Thursday, February 18, 2016

Don't take it for granted...

     I have a handicap.  It’s not obvious, and it’s certainly nothing for which I’m going to get a special license plate, a placard on my rearview mirror, or a closer parking spot.  In many ways, it doesn’t drastically affect my daily life.  And sometimes, I even forget about it.  So what’s wrong with me?  Well, today, February 18, 2016 marks six years since I lost my senses of smell and taste due to a traumatic head injury.
     I know that not being able to smell or taste is drastically different than not being able to see, or hear, or walk.  And, I know I am blessed to still be alive.  (In the past four years, I’ve seen many reports of others who suffered similar injuries and didn’t make it.)  I don’t ever want to compare my situation to those kinds of losses.  But my handicap still affects my life in deep ways.
     The most profound effect losing my smell and taste had is that it makes me more keenly aware of what I used to take for granted.  I desperately miss the smell of my wife; her lotion, the way her hair smells right after she washes it.  I miss the smell of clean sheets or fresh laundry.  I miss the smells and tastes of the meals that Lisa so lovingly prepares for our family.  I can't share an ice cream cone with my son and know how good it is.  It saddens me to think that I won’t be able to smell my daughters on their wedding day, or taste the wedding cake.
     Believe it or not, I’m not saying this to make you feel sorry for me.  I know I am blessed beyond anything I could ask or imagine.  I’m saying this to remind you to not take the little things for granted.  God has blessed us with wonderful ways to sense and interact with our mates.  Everything—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—helps us to better connect with our spouses.  Through shared sensory experiences, couples can build intimacy, elevate communication, provide comfort, and find greater joy in marriage.
     So, let her know she looks beautiful to you.  When he comes in stinking from a long day, let him know how much you appreciate his hard work for your family.  Make sure she hears your love in words that affirm her to her very core.  Thank him for being “the grill-master” as you savor every bite.  Thank God when you gently stroke her hair, or she holds you close, or you share loving touches together.
     Let your senses awaken an appreciation of your mate you haven’t considered before.  Please, don’t take it for granted.  I would give anything to smell my wife again.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lent, fingernails, and marriage

     I am a lifelong nail biter, but I'm giving it up for Lent.  Now, in my last post (which you can read here), I recommended that for Lent couples do something together, something for the benefit of their marriage and their joint participation in the Kingdom of God.  Giving up biting my nails is for my marriage and is for my participation with Lisa in the Kingdom of God, and here’s why.
     I’m a compulsive nail biter. I bite my nails without thinking.  I don’t do it out of nervousness, or anxiety.  I do it out of boredom; something to fill the time.  But I’ve done it out of boredom for so long that I do it without even thinking about it.  I normally don’t even realize I’m doing it, until someone points it out.
     So, if I bite my nails habitually, without even really realizing I’m doing it, what other things am I doing without a second thought?  Do I say things to Lisa without thinking about what I’m really saying?  Do I do things “just because,” and never realize the impact those actions (no matter how great or how small) are having on my wife, or on our pursuit of God in our relationship?  Do I allow myself to be content with what we do together in the Kingdom of God because it’s easier to do so than it is to challenge us to break out of our comfort zone and trust God?
     Not biting my nails is about intentionality.  Right now, it is actually harder for me to not bite my nails than it is to bite them.  I constantly catch myself moving my hand toward my mouth, and I have to stop myself from going through a rote action that really doesn’t help or bless me in any way.  I have to recognize I can’t bite my nails because, “that’s just what I do.”  I have to stop making excuses, justifying, and rationalizing why it’s easier to not worry about biting my nails.  There has to be more of a purpose to my thoughts and actions than that.  And I want that same sense of purpose, dedication to being intentional, and thoughtfulness to affect even the most miniscule areas of my marriage—no matter how seemingly inconsequential.
     If you’re a nail biter, I’m not getting on to you, or telling you that you have to quit.  This may not be your avenue to a better marriage and better service in the Kingdom of God.  But for me, over the 40 days of Lent, it’s a way to “take captive every thought” (2 Cor. 10:5) so that I can be more intentional in blessing my wife and more intentional to awakening myself to God’s call for our marriage.

Who are we?

     What did you want to be when you grew up?  A doctor?  A fireman?  An astronaut?  A spy?  A princess?  If you ask a child that question, you’ll get any number of answers that can range from expected, to intriguing, to downright funny.  Our culture often defines us by what we do.  Whether we like it or not, value is ascribed to us based on our occupations.  That’s why the first question most people ask when they first meet someone is “What do you do?”
     But there are also other things that give us identity.  Where we are from?  Who our family is?  What do we like to do?  Where do we like to go?  What kind of lifestyle appeals to us?  There are a multitude of factors that help shape someone’s identity.
     When a couple comes together in marriage, we often talk about the divine mystery of two becoming one.  But, the reality of two becoming one is a process that many newlyweds (and some longtime married couples) try to bypass.  Here are a few things to consider as you think about who you are in your marriage relationship.

  • Don’t attack the things that make up your mate’s core identity.  Unless the identifier is something destructive to the marriage (addictions, inappropriate conduct in a relationship outside the marriage, etc.), try to find the beauty in the things your mate appreciates.  She likes the excitement of life in the big city, but he longs for a peaceful Mayberry-like existence.  He’s a sports fanatic, but she thinks sports are a waste of time.  She gives generously, but he adamantly saves for a rainy day.  You might not always connect with the same things or have the same approach, but to demean the things your mate cares about is to say that he/she is deficient in some way, or somehow doesn’t measure up to your standards.
  • Be careful about family-based identifiers.  Jane grew up being told that she was a wonderful conversationalist just like her outgoing mother.  She took that as a compliment because she loved her mom dearly.  Jane’s husband Ray, who is introverted, doesn’t hesitate to tell Jane that her mother is loud and talks too much.  How does Jane feel every time he blasts her mom? 
    No family is perfect, but be careful.  When you critique your spouse’s family—whether it is their mannerisms, their politics, their faith, etc.—you are often making condescending remarks about your spouse.  Even if your spouse initiates a negative conversation about his/her family, tread carefully.  Remember, your mate’s positive traits that you love dearly also likely came from their family.
  • Form an identity together.  It is easy to be known as something individually—he’s a real talker, she’s a wonderful giver, he loves golf, she is the best cook—but what are you known for as a couple?  Part of the process of becoming one is to find a united identity in Christ.  If you are called to marriage, you are called to use your marriage in the Kingdom of God.  What do you and your spouse want to be known for as a couple?

Identity is important.  We want to be known, and we want to feel connected.  But as you establish your identity as an individual and as a couple, always ask yourself, “Is this thing (hobby, interest, desire, action, lifestyle, relationship, etc.) something that is bringing me closer to my spouse and centering our relationship on God?”  If not, think long and hard on whether or not that’s who you really want to be.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A better you

     Tomorrow, Wednesday, February th is Ash Wednesday—the beginning of Lent.  Lent is a tradition observed by many Christians to mark the 40 days leading up to Easter weekend.  Many think of Lent as a time of self-denial; giving up bad habits or luxuries that might distract you from focusing on Christ.  But Lent isn’t just about getting rid of the bad, it can also be a time to incorporate positive actions and attitudes.
     Most people focus on personal improvement during Lent (which is not a bad thing), but this year, how about deciding with your spouse on something the two of you can do together to improve your marriage and refocus on having a Christ-centered relationship.  Let Lent be a time of focusing on you (plural) rather than you (singular).  It might be leaving behind something that has distracted you from maximizing your marriage relationship, or it might be starting (or restarting) something that proves good for you and your spouse.
     Obviously, you need to talk with your spouse about what you’re going to do, and it will look different for every couple, but here are some possibilities for the next 40 days during Lent:
  • Pray with each other (not just for each other, but actually with each other)
  • Read scripture together each day 
  • Make each other laugh as often as possible 
  • Say encouraging things to your mate multiple times daily 
  • Give up time spent watching TV or looking at the computer to talk to your spouse undistracted 
  • Verbally express a specific reason you love your spouse—and give a different reason each day 
  • Give your spouse a handwritten note each day 
  • Hold hands, hug, kiss, or have some other type of prolonged physical contact each day (that isn’t necessarily intended to lead to sex) 
  • Share at least one meal together every day (if one of you travels, use Facetime or Skype to be together as you eat) 
  • Devote the time you would have given to your hobby to sharing in your spouse’s interests 
  • Find a new way to connect intimately each day (not just physical intimacy, but also emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual intimacy)
Certainly, you could add so many more things to this list, but maybe this will get you thinking about what you can do together.  Just be intentional and don’t give up.
     Changing a behavior, whether you’re adding or taking away, takes discipline and effort.  But let 40 days during Lent this year lead to a lifetime of marriage improving action.  If you read this after Lent has already begun, don’t use that as an excuse not to start right now doing whatever you can together to make your marriage better.  And, if you don’t celebrate Lent, that’s okay—call it whatever you want, but 40 days of intentional, Christ-centered focus together can renew your marriage in amazing ways.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Winter's end: Ground Hog's Day and Marriage...

     Well, Punxsutawney Phil, the nation’s unofficial official ground hog, has made his appearance for 2016. 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 didn’t see his shadow this morning.  If you believe large rodents can predict the weather, winter is coming to an end and spring is 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.