Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Matrimonial Musings Part 2

While trying out a new coffee shop this morning, I'm thinking about another, initially under-appreciated element of my wedding: The unity candle.

I've noticed the unity candle has become rather cliché, especially for the more advanced, hipster couples. Mere mention of its antiquity can elicit eye-rolls and condescending snorts. In fact, unity candles have been cliché for so long that the sand ceremony, the new-agey replacement of the unity candle, is also now cliché. Frankly, I considered the sand ceremony to be a terrible replacement. As an illustration, the bride and groom each pouring their colored sand into a single vessel, fell short as a unifying metaphor for me because, technically, it can be reversed. The sand, even if through great difficulty, can be re-separated. It illustrated unity for me about as well as clicking together legos over a Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez song would. But then I realized that the glass vessel contained the sand. Two can always separate, whether in attitude or in geography; but the vessel of commitment and love shows the two working their individuality out together. At this revelation, the metaphor made more sense to me and I gave it my ecclesial blessing. Doubtless, the sand people breathe relief.

Nevertheless, Kristi and I did a unity candle, so it's to be preferred.

I missed the significance of the candle ceremony until I reflected on the nature of some of our own tensions, as well as the tensions I've helped others through over the years. Before all that, let me walk you through the hyper-complexity of the ceremony:

Before the wedding, family or friends light two individual candles, each representing the two individuals getting married. Once the wedding ceremony is underway, the two candles are taken up by the bride and groom to use to light the center candle, the unity candle. Two thus become one. (As an aside, the individual candles are typically tall and thin, and the unity candle is short and fat. I don't know if this is some devious foreshadowing about the eventual physique of married people, but it's not funny.)

It's a beautiful moment when the center flame is created from the distinct individuals. I vaguely remember this moment in our ceremony being as much a statement of our "us-ness" as the other elements in our wedding. It's exciting. But there's a final moment that makes the biggest, albeit subtlest, statement of all. Once the unity candle is lit, the bride and groom are supposed to blow out their individual candles.

Because at one point, and daily if I'm being honest, you have to decide if you're going to be one, or two. You cannot be both.

I and many others have spent the majority of the married life pointing to the beauty of the unity candle's flame, while protecting our individual candle like it's the last light in the galaxy. How many of our arguments, longstanding tensions, hurt feelings and assurances that the other doesn't "get it" anymore can be illustrated by a bride and a groom standing next to a burning unity candle while protecting their own flame with a rigidly cupped hand? In fact, is there anymore terrifying a metaphor than blowing out your self-preferencing, self-protecting bachelorhood with no concrete assurances about the future? Sure, the unity candle is beautiful. That one's easy to light and photograph. But blowing out the isolated, selfish ego in preference of a new found, interdependent whole feels dangerous. Something in our minds fights against it as though our actual life is at stake. It's so terrible a concept that many of us unwittingly spend most of our lives defending our flame against the very one we married.

I've noticed that when I'm being defensive, I'm admitting at least two things:
1. I believe I am dealing with someone trying to snuff me out. True or not, I believe that the other person is a risk to my precious little flame. To the extent I believe this, I do not love my spouse, because you cannot simultaneously love and fear someone.
2. I have an unsurrendered, protection-needy remnant of myself. I say words like "unity", "one", "us", etc. about my marriage. But in reality there are parts of me that I will defend to the death because no one, not even the one I unite with, is allowed behind the bulwark. So, defense assumes unity is only conceptual. What's concrete to me is that I am on my own, and others are in varying degrees, against me.

The more I learn how vitally important vulnerability and risk are in unity, the more I realize that the defensive cupping of my own flame renders me more alone and weaker. In other words, the more I protect myself, the more I work to extinguish what I really wanted in the first place; unmitigated unity and acceptance from another human being.

A couple thoughts.
*Never demand a spouse blow out his/her individual flame. It's frustrating when a person needlessly takes a defensive position against you. But, when you marry a person, you are marrying them with their current state of insecurities and their doubts about the transformative, freeing power of love. Demanding surrender only makes for a good fight. Everybody knows this, but forget they know it at home.
*Don't live in a "1, 2, 3 EXHALE!" mentality. Unity is a stepped process, and demanding to blow your candles out together to lessen personal risk is childish, no matter how reasonable it sounds. You living vulnerably can't be conditional on the other following suit, or their going first or even their agreeing to do it at the same time. You just embrace the risk and serve. Open, free people are attractive. So, live un-defensively, irrespective of the guardedness or freedom of your spouse. Beautiful lives always change things. Fearful ones keeps it all the same.
*If you think you're being attacked, which is a separate idea from whether or not you actually are, the worst thing to do is retaliate. The best thing to do is work from a oneness default, where you and your spouse being unified and on a journey of growth together is a constant assumption. Admit to feeling attacked, not in accusation but in confession of weakness, and think through issues as two people committed to each other's best. It's amazing how easily our minds work via the assumption that the other wants to conquer or subdue us. Assuming that you both are interested in the other first (if even only in theory for the first decade or so, until it sticks) rockets you past the cycles of defensive, sibling-style stalemates. No matter the issue, you tackle it unified, unthreatened and honest.
*Recognize we're all bad at this. We grow up defending ourselves in almost every relationship we've ever had. Proving our worth, justifying our words and actions, and even trying to survive on playgrounds and in boardrooms are all habits we bring into a marriage relationship- one uniquely marked by raw, naked, terrifying vulnerability. Being "bad at this" isn't a disqualifier. It's just a reminder of how unnatural it all quite often feels. It's a reminder to be mutually humble, gentle and connected to others trying to figure out what to do with their candles too.

As I typed the period on that last sentence, a young couple that goes to Crosspointe came up and introduced themselves. They just got engaged and cannot wait to be married. They want to come in for premarital counseling and are looking forward to discussing the details of their simple ceremony. I can't yet be sure, but they look like sand people. I think I can turn them.

Here's hoping they, and the rest of us who decide to marry, learn how to enjoy the short, fat candle. More importantly, here's hoping we all have the faith and courage to blow the tall, skinny ones out.

"...be like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but, each of you, to the interests of the others.In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus."                                                                                                         Philippians 2:2-5 NIV

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Matrimonial musings. Part 1

Thirteen years ago today, I married Kristi.

I don't remember much about the day. I remember wearing a rented tux, while thinking that men renting a used garment for their wedding and women buying a dress at a significantly higher price, for the same event, says all kinds of interesting things about exactly whom these ceremonies are predominantly for. I also remember my brother, my best man, kept speaking in an Irish accent. He kept asking, "Doo ya loff har?"to which I was supposed to respond, "Aye. Ah doo." He also continued willfully misunderstanding "best man" as a superlative, telling others repeatedly, "I'm the best man in this whole building."  I remember inadvertently walking into the space Kristi was getting ready and seeing her before I was supposed to. This upset her, which momentarily had me thinking I'd ruined our wedding before it started. It wouldn't have been the first time I'd ruined something before it got off the ground. I can be sort of a North Korean rocket sometimes.

The rest of the day is a blur of faces and words. Being escorted down back halls so I wouldn't see Kristi or walk under any ladders. Pats on the back from jovial men, telling me I had but a few more moments of freedom, which isn't funny the third time. Tearful women in my family who were happy for me, and perhaps a bit stunned that I was marrying at all, let alone someone the caliber of Kristi. My mother-in-law, leaning in to tell me that if I ever hurt her daughter, she'd kill me, and me momentarily forgetting how to swallow as I wondered what her humor/sincerity ratio was. I remember the lump in my throat when Kristi appeared and walked down the isle, and how surreal that felt. Gorgeous woman. No less so today. Then the ceremony, the candle lighting, my best friend Jonathan shredding on the acoustic for the requisite musical interlude, a perfectly out-of-place high five from an old schoolmate as Kristi and I walked back down the isle, and then eating with various family members at Chili's or O'Charley's or the like. 

But there's one thing I completely forgot until I started doing weddings a few years later as a pastor. And that was the exact content of our wedding vows. We did the traditional vows because, as NT Wright points out, it's not likely that you'll know what your signing up for on your first day of one the biggest commitments of your life. Sometimes tradition is tradition because it's been tested and found strong. Often, wisdom says embrace tradition.

Our vows went like this:
I Steve, take you Kristi, to be my wife. To have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until we are separated by death. As God is my witness, I give you my promise.

Most of the hiccups I've had as a husband over the years have been largely due to forgetting or not understanding what I signed up for. And most of the problems I see married couples having is essentially the same thing. What we say in our vows, and how we actually relate to our spouses just moments after the vows are made, are very much at odds.

Note that these vows, and most likely all the adaptations and versions that we've heard in the weddings we've been to, have only one contingency; death. They are completely focused on serving the other, with no demand for a return on investment. This is not to say that death is the only acceptable reason for a marriage to end. My point isn't the justifications for divorce. My point is the attitude of the one making the vow being rooted in other-centeredness. Note that there is nothing like, "as long as you make me happy" or "As long as you remember not to bug me too much and make my efforts worth it for me" or "as long as you maintain a body shape, outlook and disposition that I can derive pleasure from" in the vow. These would be terrible things to promise. They are obviously base and immature sentiments that don't require vowing at all. Yet, after making these "you-first-always-until-I'm-dead" vows, we very often begin a journey of trying to get the other to be and do in accord with our preferences.  Or else. The other-centered vows get swallowed up in our actual, selfish style of relating. 

Reciprocity and love aren't the same thing, and in fact may be mortal enemies. Marriages are rooted in love, business is rooted in reciprocity. Many marriages are struggling and sputtering because they are being built on "if/then" contractual thinking. The couple act like business owners, only doing what is profitable, and cutting back things that don't pay off regardless of how well received the "product" was by the customer. And this all makes sense, largely. It's how most of the interactions we have seem to function. The transactions we make outnumber our acts of service by a pretty significant margin. In light of how so much of our existence works, it's hard to imagine even wanting to do something with no demand for a return. Some might argue that there is no such thing. And yet, vows keep getting made, we keep getting misty-eyed, and we still believe somewhere that there is beauty, at least conceptually, in one serving another no matter the ups and downs or personal costs ahead. Underneath our transactional living, we long for the beauty we hear hinted at in our vows.

So a few questions.

What if what Christ said is true; that it is more blessed to give than to receive? That's not a contrasting statement, it's one of scale. The last thing any of us should try is being selfless. Jesus never commands us to be selfless. He simply espouses less self. 
What if it's better to serve than to be served? 
What if the life we're trying to mine from our spouses is actually found in serving them, ministering to them, and allowing them to be whatever they are without it costing them our commitment and tenderness? 
What if the vows we make aren't just supposed to sound beautiful? What if they are? What if they are beautiful not for their loftiness, but for them being the keys to experiencing the happiness we've been deceived into thinking is the responsibility of our spouse? 
What if fullness of life comes from saying "no matter what, I will always work to submit my interests to yours"?  

These questions are worth asking when we feel like giving up on the person we've committed our life to. It's worth asking if our struggles couldn't be alleviated to some degree (completely?) by simply going back and reminding ourselves that we signed up for a life marked chiefly by serving, not by being served. Or, in short, reminding ourselves that we signed up for love.

“Love is unselfishly choosing for another’s highest good.” – C. S. Lewis

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

God's use of fear.

The topic of fear came up, as it does often, in a recent email from someone teaching on the subject. They got hung up on it philosophically and asked for my input. This is the email I received and my subsequent response. I look forward to developing these thoughts some more....

"I need an example of a biblical character who sensed danger or fear from God and by doing so, avoided something bad.  There are so many examples where God protected people and told them not to fear.  But what I need to do is to prove that sometimes, fear is good.  Or is it???  I am not talking about doing something God wants us to do…. Certainly, we must overcome fears there.  I am talking about appropriate fear.  Sometimes it is from God in order to redirect us or 'save' us."

There may be an example...I just cant think of one. When you use the words, "appropriate fear" I take that to mean right or correct fear, which by definition happens when it's supposed to. In fact, appropriate fear is a gift of God that keeps us alive, as it is designed into us. Species which heed their appropriate fears outlive ones that don't. 

If one doesn't have fear when fear is necessary, then,

a) they would need threatened with unnatural or extrinsic consequences to arouse fear. Like telling a child if they play in the street they lose a toy. The risks of the former are incomprehensible to her little mind, but losing a toy she gets. So though the two things aren't related (traffic and her toy), you tie them together for her sake. When she gets older, this arrangement changes. Part of her maturing is the lessening need for extrinsic threats. Religion struggles with allowing people to grow into wisdom, and keeps extrinsic threats in view well into adulthood. This is not the pattern of all growing in wisdom, but of all remaining under control.

b) One may have a malfunctioning brain, much like the woman who's was damaged and lost her fears, which was either a deficiency or a blessing, depending on your perspective.

There seem to be far more examples Biblically of people being encouraged by God to get past their fear, rather than to be scared (psalm 27:1, Isaiah 41:10, etc...). 

Regarding fear being good or not, that may not be a full enough question. Simply speaking, as I said above, if fear is unnatural to the circumstances, or extrinsic, then I submit respectfully its use is for a less mature person or people. Consider the warning, "If you touch the antique vase, mommy will swat your hand" as an example. Instilling a fear rooted in extrinsic consequences assumes that the child can't/won't understand the worth of the antique, and the associated danger in handling it. But the child can appreciate the dread of the swatted hand. Therefore, fear is used, but only due to the child's immaturity. Not because the fear is "good". The hope would be that the seeming need for this kind of fear will be outgrown by the child. (One could argue that a real world example of instilling fear, whether based on natural or unnatural consequences, to save a life is "good". But then that opens us up to a conversation about ends justifying means and necessary evil, which is important, but not in keeping with my present point.)

Childish adult behavior has extrinsic fear connected to it. If an adult drives drunk and is caught, they go to jail. But theres nothing intrinsic or naturally inherent about the behavior and the consequences. What would being intoxicated in an automobile have to do with being put in a cement box against your will. They don't naturally flow together. One leads to the other extrinsically, as the unnatural consequence for a behavior society agrees is unsafe, unfair and undesirable. Law is like that a lot. It exists to guide and control those who lack proper will-guidance and self-control to the detriment of the greater good. For the mature, which is another way of saying "the wise", the natural consequences instill the appropriate fear. I don't personally drive drunk, but not at all because of the law, but because of the inherent consequences of that behavior on myself and others. I used to not do it because the consequences of the law (and having a cop for a father) served as a deterrent. Now, the value of life and the understanding of how one second of foolishness can ruin lives forever makes it not even a temptation. At risk of sounding self-righteous...I identify this as maturity and wisdom in me. (Now if I could just get it to take root in other areas of my life....). I no longer need to be threatened, because the inherent, intrinsic consequences of reality are enough. But then again, many have claimed maturity like I just did and still fallen, having only the extrinsic threat of jail time to keep them from totally coming off the tracks....

So maybe the Kingdom of God is a way of talking about the myriad ways human beings outgrow any need for law, because the law of Love (of God and others) has taken over. The wisdom of understanding the consequences of our action or inaction, the natural laws of the universe (the ones God ostensibly established first) are all we need. Maybe the Kingdom of God has no rules. Jesus Christ is the King of what could almost be called a lawless Kingdom. Maybe that's why Jesus says the Kingdom is here and yet is still coming, because guys like me understand and live it in some categories, but have a lot of growing up to do in all the other ones. 

So here's to wisdom and maturing and to perfect love slowly, but surely, driving out fear.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Trial period....

I just noticed we use legal terms when we are trying something.
Trying a dessert. Sign up for cable on a trial basis. Hire someone on an initial probationary period. I guess because trying is judging. Perhaps this is why when you are dating someone, some call it courting.

I'm going to blog for a while and see if I judge it to be worth doing. To see if anyone does, frankly. I've noticed that when I am teasing out a thought or an idea, I take it more seriously when I am assured other eyes and minds will be involved. (Maybe someday that won't matter, but I confess it does to some extent now. In keeping with the theme of this post, feel free to judge this). Besides honing the craft of writing, it also allows a space to think about the world in ways that may or may not fit within the context of a teaching on a Sunday morning.

I'm looking forward to it. But for now, we're adjourned. Recess!