Tag Archives: marriage

The Shape of Water: Enough already!

The Shape of Water Poster

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.

Will time management improve this?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)

2014 #4 — 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.

For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #4 most read post of 2014. Last June I tried to keep our conversation about sexuality going by publishing a variation on the theme of our statement we made after our lively “Doing Theology” session in the spring.

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 have same sex attraction 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.
  • Some may struggle with what to do and others may cause struggles with what they do.

There does not need to be one approach to marriage and sexual expression that supposedly meets the needs and aspirations of all people. 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.

2014 #9 — That "other" person is someone I love!

For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #9 most read post. In November, I objected to evangelicals unwittingly “otherizing” people while trying to be compassionate about their convictions.

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.

love never fails, marriage includedWe 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).

Continue reading Marriage in the New Creation

It's a new creation, vato.

I think it 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.

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 my 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 that 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.

Continue reading It's a new creation, vato.

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-Unsettling-of-AmericaThe 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 berryBerry 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.

More:

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Let’s look at this cohabitation thing again — You’re married, right?

I heard a common story from a new friend last night. As far as she knew about church people, “living together” was so frowned upon that she and her boyfriend suspected they would be ostracized if they got involved in Circle of Hope.

I said to her, “You guys are married, though, right?” She said, “Yes.” (This is not a transcript of our conversation, but that was the gist).  What stood in the way of the official ceremony was money. They did not have wealthy or supportive parents; they did not have the money for a big party, money for the ring, the dress, etc.; plus, she wanted to feel more established financially before they made a commitment. This story is so common it seems to represent a new rite of passage into adulthood.

cohabitors

Care about people where they are

The “principle Christians” sometimes criticize Circle of Hope, as a whole, for our acceptance of people who are “cohabiting,” like my friend is. The implication is that we should consider these people taboo until they get themselves corrected. Instead, we apparently just let people have sex, willy nilly, and encourage people to sin. (Really, that’s gotten back through the gossip chain).

But, in truth, we’ve come up with an alternative. We care about people the way we meet them. So we usually get to know people who are cohabiting and ask them if they are married. Most of the time, if they aren’t just sharing an address, they say “Yes.”

I think people need to make a public covenant and have the benefit of a church-sanctioned marriage for any number of reasons. I’m not sure they need the government involved in their marriage at all – if they see that as an advantage, fine. But if they have taken one another home, and we all know they are a “they,” I don’t feel out of line by acknowledging their marriage.

Cohabitation facts

Like I noted in a former post, cohabitation has increased dramatically in recent decades in the United States. It climbed from 500,000 couples in 1970 to nearly 6.8 million couples in 2009. It looks like most young adults today will, at some point, live with a sexual partner outside of marriage. The stats say that a majority of couples now cohabit before they marry. Often their parents encourage these “trial runs.” It looks like a generation with so many divorced parents is deciding not to get divorced by never getting married.  It is a new era with a host of new issues to sort out.

Many Christians think the 21st century increase in cohabitation without legal, covenantal or public recognition devalues marriage and undermines its goals. If recent research is a true indicator, Americans, as a whole, have not fully decided whether they agree or not.  Sex is easier now. The capacity to marry for love (as well as be unfaithful) provided by birth control shook old foundations and new foundations are being built in response. Divorce is easier. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage. By the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage. It is easier to be “abnormal” now. Since the 1960’s, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have become increasingly common and culturally acceptable.

Although the contours of marriage have changed over time, the definition has not.  Americans still overwhelmingly define marriage as being sexually exclusive and lifelong, even though many break their vows. They are pulled between opposites and are still sorting things out. They want the connection of marriage, but they have slowly become accustomed to being individualistic and consumeristic. They want the security and safety of marriage, but they still want all their choices unencumbered. They want to marry or exclusively cohabit, but then have extramarital sex or divorce, even though they no longer have to get married. “Freedom” is the slogan, but they seem to still be pondering with the Apostle Paul: “Yes, everything is permissible. But not everything builds up!” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

What is the best way to marry?

Even though there are very few negative social consequences for breaking former sexual codes by not being married, Americans overwhelmingly choose to marry, eventually. Even same-sex couples want to marry and thirteen states will allow them to do it legally. I don’t think I can answer all the reasons why people mate the way they do, but I do want to respond to what is happening with grace and discernment.

It is an interesting era. I am watching it as something of an outsider, since I and my Anabaptist tradition do not tune our faith to the varying pitches of government music or the society’s dance. As far as I am concerned, state and federal government definitions of marriage do not necessarily serve to increase the integrity of marriage as an expression of faith. I don’t think legislation on sex, finances, or even procreation will protect marriage enough to make it work. It takes commitment. I don’t think couples need an excessive wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment. But I do think they need the sanction and participation of a living community in Christ to make a long-lasting covenant that is centered in the covenant we keep with the Lord.

As a church, we have not fully answered all the questions (including the ones that come through the gossip chain): Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? Does the covenant need to be made in traditional ways — especially now that many of those mostly-extra-biblical ways are becoming discredited?

A new look at the spectrum of how people, in general, are changing marriage from contract to cohabitation might come up with some advantageous ways to adapt:

  • Maybe we could free some people from the ceremony trap — some people don’t marry because they are saving for the bling and the spectacle! Just stand up during the Love Feast; we’ll marry you and you can have a big party on your fifth anniversary.
  • Maybe we could honor people by acknowledging their cohabitation before they enter their covenant publically. That would be something like the way we embrace people as members of the church community before they make a covenant with the body.
  • Maybe we should more clearly express our understanding that people who have sex are, essentially, married, albeit poorly and dangerously. But then, some of them are better married than some people who live together with a publically affirmed covenant.
  • Maybe we should stop keeping secrets. Why should someone feel like they are secretly married just because they have not jumped through all the sometimes-arbitrary hoops? Why shouldn’t we help people have healthy, godly relationships with the people they are living with?
  • Maybe we can help people who are getting married to relax about it and not try to meet the demands of the wedding industry. That might encourage others to celebrate the relationship they have made with more freedom and less stress.

Here are some more blog posts and pages about marriage:

The Marriage Story (August 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/the-marriage-story/

Sorting out cohabitation and marriage (August 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/sorting-out-cohabitation-and-marriage/

Keep Talking about How Your Lover Is Doing with Jesus (April 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/keep-talking-about-how-your-lover-is-doing-with-jesus/

Monica and the new marriage (June 2011)http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/monica-and-the-new-marriage/

Mating Choices (May 2009)
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2009/05/14/mating-choices/

Love (January 2009)
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2009/01/12/love/

Go Ahead and Marry (2000)
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/info-and-articles/go-ahead-and-marry-2000/

Sorting Out Cohabitation and Marriage

Cohabitation has increased dramatically in recent decades in the United States (and in Circle of Hope, too!). In the U.S. it climbed from 500,000 couples in 1970 to nearly 6.8 million couples in 2009. Most young adults today will, at some point, live with a romantic partner outside of marriage, and the majority of couples now cohabit before they marry. It looks like a generation with so many divorced parents is deciding not to get divorced by never getting married. We should consider this a new stage of development in marriage. It is a new era with a host of new issues to sort out.

Many Christians think the 21st century increase in cohabitation without legal, covenantal or public recognition devalues marriage and undermines its goals. If recent research is a true indicator, Americans, as a whole, have not fully decided whether they agree or not.  Since 1960, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have become increasingly common and culturally acceptable. But even though there are very few negative social consequences for practicing these things without being married, Americans overwhelmingly choose to marry, eventually. I don’t think I can answer all the reasons why they do this. But I do want to respond to the reality of it.

In the past most people married for economic, political and social reasons. Today they marry for love. Postmodern people seem to think relationships save them. The love songs say it. The script of New Girl taught it in a recent sitcom episode. Marriage was once a sacrament, then it became a contract, and now it is an arrangement based on mutual attraction. Once religion provided the sacrament, then the law enforced the contract, and now personal preferences define the arrangement. The cultural change that made this happen was the same one that gave us science, technology, freedom, and capitalism: the Enlightenment. It made human reason the measure of all things, throwing off ancient rules if they fell short of new scientific reasoning. The greatest accomplishment of the Enlightenment was the creation of the United States of America.

Among the many things the scientific advances of the creative era called the Enlightenment spawned were the increase of divorce and cohabitation. The capacity to marry for love and participate in infidelity provided by birth control shook old foundations and new foundations are being built in response. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage. By the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage.

Although the purpose of marriage has changed over time, the definition has not.  Americans still define marriage as being sexually exclusive and lifelong, but many engage in infidelity and divorce. They want the connection, but they have slowly become accustomed to being totally individualistic.  They choose to marry or exclusively cohabit and then have extramarital sex or divorce, even though they no longer have to get married. “Freedom” is the slogan but they seem to still be pondering with the Apostle Paul: “Yes, everything is permissible. But not everything builds up!” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

As a result of all this confusion, family law has lost any moral basis. It is easier to get out of a marriage than a mortgage. This change in culture is made clear when one looks at court decisions. At the end of the 1800s, the Supreme Court referred to marriage as a “holy estate” and a “sacred obligation.” (Reynolds v. U.S. 1878). By 1972 the same court described marriage as “an association of two individuals” (Eisenstadt v. Baird. 1972).  The Defense of Marriage Act (1996) attempted to remedy the Supreme Court’s philosophical direction that accelerated the change in society. But the adaptation of marriage has continued anyway and that law is being whittled away. The Obama administration selectively enforces it. As a society, people are still sorting this out.

For Christians who have not tuned their faith to the varying pitch of government, such as I am, the lack of federal protection for marriage merely serves to increase the integrity of marriage as an expression of faith: not of sex, finances or even procreation, but of commitment. Couples do not need an excessive wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment. But they do need the sanction and participation of a living community in Christ to make a long-lasting covenant that is centered in the covenant we keep with the Lord.

The question is: Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? The essence of marriage is not sex, or money, or even children: it is covenant. Does the covenant need to be made in traditional ways — especially now that those mostly-extra-biblical ways are becoming discredited? A new look at the spectrum of how people are changing marriage from covenant to cohabitation might come up with some advantageous ways to adapt.

  • Maybe we could free some people from the ceremony trap — some people don’t marry because they are saving for the bling and the spectacle!
  • Maybe we could honor people by acknowledging their cohabitation before the covenant is publicly committed – that would be something like embracing people as members of the church community before they make a covenant with the body.
  • Maybe we should more clearly express our understanding that people who have sex are, essentially, married, albeit poorly and dangerously. But then, some of them are better married than some people who live together with a publically affirmed covenant, just secretly. Why would someone get married secretly?

When someone told me recently that they were about ready to have sex with their girlfriend, I said if he was going to get married, I’d marry them immediately, if he liked. We’re still sorting that out, too.

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The Marriage Story

On Saturday we opened up the topic of marriage at our leadership training. There is a lot of change coming to fruit in U.S. society regarding marriage and the changes can be very confusing. Some of our confusion came to my attention when a cell asked me for a “private session” to talk about cohabitation and same sex marriage. When we had talked over some of their issues, one of them finally asked, “So Rod, what is marriage?” I’m not sure why the question surprised me, but it did. I realized we had some theologizing to do. Their thinking had been colonized by the philosophies of the age that did not recognize Jesus; they needed to talk. So let’s keep talking, here — gently. Arguing about intimacy and sex is never a good idea, in my opinion.

This is some of what I was saying on Saturday.

Understanding marriage starts with a story, not a definition.

Though U.S. laws and philosophies demand otherwise, any wisdom about marriage is going to start with a story; and it will be one about relating to God at the center of it. Some people connect with congregations of the Church and one of the first things they ask for is the congregation’s definitions surrounding sexuality to see whether it is tolerable. If that is you, I can only ask that you are patient with our Bible-like ways. If you ask Jesus, “What is marriage” he will probably tell you a story. Marriage is too mysterious and too full of God to reduce it to a definition one can control and fight about. U.S. society has no center, so it is in a constant fight about definitions that become laws. The kingdom of God just does not work like that.

Genesis 2 is a marriage story

marriage of Adam and Eve

One of the first stories about marriage is in Genesis 2, where the Bible collects tales about the creation of the world. Among the many things that Genesis 2 is, it is a marriage story. I think we learn three things from it:

We are not alone in our garden, God is with us.

I suppose when God presented Adam with Eve, the man could have responded in other ways than with the wonder he expressed. He could have said, “What in the world is it?” Likewise, Eve could have whispered to God as they walked down the aisle of Eden, “Are you sure you know what you are doing?” Instead, Adam and Eve went with the miracle and trusted God for what was being created.

God expresses the Trinity’s character by creating us male and female in the Lord’s own image. Our coming together, is a mysterious, complete picture of who God is as we love one another as male and female. This is not the only way the image of God in us is revealed, because it happens when I love my children or comrades, too, and it happens when I choose to be my true self in the Spirit. Obviously, Jesus and Paul are not married and recommend their condition as a way to be married to God, so to speak. So people who are not married must not feel like they are missing out on the heart of the matter. But marriage is a basic way we creatures show how we are made in God’s image. The story of creation ends with marriage being the “moral” of the story: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). One of the basic reasons for the story was to explain why people get married and how God is with us in that.

Marriage is a primary way we come to our wholeness.

We all might know that in the story of Adam and Eve they get in quite a bit of trouble together. They make some choices that have some severe consequences. Their oldest children are not very well put together. I don’t think the whole clan has fully figured out how to be human for the first few chapters of the Bible, if then. In this process of sin and redemption, crime and wonder, marriage is a central crucible for growth. It is a laboratory for learning love. It is a crucible because it contains some volatile stuff that needs a gracious container to mature in. Many of us have blown up the lab a couple of times, and we know what I am talking about.

Yes, marriage is for romance and pleasure, but those elements are not enough motivation to sustain a love that can suffer like God’s. Personal satisfaction (whatever that moving target is!) is not enough to make a marriage worthwhile over time. If marriage is a practical process of learning  how to be a human who can be his or her true self in Christ, how to be a person who is able to come together in a kiss that is packed with mutual care, then we are getting somewhere.

Marriage is a primary way we fulfill our purpose

Some people think that Adam and Eve just wandered around in the garden hanging out, naming new animals and fruit they discovered. Not entirely. It says they were given the garden to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). They were partners. They needed each other. Then sin made their work even harder! They were charged to be fruitful and cover the earth — have children, create community, keep the earth in shape, develop humankind. They had a whole earth to explore and tend and an eternity to do it. Their relationship had innate purpose. Just as God created them in a purposeful way, with love and goodness in mind, they were to be creative and purposeful.

Some of us have had relationships in which having the relationship was the goal of the relationship. Perhaps one partner was the avoider and one partner the pursuer — that often keeps couples occupied. Maybe both partners surprised themselves and their mate by discovering new issues they had with intimacy — that often gives people something to do. All relationships are challenging, but relationships with nothing else in life but the relationship are even more difficult. No person can be our “everything” – thanks for the confidence in me to think I could be, but no thanks. Being made for more than a relationship with your mate is not an either/or thing. Having a purpose should enhance intimacy.

How do I think community is created?

There is a lot to learn from the story. On Saturday, we began by thinking about what our parents’ marriages had been like. How did they bring us into creation? It makes a big difference to how we think we are to function in it. We are part of their ongoing story. If the family was eating forbidden fruit all day, it makes a difference.

If you are considering making a marriage covenant, are attached to a regular sexual partner, or are cohabiting, I think it is crucial to understand the story you are writing. When mating, Jesus followers probably want to match the creation/re-creation story in significant ways, since we are in the process of creating a new community with two people  at the center, and we are leading the community of the church in significant ways by what we do. These days people tend to have sealed off love (don’t connect too much) or solace love (hang on for dear life), when what we want is synchrony love (mutuality and understanding). We tend not to know our own story too well, or to even think we should have one. We are more reaction than action. The marriage story in the creation story encourages good meditating and deciding about how God is in everyone’s picture and how to make sensible choices in relation to others.

Keep Talking about How Your Lover Is Doing with Jesus

The biggest impediment to keeping faith with Jesus might be a good man or a good woman — or at least a man or a woman who wants me.

I have often wondered out loud how long it will be before a new follower of Jesus is derailed by a new unbelieving boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes it seems like such a person is sent to the newly-faithful to see how faithful they want to be!

Almost everybody wants to love. The newly faithful are good to love. It is ironic that just as they start accessing a deeper way to love, the very thing that faith unleashes is the very thing that can do faith in! Jesus saves a needy person, brings them into community; they get stabilized and processed a bit, and they immediately use their newly softened heart to connect to someone who disconnects them from Jesus! Or if the person is OK with Jesus, in the abstract (in the, “It’s so cute that you are a Christian,” kind of way), they disconnect their sweet believer from the community and mission that is not that cute. This is a significant struggle right now all over our network.

Figuring out how faithful people mate has been a struggle from the beginning. Paul, in particular, talks about it quite a bit in the Bible. He really gets into the subject with the church in Corinth, Greece. He has a lot to say in his letters to his dear friends about how they are relating, and we have been pondering his revelations ever since. This is the group to whom he writes the famous 1 Corinthians 13 about love. This is the part of that chapter which is often excerpted for weddings:  

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

When Jesus frees a person to love like this, they are a very attractive mate! Many people are glad to receive the Jesus-like love of a Jesus follower as long as the lover doesn’t bring Jesus along with His love. And many people who love like Jesus are very hesitant to unhook from a person who doesn’t like Jesus precisely because they have learned to hope and persevere in love like Jesus!

Maybe that is why Paul wrote again in 2 Corinthians 6 about being overly involved with people who are not involved with Jesus. He says not to get “yoked together” with unbelievers, like mismatched farm animals trying to get some plowing done. Animals that are yoked conform to each other’s ways or they constantly chafe under the yoke. When it comes to followers of Jesus connecting with people following something else, it can be a bad situation for both parties. When a Christian is intimate with an unbeliever, it is like inviting someone to defile the “temple of the living God,” Paul teaches, since the Spirit of God resides in His people. Paul is not saying that an unbeliever is all bad or that he or she can’t be loved and redeemed. He’s saying that they don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into, and they should not be lured into taking it lightly. Likewise, the believer should not try to hide their light so an unbeliever is comfortable in their dark, as if that were possible, anyway. It is not good for either party. Something has to live or something has to die.

Paul has a long discussion about what to do about these situations in 1 Corinthians 7.  The message of Jesus has come to Corinth and there are quite a few marriages and engagements among the new believers that have been impacted, so Paul wants to talk about what to do. His main advice is that if a person can manage to not get entangled in sex and marriage at all, that’s a good thing. But I don’t think he really thinks that is going to happen for 95% of the people, so he tries to help sort things out. He says that people who are married when they come to faith should stay married. Don’t desert your mate just because they don’t come to faith. But if they leave you, don’t feel bound to them; let yourself move on. To people who aren’t married when they come to faith he says it would be just as well to stay unmarried, because if you get intimate with someone, they are going to hold sway over you – heart, mind and body; who they are is going to make a big difference in who you can be. So if you need to get married (and that is a good thing), make sure that Jesus can live with the person you marry. It is better to stay single than to be yoked to someone who is uncomfortable being yoked to Jesus.

Like Paul feels the need to talk to his loved ones about the specifics of making love relationships, about marriage, and about how they are having sex, we need to keep talking, too. The love of God poured out on us in Jesus is making us whole and setting us free to be our true selves. It is also making us very attractive to people who need our love, and many of them have no clue about the bondage they are in and the false selves to which they are committed. We need to be honest with ourselves about the limits of who we are in Jesus. We need to be honest with our lovers about what relating to us really means. We’re going to love them; that is what we do. But so is Jesus, and they need to let him be in the relationship, since He’s not going anywhere.

Monica and the New Marriage

The statistics are in a duel when it comes to whether living together before marriage results in a higher rate of divorce. Around here we tend to call cohabitation “faux marriage” and one does not have to be “living together” to be in one. But that is beside the point (already!). Some statistics keepers say 45% of cohabiters breakup before they get married.  “67 percent of cohabitating couples who marry eventually divorce, compared to 45 percent of all first marriages,” claims Michael Foust.  Others are very skeptical about how the numbers are crunched, like Catherine Harris, who says that her sense of the stats is that cohabitation isn’t that big of an indicator of marital success. So many PhDs! Such a big internet to argue on!

Marital “success” is nice. But people are not consulting the stats before they decide whether to cohabit or marry, are they? “Success” is not a very convincing moral argument for a moral decision. Success is not even moral – or is that all we’ve got, now? Moral is still a discussion of right conduct, right and wrong according to one’s principles, or, in my case, how I should live in response to the way of life revealed by God, primarily in Jesus, and persistently informed by the Holy Spirit. Getting married is a significant place where we get to decide, “What is best for me to do? What is best for the person I love?” and also, “What does my community think is the right way to go about this?”

An awful lot of us seem to be floating around in the rudderless ship of our personal decision on the ocean of our undefined thinking when it comes to moral choices about marriage. Many of us are not in a family system with any strength to guide us and most of
us are not part of a community we respect to inform us. The new marriage is a personal expression of “whatever.”

Monica Mandell appears to be an evangelist for the new marriage. I ran into her in the latest edition of Philadelphia Magazine. In the online version she gushes “Living together is a phenomenon previous generations did not experience. Although the divorce statistics show that it does not matter if you rush into marriage, marry your high school sweetheart or live with your future spouse, it must make things a lot easier to actually know the person you are marrying. Not only are women in the workplace today, but  they are also having premarital sex! Can you imagine being with your partner for the first time on your wedding night? It is a miracle that so many unions lasted from that generation!”

I took just a cursory look at the stats and there is no way one can say that it does not matter how you marry or whether you don’t marry. Of course it matters, unless nothing matters. One stat that I found most stat keepers agreeing on is that people who value marriage are more likely to stay married.

What’s more, let me be amazed at how Dr. Mandell breezily dismisses virginity with a “Can you imagine?!” I am surprised she did not include the implied “OMG!” Yes, Monica, I can imagine being with my partner for the first time on my wedding night. I don’t think marriages automatically die from lack of virginity. But I don’t think they are worse off with it, not by a long shot. The couples I counsel put a lot of stress on their love and undermine their commitment by never having any thresholds to cross. Forming a healthy relationship that contributes to one’s spiritual health is not a light matter.

She goes on, “Modern women should be seeking to balance good marriages with good jobs. Happy, productive parents breed happy, productive children. Having weekly mahjong sessions, lunches and shopping might have been considered fun as a standing operating procedure in the past, but the 1950s are over. Marriage is a partnership. Women who are not using their brains to full potential are selling themselves short.”

First of all, the 50’s were 60 years ago and the stereotype of the TV fifties never existed. That being said, I think Monica means that “postmodern” women “should” be doing the
balancing act she describes. They are more likely than modern women to see themselves as the defining factor in what should happen.

Secondly, families are built in a context and they are not just about happy productive parents (who apparently get their happiness from their marriages and jobs). Marriages happen in the world and “successful marriages” happen in community – hopefully in an extended family, ideally, in the church.

Thirdly, mahjong is not that easy. Using one’s brains as an economic tool is not always that satisfying, either.

I’ve got a feeling that Monica Mandell’s sense of what is good is mainly derived from economics. Looking for love aside, the lookers for love, these days, cohabit because they are shopping. Getting what one wants is the principle, shopping is the moral act. Monica’s
byline names her: “Director of the Philadelphia office of Selective Search, the premiere (off-line) upscale matchmaking firm for the most eligible singles.”

From what I can tell from the website, Monica is a personal mate shopper. This is what her
website promises the men: “Selective Search Clients are single because they’re selective and don’t want to settle. We honor our Client’s preferences and don’t judge them, regardless of their criteria. In fact, we don’t consider having preferences like age, religion, and physical or personality type as being ‘picky’. We think it’s about knowing who and what you want and being selective….It’s our goal to introduce to you to that ‘needle in the haystack’ – a high caliber woman who will make you happy and fulfilled.” For a “premium fee” the website says, she will find you a premium selection.

Perhaps she “should” have added: Can you imagine the best possible, potential mate to try out in your very own bedroom? We deliver! Marriage as a commodity sounds like a perfect adaptation to a society that is all about economics, now that we have hollowed out its soul and forbidden God to influence it. I am not saying that everyone cohabiting is that shallow. But I am saying that they are wading in a shallow pool.