Taking the Plunge: Thoughts on the Inner Life and 18 Years of Marriage

Tomorrow marks the day we celebrate our anniversary. 18 years ago on May 29th, we took the plunge. I had just turned 21 a month before we got married, and Amy was turning 21 in a couple more months. We didn’t know how young we were. We were in love, we knew we wanted to share life together, and we were willing to dive in! So we did it… head first. But unlike the picture shows, we jumped in with no gear… well, I guess I should say we had gear, but no where near the kind and of gear we needed to plunged the depths of the beauty and wonder of love we both longed and dreamt of.

I will speak for myself in this, that when I plunged in, I soon swam quickly back to the surface of the water as I metaphorically got water up my nose, my ear drums popped… the pain was unbearable, and I couldn’t see where I was going. I didn’t know how much pressure water could put on the body. I jumped in with great intentions and expectations, but as I swam around trying to do tricks in the water, I soon realized my limitations, “I need help!” There was way too much water to explore and the depths were intimidating. The current was intense, and some of the waves were bigger than they looked on the postcard. “I can’t tread water forever in this current!” “How could I go that deep?” “The water’s too cold, I need some kind of Jetson’s mobile to take me all the way to explore the bottom, and I’m no George Jetson.” “How in the world am I going to do this?” was my mantra, so I stayed far away from the thought of doing it. I didn’t like to explore the scary places. The dark places. The cold places. “Let’s leave those ones as they are… they don’t need to be bothered.” “It’s for better or worse, I get that, but let’s not help out the ‘worse’ part in that commitment.” So for years, I swam around in the kiddie part of the beach, protected by a rock wall, where the wave breaks couldn’t touch me and the current couldn’t pull me too far out. 

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the idea of talking about the deep, dark places, and often I’d jump on the other side of the rock wall and would put my face in the water to try and understand the landscape so I could talk about it with other people and not feel like I’m still a scared man trying to run from my pain. But that’s what I was. A scared man. Marriage had exposed all my sharp edges, all my misled desires, and proved that I was who I was afraid I would be; a fake. I was not a great catch like I had believed I was in high school. I was not as strong as I let on to be. I was not as brave as I appeared to be on the nights when I searched the house because I heard a window bang in the middle of the night. I had strong armor, but it wasn’t me. It was a good self-protective system I had created as a young child/man… but it couldn’t take me any farther. I was drowning in the armor, and the mask kept me from seeing clearly underwater. 

I can’t say it was one moment that forced me into the deeper waters. Maybe it was a series of events that kept exposing me, and my pride finally forced me to take the plunge again. Maybe it was the lies that I got caught in, the twists that didn’t work out in my favor to frame me as a better guy than I was. Maybe it was all of it, mixed with the pain of life and the reality of love that isn’t what I bargained for. I don’t know, but I did know that if I was going to experience the beauty and the longings of love and intimacy the way I always dreamt I would… if Amy was ever going to experience the kind of love she deserved from her husband… if my kids were going to have a father who could offer them something more than a good education and fun vacations, something had to change! 

I remember the day I first went to go see a counselor. I grew up thinking that if I need a counselor, then I’m not the Christian I’m supposed to be. Where in the hell does that kind of thinking come from? Sounds so crazy to even type those words, but that’s where I was. I needed help, and all my faith tricks had come to a crashing halt. I knew what I was supposed to do. I believed in a God who was big enough for my problems and who was called healer. I had scripture memorized and could navigate through the Bible better than most. I have an academic degree to prove I’m capable of handling divine written truth. I would’ve even said that I have experienced the divine, but if I did back then, most of it was a manufactured feeling that left me confused and longing for something more tangible. 

My days seeing a counselor were great, but even that wasn’t the answer… it was part of the answer. I needed others. I had built a great protective wall around my mind and my desires, that I needed help taking the wall down. It was brutal, and it was something I could’ve never done on my own. A mentor once told me, that we need help in life with that type of work in the same way someone training for the Iron Man needs help. On our own, we won’t (nor is it safe to) push our bodies to the point we need to get to day after day to be able to endure the toll of an Iron Man. We need trainers, support, community, and not just surface level, playing on the shore type community, but the deep water, big wave, intense current type community of friends and mentors, to be with us, to absorb some of the intense experiences of those moments. 

And it was at that moment when I began to realize, that the beginning of my journey had begun, and all the years of “doing stuff” for the good of the kingdom or whatever I would say I was doing, was all mostly for me, to prepare me to get to the point where I could actually be more useful than having good thoughts and right doctrine. I didn’t need another talking theologian who can wow me with great insights from scripture. I needed to experience scripture, I needed all the miracles I’ve read to become real in my own life. I didn’t need better thinking or a belief system that was waterproof. I needed to actually experience the deep waters. 

After all, I was already swimming in the water that held all of the good and the ugly in life. I was living off of the fruits that the waters gave out of it’s abundance. I was alive because the waters had kept me alive. And then “Bam!,” just like that, another moment of realization. I wasn’t the one keeping the waters going. I wasn’t in charge of making it happen. I was not “being blessed” because I was keeping it together or doing the right things. I just simply was blessed. Blessed to be in the waters. Blessed when my ears popped. Blessed when my eyes burned from too much water in them. Blessed when a friend offered to loan me their goggles, ear and nose plugs. And there it was, I was experiencing scripture. I was the recipient of a miracle, of many miracles. It was the goodness of God to have an unending source of water to give life. It was the unselfishness of my wife, the forgiveness of my children, the patience of my friends, the confrontation of my mentors, the corrections of my bosses. 

It was these moments of mercy and grace from those I could see, smell, touch, and hear that gave me a peak into eternity. It was those everyday normal miracles of love and compassion that was slowly growing me up. It was those experiences that helped me realized I was much more than just the “good” or “bad” stories about myself. I had been too narrow in my view of faith, that I lost view of my need for intimacy with people, and my wife was the first one to feel the let down of my promised love to her. I had been so eager to take the plunge and experience the joy of companionship, without any thought of what kind of companion I was going to be. 

I share all of this today, as I celebrate 18 years of marriage with my beautiful wife, because marriage is both a thing that makes us one, and also a product of two individuals who shape the landscape of the relationship, whether negatively or positively. And today, I felt the urge to share the more vulnerable side of me. I didn’t mean to… I meant for this post to be funny, but it kept moving towards this vulnerability. 

I guess I wanted to portray more of what it has really been like. We often share the best sides of ourselves, the best days, the great accomplishments, and frankly, that doesn’t match everyday life very well. Everyday there are let downs, fears, worries, lies, unmet longings, losses, griefs, that go along with the positives we like to lead with. I find beauty in both, in embracing the tension of the “good Jeff” and the “bad Jeff,” the “accomplished Jeff” and the “grand let-down Jeff.” So today, I wanted to share some of that which doesn’t define me, but is definitely a part of my story. So here’s what I do know today…

Today, I am not all better, and yet at least I know I’m not someone to be fixed. 

Today, I am not a great husband, although I like to think I’m less of a burden than I was 18 years ago. 

Today, I realize that joy is not completely depending on me, but that I’m not powerless to experience or offer joy either. 

Today, I realize that all my self-made identities that were born out of my hurts and insecurities aren’t defining me, and they aren’t anything to be ashamed of. 

Today, I realize that my life isn’t completely just about me, and yet it is not, not about me either. 

Today, I realize that when I get full of anxiety or fear and I feel the desire to play in the kiddie pool instead of facing the reality of what the deep waters are showing me, that it’s okay to admit it and be present with the fear and anxiety instead of denying what my body is saying is true. 

Today, I realize I don’t have to create my own body of water, but I do get to enjoy the comfort of the water and trust that it will always be there no matter what I do or believe. 

Today, I realize that the body of water is in me, and at the same time it is the water I am swimming in today. 

Today, I realize that taking the plunge into a committed marriage isn’t just about Amy and I, but it is part of a piece of art that is something much more beautiful and life giving than any ‘one’ relationship could ever be. 

Today, I realize the gift Amy has been in my life and the joys of having such a companion to swim the scary waters with me. 

Today, I realize what this poet has made clear through metaphor:

“We cannot trade for empty 

We must go to the waterfall

For there’s a break in the cup that holds love…

Inside all of us.” 

— David Wilcox

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The Beauty of Marriage

I’m writing this a day before my wife and I’s 17 year wedding anniversary. I have been reflecting about love, beauty, marriage, and commitment quite a bit this year. From year 16 to 17, it has been one of our more challenging years of marriage for many different reasons within and without of our family unit. Naturally, when times are tough and love and beauty have to be intensely fought for, it’s easy to think, love isn’t there, beauty is being lost in this relationship, and is it worth it to continue fighting this hard for something that seems that won’t always last on this side of heaven.

But I believe today, that it’s precisely these moments, the ones that no one is proud of, the moments we like to numb ourselves from and pretend they’re not as bad as they really are (thus the featured photo of Amy and I not looking perfect Christmas morning… with tired eyes and bedhead! She’s gonna kill me for posting this one!). It’s the moments that you want to ignore when you go to a 20 year high school reunion, as you and our spouse are putting on your best face, because the beauty of struggle wouldn’t be understood the way you now see it. The worth of the struggle in marriage, and sticking in it regardless of the resistance that brokenness has created in the midst of passion, love, and desire. This is true for any relationship, not just marriage.

Much has been written about love, marriage, beauty, and the power of belonging. This is what some of the best movies create their plots out of. The “little guy” being called into something greater than he deserves to be involved in. The outcast making the big difference as fate would exalt her. The unlikely hero, the odds stacked against the main character, only for him to succeed after a type of death has been faced and conquered. This is the beauty of the stories we all love.

When I think of this in lieu of marriage, I think of the commitment a thriving marriage must have to stay committed to the other person regardless of the situation. I think of the times one of the spouses is the underdog, the poor pitiful mess up who can’t get it right, the one who has failed time and time again, who has mud on their face and is full of shame, the one who can’t seem to shed their childish ways, etc. I think of the plots that don’t end up happy and no one wants to write about. These moments aren’t just happening at an external level for everyone to see. No, all these failures and mess up’s are mostly happening in the privacy of a marriage, in front of the person who once fell in love with you because they loved who you were and likely because of the way you (or they) wooed and pursued you.

And now you find yourself in the midst of a marriage screenplay and you may feel like the character with the odds stacked against you, except you don’t have the hope of a Hollywood screenplay ending. There’s no more pursuit, and you are in the midst of the tension… “Will I be loved if I continue to fail.” “Will she still want to “belong” together if I prove to not have what it takes in business?” What’s gonna happen if I’m honest with all the shit underneath the surface of my poor pitiful existence?” “What if he stops being attracted to me?”

It’s in the midst of these moments where we have an invitation to allow the layers of self-protection we’ve gathered around us over the years to either fall away a little bit more, or to accumulate a larger collection of self-protective clothing. Each one of us, at some point in our younger lives, encountered messages that said we weren’t enough, we needed to be different in order to be loved, we had something wrong with us, others aren’t trustworthy, pain is to be avoided, etc. And in those moments we tried on new ways of being ourselves so that we would be protected from these negatives messages/experiences.

Over the years, as children, these protective layers worked, but when we become adults, they interfere with intimacy and closeness and the challenges of a close relationship begin to create a vulnerability in you that either pisses you off or scares the hell out of you. The choice to continue the status quo of our childhood or to walk into the mysteriousness of vulnerability is now staring us down in the eyes, and we want to crawl in a hole and die, or wage war! But there is another way….

Usually, the deciding factor of which way one chooses to behave (internally or externally) is dependent upon on the nature of the marriage or relationship. Is the environment of the relationship one of love and trust, or is it one of performance and deceit? This can only be honestly answered by you alone. We know ourselves, we know our layers, and we know what we’ve anesthetized ourselves from because of brutalness of being honest about what’s really inside. And to be honest about this, will indeed take a great act of vulnerability.

Love and trust flourishes in the context of a vulnerable relationship. A relationship that has offered the grace to the screw up, the failure, the one who can’t always perform at a level of perfection. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to offer a secure place to be totally exposed, yet still told that they belong. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to communicate how significant the other person is, regardless of all the past years of messages that have said the other person isn’t significant. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to grant forgiveness when the other person isn’t able to offer one of the two routes above.

The beauty of marriage is created ultimately by God, who always fought for the wife who was childless, the man who wasn’t capable of a great speech, the outcast arrogant brother, the lying son who labored for his father’s approval, the oppressed wife who wasn’t given the protection she deserved, the prostitute who was constantly told that she was only worth the money she was offered for a night, the corrupt businessman, and the social outcast and untouchable leper.

God married himself to such people, and offered beauty in place of their ashes. Instead of asking for these people to perform, God came to them, fought for them and offered a place to belong. God came to such poor people (you and I) in the form of Jesus, and not only did he model the beauty of love, but made the reality of our poverty and death to be something that would actually give us life.

His death for our failures; this produced the greatest return ever. In the dark tomb of our failures, sin, and shame, we get caught up into a womb once again. A second conception now begins, a new birth story happens. As Jean Vanier puts it, with Jesus, a tomb always becomes a womb. And after the resurrected life, Jesus asks us to take his hand in marriage, first to receive a new life in a relationship that offers love and trust, a place of security and significance; and second, to be able to offer this relationship to others. This is the beauty of marriage.

I am thankful this weekend for a wife who has displayed the beauty and worth of Jesus to me in the midst of my narrative that has found me out as the fool, the screw up, the hypocrite. When I was down and out, she didn’t try to rescue me in a way that would anesthetize us from what was really going on. No, she courageously allowed death to take place, no matter how scary it’s gotten, so that in the burial of the tomb, the womb would produce a deeper more intimate new life, a life of vulnerability that cuts out the pretense and celebrates weakness and poverty as something rich and fruitful.

May you experience the beauty of marriage, or the beauty of love, that allows the proper parts of us to die, so the true self could be resurrected and rescued from all the self-protective layers that have kept us from intimacy from God and others. It’s the commitment to the fight, the commitment to allow death to take it’s course, to stay up on the cross as Jesus did for us, the journey of vulnerability, and the offering of second chances and grace in the worst moments in life. Put this definition of the beauty of marriage to the test, and I promise you, you’re ending will be significantly better than a “Hollywood ending.”

For Revolutionaries and Visionaries Only

One of the gifts I’ve been given from the construction world is that I understand it takes time to create something beautiful. And that ‘time’ includes lots hard work, sweat, many mistakes, sometimes broken bones, blood, busted budgets, mental toughness to keep the vision in mind when all you see is a mess, and the willingness to keep at it, to do it the right when things get difficult, and not cut corners. I have many terrible stories of what cutting corners does in the construction world… just go out to a new housing suburb and ask a homeowner what issues they have with their “new” home. Good work, beautiful work, takes time and commitment to do things right.

With many jobs I work on, there is demolition that has to happen before we can start actually ‘building.’ Whether it’s digging the footer for a stem wall that is going to hold the bearing load of a building, jackhammering out old concrete and rebar to build something more functional or more aesthetically pleasing, or tearing out walls, ceiling or floors for a remodel. The homes or buildings where demo takes place becomes a dusty mess, full of hazards and is in need of strong labors to tear out and haul off all the junk that is no longer necessary.

It takes this…

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To get to this…

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Or this…

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To get this…

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In life, this struggle is the same. We all want the beauty without the work. We want the resurrected life without the death. We want healing but not the pain. We want the finished product, but not the long journey of demolition and clean up to get to the point where you can actually start building again. We want to live in peace, and run from disorder. We want to ignore what’s broken. We want to cut corners. This is a human desire. I don’t know anyone, who in their right mind, loves pain and waiting a long time for things to become whole. But not loving these things does not mean we can dodge them and expect the beauty we long for.

You see, this work is hard because if forces us to deal with that which we are afraid of: exposure of our shame, ignored trauma and loss, an invitation to grieve, asking others to help us haul off the junk that’s been demolished… This work is hard because it invites us into the truth of the way things really are, and to ‘willingly’ move into our shame and grief seems like a death wish at worst, and stupid at best.

But it is precisely the digging into the shame and moving into the grief that is what creates the beauty. It’s the asking for help and recruiting strong laborers to help with the heavy lifting. But remember, it’s the ashes covered over the forest floor that brings about a plush forest in years to come. It’s the work of sitting in your pain long enough to die to the old ways that have kept you numb isolated, and without passion and intimacy for years. Death must be at work within us for beauty to ever surface in the purest sense.

So here’s to the hard work of creating beauty when there is no clear vision of what it will look like once we get there. Here’s to sitting in our pain (not completely on our own though) long enough to die, and in the tomb of grief, in time, it will turn into a womb. And once again, you will be invited into the pain as you will labor to give birth to the hidden beauty waiting to be revealed.

This is an invitation for the revolutionary, the visionary, the one who is not happy with the way things have been, for those who are not willing to cut corners, and move past the comments that are meant to keep you from feeling and dealing with what’s really going on under the slab. May this encourage you today to stay the course, and as Mumford and Sons puts it, to not succumb when the world is wrapping round your neck. Find your broad-shouldered beasts and invite them in to your shame and grief to share to weight and pain of this journey towards beauty.

Knock, knock. Who’s there?

Growing up, I was a sucker for “Knock, knock” jokes. I didn’t like all of them, and many of the ones older adults told went over my head. But for some reason, I wanted to hear more. One that has stood out to me is this:

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Dozen.
Dozen who?
Dozen anybody want to let me in?

Such a play on words for my mind as a child was half the fun (or challenge), learning how it makes sense, stopping to think and put it all together. Sometimes I’d even process out loud, “Oh yeh, ‘dozen’, as in a dozen donuts! Ha! I get it!” The goal of most of the jokes for me was to conquer it, to understand it, to get it; ultimately, to be “let in” as the joke is humorously referring to. I wanted somebody to let me in, maybe sub-consciously to let me in on the secret of who I really was. Isn’t that what these jokes are getting at, the “who”, not the what?

Before I left on a family summer trip to a Young life camp in British Columbia, I met with Dr. David Beyda. I had heard him speak at a graduation ceremony and was moved to tears while he was speaking. As he shared beautiful stories of death and resurrection, he had an emphasis on the “who” of a person, not the “what.” “Who are you?” he asked all of us, from the power of the podium, and tears started water-falling down my face.

“Who am I” I asked myself internally. Now one thing you have to understand about me, I have spent years teaching, coaching, and counseling people along the lines of finding their identity based on “who” they were, not by “what” they do. So this wasn’t the first time I had heard this. “I’m a veteran at this” I told myself. “Why am I crying? Come on Jeff, you know who you are. You know your identity is not found in having something important in life to do. A title is just a title, it’s not what defines you.”

But the honest truth that evening was I realized how much identity I still found in my “job” or “title”. I could preach the best sermon about finding your identity in Christ, calling others out on not looking to false idols to feel worthy or valuable, or reminding a congregation that Jesus is all we need. But over a year and half out of not having a “real job,” with no “title”, having walked away from pastoring a church that I had started years ago, and struggling financially, I was at a pretty dark, low place. My good friend and mentor Jerry Price, calls this a “Zero-State”.

For whatever reason, that night at the graduation ceremony, I was brought face to face with the sober realities of who I am in life. I was face to face with all of my failures, all the broken relationships that swirl around in my head, and the struggles of not being a very good provider for my family. As these realities confronted me, I knew then, that I am not defined by all of that.

The “who” of who I am is full of dark ugliness that brings death to those nearby, and at the same time beautiful budding flowers that bring about life and joy. This lesson was brought home to me later in the summer, at a Young Life camped called Beyond Malibu.

It was a couple weeks in, during our assignment there, when some of the death that Jesus wanted to renew in my life would be exposed. The “who” of Jeff, behind all the masks of pretension would come blazing out and I couldn’t deny it anymore; Jesus wanted to deliver me from the false “who’s” and bring me into the “who” that gives, not takes.

It was a weekday, the day after I had a very fulfilling day of work and investment in young men’s lives. I felt valuable and worthy because of what I was able to offer. But the following day, I was with all my kids, most of the day, while Amy had her turns. It was the end of the day and I had lost it with the kids and was sure to show Amy that I was done.

This wasn’t the first time I had played this manipulative game to make Amy feel sorry for me and see that I had “suffered” for the good of the family. Even as I type this, I cringe at how selfish this sounds, but it’s all true… this is what I was feeling and thinking internally. It was this day that my wife offered me a gift, a gift that has kept on giving.

She had put together that evening this behavior of mine and was done! This is coming on the heels of many years of her supporting “my vocation” and raising children with me being there in person, but not always present in spirit. This is after years of Amy sacrificing many of her dreams for me to do what I love and feel passionate about, and today was the last day that she would let me power play her with my lame attempt to regain any dignity I thought I had lost that day from letting her use her gifts.

She looked at me at let me know more or less, “On the day that I am needed and able to use my gifts, and you are with the kids, you are unhappy to be with them. It seems a good day for you is when you are being used outside this family. It is my turn. I hope this isn’t a competition against me because I was ‘used’ today and you ‘weren’t.’ ”

Ouch! She was so right. This was “who” I was inside, and it came out like acid in the eye. Painful. And instantly I felt like defending myself in the past, but I knew that Amy had called out my “Knock, knock” jokes, and saw past my attempts to make myself look better than I really was right then. I had no other option but to hang my head and admit that she was right. I had to face “who” I really was behind all the proper relational etiquette I had learned with spiritual language.

I was found out, and you know what, I loved it! This has happened before in our marriage, but not at a point where I had so much to lose. I was the pastor, the one who taught people how to live a “gospel-centered” life, I wasn’t supposed to be struggling with this. But there I was, struggling with it, and I was brought to a “Zero-State.”

I could go lower, but at this point it would be below ground, with darkness and coldness to look forward to. Or I could admit I was somebody I didn’t want to be and decide to be responsible. Amy offered me a huge gift that day. She offered me grace, grace that said, “I won’t put up with your crap anymore because I love you and want to really connect with you. This game you’re playing isn’t connection. I want intimacy with the true Jeff.”

I got answers this summer to a deeper level of “who” I am because of my crap being called out. And now I have the chance (and I hope I’m making good use of the opportunity) to drop all the false self’s that I had built up around the insecurity and shame of my life.

I know the world is a much better place when I am truthful with the masks I wear, for honesty and confession is the only way to truly strip ourselves of the false persons we have tried on over the years to cover up the parts of ourselves that we’ve been told were unacceptable and shameful.

I wish for you that you find hope in my journey, and that you have people around you who are as loving and courageous as Amy is. Maybe you may even be the one to be loving enough to say enough to someone in your life, of course with grace and love.

An Anniversary Reflection

It was the summer of 1996. I had just graduated high school in May and soon after I went off to a work crew assignment at a Young Life camp in British Colombia called Malibu, I know, rough stuff, but somebody had to fill the role.

That summer most of the friends I made were from Dallas, and at the end of the assignment in June I thought Dallas was the new place for me. I moved out there to make a new home for myself and lived in a house with a few  friends who were in Young Life. Everything I owned I packed into a 1985 Toyota Corolla and made trip to the Lone Star state. I had one cassette tape at the time and my car stereo had no antenna, so I wore out an old Plank Eye album. Packing everything you own and driving somewhere is an exhilarating experience. If you’re ever bale to do, I highly suggest it!

Fast forward to the first week of September now, that same year. I found myself unsettled, uneasy, and empty. Dallas was fun, but it wasn’t home, and I was fighting to make it feel that way. The fight ended that week and I realized there were things in Phoenix that I hated, but I was running from them instead of facing them. There were mountains I didn’t want to climb and thought if I ran far enough the other way, I would lost sight of it all. I found out that’s not true. I chose to face the mountain, even though I didn’t realize the cost or what that would mean until much later in life.

So I packed up my Corolla again with everything I owned and made the trip back home with Plank Eye. It just so happened that the weekend I arrived in Phoenix was the same weekend of Young Life’s leader weekend retreat in Prescott. So I passed right through Phoenix and headed up to Prescott… Young Life is a large part of what home is for me.

That weekend I was in the for the surprise of my life. You see, there was this really good looking girl in Young Life I used to hang out with before I graduated, but she was a tier or two above me on the marketability scale. I liked her, but never gave it much thought about making a move to put my ego on the line to ask her out or anything. But this weekend, the weekend I chose not to run away anymore, was going to change my life.

I found myself in the same small room with and a handful of others learning about something I don’t remember. My mind was fixated on her, but I wasn’t going to let my body or my eyes show it. Every now and then I would wander my eyes over to where she was sitting, being careful not to let her see me look at her. But about 5 minutes into our time there, I looked her way, and realized… she was looking my way!

Our eyes met and locked into one another, love music began playing in the background, and wind started blowing through her hair… No, not really, that was just what my mind was thinking of though. She had a calm happy smile and waved at me and I waved back with sweaty pits, a nervous smile, and sweat drops building up on the side of my nostrils as if I had just had some really hot salsa. I thought to myself, “She waved! What does that mean? Is she just being nice?” I was so excited and nervous at the same time.

Then a sort of game ensued. We kept making eye contact and full on flirting was in play. I couldn’t believe it. I came home to face my fears, but this was a different fear to face. “The best looking lady in Young Life, the most eligible bachelorette, was flirting with me!” I thought to myself. “How do I not mess this up?”

There’s not enough time to explain all that happened after that, but one thing’s for sure, I was hooked and couldn’t stop facing that fear of rejection. A few months later I was sitting at a Wendy’s just before Christmas, 1996, looking into the eyes of Amy Roth as we both told each other that that we both wanted to be a ‘thing’!

May 29th, 1999 we made our love official and covenantal. It would take a while before I would see the value of making a promise, but now that I see it, it means much more to me than I ever thought it would. She has loved me at times only because she promised to love me, not because I’ve been lovable or even worth loving. This has been life giving to me and I know my covenantal love for her has been life giving to her as well.

We labor to make our love fun and passionate, not just covenantal. But sometimes when it is not what it should be, the covenant keeps you in the game. In this season of life, I am the source of the lack of fun and passion most of the time, and am grateful for my wife of 16 years who has loved me in beautiful and hard ways and has lovingly spoken life and truth into me and our marriage.

Happy Anniversary Amy Skeens. I’m thankful you chose to commit to me and chose to do life together. May God give us grace for another fun, passionate, and covenantal 16 years.

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Stories and Disordered Sexual Passion

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Stories move us, especially when the body gets the deeper meaning of powerful stories. Stories hold deep meanings that can’t be explained, only caught at the gut level, and when you catch it, it changes you, body and mind. Nathan D. Mitchell says that “our bodies make our prayers” Meeting Mystery, 224). I believe that, because I can say whatever I want to you, I can pray the fanciest of prayers, and make it believable to you, but my body can’t lie like that. When I eat terrible food that friend has made, I can say to them, “Oh man, this is so good!”, but my body is screaming at me, “Get this out of me!”

In James K. A. Smith’s Volume 2 of Cultural Liturgies, Imagining the Kingdom, he introduces the word praktognosia (56), meaning “know-how,” or to get something intuitively, at the gut level. This is how passions and desires work. Our bodies desire things passionately, usually at non-cognitive levels, and they feel things in the same manner. “I understand in ways I don’t know, and it is my body that understands” (58). We get things many times because our body responds to it before our minds conceive of the meaning. Stories have that kind of power to affect (move emotionally) our desires and actions, intersecting our bodies and minds.

In many ways, we have become so accustomed to analytical, systematic, scientific methods of learning and communicating, that we have lost the art of telling stories that “move” us into action or necessary change. This is especially true in the Christian culture, when desires are disordered and destructive. Many times, our answer to someone whose desires have gone whack (insert all of humanity here!), we respond with an answer that is behavioral and does not address the heart of the desire. For example, when a young man confesses looking at pornography, we say, “Hey dude, you gotta be in Word more”, or “How’s your prayer life”, or “Call me each time you struggle with this and I’ll help hold you accountable.”

Now, I admit that those are not bad things to do, but the issue I take with many “Christianese” responses to sinful desires (particularly sexual desires) is our lack of addressing the desire, and redirecting our imaginations to greater desires, desires that actually give life, not destroy life. Some of my greatest triumphs over sexual temptations are because I’ve had friends redirect my desires, rather than trying to shut down my desires. Trying to shut down our passions and desires by starving them out is not what we were meant to do as humans. There is a time for abstinence, but it’s not the long term solution. Our desire must be changed.

When we shut down desires and passions, we are bound to break eventually, because God gave us strong desires and passions, but they have been disordered. Sexual desires are inherently good, when they are order properly and directed towards the right person. We need holy imaginations to consider that our desires for things we can’t have are actually not desires that will bring us the joy and “fun” we wanted to have. In this case, our desires are weak desires. C.S. Lewis puts it best on the first page of his short excerpt entitled, Weight of Glory:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

We are indeed half-hearted creatures, with weak desires and imaginations that have been lost. We need a divine awakening of imagination. We need to be better story tellers, more transparent in our story telling, offering our passions through story, and imagining the good life through story. It is the story that captures our bodies, and our bodies know-how passions and desires work. When we capture our imaginations for goodness, our bodies know and our actions follow suit.

The body gets what the body wants. When we feed the body with corrupt desires and illicit imaginings, corruption and illicitness follows. When we feed the body with good desires and holy imaginings, goodness and holiness follows. Maybe our disordered culture of sexuality needs better story tellers of what the good life really is. It seems as if our pop culture has told better, more convincing stories than anyone else, using sex to sell, and making millions off of disordered desires.

It’s time we tell better stories. We should know (and deeply believe) after all these years, that pop-culture isn’t fooling anyone, as we can clearly see how it’s stories have contributed to miserable marriages, lonely people, and confused children, who continue to cope by jumping into and living out of the destructive story of pop-culture. Imagine with me for moment, that the good life is faithfulness to one spouse, great sex in the context of a committed marriage, staying when it was easier to leave (kind of like Jesus did on the cross for us), the joy of being true to yourself, and the dignity we can all offer men and women by not objectifying them. Wouldn’t that be a sweet world to live in!

Our desires don’t need to be ignored or buried, they need to be re-storied with the true story of the universe, the only story that holds the answer to the pitiful place we are in as humans; the story that we all praktognosia when properly heard or seen. The story of God re-gathering his family together and reordering this world to the way it was supposed to be. Imagine stories that were birthed from this story. Imagine stories that give contextual witness to the goodness of God’s plan. Imagine stories that re-framed respecting women as economically profitable, and giving dignity to our bodies a virtue more desired.

What stories or imaginations have captured you either negatively or positively? Which stories have you believe in that are producing death in you? What stories are you telling to yourself? To others? It’s time we pay attention to the stories we are listening to and telling, and be better stewards of humanity and our sexuality, before we lose another generation to disordered sexual passions.

¡Quince Años!

For the Spanish impaired, that’s 15 years! That’s how long I’ve been to my beautiful wife (May 29th, 1999) who doesn’t age. She’s as beautiful as ever in more ways than we understand beauty to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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15 years is a long time to make a lot of terrible mistakes and to feel like there’s ample reasons to not stay with someone. I’ve had many friends and colleagues over the years never make it to 15 years of marriage… many marriages in America never make it past 7 years. For those who have been married for 20(+) years, keep going, stay in the game, you’re modeling for those of us who care about marital faithfulness and joy; we need you!

As I’ve been reflecting about marriage over the last few weeks, the word covenant has stolen my thoughts. In the New Testament, the Greek word for covenant is diathḗkē (διαθήκη), and within the storyline of scripture, diathḗkē refers to the declaration of God’s unconditional promise to make Abraham and his future offsprings the recipients of certain blessings (Gen. 12:1-3; 13:14–17; 15:18; 17:7–8, 19–21; 21:12, 14; 22:2, 12).

Through diathḗkē, God stays with (and loves) Israel in spite of the fact that Israel has been an unfaithful diathḗkē partner. This is extraordinary, especially if you know the nuances of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Then, Jesus arrives midway through God’s story of redemption (of his wayward bride), and God is executing his faithfulness to his bride through making himself become one of us, and taking onto himself what we deserve for our marital unfaithfulness towards him. So to continue in marriage terms, Jesus sacrifices for his undeserving bride, and wins her back, washes her clean from her years of cheating, and brings her back home, loves her, serves her, blesses her, provides for her, and stays with her, no matter what.

Now, the biblical language says that Jesus is the groom and we (followers of Jesus) are the brides… sorry dudes! So in our marriages, husbands and wives are called to enter into a diathḗkē with one another that is meant to model to the watching world the kind of diathḗkē God made with Abraham (you and I) and fulfilled through Jesus, who is the ultimate blessing. Jesus stayed on the cross when we mocked, spit, cursed, hated, and eventually killed him. This means marriage is not only to be a commitment of two lovers who care for another and enjoy the fruit’s of all forms of love, but it is a diathḗkē that was meant to drive one another towards staying when it was easier to leave. And this is so because Jesus stayed.

The marriage covenant was instituted to model to the watching world the kind of love that God has for humanity. When marriages break down, especially among Jesus followers, it is sending a message to the watching world that Jesus is good and loving, but he might not stay if I show all my junk to him… he may leave me. Marriage is a big deal, and it has a huge role in God’s story. The story of God begins with a marriage (Adam and Eve; Gen 1-2) and it ends with a marriage (Christ and the church; Rev. 19). All the marriages in between those historical moments matter, because they display the beauty and worth of Jesus to a world who has distorted beauty and has placed worth on short-lived items.

Marriage with Amy has been amazingly beautiful with many hard days mixed in between, mostly because of my stubborn heart. High highs, and low lows. There are many days I don’t even think about the covenant I made to her before God and man, but then there are other days where we both fall back on the covenant we made to each other and reflect on the reality that our marriage isn’t just about us, our happiness, and our desires. Marriage is about God, and it is meant to display his radical plan to prodigally love humanity. This is what keeps married partners in the game. If there’s anything else that takes priority over this, it won’t stand the test of time and suffering and sin. There are unfortunately times when leaving is necessary and I know many godly people who have left marriages for just and holy reasons (abuse, unfaithfulness, etc), but this post isn’t about the exceptions and this was not God’s plan in his story.

I’m in love with my wife and have loved being married for 15 years with her, and having her be my lady for the past 18 years. I have been sharpened and blessed by her in ways that are unexplainable, and feel like we are only now at the starting line of life together. Holding fast to the covenant God made with us and to the covenant Amy and I made to each other is a way of adding grace to our marriage and produces more love, more joy, and more years together without the devastation of splintered relationships.

If you have been divorced, this post is not to put you down or to make you feel less than, I simply wanted to honor the true meaning of a marriage covenant. God is a God of grace and redemption, and divorce isn’t the unforgivable sin as some fanatics make it out to be, but it does matter and we need to continue to pray for marriages and the display they have in our culture.

Here’s to another quince años Amy Skeens!