Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Big Two-Oh

Back in June Al and Tipper Gore shocked the world with their announcement that they’re throwing in the towel after forty years of marriage. When Chelsea Clinton marries her fiancé Marc Mezvinksy tomorrow, their chances of staying together will be the same as winning a coin toss. This week my wife Amelia and I are celebrating two decades of nuptial bliss (or at least survival) and it’s made me reflect on how we’ve managed to reach the big two-oh without either one hiring a lawyer or hit man. While there’s no recipe for success, here are a few tips on how to weather the storms of life together without jumping ship:

1. Have parents who stuck together. This is not anything we did or had any control over, but I think the fact that both sets of parents have stayed together provided powerful role models for us.

2. Share common goals. Working together keeps couples from drifting apart. I once asked a friend’s parents the secret of their marital success. They said a contractor skipped town with their money and left them with a half-finished house. Building that house was a communal project that drew their family close together for over a decade.

3. Have kids together. It’s a lot easier to leave your spouse than to ruin your kids’ lives. Raising children requires selflessness, putting the needs of others ahead of your own. One time my son said his biggest fear was that his parents would get divorced; I’d rather be his dad than the bogeyman.

4. Grow with each other. A wag once said, “The secret to marriage is for women not to expect their husbands to change after the wedding and for husbands not to expect their wives won’t.” Let’s face it, people change. Adaptation is necessary for survival, not only in nature but also in marriage.

5. Avoid deal breakers, deal with the rest. The deal breakers are the three A’s: abuse, addiction, adultery. If there’s none of these present, the problems are likely manageable and worth the effort.

6. Don’t complain about your spouse to others. This is something I really appreciate about my wife. She’s never aired my dirty laundry in public, not even to her friends and family. Complaints often cause others to commiserate and encourage discontent. If you have to share your marital woes, do so with a pastor or counselor.

7. Be each other’s best friend. I agree with Oscar Wilde’s definition: “True friends stab you in the front.” If you are your spouse’s best friend, they won’t want to stab you in the back and you won’t either.

8. Be too stubborn to quit. Tenacity is a strong adhesive. There’s something to be said for good, old-fashioned commitment that doesn’t consider divorce an option.

9. Have fun and laugh together. Laughter is the best medicine; it keeps a marriage healthy.

10. Share sorrows and cry together. Kahlil Gibran said, “You may forget the one with whom you have laughed, but never the one with whom you have wept.”

Despite the fact that many people don’t make it twenty years as we have, I don’t think the institution of marriage is doomed. Marriage is like the military. Everybody complains but you’d be surprised how many re-enlist.

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Primer on Prayer

Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924), Prayer (1889), oil on canvas, 74 cm x 53 cm, Kuroda Memorial Hall, Tokyo

Jesus often went off alone on a mountain to pray. On one occasion the disciples came to Jesus and asked him to teach them to pray. He didn’t respond with a riddle or admonition. He taught them a simple prayer they could pray. It’s one of the few times the disciples asked for something and Jesus did what they asked him to do. Like a parent whose child asks for a hug, how could he say no?

Luke 11:1-13 is Jesus’ primer on prayer. It’s both practical and surprising. The text has three distinct sections: 2-4, 5-8, and 9-13. In the first section, we find Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is briefer than the one in Matthew’s Gospel.

The first thing that is surprising to me about this prayer is that it was intended primarily for communal not private use. It begins with the plural pronoun “our.” Prayer is supposed to bring Christians together and often does. Unfortunately, even the Lord’s Prayer shows the scars of theological schism. Catholics don’t add the doxology (“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever”), and Protestants can’t agree amongst themselves whether to ask forgiveness for “debts” or “trespasses.” It is ironic that a prayer intended to unite believers in shared devotion actually divides us instead.

Some are troubled by the way Jesus taught his disciples to address God. We know God is a spirit and as a spirit doesn’t have gender, yet Jesus called God his “Father” and taught us to address him as such. Patriarchal language was dominant but not exclusive, however, as the Bible sometimes uses feminine imagery for the divine. God is like a woman in labor (Isa. 42:14) and a nursing mother, who comforts and nurtures her children (Isa. 49:14-15,  66:12-13). When referring to himself, Jesus used the simile of a mother hen protecting her brood (Luke 13:34).

We are encouraged to begin our prayer by acknowledging God’s transcendence and holiness (“who art in heaven, hollowed be thy name”).  Moreover, we should long for his rule (“thy kingdom come”) and ask for his perfect will to be accomplished “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Prayer begins with recognizing who God is and the fact that he has a plan for the world. Not just a plan but an eschatological promise of a coming kingdom.

Another surprise is that prayer doesn’t have to be long. The Lord’s Prayer is not only a model prayer it’s also a model of brevity. No one, apparently not even God, likes longwinded prayers. There’s no eloquence or lofty speech. There’s also no requirement that we merely “wing it.” Prayer doesn’t have to be extemporaneous.

When we pray we should humbly petition God for bread and forgiveness—that is, for both physical sustenance and spiritual restoration. Finally, we are to remember the reality of evil and temptation and ask for God’s protection. Likely Jesus was referring to the evil one (the devil) rather than an abstraction.

Even though our prayers don’t have to be long or flowery, we should pray earnestly and persistently. Jesus told a homely parable about a man who goes to a friend at midnight to borrow food (again, bread) for an unexpected guest (5-8). The petitioner got what we wanted because of his “importunity” (lit. “shamelessness”). Jesus said “knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (9). The verb “knock” here can mean “keep on knocking.” Jesus encouraged his disciples to be relentless when petitioning heaven.

In the final section (9-13), we find a lesser-to-greater argument about God’s parental goodness. Human fathers, despite being “evil,” still give good gifts to their sons. “How much more,” the Bible says, “shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (13).

Given Jesus’ user-friendly model prayer and promise of success, why don’t we pray more than we do? I think the answer can be summed up in one word: disappointment. We’ve all asked God for something and not gotten it. Maybe it was a job we really needed or a loved one who had cancer and wasn’t healed. Let’s be honest, sometimes God doesn’t answer our most fervent prayers, at least not in the way we want. We shouldn’t be surprised.

The Apostle Paul petitioned God to remove an unspecified physical handicap but God didn’t (2 Cor. 12:7-10). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for relief from suffering and God said no (Matt. 26:39). True prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer, begins with a desire that God’s will be done, even when it’s not what we want. That might just be the hardest lesson in this primer on prayer.

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Hindu Classic

I just got back from a six-week research trip to Germany, which caused me to become a blog slacker for a while. I’m now leaning into my course prep for a summer section of “Western Civilization in Global Context.” To that end, I read The Bhagavad Gita for the first time. I actually finished it during my flight home on a C-17 military transport (long story).  In the book I found many helpful words of wisdom and interesting parallels with western literature as well as a few things that struck me as bizarre, like staring at the end of your nose and chanting “OM.” Then again, I’m sure there are things we Christians do that look pretty kooky to those of other faiths.

The Bhagavad Gita is a Hindu spiritual classic and epic poem (originally in Sanskrit) about the practice of yoga, which in context means something more akin to spiritual discipline than physical fitness. The poem is actually a battlefield conversation that takes place between the warrior Arjuna and the god Krishna, whom Arjuna has wisely chosen as his charioteer. (For westerners, think of it as a cross between The Iliad and the Sermon on the Mount.) Arjuna is caught in a dilemma between loyalty to his family and his duty as warrior. He is about to wage a just war against his relatives (cf. David and Absalom). At first he tells Krishna he can’t do it. He won’t do it. As Krishna explains the various paths to enlightenment, it becomes clear that Arjuna cannot avoid doing his duty as a warrior.

The key to godly living is giving up one’s own desires, becoming indifferent to pleasure and pain, praise and blame, etc. (cf. Stoicism). A Christian equivalent would be the concept of “holy indifference” made famous by St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is troubling, for me at least, that by the end of the poem Krishna has talked Arjuna into waging war instead of renouncing violence. This is far from Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek.” Then again, the Gita may be read as a spiritual allegory as Gandhi, who was also known for his non-violent approach, did. Also troubling is the Gita’s acceptance of India’s caste system as part of the natural order, though Krishna does say that “even those who belong to the lower castes . . . can reach the highest spiritual realization.” He also says that people “who worship other deities, and sacrifice to them with faith in their hearts, are really worshiping me.” However, despite their devotion, they will have to be reincarnated unlike the most enlightened Hindus.

If you can get past the foreignness of the Bhagavad Gita (e.g., reincarnation, polytheism), you may find many gems of wisdom as I did. For me, reading it was much like reading Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. I can find a lot of wisdom in those Stoic philosophers’ works as well, but I cannot accept their philosophical system as a whole.

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