Marriage is as One Long Conversation

The old philosopher said, "Marriage is as one long conversation. When marrying you should ask yourself this question: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman into your old age? Everything else in a marriage is transitory, but most of the time you're together will be devoted to conversation.” The old philosopher was right, but as with all bits of rightness, it ought to be understood in its place. 

I have always known marriage was not an easy conversation. I am of Scotch-Irish descent; men in my family love their beer and asserting opinions, and as for the women, there's a demure outside but on the inside it's all fire and spit. Most conversations were spent seeing who could talk the loudest the longest without throwing the first punch—even if the punch was merely metaphorical.

When I began to grow outside the incubator of family alone, I saw the long conversation of marriage through a different lens. These marriages were built on the scaffolding of details: who is supposed to be where and when and how, who needs to be picked up, what's for dinner, what should we do about this child or that one. There was an ordinariness to the conversations of marriage, unaccompanied by emotive, defensive jabs at the other. It seemed simplistic. I know now it's because I was not in the middle of those marriages as I was in the middle of the marriages in my family, and when we are in the middle of something all our own, we see all its inconsistencies and broken-places.

As I stepped into adulthood and was able to see my skewed perspective of childhood and adolescence both, I began to see marriage was a long conversation, but the tone of voice could change it from a pleasant one to a violent one. Armed with this newfound knowledge of tone, intention, nuance, and even love, I began to assume all the long conversations of marriage could be blissful. A constant sharing of ideas and delights and hurts and confusions, a true partnership. Whenever I thought of being married it was the long conversation I looked forward to most. 

Marriage has been that for me and Nate. The cusp of our friendship was on deep conversation, leading to dates full of long, easy talks, quiet pauses, intentional listening, and slow responses. This was the long conversation of marriage I wanted, I could see that clearly from our first date. 

The long conversations become subject to the tyranny of the urgent, though, as most things can. A few weeks ago there were twelve decisions that needed to be made and seven of them required quick conversations but the other five required depth, time, focus, and charity. We were short on all of that, though, and so if the conversations were going to be had, they were going to be had on the surface, quickly, while we multi-tasked, and were short with one another. As with most conversations built on bedrocks like that, we needed to repent later to one another. 

The urgent doesn't let up, though, does it? There is always someone who needs an answer or thinks they need an answer, or wants one. There is always something that must be signed up for or paid or responded to or agreed upon. There is always something left unfinished, unsaid, unsealed. I have learned to say to others, "I want to talk to Nate about that first," but the when of talking sometimes comes slowly or is mingled among the other conversations, never finished.

Nate and I practice (and by practice, I mean we are very unproficient at this and must practice) the discipline of saying "No," to ourselves, our minds, our friends, and the tyranny of the urgent. If, in saying no, we find ourselves disappointed or others disappointed by our lack of a quick answer—this is the discipline of the practice. This is the sacrifice, the hurt, the pain. This is where we admit to ourselves and to others that we are not God, as much as we sometimes think we would like to be. 

I think about Jesus in John 16. He says to his disciples and friends, "I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you." I think about how often we fill conversation simply because we do not want to feel the lack of the incarnate Christ and we do not want to wait for the Holy Spirit to do what only he can do. We are uncomfortable with the long silences, afraid the Spirit will not do what He does: move. 

Yesterday morning, in the early hours of our day of rest, Nate mentioned some conversations we've left unfinished this week, answers others expect. And then he said this: I want to pray about these things, ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom, humility, and a direction, even more than we simply talk about them. And then, for the rest of the day, we didn't talk about things we could not solve on that day. We left space for the Spirit to enter in, give peace or withhold it. 

Marriage is one long conversation, but it is not, primarily, a conversation between two, but three. If we find the conversation to be focused on just two, it may go the brawling way of my family, or it may go the stoic way of my checklisting friends. But, I think, if we move ourselves away from one another for a moment, stop talking and begin listening, not primarily to one another but to the Holy Spirit, we may find that conversation more robust, full, and gentle than we could have imagined before. We may leave more things unfinished, more things unsaid, more events unattended, and more lists unchecked, but I do not think we will leave less full. 

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If you're married today, what might it look like to still the conversation—even about the rudimentary things or the things that seem pressing and necessary—and begin to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in this longest conversation of your life? 

If you're not married today, what might it look like to trust the Spirit is still at work in all the seeming silences of your life? In the lonely places where you long for conversation, how can you exercise listening to the Helper, learning from him, and obeying him as he perhaps prepares you for the long conversation of earthly marriage and definitely prepares you for the long conversation of eternity? 

Living the Whole Life

I am working through two books concurrently (three, if you count fiction, which I do, but not for today's purposes). One is Eugene Peterson's As Kingfishers Catch Fire and the other is Curt Thompson's The Soul of Shame. Both were gifts to me from friends who read them and knew I would need them or love them, or both. 

For many years I thought of myself first as an artist, a spinner of words. I lived in a place full of natural beauty, with never enough words to describe the way the blue heron dipped his head into the quiet riverbed, amidst lily pods and sodden sea grass. Waterfalls and mountains and quiet piney woods and apple orchards were mere minutes away, ripe for inspiration. I drew my cues from poetry and the contemplative. 

Then I moved to the other side of the country and my mind began to be captured by the intellect of theology, ideas, concepts, and I began to think of myself as a thinker, and lost the artist within. I was valued for my mind and ideas, and less valued for art. And I thought myself okay with this because I thought intellect was better than art. 

A friend turned 30 a few weeks ago and felt the things we all feel when we pass a marker in life: fear, anxiety, inadequacy, the question of "Have I wasted my life?" I remember feeling all of those same things on the eve of my 30th and in some ways those feelings have increased, but really it's just that I think myself more aware of their presence and less aware of their power. Turning 30 was hard, but being 30 wasn't. There is hopefully a settling sense of growth, maturity, and the temporality of life that no longer frightens you as much as invigorates you. If being in my 40s or 50s or 60s only brings an increase of that, I await it eagerly. Age brings the disparate pieces back together again, I think, or it should. All the scattered feelings and identities and questions come more into focus with a quiet, settled yes.

So I am reading Peterson and Thompson and both of them wrote about the union of these disparate pieces, namely the body, spirit, heart, and mind. How when we only address one of these, or address it more than the others, we begin to live lopsided lives. I am thinking of a man who skips leg day at the gym, whose body is strong on top and meager on the bottom. Or a comic illustration I saw many years ago of a man who only lifted weights with one arm so it was bulky and disordered from the other which was skinny and limp. We laugh because it's laughable but we also do it more than we like to admit. At least I do. I exercise my mind because it's easier than exercising my body. I engage my spirit because it's easier than engaging my mind. I entreat my body because it's easier than giving my heart. I am lopsided piecemeal. 

The growing awareness of these malnourished pieces came into focus over the past year in the void of anything to feed them (affirmation is such a powerful feast and we are such hungry paupers). We have been trying to begin seeing ourselves as whole creations intended for wholeness, instead of limping along at breakneck speeds without the equal use of our limbs. What does it mean to slow the growth of one part of us, in order to give attention to another? What does it mean to set aside the mind for the flourishing of the spirit, or to prioritize the health of the body when the spirit is strong? Not to neglect the other at its own peril, but to acknowledge that we are more than one appendage and therefore must attend to all of them? 

We are by nature legalists, always adding to the laws of God because we fear he will overlook us otherwise. But what does it mean to trust the Creator made us for wholeness and not half-ness? I cannot answer that for you and most of the time cannot even answer it for me. It takes time and trust and some times are easier than others. But I know I want it. 

I wonder, sometimes, if one of the reasons we're constantly searching for meaning in everything is because we're discontent with our under-exercised limbs. I read this recently and it's funny because it's true: 

"It’s easy to believe that if we look good enough, perhaps it might be true that our lives are meaningful or even blessed. Everywhere we go, we can see evidence of this. Walking along the Seine, one sees dozens of people from all over the world standing with their backs to the view, smiling hopefully up at their iPhones. Millions of selfie sticks are purchased out of hope and fear."

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my car waiting for someone and a girl sat on a park bench alone nearby. For nearly twenty minutes she posed herself with her phone camera, shooting image after image, and deleting, I'm sure, all but one. There were probably wrinkles or glints of light or too much chin or not enough hair or someone in the background or any number of reasons why being a whole person with wrinkles and frizzy hair and among others would not do for her. I don't know her, but I wanted to sit with her, make conversation, distract her from the myth of Narcissist inside her for one moment. Tell her she is not less than a body, but that she is certainly more than one. 

Someone asked me recently how we help young teens not obsess about perfection and I don't know the answer. I think it starts with teaching them they are whole people, whole image bearers, that their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies are all made by God and he called all of creation good. I think that's where we start, by not neglecting what God called good—even if it's frightening to engage. I don't know what you'll find there, when you begin to stop counting calories and running incessantly, when you begin to engage your mind instead of only your body. I don't know what will happen when you set aside the books and papers and themes and dig out the painful occurrences of your childhood, ways your spirit was crushed and hasn't ever recovered. 

Yesterday morning I sat on the couch with my husband and confessed some shame I've been feeling about something that happened when I was nine years old. I had wronged and been wronged and couldn't differentiate the shame I felt from doing wrong and being wronged in the same scenario. All I knew is, years later, confessions later, I still feel the clinging shame of those moments. Most of that is because I've neglected that space, have been afraid to enter into it for fear of what I'll find there. It's easier to engage my mind or my body than it is to open the door to my heart. But I must go there, I know I must, because wholeness cannot happen when only half-ness thrives. 

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

To Rest is to Leave Unfinished

People seem to be under the impression that we in the Wilbert home do rest well. We've fooled you all then, haven't we? We're as bound up by the shoulds and mights and what ifs as the rest of humanity has been since the devil first pointed to Eden's forbidden tree. 

I would like to give some advice on how to rest for the Christian, but since my advice doesn't work for myself half the time, I can nearly promise it won't for you. Instead, I'd like to talk for a few minutes about the different kinds of rest we need as mere humans, so, if you can spare a few minutes, you can think about how this might work out in your life. Abraham Heschel, rabbi, said, "If you work with your hands, sabbath with your mind. If you work with your mind, sabbath with your hands." This is a helpful rubric if you're a laborer or an accountant, but what if your day is a mix of both? What does it look like to rest then? 

Nate and I often talk about how clocking out of our paying work is a reminder to ourselves and those for whom we work, that we are mere humans and we must leave some things unfinished. The truth is because we are humans and always improvising, creating, exploring, everything is always unfinished. There was a famous explorer who once said, "To infinity and beyond!" but he was still thrown into the toy box at the end of the day. None of us can finish anything ever. No author will ever read a book they published and not find two or three tweaks. No artist will not find a shade of color in their masterpiece fine as it is. No accountant will wake to no longer be needed. We say we cannot finish what God has not completed, so we submit to the limitations of our bodies and rest.

Nate and I also talk often about not kindling a fire on our day of rest. This is another lesson we learned from Heschel, drawing from Exodus 35:3, "You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day." We have used this as a reminder to one another to not light fires of conflict, contention, or confusion for one day a week. This is a reminder to us that we cannot solve the problems the world, our friends, and our humanness throws at us. We have to stop talking about politics, disagreements about theology, discord among friends and counseling situations. We have to step back and say we cannot solve what God has left unsolved—so we submit to the limitations of our minds and rest. 

The last thing we try to do on our day of rest is set our minds on things above. This is the only time of the week we have a good amount of time to talk about scripture with one another, what we're learning, where we're struggling to believe, and how God has been faithful. We don't have a set time where we come together and schedule this out. What happens, though, is because we are resting our bodies and our minds from most of the cares of this world, our spirits are freed up to think about God, one another, worship, the Word. It's not programatic. It's the overflow of a stilled body and quiet mind. So many people ask me how I meditate on Scripture and the secret is this: stop everything else for a bit. If you're constantly listening to music, thinking about your life and the lives of others, keeping busy, how do you think your spirit is going to make itself heard? We have to step back and say we cannot pay attention to God if we're succumbing to the needs (perceived or real) of the body and mind constantly. We submit to the expansiveness of our spirit, in which the Holy Spirit abides, helping and comforting us in all things. 

No matter what season you're in, you're going to have to fight for this. Don't believe the lie that because you're unmarried or because you're the parent of young children or because your spouse isn't a believer that you can't be faithful in small ways to run to the dependable arms of your Father. Just as he made you to work, he also made you to rest. 

Ask yourself these questions to find out what rest might look like for you. Hint: it's not cool to be unbusy. Trust me. People will feel failed by you, projects will be left unfinished, your kids will complain about a whole day at home, you will feel bored (maybe) for a few weeks, you might not get the raise or the promotion you wanted or thought you deserved. This is a discipline but it is also a gift if you will submit yourself to it. 

How can I submit to the limitations of my body and say no to finishing all that seems unfinished?

How can I submit to the limitations of my mind and say no to talking about, scheming, planning, or sorting through problems over which I have no control? 

How can I submit to the expansiveness of my spirit by acknowledging and obeying the presence of the Holy Spirit within me who controls me, compels me, and comforts me?

I read a quote from Scott Sauls a few months back where he said this, "Feel guilty falling asleep while praying? How do you feel when a child nods off in your lap? There. Feel better? You should!" I wanted to cry right then. I love when a child falls asleep in my lap and I want to trust my Father loves that about me too. He loves when I leave unfinished what only he can finish (Zack Eswine—and I'm going to keep quoting it beyond when you're all tired of it.).

Lifting the Hands that Hang Down

I'm an internal processor and, I suspect like most internal processors, prefer stillness and the ministry of presence when I'm suffering or confused or in pain. I don't run to a multitude of counselors or need to process my feelings with seven to ten friends or even more than one. I don't like hearing platitudes or trite cliches. Getting preached at or rebuked in the midst of pain only shuts me down further. What I desire is the gift of presence. 

This can be a hard gift to give though because we're a fix it quick culture, even within the church. We want to answer, minister, heal, advise, counsel, and find the fastest way through the searing loss. 

A story I've gone back to again and again and again in the past two years is the man who saw men as trees walking. I find such comfort in the half-way healing of a blind man. Jesus completed the healing and it wasn't his intention to leave the man with incomplete sight, but for some reason, he did not heal him completely immediately. I am fascinated with this Jesus. What is Jesus trying to say about himself in that moment? What aspect of his character did he want the man and those standing around to see? The thing I keep coming back to is this: Jesus completes the work, but the timing isn't always what we expect. I've quoted this before, but Zack Eswine says, "It's not our job to finish what Jesus has left unfinished." So much of our Christianese platitudes are just that: trying to wrap up, seal, heal, and solidify what Jesus is still in the process of working in. 

We all know someone today who is suffering in some way. Perhaps a physical ailment, or walking through a confusing situation, or who just lost someone special. I know, for me, the past two years have been rote with suffering and a lot of it was the sort people don't look at as the Real Suffering. Moving cross-country three times, miscarrying, my husband's job loss, confusion about church situations, losing 100k on our house sale, witnessing the shooting of a police-officer and then living in a city where we heard gunshots weekly for a year, it felt like everywhere I looked I saw dimly, mere shapes of what was real, but not anything solid or real or hope-inducing. There was no one thing that I could point to and say, "This is what hurts." Everything hurt. Everything was tender. Everything was painful to touch or even talk about. 

In those spaces, a few friends gave me the gift of presence and it made such a difference for me. I knew the truth of the gospel and the Word of God. What I didn't need was to be pounded over the head with things I knew were true, but which didn't feel true. There were plenty of counselors and advisers and good-idea-givers, lots of times I said things rote with confusion and was met with less than empathy, many moments of sadness and awkward silence. But what meant the most, looking back, was: 

The gift of flowers or a plant.

A note in the mail or under my office door.

An offer to drop a meal off at my house.

A drive out of the cities and into the mountains or country together.

Someone who simply listened, who wept when I did. 

A good, long hug

An envelope full of cards, gift-cards, and money. 

These might have seemed a small thing to the givers, but they meant paramount things to us in the moment. They were the ministry of presence to us in a time when nothing could fix all that felt broken except Jesus—who for our good and his glory had left those things unfixed for that moment. 

Here's my encouragement to you today (and some I gave to myself this morning regarding a few friends): think of a few friends who are suffering, maybe (especially?) suffering silently, and give them the gift of presence. It's really easy to lavish gifts on people who have success, lots of notice, are surrounded by hordes of people, where you know your gift will be Instagrammed and given shout-out about on social media. Something in our flesh loves to give more to those people for some reason. I'm not sure why. But those quiet sufferers might need it more today. That bouquet of flowers showing up anonymously or with a card simply stated they're loved and seen, or that tight hug in a hallway or coffee shop, or the offer to just drive an hour or two away from it all for a bit—these things mean more than most of us can know from our relative place of peace and joy.

Sometimes we can't lift our own drooping hands or strengthen our weak knees, and we need the Church to come alongside us and help. I'm praying if you need that today, someone sees, and if you can be that today, you are. 

Christians, Writing, Reading, and Faithfulness

Yesterday I asked a series of questions on social media and received some really humble, faithful responses. I wanted to share both the questions I asked and the answers I got for a few reasons today. 

More than once a week I get a message from a reader asking how to start a blog or how to break into the publishing industry or my best book recommendation for writing. My answer is almost always the same: get people around you who won't lie to you or about you, and ask them what they think of your writing. If they gush yeses immediately, find more people to ask. You're looking for someone who says, "No." That's your person. Get close to that person. Annoy that person with your first drafts. Cry when they're hard on you, but then dry your tears and do one of two things: recognize that writing might not be your gift or go back to the drawing board. If you can do this for many years without any applause at all, then, perhaps start a blog. If you skip that, though, and go right to publishing because pressing publish has never been easier, expect the stumble to come. When it does come, don't make the same mistake you made in the beginning: this time listen. 

As for my other advice, my friend Jeff Medders has a cool podcast called Home Row where he talks with writers about writing. Here's the interview he did with me where I answer more of those questions above in my signature rambling manner. 

Below are the questions I asked on social media and some of the most piercing replies. I asked them without looking for specific answers, but simply to see if we're being thinking and thought-full people about these things. James 3:1 says this, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." If we presume to teach anything at all, we must accept the responsibility that comes with it. That should feel weighty. If it does not, we ought to flee because a belief in our authority without the weight of our responsibility is a dangerous place to be. 

. . . 

There's more information coming at us faster than ever before and more people telling folks to write, publish, produce, and share than ever before. The criteria for writing, publishing, etc. seems to be less and less a particular giftedness, and more and more simply a desire to tell a particular story or to be heard on a particular issue. What is the responsibility of the Christian in this? 

Do we need to be more mindful of what we publish, as writers, editors, and publishers? Or more mindful of what we read as readers?

Do we need to learn to say "No" more? Or "Yes" more?

Do we need to be more concerned with quality and necessity than with quantity? Or is quantity important too? 

Are we reaching the same audience with the same information ad nauseum? 

How do we encourage the practice of restraint and of faithfulness in a quick-publishing world? 

What are some of your best practices (or the best practices you admire in others) regarding writing and publishing? 

Is there anyone in your life saying "No" regarding your own writing/publishing?

On Twitter here were some of my favorite responses:

@russramsey (one of my favorite art-makers in our field right now) has these great thoughts. 

@tamarabainter said, "I think we are probably too quick to "validate" a gift in someone by encouraging them to publish. And I believe that in many ways an echo chamber has been created as everyone recommends/interviews, others who write/think similarly."

@tolivequietly said, "One practice I want to cultivate is to write for the people I know IRL--the people God has put in my circles and me in theirs."

@brittanynsalmon said, "Lately I've been asking myself, how does this gift serve the local church? So I've focused my efforts there rather than the public realm." Read the rest of her comments about how they're putting this to practice.

@chrisrshockley shared this quote from Tim Keller, which is one of my favorites. 

@sethhaines said, "I think a lot about being a "non-anxious presence" in writing. If I can't be non-anxious in my writing (production), am I sober?"

@lisarwhittle is still adding some great thoughts here. 

And over on Facebook, here were some great thoughts: 

Shaina Cheever said, "To just chime in on the the question of should we just be "more mindful of what we read as readers"- I think as Christians, in the department of reading, the Bible is essential and everything else is optional. In terms of reading, nothing else is really necessary, but everything else can be used to shape your thinking in a myriad of ways. Whether it's thoughtful, good quality, true, or whatever. All that to say, I think there is a lot of freedom in what you choose to read as a Christian and how you read it (skimming, rereading, discussing with friends, critical, etc)."

I love the humility here from Melissa Affolter, "These are helpful questions and I'm grateful you (and others) are asking them. I love reading, writing and editing - each process for varying reasons. But it has left me confused at times in recent years when I see the degree to which people are publishing and promoting. I'm astounded at how fast things get pumped out. I don't possess any expert knowledge about the whole writing world, so I probably don't have any profound remarks. But I would say that I have found my writing more meaningful (on a personal level) when I focus on writing for those in my sphere of influence. Sometimes it's in a letter or email, or in the form of preparing to lead a discussion/study group. Other times, it's writing a chapter-style topical booklet for those I counsel. As I seek to articulate thoughts to those I love who God has placed near me, then I find that I am helped and challenged too. I used to really want to write for a living and even started pursuing it, but God never opened wide the way, and for me that has been the best thing. In the waiting and stepping aside, it's reminded me that most of what I think *needs* to be said has oftentimes already been said by someone else. Of course, I'll never stop reading, and I'm grateful for much of what is available. I just wish it would slow down a bit."

My friend Casey Chappell said this, "I also see the concern with when someone does have a great book within them and they pour decades of life experience and passion into it and it takes off (market wise) then they are asked to write another book in a years time and often aren't even sure what that book should be about much less having thought through and with great depth and research and experience. Just a pattern I'm seeing that I don't really find as helpful and insightful in the world of books."

Let's be good writers and good readers. Think on, friends, think on.