15 Marriage Lessons: A Year by Year List (Part 1)

In honor of nearly 15 years of marriage, I’m sharing a series of “15 reflections” taking different forms. You can read the first list here (15 Things You Might Not Care to Know About Our Dating Years). Today (and tomorrow), I’m sharing 15 Marriage Lessons from our 15 years of marriage. Enjoy.

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Lesson 1 (2000)Individual, pre-marriage histories create a common, post-marriage narrative.

In August of 2000, we packed our worldly possessions in a tiny car and said goodbye to Tulsa. The road was fire-hot, and by Fayetteville, the thin-treaded tire on the passenger side melted and peeled. The spare tire sat under a mound of boxes and books, and as we unloaded on the side of the road, Amber ran across a treasured High School companion–an old book of poetry with a worn binding. She opened it as I removed the spare tire from the wheel well, and said with near delight, “oh look! Some seeds!”

“Seeds?” I asked.

She squinted her eyes, pinched her thumb and forefinger together, put them to her lips and took a false drag.

“Oh,” I said, and then felt the rising tide of panic. “Throw that junk out before a Cop pulls over to help us change a flat! I don’t want to go to jail for possession!”

Amber just laughed and brushed the inside of the spine clean.

It is true: the fruit of single-living always leaves behind a seed or two.

Lesson 2 (2001): Survival of the fittest doesn’t just apply to spawning salmon.

Fed up with ministry, Amber and I ran kicking and screaming from the church. I’m not sure how we made it. All I can figure is that old Mr. Darwin was on to something. Survival of the fittest doesn’t just apply to spawning salmon and Galapagos lizards.

(Just a note to those struggling in the early throws of marriage: you are tougher than you think.)  

Lesson 3 (2002)A jitterbug marriage is a thing worth shooting for.

The Mouk family (the folks on my mother’s side) are a good lot, a lot that knows how to celebrate in style. My grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer that year, and she’d determined to make the most of her remaining time. At our Christmas gathering, Carol Mouk declared that she would like to dance he jitterbug with my grandfather. He turned on some old-timey jazz, and the two took center-stage in the middle of the large family room. He was a decent jitterbugger; she was better. They danced and laughed like they were twenty, and the family watched in both amazement and envy.

I don’t know a thing about dancing the jitterbug, but I aim to dance the “running man” with Amber in our seventies (which means I have to learn it).

Lesson 4 (2003): Your spouse shouldn’t have to say, “I’m an affair waiting to happen,” to get your attention.

Chances are, if your spouse comes to you and says, “I’m an affair waiting to happen,” you missed some previous non-verbal cues of your growing disconnection. I heard that once, and once was enough. These days, Amber and I take to examining the depth of our connection on a regular basis; if something is off, we try to remedy it before it festers and turns into a regretful prophecy.

Lesson 5 (2004): On vacation, it’s a good idea to know the lay of the land; it’s a better idea to know the local beach rules.

During our fifth year of marriage, we took our first family vacation to sunny Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As the fates would have it, Amber was five months pregnant, and feeling a bit beached herself (if you know what I mean). We made our way to two ocean-side chairs, and as we sat, Amber lamented her growing belly, commented that she didn’t feel very sexy. I did my best to reassure her, and right as I was in the middle of my best “come on baby, you’re beautiful just the way you are” spiel, a buxom woman exploded up from the ocean surf, and began running to the lawn chair beside us. As it turns out, bikini tops are optional on certain Fort Lauderdalian beaches, and this woman was taking full advantage of her American freedoms. Amber turned to me, chin quivering and said in some amalgam of desperate plea and angry growl, “you’d better not look, or you’ll wish you didn’t have eyes.”

Lesson 6 (2005): Neither church nor baby will fix a marriage, but both can bring fresh centering.

We’d endured a nasty spell with ministry, moved into a tiny Love Shack with inadequate heating and cooling, been through the searching-through-the-couch-cussions-for-pizza-money spell, and endured the disconnection of too many grad-school nights in the library. Looking back on it, our marriage was held together by little more than secondhand Scotch tape.

About the time we wondered whether or not we’d make it to our sixth anniversary, we found the joys of growing in a small and simple church and rearing a small and simple child. Rebuilding always starts in the smallest and simplest ways.

Lesson 7 (2006)If laughter is good medicine, then stealing bikes from the neighborhood boys is the prescription.

While entertaining friends, a group of neighborhood children decided to play the old game of “ding dong ditch.” We had two sleeping babies, and when the doorbell rang Amber’s face turned beet-red and steam screamed from her ears. She bolted out the door as one tiny eight-year old tried his best to mount his bike. Nervous, he floundered, and Amber was on him before he could get any momentum. In an effort to evade the wrath of the neighborhood mother, he ditched his bike and ran. Amber scooped up his two wheeler and yelled, “you can have your bike back when you bring your parents to my house!”

The bike sat in our foyer until the boys came back to apologize. We had a good roll over that one.

*****

(To be continued! Join the mailing list to receive Part 2 in your inbox.)

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For Titus

For Titus:

I was da,
when the milk teeth first
broke ivory white
through new pink
and grew fast
from the floor up.

I was da,
a single syllable
like mild,
like love,
like peace.

I was da-da,
when the uppers
came screaming
through mouth’s roof,
when you learned
of night terrors
and sickness.

I was da-da
the complex,
the healer,
the big-armed
hero.

Today I am dad,
a one syllable wonder
yet again,
delta-alpha-delta,
the difference,
the beginning,
always the difference.

I am dad,
and in that
there is sorrow
and hope.
Sorrow that
by language
I have evolved beyond
single syllables,
and hope that
I might always
be the difference,
yes–the beginning of
all difference.

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America #1 (Thoughts from a Rocking Chair)

1.

It is pleasant to talk of
work, rest, personal spirituality,
of the tragedy of old Smith’s farmland
untouched by tractors for
near a generation,
or of morning prayers
and the flight of the gold finches.

2.

Here, in this pipe dream
of the American free,

I saw the children running
through water spouting sidewalks,
dancing the hokey-pokey
to radio-Disney,
learning the joys
of play-pretend wars,
of vigilant violence between
marines and jihadi militants,
or cowboys and Indians,
whichever;

I saw We The People
dancing to death
yet again, and buying news
like movies, like politics,
like bubblegum and Coca-Cola.

I saw this all from the
porch rocker at old Smith’s place,
from the farmland
untouched by tractors for
near a generation.

3.

I could sit here, in this rocker
overlooking fallow fields,
prayer beads in hand,
and dream pretty poems
of a people’s judgment.

I could watch the gold finches
come, and leave, and come again,
and call this contemplation.

I could name it Walden,
or Eden, or the Buffalo River Valley.

These, too, are
luxurious pastimes.

4.

Other-world children
marshal language like missiles
and speak of loosing fathers
and goats with the same
dry eyes;

I wonder whether they hope
to work their father’s fallow fields,
to consider again the morning prayer
of peace, to hear again
the gold-finch’s Spring song.

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Just a few Questions

1.

A church matron, a Baptist-born, by-God saint once told me that every time a woman has sex before marriage, she gives away a tiny piece of herself. I note that she made no mention of men, but that aside, she expounded, said that if a girl gives away too many tiny pieces, she’ll find herself incomplete.  I was sixteen when she said this. I am thirty-six now. I do not believe her. Is the complete self of a woman (or man) reduced to sexuality? Are we summed up by the sins of our past?

2.

A shopping-mall Santa once said that every time a child says “I don’t believe,” an elf or fairy dies. Platitudes and leg-pulling aside, this is cruel. Can doubt be beaten back by fear and shame?

3.

Yesterday, I logged onto Facebook and saw the news of the Palestinian children who were murdered while playing on the beach. In the comment thread of one avatar’s status update, a war of words ensued. As good Americans (not to say anything of Christians) we must side with Israel to the death! As humanitarian activists (not to say anything of Christians) we must call the Israelies to account! Opinions flew with the rocket’s red glare. I wondered; is anyone listening anymore? Are we listening to the children, or are we just engaging in our own ideological wars?

4.

I’ve been watching social media girations, and the questions that these girations beg are age-old. Are we reduced to the sum of our sexuality, or the sins of our past? Can doubt (in God, politics, the market) be beaten back by fear and shame? Is anyone listening to the children anymore, or are we too wrapped up in our own ideologies?

5.

I once read that St. Francis prayed, “Most High, Glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and grant me… a perfect charity.” Ah charity. Whatever happened to charity?

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5 Instructions to My Sons

 I’ve been considering what it means to employ the craft of writing for my immediate community, and what community could be more immediate than the community of my family? To that end, I’ve written this piece, titled “5 Instruction to my sons.” Enjoy.

*****

Dear Ike, Jude, Bean, and Titus Lee:

Last night, as I was walking Lucy around the neighborhood waiting for her to tend to her business, I considered those things I’d like you to know. I typed a short list on my phone, and this morning, I gave flesh to the bones of that list. It is true, there are many words of instruction I’d like to leave you; among those many words, though, are these five.

1.  Good prayers are not wordy prayers.

When I was a young boy, I listened as an older young boy prayed from the front of my Sunday class. He was a home-schooled boy, one who boasted a great vocabulary and the will to use it. He tossed about large words like “omnipotent,” and “sovereign,” broke into the occasional use of Hebrew or Greek, and more than once employed rhyme. “Sovereign Abba, omnipotent Logos” he prayed, “may your grace shine on my face.” I was ten at the time of his prayer, and I had no idea what he was saying. I am thirty-six now, and having reflected on this prayer again, I still have no idea what he was saying.

As you grow in faith, some might try to poison you with the notion that big, complicated, poetic prayers capture the ear of God. The truth is, these sorts of prayers, if not from the heart, capture only the ears of men.

Prayer, especially public prayer, is not an opportunity to show others the many large words you know. It is not an opportunity to be praised for being “such a good little pray-er.” Instead, prayer is an opportunity to be present with God in quiet places. As the Gospel of Matthew records,

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

Mary Kate Morse says that prayer is “attentiveness to God.” And attentiveness, she says, “is an awareness that we are in God’s presence, and God is in ours.” If God is always in our presence, and we are always in his, shouldn’t prayer sound a lot more common? Shouldn’t it sound like the words we use everyday? Shouldn’t it come from the heart, naturally, just like the way you talk with me or your momma?

2.  Friendship is simple presence, too.

If prayer is the “awareness that we are in God’s presence, and God is in ours,” maybe the secret to good prayer is learning to be present with God in the moment. What does it mean to be present? The dictionary describes it as “being with one or others in the specified or understood place.”  In the same way that good prayer relies on being present with God, being a good friend also relies on the ability to be present.

For illustration, let’s use an example.

If our little friend Melody came to play, and you were tapping on an iPad while she was trying to talk with you about her new kittens, would you be present with her in the moment? Sure, you might be in the same place, but would you be fully aware of her joy in the new kittens if you did not note the smile on her face, or see her hopping around in excitement? Presence, then, requires interaction. Presence involves looking people in the eyes, noting their joy, pain, elation, or agitation and responding to them. Presence is being with someone instead of merely around them.

3.  It’s not the size of your Cadillac that matters.

This is a fact of life: men will judge you by the size of your Cadillac, the shine of your shoes, or the height of your mansion. And as has been the way of men for all eternity, the more wealthy you appear, the more honor you are likely to receive. (Doesn’t everyone seem to value the opinion of the rich businessman more than the blue-collar factory worker?)

In this, there will come a great temptation to live in such a way that other men might esteem you, might judge you as wealthy. You might begin to purchase cars you cannot afford (or can, for that matter), might buy a large house on the highest hill so that everyone might know the size of your manhood. And do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having a few nice things. But always remember that men are suckers for judging a book by its cover. As old Sammy said, “God doesn’t see things the way men see them. People judge by outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”

Remember, it’s not the size of your car that matters; it’s all a matter of the heart.

4.  Folks will talk about global crises and wanting to change the world; don’t let that distract you from a more neighborly mission.

There are a great many global crises these days (climate change, the orphan crisis, kidnapped children, wars, revolutions, rumors of wars and revolutions, dictators run-amok, immigration, Fox News). And though I hope that you are voracious learners, that you know the things that impact the world, know this, too: these things can distract you from being present to your neighbors and friends.

These days, popular psychology, theology, and sociology will teach you that “you can change the world.” I think that I believed them, once, that I strived and strived and strived to make a grand difference. In that striving, I forgot to be present with my friends and family. Maybe I even forgot to be present with you. This was a mistake.

In the 1960s, a good and smart frenchman named Jaques Ellul (Zh-ok El-ool) wrote,

“scripture never asks us to bear the world’s suffering. It is enough to bear that of one’s neighbor. Once again, we encounter the very bad presumption of putting ourselves in the place of Jesus Christ, who alone bears the sufferings of the Algerians, the Tibetans and the inhabitants of India. He does not ask us to substitute ourselves for him.”

(Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom.) I hope that you see the world, and I hope that your work alleviates suffering wherever you see it. I have some great friends who are engaged in this kind of humanitarian work (get to know Sarah Bessey, John Sowers, Kristin Howerton, and others). But I would tell you, and they would agree, that if you are seek to change the world at the expense of knowing your neighbor, you’re missing the point of the Great Command, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

5.  Jesus isn’t as rigid as we want him to be, and not nearly as silent as we think he is.

This is, maybe, the most important instruction I could leave you. Jesus is not as rigid as men might make him. He is not Baptist, or Methodist, or Anglican, or Non-Denominational (which is becoming its own sort of denomination), or Catholic. Jesus exists outside the small boxes of men. In the Gospels, he was present (there’s that word again) to the Jews, the non-Jews, the religious and non-religious alike.  Jesus was all things to all people, was in all of the boxes but outside of them, too. He was not as rigid as some would have made him to be. (As an aside, this is likely why he was murdered.)

Yes, refuse to believe that Jesus is as rigid as all of that. In the same way, refuse to believe that, in the words of Buddy Wakefield, “that guy [God] hasn’t spoken in… like… ever.” Refuse also those who would teach you that God doesn’t still speak today, that he’s not active in the world around you. He will speak and you can hear him if you’ll develop the ears to hear him. And developing those ears takes a lifetime of practice.

 

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