Our ordinary lives, fascinating and wild
Church Life

Our ordinary, fascinating lives

Our ordinary lives, fascinating and wild

J Rosenfeld, Flickr.

The Scripture says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” The psalmist uses the phrase to talk about our origins, how we were “skillfully” formed by God. I think we can view the sentiment as more than that, however. I think we can take it as an invitation to view all of a person’s life as fearful and wonderful.

“Marvelous are Your works,” says the psalmist, and that includes us, not only our conception but our whole lives. God not only makes us but also sustains us. Our development doesn’t stop just because we’re born. Our ongoing creation is full of wonder, grace, and things of fascination.

You know how it is. You’ve been friends with someone for a while. Suddenly you discover that he can play the guitar or mandolin — and surprisingly well to boot. You find out that a colleague once had a radically different career than the one you now share — he, say, ran a restaurant, or maybe she worked as a park ranger. I was delighted to discover the other day that a colleague was once a ballet dancer! I had no idea.

Spending time with someone reveals wild and amazing things about them: a hidden talent, a certain capacity or skill, a curious streak or fancy. Did you know that Susan can turn her hand to grafting walnut trees, and Mark has an original LP collection that fills one wall of his garage?

We are all unknown countries, each with surprising topography, much of it unexplored even by ourselves. Exploring the ravines of personality and past experience, each bend and twist carved by the loving providence of God, is one of friendship’s singular joys. And isn’t this one of the distinct pleasures of children, that they surprise you at every turn, that every day is a discovery, a revelation?

Marriage makes this adventure of discovery uniquely possible. The chance to spend years, a lifetime, in the nooks and crannies of another is something wholly unto itself. And there’s a rare reciprocity possible here as well. We all want to be discovered and fully appreciated by another; no one has opportunity or privilege to explore so deeply and thoroughly as our spouse. Knowing and being known is the rare promise of being married.

All this refers us back to our creator and sustainer. God inscribes these mysterious passages in our lives. Some are beautiful and arresting, straight from his pen. Others require his careful editing, the process by which he works all for our good. And like the psalmist, we praise him for what he’s done in our lives and the lives of those we love.

Question: What wonderful things hide beneath the surface of those you love?

The romance of commitment
Family Life

The romance of commitment

The romance of commitment

(Nola.agent, Flickr)

Men are justifiably famous for lacking commitment, enjoying irresponsibility and freedom as long as we can reasonably stretch it, and oftentimes several yards past that.

One manifestation of this artful dodge is that marriage ages have gone up and up in recent decades along with the cohabitation stats. Continue reading

How Marriage Works on You
Family Life

How marriage works on you

How Marriage Works on You

(Marfis75, Flickr)

I’ve written in the past about the mystery of marriage, how it transforms its participants. That’s part of its very purpose, to conform us to the image of Christ and deepen our communion with God.

I’ve still got a long way to go and, as they say, results may vary, but here are three positive ways that marriage to Megan has begun to change me.

1. Learning to love better

The more circumstances require you to love like Christ, the more like Christ you become. That’s the hope at least because such circumstances pop up in marriage all the time — little moments where loving poorly can cause enduring damage, and loving well can heal, or at the very least prevent harm. You know how it goes: a conversation takes a turn that maybe neither one of you saw coming, or your spouse calls you on one of your shortcomings, or a crisis suddenly manifests. It could be the finances, the kids, the work hours. It could be all of those, as often happens, all mixed up. The question is: Can you love your spouse well through the difficult moment?

Not always, if you’re like me. But I find as these opportunities increase, so does my facility in handling them. That hasn’t always been the case. I’ve been married before and failed spectacularly. But by trying to make loving well my top priority in such moments, navigating life’s difficulties has become easier, and our relationship has strengthened in the midst of very trying times.

2. Seeing weaknesses better

Like many couples, Megan and I share different strengths and weaknesses. In some ways they are polar opposites, and this has really served us well, me particularly. Because I’m weak where she’s strong and vice versa, I’ve become much more alert to behavior patterns and thought processes of mine that are problematic. These are things I either failed to notice before getting married or never thought were terribly important. It turns out they are wildly important in some cases, and I never would have seen them outside my marriage.

Marriage is a mirror that reveals many defects. It’s also a hospital to heal some and a gym to discipline others. And I need all of those things.

3. Wanting to be better

I’m not content to love poorly or let my weaknesses win. There is too much riding on my marriage for that.

Before marrying, I was pretty self-satisfied. I had outward pressures to grow and mature, pressures that were even acute from time to time, but since marrying I find myself internally driven. There’s a push from within to grow and mature, to be what Megan needs me to be, what my children need to be. As a single person, self-improvement didn’t seem to matter much. As a married person, self-improvement has become imperative.

These are only three areas. There have been many others, and I’m sure God has used my marriage to reshape my character in ways I’m not even aware of. Here’s what I do know: When you go to work on your marriage, marriage goes to work on you.

This is not to say that I’ve attained to much of anything. I only have the rest of my life (and eternity) to grow more like Christ, and I’ll need every minute. When striving for the upward call, we ought never plateau. But I know where I’ve been, have a sense of where I’m going, and am overjoyed to be on the journey with my wife.

Family Life

The sanctifying power of marriage

Icon of the wedding feast at Cana

Icon of the wedding feast at Cana (Wikimedia Commons).

When I think of marriage I think of grace, particularly the phrase “grace for the moment.” Marriage requires grace every moment if it’s going to be what God desires it to be. Thankfully, God extends his grace to us through marriage.

Historically speaking, the church has always recognized marriage as a sacrament. This is important to understand when speaking of the mystery of marriage, as Paul does in Ephesians. The words “mystery” and “sacrament” are synonymous. The first is Greek and the second Latin, but they both tell us that God’s sanctifying power is at work in marriage. That’s what we’re getting at when we talk about the mystery of marriage. God’s grace works through the union of married people to transform them into an image of Christ and his Church.

The Christian life is all about union with God—something that marriage helps us uniquely understand. We see the hint of it in the beginning of Scripture when Adam and Eve, two individuals, are said to become one flesh and again at the end in Revelation at the marriage feast of the lamb. The image is used throughout the prophets and again in the New Testament, most powerfully and pointedly by Paul.

Our union with God deepens and intensifies as we grow in the image and likeness of Christ. Marriage helps us both understand and accomplish this because marriage is not only uniting but also transformative.

This is the picture presented in the miracle at the wedding at Cana. We are meant to see that grace is given by God in marriage. The groom lacks wine, and Christ, of his goodness and mercy, provides it. But Christ does not send his disciples to the market. Christ extends his grace by miraculously transforming water to wine.

“People may or may not be good, may or may not be wise, but alone they are like ordinary water,” writes Meletios Webber in his book Bread and Water, Wine and Oil. “In marriage, they can, through the intervention of God, be transformed into ‘good wine’ in a process which can only take place at a miraculous, ‘mysterious’ level.”

The union and transformation of marriage is only possible by God’s grace—his “intervention” in Webber’s word. But it’s not instantaneous. Webber says it’s daily: “[A] marriage is created each day, not fashioned at the wedding ceremony. The wedding ceremony is the Church’s blessing on the work that starts there and then….”

That daily work requires the grace that God gives through marriage. He is not stingy. He does not withhold if we humbly pour ourselves into the life our spouse—sacrificing, giving, and serving like Christ. As we extend ourselves in love, God empowers us by his grace to do it all the more.

He pours out his transformative, sanctifying, saving power every moment of our lives together to enable our continual growth in the likeness of Christ and our more accurate reflection of the union of Christ and his Church.

Family Life

The lost mystery of marriage

The Mystery of Marriage

Photo by Leon Brocard, Flickr

Ask a person what they think about marriage in society today, and they’ll probably say that the institution isn’t looking too pretty.

Yes, the divorce rate has steadily declined over the last thirty years in the U.S., but so has the number of people getting married in the first place. More and more couples are choosing to live together unwed, while domestic partnerships and gay-marriage initiatives challenge the traditional purpose and place of marriage entirely.

Various versions of this same story are unfolding throughout the world. Earlier this week, for instance, The Catholic Thing covered the state of marriage in France, particularly following civil-union legislation ten years ago. The upshot of the article was that marriage rates have declined in France for decades and the option of civil unions has only steepened the downward slope.

I tweeted about the CT piece earlier this week. Someone took issue and pointed out that France has a lower divorce rate than does America, which is true enough. “[T]he ones who get married are serious,” he said. “Here [in the U.S.] they divorce like crazy. Which model is worse?”

My response? Both. Marriage is suffering in different ways in both countries.

Why? Theology precedes sociology. We do what we believe. The primary concern is not that we are abandoning the institution of marriage; I think we go wrong when we focus our attention here first.

The primary concern is that we have abandoned the mystery of marriage—that marriage exists in the Church and for the world as a picture of Christ and the Church. More than a picture, it is by God’s grace a transformative reality, a sacrament.

That’s what Paul says at the end of the fifth chapter of Ephesians. Yet we discuss the text’s statements about spousal obligations in marriage and miss the whole point of the passage.

Our behavior about marriage comes from our beliefs about marriage. We are losing the institution because we have already lost the mystery. The latter is the foundation of the former. And the former without the latter is nothing more than a mutual-aid agreement.

Maybe it’s a mutual-aid agreement over which a minister presides. But as the widening array of alternatives to traditional marriage attests, the minister is superfluous without the mystery. Any agreement will do if it’s just an agreement.

But marriage is more than an agreement, even more than a solemn vow.

I am the worst of sinners. I have no room to talk. I am divorced and now remarried. I entered my first marriage without understanding the mystery, lived in that marriage without the help of the mystery, and left it without regard to the mystery. It’s no wonder that it all fell apart. But allowing for the particulars of my story, it’s the same as that of many men and women I know, all of us data points on a disastrous societal trend line.

My conviction is this: The institution of marriage doesn’t need defense so much as its mystery needs restoration. Only by fixing one will save the other.