Marriage and the Multi-Ethnic Church

A coalminer’s daughter and a German-immigrants grandson; he became a pastor and she the pianist. Difficult ministries and challenging relationships. Six children and 20 years in the south; I am but one. Enter: a high school graduate who never attended college, to the dismay of his highly educated and high society parents, married to the grand-daughter of a share-cropper from the woods of Georgia. Religion played a minor role at best, often none at all. They had four children; my wife is the oldest.

I grew up thinking people like me were middle class and people like here were upper class: the rich. She grew up thinking people like her were middle class and people like me were lower class: the poor. I grew up in rural Mississippi, she in the sprawling urbanity of metro-Atlanta. I spent my weekends tramping lonely through untroubled woods; she, with friends, at movies, cruising.

What happens when two cultures meet? There are only three options: Either one is destroyed and the other remains, or vice versa; or else the two become one and produce an offspring that is neither one nor the other but is a marrying of both, a retention of core values, key ideals, and dreams that fold into each other to produce something never before envisioned. We call this marriage.

I still struggle with my father’s anger, and she with her mother’s criticism. I withdraw when hurt; she advances. I am an introvert, while she is extroverted. But her love for family, for the connectivity of generations is a love that runs deeply in me, despite never having lived close to extended family. She has learned to value a spiritual heritage and I financial wisdom. I’ve learned to enjoy the delicacies of a nice dinner out, and she the experience of larger-than-life movies.

I guess I don’t understand the failure of multi-ethnic churches. How often have we heard of such organizations splitting in divorce: Over music, over heart-felt expressions of charisma; over preaching styles; over what Christmas decorations are used; over who leads Sunday School; over how to dress; over what are appropriate programs to spend money on? Every one of these individual issues has ten to twenty others attached to it—along with voice and unvoiced expectations; yet, each also has parallels in marriage where also two cultures collide.

I’ve never heard of such a church being referred to as a marriage. Partnerships, yes. Cooperative agreements, sure. Mutually beneficial endeavors, sometimes. But not marriage. And yet where else can we expect to find the tools necessary for seeing two cultures become one without losing the identity of either but in marriage? In marriage, it is called one flesh. “It isn’t instantaneous,” marriage counselors say. “It takes hard work. Sometimes you will want to quit. You can’t. You can cry, you can get angry, you can yell and scream. But you can’t quit. That’s what marriage is.” Culture issue after cultural issue threatens the marriage: how to spend money, where to spend the holidays, how to raise children, whether “yes Ma’am” is something the children will say or not, where to live, what kind of work to have, who works inside and who works outside the home, childcare, cars, interior design. But it’s marriage and we’re Christians so we fight it out, sometimes peacefully and laughing, sometimes with broken hearts and tears, always with love, with repentance, with hope, with anticipation of glory.

Why not in the church? What does one flesh look like in the church? What does it mean for two cultures to be willing “to leave father and mother and cling” to one another, bound by a common Savior? What does it mean for me to be uncomfortable with the way a brother worships? What does that look like in marriage? What does it mean for me to give way to an element that is not to my “liking” but in no way unbiblical, not sin? What does it mean for me to have my bedroom organized in a way that isn’t to my preference?

What color will the carpet be, the paint on the walls, the shutters on the front, or the person sitting in the pew beside us? None of these questions can be answered outside of the covenant of marriage, and a willingness to let discomfort displace preferences for unity and purity.


Self-Beauty: In the Eye of the Beheld

I love watching a less than “gorgeous” man and woman who is wrapped in tender affection for his or her spouse. These individuals are mirrors of a deep love. They are free of their own compulsion to be attractive and beautiful—free even of their own preoccupation of attractiveness (as some form of ideal, owned or observed)—and are content with a beauty withheld in the eye of the beholden.

By contrast, individuals of compelling beauty and physical appearance somehow never seem free of thoughts for their own appearance. Such are constantly about the smoothing of a shirt or dress, the twisting of a hair, the batting of eyes, the waggle of hips, the raised chin, the cut gaze, or some other action of ornamentation. That awareness seems to seek the eyes of the beholder for a chance to glimpse the insignificant reflection of self in the glaze of longing eyes.

Such love is questionable, deliberating whether to draw attention to self or not. Can it be that beautiful people are self-fulfilling in their beauty by the ornate-ness of their appearance and compelling distraction of their actions? But plainer people—and I do not mean ugly or homely, but those of a softer beauty than Hollywood has ever known—theirs is a freer affection.

Note how insanity in plainer people bends a doubting affection that loves in order to be loved. Pride in the beautiful produce a corrupted affection that loves as an expression of self-love. Given the opportunity, I would watch simpler people a hundred times in repetition, rather than set my eyes upon the most beholden this image-frenzied culture has ever put forward. For when "the bride eyes not her garment, but her dear bridegroom’s face,” (and vice versa) something transpires that exceeds pornographic candy and heart-borne emotional platitudes. It is a beauty never seen on the cover of any magazine.


Indian Winter and a Season of Death

Indian Winter. That is what I call this strange in betwenness that is neither Winter nor Fall. A grey sky hangs over yards of brown grass. Even the evergreens seem tired, worn out from the waiting. Friday—my birthday—we went to two separate nursing homes to visit shut-ins. The smell of death was in those places. Men and women robbed of nearly all dignity sat or lay in inhuman postures or positions. One woman was so curved as to seem not to have a spine. Her face drooped, her hands gnarled and twisted. And it strikes me that such places have become the modern catacombs—more even than a graveyard: for in a graveyard, the bodies have given up their last breath and, whether Heaven or Hell have received them, God only knows—their bodies return to dust, for from dust they have come and to dust they have returned.

But what of these catacombs of the living, these half-way houses for bodies that have not been allowed to rest, to die with dignity? I watched part of a PBS special on becoming old and dying (link here). Again and again, I read the ignorance on the faces of young men and women who knew nothing of the subject. The act of dying has became a private matter; and once so, it was shuttered off to the catacombs. We lost that knowledge—knowledge of the markings of life’s end, of what the body does when it can go no further, when light falls and night comes. In the matter of death, we are like savages attempting the manipulation of machinery of which we know nothing: Push this button. Pull that lever. Yes, give another surgery, another injection, one more machine for breath and food until life becomes the result of manipulation of electronics. We actually medicate to the point that the body can no longer naturally end its own continuance and long after the heart, lungs, limbs and inner workings of the body have died once, life remains—twisted and distorted by the interventions of ignorance.

Mistake me not! I despise that expression of medicine called Euthanasia—for it is God who gives life, and surely it is God who takes it away. But what of the woman who, one-hundred years ago would have died already, sustained by unnatural means and “is more machine now than man.” Or Mr. Tipton, for whom the only break in the rolling hours of boredom is the opportunity to sleep, and “to sleep perchance to dream,” and in dreams to walk once more a youth unhindered by decay and age. But even this is taken away by troublesome nurses—for in his daytime sleeping he is more prone to pneumonia—till every joy is denied for fear it may induce the body’s decay all the more quickly.

Our ignorance of death is corrupted the more because of our general uncertainty of the afterlife. If—as the movie The Fountain purports—life is but a cycle to be unbroken in life, death, and rebirth; where is hope? So a tree grows from the decaying flesh of a buried human and from that tree, fruit, that feeds hungry children who grow, age, marry, give birth, grow old, and die; to be put in the ground again to fertilize the harvests of men till we have all become cannibals of some generation past. And if—as Rand purports in her Objectivism—when life becomes the measure of motion between the terminui of production (as the main derivative of purpose) and consumption (as the natural terminus of production); what happens when neither production nor the possibility of it remains? Where is hope? Where then is the meaning of life?

Take every joy, you sustainers of life, and let the fear of death drive your continuance. Forego life’s every sweet and blessed delight—pure intimacy baked in the constancy of fidelity; sweet moderation of indulgent tastes and culinary delicacies; sunsets and the clouds of vicious storms; rainbows and the devastation of floods; a freshly mown lawn, a loaf of warm bread, a cup of coffee, and these graying days—and you may live another week or month, a prepaid year at the end of life. But at what cost? Tommy forwent a walk in the snow with Lizzie today in hopes that tomorrow he might save her from cancer; there may be a fountain, or Tree, of life. But wisdom is not born of long life, else every old man and woman should be wise. And how do we sacrifice the beauty of the present in vain preservation of a memory that will be faded tomorrow?

Let man examine his end and consider the journey. For tis better to come to the end of life with recognition of lacking than with the presumption of wholeness; for if whole, heaven has nothing more to offer and hell may be thy home. But if lacking, then whether days be long or short, and whether the hours of life passes like a cheerful hour or whether a stormy night, we long for what this life cannot, will not, should not promise. Eternal life awaits, but not in a tree or production, but in a dignity of a Lord who calls out, “Come all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give thee rest.”


Reflections on Atlas Shrgged: 1

Ayn Rynd wrote, “A sacrifice is the surrender of a value. Full sacrifice is full surrender of all values..” Rightly so, if one’s sacrifice is the Objectivism of her ordination. Consider, for Rynd—having witnessed the dehumanizing horrors of Communism and the vanity of the Social Gospel both of the early 20th Century—production and preservation became central values. Sacrifice then would require giving up either production or preservation.

And yet, now we stand—as it is some 100 years later—and find a culture that has embraced her godlessness (atheism), rejected the “mystics of the spirit” and rejected the proposition of a God beyond full comprehension. Production has become our beginning terminus, and so Rynd should be delighted? But consider the final terminus of a road begun of production. When one’s purpose is to produce, satisfaction is not derived until that same also engages in consumption. And where production tests the fortitude of man—his willingness to engage in unending hours of mindless labor for a paycheck or privilege—consumption frees him, if only for a moment. And so, like the alcoholic who at first sustains his job in order to “live for the weekend,” eventually not even the weekend satiates, when a stronger anesthetization is required. In time, he will forgo the frequency of the drink in order to relinquish the unpromising production, the unfulfilling labor, the work without purpose—without explanation to the why’s of life, to the in-and-out intricacies of human dignity.

Rynd missed it: Production is no more the beginning terminus of man’s purpose and meaning than consumption is the ending terminus. Rather, when man’s terminus are singular—resulting from a closed loop system rather than one which is linear—he finds meaning, purpose—yes, even joy!—throughout the various phases, including production and consumption, but never limited to.

Consider: I rise early to make a meal for a hungry family. Since production and preservation are but elements within the closed system, no core values are sacrificed in order to provide care. I derive joy from the act of service—a willful sacrifice of material possessions in an act which dignifies the life of another. We visit shut-ins on their birthday. These, of all humans, are the worst in a system of pure Objectivism. These humans produce nothing, and consume all. These corpses of life contribute nothing to the “produce-consume” model. Shall we kill them? Shall we forsake the lifelessness of the aged because they take what they can not repay?

It is our science that has sustained them beyond the function of their bodies? It is our science that has promised them this decade of disingenuous life. We have sustained them and then shuttled them off to the peripheries of life.
Where their experience could serve a map for our progress, we reject them. Where their errors could serve a warning in our own trials, we ignore them. Where they built upon the foundations of those before in order to offer us a chance to build, we ignore their efforts or, worse still, despise them.

But consider: when value is inherent—in people as in gold—purpose derives not from ability or appearance. Sacrifice reinforces core values rather than undermines them. Just as a piece of gold is of value whether in rough form or finished, so a human—whether strong in the wind of youth, or tempered as in the maturity of mid-life, or even gnarled and twisted as in the final days—is worthy of value, of consideration, of respect, of tender compassion—yes, even of sacrifice, that in what we give up we make room to hold all the more firmly that which is of greatest value; not merely as in the life to come, but here and now, in the very present. Through sacrifice, then, we raise up the banner of value that supersedes ability while never, negating it.


Fall, and the Process of Life & Learning

Yesterday, for almost no apparent reasons, I found myself on the verge of tears. It were as though some invisible shadow passed over my scope—and whether because of falling leaves mingled with uncharacteristically warm weather, or because another year folds over into an almanac of remembrances…I don’t know. But a sorrow resides at the heart of this lethargic Fall.

I am busy about the business of course evaluation critique for Institutional Assessment—a task as exciting as the lifeless description above. Not that I object to evaluative measures of effectiveness, but the paradigm of knowledge and transformation seem as much the inconclusive terminus of the current production-consumption model. Both exclude process. Consider: knowledge gained transforms, but it also reveals unknown ignorance which drives the pursuit of knowledge in exploration of further transformation. Learning has a beginning terminus, but it is the line of unbroken directionality: it never ends. Nor does the tree begin or end at the seed or the carcass of rotting wood, nor does one season mark the beginning and another the end, for each rolls into the other, transforming the face of earth and sky with the distinct strokes of color, hue, and shade.

Where once my recollections played back like a train of linear direction, now I find the seasons are self-contained transfer stations for remembrance. And so—watching Jonah descend the steps of his elementary school this morning—I saw myself at six, entering past the large curved exterior of Waynesboro Elementary School, over wooden floors in a hall that rose impossibly high for a first-grader. There—past offices and the special rooms of teacher conferences, past where a side hallway led toward the lunchroom—I turn to enter the door of Mrs. Porter’s room. In the framed outline of the doorway, I see her sitting behind her desk. Shane and Cain are already there. Turning back, I see the length of the hallway stretch toward the wide open space of outside and the shadow of my own father watching me, small, grow even smaller with perspective. And I am him and he is me and I believe he must be thinking about his childhood and entering the classrooms of his youth under the watchful eye of his father in a never ending repetition of father and son till at the dawn of time Adam stood in the morning sun and watched Able play among his tendered sheep.

God, these colors of Fall are a haunting shade of florescent orange and they call me out and in, down to the earthy places and up to the span of heaven. And where the brokenness of life breaks in—KS and her struggle with a brain tumor; and AB longing for you know what; a child bound by a self-imposed perfection that makes her sick; and a church looking for a pastor—I look for light in the darkness. Meanwhile, leaves fall in the stirring breeze, and if I venture to catch one, I will gain a wish (or so I pretend): a wish that freezes time and turns it back in a forward progression of growth and life apart from death and decay. A wish that makes me child and son while remaining man and father. A wish that lets the pages of the almanac live again.

This longing waits. I hold back tears. I fight them back.


Leaves and Pebbles (not Leaps and Bounds)

I’ve spent nearly two hours now signing my name to card after card in careful repetition. Careful repetition: the very phrase rings like an oxymoron to modern productivity and consumption. Yet I find a part of myself revealed in the manner by which the pen slides across the paper—a swirl, a twist, and the sound of metal against parchment. Like a Pointillist, these dots of thought, action, and process fill up the canvas of my life, revealing a picture that only time will tell. Wherein did I begin to believe that greatness is that singular action which, mindful as I must be, I will see, seize upon, and make a name for myself? Is it greater greatness to sway the masses with a face of promise and words of honesty, or to sit beside the bed of a dying man, no longer able to rise, nor even to sit—humbled by the mercilessness of aging? Is it greater greatness to forgive the a murder than forgive the careless drivers who, ten times a day, unapologetically cut me off?

These insignificancies are like the leaves of a tree: the autumn-yellowed maple is a thing of beauty, and yet it is little more than the collective summation of one insignificant leave upon another. Or those tiny stones which make up a binding presence of concrete: one, by itself, wounds the heel and troubles the foot. But together, mixed with the fine powders of lime and mortar, these stones are an unbreakable force—as I found, pouring the footer for a new mail box post on Monday night. A cold drizzle of rain had fallen since early in the afternoon. The sun was gone and a haze of mist and fog left the air heavy. I easily dug in the soft soil: 18 inches deep. I easily mixed the Quickcrete with water, turning it with repetitive motions in a white bucket. Poured out, it sloshed into the hole, gurgling here and there where it seeped between the reinforcing supports, or where a pocket of air gave way to the weight of dust, gravel, and water mixed. Flattened, covered, I let it sit—setting to the task of cleaning my tools, an act of repetition: fill the bucket and swish is around; empty and repeat. Spray off the shovel, then rub with gloved hand at resistant cement; repeat.

A few tiny pebbles poured out of the bottom of the bucket as I cleaned it: insignificant, disregarded, petty, worthless. And yet, was that not what I paid for: insignificant pebbles well mixed with insignificant dusts and sands—when mixed become a support that only a great effort will undo? So I am forced to acknowledge anew: there is meaning in the insignificant.

And so I drive home the same repetitious path each way; the journey is different. I rake the discarded leaves from my yard with the same repetition of movement; but the process is new. I inscribe my name with ink across card after card to the sound of paper fibers tearing; but I am revealed anew, a Pointillist, a tree; a leaf, a stone.

Will wrote, “Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” Each of these people attain to greatness by leaps and bounds—the suddenness of a decision, a flash of heroism, a moment of unparalleled restraint. With due respect, I add that for many others, greatness is less a fact of “leaps and bounds” and more a summation of the insignificant moments of faithfulness, constancy, and commitment. Such men and women as these build greatness by pebbles and leaves. Pebbles and leaves are the makings of the tree’s beauty and the concrete’s strength. Strength and beauty, pebbles and leaves. Greatness is born of meaning mined from details too often overlooked.


October Reflections

How is it that I have change so? This morning I sat to write notes of praise and encouragement to the young students of my Sunday school class. And yet, with every written word, my mind stole off to some secret distraction: unanswered email, unfinished house projects, unchanged oil, a video game. I found that I nearly despised the very process as though there were no meaning or value in such actions, dismissing them as twaddle.

I find, and not for the first time, that the stray twig once tolerated has grown and now threatens the health of the tree. Once tertiary limbs now draw resources from the trunk. I am a tree in danger of branching at all the wrong places.

Too long the wandering feet of worldly distractions have tramped the garden of my mind. I set anew to the task of fencing, as Robert Frost’s neighbor and cry with him, “Something there is that doesn’t love a fence.”

I live as though activity proves viability, and volume quality. “When what I most enjoy, contented least…” I pray for intimacy with God and He drives me to His Word. I seek Him in the pages and find instead the blood-stains of my growing need. I hurry and move about; I multitask, all the while forgetting that He is as much about the journey as the process, and more about the roots than the limbs; more about the notes of encouragement to children, when I have embraced the lie that more is more. “Less is more,” Dane Ortlund recently reminded me. “Less is more,” he said, summarizing the message of 2 Corinthians. Less is more.

And so I walk along the ancient fence and seek to patch the places made open to the ways of culture: consumption, complacency, capitalization. The blood-stains reveal a double wound: my unworthiness and His sacrifice. That which I write to five-year-olds comes home, through my own hand to my own heart, “In Christ we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace.” Theirs no more than mine.

If salvation were simple cognition, then I am reborn everyday, a child, a sapling. Let winter run its course: I will prune this tree.