Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Marriage

John Dickson on gay marriage

The jury is still out in my mind on this issue. There are Christian leaders who are friends of mine I deeply respect who have differing opinions to each other. The way I am leaning is best expressed in this interview of John Dickson from the Centre for Public Christianity.

The important point that John makes, and which I have heard elsewhere, is that Jesus had this incredible balance in which he actually intensified the norms of his culture (“previously it has been said…, but I say to you…”) while at the same time being a friend of ‘sinners’. Today I have no doubt he would be known as a friend of the same-sex oriented community.

It could also be said that we should say as much as Jesus did about this particular issue, which is of course nothing. But that is a cop-out. This is obviously a very real issue for thousands of people in this country. It has also been said that same-sex oriented people make up a very low proportion of the population, but that issues like greed, which Jesus said a heck of a lot about, affects us all, so therefore we should be speaking on these ‘bigger’ issues. I understand that point of view, and I agree with it to an extent, but it still can tend to be a convenient distraction from what is a red-hot issue and one that is very close to the hearts of many people.

I have to think more about this, and I intend to read some more over the next few weeks, particularly from the point of view of those who support same-sex marriage so that I get a balanced view. I want to be open to what I think is the most Christ-like response. I’ll post my thoughts as they are developed.

The Brain on Love

The New York Times recently had an insightful article on how love affects the brain. To me this is further evidence that we seem to be wired for love. Consider some of the quotes from the article:

  • “What we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.”
  • “All relationships change the brain — but most important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self.”
  • “A wealth of imaging studies highlight, the neural alchemy continues throughout life as we mature and forge friendships, dabble in affairs, succumb to romantic love, choose a soul mate. The body remembers how that oneness with Mother felt, and longs for its adult equivalent.”
  • “Scientific studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom,” Dr. Siegel says, “point to supportive relationships as the most robust predictor of these positive attributes in our lives across the life span.” The supportive part is crucial. Loving relationships alter the brain the most significantly.”
  • “Through lovemaking, or when we pass along a flu or a cold sore, we trade bits of identity with loved ones, and in time we become a sort of chimera. We don’t just get under a mate’s skin, we absorb him or her.” (I would add that this is why casual sex is so destructive; the more we indulge, the more we lose our identity; we don’t know who we are – Nils)
  • “As imaging studies by the U.C.L.A. neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger show, the same areas of the brain that register physical pain are active when someone feels socially rejected.”
  • “A happy marriage relieves stress and makes one feel as safe as an adored baby.”

And perhaps the most profound:

  • “I saw the healing process up close after my 74-year-old husband, who is also a writer, suffered a left-hemisphere stroke that wiped out a lifetime of language. All he could utter was “mem.” Mourning the loss of our duet of decades, I began exploring new ways to communicate, through caring gestures, pantomime, facial expressions, humor, play, empathy and tons of affection — the brain’s epitome of a safe attachment. That, plus the admittedly eccentric home schooling I provided, and his diligent practice, helped rewire his brain to a startling degree, and in time we were able to talk again, he returned to writing books, and even his vision improved. The brain changes with experience throughout our lives; it’s in loving relationships of all sorts — partners, children, close friends — that brain and body really thrive.”
  • “During idylls of safety, when your brain knows you’re with someone you can trust, it needn’t waste precious resources coping with stressors or menace. Instead it may spend its lifeblood learning new things or fine-tuning the process of healing. Its doors of perception swing wide open. The flip side is that, given how vulnerable one then is, love lessons — sweet or villainous — can make a deep impression. Wedded hearts change everything, even the brain.”

Love impacts every part of our lives for the better. Knowing that we are loved, and living a life of love, is good for us. As we remember Love personified at Easter, I want to live more like that Love.

Plugging into life

In a day when everyone is connected, there is more evidence that we are actually more disconnected than ever. Our greatest human need is for a different kind of connection – connection with the other, but most importantly, connection with the Other. Star-struck lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, longing to be one with each other; in our Western culture, when we engage in conversation, we know when someone is listening when they are looking into our eyes; and when you want someone’s attention, you try to find eye contact. Richard Rohr also talks about a connection with animals. It is not for nothing that we call a dog our best friend. Many elderly people live much healthier lives for having a dog as a companion in their lives. Rohr talks about looking into the eyes of an animal like a dog and sensing a connection with another creature of the universe.

Much of our behaviour, in fact I would probably argue all of it, is a symptom of our desire for connection. Whether our behaviour be good or evil, it is all about our desire to find life, to transcend the purely physical part of our existence. Years ago, John Smith emphasised that the Rolling Stones song Satisfaction was not about sex and trying to ‘get some girly action’ at all, but about a frustration at not finding something deeper. U2 sang about not having found what they were looking for – in their own lives and in the injustice in the world – despite ‘believing in the kingdom come’. Believers in God or not, we long for something more. Our lives are about trying to find a connection with something higher, something greater than ourselves. And the fact is we will never find it fully until that day when all things are renewed and there will be no more striving after futile things. We look through a glass darkly; now we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor 13:12).

Our problem with our desire for connection though is that we often do it by trying to find our self in someone else. We get married believing that our spouse is there to fulfill all our emotional needs, and when he or she doesn’t, we get disillusioned and look elsewhere. The next relationship is sure to fail as well until we come to realise that it is not about finding the right person but being the right person. I am so thankful for an older male pointing this out to me back in my 20s. In our desire for love and connection, we go too far and use other people. Jonathan Burnside says ‘the essence of a perverted relationship is getting information about someone else, and then working out what I want to do, so I get what I want’. I am getting better at not doing this but I still do it way too often.

We are inherently selfish people. We live as if it is my way or the highway. We actually believe at times that if everyone would just do things my way the world would be a much better place. But this only leads to more disillusionment. It has been said that you only get disillusioned if you have illusions to begin with. How true is that? What disillusionment then gives birth to is resentment. Someone else has said that ‘expectation is the mother of resentment’. We expect someone else to behave in a certain way, and when they inevitably don’t, we get resentful at them. Who do we think we are? I have found that to be true time and time again in my life. You would think I would have learnt it enough by now that it would have sunk in. But no, when I have my own expectations of what I want to do on a particular weekend at home and my wife tells me her thoughts, that old feeling of resentment kicks in yet again.

The word ‘resent’ actually means to re-experience pain. A friend of mine has said that resentment is the poison I drink to kill someone else. When you think of what is going on when we are feeling resentment towards someone, it’s maddening isn’t it? We are actually choosing to go back and feel the pain of the anger again and again. Often the person we are feeling the resentment towards doesn’t even know about it. Yet we still have the attitude of ‘I’ll show them!’. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

The human desire for connection is a curious thing. We desire more than anything to be close to someone but at the same time we so often choose to lock ourselves away in isolation and separateness from the ones closest to us. Resentment is a classic way of doing this. The old saying that it is the ones we love the most who we hurt the most is as true as anything that has ever been uttered. The irony is that in trying to connect, we actually willingly disconnect, depriving the other person of ourselves. It is then that we are often tempted to misconnect with another in an inappropriate and destructive way. I talked about this in my previous post on affairs.

Our desire to connect is often masked as a desire to find happiness. Our society is built around the individual’s desire or even demand to be happy. Our advertising is specifically designed to create artificial desires in us to make us consume products we believe we actually need. How often do we wonder how we ever got by without mobile phones or without email. But the fact is we did, and quite nicely (don’t get me wrong; I am not knocking mobile phones or email. They are wonderful inventions, but, like anything, if relied upon inappropriately, they will inevitably disappoint). In trying to find happiness in life, we often seek connection in a misconnection. That which we think will solve all our problems actually turns out to make us feel more apart from and more isolated.

I wonder what all this says about what we really believe about life? When we choose a direction that is so clearly not constructive for our relationships, I wonder if the truth has ever made that longest of journeys from our head to our heart. It is possible to believe something intellectually, to ‘know’ it in your head, but not have a deep conviction about it. It is only when a truth is lodged deeply in our heart that we really know it. Deep down we all have a longing for relationship, ultimately a relationship with God. It is the essence of who we are. We are made by a God who is in his very being, relationship. That’s why coming to faith in Christ often feels like a coming home. When I had an experience of this in my late teens, my overriding sense was that this is what I’ve been looking for all my life. Not that I had often even been consciously aware of it. But when I found it, it was like one of those ‘a-ha’ moments when I had a realisation of something I had always known. It was a bit like the scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke Skywalker tells Leia that she is his sister, and she looks into the distance and quietly exclaims “I know. Somehow…I’ve always known.”

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does our soul. We simply cannot survive with our souls unplugged, just hanging out in the nothingness of a seemingly empty universe. Our human desire is to be plugged into life and love. When we love we have a clearer sense of what life is all about. It is then that we find what our souls have been looking for all our lives. It is then that we know joy, in humility and submission. It is about surrendering our ego, our arrogance, and our self-sufficiency. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Jesus bid those who are weary and heavy-laden to come to him and find rest for their souls. This is where we find life, in resting in him and finding out how to live right. When Martin Luther King asked a colleague on one of their freedom marches if she was tired, this old lady said calmly, “my feets is tired but my soul is rested.” She was plugged into life. She had found her true connection, and she was living the dream. God help me to do the same each day.

Affairs and the mid-life crisis

Many Christians, mainly men, have affairs in their 40s. Why is this? Do we really believe that another partner (more often than not someone younger and sexier) will give us what we think is lacking in our lives? Many of us talk about unmet needs, meaning sexual fulfillment, so we justify in our own minds finding it elsewhere, with someone who ‘really understands’.

But the problem with such affairs, apart from the obvious of betrayal of trust, is that, by definition, they are always artificial relationships. There is always a forbiddenness about them. That is why they are so alluring. Of course that is not the only reason they are artificial. It is also because, again by definition, they cannot be about the messy details of living with and really getting to know someone. Meeting someone for illicit rendezvous, or even staying overnight at their place, is nothing like spending years in relationship with someone and learning to compromise and meet each others’ needs.

Affairs are a form of escape, and the fact that many studies show that second and third marriages have a higher rate of divorce than first ones gives more weight to that argument. The tragic truth is that the rate of divorce amongst Christian couples is approaching that of non-Christian marriages. And in parts of the US it is even higher. Imagine the image that gives of Christianity. No wonder people are turning off the church in droves.

It is in our forties that many people develop a sense of loss of direction in their lives and begin to question whether this is all there is and if it gets any better than this. It is the time of our life when we have moved beyond our youthful idealism in which we our future was all ahead of us, but we have not quite arrived at the place where we can look behind us with some satisfaction. We long for our youth again and sense that we are still just young enough to recapture some of it with a new start in life. So, many people become willing to throw away years of committed relationship and family ties for the allure of something new.

In my recent thinking I have come to have a deeper respect for those older couples who have been married thirty or forty or even fifty years. They are the ones with the wisdom I want. They have been through the hard times with each other, so they’re the ones I want to listen to if and when I ever need some marriage advice. And if you ever talk to anyone who has been married that long and they say “and we’ve never had an argument”, don’t believe them. They’re either lying, delusional, or their marriage is in more trouble than they realise!

So how do we protect ourselves against the temptation, resultant tragedy and utter devastation of an affair? Here are some pointers that have both helped me and that l have heard from friends:

  • Communicate with your spouse. There is nothing like open, honest communication with each other about where you are at in life. Ideally your partner should be your best friend. Best friends can share things with each other that they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone else. Make a point of going to a cafe once a month on a Saturday morning and sharing in detail how you have been going recently (of course make sure you communicate more than that, but this is a good opportunity to share in more detail).
  • Further to the previous point about open communication, don’t keep secrets from each other. Having secrets is one of the easiest ways distance can develop in a relationship. Why do we keep secrets? It is generally because we have a sense of shame at something we have done. A secret kept will sooner or later force us to lie about it, for which we will eventually have to think of another lie to keep the previous one going, and so it continues. To be a good liar you have to have a good memory, and that drives the wedge between you deeper and deeper. Of course I am not talking about the type of secrets here that can be wonderfully healthy for a relationship, such as a surprise birthday party or gift.
  • Despite the importance of open communication with your spouse, don’t expect him or her to be able to meet all your emotional needs. It is not healthy to spend all of your time together. Spend time with others of the same gender, hopefully a few people with whom you can share openly about issues particularly related to being a man or being a woman. I am fortunate enough to have some male friends with whom I can meet with and talk about anything, and it’s so liberating to be able to do that. Men in particular need other men around us to whom we can be accountable. But it doesn’t have to be deep and meaningfuls either. If I want to go to the football for example, I would rather go with a male friend who follows the game than with my wife who doesn’t follow it so much (I have her permission to say that by the way!)
  • Having lunch or dinner with someone of the opposite sex. There are differences of thought on this one. Some won’t see a problem with it whilst others will need it as a boundary. Personally I make it a point to never have lunch or dinner with a woman on my own. Some may see that as a bit of overkill but it is a boundary that has worked for me. At the same time, I try to make a point of having lunch at work fairly regularly with another male. There is a deep sense in which men need men and women need women. I have had wonderful conversations over lunch with male work colleagues. They have ranged from talking about our weekends to chewing the fat over the deepest issues of life.
  • Pray together. This is one of the most beneficial aspects of my marriage. They say that the couple that prays together stays together. It takes more than that but you can’t do much better than to start with regular prayer in each other’s company. Remember, where two or three are gathered together…(Matt 18:20). My wife and I pray in the morning before I go to work, and at night before we go to sleep. While all the practical necessities of cultivating your relationship are crucial, and are things with which we cannot do without, we also have an enemy who would want to destroy all that is good. Bringing your relationship before God regularly is taking a stand. And there is nothing as wholesome as being open with your relationship to the God of the universe.
  • Develop and cultivate your own relationship with God. Ecclesiastes 4:12, which talks about a cord of three strands not being easily broken, has often been used in reference to marriage. Whether that was the intention of the writer or not, it is good advice for a marriage. Much has been made of the daily quiet time in evangelical circles over the years. It has become somewhat of a cliché for our relationship with God, as if that is all there is to it. But while a daily quiet time can become legalistic and can delude us into thinking that all is well in our Christian walk, I would definitely recommend for all Christians to make or keep it a daily pattern. We are creatures of habit; we need routine in our lives. Some may find it more beneficial in the morning whilst others may prefer it in another part of the day. Whichever is best for you, stick to it each day. Make it a priority. I like to start the day reading some of the Bible followed by some other literature. Before I read I ask God to give me ears to hear, eyes to see, and an open heart to receive what He has to say to me. I then write down five feelings I am experiencing (something particularly useful for men as we’re generally emotionally challenged when it comes to identifying our feelings!). At the end of this I surrender my day to God, asking for His will and not mine to be done in my life for that day. That’s what works for me. Choose whichever way works for you, but for me it is the attitude that counts. I need to give my life to God in surrender. If I don’t then I can quickly become a self-centred egotist.

These are only some pointers to maintaining a healthy marriage and so resisting the enticements of a mid-life affair that can threaten to destroy all we hold dear, and which we can mistakenly believe will invigorate us with new life again. You will most likely be able to think of other things that have helped you. If so, share them below. We all need to hear them.

Marriage is good for the soul. A pastor of mine said many years ago that he wants to grow old with his wife. Ditto for me. That pastor and his wife have now been married forty-something years. Marriage forces us to change if we want it to work. Nothing can substitute for the growth of character that can only develop within a lifelong commitment to one partner. As you share life together, physically, emotionally and spiritually, you learn what it is to deal with your own flaws. You learn what it is to love and be loved, and in the process you learn more of what it means for God to be committed to us, to never let us go, to stand by us. It is hard work, but as another long-married couple said to me many years ago, anything worth fighting for is never going to be easy. And it sure beats the heck out of the hollow thrill of a quick fling or even a long term affair.

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