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.

 

Someone I Love Is Turning 49

Gulp! Someone close to me is about to have a birthday — her last one before the 50-mile marker. How did I end up married to — how should I say this? — a woman of such advanced years?

If after that comment, my amazing wife is still reading, I’d like to share with her 13 reasons I love her. In honor of her age, I’ll break it down into 4 main reasons — and 9 supporting ones. Here goes…

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Florida, January 2016

4 Reasons My Wife Is Fantabulous:

  1. She loves her family. Kim is a committed advocate for her kids. She goes to any length to provide for her kids — in ways they don’t even know, let alone appreciate. Hang in there, honey. Some day they will.
  2. She really cares about people. I enjoy watching her in action, as she encourages people who come into our orbit. Whether it’s a child, an older person, someone quirky, or just an average, everyday person, my wife always has time for people. And her concern for them is genuine. Especially if it’s a baby. If it’s a baby, bar the door. My wife has a special homing device for them.
  3. Kim demonstrates her love for God and people by serving. Service is literally wired into her brain; it’s what makes her tick. I have never been around someone who combines skill and desire as amazingly as she does. She is the rare breed that can feed 150 people — and enjoy doing it.
  4. And, of course, she loves and puts up with me. Need I say more?
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25th anniversary, June 2016

Okay, now for the 9 supporting reasons:

  1. She’s an awesome cook! It’s truly amazing that I don’t weigh 300 pounds.
  2. No job or task is beneath her. For example, there was the time she went to spray a wasp’s nest in our back yard. To protect herself from getting stung, she put on a giant Tweety head. There’s a picture somewhere on her facebook page, if you really want to see it.
  3. She is the Queen of Bargains, the Empress of Extraordinary Deals, a specialist at finding special discounts, a veritable garage sale guru.
  4. Related to this: she’s never owned a new car, and doesn’t expect me to buy her one.
  5. She easily forgives. She is simply not a grudge-holder.
  6. We speak the same language, but sometimes she teaches me new ways to say common English words. Thanks, honey, for your creative use of the English language!
  7. Dear, is this a good place to remind you how easily you forgive?
  8. She has a great smile!
  9. She has literally helped me grow, and grow up, and grow in Christ.

Thanks, honey, for nearly 26 years! I love you!

Ten Commandments of Marriage, part 2

Last week, I gave the first part of what I called “Ten Commandments of Marriage.” If you missed them, find them here. Now that you have those first five down pat (piece ‘o cake, right?), here are the next five:

6. Laugh together. Life is funny. Sometimes it’s ha-ha funny, sometimes it’s LOL funny, and sometimes it’s are-you-kidding-me-right-now funny. A healthy couple learns to laugh at the funny stuff, as well as the stuff that’s often only funny after the fact. Laughter is a true bonding and uniting experience for two people who are facing all of life together. One marriage and family therapist has observed this truth: Unhappy people reserve laughter for everyone but their mate. Don’t let that be you. Don’t laugh apart; laugh together.

7. Pray together. Even when you don’t feel close to each other, praying together brings you together before the One who holds you together. Praying together is an act of faith, a commitment to unity, regardless of how you feel that particular day. Praying together says: We need God smack dab in the center of our relationship. Without God, we don’t have a prayer. Literally.

8. Never stop doing life together. To me, this is the reminder that we can’t let our marriages slide into a rut, where, for example, every Saturday is the same, or every evening is spent in front of the TV. Instead, marriage should be about going on the adventure of life together. As often happens, though, the adventure morphs into just going through the motions. Psychologist Arthur Aron tells us that doing adventurous things together draws couples closer. So, take the challenge. Don’t let the TV or the internet be the extent of your time together; when you go out together, don’t fall back on the predictable dinner-and-a-movie. Try something new, together. You’ll probably find that it helps you do #6 above. And, if it’s crazy enough, you might find it helps you do #7, too.

9. Learn to listen well. Even though this is #9 on my list of commandments, that’s not an indication of its importance. Listening well is vital. I remember reading someone say that half of ministry is listening. As a minister, that’s a helpful reminder for me. But I also need that prompt for my marriage, too. True listening (the put-down-the-phone-kind-of-listening) is what we need from each other, and what we need to offer to each other. And it needs to be non-judgmental, too. There are plenty of people at our jobs, or in our extended families, who are happy to listen in order to assess our weaknesses and mistakes. That’s not the kind of listening we need from our spouses. Healthy listening is the kind that helps your spouse give voice to her deepest feelings and needs. Often, I think you’ll find that when you truly listen, your spouse will find she is able to give voice to the challenge she faces, and to the way forward. Which means – you’ll look awfully smart, without hardly saying anything at all.

10. Guard your marriage by guarding your heart. I don’t believe any marriage makes it very long without the pull of other attractions. The couple that doesn’t think it can happen to them is the one that … invites it to happen to them. This means that healthy boundaries must be established. Unfettered internet access can be deadly; work relationships without proper boundaries can be devastating; an unguarded heart can lead to broken hearts. The wise couple recognizes: Yes, it CAN happen to us. And they act accordingly. John Leax writes: “As part of the marriage ceremony, a couple promises, before God and gathered witnesses, to be faithful to each other until separated by death. This promise is not demanded by sentiment; it is demanded because everyone present at the marriage knows the truth of human nature. Both bride and groom will change. Ambitions, new dreams, other bodies will attract them. Their only hope for success will be the reach of their vow.”

Their vow: the promise to live and love together til death “do us part.”

As Ephesians 5 points out, this amazing thing called marriage is actually a reflection of Christ & the Church. A picture of love and redemption. Of sacrifice and unity; and sacrifice for the sake of unity.

Easy? No way. Will it take a lot of effort? Absolutely. But in a world where faithfulness and commitment are in short supply, marriages that last are a glimpse of grace and growth. And also a place where Jesus is reflected.

Ten Commandments of Marriage, part 1

What is the most popular month to get married? April? May? June?

How about … October? It’s true. Couples are increasingly migrating away from spring and summer (and, apparently, the challenges of rain and heat) – and moving toward the fall. And we’re now told that the single most popular month to tie the knot is October.

We have 2 weddings in our church sanctuary next month – in a room where even one a month is a lot for us. So, if 2 is a trend, then the stats are right. Brides are increasingly telling their husbands to show up at the altar in October.

As I finished up premarital counseling with one of those 2 couples, I shared with them my “Ten Commandments of Marriage.” These ‘commandments’ aren’t written in stone, at least not in mosaic form. But they are a summary of what I have come to believe is vital for couples to pursue as they pursue life together. So, whether you are getting married in October, or you might someday get married, or you are currently navigating life with a spouse, here are my thoughts on what you need to know:

  1. Commit to a life time of growing together. Marriage is a decision to journey together no matter where the journey takes you. In a world that is increasingly hedging its bets when it comes to marriage, many believe that saying “I do” is similar to saying “Maybe.” But you can’t build a life on maybe. Marriage is not for the timid; it is for those ready to commit to facing life united with another person. Which leads to #2…
  1. Be ready for it to be hard. Is anything in life easy? I mean, anything that matters? Whether it’s Calculus or calculating how much you’ll need for retirement, whether it’s building a house or building a life, if you are going to accomplish something meaningful, it’s going to take some meaningful commitment. You simply will not get by in marriage on your feelings. You will not last in marriage if you expect the honeymoon to last. This isn’t to say that marriage is tedious or tiring – though it will be sometimes. It’s simply the recognition that the look of love in your eyes on your October wedding day will one day fade; and some days that look might be one of anger, or frustration, or “What the heck have I gotten myself into?” If you know that going in, you won’t be surprised when it happens. And your first thought won’t be: Well, this is hard, so maybe it’s not going to work out…. Instead, you can think: Wow, this is hard. Guess it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. I mean, short of winning the lottery, no one expects something as meaningless as money to come easily; so why would we expect something as meaningful as marriage to be easy?
  1. Love like Jesus, trust in Jesus, depend on him to guide you. You don’t have to be married to learn this, but marriage is certainly a great teacher: You can’t do life on your own. Each of us (married or single) was made by our Creator to be in relationship with Him. The sooner we learn that, the sooner we can choose to submit to His leadership – and the sooner we can become what He has made us to be. I mean, really – what better way to learn you are flawed then to get married? Nothing cures idolatry better than marriage, for we all live life, at some point, as our own little god. Sooner or later, you find out you’re not. Sooner is preferable. Marriage helps that sooner happen. And when it does, you can then come to realize that the way forward in life is to receive the love of Jesus, and let it teach you and flow through you. If you’re married, to your spouse. If you’re a parent, to your kids. Or if you just simply happen to be human, then Jesus’ love changes how you live and love among other humans. The way to be the husband/wife/parent/human you are called to be? Begin with the love of Jesus, and let it be your guide.
  1. Work for unity. I guess this flows naturally out of #2 & #3. If marriage is hard, then a married couple needs to realize that they will have to work for unity. And if they trust in Jesus, then they have what they need for that unity to happen. Their unity is not based on what they have in common, but on Who they have in common. A couple can be very different, even as they change over time, but if Jesus is the center of their life, He is then the author of their unity. And He doesn’t change. Again, it’ll take work. But it will not be because a husband and wife agree on a thousand different points, but that they agree on this one truth: Jesus brings us together, and teaches us how to live together.
  1. Find an older, mentor couple. Find a couple who has traveled the path of marriage longer than you have. Invite them to dinner. Watch how they do life. Learn from them. As the divorce rate increases, it’s going to be increasingly important for younger couples to find older examples. And, it’s going to be especially important that couples who have shared decades together take on the responsibility of encouraging and supporting younger couples. Whatever your age or the length of your marriage, don’t simply make friends with couples in the same situation as you are. Reach across generations to learn from, and share with, those who need to learn from, and teach, you.

Ok, that’s my first five. If God needed 2 tablets, surely I can take 2 blog posts for my Ten Commandments. So, come back next week for my second five.