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 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.

Learning from Children (and Street Musicians)

It’s a 10-year-old story, but it’s as current as today’s news. For it’s a story about the human condition — about our busy-ness, our need to always be somewhere, and how sometimes, in the process of rushing from one thing to the next, we miss the grace of the moment that is right in front of us.

At 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, 2007, at a Washington DC metro station, a guy pulled out his violin and began playing. For 43 minutes, he performed 6 classical pieces as over 1,000 people streamed by. Hardly any of them stopped to listen. No surprise there; DC commuters experience street musicians all the time.

Except, this was no ordinary street musician. This was renowned violinist Joshua Bell, playing his $3.5 million Stradivarius.

There was a lottery ticket dispenser near where Bell was playing, with as many as 5 or 6 at a time waiting to buy tickets. Not once in Bell’s 43 minutes of playing did anyone in the lottery ticket line so much as turn around to look toward Bell.

The Washington Post, which got Bell to perform, reached out to 40 of the commuters, and asked them if anything unusual happened on the way to work that day. Only one of them immediately mentioned Bell. To the other 39, it was just another commute, just another day of getting to work and doing the next thing.

But there was one group of people who always wanted to stop. Without exception, every time a child walked by, he or she tried to get the grown-up they were with to stop and watch. But every single time, the adult scooted the child along.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are like children (Mark 10.14). In the next verse, he goes even further, and says: only those who become like children will enter the kingdom.

I’ve frequently thought about what this passage means: What is Jesus telling us to become? Certainly, children are vulnerable in a way that many adults are not; they are dependent on the care and provision of others. This would have been even more evident in Jesus’ day, as children were not revered and valued as they are today. And so, to be a child is, by definition, to need others to help you along the way. And so, clearly, one element of Jesus’ call for us to be like children is to assume a position of vulnerability, need, dependence, and trust.

But the story of Joshua Bell shows another element. As someone has pointed out, children have a different view of time than adults. We grown-ups spend much of our time thinking about time. What time is it? How much more time do I have to be doing this particular thing? What time is my next thing? How can I better manage my time? And then there’s the phrase nobody wants to be accused of: Stop wasting time.

I understand that for some Africans, there is a phrase they say to Westerners who come for a visit. You have watches. We have time.

Maybe that’s another lesson children teach us. Kids, especially younger ones, don’t wear watches. They don’t worry that they’re gonna be late. They are more open to what opportunities are available right now. I mean: Why rush to the next moment when THIS moment has a guy playing his heart out on the violin?

If the invitation of Jesus is good news (and it is), then it can’t be just more of the same. It can’t be just more stuff to do; more obligations to attend to. It can’t just be a longer to-do list. It must be something more.

Something more that our children help us see. That God’s got the next day covered. And the next thing. That when we rush madly through life, we often miss life. That’s it okay to stop — to stop and receive; to stop and enjoy this moment, this gift of life, this gift of grace.

So, what are you missing by always rushing? What are you not receiving because you’re so busy going and doing? Where is it time to stop and hear the gentle whisper of God; the very music of creation? Maybe it’s where you least expect it — like on a subway stop in the form of a street musician who just might be a glimpse of grace and wonder that it takes the eyes of a child to see.