Nurturing Fragile Vows (On Marriage)

When you’re 22, what is marriage? What is a set of vows, a union, a sacrament? What is the cloud of souls witnessing your specific affirmation of monogamous love?

For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.

What is the honeymoon, the union, the sex? When you’re 22, what is any of it but an awkward entry into a commitment you’ll never understand, one that is wholly un-understandable? At 22, who can say what it means to be one? Who understands the fusion of souls?

No one.

This week, almost 18 years into my marriage, I caught wind of a divorce, and another, and another. Two were brought on by infidelity. (Who can blame a spouse for leaving a lover who’s taken another lover?) The other couple went Splitsville over Lord-only-knows-what, though it is said that one lover fell out of love with the other lover. (And yes, love dies on occasion, no matter what the Marriage Gurus tell you. (But know this: Every death is an occasion for resurrection.))

This is an excerpt from last week’s newsletter (sign up HERE to read the entire newsletter), and it was spurred by another round of divorce news. This is how the news of divorce comes–in rounds.

Every time the news of another spate of divorces reaches me, a dark cloud sets in, or maybe my brain feels as if it’s melting into existential goo, or perhaps the world seems to spin backward. I’m not really sure how to put it, exactly, but the point is this: news of divorce makes everything feel so broken; it makes me ask too many questions.

What makes my marriage any different?

Is my love impervious?

Do I think I’m any better than Mr. X or Mrs. Y who couldn’t seem to muster up enough stick-with-it?

What is marriage stick-with-it, anyway?

Existential marriage questions are worse than existential death questions, which is saying quite a lot coming from an Enneagram 5 with a 4 wing who lives his life squarely in life’s existential gap. (This is a thing worse than melancholy, I assure you.)

Who knows all the ways the thread of a marriage can be pulled, the ways it can be unwound? I’m not sure anyone does. What’s more, I refuse to explore the multiplicity of ways, because my tolerance for angst and paranoia only stretches so far on a beautiful Ozarkan summer day. But somehow, the simple awareness that marriages are akin to loose-threaded scarves (vows subject to being pulled apart) keeps me attuned to my own pulling penchants, the ways I could unwind everything with a few bad decisions. That attunement–it reminds me that marriages are things to be nurtured, to be repaired when necessary.

I’m inviting you to tune into the fragility of your own vows today, and in that attunement, to consider the ways you might nurture or repair your own union. And for those who lack creativity, perhaps I could offer a few suggestions:

-Confess that thing that’s been eating you up and ask for forgiveness;

-Schedule a date;

-Buy your spouse a bouquet of flowers;

-Schedule an appointment with a marriage therapist;

-Write some new vows (consider these by Tim Willard);

-Have a good bedroom romp. (Yes, I wrote that.)

Nurture, repair, nurture, repair–this is the way to cultivate a healthy marriage, I think (though I’m no Marriage Guru). Isn’t this the thing you want more than anything? Isn’t it worth the effort?

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My Repentance

It was not just any Sunday night. It was the Sunday after the verdict was read in the Philando Castile case, a case in which another black man was killed by a police officer with an itchy trigger finger.

Not Guilty. 

The facts were the facts, and who am I to recount them here. (Follow this link for proper reporting on the trial of Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Castile.) But facts being what they were, reporting being what it was, many were left asking these questions:

What is justice anymore?

What has it ever been?

It was that Sunday night, and my predominately white, middle-class church gathered under a roof that was not opulent but was (sure-as-shooting) adorned with middle-class comforts. There, we prayed the responsive Prayers of the People together, and after the rote prayers, the officiant held the floor open for extemporaneous petitions. Prayers may be offered silently, the bulletin read, but a woman on the front row chose an alternative path to heaven. In that space, she broke open, wept over the violence in our country, over the lack of justice for so many image-bearers of God. She broke wide for Philando Castile. She broke wide for the people in her life who’d never known justice, who never would, at least not the justice so many of us take for granted. She broke and broke and broke, sobbing at the altar. When she finished, there was a holy pause. A hush, even if just for a few moments. I listened to that hush, heard the sobs of Christ there, too.

It was one of those moments that punched me in my pearly whites. It reminded me that prayer is sometimes the ultimate expression of sorrow and that if my prayers do not express that kind of sorrow, perhaps I’ve bartered my humanity away. Maybe I’ve traded it for comfort. Perhaps I’ve become something less that the Christ of the scriptures.

It was one of those altar moments I’ll not soon forget. It was a call to personal repentance.

 

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The Marriage of Competing Kingdoms

“Competing kingdoms will come,” the preachers should say on any wedding day. “Your need for sex, her need for connection, the Kingdom’s need for unity–these things can seem so at odds.” This is the sermon every bride and groom should hear, but I’ve never (not once) heard it, decorum and context being what they are these days. But this, I think, is the heart of the matter. Marriage is an exercise in recognizing competing kingdoms.

I want.

She wants.

Heaven wants. (Doesn’t it?)

There is the Kingdom of Heaven (or so we say). What does it want but unity, longevity, eternality, beauty?

There are the base kingdoms of pleasure, happiness, and self-fulfillment, too; we know this to be true. Those base kingdoms, the self-centered ones, how are they found in the poorer, the sickness, the death? Where is happiness when the lips of your lover turn sour (or worse, venomous)? Where is self-fulfillment when the wedding-day vows become past-tense lies, when the sex becomes perfunctory or the marital bed sheened over in a duvet of ice? Where is the self-fulfillment when your lover carries cancer into the hospice bed? The baser kingdoms are so dependent, so fickle.

What are our marriages but competing kingdoms–the Kingdom of Heaven against the kingdoms of our own makings? If this is true, I wonder this: Isn’t marriage an exercise in uprooting our own kingdoms, in cultivating a Kingdom that’s somehow more permanent? This wonder leads me to a second sort of quandary: How could we ever do this on our own?

 

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June 14: The Day the Politicians Were Shot

The alt-right or vitriolic left.
The anger filling the spaces between.
“I’d like to punch him in the face,”
might be the most extreme iteration.
“You should be ashamed,”
might be the most docile.
Every thread of outrage pulled
with itching fingers leaves us
naked as cavemen and just as refined.
Look around.
Is anything any wonder?

“Once you see [anger and contempt] for what they are, the constant stream of human disasters that history and life bring before us can also be seen for what they are: the natural outcome of human choice, of people choosing to be angry and contemptuous. … We have to remember this when we read what Jesus and other biblical writers say about anger. To cut the root of anger is to wither the tree of human evil.” ~Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our  Hidden Life in God

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Sacraments Within Sacraments Within Sacraments

On occasion, the boys and I head out into God’s first sacrament, the place he first made his grace known to men and women–nature. Our favorite among The First Sacramental places is Steel Creek, a short stretch of the Buffalo River with the best little swimming hole in all of America. (This is not hyperbolic.) After a day in the water, we walked upstream and were treated to witness a sacrament within The First Sacrament. We happened upon them just as the preacher invoked the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as he named them husband and wife under the banner of the Trinity. And if this sacrament within The First Sacrament were not enough, after the first kiss, the bride and groom made their way into the river. No, it wasn’t a formal baptism, but it turned into a baptism nonetheless.

 

The world is a sacramental place, a place where God’s grace is made known to us through the elements, through vows, through the things that otherwise seem ordinary. Sacraments unfold within sacraments within sacraments, and in that unfolding, somehow, the world is preserved.

Thanks be to God.

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