On marriage, on the shore

This weekend I was at a fun party of a wedding on the coast of New Jersey (for Andrew and Jill, congrats again!) The ceremony itself was on the beach (envision many funny moments watching women stagger out in high heels on shifting sand), and afterwards we had delicious seafood and drinks up at the Pier house while the most amazing seven-piece band I’ve ever heard covered everything from Billy Joel to Switchfoot to the Commodores.

We had fun with the VerHage side of the family, met more friends of the bride and groom (including one guy who ended up with a ONE wristband after a Coldplay concert but sadly didn’t know what it was for), learned to appreciate the signature east coast accent, and heard that apparently Bon Jovi and Bruce Springstein live just up the road from where we were. I was also very struck during the ceremony itself when a friend read Kahlil Gibran’s selection, “On Marriage.” I was asked to read this same selection at a good friend’s wedding several years ago, which was my first encounter reading the Lebanese prophet. Several other selections from him also give lyrical and wise insights into human behavior and our intersection with the divine. Here is “On Marriage”:

“Then Almitra spoke again and said, ‘And what of Marriage, master?’
And he answered saying:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

This selection captures so much of what I think is missing from many contemporary, faithful analyses of ‘that blessed event’. Gibran poetically and appropriately points to the depth and breadth of the union of marriage, the oneness – the aspect of romantic love which western modern views often stress. But he also points to an understanding that each person in a marriage is fully human, complete, and strong on his/her own, that ultimate strength comes not from a collapsed, codependent leaning on each other, but also from relying on God, the “hand of Life,” and celebrating the interplay of two lives together.

I’ve always felt lucky to be able to say that my marriage teaches me how to be more of myself, as well as how to love and sacrifice for another person. I am particularly disappointed at how the church fails to express this balance of keeping and creating self in a marriage as a facet of love. I would go so far as to say that keeping self while serving/loving another is often a missing piece of teachings on marriage in evangelical culture. In my experience, many (mostly conservatively leaning), theologies encourage women to leave self and redefine their call undeneath another person, as a supportive or helpful role to lead to fulfillment; while many men are taught to embellish or fake self, with the idea of filling Christ’s role of dying for the church as their only biblical role of caring for another. This ignores the full calling of both men and women to respond to what God has planted in their hearts, or their particular giftedness, their own personality and strengths and weaknesses. As the gospel message teaches us, we are each part of the body and should celebrate and fulfill our own unique calling without judging or blocking someone else’s call. And as Paul teaches, we are no longer to rely on the sinful power differences that the world relies on (like Jew or Greek, free or slave, male or female), but we are all made new in Christ, and then equipped through the Holy Spirit to fufill a new life and ultimately a meaningful death as we live toward and into the kingdom of God.

I know this is a big issue for some folks, and for others it’s been an unhealthy or maybe fear-inducing, limiting part of life that biblical misinformation has fueled. (It’s also sadly related to forms of spousal abuse, and at least somewhat linked to why self-professed, ‘born-again’ Christians have reported higher rates of domestic abuse then other groups in the US.) More exegetical information on this and why I observe churches failing at teaching women and men how to be complete individuals, as well as healthy in intimate relationships, is important to mix in this discussion (I will try to write more sometime on the background for this). But basically, gender is an integral part of who we are and I find it just fascinating to learn alongside other women what it means to be a full woman of God – whether married or single, in ministry or outside the church, leading congregations or in lay leadership, or whatever. God gifts each of us uniquely and we are to embody those gifts in all of who we are. Not reacting to judgment or in anger, not trying to be something that we are not, not shying away from what we truly are. “Let there be spaces in your togetherness” says Kahlil. Indeed. Spaces help define togetherness, and help us support and build up one another instead of search for our own definition in that other. Keep self, practice aloneness, honor togetherness, and love others.

True Yes

This weekend I was at a United Methodist church in Northfield, MN, teaching on the theology of justice and helping bring the ONE Campaign to a CROP walk. It was a great experience at the church and I had some solid feedback and questions from the adults in the audience; including trying to tackle tricky issues in the church, and how to know what your call is related to compassion or justice, and what limits there are to wedding faith with politics.

The sermon I heard that morning was a great reflection on the story of the two sons in the vineyard – the one who said yes, he would go work and then did not, compared to the one who said no, he would not work, but then ended up working. The pastor phrased this in the context of letting our commitments be a “true yes” or a “true no” – meaning we have to do what we say, and find what we’re called to, and then follow through.

Between the comments in the class I taught, this sermon, and my recent work trip to DC (where we talked a lot about both expanding and limiting our work loads), I am thinking through what my true yes and true no looks like in this season of life. Of course this is related to my recurring growing edges around boundary and discernment issues – but even deeper than that, this reminds me that there are ways to say yes, but not really be present in the work or the call; there are ways for me to say no, but then still really carry the worry or burden or work all the same. A true yes, I think, comes from excitement and gifts and calling – not guilt or competition or expectations. True yeses (sp?) need to be connected to fulfillment and joy.

My bro Tim and I were comparing notes on this last week – how sometimes the message the church gave us was that you have to be ready to suffer, leave what you love, or do awful things in the name of the cause of Christ. We agreed that yes, sometimes discipleship involves carrying the cross, and suffering (especially with others who are broken or in pain), and doing things that we wouldn’t normally choose to do because we know it’s the right thing to do. But even in those examples, there is a calling and a deep fufillment that often results. There is also a lot of biblical evidence that points us toward doing what we love, what we are wired to do, what God has gifted us to do and given us desires and connections to. I think if we turned toward what we enjoy, and what brings us fulfillment, what we have fun doing and love and is beautiful and true – that is part of how God made us to carry out our callings. God is in all of us who try to find the way and discern how to live into our call – God is already in my academic and activist interests, in my brother’s electrical and musical abilities, in my friend’s call to serve HIV/AIDS patients. Why turn away from our gifts? Feeling free to go toward whatever our calling is, for the cause of Christ, is part of Paul’s call to freedom, part of the description of the diverse body of Christ who is gifted in various ways and each must be true to that. Hands should be hands, feet, feet; ministry and calling can be found around every corner and every time we respond to life with a true yes, not just in knee-jerk, formulaic or extreme scenarios.

Then, my theory is, this let’s us also figure out our true no’s! If we know what we love and are really good at, maybe the “no’s” become more natural and obvious where they interrupt the busyness and people pleasing. I will still be who I am, with my stregnths and weaknesses, no matter what the window dressing is. Maybe some of it is saying yes to our true natures, affirming what God has already done, and following that with an openness to learn and an availability to be used (this would be instead of the ‘suffer and plod ahead for Jesus’ model). And it’s a tricky area, because the desire to be comfortable and not suffer or do hard things for God is also real for many of us – it just seems to me that the joy and the fun of following needs more air time too.

The Westminster catechism states that, “the purpose of life is to know God and to enjoy Him forever..,” enjoy God – I love that. True dat.

PS – My friend Holly has a similar (and very beautiful) reflection to this called “quarter life crisis” at her site – another great voice for this conversation!