Sunday, February 18, 2018

After Valentine's Day sale: The price of love...

     This past Wednesday was Valentine's Day, the day that people traditionally think about love and romance.  Whether it is perennial favorites like Disney princesses, or the current vampire or 50 shades flavor of the moment, love sells.  It sells movie tickets, it sells books, and it sells fantasies.
     The problem is, what it sells isn’t real.  Whether it’s a fairy tale ending or a sexually-charged rendezvous with the “perfect” person, the media has always redefined the question “What does it mean to love someone?”
     Most media depictions of love present the idea that love is always an emotionally driven relationship.  The stronger the emotion, the more “in love” the couple are.  But what about when the emotions go away?  What happens when he gets bored because the thrill is gone?  What happens when she has a bad day and just isn’t “feeling it” at the moment.  What happens when he sees someone else and has a stronger sexual attraction to her?  What happens when she realizes that strong romantic feelings don’t necessarily translate into good communication or healthy ways of handling conflicts?
     Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for the “tingle-in-your-toes” feelings you get when you’re with your lover.  I love a great date night.  I enjoy an adventure with my bride.  But if you base your love strictly on feelings, and on an obligation to keep the other person happy (because you believe they will surely do the same for you), then you are setting yourself up for disappointment and failure.
     Feelings come and go, and a romanticized love comes and goes with it.  But love that is selfless builds an abiding relationship.  In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul said it this way (italics mine):

     Love is patient, and I need my spouse to have patience with me far more than I’d like to admit, love is kind, even when I’m unkind, my lover is still good to me. It does not envy, my mate wants me to succeed and be everything God is calling me to be, it does not boast, my spouse doesn’t demean me or make me feel inadequate, it is not proud, my lover delights in my accomplishments and victories more than his/her own. It does not dishonor others, my mate lifts me up, even when it would be easier to talk about my faults, it is not self-seeking, my lover see us as one flesh, knowing what blesses me will bless him/her, it is not easily angered, my spouse and I, we know how to push each other’s buttons, but he/she respects me enough not to take cheap shots, it keeps no record of wrongs, my lover doesn’t fight historical battles and use my past mistakes to humiliate me. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth, my covenant lover always points me toward God. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres, and puts God at the center of our relationshipLove never fails, at least real love that comes from God and permeates a marriage.
     I hope you had a happy Valentine’s Day.  I hope it was filled with romance and fun.  But I really hope and pray that you have a marriage filled with real, lasting, Christ-centered love.  Then, when the chocolate melts, the flowers wither, and “hot” feelings lapse, you will have an abiding love that will bring you a stronger joy and peace than anything the media tries to sell you.

Valentine's Day is over, but finding real, Christ-centered love is an ongoing endeavor.  Marriage: A Blessed Promise is a fun, practical, Biblically-based, couples' study that can be used with individual couples, in small groups, or in a Bible class?  It's less than four bucks and available now from 21st Century Christian.  Give a post-Valentine's Day gift that will have lasting benefits.  Order online here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Marriage and Lent

     Today, February 14, 2018, is the beginning of Lent. For many, Lent is not necessarily viewed as a good thing. It is often seen as a time of sacrifice, denial, and painfully giving up something you enjoy for the next 40 days.
     But Lent is not meant to be about making yourself miserable for a little over a month, as if in some sad, sadistic way that makes you better prepared for Holy Week and Easter Sunday.  Lent is about refocusing on the Kingdom of God and letting Christ's Lordship have its rightful place in your life.
     In Christian marriage, the Lordship of Christ is central to a holy, covenant relationship.  So, what are you doing during the Lenten season for the sake of your marriage? While eradicating bad behaviors that are destructive to your marriage is something that needs to happen, I'd like to suggest that you use Lent this year to initiate (or re-engage) positive behaviors that will be a blessing to your marriage.
     So, for the next 40 days, consider ways you can be an intentional blessing to your spouse, things like:
  • Express gratitude
  • Say "I love you" more
  • Initiate intimacy
  • Get rid of things that distract you from listening to your spouse attentively
  • Do a chore that your spouse normally does
  • Give your spouse visible reminders of your marriage covenant
  • Play a game together
  • Fix your spouse's favorite meal for him/her
  • Laugh together
  • Pray over your spouse
  • Hold hands
  • Live in forgiveness
  • Sincerely compliment your spouse
  • Write a note to your spouse's family thanking them for the blessing of your spouse in your life
  • Take a walk together
  • Kiss more
  • Read scripture together
  • Serve someone else together

There are so many more things that could be added to this list.  It doesn't matter if you do the same thing each day for the next 40 days, or if you do 40 different spouse-honoring things.  Just let the next 40 days be a time of marriage-building intentionality.  Let Lent give Christ his rightful place as Lord of your marriage relationship as you "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Eph. 5:21)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

How should a church response to marital distress

“What do you think happened between them?”
 “Do you think he was having an affair?”
 “I’ll bet he tried to hold it together, but she just up and left.”
 “She probably just got tired of living with someone so mean.”
 “I’ve heard she was abusing him, but he was too ashamed to leave sooner.”

             If you’ve ever had a couple in your church family to split up, undoubtedly you have heard comments similar to those above, as well as many others.  Whether it was an obviously troubled couple or a couple that hid the depth of their marital distress from everyone, a failed marriage can rock a congregation to its core.
            When a marriage fails, the church family’s response is critical.  Regrettably, the response of many is often guided by wrong motives and demonstrated with inappropriate actions.  Ill-timed or just downright insensitive comments are made about and to the individuals involved.  Judgments are made, often based on gossip.  The result is that a brother and sister in Christ who are already hurting beyond belief are hurt yet again, and by their spiritual family no less.
Our human nature leads us to want to know what happened.  But for what purpose?  One can easily justify his or her quest for information with thoughts like, “I need to know what happened so that I can help,” or “As a member of this congregation, I have a right to know about things that go on.”  The reality is, many typically want to know to satisfy their own morbid curiosity, or to feel some sense of power from “being in the know.”  They want to be able to tell others (knowing of course whoever they tell will keep it in confidence).  They want to be able to make assumptions, devise scenarios in their heads, and use their “vast wisdom” to discern who is at fault, dispense advice, and determine on which side of the contention everyone should stand.
The way these things usually unfold is painful enough for the couple involved, but sometimes the church family makes it even more painful.    Sadly, some Christians will even lie or misrepresent their role in order to cajole “juicy information” out of others who might be more closely aware of a couple’s situation.
So, what do we do when we learn a couple in our congregation is in severe marital distress?  Obviously, every situation is unique and will demand prayerful discernment for how best to react in a given context.  That being said though, there are some good general guidelines we should consider.  First, remember that unless you are personally involved in the marital conflict, it is very likely that you do not know the full story about what is or was going on behind closed doors.  Some are quick to become emotionally involved, either siding with the spouse who is a closer friend or perhaps the spouse of the same sex, without really knowing what has transpired.
Second, we tend to forget that each of the spouses involved in the marital conflict are viewing the situation from a uniquely distinct perspective.  There are two sides to every story, and both sides are probably prejudiced in some way.  Women are typically cast as “the poor, pitiful victim” and men as “the mean, heartless aggressor.”  Sometimes this is true, and sometimes it is not, but immediately leaping to such conclusions can hinder your effectiveness in being able to accurately assess a situation.  Whether the partners vilify each other or just one becomes the public focus of blame, remember, the “obvious bad guy” is not always so obvious in many cases.
Third, often, we only see the explosion.  In most cases we do not see the lighting of the fuse or the slow burn that precedes the blow up.  A marriage can be in ever-increasing distress for years before the depth of problems finally comes to a head and becomes public knowledge.
When a couple splits up, here are some specific things we need to remember*:

  • Our calling is to pray for healing and restoration for both parties involved.  It is NOT to try and dig up details or go on a hunt for information.
  • Be willing to listen to the wounded party, but let the person involved lead the conversation.  If there is information the husband or wife involved wants you to have, he or she will tell you.  Otherwise, let it go.  Your job is not to be a private investigator.
  • If you are talking to one party, don’t pass judgment or make disparaging remarks about the other party.  Remember, the one speaking to you is coming from a distinct point of view (that is likely currently hostile toward his/her spouse), and you likely do not know the full story.  And, you are still accountable before God for what you say, even if it is in “defense” of his/her situation.
  • Finally, do not attempt to give advice or counseling that you are not qualified to give, whether it is pastoral, financial, legal, or spiritual.  A well-intended person, in the name of helping and protecting their friend, can heighten already raw emotions, propagate anger and hatred, and deepen the rift between spouses causing more damage than before you became involved.  When a marriage is in deep distress, it often takes a professional counselor or mediator to prevent it from further digressing into “he said, she said” and “Well if that’s the way he/she’s going to act, then here’s what you need to do” type of advice.  Elders, ministers, and church leaders should consider carefully whether they are properly trained to respond to a marital crisis within their congregation.  Such training from qualified sources should be regularly offered and updated.
Marital digression and failure is horrific.  It hurts the individuals involved, it hurts their families (especially the children), it hurts their friends, and it hurts the church family.  However, we must be on guard that as Christians and as a spiritual family we don’t increase the problem rather than help heal a couple’s pain.  If you feel called to offer help or comfort but you don’t know what to say, then don’t say anything.  Just let your presence, open ears, and a closed mouth (especially in “sharing” information with others) speak for you.  Be ready to refer the person to someone who is trained and equipped to help.
Eventually, judgments may have to be made and there may be a time for decisive action on the part of the church’s leaders.  This process should be informed by careful theology that incorporates your church’s theology of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and forgiveness, grace, and redemption.  Church leaders must be as certain as possible that they are acting godly and from a heart of compassion for both parties involved.  Just as with the initial reaction, every step of the way should be well planned and carried out.  We cannot prevent marital conflict, but we can move from a reactive to a proactive stance in our church culture.

* Obviously, a different approach needs to be taken if there is suspicion or evidence of the threat of one party harming himself/herself, or of physical abuse by one or both parties toward the other.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Groundhog's Day and Marriage

    Well, Punxsutawney Phil, the nation’s unofficial official groundhog, has made his appearance for 2018. The ultimate question that he has to answer every year is, “Is winter almost over, or is there more bad weather to come?”  Now, if you live in a climate that is warm year round, then you probably don’t care.  But if you live in a place that has been slammed by snow and ice, you’re probably looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.  You’ve survived, but you are tired, isolated, and ready for something better.
     Have you ever been at that point in your marriage?  Marriage is always a challenge, because you are bringing together two imperfect people who will make mistakes from time to time.  Any marriage will have times of joy, excitement, and life, but it will also have times of sadness, stress, and lifeless broken-heartedness.  When we are walking through the dark valleys of pain and loneliness, we want to know when it will finally be over and we will see the sun again.  “The car repair will cost how much?”  “Are you sure that is the diagnosis?”  “Our child was caught doing what?”  “My job is being ‘phased out’ how soon?”  “How much longer does my sister have?”  “Why is our church in such an uproar?”  “Where will we find the time to take care of that?”
     When the days come, and your marriage feels the strain of your seemingly never ending "winter of discontent," here are a few things that can make the long nights easier.
     First, do your best to maintain a healthy environment for your marriage.  Encourage each other.  Show gratitude.  As you are able, take on tasks the other one normally does.  Speak your love and show your love, even if the emotion is not present at the moment.  This is not always easy, especially if you feel like lately all you do is argue, but it is so important during these times to do everything you can to cultivate a good environment.
     Second, pray together often.  Pray during times of conflict.  Pray honestly.  Pray humbly.  Give God thanks as much as you pray for things you need.  Pray for each other.  Especially pray with each other.
     Third, don’t isolate yourself.  It is easy to feel alone during stressful times.  Sometimes a spouse doesn’t know what to say to his/her mate, but the mistake we make is withdrawing if we don’t know what to say.  If you mate is hurting, just be present for him/her.  One of the greatest blessings of marriage is that you have someone to walk with you through the dark valley. 
     Fourth, forgive.  Your spouse will make mistakes, but you will too.  If you both keep score of offenses, you will be locked in a downward spiral.  Failure to forgive is poison to a marriage relationship.
     Fifth, find hope.  During stressful times, it is easy to see everything through a dark filter.  Celebrate every victory, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and keep your hope alive.  If a dark shadow is hovering over your relationship, look for any place that a sunbeam can break through.  Our perception becomes our reality, and hope creates a positive perspective that will help a couple survive.
     In case you didn’t hear, Punxsutawney Phil did see his shadow this morning.  If you believe large rodents can predict the weather, winter will be around for six more weeks, but spring is still on its way.  Even if the shadows of your current circumstances mean prolonged or even permanent changes in your relationship, find your hope in God and your strength in each other.  Spring is just around the corner.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Fight the Fizzle

  Something interesting happens at the YMCA for the first couple of weeks of January every year.  Every year in January, a whole bunch of new faces show up at the Y; people who’ve made their new year’s resolution to lose weight, or get fit, or whatever.  These folks come in gung ho, ready to change their lives for the better.
     And then, it gets to about this time in January.  Mid-way through the month, the majority of those new faces are gone.  The determination has waned, the sacrifice necessary for change has proved too painful, or too inconvenient, or too costly.  So, they quit.  They fizzle out.
     Many promise themselves they will start up again soon.  They may even show up for an hour every couple of weeks, and then every month, and then every three months, and then…nothing.  For whatever reason, the end result that they dreamed of obtaining is no longer worth the journey it will take to get there.
     Did you and your spouse make resolutions together for your marriage for the new year (and together is the key word here!)?  Did you decide on things that you can do to bring you closer to each other as you draw nearer to God?  Did you talk about what your joint ministry and mission will be for 2018?  Did you talk about what you need to do as a couple to bring hope and encouragement to each other, to make each other feel safe, to bless each other’s lives, and to center your marriage in Christ?  If not, start those conversations now.
     If you have started doing these things, be on your guard against fizzling out.  There will always be excuses to not do something.
“There’s not enough time.
“I’m too tired.
“Is my spouse really noticing anyway?
“I’m not really seeing any benefit in doing this.
“It’s just a little break.  I'm sure I'll get back to it soon.” 
The devil will provide ample excuses to quit.  Don’t let him draw you away from your resolve to use your marriage to bless each other and to work together in the Kingdom of God.  We all get tired.  We all ask questions.  We all have set backs.  And from time to time, we all want to quit.  But when those times come, fight through the fizzle.
     You might not always be able to see it in the moment, but the end result is worth the cost of the journey.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Snowbound Marriage?

     With temps in the upper 60's in the middle of last week, it seems hard to believe that this weekend we are snowbound, with virtually everything coming to a standstill.
     When the snow hit, my wife and I had a layer of ice on our front porch and driveway, the back yard was covered in ice and snow, everything looked white and frozen, and it was pretty easy to believe that we were cut off and alone.
     But the reality was there were tire tracks in the snow on the road in front of our house, and at the end of that road the ice had already turned slushy.  The next road was even more clear, and by the time I got to the main thoroughfares, traffic was humming along almost like normal.  But, until we could see beyond our front porch, we made some pretty dire assumptions about our situation.
     Has that ever happened to you in your marriage?  You feel isolated and cut off?  Because you only see what’s closest to you, your perspective narrows.  All you can see is the ice and snow surrounding your house.  You want it to be different, but you don’t even know where to begin to imagine different.  The worry, or fear, or anger, or guilt, or disappointment keeps you from recognizing that there are other possibilities.
     Sometimes our isolation is of our own doing.  One spouse throws out an ill-timed, poorly thought-out comment, and the cold front moves in.  The other spouse responds out of anger rather than engaging in healthy discussion, and the precipitation begins.  Pride sets in, escalation occurs, and the situation grows steadily worse until both mates begin to feel alone and cut off from everything else, especially each other.  As hurt feelings linger, it becomes harder and harder to see anything other than the ice and snow immediately surrounding the situation.
     And sometimes, our isolation is a result of circumstances we have no control over.  He receives the diagnosis he didn’t want to hear.  But rather than letting his wife in to walk with him through the dark valley, he pushes her away.  And the layer of ice begins to form.  She thinks nobody could ever understand the pain she is going through as the conflict between her and her mother deepens, so she takes out her frustration on her husband, and path to togetherness gets more inaccessible.  A teen’s behavior creates tension in the house, and husband and wife are at odds over how to handle it.  So as the wedge widens, each spouse begin to feel lost and alone.
     When tension rises, it is easy for spouses to begin to isolate themselves.  Something happens that raises our hackles, and our brains kick in the “fight, flight, or freeze” response.  Rather than engaging in godly, healthy productive communication and conflict management, we throw up protective walls, or hurl back hurtful words shot-for-shot, or run away and try to hide.
     But you don’t have to remain snowbound.  You can get unstuck.  Here are a few things to help:

  • Take a deep breath—I know it sounds cliché, but rather than letting your “survival instincts” take over, give a second for your reasoning-brain-responses to engage.  You probably still won’t like what’s going on, but at least you can respond rationally and calmly.
  • Remember that this is a single incident, not your entire marriage—The snow will melt and life will eventually resume.  Don’t do more damage while you are snowbound by escalating the conflict.
  • Humility and selflessness go a long way—When both spouses feel trapped and feelings are running high, go out of your way to take care of your mate’s emotional needs.
  • Continually return to the “one flesh” principle—“One flesh” means that I will not do or say anything to you that I would not want done or said to me, because to hurt you is to hurt me.  You will survive best together, not alone.
  • And finally, seek help if necessary—You might feel trapped, but there are still others out there who are willing and able to help you walk through whatever issues you’re struggling with.  Have the courage to seek them out.  (Please note, this is NOT finding someone to side with you.  It is finding a person or a couple you and your spouse both know loves you enough to help—even if the truth hurts.)

     It’s tough to be trapped, wondering when the bread and milk are going to run out, and when the ice and snow will finally melt.  But in marriage, you’re not alone.  Don’t let conflict cause you to lose your perspective and become snowbound.