This year of 2009 has had some sad and unique features for me. I do not remember a year when I have known so many people struggling with cancer nor a year when I have known so many marriages under stress to the point of breaking apart.
On the cancer front, my wife Barby attended the funeral of her 40yr old work colleague yesterday. That has been one person of about a dozen. Younger and older. Near and far. It is hard to hold them all in my heart - but that is what I am trying to do. But cancer is a consequence of living in a fallen world stained by sin and evil and it should not seem so strange to us. But it does and it will. I find my mind traveling in two directions.
Firstly, as someone who has experienced much less suffering than many, I try to steel my mind with the right patterns of thinking about suffering. For example, will I be able to ask 'how?' much more than 'why?' if I am afflicted? 'How can I suffer well?', not 'why is this suffering happening to me?' is the appropriate question to ask. Maybe I will be able to do so. Maybe I won't.
Secondly, is there anything that encourages and strengthens my faith more than watching people and walking with people who suffer well? I doubt it. The joy which seems to emerge? The hope? The endurance? The confidence? The other-centeredness? It is so often faith's finest hour. The very things that drive the unbeliever further away from God are the very things which cause the believer to lean harder on God. It is as odd as it is remarkable.
On the marriage front, I fear that within Christian circles there is a lot of fuzzy thinking which leads to a lot of fussy behaviour. Let me explain.
The thinking is fuzzy. The attitudes of Christians towards things like beauty and love, intimacy and sex, self and commitment... It has become confused. We are no different from anyone else on these subjects. But gee - when the ratio of time spent in racy novels, TV serials, the lyrics of songs, and movies compared with the time spent in the Word of God so often reaches 100:1 for many followers of Jesus, is it really that surprising? What else can we expect? Afterall we become what we soak in.
This fuzzy thinking leads on to fussy behaviour.
On the one hand there are Christians who are too fussy about the wrong things. Someone's appearance. Someone's income. Someone's personality. And the list goes on ... these silly irrelevancies actually prevent quality Christian marriages taking place.
On the other hand there are Christians who are not fussy enough about the right things. Someone's character. Someone's consecration. Someone's purpose ("Love does not consist in gazing at each other - sorry, Twilight fans! - but in looking outward together in the same direction").
I've done a few pre-marriage sessions in my time. Nowhere do couples need to be de-programmed more than in the area of intimacy. The 100:1 error tends to have them convinced that sex initiates and sustains intimacy. It doesn't. The best and most enduring intimacy comes as it is nurtured first as a social, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional closeness able to be experienced by those who are celibate too - remember?! Then for those who marry - mutually exclusive and permanent in its intention - sex is a celebration of that intimacy in the way God designed.
Our world disciples us to be self-absorbed - "people are pickled in themselves" (Bono). Well - maybe too many Christian marriages are pickled. They need a dose of "let us get lost in something bigger than ourselves", allowing their marriage to become missional as they offer it to Jesus as well.