like I had it figured out. I was letting myself enjoy my life for the first time, accepting what was instead of pining for what was not. I was happy. I found peace.

That year I met my wife; we’ve been married 10 years now. Could I have met her earlier? Sure. But would I ever have had those experiences, and learned those lessons? Would I ever have become the man God intended me to be? I’m pretty sure the answer, to all of the above, is “no”.