Thursday, October 14, 2010


In the last few days I have had conversations along the following lines:

  • A multiple e-mail exchange with a man who disagreed strongly with a point I had made in a sermon, contending that I had inappropriately crossed a line from religion to politics.*
  • A phone call from a young woman who thanked me for addressing “these difficult issues.” (She was referring, in part, to the same sermon.)
  • A question from a parishioner wondering if our church was going to tell people how to vote (in favor of an amendment to ban gay marriages) like the Catholic Church was doing in a DVD from the bishop which had been mailed out to all Catholics.
  • A conversation with a man who was grateful to hear that our church wasn’t going to “kick anybody out” for being homosexual. (He is a straight man.)

These conversations bring to mind three conundrums (conundri?) I have pondered over the years, and increasingly these days:

The only way to avoid upsetting somebody in the pew is to stick to sweet Jesus stories and general religious pabulum. The problem with that is that you cannot, then, be a biblical preacher. Although I have never set out to preach a “political” sermon, honest biblical preaching will intersect with the world of politics – that is, the real world. (The alternative, perhaps, is to be the preacher who is “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use.”) So although I am not as courageous as an old friend who sometimes claims, tongue-in cheek, that he is disappointed that no one has walked out in the middle of a sermon lately, I do try to “preach the text” and let the political chips fall where they may. (The “text” being that assigned in the Common Lectionary – an objective approach to surveying the scriptures over a three year period – and not a passage selected by me.) Ironically, I also agree with Martin Luther, who said, “After every sermon, the preacher should fall on his knees and ask God to forgive him for what he’s just done.”

Many (not all) disagreements with a preacher’s message have to do with one’s place (preacher and hearer alike) on a liberal-conservative spectrum. Often (not always) one who is conservative theologically will also be conservative in politics (and vice-versa). But how, really, does one become liberal or conservative? To say, “It’s the way you were brought up” is too simple. My parents were moderate Republicans, my grandfather was a Republican state legislator, I am a liberal Democrat in my politics and, I suppose, open-minded and “progressive” in theology. I had a loving relationship with my parents and never consciously rebelled against them for the sake of rebelling. My confirmation pastor – a significant and positive influence in my life – was orthodox Lutheran in his theology (although he did teach us, in 1959, that “there is no conflict between Genesis and evolution,” which is about as much as he said on the subject). I don’t recall a sermon that addressed any political issues of the day. He was no firebrand.

Was I liberalized by Vietnam? By the general milieu of a college campus? (But my most influential political science professor had served in the Republican Eisenhower administration.) By a religion class that introduced me to the wide possibilities inherent in biblical criticism and theology? (If so, what made me open to such ideas?) It is not my intention to go on about “me,” but I do so with the assumption that I may be a somewhat representative example of this kind of complicated development and these kinds of spiritual-psychological-physiological questions.

I am intrigued by the current hypothesis that there may be a genetic component to all this. I emphasize “component,” because as I read the theory the idea is that, if involved at all, genetics is only a part of the mix. In any event, my understanding of myself as a liberal seems to me to be even more deep-seated (or inborn?) than my self-understanding as a Christian. Is it genetic?

Which leads to the third conundrum. I have sometimes maintained that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. I know only too well that there are millions of people who would aver that they are conservative because they are Christian. But which is it? Does my Christianity lead me into a certain understanding of politics? Or have my politics influenced me to be a certain kind of Christian?

And you?

*The specific point my friend took issue with was this statement in my sermon: “There are over 450 passages in the Bible that have to do with economic justice and care for the poor. Some-times people ask me, 'Pastor, how does the Bible apply to my daily life?' Well, here’s one way. One way that all those passages about hunger and justice can apply to your life: When you enter the voting booth, whether you are Republican, Democratic, or Independent, you can ask yourself, 'Is this vote I’m about to cast going to benefit the poor?'” 

(Since writing this post, I have read "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion," by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt's research-based analysis offers a very convincing thesis regarding the issue of his title.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Many accepted truths about marriage can be challenged with at least anecdotal (if not statistical) contradictions; there are sixty-year marriages that had their genesis with the preacher sighing in hopeless futility as the couple recessed down the aisle, and there are failed marriages in which the unhappy husband and wife each came from happy parental marriages. Nevertheless I have come to believe that much of what we know about healthy relationships – including marriage – is time-tested, founded in real experience, and is worth passing on, which I will do below as a sort of outline (of course with some commentary). Caveat: I’m not going to add after each proposition (as I could), “It’s true – except when it isn’t.”

Although some of what follows is stated as “statistics,” this whole piece should be read as my opinion. And I’ll be the first to admit that this is a hodge-podge.

(In almost every example below I intend the meaning "him or her," even if I don't always state it that way.)

No one is just a statistic, but lasting marriages seem statistically tied to:
  • Age at time of marriage (over 25 is better)
  • Length of time you’ve known each other
  • Educational level
  • Health of parents’ marriages
  • Stats on living together before marriage are mixed, but not necessarily positive.
  • Untreated, the disease of alcoholism will destroy a marriage.
  • Marriages that begin as a way of escaping a difficult or abusive family situation (usually at a relatively young age) do not have a good track record.
  • Marital difficulties (conflict, communication, finance, in-laws, sex,) are most challenging in the first seven years. These are also the years when members of a couple are getting to know each other, which seems to have a natural tie-in to how long they've known each other before marriage.
Most of us don’t take a class in how to be a husband, how to be a wife. But we have all taken just such a class: the family in which we grew up. Learn from it. Talk with your betrothed (or your spouse) about the families of your childhood – what do you want to carry into your own marriage and family? What do you want to leave behind? I always ask an engaged couple, as a part of our pre-marital conversation, “Do you like the marriage your parents have? Would you like a marriage like theirs?" About 60% of the time at least one says, “Yes,” (usually with some qualifications); about 40% of the time one will say, “No,” or “No way!” Often, the partner who is dissatisfied with his parents’ marriage will say, “But I like her parents’ marriage – I’d like to have a marriage like they have.”

A number of years ago my sisters and brother and our spouses surprised our parents with an anniversary dinner. At the end of the meal, my newly-married sister-in-law asked my parents (whose marriage she admired) to talk about marriage – how it had been over the years, what advice they had. This led to a delightful (and instructive) conversation about marriage among all of the couples around the table.

Problems experienced before marriage will not automatically improve after marriage, and certainly not because of marriage.  They will only get worse, unless they are dealt with by means of open communication, listening, a creative, respectful, non-anxious approach to conflict, and other ideas listed here. If so dealt with, they can be the cause for reminiscent laughter fifty years later. (Of course many nettlesome issues do improve over the years when they are part of a healthy, growing relationship; my emphasis here is to warn against the assumption that serious problems will go away automatically because "now we're married.")

Similarly, one should not expect to “change” one’s partner after marriage. Marriage is a mutual acceptance pact, and as such reflects the gospel itself. The vow of marriage is “I love you just the way you are,” not, “Now that I’ve got you I’m going to change you into the person I want you to be.”

Ironically, one should be open to changing oneself – not into a different person, but to compromise on or eliminate those attributes or behaviors which irritate the other – as an act of love. As I once read, “Ok, you’re married. Now, take five minutes and 'find yourself.' Got it? OK, now devote the rest of your life to her.” Marriage is certainly about “us,” and (for you) it’s about “her” (or “him”). It’s most certainly not about “you.” Research shows that both members in a good marriage talk more about what "we" do than about "I" or "you."

One of the things you will be learning about each other in those first seven years is that you have different approaches to conflict – and how to resolve that conflict. All healthy relationships have conflict. The important thing is how that conflict is approached and resolved. You might want to talk it out right now; she may throw herself on the bed sobbing. She may appear at your chair-side saying, “We have to talk,” you may want to read the paper. She may be calm and cool, you may be climbing up the wall. It certainly does need to be talked out -- but after a little respite, if necessary, and when both are ready (and calm).  Sweeping an issue under the rug until it emerges again later is not an option. You need to talk it out. And kiss and make up.

Speak the truth in love. It is possible to speak truthfully but unlovingly. (“That’s the ugliest dress I’ve ever seen.”) If it doesn’t meet the Apostle Paul’s three criteria, it should probably be left unsaid: 1) Is it truthful? 2) Is it loving? 3) Will it build up (rather than tear down) our relationship?

Another bit of practical advice from Paul: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Note he doesn’t say, “don’t be angry.”) If the disagreement is unresolved at the end of the day, let the marriage bed be the place of non-anxious reconciliation. A lot of married folks recommend applying this literally, some figuratively, but either way, it is a caution against accepting a pattern of going for days (or even very many hours) without speaking to each other. An old guy dispensing advice at his fiftieth wedding anniversary once said, “In all these years we never once went to bed angry. (Pause…) We went to bed pretty late sometimes!”

In a loving argument you don’t back your partner into a corner – you lay off a bit and leave him an out. You are not trying to "finish him off" (or you may finish off the marriage). You don’t push the known buttons. You speak in “I” statements and not “you” statements: “I am angry because…” not, “You are a no-good…” (“You” statements always cause or escalate fights. I mean always.)

According to a leading marriage researcher, eye-rolling is a bad sign. It is a sign of disrespect. We all do it a little – but if it is a regular part of your arguments, this researcher is going to predict your marriage won’t last. He says he can tell by watching a video of a couple arguing for fifteen seconds whether or not the marriage is going to last. He looks for things like eye-rolling. He looks, basically, at how (or if) a husband and wife are caring for each other even in an argument.

This same researcher – no kidding – says that there is statistical evidence that one sign (not cause) of a healthy marriage is when the husband says, “Yes, dear.” The more I say that, the healthier my marriage becomes. Because it’s almost always an expression of the truth.

After many years of marriage, Caryl said to me, “When we argue, you make me feel stupid.” This is ironic, because Caryl is one of the smartest people I know. But I figured out what she meant. Sometimes in disagreement I escape to my “high horse,” and lecture from on high – all cool and rational. I think I’ve finally learned my lesson. (Dear?) I hope I'm an example of how even in marriage one can learn, grow, and change. (I've tried to think of something I'd like to change about Caryl, but all I can come up with is the way she whisks my coffee cup into the dishwasher before I'm done with it.)

Sex is another one of those things that you will get to know about each other – in the first seven years and for the rest of your lives. Here’s some things I believe:
  • One partner may express more interest in genital sex. One may express more interest in romantic touching and holding. Both are right. We can learn from each other.
  • “Always be open to trying something new, and never force anybody to do something they don’t want to do.” 
  • “I like it when…” is a great thing to say to each other at all times. “I like it when you cook the chicken that way…” “I like it when you wear your hair that way…” And it’s equally good in sex: “I like it when you touch me there.”
  • Having children does affect our sex lives – adjustments must be made.
  • Headaches happen.
  • Men, you will read articles that say that our evolutionary background pre-disposes us to “roaming.” This theory may even be true. But it is referring to our LIZARD BRAIN. The faithfulness of marriage is what is called “civilized.”
  • Statistics say that one out of four women are sexually abused before the age of eighteen. If it applies in your marriage, this is cause for some tender talk and understanding – perhaps with the help of a counselor. It probably ought not be kept as a secret from one's spouse. (Again, I know there are exceptions….) It may have an effect for years on the sexual fulfillment of both partners. 
  • You can have great sex in the first years of your marriage, and forty years later you can say, “It’s even better now!”
  • Good sex combined with loving communication is an essential part of a healthy marriage.
  • Shared finances in a joint account are expressive of the unity of marriage. I have heard the arguments in favor of separate accounts, and I am not closed-minded about it, but going into marriage with separate accounts sets up -- right from the outset (at least on paper) -- a division between two who are becoming one. 
  • Money problems can be a cause of blaming and tension. Let husband and wife be united against the problem; do not let the problem become a wedge that comes between you. (This same advice can be given for in-law problems, child-rearing, sex, etc.)
  • Although both husband and wife need to be fully aware of the general financial picture, "The one who is best at it should keep the books." (I actually read this in a newspaper ad for a bank many years ago. And I agree.)
If you get to a point in your marriage when it seems -- whether through exhaustion, familiarity, or irritation -- that "the honeymoon is over," plan another one -- and another, and another -- as many as you need through the years. Sometimes a quiet dinner, sometimes a trip to Hawaii. Practice the "Multiple Honeymoon Plan."

There are no perfect marriages, and some marriages, alas, need to end for the good of everyone. But good marriages are constitutive of a good society, they are the best possible nursery in which to raise children to be presented as healthy-minded adults to the next generation, and they are like a garden – the garden of love (weeds and all) – in which two people can fully flower. God bless your marriage.

I hope this post invites your response: Agreements, disagreements, and... "What have I forgotten?"
Thanks to Lowell and Carol Erdahl for "The Multiple Honeymoon Plan" in their book, "Be Good To Each Other." (Caryl and I have put it into practice.)
Here's a good article on some of the issues discussed in this blog post.