Archives For Marriage

Clay Hearts

November 18, 2013 — 6 Comments

clay heartHonesty compels us to admit that we have clay feet. We are merely mortal, and our origin from the clay of the earth is a reminder that we are imperfect.

Stumbling due to our feet of mud is one thing. Far worse, we earthen vessels also have hearts of clay. Our affections are fickle, and too often we fail to fulfill our vows to those who have made themselves vulnerable by entrusting to us their own love.

I doubt any of us have been untouched by the pain of transient love. The ideal we long for . . . the vision we dream about . . . and the lasting intimacy we pray for often seem so very fleeting.

Saddest, to me, are those relationships that have lasted many years, where the once glowing light has dimmed and the comforting warmth has dissipated.

That is the story of a remarkable, Oscar-nominated animation I would like to commend to you. Head Over Heels is a unique 10-minute claymation film about a broken marriage and how it comes “unbroken.”

C.S. Lewis did not marry until late in life. The personal experience of marriage, of course, modified some of his bachelor perceptions about the holy estate.

Nevertheless, having been married for thirty-seven years myself, I continue to be amazed by just how perceptive Lewis was throughout his writing life. Consider the following from The Four Loves.

Lewis discusses the importance and glory of passion consecrated by marital vows, but he does not pretend that it does not wax and wane. Nor does he imagine that even between wife and husband, a focus on the passion in their relationship is without potential hazards.

Discussing erotic love (one of the four he describes), Lewis warns:

But Eros, honoured without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon. And this is just how he claims to be honoured and obeyed. . . . Of all loves he is, at his height, most god-like; therefore most prone to demand our worship. Of himself he always tends to turn “being in love” into a sort of religion.

Theologians have often feared, in this love, a danger of idolatry. I think they meant by this that the lovers might idolise one another. That does not seem to me to be the real danger; certainly not in marriage. The deliciously plain prose and businesslike intimacy of married life render it absurd. So does the Affection in which Eros is almost invariably clothed.

Even in courtship I question whether anyone who has felt the thirst for the Uncreated, or even dreamed of feeling it, ever supposed that the Beloved could satisfy it. As a fellow-pilgrim pierced with the very same desire, that is, as a Friend, the Beloved may be gloriously and helpfully relevant; but as an object for it—well (I would not be rude), ridiculous. The real danger seems to me not that the lovers will idolise each other but that they will idolise Eros himself.

I believe Lewis has identified something profound here. The utter familiarity, the nakedness of our souls, that is part of any genuine marriage precludes anyone sane person from idolizing their partner. We, after all, are more familiar than any other human being with their feet of clay.

However, if we succumb to the snares of Eros, cast wide across television, literature, cinema and internet, we doom ourselves. True love will not cohabit with this counterfeit.

An uncritical attention to the physical seldom results in happiness. As Lewis so accurately says, “For Eros may unite the most unsuitable yokefellows; many unhappy, and predictably unhappy, marriages were love-matches.”

The good news, celebrated by Head Over Heels, is that even when love fades away, there is still hope. Just as clay-footed human beings can experience resurrection, so too our clay-hearted relationships can be restored and blaze with renewed joy.

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday. In truth, it’s a “holy-day” for all those who offer their thanks to a benevolent God.

Like all holidays, it can be good or bad, depending on the way it is perceived by each individual, and the unique circumstances in which they find themselves. Most of us are thankful, for example, for our loving families. And, even if we can’t be together at these special times, we draw warmth and strength from their love. Tragically, others have been victimized by those who should have protected them, and “family” in their eyes is not something to be thankful for at all.

I was not a perfect son. I strove to be a better father. And, now that I’m blessed with seven grandchildren, I’m trying to be the best grandfather I can be

Many years ago, shortly after having our first child, I gave myself a Father’s Day gift. (That’s not a typo. I purchased for myself a modest plaque with a priceless message.) It reads: “the greatest gift a man can ever give his children is to love their mother.”

I displayed this proverb in my office through the years, as a reminder to myself and others of this profound truth. It’s easy to love one’s spouse as a newlywed in the hot flush of youth. It’s also easy, I’m learning, to love my wife in the snug and warm autumn of life. For many, however, the trials and tribulations that are a natural part of all relationships appear insurmountable. Between the newlywed and maturelywed days, it’s not all easy. While our hormones still surge and familiarity breeds corrosive contempt, we may take for granted the person we once vowed to cherish above all others.

The desire to be a decent father greatly amplifies the importance of being a devoted husband. Knowing this made my reading of a recent article quite painful. I had known for years that President John F. Kennedy was rather promiscuous. Yet a recent article in The Atlantic reveals just how debauched the man was. The article, if you have the stomach for it, praises the strength of his wife Jackie, and is available online here.

It describes just a few of his disease spawning liaisons, and noted that he often traveled with one of his so-called secretaries, should there be “any trouble scaring up local talent.” One imagines the dirtiness felt by the Secret Service agents tasked with protecting him during his sordid escapades in the White House pool. The saddest tale for me was his deflowering of a sophomore intern from Wheaton “right there on his wife’s bed.” I won’t sully you with any more accounts.

When I read the article, it nearly made me sick. He was a vile husband. I recalled the numerous famous pictures of him playing with his children—the doting father, one would think. Yet, in reality, just because he was such a malignant husband, he was also an appalling father. To mistreat his wife so badly, was to dishonor his children as well.

The image that came to me as I looked again at the pictures of Kennedy’s glorious Camelot brought to mind Jesus’ words about whitewashed sepulchers “which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:26-28, ESV). The verse which follows could be JFK’s epitaph: “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

A More Godly Alternative

C.S. Lewis experienced neither the normal, nor ideal, form of fatherhood. While he loved and respected his own father, theirs was not a close relationship. And then, at the end of his life, the death of his beloved Joy caused him to transition from the already tentative role of stepfather into the fullest demands of single parenthood. Lewis loved his two sons. He was the best father he knew how to be.

Despite being ill equipped, he did the honorable and right thing—he could do no other. He provided for all the physical needs of his sons, and did his best to meet their emotional needs as well. In Lenten Lands, his son Douglas Gresham describes how painful it was to be at The Kilns following his mother’s passing.

In cowardice and self-pity, I deserted the home and the two men whose company and loving support had for so long been all that had preserved my sanity. When at home from school, I was rarely at home. I know now that I could have done far more than I did to help both Jack and Warnie to bear the burdens which were their lot, but with the blind selfishness which is characteristic of egocentric teen-aged boys, I was too wrapped up in myself to spare time for others.

Strangely, Jack and I had, through these difficult years, become very close, and I think that he understood quite well the reasons for my reluctance to be a part of The Kilns at that time. At first, after Mother’s death, with almost unbelievably naïve complacency, I never doubted that The Kilns and Jack would always be there for as long as I needed them. Then, when it began to dawn on me that there was an increasing likelihood of Jack being snatched away, and with him The Kilns, I reacted by rejecting The Kilns entirely and by not daring to love Jack any more than I already irrevocably did.

For his part, Lewis comprehended just how important understanding fatherhood was. In his tribute George MacDonald: An Anthology, he says this about his mentor:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central.

Lewis concurred with MacDonald that “Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.” And, if this is indeed true, our emulation of it in this life possesses even more importance than I ever imagined.

Nursing Those We Love

August 1, 2012 — 13 Comments

This week I became a nurse. No, I didn’t complete a degreed or certificated program, I simply assumed the duties of being my wife’s post-surgical caregiver.

She had very serious knee surgery, which will require her to place no weight at all on her right leg for at least a month and a half. This first week she’s required an escort and assistance for virtually everything. And I’ve offered this service gladly, and lovingly . . . even when it’s interrupted my sleep apnea crippled rest.

Obviously, over three and a half decades of marriage, she has needed modest nursing in the past. But this is more serious. It is sustained. She has seen me through a number of serious illnesses and surgeries, but then she (like so many other women I’ve been privileged to know) is a natural nurse and caregiver.

C.S. Lewis was a man not vastly different from me. He was not terribly comfortable when placed in such a role . . . yet he too discovered great meaning in caring for the needs of his wife during her illness. His precious Joy was dying, so the intensity of his labors, and their corresponding emotional investment dwarf my own. And yet the “framework” of our circumstances bears a marked similarity.

In his wonderful book Lenten Lands, Lewis’ son Douglas Gresham relates how Lewis and his brother Warnie provided exceptional care to his mother during her illness. He writes:

[Lewis] spent most of each day with [Joy] at the hospital, but they both agreed Mother should be brought home to The Kilns to die—in Jack’s home—her husband’s home—with him at her side. The “common room” was converted to a hospital ward, complete with a system of bells by which Mother would summon a nurse, or later Jack, if she needed help, as she often did.

I’ll make a confession. Although most men can adequately perform familial nursing duties when there is no alternative caregiver, most of us are quite content to step aside and let our wives or sisters attend to whatever nursing procedures are called for. Actually, I was quite gifted at removing slivers, but when it comes to bodily discharges, I’m no sexist to admit I and most of my gender display a serious weakness.

And yet, even in these cases, when changing the soiled diaper of an infant (or someone old enough to feel shame for having such needs) . . . even such unpleasant acts are possible for us to do for those we love. So the key to being able to care for others is not to pinch our nose and do it as quickly as humanly possible. The key, instead, is to learn to love those placed in our care.

In our grandparents day, it wasn’t uncommon for an elderly great-grandparent to reside with the family of one of their children. My father, for example, grew up with his blind grandfather as a member of their household. Similarly, my mother enjoyed the daily presence of her grandmother in her own home throughout her life. Not only was it expected that children would “take in” their elderly parents, it was natural. After all, they were family.

But, how does one transfer this familial affection to the stranger? After all, as Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (John 6).

Mother Teresa and the many thousands of saints throughout history who have cared for the leper, the outcasts, and the dying know this truth. They do everything as though they were caring for the Lord himself, just as he asked his disciples to do. Medicines are not their only balms—nor their most important. Their compassionate touch and tender encouragements are often far more healing.

When I compare myself to these caregivers, I realize just how inadequate a nurse I am. As a pastor, a core aspect of my vocation has been to bind the injuries of the sheep entrusted to my care. But I do this in a “spiritual” manner, and it has been rare to ever help one of them replace a bloodied bandage. Spiritual, emotional and social wounds are those that most pastors feel comfortable treating. Providing for the “baser” physical needs of the diseased is quite another matter.

And this brings us to the end of today’s reflection. When next I write, I’ll carry this final thought a bit farther forward.

Christian Marriage

February 14, 2012 — 8 Comments

Not all people should marry. But those who are led to marry—if they establish their marriage on the cornerstone of Christ—are in for a most glorious adventure. Yet, even with faith, marriages still require effort (i.e. proper choices) to bloom.

Sadly, it is possible for a marriage to end, even when one of the members is unreservedly devoted to “making it work.” Still, when wife and husband focus their eyes heavenward . . . when they recognize their marriage is, in a sense, a figure of the Trinity, including God as well as themselves . . . it can weather any storm the world throws at it. That’s one consequence of possessing that earnest love which “covers a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8).

And, never doubt it, the world and the lord of this world, love few things more than destroying a marriage. All of that holy promise, crushed. The joy and peace that come from living in lifelong intimacy, devastated. The miracle of two becoming one, forfeited.

One of the things that often surprises young Christian converts as they enter the Church, is the longevity of the marriages there. In some congregations, the thirty-five years my wife and I have been married still qualify us as “newlyweds.”

In light of these thoughts on this Valentine’s Day, the following quotation from C.S. Lewis is extremely apropos.

The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism . . . The male and female were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out.

As a consequence, Christianity teaches that marriage is for life.