Sunday, June 13, 2021

Puzzles II: Pieces

 Puzzles II: Pieces


Throughout the last year of this pandemic, even more so in the early stages, people were stuck in their homes and needed to find ways to pass the time. Many turned to an old stand-by: jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles have long been a mainstay at the shore for vacationers as a way to get through rainy days when the beaches and boardwalks were not available – or at least, wouldn’t be very pleasant. Puzzles can be worked on alone or in groups, and while challenging can give a real sense of accomplishment when the end is reached, the last piece snapped into place and the image is complete.

In a recent series on his daily leadership vlog, Darren Hardy drew parallels between various strategies to address the challenges of puzzles as also being effective ways to conquer the difficulties of succeeding at business, and indeed at life. Could these same themes also apply to succeeding at marriage? Can we find scripture to back up this theory?

Pieces

The border is set! Now, how do we approach putting together all the pieces that make up your marriage? Our lives are complex; this isn’t any beginner-level puzzle. There are tons of pieces, and many, many colors of varying hue and saturation. The pieces themselves are intricate with lots of tabs and slots. It can be overwhelming, especially at the beginning to look at the myriad choices and possibilities and make sense of it all.


Think of a marriage relationship: there are six types of intimacy (as set forth by the DeLorenzos of the ONEextraordinary Marriage podcast). Physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, recreational, and sexual. We are living in the world (even as we strive to not be of it) so we deal with things like work, church, media, hobbies, social groups. Some of us have kids and then add raising them to the mix. We deal with discipline and instruction, school, sports and extracurricular activities, THEIR social groups. At any given time all these things may need the attention of one or both spouses, but trying to deal with them all at once is a sure strategy for disaster. At any given time, ONE of these issues is probably the most pressing and dealing with it until it is “solved” will make dealing with the next issue easier. Pick one piece of the puzzle, and find where it fits. Or pick one void in the incomplete picture, and search the available solutions until you find the one.

Remember Martha, running around her house trying to deal with all the things required to host Jesus at her house. Exasperated, frustrated - and missing out on experiencing Jesus’ presence like Mary was doing - she addressed Jesus not to be with him, but to get him to scold her sister! The lord replies (in Luke 10:41-42)

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.


This story is also a great reminder that whatever puzzle piece we are working on, it is critical we keep God at the center of our problem solving efforts. In our human frailty we have unlimited potential to make matters worse when we rely on our own cleverness, our own strength. We can always choose to take the winding, more difficult road to any destination. Proverbs 3:6 admonishes though

In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

Rely on God. Keep his promises - and his Son - first and foremost in your heart as you and your spouse tackle the manifold issues in your life. As you communicate (regularly) identify the area that is most requiring attention at the moment, for there are always issues requiring your attention. Work on that issue, together, until it is dealt with. Then you can address the next puzzle piece with similar diligence and care, and work towards a picture - a marriage - that honors God and shows his love for creation to the world.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Puzzles I - Borders

Throughout the last year of this pandemic, even more so in the early stages, people were stuck in their homes and needed to find ways to pass the time. Many turned to an old stand-by: jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles have long been a mainstay at the shore for vacationers as a way to get through rainy days when the beaches and boardwalks were not available – or at least, wouldn’t be very pleasant. Puzzles can be worked on alone or in groups, and while challenging can give a real sense of accomplishment when the end is reached, the last piece snapped into place and the image is complete.

In a recent series on his daily leadership vlog, Darren Hardy drew parallels between various strategies to address the challenges of puzzles as also being effective ways to conquer the difficulties of succeeding at business, and indeed at life. Could these same themes also apply to succeeding at marriage? Can we find scripture to back up this theory?

Borders

Everyone knows that when doing a jigsaw puzzle. The best thing to do first is to find all the pieces that have straight edges and construct the border. As a metaphor this can mean that to efficiently solve a given problem, you have to define what the problem is. It clarifies parameters, defines expectations and provides context for all the work that needs to get done. In marriage, what would this look like?

At the very beginning, even before the wedding day multiple discussions should be had! It’s been said all people have a set of “rules” that they expect people in their life to live by – but these rules are rarely communicated, and sometimes the person themself isn’t even aware they have them! These rules are developed over a lifetime, in response to family scenarios and life experiences, and once a person reaches adulthood, the rules, unwritten, unspoken and sometimes even beneath recognition are set in proverbial stone. People enter into marriage expecting their spouse to act a certain way. Expectations exist for things as mundane as who will take out the trash and who will do the dishes, or who will cook and clean the house. Broader topics like how children will be raised, and taught and disciplined and who will deal with the bills and finances, how money will be spent and even who will make it also can have “rules” attached to them. Intimacy itself, the heart of a marriage union is certainly not exempt! How and when affection is shown, who initiates sex, how and how often all are things that matter to each and every person – and should be communicated, understood and at least considered if not fully agree upon, at the very beginning. Going into marriage we should welcome these discussions, to learn about our spouse and thus better know how to love them! Proverbs 12:1 says

Those who love discipline love knowledge, but fools hate any kind of correction.

Talk early, and talk often! God is unchanging but everything and everyone else changes over time. Conversations with your spouse about issues big and small will help to always make sure the border is set, and you both know the goals you are working towards as you assemble the pieces of your life together.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Self Giving

Society makes too big a deal about sex - and too little. The world holds it up as something to strive for - it is a major focus in all media, from music, shows and movies, to literature and advertising. Simultaneously though, sex is seen as casual, as recreational, as “no big deal.” Christians make the same mistake from the opposite direction. Purity culture portrays it as the biggest deal before marriage. Our youth are told about all the pitfalls and negative consequences, how it will ruin their lives if they don’t wait until they are married. But the true nature of the gift of sex that God has given us is rarely - if ever - discussed. The church has long abdicated its responsibility to teach on this subject. As Kevin Lehman said in his Making the Most of Marriage study “If anyone should be talking about how great sex is - it’s the church!” Even among Christian marriage authors and counsellors, the message is often reduced to it being a man’s need, a wife’s responsibility. The “don’t deny one another” command from 1 Corinthians 7:5 is pulled out of context and set in this husband/ wife dichotomy that misses so much of the point. Even in this context it is seen as “just sex.” God designed it to be so much more though, and so few ever fully realize its potential.

In a recent podcast, Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife (Ph.D in Counseling Psychology, a relationship and sexuality educator and coach, and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor) broke down how she sees sex in three stages that manifest based on the maturity of the participants and the seriousness of the relationship. In summary:

Stage 1 sex is self referential. It’s about getting what you want, and it focuses almost solely on one’s own physical pleasure.

Stage 2 sex at least begins to acknowledge the “it takes two” couple dynamic and nature of the relationship, but it remains transactional; “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” It is not very deep at this stage, not collaborative.

Stage 3 sex though, is. Sex at this stage takes nothing for granted and is collaborative - and communicative. It becomes no longer about taking, about one’s own pleasure but about giving. It becomes about communication of love, of value, of cherishing.


People capable of stage 3 sex are much more at peace with themselves, and no longer have anything to prove. They are free therefore to truly love through their sexuality. They are free to be fully known, and to know. There is a reason that sex in the bible (at least in the King James version) is stated in exactly these terms. 

Now Adam knew Eve, his wife. And she conceived, and bore Cain. (Gen  4:1)

And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. So it came to pass in the process of time that Hannah conceived and bore a son, and called his name Samuel. (1 Sam 1:19-20)

On twitter, Pastor Tim Keller recently posted a powerful thread discussing sex in the context of marriage and why this world pushes back so hard against God’s design for it. Though he didn’t mention the three stages, the implications were very clear. He stated: “We believe sex was not created just for pleasure but for mutual self-giving toward a deep, permanent union that creates character and new human life. We believe sex was created for persons to say non-verbally but powerfully to one another: “I belong completely and exclusively to you.” It must not be used to say anything less than that or you are not respecting sex’s power, depth, and force.” All those statements could very well be describing Finlayson-Fife’s ‘stage 3’ definitions. Regarding the world’s view Keller wrote: “In sex outside of marriage, we maintain our independence and fail to give our whole selves to the other person… and very often one or both gets exploited.” That is completely Stage 1.

How are you loving your spouse? Is your goal to communicate the depth of your love? To wordlessly show how much you cherish them? To be vulnerable and open and truly share your heart? These goals are not easy; they do not come naturally to our finite, fallible souls. They should be our goals though. We should commit to working towards them. At the end of his twitter thread, Tim Keller warned about the dangers of doing otherwise:

“If you cultivate sex for self-affirmation instead of self-giving, you diminish sex’s power to function as a commitment apparatus and covenant renewal agent within marriage. You harden or dehumanize yourself.”

Think instead on Proverbs 11:24

Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.

That verse was (probably) not written about sex, but think about how beautiful it is when taken in the context. The implied meaning is that the best way to get what you want out of physical intimacy is to not worry about it, but put forth all your effort to give your spouse what they want. That means seeking to learn about them, their wants and needs and fears and concerns - seek to KNOW them as deeply as you can, and then act on that knowledge, giving of your self to communicate the depth of your love.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Longevity IV - Community

 A leadership guru (Darren Hardy) recently posted a video on six behaviors that lead to longevity; not metaphorical, or abstract, but things that actually lead to living longer. I think that many of these behaviors can be adapted or looked at in such a way as to lead to longer (and happier) marriages as well.


The last I’ll relate to marriage longevity is community. 


In Darren Hardy’s video, he actually pointed to a study that suggested moderate consumption of alcohol was an ingredient for longevity. There have been studies done on the positive impact of a single glass of red wine after dinner… but the study he was drawing from went even deeper, and determined that a glass or two of beer or wine CONSUMED WITH FRIENDS was the secret. He mentioned in another one of his points that avoiding despair was key to longevity, and specifically talked about how humans are a social species, ill suited to live disconnected from others. This of course tracks with biblical wisdom.


There are multiple places in the new testament where we are commanded to interact with “one another.” Bear one another’s burdens. Pray with one another. Wash one another’s feet. Break bread with one another. Love one another. Jesus actually tells his disciples that this is the sign by which the world will recognize them as his. In John 13:35 he says

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”


We can do nothing with “one another” if we are disconnected from others, doing life on our own. We must live in community to carry out these commands. In our technological age, we have access to the sum of all human knowledge and achievement, and can connect with anyone around the world - but these connections are superficial and can’t satisfy the need for human contact, the need for us to belong that is so critical to our functioning.


Abraham Maslow was one of the founders and driving forces behind the discipline of psychology. He codified and stratified the levels of human needs, organizing them into a pyramid with the ones on the bottom needing to be met before we can seek to fulfill the more complex needs. The pyramid starts with basic needs like food, water, and warmth, then shelter - security and safety. On the next level is belonging and love, human relationships. These needs must be met before the ‘self fulfillment’ needs atop the pyramid can be sought. Thus, to live the lives God meant for us to live, to be the people he created us to be and do the work he has set before us to do, healthy human relationships are key.


To apply this to marriage longevity, think about your relationship with your spouse; do you truly believe and act as if you are on the same team? Do you seek to live out all the ‘one another’ commands in respect to your husband or wife? Do you rejoice when they rejoice, and mourn when they mourn? Do you check in with one another often, seeing how they are doing with regard to the hectic day to day schedules and responsibilities that we all face? For those of us who are married, that relationship takes priority among all earthly relationships. It must be strong if we are to go out to do our kingdom work, and be that picture of God’s love to the fallen world.


Taken to the next level it is also important to have a circle of married friends around you that believe in the sanctity and importance of marriage! We don’t need cynics and skeptics that will echo the world’s view that marriage is no longer relevant… we need people that will affirm God’s view and purpose, that will keep us accountable and grounded, keep our perspective broader than our singular personal needs and wants. None of us are in this alone, and having married friends to share our struggles with (and our successes!) helps us to continue to grow in our faith and continue to make our marriages better and stronger.


Monday, January 11, 2021

Longevity III: Rest

 A leadership guru (Darren Hardy) recently posted a video on six behaviors that lead to longevity; not metaphorical, or abstract, but things that actually lead to living longer. I think that many of these behaviors can be adapted or looked at in such a way as to lead to longer (and happier) marriages as well.


The third is rest. 


Stress is often thought of as a bad thing, but in fact, it is essential to our existence. We have evolved to be able to react to things in our environment that could do us harm, react in ways that will allow us to respond such that we, as individuals and as a species will survive. Our cave dwelling distant ancestors had to deal with fearsome predators, as well as inconsistent food supplies, extreme weather and climatic conditions, and competition with other species for limited resources. Their bodies developed reactionary behavioral tools to deal with these problems, coping mechanisms we now call “fight or flight” responses, tools that we have inherited. All of these can be recognized as stress. Rises in adrenaline ready us for combat or a hasty retreat from a dangerous situation. Increased breathing rate and dilated bronchi increase the oxygen in our blood. Heart rate increases and blood vessels serving the digestive system constrict while those feeding the muscles open wide, feeding all that extra oxygen to our muscles. Our mouth gets dry, palms get sweaty and thoughts race.


We have been (fearfully and wonderfully) made this way - it is a natural cycle. The effects listed above help us to deal with the stressors in our lives. Like all cycles, it is supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end. After the situation is dealt with, we are supposed to then “come down.” Many of us suffer though, by living in that middle zone for extended periods of time. Society careens forward at a breakneck pace, and this fallen world throws stressors at us with reckless abandon. For our bodies - and our lives -  to function as God designed, we need to make time and find ways for the cycle to reach its conclusion before we allow it to ramp up again. We must learn how to rest and recover in between periods of stress; the consequences if we don’t can be severe.

Americans lead the world in depression. We are always in ‘go’ mode, and this can lead to burnout which results in reduced productivity (the very opposite of the thing we are usually striving for!) as well as reduced creativity and relationship problems. Our physical health can also be affected with heart disease, strokes, stomach ulcers and other ailments.

Elijah, I’m sure knew what burnout felt like. After the amazing display on Mount Carmel, and the slaughtering of the priests of Baal and Asherah, (1 Kings 18) Ahab and Jezebel were hunting him down to kill him. In full “flight” mode for an extended period, he had finally had enough and sat down under a broom tree - to pray for death! He slept, and then an angel came and provided him with food and water. And then he slept again, and was provided food and drink again. 1 Kings 19:8 then says

Strengthened by that, he traveled on forty days and nights…


We too need to get adequate rest and sustenance if we are going to successfully get up and take on the world day after day. We need to relax, unwind and recharge. Jesus knew this too. Even he, the Christ, God in human form was limited by the flesh he took on. In Mark 1:32-34 Jesus heals many who were brought him, curing diseases and casting out many demons. In Mark 1:35 it says


Early in the morning, while it was dark, Jesus left the house and went to a solitary place, where he prayed.

Along with rest, food and drink, we also need God. His spirit recharges our souls, even as food and rest recharge our bodies, and fuels us for the work he prepares for us to do. Jesus talked about giving us living water that we might not be thirsty, (John 4:10-14) and being the bread of life. (John 6:51)


As with all things, how we do rest and recovery can also - should also - be something we can do with our spouses to strengthen our marriages. Everyone needs their own time, of course, but down time together is also essential. Set aside time to be together without structure, time to talk about things other than work, the house, the kids. Share food and drink, share hopes and dreams, fears and concerns. As the bonds of your relationship are strengthened, know that you are better prepared for everything the world is preparing for you. Remember Ecclesiastes 4:9

Two are better than one, for they have a good return on their labor


And of course, pray together! As you ask for wisdom and strength and clarity and seek God’s will for your union, be assured your readiness is even greater; Ecclesiastes 4:12 continues

If one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.

Let that ‘third strand,’ God, lead you into rest and recovery. Let him restore you, mind body and spirit, as his angel did Elijah.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Longevity II - Purpose

A leadership guru (Darren Hardy) recently posted a video on six behaviors that lead to longevity; not metaphorical, or abstract, but things that actually lead to living longer. I think that many of these behaviors can be adapted or looked at in such a way as to lead to longer (and happier) marriages as well.

The second is purpose! In the movie Matrix: Reloaded the antagonist, Agent Smith (after he has gone rogue and started multiplying himself) says to Neo, the hero, "There's no escaping reason, no denying purpose, for as we both know, without purpose we would not exist. It is purpose that created us, purpose that connects us, purpose that pulls us, that guides us, that drives us; it is purpose that defines, purpose that binds us.”

Is that not true for each of us as well? In the absence of any outside influence, purpose can give us a reason to continue living! How many stories are out there of people who retire, and then with no reason to get up each day, they die shortly after? Without some purpose we’d just meander from activity to activity, not accomplishing anything of note. Each time you choose to undertake any task, any project, any activity, you do it with some purpose in mind. If not, then you are just reacting to what the world throws at you, and drifting aimlessly through your life. The key to leading a life that is truly fulfilling though is to not rely on your own purposes, for they will rarely get you to where you need to go. In Proverbs 19:21 it says:

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

To accomplish the work we were put on earth to do, we must align ourselves with God’s purpose for us, for only then can we be truly successful. When we align ourselves with God’s will for us, we do our appointed job to further the coming of his kingdom, but this is for our benefit as well. The well known and oft-quoted Romans 8:28 is sometimes abbreviated as “God works all things for good!” and used to comfort those going through hard times, but this misses a critical part. The whole verse reads:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

God’s purpose is the important part. Have you accepted his will for you, that you are here on purpose, specifically, to accomplish something for the coming kingdom of God? Whether or not you do, God’s purpose will be fulfilled. If you turn your back on Him, God will find another path to his ultimate goals. Job understood this in the midst of his own trials when he said

I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 4:22)

When we get married we join our whole lives with another person; we become “one flesh” with them. As part and parcel of that deal we share in each other’s purpose as well. Their purpose becomes ours and vice versa, and indeed there is a purpose for your union as well as for each spouse. Pray often to understand this, to align your lives with God’s will for you, your spouse and your marriage. Work to actively pursue and accomplish these goals - for they are as much a part of the kingdom coming as your individual ones, and can be critical for your vitality and energy. Paul knew this. In Galatians 4:18 he says:

It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good.

What better purpose is there than God’s, the reason he made you and put you here? The reason you and your spouse fell in love and chose to join with one another?

As for God, his way is perfect.  (Psalm 18:30)

Friday, November 13, 2020

Longevity I - Movement

 A leadership guru recently posted a video on six behaviors that lead to longevity; not metaphorical, or abstract, but things that actually lead to living longer. I think that many of these behaviors can be adapted or looked at in such a way as to lead to longer (and happier) marriages as well.


The first is movement! A doctor recently published an article that stated emphatically that “sitting is the new smoking.” Sedentary lifestyles, long work days in an office chair in front of a computer screen followed by evenings in front of a TV or scrolling through social feeds on our phones are making us less healthy overall and in some cases are literally killing us. I don’t need to go into detail about this - we all know the risks and consequences, but how can this apply to marriage?

First, just as it says; health problems can absolutely lead to relationship struggles. Some health issues are of course unavoidable, but many are completely avoidable! Diet and exercise can go a long way towards limiting and reducing a multitude of potential problems. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

A church sexton once told me that he believed how the building and surrounding property looked on the outside spoke to the spiritual health of the congregation. If your body is a temple, are you performing the maintenance required to keep it clean, sturdy and functioning optimally? I am not saying we all need to be athletes and supermodels… Just that we need to invest some time and energy in our health and fitness. You and your spouse could find ways to exercise as a couple; hikes and bike rides, walking the boardwalks and beaches, whatever you both enjoy... do it together! Get some quality time as well as the fitness benefits.


Metaphorically, how does movement apply to being married? Relationships can be sedentary too! Especially over time, spouses can take each other for granted, assume they know all there is to know, think they understand how their partner will act and react, and how to love them accordingly. Behaviors that don’t change though, become ruts and things become stagnant. To avoid stagnation, there are things we can do. Always strive to learn new things about each other. Have scheduled times to check in, to talk about matters great and small. Ask questions like: How are things at work? What are you worried about? Excited for? Scared of? Am I helping enough around the house? With the kids? How can I love you better? Ask questions, and then LISTEN; not to respond but to understand. Then act on what you learn.


Just like how we treat each other can fall into a rut, so too can our activities become dull if they are always the same. Make a point to do new things and experience them together. Shared memories strengthen bonds and can cause the brain to act as it did when the relationship was new. Pastor Tommy Nelson, in his Song of Solomon study said “Relationships are always either improving or regressing. If yours is stagnant, it's actually going backwards.” Be cognizant of the state of your union, and work hard to keep it “moving” in a positive direction!