Fatherhood is not turning out the way I expected.
Since I was a kid, I’ve imagined that fatherhood meant “being there,” which is to say, “being there all the time, encouraging, instructing, doing projects and eating meals together.”
It never occurred to me that I might spend the vast majority of my waking hours exhausting myself with work that doesn’t matter, nuisance errands, grocery shopping and car repairs.
By the time I get home to spend an hour with my boys before bed, I’m too tired to do anything more than sit on the floor while they crawl over me, yelling, laughing, whining, pulling my limbs and drooling on my clothes.
Is this fatherhood?
Is this how it’s supposed to be?
She never did love me, my mother.
I think she liked me quite a bit for a long while, because she saw in me the parts of her that she still liked - my brown hair and hazel eyes; her love of books and aptitude for written expression; that sincere appreciation for lame puns and wordplay; our light skin and sensitive spirit and gauzy optimism stretched across depths of melancholy. But she was never satisfied by the good things in us, and grew to despise even our best qualities.
Because I still lacked the clarity that accompanies recovery, I was only puzzled by my mother’s constant shoving, pushing me down and away. “Love me, love me, LOVE ME!” I fought back, shouting like the girl in that song. She refused me well into my adolescence, but I didn’t give up. Her name became Lynette and I dated her and worked tirelessly, endlessly, to earn her approval.
To earn her unconditional love.
To finally surmount that wall of skepticism and doubt, to slide past that raised eyebrow, to grow strong enough and tall enough to be visible above the beam in her eye.
But it was impossible. So I asked her to marry me.
I would make her happy if it killed me. Surely this was my mission and purpose. The struggle was so familiar. It felt like home. I searched for the elusive feeling of home, as men do, though my own home was so broken. Lynette liked me some, and she loved the man I could be, if only I were independently wealthy, an athlete, an artist and French, and traveled the world in search of that je ne sais quoi, that joie de vivre, that spice of life, that joyful fountain of eternal youth.
But I’d show her. I’d show her that those things were impossible and that I was a good man and worth loving. I would make her see me. Make her love me.
I prayed, Lord, make this work, and I prayed, Father, show me what to do.”
“You need to break up immediately,” answered the premarital counselor without preamble. He’d reviewed our personality test results and listened to our incompatible ideas about marriage and life and God and children. “If you want to start over in six months, you can. But what you have now…it clearly isn’t working.”
We walked slowly through the park, my fading fiancee and I, and we sat on a bridge, legs dangling above a struggling, gasping trickle. She handed the diamond back to me, and we sat sadly, watching our relationship writhe and shudder in death’s throes. Our future was suddenly twain - one hers and one mine. I shed tears for her grief; this was as much about her inability to love, as my failure to win my mother over. I let her go that day, after years of heartaching toil. I let her not love me, let myself not be loved by her.
I was fifteen when I realized my mother didn’t love me, and twenty-five when I let her go.
I find that I am still letting her go, even now.
It was 12 degrees when I parked in front of my favorite coffee this morning. I popped my truck door and noticed the snap of winter atmosphere against my fingertips, felt the difference between the frigid world outside my wool topcoat, and the toasty little world inside. An odd thought came to me: “I shouldn’t be this comfortable.” The words weren’t wrapped in marvelous thanksgiving or wry gratitude. It was quite serious. Straight-faced. Condemning, almost. There are poor people shivering in cardboard homes all across the world - why should you get to stand here wrapped in luxury? That’s when I noticed an innocuous-looking little plant poking it’s leafy face through my soul’s soil. It was survivor’s guilt.
Guilt is not a feeling I typically associate with escape from the grip of poverty. After all, rags to riches stories never end with the protagonist sitting, chin in hand, pondering the justice or deservedness of their newfound glory. As I’m sometimes fond of pointing out, I grew up quite poor myself. Roaches, rats and welfare poor. Grocery trips on an old bicycle in the dead of winter poor. White-label rice and beans and generic ground turkey. You get the picture. Today I live in a suburban four-bedroom with two really nice trucks parked in the driveway. I like to hunt. I snowboard when I can. I have a fancy, sparkly wife and two little boys. When my dad asked what my youngest needed for his birthday, I couldn’t think of anything. We’re doing pretty well right now. We are the ten percent.
But when I look around at all of this comparative wealth, I find in my heart a precautionary nostalgia, an unvoiced assumption that it will all eventually go away and all I will have left are my memories of ease and the lessons I learned while visiting the American middle class. I’ve often prayed, “Papa, thank you for this material goodness. I don’t know how long I’ll get to experience it, but I sure am glad for it while it’s here.”
You could read this as humility, detachment from worldly things, refusal to find my identity in the things I own. God knows I’ve tried to read it as such. But humility is a letting go; when humility accuses, it is no longer humility, but a thinly disguised self-hatred. Nostalgia is a fond recollection; but if nostalgia precedes loss, it is no longer nostalgia, but a fearful resignation in masquerade.
This is what I suffer: the fear that all is lost, because all can be lost. The slumbering assumption that this, too, shall pass. As dust returns to dust, as dogs to vomit, so the poor must return to their poverty. Even as I pursue the things I value most - Jesus, marriage, fatherhood, and writing - I sense the grasping, clawed fingers of destruction at my heels, trying to take from me what I think I’ve earned, whatever I might dare to embrace. I fear that it will all fall apart before I’ve finished writing my story, before my sons can truly know me. I dread that they might be forced to learn through life’s brutal experience all the things I long to teach them gently in childhood - the pursuit of God, wisdom, flexibility, teachability, humanness, vocation.
I don’t have a conclusion for this one yet. It might just a reminding pain I carry to my death, like the twinge of an old war wound, a kind of spiritual post-traumatic stress. I don’t want that to be the answer, though. Too many decades of this tension would make life feel too long, even as the constant craving for resolution would make death loom uncomfortably near.
For now, all I can do is acknowledge my brokenness. I will grimace when I notice it, as one who glimpses the scars of his childhood beatings. But I will add to it a second assumption: that this, too, shall pass. I will keep looking, keep living. In this manner, perhaps, I will “gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.*”
*Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet
Last week, I sat on the couch with my wife and our dog, watching the TV frantically backflip and grandstand to keep my attention and sell me stuff. My body was at rest, but my heart was pounding. Like, pounding so hard you might see it through my shirt if I sat still enough. It’s always pumped kool-aid in the evenings, ever since I was a kid. I don’t know why it does this. It skips beats. It jumps into my throat and steals my breath. Sometimes I can’t sleep on my left side because my heart will continuously and annoyingly punch me in the left bicep, like a boxer on a speedbag, until I relent and roll to my back.
It’s true: I should go to a heart doctor. And I will. Try. Or at least give it some more serious consideration. But I’ve started to wonder if I’m not doing this to myself. I wonder if stressing out in the evening is a habit I’ve retained from childhood. See, sleepytime has not been happytime for me as far back as I can remember.
Until I was ten years old, Bedtime Road began when my (step)dad got home from work. There was dinner, there were baths, there was bedtime…and somewhere in between, there was whippin’ time. Mom and dad would head into their bedroom to talk in low voices. Sometimes I’d hear his deep voice inquire, “Have these kids been actin’ right?” More low conversation would follow, mom sighing out some explanation of what we had or hadn’t done right while dad had been out making the bacon. I listened for the jangle of his belt buckle, the sweet sound of freedom. That dangling jangling meant he was taking off his work pants. It meant the day’s work was done. It meant the belt would not be needed tonight.
More often than not, it seemed to me, I didn’t hear the buckle. I feigned peaceful ignorance in the relative safety of my room, waiting and hoping, straining to hear that musical note. Tension built and acid rose in my stomach. Suddenly my parents’ bedroom door swung open, and tears of anxiety sprang to my eyes. He was leaving the room with his belt on! My legs quivered and shook in my thin pajama pants. My chin trembled. I’d been judged and found guilty of some malice or mischief; I was getting a whippin’ for sure.
I had a lot of nightmares back then, dreams of being imperiled, pursued, hounded. In one dream, my brothers and sisters and I were being held captive in our bathroom by bad men who sat in the living room and watched football. We were all about to escape, but I bungled my part and put us all back in danger. In many others, I was chased into our house by policemen or soldiers. I tried to hide in the attic, but they always found me and yanked me down and took my family away. There were falling dreams, shooting dreams, and the requisite slow-motion running away episodes. Night time was fright time. And sleep was no friend of mine.
In my teen years, shame and fear joined forces against me in the darkness. I experienced sexual abuse from my mother’s boyfriend when I was fifteen; after that I began wetting the bed with some regularity. In adolescence, repeated sexual dreams horrified my conservative Baptist conscience…but I found that they also pleased me. And I hated myself for that.
Hatred, fear, shame and confusion colored my nights black and red. Heightened stress became normal for me. My rapid hear rate and occasional insomnia, when I did notice them, were brushed aside like the car that coughs oddly when you turn it off, or the washing machine that whines louder during the rinse cycle: “Yeah, it always does that.”
But now I am thirty-three. I am a husband and father. No belt of Damocles hangs above my bed. Nightmares no longer enslave me. But like a retired soldier, my mind searches for the violent patterns pressed into it for so long, so long ago. If there is no stress, my brain will cling to financial worries or pressing home repairs. When there is no fear, my heart will remind me of the rising divorce rate, the screaming death rate, and the vast, teeming hordes of unfathered, unguided boys, whose ranks my two precious boys might join if I die, or stroke out, or simply stop paying attention.
It’s all an irony, though, isn’t it. Jesus tells me again and again not to worry - not because worry is a sin, but because worrying can kill a man. It’s time I let it all go.
I walked with Papa through a snowy woods yesterday afternoon. Snow like worry fell all around me, clinging to my topcoat and salting my brow. But I brushed it aside. I told Papa I’m gonna try not to fear the future anymore, not to worry about things I don’t understand, not to stress out about sin so much. I just want to look at him, look for him, set my sights on his face, and walk.
When you set your sights on a distant point, across hills and creeks, you can’t map out every step from here to there. You’ll stumble into some briers and thickets. You might fall flat on your bottom in the creek and soak your wallet. You’ll look back sometimes and realize you chose the hardest possible path. But every step, every rewarding and regrettable turn, even your trips and tumbles will bring you closer to where you want to be. Closer to Jesus. Closer to Papa.
So here’s to not worrying about maps yet unwritten. Here’s to being ok with not knowing. Here’s to releasing mistakes, to living without regret, to accepting Papa’s graceful ease and forgiveness as easily as my own sons accept mine. Here’s to saving my heart by changing my mind. Here’s to sleeping in peace, as once I must have, back before the war began.
Mere days have passed since the unthinkable horror at Sandy Hook. Unthinkable. My brain still can’t take it in. Or won’t. The pain felt across the world for these children has been deep and immediate and visceral. Social and news media were instantly alight with expressions of grief and calls for action. Government action.
“The government has GOT to do more!!” insisted many.
“Oh no, they’d better not!!” retorted others.
“I’m throwing away my kids’ first-person shooter games, and taking some dinner over to the neighbors,” said no one at all.
We’ve been conditioned since childhood to believe that “the government will take care of it.” We the people elect, we vote, they legislate - that’s how things get done. As long as the police do their part, Congress does theirs, and the President does his bit, I get to mind my own business and watch Dancing With the Stars. That’s how America works.
Except it isn’t.
It can’t be. If the suffrage and civil rights and the Vietnam War taught us anything, it’s that power lies in the hands of the common citizen - not to legislate, but to act on behalf of conscience, community, and our nation. A human government cannot preserve the cherished rights of its citizens, while at the same time making our lives predictable and completely safe. We can have one or the other: a government that tightly controls our every move and keeps our lives uneventful for us…or a government that lets us live.
I’m not saying our government is useless. Far from it. I love how my little part of my city and state run. I love the trash pickup. I love the clean streets. I love the friendly guys on the police force. But they can’t do it all. They can’t know my neighbors for me, participate in their day-to-day lives and offer a listening ear. The mayor can’t tell my children which movies to watch and games to play. The governor won’t help me build a healthy, lasting marriage.
Those things are up to me.
Up to us.
So for heaven’s sake, lock your guns, listen to your children, get involved in your neighbors’ lives. Regard with a jaded eye entertainment that plays carnage lightly, knowing well that evil exists, and it does not exist lightly. Lay down arms if you will, take them up if you must, but before you do either, talk honestly with your spouse, give to the poor, shake a homeless man’s hand and look him in the eye.
‘I’m sending you out as sheep among wolves,’ Jesus warns, ‘So be smart. Be shrewd. Be loving. Be harmless.’
In the colorful Fall of 2005, I quit my corporate job, put my house on the market, and volunteered full-time with a dance outreach ministry. One small, rented storage unit notwithstanding, this was my best shot at “sell all you have and follow me.” What an adventure! I felt like I was finally living - though also dying in a very real way, as I prepared to leave my first real home, a close-knit community, and some very dear friends.
I had enough money to make mortgage payments on my empty, echoing house through the end of the year. Winter approached, arrived, and carried on, however, no buyer appeared.
By January 1st, I was flat out of money.
The first few times the mortgage company called, I answered and politely explained my situation: I was out of cash, but the house was for sale and hopefully would be snapped up fairly quickly. But I was well aware that The Dead of Winter is no prime selling season for real estate. The collections staff started calling me every day, then multiple times a day. What could I do? I saved the number and ignored their calls. I even assigned a unique ringtone, so as not to waste effort checking the caller ID.
The mortgage fell behind month by month: $1100…$2200…$3300. Stress began to build. I talked to the Lord constantly, asking him to relieve this strain so I could go on focusing on the dance ministry, asking him to prod along whatever person he had in mind to buy the place, and reminding him that, no matter what, I fully trusted him to go on providing everything I needed.
And then the letter arrived.
“Foreclosure proceedings have begun on your property,” it read flatly, “The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office will determine the date of final foreclosure, by which time you will be required to vacate the premises.”
My stomach dropped and whirled, spinning downward like a the last leaf of Autumn, the final vestige of warmer, more abundant seasons. Shame began drizzling down my forehead like motor oil, covering my face, displacing my joy.
This couldn’t be right.
I’d followed his guidance so carefully.
Back when I put in my two weeks notice, I’d only done so with his permission and blessing. I’d read the story of Brother Andrew years before; he recounted how God had always provided for him directly, the way a Father King does. Never did God provide him a dump to scavenge or a mud puddle in which to bathe; instead, there was a humble friend here, a benevolent stranger there, sometimes a messenger who was just as astounded as the hearer by the efficacy and timeliness of the tidings he or she bore. Brother Andrew called this “the King’s Way.”
Even with my pride and sense of fair play pushed completely aside, foreclosure did not seem like the King’s Way of caring for me.
So I kept on talking to the Lord about it, asking him to relieve this strain, asking him to prod along that buyer, yet still reminding him that, no matter what, I fully trusted him to go on providing everything I needed. Either he would provide - out of nowhere - the $3,300 needed to bring my mortgage current, or someday he’d make it clear to me the awesome reasons he chose to do otherwise.
In early February, 2006, I visited the green and white offices of H&R Block. With all the changes I’d made in the last twelve months, I figured I’d get professional assistance just this once. The process was surprisingly rapid. I brought in a hefty pile of tax-related documents, and a nice, middle-aged lady in reading glasses ran through them like a paper shredder, scanning, typing and discarding at a frightful pace. I was certain I could hear her brain buzzing. Finally she looked up. “And here is your refund amount,” she revealed, pointing at a green figure on her computer screen.
“Oh, a refund!” I thought happily. My birthday was just around the corner. I leaned forward to read the digits:
I leaned back in my chair and breathed. I leaned forward again. “What…” I fumbled, “Am I…?”
“It’s thirty four hundred dollars,” she confirmed, unimpressed, “Would you prefer a check, or direct deposit?”
I was speechless and on the verge of tears. Papa had sent the money after all. He’d kept it set it aside for me all this time - exactly the amount I needed, with a bit of birthday money on top. His intentional specificity reminded me how very well he knew me. His great generosity spoke of how deeply he cared.
This Father King amazes me again and again. The King’s Way is astounding. Papa had come through on my behalf, and I was reminded once more: he would always do the same.
I’m listening to a reading of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. It is SOBERING. The author’s thesis is that modern, mainstream, high school history textbooks tend to teach a sanitized, lifeless version of the American story, thereby robbing students of the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, to understand factors contributing to today’s racial socio-economic disparities, and to imagine society any differently than it has come to be.
Loewen addresses at length the genocide and horrific cruelty of slavery first inflicted by Europeans against the millions of peaceful folks that had civilized this continent long before them. He describes the deep, bitter racism that enabled Americans to promote and accept our enslavement and persecution of African and Indian people for hundreds of years. Murder, theft, slavery, sex trafficking, oppression, lynchings - and we haven’t even gotten to the Civil War yet.
As I learn the dark side of American history, I grow…weary. Well, disillusioned is a better word; disabused of the illusion that “America the Beautiful” has always kept her hands clean, fought for justice and freedom, and stood up for the little guy. We haven’t always been the good guys.
So when I look back at the hordes of 1800s American citizens, swirling about in their black frocks and monocles and horse-drawn hubris, singing hymns and going to church, even as their Black countrymen were beaten and raped and killed by mainstream, White supremacists, I have to ask myself…”What the hell were they thinking??”
But every period of history must inspire so much incredulity at some later point, or else we future citizens must admit that we have failed to learn and grow. So I have to wonder…what will make American jaws drop in 2112? What social atrocity do we now accept? What oppression? What systematic immorality?
I fear that “induced abortion” is the answer to that question. I fear that it is to our present day what slavery was to the 1800s. Perhaps in 100 years, well after we’ve come back to our senses, our citizens will look back on us and wonder, “What the heck were those people doing while millions were being slaughtered? What were they thinking?!”
And I don’t know what to do about that.
In marriage you can be right, or you can be in love. When my wife and I were first married, we were both right…a lot. We battled and argued, accused and defended, wept and bemoaned the end of the world as we knew it. And I, great problem-solver that I am, got really serious about conflict resolution.
I thought about it.
I read about it.
Amid one long-lasting dispute, I even brought home an enormous, poster-sized post-it pad. I hung it in the living-room wall and called my wife over to the see it. “Ok!” I announced with a
simple-minded sincere hopefulness, “Let’s diagram this disagreement! What are your fundamental concerns?”
Of course this approach was met with loud booing. There was great disdain. Tomatoes may have been thrown. I see now that it was a terrible idea…but it was at least well-intended.
Fast-forward to today, a few years later. Em and I had a huge falling out the other day. Admittedly, this was my fault. We were watching a documentary called “Happy.” Its producers visited purportedly happy people in different parts of the world. Some lived in relative comfort; others subsisted in objective squalor. Some were busy, young families; others, nonagenarian retirees. All, however, professed a high level of contentment and hope and happiness. “Man,” my wife wondered aloud, “How can I get that happy?” “Be more teachable?” I suggested. In my defense, the words were well-intended. Teachability is a virtue to which I’ve aspired, lo, these last dozen years.
Even so, my recommendation was met with loud booing. There was great disdain. Tomatoes may have been thrown. I see now that it was a terrible idea…but…yeah, it was a terrible idea.
We argued, battled and yelled. I cussed and stomped. She wept and bemoaned. At long last, out of wind, our sails went slack and we drifted silently, side by side. “I think,” I said quietly, “that you are not feeling loved by me. And I’ve been trying to ‘respect and reason’ you into feeling loved.” After a moment, I continued, “And I don’t feel respected by you. I think you’re trying to ‘love and emote’ me into feeling respected, but that can’t work. It’s the classic male/female conflict, isn’t it?”
We wanted to resolve the fight, but reconciliation is impossible without relationship. So guess what we didn’t do next: we didn’t settle the conflict. This is so important: we didn’t resolve the initial argument! See, more often than not, there is no external, marriage-defeating monster dividing you; it’s far more likely that you’re in conflict with your spouse because your spirits are out of synch. It’s absolutely true that love brings grace, and with it covers a multitude of imperfections. But if you aren’t connected in love, attempts at conflict resolution will decay into that sort of grudging, agree-to-disagree compromise where no one wins, but everyone loses a little.
To begin. restoring our connection, we first made some quiet concessions. This was our way of laying down arms and slowly stepping back. She would try not to get so irritated when I spoke insensitively; I would try to ask questions instead of dictating solutions. The rest we would settle once we were back on the same page. Then we went on a date! The air was less tense over dinner (and no children), and we planned another date soon thereafter. Over the next few days, we continued closing the gap. We cuddled. We watched a funny movie. We started sending nice, just-because text messages.
So you can probably guess what else happened during those few days.
We made a lot of whoopie. Our conflict dissolved. We’d moved back into a place of loving one another, and love doesn’t hold grudges.
This is not to say that no conflict will require direct address and resolution. Some will. Many others will not. Wisdom is found in knowing the difference between the two. Next time you find yourself in heated conflict with your spouse, ask honestly, “Are we emotionally connected this week? Have we been on the same page?” If the answer is “no,” that’s your starting point: get connected. Love is job one.
In a fight between lovers, let love always come out the winner.
Release your rights,
Count no debts,
Love with open hands,
And cover your loved ones with prayer.
Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children…
~ Ephesians 5:1
Our two-year-old son, Legend, loves his little brother with open hands. He hugs, shares with, and sits on Roman for no practical reason at all. Roman doesn’t share with him, never thanks him at all, and sometimes just receives Legend’s gestures with a disdainful grimace. But my wife and I continually teach Legend that this is how we live. And he imitates us.
Children are the most human of human beings, aren’t they? In their unabashed joy and naked frustrations, constant creativity and stubborn willfulness, they teach us older, “wiser” ones about our own nature and capacities. The otherworldly idea of loving your spouse like a child comes fully to earth only when we think about it from the perspective of a growup human…and then again through the eyes of a tiny, concentrated human: Love your spouse as you would love a child, and then again, Love your spouse with a childlike love.
We try to control our loved ones in so many ways. A few try the direct route, shoving and shouting their way through one relationship after another. Those people are easy enough to identify (and condemn and avoid). They are transparent. They are “jerks.” Far more often, though, humans are simply…better schemers than that:
We compare our workloads.
We use words that we think will illicit a desired response.
We avoid needed conversations that might lead us through a briar patch.
We label each other:
Oh, he’s just being his typical self!
Yeah man, you know how women are…
To love with open hands is to abandon those old, broken ideas of controlling our spouses. It’s impossible to manage our loved ones’ thoughts and attitudes, yet it’s critical that we tend to our own. We must learn to give love freely, without requiring a return. Let’s seek joy in the very acts of service, not in a silent, suffering hope of reciprocation. We will accept that our spouses are who they are, and even if they never grow another inch in maturity, we will choose to love that person.
Meanwhile, Jesus continually demonstrates to us that this is how we live. We won’t imitate him in order to gain a Martyrs’ Advantage over our spouses (though the temptation will come, I promise); instead let it all be only an effort to become more like Jesus. Which is another way of saying, to become more human.
Release your rights,
Count no debts,
Love with open hands,
And cover your loved ones with prayer.
We in the Brown household use cloth diapers on our two baby boys. This is partly because I can’t stand the idea of contributing hundreds of pounds of everlasting baby waste to some unseen landfill each year, but more immediately because I loath paying any percent of my income to fund another one of those sickly-sweet Huggies commercials.
As you probably realize, the downside of allowing these passions is…washing scads of dirty diapers week after week. My wife (who is, btw, the very best) is a big-picture pragmatist when it comes to diapers:
Will the diapers get washed?
Yes they will.
Why, when we run out of clean ones, of course!
I, on the other dishpan hand, am a detail manager:
Is this the most efficient approach to diaper laundry?
Is there a negative impact to waiting?
Well, there is a slight odor…
My wife is the primary laundry-doer, and therefore the designated diaper-washer, but she mostly prefers to wait until need dictates action. I’m usually the last one to bed, however, and so the first one to notice…uh oh, there are no clean diapers for tomorrow. Alas and alacrity, the “task” - the peeling, scraping, dumping, tossing and desperate breath-holding - falls to me again! So I’d prefer to let my particular nose and nerdy notions of efficiency to drive the whole, poopy process.
Late one night, I was extracting inserts from a pile of stinky, cheerfully-patterned diapers, trying to use just my stubby fingernails, as if baby poo would be somehow less gross under my fingernails than on my fingertips. A single, happy fruit fly emerged from somewhere within the heap. And I started to grumble. Why can’t she just wash these things sooner? It’s not like I’m not tired…I shouldn’t have to handle this grossness time after time!
But then it hit me. No, not the fruit fly, OR the poo, thank goodness. The truth hit me: YOUR WIFE DOESN’T OWE YOU ANYTHING. Oh man, this was just what Papa had warned me about just a few years before…Let go of your rights, son, he’d counseled wisely, and count no debts against the ones you love.
It’s so easy to get the idea that a spouse owes us something. After all, they promised! When we were dating, she said she’d always be there, whatever I needed. When we got married, we agreed: to have and to hold and to keep my beer cold. What happened??
Just kidding about that last part. But seriously…did he promise to always do what you ask?
Did she promise she’d never interrupt your recreational plans?
Does he owe you laundry?
Does she owe you dinner?
Not at all. If we want strong, lasting marriages, if we want to raise children who lack the sense of entitlement we hate so much…if we want joy instead of bitterness to color our faces and our days…we have to go first. Lead by example. We have to let go of our own sense of entitlement, get down from our high horses and approach our loved ones humbly on foot.
Thunk. A wet diaper flew into the washing machine. “My wife doesn’t owe me anything,” I reminded myself.
“In truth, I want these diapers washed sooner. That’s my issue…I own that.”
“If I want something done…well, I’m the only one who owes me anything. I should just do it and be content! I can’t put that burden on her. She’s my wife, not my maid!
And suddenly the diapers were done. And so were my self-pity and blame and the seeds of bitterness. Because at that moment, my wife was sleeping in our bedroom just down the hall, totally debt-free.
Next time you catch yourself saying, “Well I shouldn’t have to…”
“Well she’s supposed to…”
“Well I did all the [fill in the blank], so the least you could do is…”
….stop for a moment, quiet yourself, and remember Papa’s kind and sobering wisdom: In marriage there are no rights, and no debts. It’s just you two human beings on a little boat, with all your gifts and needs and views and flawed opinions, tasked with navigating this vast river of life together. Forgive your spouse their debts and simply love them, and revel in the great freedom you find there.
Release your rights,
Count no debts,
Love with open hands,
And cover your loved ones with prayer.
When we were first married and every argument felt like the end of the world, my sweet Bride asked a favor of me; my parents were traveling up from Atlanta that weekend to see our new environs and spend some time with us in the Kansas City. In anticipation, we’d cleaned and straightened the house inside and out…with the exception of my messy workspace in our little home office. “Would you clean off your desk before your parents come to visit?” she inquired.
I was working full time and in school at night, so physical energy seemed scarce (we hadn’t had any kids yet…) I knew my dad well enough to predict that he’d hardly notice my desk, let alone be bothered by it. He and my step-mom (who is simply “mom” to us) had their own messy offices back home - dad’s was in his basement recording studio, and mom’s was upstairs, just off the airy, gleaming white family room.
“You know what, babe,” I said, “I think I’ll just leave that alone. Dad won’t even notice it.”
Emily’s face grew earnest. “But this is really important to me,” she persisted.
“I know it, babe,” countered the Groom, “But I hardly have any energy now, and I don’t want to be all exhausted and uptight when they get here…how about we just close the office door?”
It was that moment just before a Western gunfight at high noon. Dusty whirlwinds blew, tumbleweed tumbled, and a lonely trumpet trilled a high, Spanish melody. Two young lovers squared off in the middle of a ghostly, empty street. The townspeople huddled fearfully in their homes, sheltered pitifully beneath flimsy tables and beds.
And then, suddenly, the whole town echoed with the passion of that unfolding quarrel.
“When your wife asks for your HELP, you don’t get to say NO! It’s not your RIGHT!”
“Look, you ask me to do a favor, and I say yes or no - that’s how it works! Otherwise it’s a command! Not a request!”
On and on we went, each growing more injured and injurious as we filled the long minutes with our angry dispensations. But what we didn’t realize at the time, was that we were both right…
Love Means: Releasing Your Rights
Releasing your rights means just what it says, but not more than that. It does mean, “There’s nothing in this relationship to which I have an absolute right.” It does NOT mean, “Please, walk upon my head and take away all my dignity. I have no will.” It doesn’t mean you never say “no” or “please”; it simply forces you to take responsibility for those words when you use them.
Claiming rights within a relationship declares that some higher power has already ruled on the matter, so there is no discussion to be had - BOOM goes the dynamite! And I don’t need no reasons - I’M RIGHT! It’s bull-headed, self-serving, and an easy path toward animosity, bitterness, and relational ruin.
For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. - James 3:16, NLT
Practiced well and with a good heart, “Release your rights” looks something like this:
1.) I don’t have a “right” to do or say any particular thing, therefore…
2.) I need to think clearly about my reasons, and the impact of my actions on others - what happens if I do this? What happens if I don’t?
3.) And I need to come ready to discuss those thoughts in an open and loving way.
This is the calm authority of a life-long, devoted servant.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant[…]
Philipians 2:5-7a, NIV
Next up, Count No Debts…
Today I saw a fantastically clever speech posted on George Takei’s (really funny) Facebook page:
And I thought, Man, another one gets it completely wrong.
I think religious folks have really botched this one up for years and years, and Satan has relentlessly exploited our folly to his advantage. Our most grievous error wasn’t our proclamation that deviance from human sexual design is both harmful and sinful. It wasn’t our stance that masculinity and femininity are sacred and powerful and distinct from each other in myriad, wonderful ways. It wasn’t even our long-standing opposition to the recognition of homosexual unions as official marriages. Here’s where I believe we went off the rails - it was the day we said, “That guy…is a homosexual.”
There was a follower of Jesus in the New Testament, named Thomas. He believed in Jesus wholeheartedly, against the pressure of his whole society and history and the ruling religious order - purveyors of the only religious identity he’d ever known. Thomas and the other disciples mourned deeply after Jesus’ crucifixion. Had their belief in Jesus been for nothing? Had they entirely misunderstood the truth he’d brought? When rumors reached him of Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas couldn’t even rouse enough hope to consider it. “Right,” he intoned darkly, heart fettered by the crippling bonds of grief, “Show me where his hands were run through; let me touch that…that wound they put in his side. Let me see him walking again, and I’ll believe it’s really my Jesus.”
Thomas feared to ever hope again.
“And that guy,” we preached a thousand years later, “Is what we call…a ‘doubter.’”
Forget that he met Jesus again shortly after speaking out his deep sorrow. Forget that he knew our Jesus on Earth in a way that few of us, if any, ever will. Forget that he lived the rest of his life with the fervor and joy of a man reborn - a man whose very hope had died and resurrected.
“In fact,” some went on, “We’re gonna go ahead and refer to him as…Doubting Thomas.”
I think that was where we first went wrong in this whole big fiasco around homosexuality: we started labeling people with their sins. See, there’s a big difference between saying, “She struggles with telling the truth,” and, “She’s a liar.” And there’s a huge difference between saying to that person, “I see you’re struggling; please, let me help,” and, “You’re a liar, but I can help you.”
It’s that label. That…scarlet letter. It’s that intangible, indelible placard nailed above my head during adolescence: “Weak. Hopeless. Deviant.” Sin was used as leverage, as the right to condescend. We dehumanized humans, lumping them into “sinners” and “saints,” which is the same as saying sinners versus saints. The “sinners” became objects of our religion. And we became their judges. Which is the same as saying we became their enemies.
And here’s where Satan went in for the win: he saw us labeling each other, and he must have chuckled like a fiend. Half his work was done! All he had to do was convince these “sinners,” that their struggle was indeed their unchangeable identity. That it was the truest thing about them.
“That’s right,” he cried gleefully, “You guys are Gay! Super Gay! And you others are so very Straight. Your are who you are - even Jesus can’t change that!” This was his Big Lie, and his Double Win: He affirmed us religious folk in our blind condemnation, and he affirmed condemnation against the people we judged.
So here we are, wading through the aftermath of a centuries-old war between religious sinners, and all the other sinners, with the devil playing both sides against the middle. Jesus’ mission of mercy, and restoration has been all but supplanted by a war over identity. “We’re here! We’re queer!” shouts one side. “No you aren’t - you’re hopeless sinners!” hollers the other. Even this moderate and well-spoken preacher in the video has accepted the Big Lie that the sinner is the sin, and helpless against it, and he’s woven this misconception into a twisted retelling of the struggle for equal treatment of races.
We’ve got to learn to see past all the brutish, “us vs. them” propaganda. We have to turn our heads from the spoon-feeding of outspoken religious and political leaders, and learn to eat real food with our own hands. This is not a war over “rights.” It’s a war over identity. It’s a war over labels. “You want to label us?” retorted the accused, “Fine! We’ll meet your label, and raise you Equal Rights!”
Now each faction wants to be proven officially, legally “right.” But no side is “right.” No side is The Good Guys. In fact, I’d say most of the soldiers currently engaged have forgotten why they even donned armor in the first place. They forgot who they were the day they enlisted.
How can we get back to the root of the matter? Undo the original evil of usurping God’s authority to condemn or restore? It seems almost impossible. But there is still the truth of a healing Christianity. There is a faith in Jesus that eschews the strive for dominance. There is a cessation of hostilities that does not result in bowing and backpeddling, but in a calm and humble admission: We should have loved you better;
an affirmation: Sin does not and cannot define you. You are incredibly, inherently valuable;
and a welcome: Please, come in and rest. Hope and love are found here.
Once upon a time, we were all sinners
But some chose condemnation over healing
And labels over love
They divided the world into Saints and Sinners
Into Us versus Them
Now both both Us and Them demand that I choose a side
But I choose neither.
I choose to see more clearly.