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May 19, 2015

six months

Nine years ago my still-teenage self was bumping down a country road in a friend's Jeep. She was telling me about a good friend's failing marriage. As we bounced along, she explained how it was difficult for her to fathom the devastation of divorce, because in her marriage, "every year gets better." I knew she had a joyful marriage, one that set a bar for me, reminding me that it was possible to be truly be best friends with the one you married. I knew her marriage was, as she always says, "rooted and built up in Him". But that "every year gets better" phrase never left me, because I did not understand. Every year, better? How so? 

I heard the same thing from a wise woman in more recent years, who told me of early conjugal struggles, and her mother's advice to wait it out because "it only gets better". She told me how it proved true in her marriage, that indeed, it was better now than before. I heard, but I still did not understand.

I have often seen how when my friends are dating, engaged or newly married, their lives receive a lot of attention, on social media or otherwise. But around the time of the birth of the second baby, the fanfare dies down and life settles into more ordinary things. Marriage days are punctuated by less-than-romantic trips to the laundromat because there is no clean underwear, or another late night cleaning up and taking out a stinky bag of garbage after guests leave. Then maybe babies, with their strict schedules, spit up and strong lungs. The glamorous Photoshopped wedding and honeymoon photos in exotic destinations eventually are replaced by grainy camera phone photos that show gained weight and receding hairlines. I wanted to believe my friends, but I still wondered, how does it get better as time goes by? The beginning is what looks so fun.

A picture from the day before our wedding.

Six months into my own marriage, I am starting to understand. Our wedding was memorable, and our honeymoon was fun, but can I admit something really boring? As far as our marriage goes, I like this week or last week better than I liked my honeymoon in the mountains. That's because, as I was told, each month, our marriage truly gets richer, deeper and better.

Marriage keeps getting better, because the longer we live this covenant, the more...

...days I've seen my husband's faithfulness in going to work, fighting the thorns and thistles of his particular job, providing for us. 
...times he has patiently wiped up my splashes around our small European kitchen sink and put on his rubber clogs to walk through the kitchen, rather than padding around in wet socks. 
...he has quietly brought a cup of water to my bedside, jumped out of bed to shut the window at night, or sorted (step one) and washed (step two) a pile of sticky supper dishes. 
...meals he's accepted with thanksgiving, not complaining about the meals he doesn't like (pasta with blue cheese sauce and toasted walnuts will never again be on our menu) and the more he's praised the meals he did like (thank God we both like Asian and TexMex).  
...he has graciously listened to my rambling thoughts, and contributed his insight (which is why he doesn't need to read this blog post, because he's heard the rough audio version!) 
...comfortable and safe we feel together, and the more good memories we've made together.
...prayers we've prayed together, the more Scripture we've read together, the more people we've served together. 

Marriage keeps getting better, because the longer we live together, the longer we've loved one another, the more we've forgiven one another, and the better we know and understand each other. Knowing that my husband has promised to live with me in this way until death do us part, gives me the security and serenity that allows our relationship to build on this history together, and grow better. We are learning better how to please each other, and how to build each other up.

But most importantly, the fact that our lives are not centred around devotion to "us", but around devotion to the One who made with us a better covenant, better promises...this allows us to always move toward better, the longer we are married. When we are concentrated on bettering our relationship with God, our marriage is automatically bettered as well.

My husband works in a profession that is technical and mostly male-dominated. When he announced his upcoming wedding at work, there was little conversation about it. If anything, he was told that marriage was not necessary in order to live with a woman. But in contrast, the few women in his office took up the typical feminine role of gushing about our snowy wedding photos and organizing a wedding gift when he returned to work after our honeymoon. One of the ladies asks him occasionally how I'm doing, if I'm settling in well to European life and learning the language, or if married life is OK. Recently she asked my husband if marriage is what he expected it to be.

He smiled when he told me how he responded.
"No, it's not," he told her. "It's better."

And that's why we didn't just count down to our wedding, now we now count up. This week we've been married for 181 days, or six months. I was correctly informed, and now I'm beginning to comprehend, how a God-centered marriage only gets better. 

This same principle applies to any godly, committed relationships in which we find ourselves. Have you noticed that the people who are commonly found criticizing their family, friends or local fellowships are generally the ones who are investing the least in those relationships? The ones who constantly complain about the church leadership or their mother's attitude are not usually the ones scrubbing toilets, forgiving offences, offering others the more prominent positions, quietly slipping off to start on the dishes, sacrificing their Saturday morning sleep-ins for another's good, lingering after the service to encourage a hurting person, or praying together.... They can't experience the joys of a covenant life that keeps getting better, building on shared history, growth and goals, because they aren't living the covenant. The wonder is this, that the God of the better covenant enables us to live our earthly covenants in a way that gets better the longer we live them.

But now Je'sus, our High Priest, has been given a ministry that is far superior to the old priesthood, for he is the one who mediates for us a far better covenant with God, based on better promises.
—the writer to the Hebrews 

Two are better than one, 
because they have a good reward for their labor.

May 06, 2015

sin the bud

[I started writing this post a few weeks ago - on a beautiful spring day].
Spring came overnight this year. When I crossed the city centre today, the trees that were yesterday brown skeletons were suddenly fluttering clouds of fresh green leaves. The grass on the corner near the grocery store caught my attentiontall and bushy, sporting a few dandelions, already needing a trim. A bird sung merrily from somewhere above me, and another outside our window. The city is bright, with pink blossoms festooning the trees and colourful flowers in all the planters.

Spring is beautiful here!

I tried to remember if it had been a few days since I had ventured out of our apartment, since some days I have no need to go out, and if that was why the coming of spring seemed so sudden to me. But no, I realized I had been outside yesterday...the wind was cooler, the trees more spindly, the birds subdued. Today really seemed like the first day of spring.

But in actuality, for weeks I'd been watching spring miraculously bring to life a cloudy, cold Europe. The sunshine has been lasting slightly longer each day, the bushes showing small blossoms, and knobby green buds had been coming out of hiding, on tree branches. What had actually been coming for a long time seemed to burst into my sight suddenly, and I almost forgot all the other signs of spring I had seen, compared to this.

Around the time of our wedding, we received various exhortations about marriage, some public and some private. We made mental notes (as much as we could, in the fog of engagement, wedding and early marriage). One of our advice-givers gave us a visual aid to remember his words, two blocks of wood glued together with our names scrawled on them with a Sharpie. The giver is a woodworker and the idea was clear, that God has glued us together, for good. My husband put the unsightly block on his bedside table as a reminder of the exhortation to cleave to one another.

That advice rings hollow now. Not the truth of cleaving, but the voice of the one who gave it to us. In recent months he admitted to adultery. He didn't use that difficult word in particular, but he told us about the child who came from the adulterous relationship, and she is now elementary-aged. Everyone was extremely disappointed by this sudden revelation and, judging by his crimson face, he was disappointed too, at least in being exposed. After all, in public he was doling out marriage and godly living advice and in private, doing the exact opposite.

At first it seemed like a sudden explosion of information, blindsiding his friends, family and acquaintances. But after a pause, a few people quietly admitted that they were both surprised and unsurprised by the news. No, most had not imagined the nature of his sin, the details of it. But it was like me, when I stopped to think about the signs of springthey suddenly remembered this incident and that conversation and realized that they shouldn't have been so surprised at this news. They had hints that something was wrong, even ten years ago.

The longer I live, the more stories I hear of believers who have become disqualified. It has happened to me several times lately, that I have read a book about a person or an organization that did its work in the name of God, but a quick Google search revealed a later ungodly inconsistency. There are teachers whose lectures were shared at our youth groups who now openly condone the redefinition of marriage. There's the popular preacher who lied to get his books to the top of bestseller lists. We've probably all experienced these kinds of disappointments with people we know personally or people we trusted from a distance.

Two concerns enter my mind when I hear these things:
[1] fear that I would be the one to fall away, and disappoint God and others, and
[2] fear that I or my loved ones would be hurt or deceived by such a one.
(And if I my fear of [2] is greater than my fear of [1], then I am greatly in danger of [1], if you know what I mean.)

But both fears need to be replaced by the fear of God, which is the only real protection against sin. We can build systems of rules and protective devices for ourselves, but ultimately "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." Through wisdom, we can learn to recognize what kind of tree we are, by the leaves, buds, blossoms or finally, the fruits we produce. "By their fruit you shall know them," and by wisdom we learn to recognize what's growing in our orchard.

Fear of God grows through regular exposure to the Scriptures... "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you." "I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path." "The fear of the Lord is to hate evil." Seeing the public failings of others, and knowing my own more private failings, has made me more desperate for the Word. I'm seeking to press into it more faithfully, to value it more highly, to hide it in my heart, to post it on our walls, to bookend my days with it...that I might not sin against Him.  

We all have sins we take less seriously than others, perhaps gluttony, gossip, complaining, pride, lack of submission to authority.... But today's "small" sins are tomorrow's "big" sins. Rosaria Butterfield insightfully teaches that the root of sin behind hom0sexuality is pride. Rosaria's message is that if we harbour pride, who are we to say that one day we will not harbour hom0sexuality? Wisdom lets us recognize and uproot sin in its seed form, long before it is full grown.

Not only does a focus on the Word keep us from sin in our own lives, but it guides us toward wise people and away from foolish ones. It is not the will of God that we be hurt or deceived by teachers whose lives are inconsistent with their words, and if we are growing in maturity and walking in holiness, I believe He gives us discernment and often gives us warnings far before the "sudden explosions". I can hardly think of a case in my own life where a friend or a leader's life or doctrine did not raise some small- or medium-sized concerns in my mind, before a big revelation came. It is through His Word's wisdom that we become mature, and as Hebrews says, able to "discern both good and evil." We don't have to be surprised by the fruit if we learn to recognize the seed, the bud, the blossom....

My husband's cleared his bedside stand of that superglued wooden block. He may have disposed of it, and I don't mind; it was ugly in the first place, and now it holds an ugly memory. As I select pictures for the albums from our wedding season, part of me wants keep the album devoid of the memory of his mismatched life and doctrine by removing his picture. But on second thought, I want to keep him in the album, as a solemn reminder to "watch [our] life and our doctrine closely". Spring doesn't come overnight. Neither does adultery. Let this spring remind us not to be surprised or overcome by sin, but to nip sin in the bud, through the fear of the Lord.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul to the Corinthians