Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Mystery of Marriage

In places in the Bible, like Ephesians 5, we hear of the “Mystery of Marriage”.  There is some way that the relationship between two people in marriage is reflective of Christ’s relationship to the Church (as understood as the body of all believers and not just one particular faith group.)  I have a couple of ways of understanding how marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church are related and today, on the occasion of my 25th wedding anniversary, it seemed appropriate to share.

In a recent study of Philippians 3, I came across the passage where Paul outlines all of his earthly credentials and accomplishments, but then says he counts them all as garbage (or dung) when compared to the joy of knowing Christ Jesus.  I have struggled with the meaning of this passage and could give “Sunday School” answers as to what this might mean, but it was in recent reflections that I had a true “a-ha” moment.  The way I made sense of this was not in my relationship to Jesus, but in my relationship to my wife.  I have multiple degrees, I have a rich history of meaningful work, I have raised two beautiful daughters, I have held offices in a number of organizations.  My credentials are numerous.  However, during the past several years as my wife, Lynda, and I have dealt with the loss of our house to the 2010 flood in Nashville and financial difficulties, I have come to realize that what I have and what I do is not that important when compared to the fact that I come every night to my wife.  She is my best friend. I spend part of every day looking forward to when I will see her again.  We share multiple interests (but not all).  We have great conversations about current events, our kids, our futures, and our dreams.  I have a list of things she has said she would like to have that I can consult on special occasions.  I would do almost anything to ensure her happiness.  When I compare having all I have and doing all that I do with the possibility of not having her, I would give up everything else before I would give up Lynda.  I think this is the kind of relationship that Paul is indicating he has with Christ.  It is an all-consuming focus that matters more than anything else.  I don’t know that I can say that my relationship with Christ is as all-consuming as my relationship with my wife, but that desire for her should reflect how Christ feels for us.  This is part of the mystery of marriage.

When I think about Christ’s love for the Church and the mystery of marriage, I also think about vulnerability and unconditional love.  The ideal relationship between partners is reflected in the story of Adam & Eve when they are in the garden.  The Bible says that they were naked and they were not ashamed.  They were completely exposed to one another, but were not ashamed.  They were not afraid of what the other thought.  Once they had they had their experience of eating the forbidden fruit, they immediately felt the need to try to hide their bodies from each other and hide themselves from God.  Marriage should be a place where we are not just physically naked with one another, but also emotionally naked.  We should be able to express our hurts, our fears, our desires, our fantasies, and dreams to another and not fear their response.  We should not feel ashamed for who we are.  That does not mean that we cannot strive to always perfect ourselves and that our spouses can help, but that we need to be able to be completely “naked” with our closest partner and not fear being rejected or hurt.  Not only do we need this, but we need to offer this to our partner.  In this way, the marital relationship can reflect the love of Christ for all people.  To be so open on this side of Eden requires a great deal of courage and trust.  These are both things that can be cultivated within a relationship.

One of the more controversial of passages on the mystery of marriage is in Ephesians 5.  This is the “submit” passage.  I am not big on the submission passages, but I am particularly displeased with how many people have used these passages.  Too often people ignore the command to submit to one another and focus on what the women are then commanded to do.  Too often in my office I hear men talking about how their wives don’t submit to them the way that the Bible says.  The commands in this passage are not for us to measure one another, but to measure ourselves.  I do not monitor what you are to do; I am responsible for what I do.  If we are going to take the passage seriously, then we have to look at the command for husbands.  They are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave his life for her and they are commanded to love their wives as themselves.  So, if I am to love my wife with the unconditional love that Christ has for me, then my wife can share anything she wants with me and I will not ridicule and chastise.  I will listen.  I will support.  I will work to help her be all that God created for her to be and I will sacrifice myself to insure that she is not limited by anything to what she needs to do.  It definitely means that I will not be ruled by own fears, but will focus on managing my own fears so that I can encourage my wife to be all she can be.  If I am to love my wife as I love myself, then I care for her as I do my own body.  I desire for her pleasure as I desire it for myself.  I make sure her needs are cared for as I would care for my own needs.  It means that I encourage her dreams and desires as much as I would want for myself.  Again, it means that if I let myself get fearful or insecure, then I do not truly love fully.  I must manage my own fears and insecurities without demanding that my wife try to do that by doing things for me.  I would say that if someone loved me in this way, I would not have difficulty submitting to them because I would be able to fully trust in the other to have my best interest at heart and to give to me unconditionally.  However, as a husband, I do not demand submission from my wife; I work to love her as Christ loves and to love her as I love myself.  What she does is between her and God.  We are commanded, however, to submit to one another.  This mutual submission is significant because it indicates the mutuality of giving in the relationship.  We give to each other as we give to God and we give what we give because God has first given to us - The mystery of marriage. 

Because marriage is to reflect the love of Christ for the church and for the world, it is sad to see the rise in divorces.  The number of people that divorce creates the expectation of divorce.  If I fear that marriage may end, I may hold back a bit of myself to avoid being hurt.  If I hold back a bit of myself, then I do not allow for the depth of connection that comes from the mutual emotional nakedness.  The marriage, then, is limited in the depth that is possible.  There is no greater threat to modern marriage than the lack of vulnerability and love that comes from the fear of being hurt and rejected.  That fear drives so much of the problematic behaviors in relationships.  We are called to love and as I pointed out in a recent post, perfect love casts out fear.  The mystery of marriage is that the relationship reflects the love of Christ for the church and for the world, but it requires a great deal of courage, trust, vulnerability, resilience, and commitment.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tending to Feelings is Key to Happiness

           This past weekend we took our youngest daughter to college.  We now have two kids in college and no kids living at home.  It would be easy to wax nostalgic about this life transition and how wonderful it has been to be the father to beautiful, intelligent, and humorous young women, but something else struck me about the past couple of weeks.  

            As the time approached for this monumental weekend, there were a number of significant stressors in my life.  I wanted to focus on my daughters’ leaving and enjoy my time with them.  I did not want to get overly emotional, but just appreciate every moment we had as a family.  What I now realize is that the more I tried to deny the stressors going on in other parts of my life and the more I tried to deny my feelings about what was happening, the more irritable and stressed I felt.  I found myself more frustrated in traffic and easily annoyed by others.  I knew I felt overwhelmed, so I tried to isolate at work to avoid additional stressors.  Engaging with others was difficult.  Instead of finding a way to enjoy my last couple of weeks with kids at home, I more survived it; not what I really wanted.  
            There are times in life when the stress of life gets to be too much and we find ourselves more surviving than thriving.  However, there are times when I think we do a disservice to ourselves by trying to avoid our feelings – by trying NOT to feel what we obviously feel – through a variety of means.  I know some people just isolate or become mesmerized by T.V. program or such while others try to avoid feelings by numbing with substances.  Still others try to avoid their feelings by staying so busy that they don’t think about the underlying stressors or feelings.  At different times in my life, I have been guilty of all of these.  Though I lost sight of it temporarily (again), I know that it is better to acknowledge the feelings and allow myself the opportunity to express them.  It takes more courage and it is more difficult, but I think it ultimately leads to more happiness.  When some people take time to be still and look inward, they do not like the things they find.  Guilt, shame, embarrassment, anger, disappointment, etc. can be hard to acknowledge and difficult to know how to manage. 

            I am grateful for various friends and therapist I have had through the years.  Friends can be a great source of support and help if they listen well.  My therapists have always listened well and have been beneficial in helping me identify underlying feelings and processing them until the power of those feelings is gone.  During the past few weeks, I cut down on my own counseling because I thought I was too busy.  In fact, I should have made more time for it and perhaps even gone more often.  I did not practice the very self-care that I would encourage in others.  This is my note of confession, but also an encouragement to others to tend to your inner world of feelings.  It definitely helps make living in the moment easier and more enjoyable.