Archive | August, 2012

Marriage, covenant, and crazy loyalty

At my younger daughter’s wedding this summer, the preacher (who happens to be my niece) reflected in her homily on the meaning of covenant, which is at the center of a Christian understanding of marriage.

It was easily, by the way, the best wedding homily I’ve ever heard, and I’m not just saying that because we’re related and because I’m very, very proud to be her uncle, though of course those are also factors.

She described covenant, the relationship God has with his people – and I don’t know if this was scripted or if it just slipped out – as “crazy loyalty.”

God is committed to us, she said, in a way that doesn’t make sense, that defies explanation, and that runs counter to all human expectations.  And that, she said, is a model for our own relationships – in particular, for our marriages.

I like that.  Crazy loyalty.

But the truth is, we don’t see much of it around us.

I read in a recent Christian Century article that we live in “a world marked by infidelity, each of us debilitated in our capacity to do what we say we will do.”

That’s a strong statement, of course, but the author backs it up with a compelling argument, and he ends by writing that “broken promises add up.”  They are so much a part of our lives that we just expect them.  We no longer expect to be told the truth. We no longer expect others to believe us when we ourselves make promises.

Which is where the idea of covenant just might be startlingly good news to a world “marked by infidelity.”

Many of us are familiar with contracts.  We enter into lots of them in the course of our lives.  But contracts are different from covenants.  Contracts are made to be broken. They contain escape clauses and expiration dates.  Human relationships – the kind of relationships we long for, the kind of relationships that are nurturing and life-giving – cannot be defined by contracts.

Marriages in particular cannot be defined by a contract, not if we expect them to be more than they often are.

If more of us thought of our relationships as covenant relationships, modeled after God’s own covenant relationship with his people … why, who knows how our lives might change?

When I think of the promises I’ve made in my life – to my wife, to my family, to my church, to my community, to my country – I realize that all of them have been inspired by crazy loyalty.  I’m in these relationships not because they feel just right – often they do, but not always.  I’m in them because I’ve been inspired to live differently, to promise differently, to act in a way that for many would be just plain crazy.

I’m in these relationships because of the way God has been in a relationship with me.

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The Crybaby

I cry easily.  Just ask my family.

I cried in the delivery room when my daughters were born.  The first time, in fact, I had so many tears and was so overcome that I unfortunately forgot to use the camera strapped around my neck.  I distinctly remember the other people in the delivery room saying, “Oh, he must be a first-time father,” as though the wonder of childbirth wears off quickly.  By the third or fourth child, it’s all business.

Not for me.

I clearly remember crying in 1998 when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record, though I now regret having done so, given McGwire’s probable steroid use.  Still, it was quite a moving event, and sporting achievements are as likely to move me to tears as anything else.

If Michigan beats Alabama in their season opener in a couple of weeks, I know the tears will flow.  (Don’t call me during the game.)

I also cried at the sun setting over Lake Michigan last weekend, another moving event for me.

Some people cry at hurt, pain, or sadness.  I tend to cry at joy or beauty.  I think Lake Michigan sunsets are the best glimpses of God’s glory we’re going to get until God calls us home.

I remember team teaching a class at my last church about Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead, one of the most beautiful novels I’ve read in the last 10 years.  My co-teacher was an English professor at a nearby state university and, as it turned out, an astonishingly gifted teacher.  He began by reading a few paragraphs for us and then weeping over the beauty of Robinson’s prose.

And naturally I wept too.  Eventually everyone in the class was crying, and I remember sitting down and allowing this gifted teacher to explain to us why the words were so beautiful.  After the first class I dropped the pretense of being a team teacher. I sat in the front row and cried whenever I felt like it.

Tears have been on my mind lately because my younger daughter was married over the weekend.  Nearly every person who found out that there was going to be a wedding in my family asked me if I was going to officiate.  I told each person (truthfully) that I really only wanted to be the father of the bride.

Another reason – maybe a more important reason – for not acting in the pastor role is this thing with crying.  I am pretty sure I would not have been able to get through the wedding without blubbering.

When I walked my older daughter down the aisle a few summers ago, she and I couldn’t look at each other without making each other cry.  Pictures taken at the back of the church confirm that we were both red-eyed and biting our lower lips.

So, if walking the bride down the aisle is difficult for me to do, imagine what handling the rest of the ceremony might involve.  No one wanted that.

I did agree, however, to give the toast at the reception, and – you guessed it – I cried.  And like yawning, crying often has the effect of causing other people to do the same thing.

When I told everyone how much life and joy and delight my daughter had brought into my life, I found that I couldn’t go on, and I found that many other people there that night – those I could see through my tears – were also crying.

The thing is, I wasn’t sad.  I was happy. As happy as I’ve ever been.

And as I type this, and as I remember the wedding and everything that happened that day, I can feel a few more tears coming on.  I just may have to stop typing and find a tissue.

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Hey, look at me!

Ever noticed how happy and successful our friends seem to be in their Facebook posts?  Me too.

They post pictures of themselves smiling at the camera, as though they’re having the time of their lives.  Often they’ve just climbed a mountain or completed a marathon or bought a cool, new car.

Good for them.  No, really.  I’m generally happy for all of them.

A friend of mine from seminary days recently retired and built a house on an island off the coast of Florida.  Facebook posts over several months tracked the building of the house and culminated in the delirious joy of moving in.

Today’s photo shows a smiling group of people in a cute, little breakfast nook overlooking gorgeous scenery.

Now, come on.  I’ve moved once or twice in my life.  I’ve built a house in a new state.  I’ve moved from one stage of life to another.  (True, I haven’t retired.)  And I know that not every transition in life is happy and joyful.  Even the best transitions are often filled with doubt, anxiety, and hesitation.

Am I supposed to believe that none of that happened in connection with this move?

And yet I find myself wanting to post good news too.  Hey, look at me, my posts seem to say.  Here I am eating out tonight at a cool, new restaurant!  Look at my plate!  (Post photo from smart phone here.)  Isn’t that an appetizing entre?  Bet you’re jealous, aren’t you?

I have a friend who teaches communications at Calvin College and promotes something he calls “servant communications,” to which I find myself strongly attracted.  His name is Quentin Schultze.

Mostly he sounds upbeat and positive when he writes about social media sites like Facebook.

In a recent blogpost he described Facebook pages as something similar to the front porches on older houses.  It’s as though we’re out there in our rocking chairs, waving as people go by.  We shout hello and share our latest news.

To be honest, I’ve never lived in a house with a front porch like that.  My grandma Brouwer did, but most people today do not.  I don’t know if the neighborhood where my grandmother lived ever really had that happy kind of familiarity.  I’d like to believe it.  But I doubt it.

I’m thinking that a more apt comparison of Facebook posts is the annual Christmas letter.  You know the kind.  Every year you get a letter from someone you once knew, and it’s filled with cheery, sometimes fantastic, news about everything that happened in the last year.

Hey, we sailed around the world!  And my wife won the Nobel Prize in Literature!  Plus, all six of our grandkids were admitted to Harvard!  And that was January!  Wait ‘til you hear about the rest of the year!

Letters like these can be a cause of seasonal depression.

Full disclosure:  I am one of those people who writes an annual Christmas letter.  We’ve lived in six states over 35 years and have tried our best to “keep up” with lots of dear friends we’ve made along the way.

Because of the bad reputation that Christmas letters have, however, I’m self-conscious about it.  I don’t want my letters  to sound like those other letters.  And so I use humor and tell stories.

But, darn it, when my wife wins the Nobel Prize, you can bet I’m going to report that.  And you can bet that I’m less likely to share the news that we struggled in our marriage during the last year, or faced lingering medical problems, or worried incessantly over having enough money for retirement.  (Don’t start rumors.  These were examples of what I might not share, if these things ever happened to us, which they never have.  Absolutely not.)

So, where am I going with this?

As Facebook (and other social media sites) evolve, I’m learning to take them with … a grain of salt.  What I read may be true, but I remind myself that it’s only part of the truth.

We tend to post the best about ourselves for public view.  We want to create the impression that – hey! – we’re doing okay.  We may even be telling ourselves – hoping against hope? – that things are great, despite some evidence to the contrary.

I won’t be giving up my Facebook account any time soon, but when you read one of my posts, you’re welcome to ask, “What is he not saying?”

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