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The lie behind my “yeah, but” spirituality

What attitude do I bring to the Scriptures when I read them? Is there an attentiveness to what is written? Is there an expectation to hear from God? Is there a readiness to obey?

Obedience is at the heart of faithfulness. If God is King and I’m not, then how can I do other than obey him?

not_so_sure_about_that.jpgBut I see in myself and hear from others a “yeah, but” spirituality, where we agree with God to a point but then put the brakes on our obedience.

I don’t mean that we should read a story like that of Jephthah (Judges 11, particularly 11:29-40) and make rash vows to God that cost the lives of our children. Rather, we ought to read stories like that and make well-considered vows to God that we follow through on as tenaciously as he did. The story is painful as a cautionary tale in its reminder of how good people can make stupid choices. But it is also a reminder of how seriously those who came before us have taken the kingship of God.

Each day, I need to hear the Scriptures and ask questions that lead to obedience.

For instance:

What does it look like for me to honor my father and mother (Ex. 20:12) without qualifying it with a “yeah, but” that keeps me from doing it?

What does it look like for me to love my wife the way Christ loved the church and give myself up for her to make her holy (Eph. 5:25-28) with no “yeah, but she said this and didn’t do that.”

What does it look like for me to hear Col. 3:23-24 as I do my job? “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

What does it look like for me to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Then. 5:16-18)? And how do I do this in a culture that teaches me to complain, to reject suffering, to spend time on my iPhone instead of praying, and to always want more for myself? How do I “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” (Phil. 2:3-4)? I really want to say, “Yeah, but they’re not looking out for my interests!”

I am full of yeah-buts. They take the substance out of my Bible reading and my obedience to Christ. But what’s even worse is I project a “yeah, but” hesitancy on God as well.

Even though the heart of the Gospel is Jesus in the Garden telling his Father, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 2:42), before obediently going to the cross, I have to admit that I often treat God as if he’s holding back, as if he’s holding out on me. Even though the Scriptures are together the story of God’s full attention on redeeming humanity, I treat God as if he’s not generous, not faithful, not intent on blessing me.

Even though “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6), I expect of God: “I would reward him, but …”

I don’t actually say these things to God. But the way I live betrays a belief that God is holding out on me, that each “yeah, but” to him from me is matched my a “yeah, but” from him to me.

I need to live 2 Cor. 1:20 —

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

I need to hear God’s overwhelming YES in Jesus and respond with a full-bodied YES of my own.

When I do so, my obedience will be that of a dearly loved child to his open-hearted Father. It will be the obedience of richly rewarded servant to his generous Master. It will be the obedience of well-taught disciple to his wise Teacher.

There is no hesitancy in God toward me. May there be none in me toward him either.

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Hugh Hefner, Playboy & the death of sex

Hugh hefner, playboy& the death of sexI remember the first time I saw a Playboy magazine. I was about 11 and an older neighbor has stolen a copy from the nearby 7-11. Not yet to puberty, it didn’t have the effect on me that later views would. In fact, I was just confused. Why would I want to look at a naked woman? I lived in a house of women, having four older sisters, and seeing any of them without clothes would just be gross.

But as my physiology changed, my curiosity grew and I had other opportunities to view Playboy. It was electric. Those pictures set my senses on fire. If I had the same access to those magazines that other friends did, I could easily have become as addicted to them as they did. But lack of access didn’t make me invulnerable, it just kept me protected. But only semi-protected, because access to soft-core porn only became easier and easier over the years.

Now, online nudity is just a thought away.

Hugh Hefner and Playboy‘s day is done. But Hefner unleashed something almost unstoppable. The money in porn and the power it has over people is astounding.

I have friends who have had their marriages and sex lives ruined by addiction to pornography. One told me that even touching a computer keyboard launched a rush of temptation in him because of how often he’d viewed porn online.

I am grateful for a small group of friends that I turn to whenever the tug feels irresistible, because even though I’ve been protected more than many, the temptation for me is real and never far away. And though I don’t use their services myself, having come up with my own alternative that works for me, I’m grateful for organizations like xxxchurch.com and Covenant Eyes which are using the power of tech to establish accountability networks to combat the power of lust.

But it’s not just the addictive power of porn that is its only drawback. It simply kills good sex.

Porn-aided sex is just bad sex. It’s two-dimensional, non-relational, and unsatisfying.

The best sex takes place between a married couple who have known and loved each other for many years. They know each other. And I love that one biblical expression for sex is to “know” each other. The best sex comes out of a long knowing of one another, because it’s whole purpose is to know each other. You can’t know a one night stand. You can share physical pleasure, but there is no true intimacy.

And one of the most difficult things about sex is also its gift: Men and women experience it differently from each other.

This is a basic generalization which means it’s not always true, but for men, the physical precedes the emotional. Whereas for women, the emotion precedes the physical. Thus, a man can be physically aroused without being emotionally connected, but will become emotionally connected through the physical act. Women, on the other hand, become emotionally connected first and then express that emotional connection through the physical act. This is why men are ready for sex at a moment’s notice (they start physically) and women generally take longer to be prepared for sex (they need to make an emotional connection first).

This can lead to a stand-off and sadly does in many marriages. The man wants his wife’s body and will give her his heart afterward. The woman wants her husband’s heart and will give him her body afterward. If both try to get what they want before giving what the other wants, no one gets anything.

But that’s where the beauty of sex and of a long knowing of one another comes in. When a husband gives his heart to his wife without demanding her body, guess what she gives him? And when a wife gives her body to her husband without demanding his heart, guess what he gives her? It’s a lovely and loving exchange.

Eventually, we each get what we want by giving away what the other wants first. That’s real love. “A love marked by giving, not getting.”

When there is this interchange of gifts, sex is at its best.

But porn short-circuits this exchange. A man simply views his 2D sex object and gets a form of sexual gratification without ever having to give his heart away. And if he takes part in this cheap exchange too often, it become difficult for him to do the real 3D version. And that’s a major bummer.

Studies have shown a direct relationship between viewing porn and erectile dysfunction.  The basic wisdom on this is that the more you view the sex of others, the less satisfied you are with your own sex. Also, the more porn that is consumed, the more kinky and violent it needs to be to effect arousal over time. Eventually, arousal becomes next to impossible. Again, that’s a major bummer.

But this also leads to a third problem with porn. Not only is it addictive and does it cause a short-circuiting of the good sex in a loving marriage, it is harmful to women.

Porn reduces women to objects. Instead of subjects to engage in relationship with, women are turned into objects to do things to.

Their basic value is reduced to their body parts and to their ability to respond to the sexual advances of men. Is there any wonder we have a problem with sexual assault on college campuses when young men have been raised with access to porn? (Compounding this is the reality that many young men lacked father figures in their homes to model a loving relationship with a woman, but that’s another issue.)

Violence against women is a recognized issue in our culture, one which brings major consequences to high level athletes on a regular basis. And yet, we deal with it as if slapping some hands were the answer. In the meantime, we’re training entire generations of young men to objectify women, educating them into how to treat women as sex toys.

But not only does the objectification of women do bad things to the brains and souls and practices of men, it messes up women as well. Body image issues among girls and young women is at an all-time high. Putting the occasional plus-size model on the cover of some magazine makes for a feel-good story, but it does nothing to repair the constant barrage of impossibly proportioned women on our screens. How many 50-year-old women can match the bodies of the centerfolds their husbands get turned on by? How many should have to?

Sex is good. God invented it and offered it as the first of his gifts to Adam and Eve. It can be intimate and beautiful if done generously as God intended. But it can be horrific when grabbed or stolen or otherwise coerced.

Hugh Hefner’s death points to another death: The death of sex, the death of life-long intimate marriages, where the self-giving of husband to wife and wife to husband has been pawned for cheap and broken imitations. I guess they’re not all dead, but they’re becoming and endangered species.

May we rediscover the subtle flavors of a long romance, turning our backs on the intense and intensely unsatisfying saccharine flavors of what Hefner and his ilk have been handing out.

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Leap first

“The intellect is there to instruct us after the act.” — Ray Bradbury

A few years ago, I took a flying leap off of a rock high above a river. But I jumped too far out, missing the deeper part of the river and landed in shallow water. It was so shallow, in fact, that I fractured a bone in my right foot.

Should I have looked before I leaped? Yep.

There are many times in my life where I would have been better off looking before leaping, as in that case. Just a few seconds of caution would have saved me weeks in a walking boot. On other occasions, a bit of due diligence has kept me from making some disastrous financial decisions.

But there are many things in my life that I’ve held back on that would have turned out great if I’d taken a leap, but I was overly cautions (i.e. afraid) and let the opportunities pass me by untried.

There is risk in everything in life. We can’t think through and control everything. We simply have to take that leap.

As Ray Bradbury suggests, thinking about what we’ve done is generally the second thing we do, not the first.

We can’t think our way into action, we have to act our way into thinking.

Back to jumping into rivers.

When I was a kid, we spent a part of many summers in the amazing Yosemite National Park. And dozens of kids would line the bridges over the Merced River, prodding each other into jumping the 10-20 feet into the water below.

I remember vividly as if I were there right now, standing on the edge of more than one bridge, trying to coax myself into jumping. I had enough information about the safety of it, with kids leaping on either side of me, but I couldn’t think my way into actually doing it. My brain would freeze every time.

It was only when I shut off the thinking (again, after watching others plunge in successfully) and the fear that went with it that I was able to jump in.

There’s a kind of thinking that can only happen after the fact. No amount of pre-leap preparation can take the place of post-leap re-thinking and adjusting.

When I became a husband, I looked back at the premarital classes my wife and I had taken and found them to be woefully inadequate in preparing us for what we would experience in married life together.

When I became a father, I smirked at the classes my wife and I had taken. Not only did they not prepare us for the birth, they definitely didn’t prepare us for raising children afterward. And neither did any of the pile of books we’d been given.

And when I became a pastor, I joined the ranks of those who talk about “what they didn’t teach us in seminary.” Even a three-year Master in Divinity, with internships and classes on seemingly every aspect of pastoring, didn’t do the job.

None of these things can be adequately prepared for. Nothing can. Even years of training aren’t enough. What’s most important is taking the leap and doing the essential thinking once you’re in the water.

And that second act of thinking is truly essential. It’s the difference between sinking and swimming.

Taking a Love and Logic parenting class after having our first two children has paid off hugely since then, forcing us to think well about how we lead and interact with our children, especially when they misbehave.

Spending time with other couples, exploring married life with them as companions on the journey while we each discover what love really looks like, has kept us from being alone, even when we’re bemused by the difficulties of marriage.

Reading books, attending conferences, and meeting with my covenant groups has been essential in thinking through and learning how better to pastor communities of saved sinners.

In every case, the questions I had before taking the leap have been replaced by questions asked by the circumstances leaping has plopped me into. It’s being in the mess that teaches the questions I had no idea needed to be asked beforehand.

Many times, I’ve asked, “Why did I take that leap in the first place?!”

But then I get on with asking better questions. Or at least, I try to get on with asking better questions. Almost always, I need the help of friends to get me to those better questions because of their added perspective and collective wisdom. But questioning through things afterward is essential.

The most important thing is to leap first and think about it later. Otherwise, I may never take the leap from whatever rocks, bridges, or rope swings God and life offer me. And that would be such a shame.

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Unowned

I used to be a Coke guy. I refused to drink Pepsi because Coke was my brand.

But then one day, I realized that I had let a soft drink manufacturer own me. I was offering allegiance to the maker of fizzy brown sugar water. Coke and Pepsi had declared cola wars and made me think I had to choose between them. But in that moment of clarity, I realized I had let them into my mind. I had let them define a part of my life. I had let them lure me into making an attachment I didn’t need to make.

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So, I stopped being a Coke guy.

At first, that meant intentionally drinking a Pepsi instead of a Coke. But later on, it meant eschewing cola completely. Once I’d gotten rid of the falsely required allegiance, it was easy to get rid of the underlying but unstated “you must drink cola to be happy” assertion.

Once I became aware of how Coke had tricked me — mostly by buying my allegiance with advertising — I started seeing how “owned” I’ve allowed myself to be in all kinds of areas of my life.

At one point, Levis owned my jeans buying; Apple owned my computers, music players, and phones; the NIV owned my Bible reading; and on it went. Owned.

I shrank my world by limiting myself to my unnecessary allegiances.

So, I have tried to bust free from being owned by those who have no business owning any part of me — political parties, professional sports leagues, denominational affiliations, shoe companies. I haven’t always been successful in this, since my heart longs to make attachments.

That’s not surprising, since every human heart longs to make attachments. Those attachments are supposed to be relational, but in our world of disconnected individualism, we get tricked into replacing relational attachments with consumer attachments. And I fall for it as badly as anyone else.

My wedding band is the sign of one of my deepest attachments. In marriage, I am “owned” by my wife (1 Cor. 7:4). I’m not a slave to my wife, but I am bound to her. She is no ball and chain, but my life is tied up in and interwoven with hers.

My baptism is the sign of my deepest attachment. In baptism, I have been immersed into Christ. I have identified myself fully with Christ. I have become part of the body of Christ, the church. As Paul writes, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

There is an ownership that I experience which ought to cancel out all of these other ways that I allow myself to be bought. By being bought and owned by Jesus, I become free to live the life I was created to live in the first life, free to live saved from and unsnared by false allegiances that stand against my core relational commitments in Christ.

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Clovers & how to keep a marriage alive

Soon after my wife and I were married, we were visited by her aunt and uncle and together the four of us visited a botanical garden. In the gift shop, Aunt Bev bought a small reddish clover as a simple gift. It was a nice thought, but it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.

Over the ensuing 22 years, that clover has grown and died back. It has been repotted and transported. As most of the rest of the gifts that were given as wedding presents have broken or worn out or been given away, this clover is one of the last things that remains from those early days of our covenant life together.

There have been many times I didn’t think the clover would survive. Just recently, it lost every single stem and leaf. All that was left were its root bundles. Everything about it had gone underground. No life could be seen.

But the life was still there, hidden but not absent.

Over the years, I’ve plucked out the dead leaves as I’ve watered it (mostly with the remains of our dinner water glasses), and there have been times I’ve expected it to die out completely. Neglect. Adverse conditions. Moving from one environment to another. Kids. All of these have had their impact, but none of them have killed the clover.

The same is true of our marriage.

There have been times when circumstances, both external and internal, have had the leaves of our marriage go all wilty and not look so lovely. But as the clover has shown me, the life is not in the leaves. The life is in the hidden places. Underground. Not in conditions. Not in circumstance.

Instead of giving up on the clover when its leaves were dead and gone, we’ve continued to water it and adjust its level of sunlight. The same is true of our marriage. Even when the circumstances have grown hostile to its thriving — work-related stress, financial struggles, less time for intimacy, parenting issues, moving to new cities, extended family concerns, the typical stuff — we have done the watering and the sunning and the simple not giving up necessary to sustain life and enable future flourishing.

Those sustaining practices have included regular worship to get us out of ourselves and into a God-context; honest conversations about struggles; refusal to accuse each other and a humility to consider our own faults; engaging with long-term friends, which always puts struggle in the context of years, not just current conditions. I’m sure there are others as well.

What we haven’t done is require flourishing all the time. If we’d required it of our clover, we’d have dumped it years ago. And the same is true of our marriage. Giving up is what brings death, not a lack of flourishing at this very moment.

So, my suggestion to all married couples is: Get yourselves a clover and keep it alive.

Clovers are for lovers.

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Oneness: God's vision for marriage & for the whole world

I’ve seen too much pain in the gender wars in the church, too much using the Scriptures as a weapon. As a result, I came to avoid passages like Eph. 5:22-33. It was only when I gave my future wife a copy of the newly published The Message (just the New Testament at the time) as an engagement gift did that passage become readable to me. The way Eugene Peterson rendered the text made me weep. He had brought new life to the Scriptures for me and had opened up a window into what God intends for our relationship.

Too often, we look too far afield to see what Paul intended when writing about the headship of husbands in Eph. 5.

Does “head” mean “source”?

There is the approach that looks at headship as meaning “source,” just as the head of a river is the river’s source. Now, having been to the head of a few rivers near my home in central Oregon, there’s no way this is the image that Paul intended.

I was blown away the first time I saw a river’s source. I was standing on dry land and yet just a foot away was a full-blown river, 50-feet wide. It didn’t trickle out of the ground beneath my feet and slowly spread out. No, it came out forcefully and in abundance. It was as if something came from nothing. Where I stood, there was no river. But inches away, there was an entire river.

Now, if Paul had Adam and Eve in Gen. 2 in mind, I can see how he might see Adam as the source of Eve, since Eve was created from Adam. In that story, yes, the man is the source of the woman. But in my relationship with my wife, no. And in no other relationship between any men and woman. No man is the source of any woman. In fact, women as child-bearers have the distinct right of calling themselves the source of all men and women. From Eve in Gen. 4:1, saying, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man,” to every woman who has born a son since, women have been the source of men. Like a headwaters, where the water was underground before springing forth as a river, so in birth men were underground in their mothers’ wombs before springing forth in birth.

No, men are not the source of women. Not physically. Not spiritually. I cannot say that my wife derives her spirituality from me. I hope that I contribute to her spirituality in healthy ways, but in no way am I its source. Only God himself is her source spiritually.

Does “head” mean “authority”?

The only other option that seems to be left when “source” is rejected as a meaning for head is “authority.” The head is on top of the body and is where our brains are located, so it seems to make sense that whomever is the head is above all others as the source of the executive functions of the body.

When we think of ways that head is used as a metaphor, we come up with head of the table, head of the class, head of the household, and head of the line — each of which designates a place of primacy and respect, though not necessarily of authority. I have a hunch that each of these uses of head as metaphor derive from Paul’s use in Ephesians, but they don’t help us understand why he used it as a metaphor himself. And it’s a mistake to read backward from our uses to his.

The reality is that Paul is the one who invented body imagery as a metaphor for human relationships. His use of of body imagery in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and throughout Ephesians is the source of our use of words like corporation (based on the Latin word corpus or “body”), incorporate (to make part of the corpus), and membership (a member being an organ, a part of a body). Yep. It all goes back to Paul.

The problem with thinking of the head as the source of the executive function for the body — the will — is that’s not how ancient cultures thought of their bodies. They viewed the heart or the guts as the place where human will was located, not in the head. We still have the phrase “venting your spleen” as a holdover from ancient views of the body. And even locate most of our unsettled feelings are located in the core of our body, not in our heads. I vividly remember the butterflies I had in my stomach (not head) before telling a certain girl of my feelings for her, before getting on stage to act in a play, before giving my first public speeches. But we’ve been so influenced by modern science and what it’s told us about our brains that we have relocated our sense of will into our heads. Paul wouldn’t have done so, and his readers wouldn’t have understood their wills to be in their heads. They would have agreed with us that the head is the place of vision and voice, but not of authority.

So, if “head” refers neither to source nor to authority, what is Paul getting after?

First of all, we have to stop looking for clues outside of Paul’s writing for the use of “head” or “body” as a metaphor. As I said above, Paul is the one who basically invented body as a metaphor for a community, so looking outside of his writing is a mistake. Also, I believe it’s a mistake to look outside of Ephesians itself. Yes, Paul uses body as a metaphor significantly in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, but when he uses it in Ephesians, he isn’t necessarily importing the nuances he’s using elsewhere. Rather, he’s establishing his own nuances in how he’s using it in Ephesians itself. And his use of body imagery is pervasive throughout Ephesians, making it the central metaphor for the entire letter.

The over-arching theme of Ephesians is unity. Paul is more interested in the unity of the body than in defining which parts have supremacy over the others. In fact, to focus on supremacy would undermine his whole emphasis on unity.

To give you a sense of how pervasive his use of body imagery is throughout Ephesians and what he’s getting at with each of them, here are all of Paul’s body references in the letter:

With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (1:8-10) While this isn’t a body reference, it sets out Paul’s thesis for the entire book of Ephesians: unity in Christ.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. (1:18-19) Eyes and heart are, of course, body images. Interestingly, it’s the heart that has eyes, not the head. Remember, the heart is the seat of the will, not the head. But here Paul is moving the source of vision from the head to the heart as well, because it is only the heart that can know the hope, riches, and power of God for us.

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (1:22-23) Here, we have body introduced specifically, with Jesus specifically referenced as the head. Interestingly, the sign of authority has to do with his feet, not with his head — the head is over everything, but everything is under his feet. The church as his body is “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (2:6). This, too, is implied body language, carried over from the end of Eph. 1 — bodies are raised and seated. The language here is concrete, not abstract. It is also plural, meaning this is us together as a single body which is seated in the heavenly realms, not you or me as individuals. The whole dead and raised and seated language refers to us together as Jesus’ body. Individualizing it ruins Paul’s intent. He wants us to see this as what God has done to us together as Christ’s body.

His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (2:15-16). What Jesus accomplishes in his body on the cross is the creating of one body of humanity out of two hostile peoples (Jews and Gentiles).

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (3:6) See the comment just above.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (4:3-6) Even though Paul only uses the word “body” in 4:4, the sense of unity/oneness and of all pervades this whole passage. A body is both a singularity and a collective. It is both a single body and it is made up of its many parts, connected and working together. (Can we agree that thinking and acting too much as individuals is killing the body-community that is the church by dismembering it?)

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (4:11-13) God gave different people different gifts so that the body as a whole might become mature and grow into everything it means to be as the body of Christ. So, we have individual gifts, but they exist for the purpose of a united maturity. Another way to put this is that whatever has been given to an individual has been given to that person for the sake of the body as a whole. (Ever wonder why members of the early church sold property to care for the needs of others within the community?)

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (4:15-16) Again, resisting whatever would pull us apart, we go the way of love so that we will be held together and the body together will mature. Here, we have a second reference to Christ as the head but without any definition of what that means.

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (4:25) Secrets and lies keep us from unity and therefore tear apart the body God has made to be a unity.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (5:21) There is no body imagery explicit in this verse, but it is the controlling verse for Paul’s examples of the core relationships of husband-wife, parent-child, master-servant that follow. But there is body imagery implicit in it. For a body is a complex unit of mutual submission as any athlete knows. One part is always playing off another part in everything we do and the whole body only works when the individual parts are continually submitting to and supporting one another. We call this coordination. When the parts don’t submit to one another but head off in their own directions, doing their own thing, we call it uncoordinated. It’s humorous when it’s not dangerous, which is why most of our comedies surround a lack of relational or physical coordination.

For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. (5:23) There is no explanation of what it means for the husband to be head of the wife as we encounter this third reference to Christ being the head of the church. What we do have is a sense of the unity between Christ and the body, since head and body are connected to one another and can’t live unless they are. While Paul calls the church Christ’s body, he stops short of calling the wife the husband’s body. In fact, just below, he will compare a wife to her husband’s body as far as the extension of affection is concerned without saying she is his body.

In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (5:28-33) The primary relationship of the head to the body is finally defined. It is one of loving care. It is one of nourishing and cherishing. This is how the unity of head and body is maintained.

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (6:11 and continuing through 6:18) We tend to think of this individually, as if I as an individual am to put on the whole armor of God. But this is yet another body passage, where together as a body we are to put on the whole armor of God together. It’s for us, not for me.

I hope that this run through all of the body passages in Ephesians gives a sense of the whole. In summary:

God’s intention is unity, for each part to find a common oneness and purpose.

God’s intention is the end of hostility.

God’s intention is maturity, as each part works in concert with the rest of the body.

God’s intention is for nourishing and protecting in a hostile environment.

This is God’s intention for all of humanity.

Why do we get these asides about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants? Because these are the relationships most likely to blow apart instead of living into this Christ-won unity. Home and work relationships are our closest and most vulnerable relationships, and the husband-wife relationship is the most vulnerable of all. Because of this, Paul takes extra time encouraging us to live into what Christ has created for us in these most basic of relationships. They aren’t just plopped into the letter as nice asides. They are the main battlegrounds for unity.

Since each marriage is a microcosm of what God in Christ is doing in the world, we come to the need for headship: a husband’s commitment to remaining connected with his wife, to loving her, to nurturing her, to cherishing her, to dressing her up in wedding-gown beauty. This is coordinated submission. In response, this requires his wife’s respect, coordinating herself to him in submission as well.

Our Lord wants a healed and whole body, growing up and working for his purposes in the world, where his goal is to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

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Celebrating marriage — including the dark parts

“Marriage is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

I was sitting in Eugene Peterson’s class on Ephesians at Regent College when he said those words. He didn’t elaborate and I think I missed the rest of the lecture, stunned by the words I’d heard from the most deeply spiritual man I’d ever met.

I was a half-year into my marriage and finding it more difficult than I’d imagined. The honeymoon year wasn’t feeling nearly as sweet as I’d been led to believe. And now the man I looked up to most was telling me that he was in the same boat I was in. The relief was instantaneous.

Fast forward two years. I was now Eugene’s teaching assistant and had plenty of his time and attention. So, I referred to this cherished quote.

He nodded and said, “I’m a pretty selfish person.”

That was it. Nothing more. Not a word about his wife, who is just as out-spoken and fiery as mine. Just self-accusation.

For two years, I had held on to Eugene’s words, thinking, “If Eugene can handle living with such a hard woman, then so can I. By God’s grace, of course.”

Now, everything was flipped upside down.

If the hardest thing about his marriage was his own selfishness, then the hardest thing about my marriage must be my … Wait a minute!

I didn’t want to admit it, but he was right. Not just about himself, but about me. I am a desperately selfish person. And that selfishness is at the root of everything that makes marriage hard.

And I credit those two quotes for making my marriage into the beautiful-if-not-perfect relationship it is today. Being honest about the difficulties my own selfishness brings to my marriage enables me to stop pointing the finger, stop being defensive, stop looking down on my wife in her failures, and stop turning away in self-pity. Really. It’s the key to getting out of the relationship-killing mode. (See How to kill a relationship in four easy steps.) And that means getting into relationship-saving, relationship-expanding mode. It means getting out of self and into love.

When I see my own selfishness at play, I become far more forgiving of my wife’s selfishness, which amazingly makes us both less selfish.

So, as I celebrate 22 years of marriage to my great wife, I’m celebrating all of the playing and laughing and child-making and friend-making and the other adventuring we’ve done. But I’m also celebrating the crucible of the conflicts and pains that we’ve gone through and been refined by.

If our marriage is a painting, we have not rejected the darker shades, but have used them to make the brighter ones stand out with that much more depth. Because really, my love, I believe we’re working on a masterpiece. And good art is worth the work.

Simply put, I love you.

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The gift of thanks

It’s never too early to celebrate Thanksgiving. In fact, aside from the turkey and fixings which would quickly grow tiresome, it ought to be a daily observance.

Recent studies have shown that if there is a key to a happy marriage, it’s being thankful. Continually being reminded to be thankful to and for one’s spouse actually makes you a grateful and happy person. And being continually reminded by your spouse of the gratitude felt for who you and and what you do gives happy feelings right back.

Saying, “Thank you,” makes you thankful, even if you weren’t thankful before.

Thanksgiving is actually a form of gift giving, the giving of thanks. As gifts go, it’s the cheapest gift anyone can give. And yet it requires something from us. It requires us to leave aside our petty grievances and foolish grudges. It’s either that or lie when we say the words, “Thank you.”

Ann Voskamp, in her book A Thousand Gifts, suggests that it’s impossible to have two emotions driving us at the same time. (I’m not so sure about that, and I know that the ending to Pixar’s Inside Out disagrees, but I’m guessing that there’s generally a dominant emotion at any given time, even if it’s not exclusive.) Her point is: When we choose to be thankful, we’re choosing against other emotions, especially negative emotions.

Who wouldn’t prefer the positive emotions attached to gratitude over the negative emotions attached to the grumbling of self-pity?

So what happens is this: Thanksgiving becomes a gift both to the ones we speak our thankful words to and to ourselves, for both the speaker and the hearer receive happy emotions in the process of the speaking and hearing.

But that attitude of gratitude is a tough one to turn on if it’s rarely used. The move from a self-oriented, self-pitying take on life to an other-oriented, other-thanking take on life can be like leaping the Grand Canyon to those of us who are infrequent thankers.

Like every other practice in life, the more we engage in gratitude, the easier it becomes.

So, why wait until Thanksgiving to get started? Why not come to the laden table with a heart full of gratitude from practicing it?

So, take out a pencil and paper (your computer will work, too, but pencil and paper work so much better) and set a timer for five minutes. Then start writing down as quickly as you can things you’re thankful for. And don’t let the silliness of some of them stop you from writing them down — remove your filter. If the Minions from Despicable Me come to mind because they make you laugh, write them down.

You’re not looking for the perfect answer here. You’re looking for any hint of gratitude that exists inside of you.

You see, that’s the whole purpose of this exercise: To uncover all of the things we’re actually grateful for deep down and to speak our gratitude.

Hopefully, during the process, you’ll think of a few names and have jotted them down on your paper. It may be someone you haven’t seen for many years. That’s great! You’ve unlocked a forgotten part of your heart. In any case, take a few minutes to write some postcards, send some texts, write some emails,  make some phone calls, whatever — just let those people know you’re thankful for them. It’s amazing what will happen inside of them because of that.

Years ago, someone I hadn’t seen since high school graduation almost 20 years before contacted me through classmates.com, which was a pretty novel idea back then. He told me that he’d been suicidal during our last year of high school but that my friendship had pulled him out of it.

Getting that message stunned me. He had waited almost 20 years to share it with me, while I had moved on with my life and forgotten about him. But that message widened my heart so that he fit back into it again, and he’s never left since.

His gratitude changed me. His words made my heart bigger.

We have that ability: To make bigger both our hearts and the hearts of those we offer the gift of thanks to.

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Learning how to be a husband

I’m not a great husband. I’m not the worst, either. Just middling.

After 21 years of life together as husband and wife, you’d think that I’d have it figured out. But it’s this same old selfish me that is involved in this relationship, and I’ve got a lot of rough edges that have yet to be worn off.

WHAT MAKES ME REALIZE HOW FAR I HAVE TO GO IN THIS BEING A HUSBAND THING IS WATCHING MY DAD.

My parents have lived next door to us for almost two years now, and I’m learning how to be a husband by observing the living out of their covenant.

It isn’t a beautifully romantic thing. No elderly couple shuffling through the park, hand-in-hand.

It isn’t a jet-setting partnership. No globe-trotting activism by passion-driven missionaries.

It’s a simple 64-year-long marriage. It’s an exercise in fidelity.

BY FIDELITY I DON’T JUST MEAN NOT SLEEPING AROUND. I MEAN A LIFE-LONG FAITHFULNESS TO EACH OTHER. I MEAN COVENANT LOYALTY.

Whenever the Scriptures use the word Yahweh (generally rendered as LORD in all caps), it expresses not just the name that God revealed to Moses, it expresses the relationship between this God and his people. Yahweh is the God who remains faithful to his covenant with his people no matter how wayward they are, no matter how many tears they make him cry, no matter how many betrayals they stab him with. Yahweh is God-in-relationship.

I see that covenant fidelity in operation when I watch my 89-year-old father kneel down to put on my mother’s socks and strap on her ankle brace, kneeling until his knees can handle it no more.

I see that covenant fidelity in operation when my Dad calls me in the middle of the night to help get my Mom back into bed after he’s helped her to use the toilet and has simply run out of the strength to get her in bed again.

In her Nobel Prize-winning four-book set of novels about her character Kristin Lavransdattir, Sigrid Undset sets out the costs and the consequences of marriage. Proud Kristin is shaped, humbled, and deepened by her difficult marriage. In the final book, when Kristin has died, her wedding ring is removed from her finger. The ring had a simple cross cut into it and that cross has been permanently etched into her as a result of wearing it for so long.

MARRIAGE FORMS THE CROSS INTO OUR VERY BEING. AT LEAST, IT’S SUPPOSED TO.

I see that same formation of the cross into the life of my father as he cares for my stroke-disabled mother. His love is expressed less in flowers and sexual intimacy than it is in simply being there after 64 years of marriage, 25 of them requiring a commitment and service he never imagined would be required of him when he vowed “in sickness and in health; for better and for worse.”

WATCHING HIM, I’M DISCOVERING THAT THE “FOR WORSE” AND “IN SICKNESS” PARTS OF MARRIAGE ARE JUST AS IMPORTANT AS THE “FOR BETTER” AND “IN HEALTH” PARTS. THESE ARE THE PARTS OF MARRIAGE WHERE LOVED IS DEEPENED AND PROVED.

It’s in the unlovely parts of marriage that I see my Dad becoming a lovely person. These are the parts our culture nudges us to reject as keeping us from following our dreams. But these are the parts that are essential to learning real love.

[Image from Fine Art America.]

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The importance of singleness in a world infatuated with romance

Every single day, my Facebook page shows wonderful pictures of couples celebrating their anniversaries together. I love it. Marriage is to be celebrated and enjoyed.

The writer of Hebrews tells us in no uncertain terms: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Hebrews 13:4).

As the old Book of Common Prayer puts it, matrimony is an “excellent mystery.” Sometimes, I find it more excellent and sometimes I find it more mysterious.

But I feel for my single friends in our culture that is so infatuated with romantic relationships. There is a sense that in order to be truly human, one has to be in a romantic relationship of some sort.

From the days of early childhood, Disney movies (among many other voices) have been romanticizing our view of what it means to be human. And then we hit tween and teen books and movies where we’re told that we ought to throw off parental advice and pursue forbidden romantic relationships. And then we hit the romantic comedies where the whole goal is for two people to discover that they’re each other’s soul mates, despite all of the obstacles they have to overcome to realize it.

The scripts are not all that creative. But we fall for them over and over again and the triumph of the romantic defeats us again and again.

But these overly romanticized stories ask far to much of marriage. No matter how romantic and sexy those photos look on Facebook, they simply don’t reflect the day-to-day realities of living with someone who sees you at your worst and not just at your best. In other words, we lie in order to project the image that we’ve been told is what romantic relationships ought to look like.

And because no marriage can live up to the promise of being full-on soul mates, couples begin to uncouple. Those who had become one begin to fracture into fractions, dividing.

Singles who don’t buy into the romantic definition of what it means to be human offer something deeply counter-cultural and much needed. Their lives are a resounding NO! to the reduction of love to romance.

But singles only do this well when they are immersed in community. What was true in Genesis 3 is still true today: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” It’s not good for the woman either. Community is essential.

It was Jesus who said these words: “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30).

Jesus was talking about a lot of exchanges taking place, but one of those was the exchange of marriage for community. The “many times as much at this time” means that giving up one person (spouse) for the sake of the kingdom of God leads to receiving many people (the community of the church) now and not just later on in the age to come.

This exchange of romance for a broader experience of community isn’t easy. This is why I call those who make this exchange the brave ones of us. For daily they are assaulted by stories and images which tell them that they are incomplete without a romantic relationship.

When I first became a pastor of a small Presbyterian church, I put a notice in our monthly newsletter from a local marriage ministry. They were giving free horseback rides for couples to enjoy together and I had taken my wife on one.

But one of the women in the congregation who was about 60 wrote me a short and polite email, pointing out that the majority of the congregation was single and wouldn’t it be great if I gave them suggestions on how to be faithful in their singleness.

That opened up my eyes to the reality that was around me. All of the kids in the church were single. And beyond the singles in their 20s and a woman in her 70s who had never been married, there were people who had been married before but were single again, either by divorce or death. She was right. Most of the people were single. Somehow, I had bought into a view of the world which made me blind to that reality and for their need to be nurtured and supported in that reality.

Paul tells us that singleness is actually a gift from the Spirit of God to be desires and writes, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (1 Corinthians 7:8). Again, setting aside romantic relationships enables those who remain single to give themselves to community and service in ways those who are married (and especially those who have children) are unable to do.

This is not only true of nuns and priests and others in the world of faith. The atheist inventor and philanthropist Dean Kamen has rejected romance in favor of devoting his life to his philanthropic inventions, including the SlingShot, which is an amazing water purifying system targeted at reducing disease and death in the many parts of the world where clean water is unavailable. He has chosen his mission over romance — a choice that defies our culture’s script.

While I myself am married and the father of four, I tell my kids that I will love it if they get married and I will love it if they remain single. Each has its hardships. Each has its blessing to offer to the world. Each is a gift from God.

We were created for more than our human romances. In fact, Jesus said that we were created for a divine romance, a divine soul mate. I love how The Message translates Luke 20:34-26 — “Marriage is a major preoccupation here, but not there. Those who are included in the resurrection of the dead will no longer be concerned with marriage nor, of course, with death. They will have better things to think about, if you can believe it. All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.”

Singles, please keep pointing us to this great reality.

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Church is about a community to serve, not a service to attend

Relationships are both the means and the end of this life. We were made for community, and yet it is the most difficult thing we ever do.

The biblical account confirms this.

After an amazing creation story punctuated by affirmations of good, good, good, good,good, and a final exclamation of exceptionally good, we come across a single “not good” in Genesis 2:18. “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

The one and only not good element of God’s otherwise perfect creation is human aloneness — the lack of human companionship, help, community.

Our Lord remedies this deficiency through the creation of a relationship of mutuality. Husband and wife as counterparts, made for and fitting to one another in every way. It is so beautiful, the man bursts into creation’s first song (Genesis 2:23). We’ve been singing about it ever since.

But things don’t go so well from there. Deception, mistrust, hiding, accusation, control, and pain disrupt this beautifully song-worthy relationship. And Genesis 3-11 paints in broad strokes a picture of human alienation — humans from God; husband from wife; brother from brother; men from women; humans from creation; nation from nation. The rest of the Bible is the story of God’s unfolding redemption and restoration of each of these broken relationships. In Genesis 12:2-3, God launches a new community that will create community.

That is why the psalmists and prophets looked forward to the day when all the nations would find a home in Zion, including those who had been hostile to God’s people: ““I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me— Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush— and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion’” (Psalm 87:4).

This is why in Galatians 3:28, Paul would write, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” These three sets of relationships — racial, economic, and sexual — are often arenas of tension and out-right hostility. But Jesus brings the broken pieces together.

The theme of Ephesians is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10). This is why there is so much emphasis on reconciling nations to one another (Eph. 2:11-22 and on into Eph. 3). This is why there is such an emphasis on oneness: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6, which is echoes in 4:13). This is why the body, which only works well as a unity, is the image used for both the church (Eph. 4:12, 15-16, 25) and for marriage (Eph. 5:23, 28-31). This is why the often power-struggle relationships of parent-child and of boss-employee are highlighted and given a new Jesus-perspective.

God wants to bring unity through Jesus in every busted apart relationship we are a part of — not just our relationship with God. Sin has stained and strained them all.

This is why the Ten Commandments deal with both our relationship with God and with others. This is why the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray about our relationship with God and with others. This is why the Great Commandment is to love God and to love others. Our Lord wants to redeem and restore our entire relational web. All of it.

Now we get to the “therefore.”

There is an individual element to this, but mostly this needs to be worked out as a community.

The way Christians do church must not be about singing songs and hearing sermons alone. And discipleship must not be about reading the Bible and praying alone. Remember, it is not good for us to be alone. But the way that we often do church might as well be alone.

When church is a spectator event that we “go” to, where everything important takes place up on a stage, we’ve gutted what Jesus set out to build.

If the entire history of humanity is about God restoring relationships, then the way that we do church absolutely must reflect this. If the way we do church doesn’t show this explicitly, then we are guided by some other purpose.

This is why we at The Table gather in smaller communities every week and why these communities always eat meals together when they gather. Community happens over the table. It’s as we figure out how to deal with each other’s food intolerances that we learn to tolerate and even love our differences. It’s as we share the seemingly unimportant details of our lives that we come to truly know each other and knowingly pray for each other. It’s as we extend the table by hosting parties with and for our neighbors that we begin to live our mission.

This is why we don’t just sing songs and listen to sermons when we gather for worship, but we sing, interact over the scriptures, and share a simple soup meal together. We want to enact community with one another, not just speak about it.

This is why we celebrate communion every time we gather for worship, for we want communion’s community with our Lord as we eat and drink from him and with him. We believe it’s significant that the story of redemption starts with a stolen meal that leads to isolation (Gen. 3) and ends with a feast that celebrates the union of two who had been separate (the wedding supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19:6-9), with the Lord’s Table to sustain us in between.

Our God is Trinity. There is relationship at the very heart of who our Lord is. It is no wonder, therefore, that there would be relationship at the heart of those made in the image of our God.

Everything we are and do must reflect the relational nature of our Lord or else we’ve gotten our God wrong and ourselves wrong in the process.