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.”

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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Nonnie and Poppy!

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Nonnie and Poppy are my parents. This is what our kids call my mom and dad. Nonnie is the Italian (my mom’s 100% Italian!) term from Grandma and Poppy just feels right to say after “Nonnie”, even though it’s not Italian. Nonnie and Poppy have been with us since the beginning of our church plant at Kineo. Honestly, Kineo wouldn’t have happened without them being there. They have been the most amazingly faithful and supportive members of our body, through the crap and the roses! I wanted to give them a shout out today and let them know that I am thankful for them. Words can’t express how they’ve blessed me, my wife, and our kids. Since we started Kineo, we had our fourth child, I started seminary full-time, worked side jobs to pay the bills, and navigated the complexities of family life. My parents have been gamers this whole time, sticking it out with us, blessing us, watching kids, changing diapers (well, at lest Nonnie changed em’), tithing way more than they could afford, and being a display of love, joy, and sacrifice to the church family at Kineo.

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Thanks for all you’ve done mom and dad. I love you!

Going All The Way!

I was a Young Life leader (a mentor to high school students) for 10 years, and during that time, I overheard many conversations of young boys who would talk about “Going all the way” with their girlfriends, or some “chick from the party”. As someone now who’s been married for almost 15 years and have gone through quite a bit of suffering with my wife, that phrase “Going all the way” in regards to some sexual feat sounds cheap and dismissive of the real work of love, and the cost of “going all the way”.

This is Calvin Matthews. He has “gone all the way”.

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In 1976, he was out of town for work during the last week of July. On July 31st, his wife Gloria and his fourteen year old son George were home during the great flood that came out of Estes Park, and they both died that day. This drove him to “hit the bottle”, and he began to drink… a lot. In his words, “By a miracle of the great Lord”, he met Thelma at the bar, she had just lost her mother, and was there to have a drink to distract herself from the pain. She wasn’t medicating with alcohol, but Calvin was. Needless to say, they fell in love and she introduced Calvin to the best medicine ever, Jesus.

Calvin said, “The dear Lord used Thelma to save my life.” Years later, after 30 years of marriage, in 2007, Thelma had a stroke and after a series of procedures, she was bound to the hospital and eventually was placed in a nursing home because Calvin couldn’t care for her at home. Since 2007, Calvin spends most of his waking hours their with Thelma, helping her eat, reading to her, singing for her, and making her laugh; he has also become a friend to many others who are bound to their new home.

Calvin is the pastor at that nursing home. He’s also an awesome model of “going all the way” with a woman. We need more Calvin’s in this world. More men who are called to “go all the way” when it costs them everything. This, in my opinion is the remedy for our over sexualized culture that abuses and emasculates men and women.

I pray that I can “go all the way” with my wife one day. Thanks for the example Calvin!

Mr. and Mrs. for 14 Years and Counting…

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As a church planter, often times counting is bad because people like me tend to find their significance from the number of butts in a seat on a Sunday morning. This is a bad measure of success, so I have stopped counting… and I sleep much better at night! But counting the number of years of marriage has been a fun thing to do. Each year that comes by and we celebrate another anniversary, we get excited about celebrating the next year (next year is 15 years… can’t wait to get to that one!).

Although 14 years to some couples is only half or a third of the time they’ve been married, for us, that number represents much more than just a number. It represents all that we’ve gone through and been through together. It represents grace, joy, pain, struggle, fear, children, celebrations, transitions, losses, happiness, etc. This morning is our first morning in a new house that we have just moved into, and it marks for me (us) another new chapter… a new chapter where we get to put together all of our hard learned lessons and aim for what the next 14 years will look like.

Amy and I (and the kids), after four years of planting Kineo, have finally and fully moved in to the neighborhood of Alhambra Village, down the street from our church. This move marks a deeper commitment to our neighborhood and to solidarity with those who have been underserved and overlooked. I mention this because these are two words that Amy and I have felt like to each other during some of our worst days together over these last 14 years and we know what it’s like (to some measure) to be underserved or overlooked.

The secret to a healthy marriage is obviously a deep and abiding commitment to Christ Jesus and to seek His glory over the glory of ourselves or our marriage. But once that is in place and pursued as a life long desire (even when you don’t feel like it), seeking the welfare of one another is probably the best lesson I have learned in marriage.

Underserved. If you use this word in the context of marriage, this means that a spouse is being served less than the other spouse is serving one’s self of something else. This is a terrible recipe for joy and happiness in a marriage, not to mention it’s wrongly displaying what marriage was meant to be (self-giving love and sacrifice for the good of the other). My first calling as I press hard into Christ Jesus, is to serve my wife first, yes, even to overserve her, or out serve her. I can track back over the years of our marriage and the crappy days, weeks, or months have been when I have underserved my wife. This new move marks for me a re-commitment to overserve and outserve my wife.

Overlooked. Again, when this word comes up in the context of marriage, ¡este no es nada bueno! Underserving is one thing (and I don’t want to minimize underserving), but overlooking the other spouse is worse. It usually means that you are dodging, ignoring, stonewalling, or have your focus on other people or things so much so, that the other spouse is or feels overlooked. Overlooking a spouse, much like overlooking the poor, the orphan, the widow, or the stranger, always leads to injustice, and God hates injustice. Too many days overlooking one another in marriage creates patterns that only much pain and stripping will cure, and many times, once patterns of overlooking occurs in a marriage, hope for reconciliation seems bleak, and many couples end up divorcing one another.

14 years and counting… because I want each celebration of another anniversary to be better than the last one. I don’t want to forget the lessons we’ve learned and the meaning of marriage to fall by the way side. I want to say at the end of year 14, that we put more time and energy (maybe not money) into our relationship this year than we did while we were planning for a big wedding. I want to outdo our celebrations each year and rejoice in that fact that two sinners are striving to outserve and outnotice one another. I want the gaze I have on Amy to be more intimate and heart moving than the gaze I had on her as she walked down the aisle 14 years ago. I want to display the beauty and worth of Jesus and His bride through our marriage. Here’s to many more years of doing just that, by God’s grace!