Friday, January 27, 2012

Thoughts on Marriage, Part 2

It occurs to me, at this point, to mention that I'm no expert on marriage. In truth, my husband and I have only been together for for 8.5 years, and for 3.5 of them we have been married. I'm not writing these blog posts because I think I know everything about relationships. But I have known a lot of people and seen a lot of different relationships, some good, some bad, and some in between. And I recognize that having a good relationship is not about following a set of rules. It's about cultivating a set of qualities that makes you the kind of person who is a good partner. David Vanderveen (a Christian who has been married 18+ years) wrote,
"A person simply has to be aware of what empowers, enhances and enables their spouse to be come the best person they were designed to be and help them pursue that together."
I completely agree. In order to develop that awareness and to truly push our spouse to be the best person s/he can be, we ourselves need to be pushed and helped. A good relationship has qualities that allow both partners to pursue holiness together.

In this post, we will continue a discussion of what makes for a good relationship. Last week, we reflected on some of the attributes that make a marriage strong and healthy, including intimacy, mutuality, exclusivity, commitment, and loyalty. It's fairly obvious why these qualities promote a healthy marriage. This week, we will continue reflecting on Brother Anthony's attributes of a good marriage:


These attributes require us to use our imaginations, because they don't immediately come to mind when thinking about what makes a good relationship. But when these attributes are present in any relationship, not just a romantic one, the relationship takes on a completely different- and godly - dimension. Although Anthony was referring to God's love when he mentioned these qualities, his point was that truly good relationships mirror God's love. So how can human relationships embody the qualities of justice, courage, and creativity? It's easy to tell when an individual is just, creative, and courageous, but what does that look like in a relationship?

At first, I thought that courage was going to be the hardest one to describe, but it turned out to be the easiest. I've observed courageous relationships on Facebook as I watch my friends move thousands of miles away so their spouse can attend seminary or another academic program. You can see a courageous marriage when you meet someone who sticks by a cancer survivor or a spouse with a chronic or terminal illness. Courageous partners face a miscarriage or the death of a grown child together. They persevere through discrimination and economic hardship. When one partner takes a stand for what is right, the other supports him/her. All of these challenges force us to face ourselves and our circumstances. That can be scary, especially facing those parts of ourselves we don't like. But this is one of the ways marriage makes us better people: when we own up to who we really are, we can start to become who we want to be, and who God wants us to be.

Justice functions in very much the same way. When we talk things over with our partner, s/he helps us reflect on the day's events. If we aren't sure how to respond to a situation or which decision to make, our spouse can help us decide what is the right thing to do. Or if our response to a situation was a bad one, marriage is a graceful space in which we can own up to our mistakes and think about how to rectify them. In a good relationship, we learn to treat others more justly- those outside our homes, and those within. It can be harder to admit that we can improve the way we treat those closest to us, and this is a blind spot because we are so familiar with them. But by improving the way we treat our spouse and others in our household, again, we become more Christlike. This comes back to equality in marriage. Paul described this ideal in Gal. 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Differences should not become divisions, and differences don't dictate our roles in life. In a truly just marriage, both responsibility and authority are shared. Any good relationship- marriage or otherwise- is a laboratory in which we learn to be more just and fair-minded people. We thus become more just in our relations with our spouse and with everyone in our world.

Much like justice, creativity functions in our relationships to help us find alternatives to old habits that may be hurting us and to help us deal with difficult circumstances in which we unexpectedly find ourselves. When someone doesn't get a promotion, scholarship, or something else we mentally planned on, we have to recalculate. We need to make a different plan. It can be hard to do that, especially after having been rejected in some way. A good partner helps us to cope with that loss (yes, even losing a vision of the future is a loss), and to find a new way to move forward. Even in ordinary circumstances, if our spouse has a bad habit, we can help him/her find another, more healthy way of being, thinking, or doing. Perhaps I cannot break my bad mental habit alone, and he can't handle all the cooking alone, but when we work together we can both eat healthier and change stubborn mental patterns. Creativity in my relationship also helps me spiritually. I have a tendency to react immediately when I get angry. My spouse knows a few things about Zen Buddhism, so he suggests ways for me to calm down before I do or say something. Mindfulness is good for the soul, and I don't practice it nearly enough; he sometimes needs to be reminded to pray and meditate on the Scriptures. Being together reminds us to engage in spiritual practices we tend to neglect. We even show creativity in the mundane things, like getting a new pet, taking up a new hobby, teaching each other something new, or deciding to have children. As God is creative, constantly making new things and finding "workarounds" to all our mistakes, so the best human relationships help us to work around the obstacles in our lives and keep doing new things.

Cultivating the attributes of justice, courage, and creativity thus help us accomplish the end goal of marriage, which is becoming our best selves- the people God made us to be- and helping our partners to do the same. That includes striving for both spiritual growth and personal growth. Sanctification, that is, the process of becoming holy, involves both inward maturity and outward compassionate deeds. Good relationships help us to do both, and push us toward them, if necessary. Any relationship that does not embody the attributes we've discussed in these weeks is holding us back from our pursuit of holiness. Whether your relationship is with a spouse, a serious girl/boyfriend, or even a fraternity, cultivating any of these traits in your relationship is one way you can participate in becoming the person God wants you to be.

How have you experienced creativity in your relationship? Have you ever thought about justice and courage as part of a healthy relationship before?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thoughts on Marriage, Part 1

It's that other time of the year: the time when folks who got engaged over Christmas are starting to plan their weddings; for those whose weddings are this spring and summer, wedding planning is beginning to ramp up. Three of my Facebook friends who got married over New Year's are just beginning the lifelong journey that is marriage. And many of the rest of us are thinking about how to fulfill our resolutions to repair, improve, or find intimate relationships. I think the best way to evaluate and improve our relationships is to notice attributes of a healthy relationship and ask ourselves how we can better embody them.

A couple of bloggers I read have been thinking over this topic recently. My friend, Brother Anthony, has written the best definitely of marriage I have ever read. According to him, marriage is...
a relationship with another person characterized by mutuality, intimacy, exclusivity, commitment, and justice. By the grace of God, the love between these two persons may become, through the sacrament of marriage, a mirror of the love between Christ and the Church. That love is courageous and just, loyal and true, all-powerful, deeply creative, tenderly intimate, perfectly mutual, and indestructible. Every person should want their love to become this kind of love. To help committed couples attain this, the Church offers them the love of God in the sacrament of marriage.
Although Anthony is a Franciscan friar-in-training, he  has obviously thought a lot about this topic as he has discerned his vocation to be a celibate life of brotherhood. I think his lists of adjectives are particularly helpful for those who are seeking a lifelong relationship, discerning whether the person they're with now is the one they want to marry, or are already married. It's hard to answer the question, "Is my marriage/ relationship healthy?" But it's easier to answer the question, "Is my marriage/ relationship characterized by...?"


Anthony points out that these traits mirror God and the nature of God's love for us. Sometimes, when I hear someone say that marriage should be a reflection of God's love, I feel intimidated. I immediately see all the flaws in my marriage (and by "flaws," I mean things I have recently done badly), and I think of how inadequately God's love is reflected in my marriage (my actions).

Thankfully, Adam Hamilton points out in one of his recent sermons that marriage isn't about us, meaning it's not about me personally or my husband personally. In marriage, we focus on the other person and think about how we are meeting their needs and making sure their "love tank is full." Rev. Hamilton says that one of the most important ways to do this is to show affection to our spouse. Recently, I've been reading a memoir of a Lutheran pastor on my new Kindle (eee! I love it!). It's called Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery and it's by Richard Lischer. Anyway, he says that even saying grace at meals is like a kiss good morning/ good night because they are "the ritual tendernesses that make ordinary life endurable" (p. 60). Clearly, affection/ intimacy is a big part of a good marriage. But what about the other stuff Anthony mentioned? We'll look at a couple more and save the rest for next week.

Mutuality is also very important, but it takes effort to achieve. It is my opinion that mutuality is impossible without real equality. I used to hang out on a fairly conservative Christian online forum about marriage and relationships. There was a lot of talk about complementariansm, or the idea that men and women are intrinsically different and intrinsically unequal. I wrote all of it off until I read a post written by a cowboy from Colorado (yes, he owns a ranch) who has been married 25 years. His description of how the complementarian idea of "spiritual headship" plays out in his relationship was really a description of how he had a very equal and mutual relationship with his wife, but still managed to call it headship. It really worked for them, mainly because they shared everything, even responsibility and- yes- authority. And they stayed together happily, despite the challenges of 10 kids and life on the ranch.

Exclusivity, commitment, and loyalty all kind of go together. Staying together takes all of these things. They all spring from one another and feed into each other. You can't be an exclusive if you aren't loyal and committed. If you undermine exclusivity by having an affair, you break your partner's trust and your commitment to them. After an affair or another breach of trust, it's very hard to stay together and to repair the relationship, because you doubt their loyalty to you and commitment to the relationship. Rev. Hamilton seems to think that if we meet one another's needs, there won't be a need to have an affair/ cheat on our partners. He says he'll talk about that next week- I'll be listening!

So those are the attributes of a healthy relationship that seem pretty predictable and easily come to mind. What of Anthony's more unexpected attributes: justice, courage, and creativity? How are these part of a healthy relationship? What does it mean for a relationship to be just, courageous, and creative? Well, that takes a little more imagination, so stay tuned next week for Part 2!

Thoughts? Reactions? Stories to share? 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Judgment Free Zone

It's January, and everybody is going to the gym on the weekends. Since December, I have seen the number of people at my gym on Saturday mornings easily double. My gym is Planet Fitness, and they have a couple of slogans prominently posted that always catch my eye:

 This sign greets me every time I check in. Pic is mine.
Apparently they use the British spelling of judgment.

What a powerful message. Pic is also mine.

Every time I see these signs, I think, "I wish the Church could be a judgment-free zone!" Of course, a lot of people say that church really is that way, and certainly the church should be a place in which all people are welcomed and not judged. The UMC, in fact, has a slogan to that effect:

This JPEG courtesy of some of our friends over in West Ohio. :o)

The problem with our slogan isn't with the slogan. It's that we don't actually live up to it. We judge each other, we judge our pastors, we judge visitors... and we're not afraid to voice those judgments to those being judged. And it isn't just a "laity problem." One time in Ashland, a retired pastor's wife criticized a current UMC pastor for the service running 15 minutes long. The service included a baptism.

What would it take for the Church to become a "judgment free zone"? Is that too tall an order for the people of God? Are we going to resign ourselves and chalk it up to sin nature, or are we going to decide that this is one sin it's time to stop committing? The church has a credibility problem, and part of the issue is that folks see us as hypocritical and judgmental. The truth hurts, but it's important to hear the truth. When teens and young adults perceive us that way, we know we have a problem. While some may feel that hypocrisy is the fall-back excuse for leaving church, it's true that we say one thing and do another. We say we welcome everyone as they are, and then we judge who they are from the moment they step in the door.

I don't think that dropping judgmental habits is too tall an order, but it entails a lot of work and a complete change in the culture of a local church. Becoming a judgment free zone requires a lot of tolerance of difference between ourselves and others. This can be difficult when we want to view church as a second home and family. In churches where I am in New England, folks prize a family-like atmosphere in church, in which everybody knows everybody. When we're at home, with family, we can relax. We think we know what to expect. But when we welcome folks who are different from us, we don't know what to expect. We become nervous and uncomfortable. Somewhere deep inside, a part of us wishes that people who are different would just go away so we can be comfortable again (even if we're ashamed to admit it).

The thing is, being a Christian isn't about being comfortable. We're not called to be nice or called to keep up appearances. We're called to be God's people, sent in mission to the world (John 20:21). Early Christians distinguished themselves from the surrounding Roman culture by extending hospitality to widows, orphans (including baby girls abandoned by parents who wanted boys), slaves, and people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Dr. Christine Pohl calls us to revive the ancient art of hospitality as mission in her book Making Room. I think this is a great place to start, because almost every church has coffee hour. Even small tweaks to coffee hour routines can make any local church a more open, welcoming place. Maybe we can't be as radical as the Early Church right away, but it's a step in the right direction. And maybe one day, when we've really made the Church a judgment free zone, we can put up a sign like the one Planet Fitness has.

Have you ever felt unwelcome or judged in church? What would you change about that experience?

Have you ever caught yourself judging someone in church, at work, or on the street? How can you respond differently next time?

Friday, January 6, 2012

A New Year's Resolution: Don't Be a Jerk

Last week, I shared with you a call to examine your life and think about how you are representing Jesus in your own life- are you doing things God's way or your way? I thought I would expand on that point this week by sharing an example from everyday life. This one comes from blogger Professor Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University who writes over at the Sojourners Blog. In his latest post, He observes how Christians' behavior in our daily life doesn't always line up with the Gospel:
One can fill a life full of spiritual activities without ever, actually, trying to become a more decent human being... Many churches are jerk factories. Take, for example, how Christians tip and behave in restaurants. If you have ever worked in the restaurant industry you know the reputation of the Sunday morning lunch crowd. Millions of Christians go to lunch after church on Sundays and their behavior is abysmal. The single most damaging phenomenon to the witness of Christianity in America today is the collective behavior of the Sunday morning lunch crowd. Never has a more well-dressed, entitled, dismissive, haughty or cheap collection of Christians been seen on the face of the earth.

I exaggerate of course. But I hope you see my point. Rather than pouring our efforts into two hours of worship, bible study and Christian fellowship on Sunday why don't we just take a moment and a few extra bucks to act like a decent human being when we go to lunch afterwards? Just think about it. What if the entire restaurant industry actually began to look forward to working Sunday lunch? If they said amongst themselves, "I love the church crowd. They are kind, patient and very generous. It's my favorite part of the week waiting on Christians." How might such a change affect the way the world sees us? Think about it. Just being a decent human being for one hour each Sunday and the world sees us in a whole new way.

But it's not going to happen. Because behavior at lunch isn't considered to be "working on your relationship with God." Behavior at lunch isn't spiritual. Going to church, well, that is working on your relationship with God. But, as we all know, any jerk can sit in a pew. But you can't be a jerk if you take the time to treat your waitress as if she were your friend, daughter or mother.

Ouch. That hurts to read. But as a former waitress, I resonate with Beck's words in a very real way. In the summer of 2008, I worked as a waitress at Hoggy's, a BBQ restaurant in Dublin, OH. (By the way, I highly recommend their BBQ and all their sides. I loved Hoggy's food and still do. If you're in the Columbus area, it's worth a try!) And I actually worked the Sunday lunch crowd on a regular basis. I would listen to the podcast of Marsh Chapel while I did chores until church was out, and then the customers started coming. The Sunday lunch crowd is indeed stingy. Getting stiffed by so many people in one shift really hurt my pocketbook. By the time I reached the end of the summer, I had $25 to my name.

Beck makes an excellent point. Every time we are mean, sarcastic, selfish, or stingy in public, we ruin our own Christian witness. This includes cutting people off on the road (especially if you have one of those Jesus fish on your bumper!), cutting in line at the grocery store or coffee shop, and being rude to a customer service representative on the phone.

Photo credit:

When we profess a "love thy neighbor" faith but behave just like everybody else, we show others that we don't take our faith- or the Bible- seriously. Christ calls us to be mindful of our words and actions so that we don't just practice our faith on Sunday morning, we practice it through the rest of the week.

Oh, and a word about tipping: many companies in the service profession don't pay their workers minimum wage. Restaurants, hair salons, taxi companies, and spas are legally allowed to pay less, because they expect that the customers will tip enough to cover the rest. When we as consumers don't hold up our end of the bargain, that becomes a justice issue. It's not fair for our sisters and brothers in service professions to be paid less just because of the industry in which we work. My hairdresser, Claudia, is a genius. She works at Supercuts, where the haircuts are $16 and $18. Obviously, her tips aren't going to be big: 15% of $16 is only $2.40. She mentioned to me that she lives in government subsidized housing in Boston's urban core. Of course she has to live in subsidized housing- she doesn't make much! Claudia told me on Monday that the customer before me had required a lot of time and effort, and he left without giving her any tip at all. How terrible! As a former waitress, I know how that feels, so I always make sure to tip Claudia 18%. She always does an amazing job on my hair, but more importantly, she is God's child who deserves a living wage.

If we are concerned with what concerns Jesus, we will be concerned about low-wage workers. We will be concerned about whether our actions are communicating God's love to everyone- even those in the service professions. Our prayer lives and our behavior outside of church should align. As you have been out and about recently, have you noticed the way you treat others? Are you as aware of how you behave as you are of your prayer life? Do you think your witness stands  up to the "jerk test"?