Thoughts on Christian marriage

I want to write a post about Christian marriage. The point will be this: Christian marriage is a counter-cultural act.

It is to intentionally promise something that you cannot possibly understand — to live a life with another person come what may — and to stand by that promise because doing so shapes who you are and teaches what it means to love.

Marriage is cruciform. It is dying to self. It is learning to love as perfectly as Jesus Christ loves us.

You see, we get love all wrong. Hollywood has trained us poorly. Or perhaps it has trained us all too well.

Love is not about raging glands and sweaty hormones. It is not the final scene of You’ve Got Mail when Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks finally embrace in the park while the golden retriever cavorts at their feet.

That is all a beginning. But it is not love fully realized.

Love is long-term. It works slowly because the human heart is a stone that resists change. Like water, love works patiently.

And so marriage is the binding together of a man and a woman to give love time to do its work on them and between them and with them.

Marriage, therefore, is often hard. Often it is so hard you don’t think you can do it any more. And in our culture the message more often than not is to give up trying, search for greener pastures, take care of you first.

I’m not trying to romanticize anything here. There are marriages that are a perversion and abomination. People abuse the one they are supposed to love or neglect them or bleed them dry. If marriage is a school for love, some of us fail horribly at the test. Some marriages are a mockery of the name marriage and should be broken. The church should help those battered by such false marriages in every way it can.

But every marriage has its hard and terrible places where two sinners, two broken and incomplete people, crash against each other like wild animals caught in a cage. It can be terrifying at times.

This is why we need the church around us to love us and remind us who we are and whose we are. This is why we need gray-headed veterans of marriage to remind us that this is for life and that it does last and does give life.

An old navy veteran turned turkey farmer and I were talking one day about his wife who was dying of cancer. I said it must be difficult to have the one he’d spent a life with in such pain and to see her slipping away. He looked at me with both a gleam and a tear in his eye, and said, “When we got married, I signed a life-time contract.” I took him to mean, this is what love does.

I was not a Christian when I got married. I did not understand any of this at the time. And I’m sure I understand it incompletely even now. Don’t read this post as a dogmatic pronouncement.

But my belief is that God calls men and women into marriage to teach us how to love each other. We are often very bad students, and so require time. We are often very bad students, and so must learn how to forgive each other. We are often very bad students, and so our children are hurt by the living with those who still are figuring out how to love.

I think God wants us to keep sex inside of marriage because sex without love is a dangerous and destructive thing. It damages our soul and crushes our spirits. Even among the married — as we often do not really know how to love each other that well — sex can be destructive. Sex can be a flame that invigorates and warms a bond of love, or it can be a consuming fire that destroys.

I don’t think the thought and opinion shapers in our culture would disagree with most of this. But they do not really believe it, as best as I can tell. The idea that “I just gotta do what’s best for me” always hovers beneath the surface.

Christian marriage says that we do not know what is best for me outside of a life defined by love. Of course, not everyone marries. Some souls learn to love outside the bonds of marriage. Singleness is a holy vocation to learn to love as Jesus did. St. Francis lived among us. His disciples remain, although we often fail to appreciate their witness.

Those of us not called to singleness, however, find we need to learn to love in growing circles. We learn to love one other. We learn to love the children that God brings into our lives. And, if we are good students, we learn to love our neighbors and enemies. We learn to love as Jesus Christ loves us.

My seminary professors like to remind me from time to time that blogging and serious theological writing are different things. So I have no illusions that this post is complete or systematically sound. But it is my understanding of what we mean when we speak of Christian marriage.

I don’t think what I describe here is what our federal courts mean by “marriage.” I certainly don’t think it is what Kim Kardashian or other popular culture icons mean by the word.

I do think it is at least close to what the church means by marriage, which I hope and trust is close to what God desires and designs for us.

Hauerwas, Rolling Stone, and Mars Hill

It is probably because I’m reading Resident Aliens again, but I keep hearing Stanley Hauerwas when I’m reading other things.

For instance, this Christianity Today piece on this Rolling Stone article about the sex lives and norms of Millennials strikes me as something straight out of Hauerwas. (BTW, read the Rolling Stone piece and tell me again how polyamory is not something the church needs to be able to talk about.)

The gist of the CT piece is the author’s shock at the sexual norms of Millennials followed by the realization that advocating for conventional biblical sexual norms will either be drowned out or will drive people away from the church. Instead, the author comes to realize, all that talk about what to do with our private parts is intended not for the pagan culture outside the church but for those inside the church trying to live a new people.

From the records we have, we can deduce that Paul talked about sex with people who were already within a church community. He didn’t stand up on Mars Hill in Athens and preach about immorality. He told the story of Jesus, the one who rose from the dead. He didn’t argue about “lifestyle issues” with pagans. If he argued about anything, it was about grace and truth and love. And then he told the story of Jesus again. (See Acts 13, and Acts 17 for two examples.)

Of course Paul writes plenty about sex, but again, he does so to people in Christian communities and he almost always does so in the context of whole-life change. Sex is one moral issue amidst a host of others. Paul assumes that for these Christians to change—whether in what they eat or who they sleep with or how they talk or anything else—Paul assumes change will be radical, positive, and ongoing. He assumes it will only happen with the help of the Spirit, in the context of Christian community, and only as they grow up in the knowledge and love of Christ.

Christian speech is only intelligible inside the community called church. This sounds a lot like Hauerwas to me.

The writer concludes that she should not speak of biblical morality at all outside the church community. I’m not convinced that is the right approach.

I’m certainly not advocating getting on a soap box and screaming “fornicators!” at people on the street. But there is something to be said, I think, for the claim that Jesus Christ is Lord and he offers something that all the sexual exploits in the world cannot. When Paul stood up in Athens, he did not shy away from saying he knew something about God that all their searching and striving had missed.

We should never be smug. To be a Christian is to be humble and meek. But I don’t think we want to hide the holiness of Jesus Christ under a basket.

I could be argued out of this thought. What do you think?

Healing on the Sabbath #LukeActs2014

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way. Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And they had nothing to say. (Luke 14:1-6, NIV)

This is merely another statement of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is it not? In that parable, we are often told of the pious motives of the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side. It is not cold indifference that causes them to avoid the man in the ditch but a misunderstanding of the relative importance of mercy and piety.

Piety is good. Prayer is good, and we are commanded and counseled to do it. Studying the scriptures is good. Worship is good and necessary. But if mercy calls, then we are to lay aside piety for the moment.

John Wesley touches on this theme in his sermon “On Zeal.” He puts it this way:

But he should be more zealous for the ordinances of Christ than for the church itself; for prayer in public and private; for the Lord’s supper, for reading, hearing, and meditating on his word; and for the much-neglected duty of fasting. These he should earnestly recommend; first, by his example; and then by advice, by argument, persuasion, and exhortation, as often as occasion offers.

Thus should he show his zeal for works of piety; but much more for works of mercy; seeing “God will have mercy and not sacrifice,” that is, rather than sacrifice. Whenever, therefore, one interferes with the other, works of mercy are to be preferred. Even reading, hearing, prayer are to be omitted, or to be postponed, “at charity’s almighty call;” when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.

I see such teaching of Jesus and such interpretations as Wesley’s sometimes get stretched to abolish all sense of the laws or commands of God. We are told that since Jesus requires mercy rather than sacrifice that the law does not apply or that any particular breach of the law of God that we can frame as a mercy issue is okay.

Here, at least, is Wesley’s response to such arguments:

Those, indeed, who are still dead in trespasses and sins have neither part nor lot in this matter; nor those that live in any open sin, such as drunkenness, Sabbath-breaking, or profane swearing. These have nothing to do with zeal; they have no business at all even to take the word in their mouth. It is utter folly and impertinence for any to talk of zeal for God, while he is doing the works of the devil. But if you have renounced the devil and all his works, and have settled it in your heart, I will “worship the Lord my God, and him only will I serve,” then beware of being neither cold nor hot; then be zealous for God.

For Wesley at least, the point here is that to go through pious motions while neglecting mercy makes all our piety an abomination:

Do you follow the example of your Lord, and prefer mercy even before sacrifice? Do you use all diligence in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting them that are sick and in prison? And, above all, do you use every means in your power to save souls from death? If, as you have time, “you do good unto all men,” though “especially to them that are of the household of faith,” your zeal for the church is pleasing to God: but if not, if you are not “careful to maintain good works,” what have you to do with the church? If you have not “compassion on your fellow-servants,” neither will your Lord have pity on you. “Bring no more vain oblations.” All your service is “an abomination to the Lord.”

This is a framework for a Wesleyan reading of these verses from Luke 14. My takeaway is this. Worship, prayer, fasting, study of scripture, and all the other spiritual disciplines that we commend and practice for good reason should never be used as an excuse to ignore the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of other people. Indeed, to pray with great fervor or fast rigorously while your fellow creatures are in need is to make your prayers repugnant to God.

This is not, of course, the only reading we might make of this text. But it is one that we United Methodists should not ignore, even if we ultimately disagree with it.

What is Christian marriage?

Some disorganized thoughts about Christian marriage.

As it is Christian, Christian marriage must find its meaning in the Trinitarian faith. If the word “Christian” is central to the meaning of the word “marriage” then we cannot describe marriage without making reference to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In addition, being Christian means marriage is drawn up in the saving story revealed in the Bible. Marriage is tied to salvation. It cannot be necessary to salvation, as singleness is offered to Christians as well. But if Christianity is about salvation — however we are meant to understand that — then Christian marriage is as well.

This implies — and I’ve not worked this out yet — that marriage is inherently Christ-centered. Christian Marriage is grounded on Christ and an expression of Christ’s Spirit. As I say, I can’t yet explain the full implications of that.

Finally — at least for now — when I consider the nature of Christian marriage, I turn to Jesus’ own words. This does not include only his direct teaching about marriage and divorce, but also his use of marriage metaphors elsewhere in the gospels. But having said that, we do not want to dismiss what he said directly on the topic.

When I try to figure out what it means to say marriage is Christian, I follow the teaching of Jesus back to the story of Genesis where we are told that humans were created male and female and that they join in union to create one flesh.

These strike me as some of the first and basic affirmations and moves that constitute a theology of Christian marriage. I do not argue that this is systematic. It is offered only as the beginning of a conversation.

Poverty and happiness

Here’s a post that asks those concerned with global poverty to stop saying “They are poor, but they are happy.”

The post reminded me of something in the book by Gustavo Gutiérrez that I’ve been reading this week:

I’m talking about the real poverty in which vast majorities of human beings live, and not about the idealized poverty that we sometimes excogitate for our own pastoral, theological, and spiritual purposes.