Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why Friendship is the Relationship You Need Most in Life and Marriage

Over the course of your life, what kind of relationship do you need the most?    Sure, at the beginning, you need the parent-child relationship, but is that the relationship you need the most over the course of your whole life?    After all, at some point, your parents pass away, so what do you do then?    And yes you have your family, but not everyone has great relationships with their families or may hardly have a family at all, yet they can still have a life of great relationships. 
Now you might think, then it’s the relationship of marriage, as we are doing a series focused on that.  But you can have a wonderful and fulfilling life of relationship, and yet not be married. After all, Jesus wasn’t.    And as much as we might wish otherwise, marriages don’t last forever.  Even in the longest lived marriages, one partner will pass away before the other.  
So, what kind of relationship do you need the most?  You need friendships.   It’s why the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle said. Without friendships no one would choose to live, even if they had all other good things in life.    Or to paraphrase the preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick; No one is the whole of him or herself.  Your friends are the rest of you.  
Why are friendships so crucial?   It’s because friendships can encompass every relationship in your life.  As you become older, your parents even as they remain your parents may also become your friends.  And the same can be said of any relationship in your life from siblings to co-workers.   And when it comes to marriage, friendship matters most.   In the end, what you will most need from your spouse isn’t a lover or a parent.  What you will need most is a friend.  
Yet too often, not only in marriage, but in life, people don’t grasp the full meaning of what a friend can be.    They never experience the full depths of what God intended friendship to be.     What makes for profound friendships not only in marriage, but in life?   In these words from Ephesians, God shows the way.  So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.  
Let’s get real for a moment.  No matter what any book or movie might tell you, marriage is no Hallmark card.    You can say that marriage is a lot of things, but one thing it sure isn’t is sweet.  It may have sweet moments, sure, but sweet?  No way.    Some days, after a hard day of marriage, a couple can fall into bed and the only thing from this passage that makes any sense is those words: behold what I am talking about is a mystery.  (Thanks, Tim Keller J)
And if marriage isn’t sweet, you can bet life isn’t sweetness and light either.  Sure, it has its moments.  But as the famous psychiatrist M. Scott Peck put it, “Life is difficult.”    And in the challenges of marriage and life, what you will need most to make it through, to make life great even in the toughest of times is friends.  
But what makes a friend in marriage and life?   If you look to Facebook, it tells you that all it takes is a point and a click.  But we all know.  It has to be more than that.  So what makes for real friendship, the sort of friendship that can make a marriage great; that can make your life great.   In the end, what makes a friendship is what you share.   The more deeply the things that you share, the more deep the friendship becomes.  And in great marriages, you share the deepest thing of all.  You share with each other the same mission that God has for every person on earth.    But before we look at what that mission is, let’s talk first about what makes a friend a friend. 
The writer C.S. Lewis wrote that the difference between a friend and a lover lies in what you look at.   With a lover you are looking at your lover’s face. That is where your gaze goes.   But with a friend, you have someone who stands beside you and together you gaze at the same thing.  What makes a friend is that you share something.   Maybe you share a common interest.   Maybe you share a common background.   Maybe you share the same ambitions or hopes or beliefs.    But whatever it is, you’ve gotta share something.  That’s what binds you together, and the deeper the sharing, the deeper the friendship.  What do I mean?
What if you have a friend and all you share is the same hobby or the same club?  That sort of sharing is nice and all.  But that friendship only goes so far.  But what if you and your friend have shared more than that?  What if you’ve walked together through a hardship or loss?  What if you’ve shared life-changing experiences together?   That sort of sharing makes a friendship go deep.   It bonds you together.   It makes for a relationship that can even last a lifetime.
And the deepest type of friendship goes beyond that even.  It goes to the friends with whom you shared the same goals, the same purposes; the same mission.   Maybe that mission happened in the military or school or in the raising of your children.  Maybe it happened because you shared a business together or came together in a joint cause.   Why is that the deepest friendship?  It’s because when you share a mission together like that it encompasses everything. You are sharing a journey together.   In that journey, triumph and losses inevitably come.  Life changing experiences just happen.     A journey like that holds it all.  
And every marriage carries a mission.   That mission isn’t raising kids.  After all, every marriage won’t have kids, but it will still carry a mission.    So what is the mission of marriage?  In the passage we just read, God points to it in the instructions given to husbands.  He tells husbands to love your wives in order to do what?  In order to make her holy.  These instructions may be directed to specific partners but the overall vision encompasses both the partners in marriage.  So what does God give as the mission?   Marriage is given “in order to make you holy.”
Now if you find that confusing, it’s because you don’t understand what holy actually means.  Holy means wholeness.  Holy means completion.  In marriage you come together to make each other whole.  That’s your ultimate mission, to shape in each other the greatness God created  each of you for.   A good marriage will not only show you your broken places, it will give you a partner who can help you mend them.    A good marriage matures you.  It refines you.  It challenges you to become more than you thought you could be.   And that process can be hard.   And in that process, you don’t simply need a lover, as powerful as that role is.   For that to happen, you need a friend.    
And over the course of that journey, through heartbreak, through triumph, through good times and bad, that friendship grows deeper and deeper.    Your partner doesn’t simply become your lover.  He or she becomes your best friend.  
But that friendship doesn’t simply happen.   For any friendship in marriage or in life to become great, you need to do three things    First, you need to show up.   Or as Proverbs puts it, a friend loves at all time, and especially during adversity.
Many years ago, when I served a church in Long Island, we had gathered after worship to plant a tree for Earth Sunday, and afterward, we circled together for a prayer.  That’s when it happened, when George collapsed.   We all saw George, one of our elders, a man I was close to, die of a massive heart attack within minutes.   I spent the afternoon with his devastated wife and children at the Emergency Room.   As I got home later that day, I didn’t know what to do.  Finally, I called a fellow pastor, Stephen, and told him what had happened.  An hour later, we were sitting sharing a beer in a local watering hole.  I can’t remember one thing he said to me that night.   That didn’t matter.  What mattered is he showed up.   
But beyond showing up, you need to show yourself.    Real friends don’t simply not let you down, they also let you in.    What forged that friendship that night is not simply that Stephen showed up, but that I showed myself, my hurt, my vulnerability.   And in life and in marriage, if you never let your friend in, if you keep things on the surface only, then that friendship will never become what it could be.   Is that risky, even dangerous?  Yes, but there is no way to take the danger out of human relationships.  And in the end, the more dangerous option is to shut yourself off.   For when you shut yourself off from the vulnerability, you also shut yourself off from the final thing a great friend gives you. 
Even as a faithful friend will not ignore your flaws and shortcomings, a friend will see far more that.  He will see who you can be.  More importantly, he will show that to you. As the Bible describes it, a good friend blesses you.   In the Bible a blessing isn’t something you give after a sneeze.  No you give a blessing to give someone a vision of what they can be.   Often fathers delivered them to their children as they died.  Why?  They wanted in these last words of blessing to inspire their children with a beautiful vision of what their future could be.    And a good friend will do the same.  They see in you what often you can’t see.  
Someone once asked the artist Michelangelo how he created his magnificent statue of David. What did Michelangelo say?   He said.  “I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.”   That’s what a great friend does for you.  He shows you the David that you can’t yet see.
And when that sort of friendship happens in your life, and in your marriage, oh, the wonders it will work.   As the writer, G.K. Chesterton put it.   There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally.  It may be conceded to the mathematician that four is twice two.  But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.  

But let’s be honest.   This side of heaven, this vision of friendship, as inspiring as it is, is still not fully possible.   Even as you and I strive to be such friends, we will have moments that we will fail.   We will fail our friends, and our friends will fail us.   So, why do human beings hunger for it so?   It’s because that hunger points to the One who is the friend who will not fail you ever. 

Why did God in Jesus come to you?   Jesus came to make you holy, to make you whole and complete.  And in that mission, Jesus would not stop at anything.   When your fears and darkness captured you, Jesus showed up.    He didn’t just show up in that darkness.   He went down into that darkness to deliver you.   On that cross, Jesus became utterly vulnerable to that darkness, to your darkness.  Why?   He saw the light within you that you couldn’t see.   Jesus saw what you could be, and he died to make it so.    And if Jesus did not fall away from you on that cross, he will never fall away from you.  Even when you are faithless, this friend will be faithful.  

And in the power of his friendship, you will discover the power to become more and more the friend God created you to be.   In the security of his love and grace, you will find relationships that go deep, friendships that grow into greatness.  And you will find them not only in your marriage.  You will find them in this place, in this family of faith, in this community of the friends of Jesus.  And in those friendships, you will find a greatness in you that you did not know even existed.   You will discover that two is indeed not twice.  Two is two thousand times one.  

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Two Things You Have To Leave Behind to Make Your Marriage or any Relationship Great

Ever since I read just this one sentence, I can’t forget it.   It says something that pretty much everyone agrees with.  Yet at the same time, they resist living it out.   What am I talking about?  I’m talking about a quote that appeared on the screen this morning, one by the novelist George McDonald.   McDonald said; “The first thing in all progress is to leave something behind.”

That’s pretty obvious.   I mean.  If you want to go to Fort Lauderdale, you have to leave Hollywood behind.  You can’t be in both places at the same time.    Yet, when it comes to making significant changes, even in places where change so much needs to happen, you can resist.  Why?  You know.  If I move forward to the place I need to be, I have to leave where I am behind.   And that can be hard.   

Someone once was complaining to a friend about how awful their life had become.  But when the friend suggested changes, do you know what the person said.  She said.  “Yes, my life may be hell, but at least here I know all the names of the streets.”    It can be hard to let go, even of things that make your life miserable.

And what messes up relationships, including marriages, are what people won’t leave behind.   For any relationship to work, for it to become everything that God created it to be, God calls you to leave a lot behind.   And only as you do that do you unleash the power that will enable any relationship in your life to become great whether it be in your marriage or with your family or your workplace or with your network of friends.   So what does God call you to leave behind?   In these words, God tells you.  So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

In these words focused on marriage, God actually gives you the two key relationships that you have to leave behind in order to make any relationship become all that God created that relationship to be.   What do you have to leave behind?   You have to leave behind yourself, and you have to leave behind your home.  

Now what do I mean?  To unpack what God is telling us, let’s begin by looking at the first of those two things, the leaving behind of yourself.   How can you even do that?   And even if you could, why would you want to?     Well, what God is talking about here is your preoccupation with yourself, and how that preoccupation hampers every relationship you enter.    That’s why at the beginning of this passage, God gives this command.  “Submit yourself to one another out of reverence for Christ.”   In that succinct sentence, God is simply saying this.   Get over yourself.  Leave it behind.    Your relationship will only work to the extent that you let your self get out of the way.   

As my car has gotten older, it has developed a slight oil leak, and so I am more diligent than ever about checking those oil levels.   I know.  That leak may be slight, but if my oil goes, then my engine goes, and without that engine, my car is kaput.   That oil provides the lubrication my car needs to run.  It reduces the friction that otherwise would stop it dead in its tracks.  

And when you let go of self in marriage or any relationship, it works like the oil in a car.   It keeps things moving.  It reduces the friction that every relationship has.   It provides the lubrication that enables any relationship to run, to become everything God created it to be.

Now what does that look like?   Here are three questions that as they are true of you show you how much you have actually left your self behind.   First, how well can you hear criticism and not be crushed or reactive?  Second, how good are you at giving criticism (if you even get up the gumption to do it at all) without crushing others?   Third, how good are you at forgiving people without having any residual anger? 

You see.  If you are crushed by criticism or react defensively, what does that that tell you?  It tells you that when someone criticizes something you did, you take it as a criticism of who you are.  It’s not.  And even if they intended it that way, who died and made them God?   But if you have left your self behind in that moment, you can hear the truth in their words.   Even in people who criticize you with ill intent, you can gain insight from their words, no matter how harsh.  Why?  You’re not taking it personally.  You have moved your self out of the way. 

And if you can’t give criticism, let’s be honest, it’s rarely ever about your concern for the other person’s feelings.  No, it’s really concern about how those feelings will negatively affect you.  It’s not about them.  It’s about you, about your unwillingness to let your self get out of the way of a truth that you need to say.    But instead of taking that risk, of entering into that danger zone, you avoid it.  And as the preacher Bill Coffin put it, Love without criticism it’s a kind of betrayal.   If you truly care about someone, then you have to find the courage to let your own self concern go, to be honest with them even about the difficult things.   And on the other hand, that focus on self can lead you in the opposite direction to deliver truth in a way that crushes.  It is hard to be right and not hurt somebody with it.   In fact, it only happens when you have let your self get out of the way.  It only happens when you are telling the truth not out of your own anger or self-righteousness but because you are absolutely focused on that other person, on their well-being not your own.

And do you tell others that you have forgiven them, that you have let that offense go?  But when you think about what you supposedly have let go, you feel your resentment rise up.   And if that anger sits there, it will poison that relationship.  It will linger below the surface of every interaction you have, where it can rise up at a moment’s notice.  Or maybe it will simply sit there, subtly undermining that relationship, maybe even killing it in the end.    And why does that happen?  It happens because you haven’t let your self get out of the way, because when you do then your resentment will go with it. 

But God doesn’t stop there.  Not only do you need to leave your self behind, you need to leave your home behind too.   It’s why Paul quotes that passage from Genesis.   “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife…”    But too often that joining can’t happen because one of the partners has never left home.    When you marry, you are creating a new relationship.   And you can’t create the new relationship until you’ve left your old relationships behind, and that can be harder to do than you realize. 

A few weeks ago, as we talked about Ephesians in the morning Bible study, one of the folks there, Bert told me a story.   He talked about a couple he knew that almost blew up over a television. 

In the husband’s house growing up, his parents had kept the television on all the time.  It served as background noise throughout the day.   And even when they had serious discussions with one another, they kept it on.  And that worked for them.   They could multi-task that way. 

But in the wife’s house, a whole different pattern occurred.  Whenever big discussions happened, everything got turned off.  That discussion had to be the sole focus, and nothing could be going on but that.  

So can you imagine what happened?  The wife wanted to touch base with her husband about something, and he was watching the game on TV.    But do you think he turned it off?  No, of course not.    And do you think she got angry?  Oh, you bet.    Now whatever you think of the best way to have a conversation, the reason for that conflict had little to do with that.  It had to do with the reality that neither of them had left home.   They came into that marriage with certain assumptions about how things needed to be, simply because that was the way it worked for their parents.  But if you’re married, you’re not living in your old family.   You are making a new one.  And what God is saying here is that you have to leave the ways of that old family behind if you want to make this new family work.  

More than that, God is saying that when it comes to your marriage, that marriage has to be your number one priority, over work, over friendships, even over your kids.    Think about it.   Your kids, if you raise them well, will eventually leave, but hopefully not your spouse.  Your marriage was there before your kids came, and it will be there after they leave, so that relationship has to have priority.              

And if you don’t leave the baggage from your family behind, it will drag down all sorts of relationships.   It will affect how you relate in your workplace or with your children. It will create issues in your friendships.   And let’s be clear, if you hate your parents, then you haven’t left home either.  Why?   It’s because even in your hatred, they still control you. If you say,   “I’m not going to do that, because my dad always did that and I hated it.”  Well, why are you not doing it?   It’s still because of your father isn’t it?    That relationship is still controlling you because of how you are reacting against it. 

In relationships for them to move forward you have to leave a lot behind.  You have to leave behind yourself, and you have to leave behind your home.    But it’s one thing to say that, but how do you gain the power to actually do it?   You look to the one who left himself behind for you.  You look to the one who left his home behind so that you would find it.   In Jesus, in his life, in his death, God emptied himself of everything for you.    And the more you experience that love that left it all behind for you, the more it frees you to leave what you need to leave behind too.

So no matter what criticism comes, it can’t crush you.  Why?  God has already shown you on that cross how infinitely valued you are.   And that same sense of worth frees you to move beyond the fear to share hard truths with others.   And when you share, you can do so without crushing.  Why?  You know the grace of God that saved you came as a gift that you did not earn, and so that grace humbles you even as it lifts you up.   And out of that grace, you become free to forgive, to let your anger go, because you know the love of a God who paid the ultimate price to forgive and let his anger go towards you.    And in the security of that love, you find a new home, a home that heals the wounds of your past that frees you from its baggage.    In the power of Jesus’ relationship with you, you discover the power to make every relationship in your life all that God intended them to be.    Where do you need that power?   What is Jesus calling you to leave behind today?   Where do you need to let Jesus free you, to free your relationships to become all that God intended them to be.   Let us pray.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The One Verb That Defines Marriage that Changes Everything About What You Thought Marriage Was

It happens all too often.   My wife, who is a psychotherapist, comes in from a counseling appointment sad and frustrated.  Why?  It’s because, in spite of weeks or even months of counseling, a couple looks headed for divorce.  And what makes her sad is that one of the partners wants to do everything he or she can to make it work, to resolve the issues.  But the other partner doesn’t want it.   What are the reasons?   Usually they come down to things like; I’m just not feeling the love.   Or I want something different for my life.  At times, it’s because that partner can’t let go of the anger, can’t forgive mistakes the spouse has made.  Instead, all they want is to get out. 

Beyond her sadness for the couple, my wife feels for the kids.   She knows that for these children splitting up, the break-up will be an emotional nuclear bomb.   Studies show that divorces, beyond those in seriously abusive situations, negatively affect outcomes for kids in almost every way from academic achievement to self-concept, from how they adjust internally to how they relate to others.   Now, in the Bible, God does give situations when divorce may be necessary.   But often, couples don’t break up for those reasons.  No, they break up because they have never really understood what a marriage is.   

They think that they know what marriage means, what it’s supposed to be, but they have no clue.   In fact, even a lot of couples who remain married don’t know.  And as a result their marriages become so much less than what God designed marriage to be.   Only when you know the true definition of marriage do you open the door for your marriage to be all that it can be.  And whether you are married or not, knowing that definition will give you insights that will make every significant relationship in your life all that it can be as well.

So what is the true definition of marriage?  In this passage, actually in just one key verb in this passage, God tells you.   And once you know that verb and what it means, it changes everything.  So let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

When lots of folks look at marriage, they think they know how a marriage is supposed to work because they think they know what a marriage is.  But here’s the reality. They don’t.   And because they don’t, their marriages don’t work.   Even if the couple doesn’t divorce, the marriage doesn’t become what God designed marriage to be. 

But here in these words, actually in just one verb, God gives you the core meaning of what every marriage actually is.   Now before we discuss that verb, let me just say something about the rest of the passage.   Too often, people have interpreted the words I just read as endorsing inequality between women and men.  We won’t be getting into that question today, but I want to make clear.  That interpretation is wrong, and when the time comes, you will see that clearly. 

Secondly, even if you are not married, understanding what marriage is will give you insights that will benefit every significant relationship in your life.   So what is marriage?   God tells you here in just two words, this compound verb, “be joined” as in:  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  

The verb to be joined is actually a technical term that literally means glued together.  People used it to describe a public covenant or agreement.    And that’s what a marriage is. It’s a contract, a public contract between two parties.    And when you know that, then you get how good marriages always work.    They don’t work from the inside out.  They work from the outside in. 

What do I mean?   Well, let’s unpack why in our culture, talking about a marriage as a contract comes off as a major downer.    Our culture has romanticized marriage as this powerful confluence of feelings that keep a couple together through thick and thin.   Every day, these partners wake up, and gaze into each other’s eyes, and fall in love all over again.  And yes, all that sounds wonderful, but so do unicorns.  And like those marriages, unicorn don’t exist either. But because too many couples have bought into this false inside out view of marriage, their marriages either fail or even if they last don’t become the amazing and fulfilling journey that God created marriage to be.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Emotions and attraction have a powerful role in any marriage, but they cannot define it.   Something bigger and stronger has to do that.   And that’s what a covenant is.   That’s what you are doing when you stand up publicly before others, and say those marriage vows to each other.  You are entering into a contract, a binding set of promises that says ten years from now, twenty years from now, thirty years from now, you get the idea; I’m going to be there, until death parts me from you.  

Now why is that bigger and stronger than emotions and attraction?  It’s because a promise doesn’t change, while your feelings do.   Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised in just in the time you’ve been in this room that your feelings have changed in some way.  You entered happy, and now not so much.  Or you entered worried, and now you’re feeling better.    So when you have a relationship that is designed to last for a lifetime based on your emotions, on how you’re feeling, how unstable is that?  
You can’t build your marriage on the feelings you have.  Those change way too much.  You have to build your marriage on the promises you make.  

But you might ask.  Isn’t marriage based on love?   Yes.  But at its heart, love is not a feeling.  Love is an action.  Love is a commitment you make to the well-being of someone else regardless of how you feel.  Love works from the outside in, not the inside out.  When the Bible says, love your mother and father, and love your enemies, it uses the same word.  Love is an action and yes, those actions lead to feelings, but love cannot begin there.  But when you don’t get this, when you think love is a feeling first, it poisons your marriage in deadly ways. 

The syrupy love language of our culture camouflages the transactional way we unconsciously think of marriage.   But the slang shows the truth.   You might say.  “Oh he married above his pay grade.”   Or “She got a real catch.”  

When you get married, whether you acknowledge or not, you are thinking of it as a bargain.  You are saying to yourself, “Hmm, she’s better looking than I expected to get, and yes, there are a few issues on this front, but overall, I think I made out pretty well.”   Or “Yes, he could lose a few pounds, but he’s cute, and he’ll provide well and be a good dad, so I’m feeling pretty good about it.”   What you are thinking is that I will get about as much or maybe more out of this relationship, then I am going to put in.   You are thinking about it as a bargain. 

But then you get married, and you discover that maybe he or she isn’t the bargain you thought they were.   They’re not giving what you expected, what you desire.   By the way, lots of folks think that’s what love is, what they desire from the other person. But that’s not love.  That’s emotional hunger.   Love is not about what you want.  It’s about what you are willing to give. 

But when your partner doesn’t deliver the goods, what do you do?  You withdraw.  You think.  Well, if he is not going to put the effort in to this thing, why should I?   Or if she is not going to be the wife she used to be, why should I be the husband I used to be?   And that begins a cycle that spins you further and further down.

But do you see how upside down this is?   Think about it with kids.  When children are first born, how much do they deliver?    Before three months, they don’t even smile at you.  Instead they poop on you. They pee on you.   They barf on you.  They keep you up to all hours of the night.    All you do is give and give and give, but as you do, do you know what happens?  Love happens.  Your actions lead to the love.  And the older they get, the more that love grows, until when that child is grown, it doesn’t matter how they screw up, you love them no matter what.  

But when your spouse acts like a baby, what do you do?   With your child, you act on the basis of a commitment you’ve made.  So the more you give, the more you feel the love.  But with your spouse because you think of it as a bargain, when they fail to give, you pull away.  And then you wonder why the love you felt when you first began has disappeared.   Love has to be an action first, and then a feeling.  The actions of love lead to the feelings of love.  Love has to work from the outside in, not the inside out.          

And when you love like that, over the years, your marriage just gets better and better, stronger, richer; deeper.   This week, I was talking to someone, who was happily celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary.    And as we were talking, she said.  After you get through those first ten years, things really start getting good.   But the feelings didn’t get her through those 10 years but the promises did.   If you follow your feelings, your marriage will crash and burn.  But if you follow the promises, then the sky’s the limit, not only for your marriage, but for you.

When you follow the promises in your marriage, it enables marriage to change you, to shape you into the very person God created you to be.  

Think of a bridge that has all these hidden flaws that no one realizes are there.  But then this huge truck rolls across and strains that bridge out.  All of a sudden, the flaws show up big time.   But that truck did not create the flaws. It just revealed them

“And when you get married, your spouse is a big Mac truck coming right through your heart.” (Tim Keller). And what that truck reveals ain’t so pretty.   Now before that, your parents might have tried to tell you about these flaws.  Your friends or roommates might have pointed them out.  But you could always walk away.  But in marriage, those promises bind you, and you can’t so easily walk away there.

Too often, you can think that the conflicts you have in your marriage are with your spouse.  But in reality, you are usually facing a conflict with yourself.  Marriage brings out the worst in you so you can confront it, so you can change it, so you can become free of it.  As the preacher, Bill Coffin put it.  The truth may make you free, but first it makes you miserable.  But the promises that bind you in marriage, give you the power to move through the misery to that freedom.   And the more you follow those promises in marriage, the more marriage grows you into the greatness God created you for.  

Now how do you live into this vision?  How do you hold onto the promises when you just want to tear it all down?  How do you love when you are not feeling the love at all?   How do you not run away when marriage shows you the ugly truth of who you are or who your spouse is?  You look to the One who kept his promises, even when you were tearing him down, who loved you even as you rejected him, who saw the ugly truth of who we all are, and didn’t run away.  

When God in Jesus was nailed to that cross, do you think he was saying to himself?  “Oh these people are so good looking and nice, I can’t wait to die for them?”    No, he was loving you from the outside in.   He had decided to love you, and nothing you did was going to change that promise.  He loved you no matter what.   His promises of love bound God so deeply not even death could break them.  The more he had reached out to you in love, the stronger that love grew, until on that cross the power of that love changed everything not just for you but for everything.   There on that cross, when Jesus saw you at your very worst, as you were murdering God, even then his love did not walk away.  But in Jesus, God stayed on that cross to bring you his lost children home.  

And the more you experience that love, the more it fills you with the power to love others like that, your spouse, your children, your friends, even those in the pews around you.   And as that love transforms you, it will transform your marriage, your family, every relationship in your life in ways more wondrous and more beautiful than you could ever dream.  

(This series is based on a famous series of messages by Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, who has also written a book on Marriage that is certainly worth checking out.)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The One Thing You Need to Sustain an Amazing Marriage

Today on the blog and with the sermons on which this blog is based, I am starting a new series on marriage.  But if you’re not married right now, you may be asking.  What relevance could this blog series have to me at all?  And the answer is.  A lot.

Why?   Every person here has relationships with someone.  And through the particular prism of the intense relationship called marriage, we will look at key factors that every human relationship needs.  Beyond that, God describes the relationship God wants with you as a marriage.  So knowing God’s vision for marriage tells you a lot about God’s vision for his relationship with you.   

And if you are married, whether you are five years into that journey or fifty, exploring God’s vision for marriage will make your marriage stronger wherever you are.    And if you’ve been divorced, it may shift your perspective in important ways.  As lonely as it can be to be single, maybe the loneliest place of all is in a marriage that is simply not working.   And after that marriage fails, the baggage from that loss can stick around.   Seeing God’s vision for marriage can lead you to leave behind that baggage, baggage you may not have even realized you were carrying. 

So wherever you are, this series will speak to you, not only in helping you with the relationships you have with others, but also in seeing more clearly the relationship God wants to have with you. 
And as we begin, I’ve been thinking a lot about a quote from the preacher Andy Stanley.   Stanley said. I have never seen an ugly wedding.  I have seen plenty of ugly marriages.   He’s right.   On that wedding day, it looks so good.  And the happy couple wants it to be good.   They want it to work.  But then it doesn’t.   What happens?  What drains the energy that existed on that day?   What is the source of power that sustains any marriage that makes it great?  In these few simple words, God shows you.  Listen and hear what God has to say.

In the sentence you just heard lies the answer to what enables any marriage to be all that God created marriage to be.  And let’s be clear, God did create it, marriage that is. 

Think about it.   Why doesn’t the Bible give you thoughts about how schools should be run or what the best economic system is?   Wouldn’t that be helpful?  When you think about it, God hardly gives any comments at all about human institutions.   Yet when it comes to marriage and family, God says a good bit.   Why is that?   It’s because human beings didn’t create marriage.  God did.   That’s why you find it mentioned at the beginning of things in the book of Genesis, right after God creates human beings.   

After all, if God is love, it makes sense that God would give you insights on how to live out loving one another.    And in the bonds between spouses, you have one of the key places where that happens.    And that means, when the Bible talks about what makes marriage work, you better listen. 

After all, you don’t pour maple syrup in your car, and expect it to work.  Why?  You know. The car’s maker didn’t design it to run on that.    And you know if you ignore those manufacturer’s instructions, your car is going to be in trouble fast.    And here in this verse in Ephesians, and the ones that follow, you get God’s instructions for marriage.    Now lots of folks have misunderstood these verses, and over our time together, we’ll clear those up.   But let’s be clear, the insights you’ll find here work.  They work for any marriage, anywhere, anytime.   Why?  You are reading the instructions of the One who created it in the first place. 

And the very first thing God tells you that you must remember about marriage is this.  You must submit.   A lot of folks don’t like to hear that word.  It seems a little harsh.   And that’s for good reason.  The Greek word Paul uses here for submit is one used mainly in the military, which makes sense.      

To be part of an army, you’ve got to learn to submit, to submit even at the risk of your own life for the good of the whole.   Without that willingness to submit, no army can succeed.  Instead, it will be every man and woman for themselves.     So when the fighting starts.  What will you have?  You’ll have a whole bunch of folks running in the opposite direction.  And that won’t work.

But what makes sense in the military, God is saying, makes even more sense in marriage.  Why?   Because nothing will destroy marriage quicker than self-centeredness.  For marriage to work, both parties have to be willing to submit themselves to the other.   And that is incredibly hard.    

Every summer now for 40 plus years, I’ve shared a beach house with other members of my extended family.   And do you know what I’ve learned over those years?  The ability to give yourself to another person, to give up your rights, the ability to serve others’ interests ahead of your own, the ability to submit your own concerns for the good of someone else, the ability to defer your desires to help someone else achieve their desires doesn’t come naturally.  Heck, there’s nothing more unnatural than that.    

Yet if we somehow don’t find a way to do that each year, then those weeks get ugly real fast.   And if two people in a marriage don’t find a way to do that, then their beautiful wedding will grow into an ugly marriage pretty quickly as well.    Nothing destroys a marriage quicker than self-centeredness.  Yet if self-centeredness comes so naturally, how do you break free of it?   How does the selflessness that marriage needs happen?

It happens when you decide that your partner’s wounds matter more than you own.  What do I mean?  

As you go through life, everyone gets wounded.   Parents wound you.  Siblings wound you.  Friends wound you.   You get the idea.   And generally, the more wounded a person is, the more self-absorbed they become.   Their wounds cut so deep that it’s harder for them to get past their own needs to see the needs of others.   And even when they do focus on the needs of others, it’s not really about those needs.   No, they’re simply meeting their own needs for validation or security by being there for others.

Now, many folks think that their self-centeredness comes about because of their wounds.  So, if their wounds get healed, so will their self-centeredness.   But their wounds did not create their selfishness. Their wounds only aggravated it.   The selfishness was there all along, baked into the cake, so to speak.   Now why is this important?

When you get married, three things happen.  First you discover that your spouse is way more self-centered than you ever realized.    And second, your spouse begins to say the very same thing about you.     And the third thing that happens is you don’t see how your selfishness is anywhere as bad as theirs.  Why is that? 

Well, you think, what you’re saying about me is true, but you just don’t understand, what I’ve been though, how I got to be this way.

Now when this pattern happens, you can take it a number of ways.   You can decide your wounds are more fundamental than your self-centeredness.  Therefore, that person’s job is to heal your wounds so that then your self-centered ways go away.   But of course those wounds don’t get healed because the other person is expecting the very same thing from you.  

And so two things happen.  Either the marriage blows up.   Or it stays together, but only because the partners make a deadly bargain.   It’s rarely done overtly, but it’s there.   Basically the bargain goes like this.   You don’t bug me about these things, and I won’t bug you about those things.      

And on the outside, the marriage may even look good.  But when that forty year anniversary comes, and the couple kisses, it looks a bit forced.  

Or you can make a different choice than that.  You can decide.   My self-centeredness has to be more fundamental than my wounds.  My flaws have to matter more than my pain.  So when your partner points out a place where your self-centeredness rises up.   You don’t make excuses.  You take action.  You focus your energy on breaking the pattern.  And you focus your energy there no matter what the other person is doing or not.

And when two people decide that, that their own self-centeredness has to be the focus, and not their wounds, then you have real potential for an amazing marriage.    And even if only one partner does this, and the other doesn’t, something extraordinary often happens.  Not immediately, but over time, the other partner softens, becomes more open to admit his or her own faults. Why?  Because you’ve stopped always talking about them. 

That’s what God is telling you in this sentence.   When each person decides that their own self-centeredness has got to be the issue, not their past, not their wounds, not what the other partner is or isn’t doing, then the possibilities for that marriage become endless. 

Yet as tantalizing as that vision is, how does it actually happen?  And that is where the second part of the sentence comes in, those words, out of reverence for Christ.  This sentence that we are focusing on this morning actually serves as a bridge sentence between two sections of Paul’s letter.   It ends a section focused on the new life followers of Jesus find in Christ, and it starts a section on how that life is lived out with your spouse, your kids, even your boss.   And Paul planned it that way.   Paul is saying, what I am proposing here, it can’t happen on your own.  You need a divine intervention. 

How does that intervention come?  It comes through the God who in Jesus was wounded for you.   On that cross, in Jesus God endured wound after wound.  He suffered abuse and torture not only in the name of the state, but in the name of religion too.  His friends rejected him and ran away.   In those brutal hours, he faced isolation so extreme that not even God could be found.    And why did God in Jesus do it?   God did it for you.   On that cross, God took on all your wounds, both the ones inflicted on you, and the one you’ve inflicted on others.    He was wounded for your transgressions.   And by his wounds, you are healed.   

On that cross, God lost all love, so that you will never lose it.    He lost his life, so that you could regain yours.    So trapped were you in your self-centeredness, that nothing less than the loss of God’s very self could free you.   But God in Jesus so loved you even in your self-involvement and self-absorption, he was glad to lose everything, even his very self to bring you home.   And the more you let that love, Jesus’ love grasp and hold you, the more he will free you to love others even as he loves you.   Then you will not need to look to your spouse or anyone else to heal your wounds.  Why?  You will know Jesus’ love is doing that.  You will know that by his wounds, he is making you whole.