07.29.10

marriage

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:05 am by Administrator

it’s been a while since i’ve written on the subject of marriage, and i almost don’t want to. but for tom, among many others, i will write about it, because marriage has transformed me, and in turn i have come to see marriage in an entirely new way.

in the Bible, sex is treated a lot like food: rules about it change, and they change quite significantly. with food, man is at first instructed to eat only certain plants and fruits; after the Fall, he’s given the liberty to eat any and everything; then in the Israelite law, he is instructed to eat only certain plants and animals; and then in the new covenant, most everything goes yet again. it’s the same with sex. in the beginning, men aren’t told whom or what to have sex with; presumably they’re free to have sex with any and everything. then, both in the pre and post-covenantal period, they’re taking multiple wives and concubines. and then in the new covenant, according to the instructions of Paul, elders of the church are instructed to stick with one spouse, presumably of the opposite sex. this of course has been extended, per church tradition, to apply not only to church leaders but also to lay believers.

with hindsight and a proclivity for unifying themes, modern scholars like to contend that all food was always permissible, in the same way that monogamous heterosexual marriage was always the ideal. but let’s be honest with ourselves; that’s generous interpretation. the fact of the matter is that the Biblical standards on the morality of feeding and sexual intercourse have shifted widely and to no clearly discernible end.

what i take from this lesson is simple: God looks at customs surrounding food and sex not as behaviors to be reformed toward a perfect ideal but rather as contextual bases for consecration. he sets apart his people by defining them as distinct cultural entities. the Jew could not be like the heathen; he had to avoid eating animals with cloven hoofs. the Christian could not be like the Jew; he had to have the freedom to once again consume animals with cloven hoofs.

is monogamous heterosexual marriage the pinnacle of the created order? i’ve argued against it before, and vociferously so, but my arguments are unnecessary; the scripture speaks for itself. the apostle Paul nearly disdains marriage, when he veritably concedes it only to those who cannot control their lusts. on the contrary, Paul strongly recommends celibacy as the superior alternative, a contention corroborated by Christ Himself—who acknowledges the value of castration for those so inclined. why is it that Paul can hold marital relations in such low esteem? as i’ve argued before, Romans 1 clearly demonstrates his view that all sexuality—hetero or homo, however you’d have it—is deeply corrupted by sin. for this reason, he can define marriage as the containment of sinful passion, rather than as the idealized expression of sexuality.

but marriage of course is defined by much more than physical conjoining. it connotes something of “union”—yet another idealized concept in contemporary church discourse. but here too, we must take care to qualify what this “union” actually means. after all, union is not unconditionally moral; thus Paul’s caveat not to be yoked with the unbeliever (perhaps primarily connoting financial entanglements, though the analogy should hold for marriage as well). additionally, the union is apparently reversible; there’s no marriage in heaven.

i will contend that the Biblical view of marriage is far more cautious and pragmatic than Evangelicals would have it. for sure, it’s not necessarily the relationship status of choice for believers. and moreover, the idea of “union” with another person should be perhaps less romanticized and more rightly feared for the consequences that such a problematic relationship entails.

with the theological underpinnings thus defined, i’m going to get down and dirty. men rarely see their wives as their “sexual paragons”; there’s always a more attractive, more compatible, and less offensive potential companion out there. as conflict necessarily emerges in marriage—this most unnatural of all human relationships—men inevitably confront the fact that they’re psychologically and biologically inclined to take their libido elsewhere.

women are most always frustrated with their husbands in some way, shape, or form, and it’s largely because men are not socially conditioned to share their priorities and concerns. however which way you interpret the consequences of the Fall, the text of Genesis 3 says something about gender-specific weaknesses. i happen to believe that the legacy of the Fall (and of traditional culture for that matter) is that the social identities of women continue to be powerfully affected by the stability of their relationships with men. this generally does not hold true for men. this power differential plays itself out in the frustrated female search for validation, leading to the stereotyped arguments between sexually-frustrated men and attention-starved women.

is this natural? surely it is. is it right to struggle through this, as the norm of existence? probably not! yet most believers in the Evangelical church believe marriage to be a foregone conclusion, woefully unaware that this “inevitable” chapter of life is about to cause newlyweds the worst spiritual miseries imaginable. older married couples teach marriage as a rite of passage, sometimes because they are suckers for suffering, sometimes because they are incapable of recognizing that their own failed marriages are genuinely regrettable.

so then, you made the mistake of rushing into marriage. now you are extremely unhappy. every friend in the church is telling you to stick it out. what do i say?

you have a choice. you can be happy on your own. or you can sacrifice happiness for a time, in the interest of genuine reconciliation. the former situation is yours to enjoy. the latter might lead to sanctification. there is no right answer, because you do not live in a society where you are forced to live with your mistakes.

there is a case for sticking it out in a bad marriage. but it’s a subtle case, and it goes like this: it’s possible that your love for your spouse is deep enough and powerful enough to change that person for the better. that’s the only case for a bad marriage. i don’t think there’s any other reason to hang in there. if you don’t believe in the power of love to sanctify your spouse, then the marriage is futile. what hope is there in any marriage, when one spouse or the other is impossible to change? no matter how “good” a person might initially appear, there is within him or her something of intolerable cruelty and selfishness. if that bastion of self cannot be broken, then the marriage is doomed even before it has begun.

marriage has hope when love can change one’s spouse. marriage triumphs when mutual loves causes mutual change. if one does not believe in the transformative power of God’s love, then marriage is meaningless. after all, it is at best only the second-best option. it can only approximate total personal submission to God’s mission in the church.

i don’t write these things to be a comfort to those who are married. if your marriage feels wrong, then it probably is! i know that my mom is reading this, and she knows what a broken, dysfunctional, and truly bad marriage feels like. acknowledging that your marriage is broken is not admitting to failure; it’s the beginning of real spiritual self-awareness. the fundamental question is simple: is there enough love to sustain the marriage or not? it’s not a question that can be answered in haste. it’s a question that deserves months, if not a year, of honest reflection. it is quite possible that there is not enough love to enable one to endure with her spouse and wait for his transformation; it is very possible that the marriage will eventually end in separation of some kind (whether or not that is consummated in legal divorce).

sandy and i went through a painful period more than a year ago when we each had to ask ourselves this question. i realized that i could not continue in my marriage with her if i knew that she was not going to change; and i think she realized the same about me. we made a commitment to each other to change. this was not simply a commitment to maintain our marriage; this was a commitment to submit to each other and to be radically transformed. i realized that i was not good enough, strong enough, or flexible enough to be the right husband for her, unless i kept growing as a person. this powerful sense of accountability, this understanding that marriage requires active and ongoing personal sanctification—this captures the spiritual essence of marriage.

the real fatal misconception taught by our society is that true love is manifest when we accept our loved ones for who they are. if this were true, then God does not love us with true love. no, true love is manifest when it is driven by the hope of our beloved’s perfection. this is why all true love culminates in union with God. this is why all earthly marriages will ultimately fade in the face of our ultimate sexual, psychological, and spiritual union with God, the sexless divine.

07.28.10

Self-Disruption

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:29 am by Administrator

building on what i’ve recently been learning, from Joyce and from many others, i’ve begun to consciously disrupt my old patterns of thinking. part of what is making that easier is that my old pattern of life has been disrupted. not working for the first time in my life was initially an anguishing transition, but now i’ve found it to be remarkably refreshing. the jarring effect of losing my livelihood has made it possible for me to see myself and my world in new, more vital ways.

i’m not ruminating nearly as much. i abort the rumination, generally with self-questioning. i ask myself, “how do these thoughts matter? how do they help anyone?” on a nearly daily basis, i remind myself that so much of my life is imagined—my sense of worth, my assets, my future, my past, my health. none of these entities can be objectively defined. from one day to the next, i imagine and re-imagine these things. i rewrite the story of my past based on what i’m presently experiencing, and the shadow of the future takes the form of what i most fear or desire. it is my imagination that dictates what i am. and it is rumination that takes that nebulous stuff of identity and turns it into a colossus i cannot transcend.

it’s just life, i remind myself. it’s God’s to give, and His to take away. at some point, i must believe that it is His to dignify as well.

it’s not fatalism. it’s a reclamation and redemption of the present moment. it requires more than a philosophical break with an old paradigm; it requires an entirely new sense of self.

in this new mode of thinking, i’m finding it difficult to blog. moreover, i’m finding it difficult to tell when my attractions to ideologies of various kinds are actually substantive. for instance, i’m increasingly interested in not only ecological conservationism but more radical post-humanism. is this simply an outgrowth of a personal unease, or is this a “sustainable” approach to my world? i favor socialism to capitalism, but are these terms even productive in discourse anymore, given the political baggage they’ve accumulated? i find it fun and interesting to poke at neoliberals, conservatives, warmongers, and nationalists, but i fear that in the end the only one i defeat in my mock debates is myself.

there is, in the midst of this deep longing for perfection, an ounce of truth. that truth is that it is right to question the conventional wisdom of our forefathers, when their wisdom directly contributes to death and destruction. the deeper truth is that our disillusionment with secular society’s answers can illuminate the redemptive potential of God’s kingdom. but beyond this, i wonder if my speculations are a waste of time. if my instincts are right, then the advancement of post-industrial society necessarily will mean the steady restriction of personal choice; we will need society to distill information, and those who control the quality of information will be the only ones with any real authority. the rest of us can only conjecture; our opinions built upon misinformation will be irrelevant, the existence of true political alternatives will fade, democracy will prove itself to be more rhetoric than reality, and we will, for better or worse, be forced to submit to someone’s arbitrary ideals.

even at my best, i am a product of misinformation. i do not know whether the world will unravel or birth a new species; i do not know if the Earth can support 20 billion people. perhaps it is best if i focus on the truth that can be experienced between individuals who, by embracing a common core of basic beliefs, overcome the ordinary pains of life and summon from one another those precious abilities to forgive, to love, and to die without fear.

07.20.10

joyce’s wisdom, war zone, and the new church

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:47 am by Administrator

joyce came to visit a couple of weeks ago. she described for me how her pattern of obsessive self-pity was sharply curtailed a year ago when a friend of hers completely revolutionized her way of thinking. she told joyce to stop ruminating and analyzing as her prime mode of arriving at truth. “snap out of it,” she told joyce in so many words. “God is far bigger than your problems.” essentially, she was demanding that joyce stop leaning on her trademark intellect, to stop relishing the deep conversations with people that go nowhere. at some point, one must simply believe. no feat of the mind can lead to anything true if it does not culminate at the doorway of faith. it is faith and faith only that we carry with us for our whole lives and beyond; everything else is taken from us, sooner or later.

when joyce related this to me, i began to realize just how much i have undercut myself over the years. even this blog has been my tool to circumvent genuine obedience, to rationalize an existence that in fact cannot be rationalized. over all these years, i have taken such pride in my intellect, in my capacity to ruminate the strange and disparate possibilities. now, i recognize that the superior quality is the willingness to relinquish those qualities in favor of real faith.

this isn’t to say that it’s an unqualified virtue to simply assert the sovereignty of God, even when situations demand discernment and personal action. but what is the Christian life if it is not primarily demonstrated in faithful submission to the word of God? it is merely a philosophy.

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dan’s funeral was just one of many poignant and painful things i experienced this past weekend. i caught up with an old friend whose fiancee has just broken their engagement; another friend who is terribly overworked and experiencing strain in his marriage; another friend who feels lost and uncertain about her boyfriend, her job, and the direction of her life; an old friend who feels powerless to save her young nieces from the physical and emotional abuse of their parents; and yet another friend who has lost his boyfriend of seven years, his job, his nest egg, and his ability to sleep at night. new york felt like nothing short of a war zone. all of my friends are dying, in some way.

as devastating as it all appeared, it did strike me as the stuff of real life. there are no easy fixes. there are no solutions. to the friends who’ve lost their jobs, i can only share my own failures. with the friends who feel powerless in the face of injustice and death, i can empathize. and for the friends who find their marriages on the rocks, i can only say that i’ve been there. on the one hand, i do want to confess that i find life terrible to experience, horrific in its inevitable decay; but on the other hand, i feel the vitality of actually sharing that suffering. in my eulogy for Dan, it’s the point i tried to make. once, my anguish at the ugliness of suffering separated me from God; now it is the thing that binds me most closely to Him, who Himself experienced anguish in doing the unthinkable—suicide, no less, for the sake of the people He loved. the world is full of pain, and no one has carried more grief than the one who has walked alongside every living creature that has ever been born. no one has seen more brokenness, more bleeding, and more horror than God. as death is a part of us, death has become a part of Him too, He who should never have died.

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one cannot go through the weekend i have gone through and not be impressed by the profound illness of the human condition. it’s evidenced in our hatred of our jobs, our hatred of our societies, our hatred of ourselves. we live badly; we eat badly; and we communicate and care for one another badly. the church in America shares in this failure. Dan’s widow, like most widows in this country, will navigate her own way through this tragedy, once the dust has settled and people have forgotten about her. the church cannot substitute for her kin; it will not promise to provide for her every need. like every other institution of Western society, it is simply an appendage of the civilized life. we fit it in on Sunday mornings. we seek to be entertained. when the shit hits the fan, the church’s charity is not an entitlement to be relied upon; it is a faint comfort, in a sea of sorrow.

all of my friends who are sick and lonely are longing for church. but they loathe Sunday service; they loathe the popularized saints of our time; they despair at the futility of the church’s forays into the political realm. they hate the church because it is an extension of the society that is killing them. what they really want is to escape society—and find real life on the other side.

i believe that the calling for the 21st century church is a renewed separation from society. believers of this time want and need the church to be utterly distinct, totally recognizable, and radically opposed to the neurotic consumer culture that is devouring lives. increasingly, they are losing faith in the vision of the church that is halfway between worlds, a church that claims to be poised for outreach when in fact it is poisoned by compromise. where is the church of genuine community? where is the village of the faithful? where can a sick man go and find healing? where can the poor person without family find new brothers and sisters to feed him, clothe him, and dignify his life by relying on his abilities? where is the church in which people truly belong to one another, sharing all that they have and discovering the mission of love that it was charged to embrace?

i have a dream of a church that will rescue all of my friends from the grip of a world that does not love them. we are in the countryside. we grow our own food. we do not kill or eat animals. we treat the land as our home, and we do not pollute it. we conserve water. we work the earth together, we disciple one another, and we share what we have. there is no money, there are no taxes to pay, and there is nothing to invest in but life itself. we have eschewed television and the internet; we have no connection to the outside world. and because of this, they know that we are different. they flock to us, the lost children of the disconnected disenchanted generation, and they want to know if we have discovered something that they could not find in their gadgets and playthings. they flock to the church, because they are afraid that they might be missing out on the one thing that they never cared to desire until someone actually found it.

my church does not pretend to be a social appendage, a community service organization, a Sunday ritual. my church is the suffering, angry, and alienated people who want to stop destroying themselves and their world. they want to believe that they can be whole. this is the miracle that we find together. this is the only dream i have left in this world, for this lifetime

07.18.10

the point of no return

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:48 am by Administrator

the inside of the coffin claims to be soft and intimate. i know that. but against his body, it is rigid and close, reflecting light onto his glossy formalin flesh like a harsh exposure. let him rest in the darkness. hide him from our cruel eyes, our unforgiving memories, and let him sleep.

the inside of the hearse is polished. its rollers gleam, its lacquer and upholstery are cool and unsuggesting. in its recesses, light disappears, as if this black car were actually the entrance to the chasm that winds its way out of the world of the living. they’ll close the door, and he’ll be alone now, with flowers and the hum of an engine, silently sliding down a passageway we cannot fathom.

the inside of the grave is a wall of solidly packed earth. it does not crumble, as deep as it goes. and when the earth collapses on what’s left of his earthly form, it will be closer to him than any of us. the grave is patient in expectation, and we let it wait. we let him hover above it, untouchable. this is our way of commending him; after all, he was loved. when the ground closes over him, we will turn away from this final ritual, and in its privacy, the dirt will think we have dignified this last and most naked embrace. terrible earth, suffocating soil, and all the unseen crawling life within—we turn away, in truth, because we despise you. everything worth loving, we took away with us a long time ago. you should know that all we left for you is just dust and bones.