How to Find Yourself: thoughts about marriage that are about more than marriage

This past weekend, I presided at a wedding. As always, the ceremony is a time of joy and celebration. The bride and groom look their best, and everything that happens point to one thing: happiness and smiles.

So, when I stand before the just-about-to-be-married couple, speaking to them (and to those who are gathered), I want to say nice, happy things. I want to add to the festive spirit. And I do.

But I also want to say: Do you really know what you’re doing? Are you really ready for this? Because your vows are real. This is the real deal. And marriage will be one of the most difficult things you ever do.

Now, that’s not what I say. At least not in so many words. But I do say this:

We live in a world that can be cynical about marriage. There are those who doubt that a couple can spend a lifetime of love together. That instead of finding freedom in marriage, it ends up being a shackle.

As someone once sarcastically said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who would want to live in an institution?”

But that’s not how the Bible sees it. In fact, from the very beginning, God makes man, and then provides man a helper; an equal, a partner for the journey. For life – with all its challenges and disappointments, with all of its joys and pleasures – is meant to be shared. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The days your heart aches and the days your heart skips a beat. The day you get a promotion, AND the day you lose your job.

And the way to grow stronger through Whatever comes your way – is by firmly holding onto each other.

In other words, marriage is hard. In part, because life is hard. And there’s a reason that in our marriage vows, we don’t say: “I do, if I feel like it,” or “I do, as long as it works for me,” or, “I do, as long as it’s not too difficult.” That’s not how marriage works. That’s not how life works. The way through the difficult times is to walk through those difficult times together.

I recently read a long article, published by the New York Times, that talked with couples who are practicing what is called “open marriage.” If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Open marriage is where a couple “opens” their marriage to other intimate relationships, to other lovers. And the article is full of people giving reasons why this makes things better, at least in their minds.

While most of us can come up with a number of reasons why open marriage doesn’t work and doesn’t make sense, perhaps it’s a perfect sign of our times — where so many believe that life is found, not in our commitments, but in our freedoms. That is to say: real life is found by always keeping our options open.

The preacher and writer John Ortberg contends that so many who live for so much freedom end up coming to the end of their lives, and they can’t remember what they did with all the money they were free to make and spend. They can’t remember what they did with all that time they were so busy protecting. They can’t remember what happened to all those relationships that they were so free to exit. In the end, by keeping their options open, and by not fully committing to anything, they end up with a life committed to nothing.

Then Ortberg makes this vital point: It’s not in our freedom, but in our commitments, that we find ourselves.

What an absolutely counter-cultural argument, one that is sure to mystify many. But what a vital truth that is spot on. In a world where so many run from commitment — whether it’s in marriage, or parenting, or a job, or church, or just settling in one place to be a blessing to those around us — it’s really true: real life is found, not in what we keep open, but what we hold onto. In the end, we are defined, we are shaped, we become: not by what we run from, but what we commit to.

 

What’s the best way to worship?

Some words just beg for definition. When we use words like good or government or, for that matter, good government, we have to say what we mean.

The same is true for worship. Often when we use this word, we are referring to the songs we sing at the beginning of a church service. We often specifically refer to that as the worship time. The person who leads this is called the worship minister.

But we also use the word worship to refer to the entire gathering of the church. So, we call it the worship service. We’ll often try to highlight this by saying things like, “We now continue our worship through our offering time….”

But the word worship has a broader meaning, too — as when we talk about living a life of worship. This idea encompasses not just Sunday, but everyday — where worship is an approach, a stance, a way to live.

Which of the 3 usages of the word worship is correct? Well …. all of them. They all describe an element of worship that is important.

But the place to start, I believe, is with the third definition. If worship is about how I live; if it involves how I work and how I treat my family; if it encompasses who I sleep with (or don’t), what I watch (or don’t), what I say (or don’t) — then such a life of worship leads naturally to a time of worship. If I am already living a life of adoration and submission (a pretty good definition of worship I picked up somewhere), then I will naturally gather with others who are doing the same. And we will spend some time once a week (or more), adoring and submitting, together.

In other words, living a life of worship daily leads to expressing that worship weekly. And when I come together with God’s people, the focus isn’t me, or my preferences. It’s God, and what God has done. And it’s us, and what God is doing in us, as we come together, united, in worship.

So, my challenge to me, and to you, is simply this: Focus on the third definition of worship. Seek to make that your daily reality. Then the first 2 will come into clearer focus.

 

Get Real

Years ago, we did a series at church we called Get Real. The purpose was to look at some real stuff Jesus challenges us with, based on the book of Matthew. One Sunday during that series, we talked about real forgiveness. One of our groups got into some real difficult stuff — wrestling with how forgiveness fits when a person has been really hurt.

I have a friend who was in that group, and as she prepared for her ninth-grade small group that night, she was concerned what she would do if the teenage girls brought up similar stuff. If they talk about really big stuff, how would she handle it? But things didn’t go as she expected. Instead, the real stuff the girls were dealing with included this concern: How am I to forgive the girl who poked me with an ink pen, and the teacher didn’t see it, but only saw me telling her to stop?

Truth is: what strikes you as really real may not phase me much; what really grabs me may be something you bounce back from easily. But in either case, it’s really true that to live is to deal with real stuff.

This morning I read a curious passage that has made me think about what’s real. It’s the story of King David doing a census of his people, and the trouble that ensues. I read the version that’s found in 1 Chronicles 21, but the story is also told in 2 Samuel 24. It’s a story that gets real — real fast.

First off, David makes a real choice. He chooses to order a census, even though a key advisor says, “NO! Don’t do this!” Now, we’re not sure why counting the people was wrong, but it may have something to do with David’s pride, or his purpose. Maybe counting the people is prelude to taxing them.

In either case, David chooses to do wrong. And so, right out of the gate this story deals with real choices and real guilt. Even though the two versions of the story point to two different sources for the prompting that leads to David’s decision, there is no doubt that David makes a choice. He ultimately can’t lay the blame for his decision at the feet of Satan or God or outside forces. He chose. It is clear that David has sinned and is now dealing with real guilt. As David himself says in 1 Chronicles 21.8, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing” (NRSV).

Which leads me to think how important it is for David, and for us, to take real responsibility. What we need, and what our world needs, is for people to step up and say:  I chose. I’m responsible. I’ll face the consquences. Which is exactly what David does in this story.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t other factors that come into play when we make decisions. Of course there are environmental factors involved. Of course our nature and nurture play a role in who we are and what we choose. But at the end of the day, I am affected by my circumstances; I am not determined by them.

The story also makes clear that there are real consequences for our real choices. David has to face the reality that the choice he has made affects him and his leadership; it also affects the people he leads. This is a vital truth. In fact: why are we ever surprised when our real choices have a real affect?

Yesterday, my son was riding with me to the church office, where I would be working and he would be connecting with our student group. As we turned off our street, I asked him if he had his stuff for a basketball game he had later that day. Oh, no, I don’t, he said.

I immediately got frustrated, as I turned the car around. Except, I was just a little too far past the store entrance where I was attempting my turn. And a car was coming. So I ran up onto and down off of the curb. I got upset. And it had consequences. My son saw my lack of self-control and my anger. My car felt it, and who knows what impact it had.

The point: real choices have real consequences. And while I have real questions about 1 Chronicles 21, and where David’s prompting came from, and how God responded, and the extent of the judgment — the simple truth is undeniable: what I choose, changes things.

But this is where the tide turns. For another lesson of 1 Chronicles 21 is that, even in the midst of my choices, there is real mercy. In verse 13, as David wrestles with the consequences of his sin, he says, “I am in great distress; let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercy is very great” (NRSV, emphasis added). And we see that mercy unfold, as God relents from the full extent of punishment.

Now, again, I read this chapter and I definitely have real questions. But bigger than my questions is my confidence: God is merciful. And that mercy is hinted at in David’s act of sacrifice, where he pays a man named Ornan for his land and for the resources necessary to make a sacrifice to God. In verse 24, David says to Ornan, “I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

I’ve heard that phrase — I will not offer sacrifices that cost me nothing — used to describe David, and how we ought to do likewise. And that’s a valid point. But something else strikes me about this phrase. It’s this: we have a God who does not offer sacrifices that cost Him nothing. 1 Chronicles 21.24 is a glimpse forward, I believe, to the day when God will make a sacrifice that costs him everything — to the time when, in a complete act of mercy, God offers Himself for all the choices we have made and the consequences we then face.

So, even though I cannot explain the severity of the consequences in 1 Chronicles 21, I cling to the severity of God’s mercy expressed so fully and so powerfully when God Himself becomes the sacrifice.

Which leads me to one more real thing I find in this chapter: real hopeAfter David’s sacrifice, and after the punishment comes to an end, the field of Ornan becomes a sacred place — so sacred that at the beginning of 1 Chronicles 22, David says, This is the place where God’s house will be built. The Bible tells us that the construction will be carried out by Solomon, but the writer of Chronicles makes it clear that the real beginning of the project starts here.

And that temple will be built as a place of worship, forgiveness, celebration, and community. It will begin as such for the Jewish people, but it will also be a glimpse forward — when God will not be contained in one building, or in one people, or in one place. For 1 Chronicles 21 is the beginning of God’s redemptive work, where through the grace of Jesus, real forgiveness and real hope are offered to all people. Real love and real life reach every corner of creation. Where the “realest” revelation of God is seen in His presence among us in Jesus the Son, and His ongoing presence among us through His Spirit. And that’s real truth, that really changes things. Forever.

What My Visit to the Dentist Taught Me About Church

I went to the dentist last week for my twice-a-year checkup. For some people, those 2 times a year are to be avoided. But not for me. I don’t mind going to my dentist. Really.

One reason: I’m a dedicated flosser — something only my hygienist truly appreciates. But I also don’t mind going to the dentist because, as I was reminded this past week, there’s a lot I can learn. About church. About faith. About life.

For example, on Thursday when I was scheduled to go to the dentist, about 10:30 that morning I happened to look at the calendar on my phone. It reminded me I had an appointment at 9am. Oops! I promptly called, and they graciously rescheduled me for later that day.

So, even though it was on my phone, and they had sent me a postcard, and they regularly call to remind me, I still forgot. So, lesson 1: communication is important, but even with it we still forget stuff. So, keep communicating, but let’s make sure we show each other grace.

Julie and Bea are the two hygienists who work on my teeth. Bea has gotten good at remembering my name, that I serve at a church — even remembering where I serve. She recalls all this even though she must have hundreds of patients, most of whom she only sees twice a year.

Which makes me wonder: how many folks treat Church like the dentist? Show up when you’re supposed to, go when you have to (because that tooth isn’t getting any better on its own), and generally only do as little as possible. I can understand that attitude about the dentist, but not about Church. We need to worship, to share life together, and to go through good and bad as a family. And besides, in the Church, we never pull teeth (though we do sometimes step on toes).

At times, when Julie was cleaning my teeth, it hurt. There’s one tooth in particular that is really sensitive, and I’m really not a fan of Julie messing with it. But I’m reminded that pain has a purpose. It shows me, and those taking care of me, where some attention is needed. It reveals what isn’t healthy. Without pain, I wouldn’t know what’s wrong.

I was talking with a friend today. He’s been having a rough year health-wise. It’s forced him to adjust his schedule and his life. As we talked, I realized: pain has helped him change his life. I wouldn’t wish pancreatitis on him, or anyone. But that bout with pain has led him to re-evaluate and reassess what he’s doing and why.

Simply put, it’s just a daily and dental reality: pain teaches us, and changes us, in ways that the pain-free life never can.

Also: going for my semi-annual checkup (and the pain involved) is a much better experience because I know Julie & Bea, and they know me. We talk about family. We talk about sermons. (Weird, I know.) We even talk about the challenges we face. It’s not that we’re just filling roles: you clean, I’ll sit and occasionally spit. It’s that we have gotten to know each other. And that’s from only seeing them 1 or 2 times a year; imagine what it would be like if I interacted with them weekly. It’s really true: dentists, like church and life, are better when it’s not something you go to, but about relationships you have.

Even so, it’s hard to talk with your mouth full. I love how my hygienist will ask me a question while she’s picking at my teeth, the suction thing is in my mouth, and all I can say is, I’b fide. How bou chu? Still, I’m learning to never stop laughing, even when your mouth (or life) is full.

One of the dentists in the office is 78. They said he’s not going to retire. While I’m sure at some point he’ll have to hang up the drill, that’s a good reminder for all of us: we don’t retire from faith, or from our purpose.

Speaking of my dentist, the truth is: I only see her (or him) for maybe a minute. And that’s during a long visit. (Two visits ago, I did a running count in my head while she was in the room with me: it was about 37 seconds). 98% of the help I get is from the hygienists and the frontline people. I think that’s a helpful reminder about how Church functions: Most of the encouragement and support you’re going to get isn’t from the people with the titles, from the ones in charge. Your faith will grow most through relationships with the folks you spend time with, and who are able to spend time with you.

My dental visit reminds me that it’s good to have a regular checkup. Even with faithful brushing and flossing, plaque and other gunk begin to build up on my teeth. Even with faithful worship, Bible reading, prayer, and sharing with others, spiritual plaque and gunk begin to build up in my life. I regularly need others to take a close look at my life, and help me clear away that stuff that I simply cannot see on my own. The truth is: we simply will not be able to see all of our spiritual blind spots — that’s why they’re called blind spots.

Finally, I was told once by Bea that every mouth has a story. Since she’s a hygienist, she spends a lot of time on people’s mouths. But each mouth isn’t just a pile of teeth; it’s a part of a person. And though she works on all kinds of mouths, each one belongs to a person with a life full of dreams and disappointments, hopes and hangups, gunk and grace. Bea isn’t just cleaning teeth; she’s sharing life, if but for a moment, with a unique creation of God. And each person who sits in her chair shares something in common with every other person who sits in that chair: a need for a check-up, offered with a smile, and a healthy dose of grace.