Archive for marriage

Awed Possibility

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on October 19, 2015 by timtrue


Mark 10:2-16

What a difficult Gospel passage!

I mean, it’s got it all!  Marriage, divorce, adultery, children—we might say this passage is pregnant, just waiting to give birth to all sorts of conflicting opinions and hasty judgments from family and friends.

There’s the uncle whose mind is already made up.  No matter what, the parents always seem to be doing something wrong as they raise their child.  They’re either too controlling, on the verge of being helicopter parents; or too permissive, producing a child who is a law unto himself.

Then there’s the aunt who’s twice removed.  At family gatherings, she looks on the child from across the room only as a spectator.  The child is interesting to her, but as a lizard in an aquarium is interesting, only to observe, never to engage.

Then there are the parents themselves.  That’s us, you know, the mainline Episcopal Church.  Our child is growing before our eyes and has begun to form her own take on the world—and it’s not always the same as ours!  In fact, sometimes we catch ourselves wondering if she is deliberately choosing the other side of the debate, just to spite us!

Whatever the case, it’s left us uncomfortable.  Why does she think the way she does about divorce, marriage, human sexuality, adultery, and children?  Doesn’t she know better?  Doesn’t she understand and value what Jesus teaches?

Still, some of what she’s saying seems to make sense.  It’s not what our parents taught us, no way, no how.  But—we’re second guessing ourselves now—maybe they didn’t know everything either, just as we know we don’t know everything.

Well, what does Jesus teach about divorce, marriage, and children—and maybe even human sexuality—in this passage?

A lot, it seems!  On the surface anyway.  At least there’s a lot in here about divorce.

But, then, why does the narrative about little children follow right on divorce’s heels?  Is it because children are the most innocent of victims in a divorce, as more than one commentator has noted?

While this may be true in general, and certainly has been so in specific cases, no, I don’t think this is why Mark brings children into the immediate context—at all!  Instead, this exchange between Jesus, some Pharisees, the disciples, and the little children runs much deeper than just wise instruction about marriage and divorce: this exchange is about worldview.

Are you familiar with this term, worldview?  It’s how we see things.  It’s our perspective.  It’s the governing lens through which we as individuals interpret all that goes on in the world around us.

Now, you’ve been to those scenic viewpoints with the coin-operated viewers, right?  I think there’s one on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  So, let’s say we’re on a trip together to the Grand Canyon and we stop to use this viewer.  You walk up to it, put a quarter in, and look through.  Then, when you’re done, I have my turn.

Now, despite the fact that we use the same viewer, you and I don’t see exactly the same things through it.  Right?

Well, this is like the worldview Christ calls us as Christians to have.  You and I look through the same lens.  But we don’t always focus on the same things.  And when we do, we often interpret them differently.  You might shop at Albertson’s while I prefer Fry’s.  You might vote for a different presidential candidate than I.  Or, coming closer to today’s passage, you may not have experienced divorce as a child; but I did.

Nevertheless, despite our differences in interpretation, Jesus calls us to a common worldview.  As followers of Christ, we should agree on perspective.

But all too often we don’t. We answer questions differently, questions like:

  • Is it ever okay for Christians to divorce?
  • If so, when?  Is it only okay to divorce in cases of abuse or neglect or adultery?  What about incompatibility?
  • Are Christians allowed to drink alcohol?  And, if so, is it ever okay for a Christian to get drunk?
  • Is it permissible for a man to marry a man?
  • Is it okay to ordain a woman?
  • And—a question from this summer—is it okay if a young woman going through a transgendering process is my son’s counselor at camp?

We tend to fixate on—and argue about—what’s permissible.  We like lists of dos and don’ts.

But isn’t this just what the Pharisees are doing in today’s passage: asking what’s permissible?

Verse 2 tells us they come to Jesus to test him with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Already, there’s a negative tone.  The Pharisees’ question is focused on the dissolution of marriage, not on the purpose of it or the blessings to be found in it—not on the positive.

At its core, their question is about what’s permissible.

But Jesus masterfully avoids the Pharisees’ trap by reframing their question.  After asking them what Moses says—an assent to their recognized, mutual authority—Jesus turns from what is permissible in marriage to marriage’s potential.

God created Adam and Eve in God’s own image.  Marriage is thus a divine joining of two people into one flesh.  It is based on mutual respect and shared dignity.

For Jesus, it’s not what is permissible but what is possible.  And this is the lens through which Jesus calls us to interpret the world.

So let’s return now to our viewer. We’ve been looking through it for a while now.  It’s still helpful, sure.  We wouldn’t trade it for another one.  And every now and then, still, we catch a glimpse of a new vista that brings a renewed excitement to our walk with Christ.  But, let’s face it: it’s starting to feel, well, I don’t know, normal.  Routine.  Status quo.  Ho hum.

And so you and I start to compare notes.  We like the way that particular bend in the canyon wall looks, especially when the light hits it in the early morning.  And we like the noises, the music—most of the time anyway.  But haven’t you noticed how crowded it’s getting lately?  And what kind of riffraff is the leadership letting into this place now?  Why, just last week someone left a banana peel on the ground and I hear it adversely affected a bear’s digestion.  The nerve!  Someone around here ought to get a list of rules together and enforce them before things really get out of control.

But then we see an unfamiliar, young child mount the steps and look through the viewer for the first time—the same viewer we’ve been looking through for so long now, about which we’ve begun to feel ho hum.  And—do you see?—a huge smile overwhelms his face and he lets out a sound of wonder: “Wow!”

And I am cut to the heart as I remember Jesus’ words: “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

It’s not about what is permissible but what is possible.

So, how do you look at marriage? How do you look at divorce?  How do you look at issues surrounding human sexuality?  How do you look at the kingdom of God?

Maybe you’re like that critical uncle.  You’re a part of the church, sure: you’re a Christian.  But in your opinion the Episcopal Church is either too controlling or too permissive and will never be quite right for future generations.

Maybe you’re like that twice removed aunt.  You like to view the goings on in the Episcopal Church as a spectator, aloof, not really engaged.  Yuma’s a good place to do so, because, after all, we are rather isolated out here.

Maybe you’re like the parents, caught in a tug of war, second-guessing yourself and the traditions to which you’ve grown so accustomed, not sure how to make sense of all the various voices that vie for your attention; not quite sure if you’re bringing up the next generation in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Or, maybe, just maybe, you’re like that small child, lost in wonder, love, and praise at the glories of the kingdom of God; not at all burdened by what is permissible but awestruck by what is possible.

In Jesus Christ, it’s not about what is permissible but what is possible.


2014 Lent 18

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , on March 25, 2014 by timtrue


I Corinthians 7:32-40

“I want you to be free from anxieties.”

This seems to be the core motivation behind Paul’s counsel on marriage.  A man or woman who is unmarried only has to be concerned with how to please the Lord.  A married person is concerned about this too; but with the added concern of how to please a spouse.  And then, one could add, when someone has kids, well, then it’s the Lord, the spouse, and the kids!  And in our day of blended families–quite similar to households in Paul’s day, I might add–there could be stepchildren, adopted children, live-in parents in need of continuous care, etc., etc.  In short, according to Paul, family life sure can be a headache!

I get Paul’s point.  To be as free from anxiety as possible is noble.  Who wouldn’t want to have a stress-free life?

Yesterday I mentioned the Stoic virtue apatheia.  This has to do with how your passions affect you; to remain detached from your emotions, regardless of how big the amplitude becomes, is the goal.  Today, however, what Paul suggests is more active; you actively maintain a mindset that frees you from anxiety ahead of time.  Today falls in line more with an Epicurean virtue, ataraxia.

Google these terms if you like, to find out more.  Heck, Google Stoicism and Epicureanism to learn more about these two competing philosophical schools of thought floating in the empire’s drinking water during Paul’s day.  But that Paul draws from one of these and then another only a few verses later is interesting, a question worthy of study.  Contemporaneous philosophers certainly wouldn’t have done the same.  At the very least, it suggests that Paul was human, that he was like you and I, that he mixed some things up, that (even) he was inconsistent in his letter to the Corinthians.  But this is a bit of a rabbit trail.

The point I want to make here is that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is not very family-friendly, a point that I think has been made well enough over the past few days.

So, what do we do with this point?

Well (gulp!), let me propose, if nothing else, that Paul’s writings here, in the Bible, cause me to rethink some of my own prejudices, biases, and values concerning family.

I prize my family.  Marriage, I am firmly convinced, is the stuff that makes up the building blocks of society.  Children are a blessing of the Lord, a heritage.  Divorce is ugly, as it breaks up a sacramental relationship–a relationship that demonstrates outwardly the inward love of God in us.  And now, in mid-life, I’m starting to find a lot of joy in the likelihood of my never becoming a lonely old man: I’m looking forward to grandkids and great-grandkids, and the more the better.  And so it bugs me to the core when I hear mantras like “Faction before blood” (from Divergent).

But where have all my prejudices, biases, and values come from?  I’d like to say from the Bible.  And there are some, sure, like that psalm I alluded to about children being a blessing from the Lord.  But there are also an awful lot of passages like this one from Paul.  And didn’t Jesus himself say that unless you hate father and mother (and so on) you cannot be my disciple?  On a scale, I don’t know which would outweigh the other: pro-family statements from the Bible or anti-.

More than from the Bible–far more–is what we call the Judeo-Christian ethic.  And this ethic, and thus my biases and values, comes more from tradition, from cultural norms over time, I’m afraid.

So this point more than anything else reminds me that not everyone sees it my way.  Not everyone else values family the way I do.

And that’s okay.

In fact, that’s as it should be.

2014 Lent 17

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , on March 24, 2014 by timtrue

This photo is courtesy of my daughter: Carnivale 2014, somewhere in Italy.

I Corinthians 7:25-31

Remember, these are just thoughts I’ve been sharing; I’m not claiming that my words are to be seen as dogmatic truth.  I’m reading the daily lectionary and responding to the readings.  I’m not approaching I Corinthians or the other readings I’ve touched as a scholar would–researching, analyzing, processing, and finally writing down.  Rather, it’s more of a conversation.  And conversations are fluid.  The parties in conversations–genuine conversations anyway–do not have their minds made up ahead of time.  As more information reveals itself, either party can change his mind.

That said, today’s passage baffles me.  I’ve read ahead a little; I’ve also gone back some.  But doing so hasn’t helped much.  I remain puzzled by Paul’s words today.  So what I say today, I say with the caveat that I may change my mind on this.  But the gist is that my approach to marital counseling is vastly different than Paul’s.

He says–correct me if I’m wrong–that it is better not to marry.  But if you must marry (presumably for issues regarding self-control), then it is not a sin to do so.  But in light of the “impending crisis” (v. 26), i. e., that “the appointed time has grown short” (v. 29) and “the present form of this world is passing away” (v. 31), once married you should go on living like you’re not married–just as those who are mourning should not mourn, and so on.

No, I most definitely wouldn’t counsel a couple desiring marriage to: 1) go ahead and do so to control your lusts; but 2) keep living like you’re not married; and 3) give little thought to tomorrow, for the world’s just about to end anyway.

Again I could be wrong, but Paul seems motivated here by two philosophies floating through the air of his day: Stoicism and Apocalypticism.

Stoicism valued apatheia, a state of mind that was relatively unaffected by passions.  Hence the “and those who mourn as though they were not mourning” bit.  This state of mind was prized by many members of the Roman Senate, in fact–hardly a Christ-believing group in Paul’s day.

Apocalypticism held that the world would soon end.  The Qumran community, whence came the Dead Sea Scrolls, was a community formed around this belief; and so they moved out beyond the edge of town and lived something of a stockpile life, trusting and depending on only themselves until the end of days.  But their days ended and the world goes on.

Perhaps a similar feel was in the air as Y2K approached, some fifteen years ago.  I was living in Pennsylvania at the time, the “can-do” state.  And I knew several folks personally who had filled their basements with trash cans full of drinking water, hundreds of pounds of jerky and dried fruits and vegetables, and weapons.

Perhaps that sense of apocalypse hasn’t ended.  Just look at the proliferation of movies and TV shows about zombies, outer-space alien attacks, nuclear holocausts, and other end-of-the-world scenarios.  Even the church has its Left-Behind contingent, you know, that portion that thinks the world is just getting worse and worse until, at last, Christ will rapture all the good guys away and destroy the remaining bad guys along with all creation.

Anyway, I can’t go there–whether counseling a couple seeking marriage or in my own understanding of life in community and end times.

Paul wrote this letter nearly two thousand years ago, suggesting that the end was right around the corner.  But two millennia have passed.  why should we think the end is right around the corner, in our own life time?  Statistically it doesn’t make sense.

Too, such thinking de-motivates us.  For instance, when I was in seminary a professor told me about a visit he’d made to a Christian college in the midwest that believed in this apocalyptic end times stuff.  He didn’t name the school, so I can’t tell you which it is.  But the school was intentional about not recycling, since the world would all burn up in a few years’ time anyway.  Really!  With that mindset, why have a college at all?  Paul himself had to deal with this de-motivation.  In one of his letters to the Thessalonian church he admonished the Christ-believers there to work for their living: they apparently figured, since it was all going to end soon anyway, why bother?

Even more significant in my thinking, though, is that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection ushered in a new age, the Kingdom of God.  And throughout the scriptures the theme of “already but not yet” resonates.  The Kingdom is already here but not yet fully realized.  It’s being more and more fully realized though–quite the opposite of getting worse and worse, as some want to say!

No, Paul, in marriage counseling, I’m going to encourage the couple to enter a life together; to leave their old life (their “father and mother”) and cleave to one another; and to plan for the future.  So I pry a little: What will your budget look like?  Do you plan to have kids?  If so, how many?  And what’s your approach to discipline?  Are you compatible–what do you have in common, what do you enjoy doing together?  Where do you plan to go to church?  Even things like, what is your understanding of baptism?–for if one thinks infant baptism is the way to go and the other disagrees, well, you never know.

But I don’t ask things like: Hey, how are y’all doing in matters of self-control?  Is your lust for each other intolerable?  What about your views on the end of the world?  Tell me how you feel about zombies.


2014 Lent 15

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , on March 21, 2014 by timtrue


I Corinthians 7:1-9

Today’s passage is another one of those where I really end up arguing with Paul more than siding with him.  And it’s all about sex.  (Or is it?)  For that reason alone, I’ll leave it up to your imagination, mostly, about how and where I might disagree with him (and encourage you to take up your own disagreements with the apostle).  But there is one matter I want to bring to light.

Paul encourages a man “not to touch a woman.”  This word, “touch,” is universally understood by biblical scholars to be a euphemism for “turn on sexually.”  So, in other words, Paul encourages men not to turn women on sexually.  And it’s not a particular statement, as if it applies merely to a class of men, or to an individual–something like, “Unmarried, adolescent guys, don’t do anything to turn on girls your age”–but a general statement, applicable to all men.  That means unmarried adolescents, yeah.  But it also includes boys, middle-aged men, old guys, and every man in between, married or not.


So, countering with the ad ridiculum again, to apply Paul’s logic to the nth degree–that all men stop touching all women in any way that turns them on and thus all men stop having sex with all women–would result in the end of humanity.  Personally, I can’t go there.  Just sayin’.

But apparently Paul can’t either, or at least he anticipates my counter-argument, for he then says (albeit in inverted order), “I wish all were as I myself am” (implying a guy who doesn’t turn women on); “but because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”

So I think what Paul’s getting at here is that monogamy is actually a good thing, suggesting that promiscuity is a bad thing.  Well, sure!  Who wouldn’t agree with that?  Even the Augustan morality of the empire supported this idea through and through.

But, just to be sure we know what he means, Paul clarifies: “The husband should give to his wife conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband . . .  Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”  (These are exact quotations, people, straight out of the NRSV!)  This clarification causes a few issues for me.

For now it sounds like the only reason for a couple to marry is lust-management, that a couple will be having sex constantly and continuously except for the occasional agreed upon break for prayer.  (One has to wonder about the prayers here, whether the wife would feign spiritual just to get her husband off her back: “Gee, honey, I really should go pray now.”  But this would be less than true and therefore hypocritical.  Anyway, here’s one of those places where your imagination can run amok.)

On the flip-side, the other message here is that sex is the main (and maybe the only) reason to get married in the first place.

Now I don’t know about you, but as for me, I want to argue a bit with all this.  Let’s at least go back to that monogamy bit.  To spend a life with one person, showing extreme loyalty and faithfulness, allowing yourself to trust another human soul completely, giving of yourself in ways you can give to no other person, loving a neighbor unlike any other neighbor; and, if God so wills, to raise a family with that neighbor, showing your children by example what it means to offer yourself completely to another person in a lifelong relationship–these all sound like pretty dang good reasons to me for a couple to marry.

And I haven’t even mentioned sex!

But for Paul, and unfortunately for too many youth leaders across the country, marriage apparently is little more than lust-management: a means of having sex without it being sinful.

So, to return to a question brought up a few days ago, in that passage about exiling the sexually immoral stepson, again I’m not sure church leaders should make a campaign out of ridding the church of pew-sitters who push sexual boundaries.  I’m not sure that’s Christ-like.  In fact, I’m rather sure that Jesus Christ interacted with sexually promiscuous persons.  This didn’t somehow make him promiscuous, did it?  Just so, our churches will not become hotbeds of sleaze by opening our doors to those with a looser morality than we are comfortable with.

Anyway, enough about sex–for now.