Delightfully Difficult

Number twenty-two. The copper anniversary. Whoever designated anniversary themes must have figured if you made it to 22 you could risk giving a copper-themed gift to your spouse. Copper is great for circuit boards and statues, but as an anniversary present? Seriously, what’s a guy to do? I find consolation in my navigation around the “wax” theme of the 16th anniversary, as well as “feathers” for number 18. I propose we simplify and modernize. How about a, “dinner and a movie” theme for every year?

As part of our recent anniversary celebration, my wife moved a few wedding treasures into prominent view. Slightly more than arms-length from where I sit is the figurine that sat atop our wedding cake. Side-by-side in a convertible car sit a porcelain bride and groom – wide-eyed and pensive. They embody hope, innocence, and shameless dreams. Their faces evoke laughter and sunshine and the thrill of oneness. They symbolize humanity’s best sentiment for togetherness.

Yet veiled by the idyllic cuteness of our Precious Moments™ pair is something contrary to a fairytale sculpting of happily ever after. Our wedding cake couple has secrets. A close look reveals damage and scars. Here a chip, there a crack. Tin cans that once dangled from the car’s bumper have been ripped from their anchoring point. This marital duo is not as they were that January day when they nestled secure in a thick bed of white frosting. They’ve changed.

Such is marriage. A refining endeavor of being broken and changed.

In a recent reading of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I attached myself to the character Levin. He’s traditional, stubborn, and idealistic. He’s a self-aware dreamer in tension with life’s realities. After some favorable twists of circumstance, Levin’s marital dream comes true as he weds his true love. Here’s Tolstoy description of Levin’s thoughts, still very new to his role as husband:

“Levin had been married three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected to be. At every step he found his former dreams disappointed, and new, unexpected surprises of happiness. He was happy, but on entering upon family life he saw at every step that it was utterly different from what he had imagined. At every step he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy course of a little boat on a lake, should get himself into that little boat. He saw that it was not all sitting still, floating smoothly; that one had to think too, not for an instant to forget where one was floating and that there was water under one, and that one must row; and that his unaccustomed hands would be sore; and that it was only to look at it that was easy; but that doing it, though very delightful, was very difficult.” (Anna Karenina, Part V, Chapter 14)

Easy is the story of that wedding cake couple with painted-on smiles and forever young features. Easy flowed our dreams of marital life, twenty-two years ago. Easy was the dress rehearsal.

Then we stepped into the boat.

And there we sit. She and me. Side-by-side in a weathered skiff upon life’s ocean. Happy and sore. Disappointed and surprised. Broken but joyful. And always dreaming as we paddle into the delightfully difficult.

Together.

Hot Pursuit

Nearly twenty-two years of the same stealthy preparations. A pre-dawn routine executed with precision. On this particular morning, I sought extra discretion. My mission was to slip away unnoticed. Avoid interaction or confrontation. No words. Simply brush her cheek with a kiss and leave her sleep undisturbed. Gently close the bedroom door, descend the stairs, and traverse the minefield of aging floorboards without setting-off a creak or groan.

My destination: the office. The goal: a quiet morning of coffee, reading, prayer – you know – the litany of good, noble, and righteous things that are fodder for humble tweeting.

I wish there was something tweet-worthy in those moments. My morning maneuvers that day were a cover-up. A ruse. An attempt to distance myself from the week’s tension. Tension with what, I’m not sure. I can’t pinpoint a particular issue or conversation or event. Life just felt like a slow plodding through fog and a 45-degree drizzle. I don’t enjoy being wet or cold and those days gave me feelings of wet and cold. I responded with observable annoyance and emotional withdrawal. And as I began that day in question, my aim was continued retreat…to somewhere…alone.

I slipped out the door and was soon bunkered in my dimly lit office. My escape seemed assured. The coffee was poured, email checked, and Bible open. I was alone, and it was quiet.

Until my computer loosed a tinker bell chime. A new iMessage. From my wife.

My cover was blown.

Here’s our brief exchange:

my wife
    Are you meeting someone for breakfast?
me
    No. I’m in my office studying. I meet my mom at 8.
my wife
    Can I come up and have a meeting? 🙂
me
    a meeting?? about what?
my wife
    Just a couple things I started to write but are complicated. Easier to talk.
me
    ok

Ugh. She was on to me, hot in her pursuit. I was hemmed-in. Trapped. She was coming to crash my pity party. What did she want to talk about? “Complicated” is code word for “you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do, buddy!” I found small consolation in her use of a smiley face emoticon.

I sighed, then slouched in my chair. I was upset and disappointed. Not with her, but me.

I didn’t want to see her. Well, I did…and didn’t. I was seeking escape so I could spend time floating like deadwood in the mental whirlpool of ‘woe is me.’ I wanted to craft my case for why I deserve better. That morning I wasn’t interested in reason or rescue. I didn’t want to chat.

But she did. And she’s my wife, so we talk.

She is also the person I fear the most. 

I fear her, not because she is unkind, but because she knows too much — too much about me. Marriage necessitates deep, personal revelation. A sacred vulnerability brought forth through committed trust. With transparency comes risk in our engagements because neither she nor I are free from mistakes. We misjudged and misinterpret. We make assumptions. We say things we shouldn’t and cause each other pain. This reality can be frightening. Sometimes distance seems a safer choice. It did for me that morning.

But marriage is a covenanted oneness. A relationship that pursues and protects and breaks into early morning darkness. It brings warmth to a cold heart. It protects from the mist that dampens a spirit. How wonderful is it that someone who has experienced the most offensive, disgusting, repulsive things about you makes the willful choice to seek. To find. To confront. To love.

My wife has heaps of grace and saintly patience for this stubborn man. I am blessed, and grateful.

I really did hope to escape that morning. On occasion I need some time by myself to get straightened around. My wife knows that and gives appropriate space.

She also knows when to track me down.

My Favorite Picture

Last week I was overwhelmed – again. It was déjà vu from two years ago. All those hallways and galleries and glass cases and tiny spotlights. It doesn’t take long for me to get lost in the varied and sometimes loose interpretations of art at The Art Institute of Chicago.

But this time, while indulging in Monet’s impressionist beauty and marveling at intricate hand-sewn tapestries and pausing over Picasso’s intriguing depictions, my thoughts floated to another piece of art. A picture – and it’s my favorite.

It’s an unfinished piece. Even so, it’s wonderful in its present state. The artist continues to work on it – daily refining, enhancing, reducing and adding. It’s a complicated work that I ponder and probe closely. In the details I perceive bits of anger and pain. Joy alongside sorrow. I discover sections that exude bright laughter and coy smiles. Happiness. Gentleness. Attentiveness. Kindness. Love.

Two figures are central to the piece. The artist has captured them speaking. Their mouths are nondescriptly shaped, so I’m free to envision a confounded effusion of words – some shouted, some whispered, some savored, and some unsaid. Their intricate faces, focused upon each other, are both quizzical and knowing.

Layered deep into the picture is a warm acceptance that blankets cool, undulating anxieties. Shadowy tones of doubt and fear are present, but carefully bound to the perimeter. Wonder and celebration effervesce from the picture, seeking to capture and enthrall each observer.

Stepping back for a broad view brings forth soft, strong, tender, and compassionate characteristics. Taken as one, this picture is simultaneously fully feminine and wholly masculine. Each part necessary, yet independently special. It’s a mysterious collective. A deeply personal picture that’s common in its representation, but unique in its presentation.

This extraordinary piece was in The Art Institute of Chicago last week – for about two hours. Then it walked out the door, down stone steps, passed between the majestic and beautifully oxidized pair of bronze lions and onto a sidewalk along Michigan Avenue. That piece – a masterfully crafted picture – is my marriage.

More than twenty years in its progression, God continues to paint my marriage with vibrant colors of grace, mercy, patience, and love. Despite moments of resistance, He gently knits together the souls of my wife and me. Closer. Tighter. Singular. Intimate. We are bound with cosmic sacredness.

God’s sings with pleasure over our bittersweet union. And in the safety of His purposed design we cling to our covenant. We fight for it. We trust it. We rest unified, gladly reflecting back to the Artist the beauty of our oneness.

The gift of marriage is a spectacular display of creative love. A man. A woman. Fit together with God-given complementarity. A blessed picture of the redemptive, life-giving relationship of God and His children.

Me and my wife. Together.

That’s my favorite picture.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24, ESV)

Marriage is War

G.K. Chesterton said, “Marriage is an adventure, like going to war.”

Today (January 16) marks 19 years of ‘war’ for Katrina and me.

Yes, it has been war. But not that kind of war.

Do we have some moments of ‘intense discussion’? Absolutely. Have we proven the adage that opposites attract? You bet. She’s peppermint mocha; I’m coffee—black. But despite such differences, we’ve grown to understand that tensions in our marriage are not about our covenant, but because of it. We struggle not against each other, but against ourselves.

Our self-centered passions seek to poison our covenant—to turn our affections inward, rather than out. To distract our gaze from our sacred unity to a (seemingly) more exciting diversity.

A vibrant marriage is hard work. It requires drawing-out each other’s poisons. It’s painful and sickening. But in the midst of this necessity is a glorious journey of discovery as the wonder of raw humanity is revealed. The adventure of marriage is born through the linking of mind, body and soul in the war against the biggest threat to oneness: us.

I’m ashamed of those times when my actions have threatened my marital oneness. I can be a very unattractive man. How grateful I am for the many times my wife has covered my ugliness with beautiful grace. She’s seen my worst, listened to my rants and observed my knee-jerk, thoughtless actions—yet loved, accepted and forgiven. She inspires me to be a patient father, sacrificial spouse and a fully-devoted Jesus freak.

I am a totally infatuated, one-woman man. That resolve has brought a daily, compounding dividend of marital joy and contentment. I cherish the life-long promise my wife and I share. We are perfectly partnered for life’s grandest adventure.

Pat Benatar was right: “Love is a battlefield.” But on that battlefield, the best is being brought out of me, and my wife. I’ll go to war with, and for her—anytime.

Clothing Optional?

Our September Saturday mornings have been blissful.
Our bliss comes via art classes at a local college. Being the savvy homeschooling mom she is, Katrina enrolled our children (yes, every last one of them) in Saturday morning art classes. So, while our kids get artsy and educated, we practice being empty nesters for two and a half glorious hours.
Our empty nest practice-runs revolve around coffee and conversation. Lately I’m finding myself day-dreaming of Saturday morning. A Costa Rican pour-over for me. A decaf latte for her. A scone to share. Ah, breathe in the peaceful, uninterrupted bliss.
But in the midst of our pleasure came a shocking dose of reality.
Like any school, the walls of the art college our children attend serve as displays. Some walls are pleasantly draped with images of trees, horses, birds and butterflies. Others hold Picasso-like paintings with noses and eyes free-floating amidst brightly colored shapes. One corridor is home to a collection of digital art. Another has pencil and charcoal drawings. There are self portraits, as well as the many variations of the ever popular “bowl of fruit.”
Then there’s the hallway that causes parents with young children to break-out in a cold sweat. You know the one. It has “that” type of “art.” Art with lots of anatomy – and I’m not talking ears.
A couple Saturdays ago we unknowingly wandered down the hallway of “ears.” Like walking into an unseen spider web, we were captured by scenes of the obscene. It took only seconds for naïve little minds to react with giggles, snorts, squeals and gasps. Fingers pointed. Mouths gaped. Eyes widened. Katrina and I moved with the speed of a SWAT team, closing gaped mouths and nudging frozen legs quickly past renderings of “ears” and other bits of anatomy.
We did some quick parental clean-up, dressing wounded psyches and toning-down rapid-fire jokes from our man-children who can’t help themselves. Unfortunately, there we more spider webs waiting.
After class, we took the opportunity to view some artwork that was part of a local competition called ArtPrize. Well, ArtPrize became a Sur-Prise as the very first exhibit had – you guessed it, “ears.” Since we had recently viewed sons of Adam and daughters of Eve sans fig leaves, this encounter was met with more levity than shock. The work we were viewing was compromised of digital images depicting people engaged in everyday activities. In a corner of the montage, there was a man taking a shower. Oh, boy. My son commented, “Well, at least he’s wearing a shower cap.” Small consolation, but I appreciate the optimism.
The parade of “ears” has been a distraction to my Saturday bliss. But in the distraction I’ve been forced to think more about art, innocence, beauty – even my marriage.
I can’t deny the human body is amazing. Attractive. Inspiring. Yet the appeal of our bodies is not permission for lingering looks, boundless exploration or public exposé. The human form is divinely crafted. In the fullness of body and soul it is imaged after God. This origin gifts humanity with intrinsic worth. A sacred quality. And what’s sacred should be honored, respected and protected. Held close and with care. To wantonly unmask the human form robs it of its sacredness. Outside of marriage, the revealed body becomes tragically common. For some, commodity.  
Like our bodies, marriage has a sacred quality. September Saturdays with Katrina have been wonderful because our relationship is divinely bound. Over coffee and a scone we solidify our bond and experience the beauty of marriage as we laugh, listen and share – with clothes on. The mystery of what’s veiled creates a wonderful, binding tension. Nude art breaks that tension with an undignified lifting of the veil. It grabs for something it inherently destroys. It’s an unfortunate expression of misplaced affections.
Perhaps I’m thinking too much about a few pieces of art. But then, maybe not.

Why all the Hubbub?

I confess. I watched. But only for five minutes. Really.

My five minutes was likely far below the average view-time of the other two billion who witnessed the marriage of Prince William and Miss Catherine (Kate) Middleton. It was certainly a grand spectacle. Katrina and our girls, and eventually the boys (TV is like a bug zapper for children) partook of the festivities. I did my best to resist the pull. I really don’t care about Kate’s dress – the cut or who made it. I have no time to spare for comparing this wedding to that of Charles and Diana. And beyond the terrific name, I don’t need to know about the personal life and availability of Pippa Middleton.

Now before I’m pigeon-holed or stereo-typed as an insensitive male, I freely admit that I had a small attraction to the ceremony. I love tradition. I appreciate a bit of pomp and formality. And the wee bit of English blood in my European pedigree engenders a sense of pride for things British. Mix this with the rarity of a royal wedding and I succumbed to the pressure to gaze.

I found the whole event on the brink of being overdone. But it was beautiful. Powerful. Romantic. A fairy-tale brought to life.

My five-minute peek at pageantry resulted in some serious pondering. I was curious, and somewhat perplexed as to why 1/3 of the global population would watch this event. As I continued to think, this question came to mind: what do we value more – ceremony or covenant?

This question is not intended to downplay extravagant ceremony or belittle those who enjoyed watching the wedding. Of all the things to make a big deal about, the joining of a man and woman in covenantal marriage is worthy of our best. A wedding ceremony signals the birth of a sacred, unbreakable, unconditional union. To that I say, “Huzzah!” (there’s that English blood, again.)

Yet, when thinking about our enthrallment with William and Kate’s marriage, I feel sadness. Sadness for a family that is royal, yet tragic. Sadness about death. I’m sad for two princes whose parents couldn’t keep their covenant. Sad for our fascination with, and consumption of celebrity. Sad that a day of happiness is darkened by speculation over the staying power of vows. Sad for the incongruity of the venue, the spectators and the participants. Sad that the ceremony was a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

But sadness is not my primary or predominant feeling. Last week’s royal wedding was a reason to celebrate. To be grateful to God for the sacred covenant of marriage. A covenant that binds the union of one man and one woman. A union in which the uniqueness of each gender joins in oneness that brings more fullness to their collective humanity. Oneness that offers a tiny taste of authentic, transparent, unconditional love – the kind of love God offers us.

When a couple marries, we should celebrate with great flair and revelry because of what marriage symbolizes. Our earthly marriages are but the opening act to the grandest marriage of all – the marriage of Jesus Christ to His Bride, the Church. In that union the faith of followers of Jesus Christ will find consummation as we join in perfect unity to God himself.

That future, divine marriage is why our hearts are drawn to wedding ceremonies like William and Kate’s. We long for the beauty of the bride. For the strength of the groom. Our hearts yearn for the oneness of relating to our Creator in a perfect union. A union built on the eternal, God-backed covenant of salvation by grace, through faith. That covenant is everything. I stake my life on it. How about you?

The royal wedding was an amazing ceremony. But don’t miss the covenant it commemorated and celebrated. May our marriages on earth be pleasing foretastes of the greatest marriage yet to come.

LORD JESUS,
Help me to wait patiently, silently upon thee,
  not to be enraged or speak unadvisedly.
Let thy mercy follow me while I live,
  and give me aid to resign myself to thy will.
Take my heart and hold it in thy hand;
  write upon it reverence to thyself with an
  inscription that time and eternity cannot erase.
To thy grace and the care of thy covenant
  I commit myself, in sickness, and in health,
  for thou hast overcome the world,
  fulfilled the law,
  finished justifying righteousness,
  swallowed up death in victory,
  and taken all power everywhere.
Mark this covenant with thine own blood
  in the court of forgiving mercy;
Attach unto it thy name in which I believe,
  for it is sealed by my unworthy mortal hand.

-The Valley of Vision, Covenant.