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

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. 

Fervor, Foolishness, and Faithfulness: Psalm 42 and Growth in Christ

His Bible is open to the Psalms this morning, left on the kitchen table beside a napkin from breakfast, the chair still pulled out, abandoned by its occupant in the still dark morning hours. I make eggs and toast, pour coffee, and sit in his chair, pull his Bible close. Mine is in the other room waiting with my morning motions, but an open Bible is a temptation of the good sort. I flick the pages a few forward until I come to Psalm 42, in which the famed deer pants.

I share the ache of this Psalmist: my tears have been my food, a despairing and disturbed soul. A melancholy ache for the days of old, when I "used to go along with the throng, leading them in the procession to the house of God." I do not camp in the hills of nostalgia often, but occasionally I will take a look behind me at what used to be and what might have been, and grow sorrowful. 

Two conversations with two friends last week: the first, a girl in her mid-twenties who mourns the fervor of her college days when she was poised to change the world with her faithfulness. She was going to be a history maker, a world changer, and now? Now she is a wife. A worker. Someone who clocks in and clocks out and goes home and makes spaghetti for her husband. She wonders, "Have I missed my chance to really be something?" The second conversation, a friend who wants to have more children but married late and is fearful the punishment for foolish twenties will be no more babies in her late thirties. 

I want to take their faces in my hands and say two things: the first is that none of us ended up where we thought we'd be, and if we did, I wonder how much of it was due to a controlled plan by us, and not a faithful following of a faithful God. The second is that God isn't punishing us for lost fervor or years of foolishness behind us. 

Sometimes I get lost in there, don't you? Lost in the regret that things aren't turning out like I thought they would, not in the order I thought best or the place I thought best. I ache for the sort of clarity and insight I had in my early twenties, the exacting nature of my mind, the black and whiteness of justice and faith and theology. I was so sure of so many things back then. I was, like the Psalmist, "leading the procession to the house of God, [part of a] multitude keeping festival." I was part of the throng of world changers and earth shakers. And now? Now I'm eating cold eggs and toast at a kitchen table listening to my dog pant at my feet and wondering if I should just mop and vacuum the floor or deep clean the whole house. This is what my life has come to? 

Did I waste my twenties with dreams and certainties and hopes and plans? Has my warm heart turned cold? Did I miss the call of God somewhere? When did I step out of the processional line, stop keeping the festivals with the multitudes? 

I rarely ask those questions anymore, though I have my bouts of them at times, because somewhere along the way I have begun learning to be more like the deer panting for water than the throngs in procession. I am learning what is required of me is faithfulness, not awesomeness; quietness, not greatness; love, not being larger than life. I need the water of life more than I need the approval of the multitudes. I need a refreshed soul more than I need to change the world. I need to know the love of a Father more than I need the love of men. 

Life is long, friends. Twenties? Thirties? God knows your days and has numbered them, but for most of us, these decades are at the beginning of a long life. And most of us will never change the world in wild ways, but may change it out of mere faithfulness to the small things. My pastor has spoken often in recent weeks of being patriarchs and matriarchs, looking behind us as all that has been sown in quiet faithfulness. "A long obedience in the same direction," Nietzsche called it (unknowingly lending a helpful phrase to the Christians he despised). One foot in front of another, one return to the water brook after another, one day of thirst after another. 

God didn't waste your teens or your twenties or your thirties and he's not wasting them right now, as you wake to the same perpetual motions of your every day. He's not stepped around your life, taken his hand off of you, ignored your pleas, or forgotten your desires. We might have forgotten the foolishness or fervency of our youth, but he is far more concerned with our faithfulness today. 

What is in your hand today? I know you were a big deal back then, but what about today? Who are you today and what has he set you to? Do that. Do it with all your heart as unto God, not man. Don't look for the approval of man, not even your own approval. There's not report card in Christianity, no medals to hang above your dresser or trophies to stand on a mantle. There's just you and a long obedience ahead. Be faithful. And then enter into the joy of your Master

Enough Beauty to Go Around

I used to dream of an old house on a quiet county road with a front porch and a clothesline strung taut. Perhaps a swing or two, each from one of the ancient trees in the front yard, and a child or five taking turns on them. I held on to that dream for years and years and years and I still do, if I'm honest with myself. It sits in the back recesses of my heart, in the dusty corners where I rarely go, waiting to be fulfilled. Somewhere along the way, though, I sold my gathered Newberry Award winners off for .25 a piece, gave the small calico smocks I'd been keeping for someday away, and packed the dream away, determined to find beauty in today, wherever it might be found. 

And, surprisingly, I found it. 

I found it in so many small things, previously unnoticed or undervalued by me. I found it in the appreciating of people, not things, in the love of Jesus and not man, and in the business of making do instead of fantasy.

I am, like many women I know, prone to imagining the best, the cleanest, the most organized, the tastiest, and peace itself is somewhere soon if I can just wrangle all the parts and pieces of my life quickly enough to get there. But it's not true, is it? The ever elusive someday never comes, and even if if looks to all the world that it has come for you, you know the gross truth, don't you? You go to sleep every night with the girl who still has so much she wants to do and accomplish and be and go and have, and you wake up, still lacking. 

Part of this is just the reality that we live in a world fractured by sin, but it's also the truth that we who live in this fractured world have eternity written on our hearts: we are longing to be home and are digging the tent pegs of our lives in as deep as we can get them until we arrive on eternity's shores. This is good, regardless of what the naysayers say. All through Scripture the heart cry of God's people is "Home! Home! Home!" Every year the Jewish people, even today, say to one another, "Next year in Jerusalem. Next year in the Holy Land." We are born homesick, every one of us. 

How does one, then, live on this earth and keep that longing for heaven fresh and fervent? I think it is by instead of living as though we are paupers waiting to be clothed with the stuff of heaven, to walk under the cloak of the Most High today. And the Most High is a generous giver, a maker of beauty, and an endless supply of good today. He is not waiting for some far off day to bless his children, to bless you. He's doing it today. Where is he doing it? Well, I don't know in your life because I'm not living yours, I'm living mine. Here are some ways I remind myself of the great clash of heaven and earth we grow closer to every day: 

We surround ourselves with nature, the raiment of heaven, even just a bouquet of flowers or some houseplants, instead of surrounding ourselves with the noise of earth. We have this Lavender in a few rooms of our home.

We make meals intentional by how we gather it (in season and local—living within the constraints of God's seasons and helping to serve and prosper our community), how we cook it (slow and whole), how we serve it (every meal is special, there is no fine china or paper napkins in our home, we use what is beautiful every day), and how we eat it (slowly, conversing, sharing, and serving one another). Here is a book that helped shape our intentions. 

We light candles in the dark months. We eat outside (weather permitting) in the warm months. 

We embrace silence, turning off music, television, the radio, and even talking for periods of time. Letting ourselves alone with our thoughts—sometimes a scary place, but always a rewarding one because the Spirit lives inside of us, teaching us all things. 

We open our home. It is rare we have an evening without friends at our home and so we have to intentionally schedule a night, once a week (currently Tuesdays), where we lock our front door and enjoy one another. But other than that, our home is a circulating flow of people, conversations, prayers, and friendship. This sounds sweet and romantic but this is not an easy thing. This takes sacrifice of time, finances, and food, but we think it is a slice of how the New Earth will be and is how New Testament Christians are to live until then (Acts 4:32-37).

This is how the Wilbert home celebrates the forward momentum of eternity's arrival every day. Much of this both of us did in our respective seasons of singleness (the very first time I knew about Nate, I heard he had an open door to men in his home every Tuesday night for spaghetti dinner and deep conversation), and some of it we've arrived at together. The point is to do it, today, without excuse. 

I know many of you have young children and cannot have folks over for dinner every night or lighting candles at your dinner tables sounds like a recipe for a house fire. Or maybe eating locally isn't in your budget (eating seasonally probably is though—in-season food is always cheaper than January's tomatoes or November's strawberries). Or maybe you live with roommates who like to have the television on at all times. I don't know your circumstances exactly, but I do know if you're a child of God, you're homesick for heaven. I also know the Spirit of God lives inside of you, leading and teaching and helping and comforting you as you do the work of building the kingdom of God on earth. Begin in your home, however it looks like. Begin today. With one thing. Maybe sort through clutter or organize a drawer or pull out that tablecloth you only use on "special occasions," or light that dollar store candle while you wash the dishes. Don't wait for special somedays, begin today to see how the Maker of all beauty has made enough beauty to go around to remind you heaven is coming soon.