Terminal and Loving Every Minute

My guest today is Andrew Budek-Schmeisser. Andrew is a reader of this blog and his comments have left me deeply moved so often that I asked him to write a post for us. Andrew is terminally ill, and it has changed the way he views the world in remarkable and beautiful ways. I want to take notes on living from the dying.

Yes, I’m terminally ill. My wife went to the doctor last week, and the receptionist asked, tentatively, “Your husband…is he still alive?”

That was a weird feeling, when she told me.

The doctor himself thinks I’m pretty far past my sell-by date…and he’s always surprised, too, that I’m still here. He’s thinking of writing a paper for a medical journal.

Really weird feeling, yeah?

But it reflects the truth. I’m losing ground steadily, and now spend large parts of each day lying on the floor in a fetal position, waiting for the pain to, well, not pass, but moderate to the point that I can get up again and do something. If nausea, incontinence, and fatigue allow for it. And if I remember what I wanted to do in the first place.

Something like writing this. It will take me quite awhile. I run out of physical and mental resources pretty quickly now.

And I still love my life. I would not trade this life for anything, including having my old health and vigour back.

It’s not because I’ve overdosed on Scripture like James 1:2 (“Count it all joy, your afflictions and trials…”) or Romans 5:3 (“…rejoice in your sufferings, because suffering produces endurance…”)

Make no mistake, James and Paul are right, but it wasn’t something I could take on faith. I had to learn these lessons myself, through facing the abyss, day after day. Looking for blessings in my life became vital for survival, a necessary antidote to the despair that could so easily overwhelm me.

Yes, illness brought blessings, and the fact that it seems like there’s no way out makes them even more precious.

It took time to recognize them, those blessings that came in frightening garb. I was a high achiever, and always had multiple projects going on, projects which I thought defined me, and validated my worth.

But now…those aspirations won’t come to pass, and it’s OK.

The goals are not what made the dreams worthwhile. They never were, and I’m so glad I saw that ere the end. It was all about the process, and the marks that the process made on my soul.

Each moment is a gift from God, and like the manna that fed the Israelites in the desert, each is perishable. Moments can’t be hoarded for later use, and they’re not intended for replanting in the hope that they will raise some of some future harvest.

We can come to each instant in our life fresh, with the heart and eyes of a child, taking hold of this precious uniqueness of now in wonder and delight…or we can choose to be jaded, and to pile the moment in with the past wreckage that attends present circumstances.

I choose wonder. I choose delight. And I choose to hold these tiny time-intervals dear, and as a direct line to the God that loves me in spite of my mistakes, and through my current ordeal.

It is an ordeal. The pain is real; I could see it as a prison; I haven’t been off the property in eight months. Riding in a car hurts too much, and there’s nowhere I can sojourn in comfort. I can’t do the things I would have liked to do, and much of the time is spent trying to build strength and resolve to do the things I have to do.

It isn’t a penitentiary, though. It’s more of a hermitage, a place in which the fires of adversity can temper my soul to become an instrument of God’s love, and the hammering of pain forges my heart to become that love.

Each moment from the Almighty that I choose to treasure, and which I choose to do my best for His sake, it adds to the storehouse of love that I can show.

Each stab of pain builds compassion for those who are worse off; there are so many suffering with no place to call home, no one to love them. I have a wonderful wife, a group of devoted dogs (some of whom know how to save my life, doing a canine version of CPR…they’ve done it several times), and friends I’ll never meet in person but whose hearts have reached out to me through the Internet. How can I complain about a small thing like dying?

Each realization that yeah, this could be the last day, it makes the sunlight brighter and the air sweeter, and the touch of a cool breeze on a summer day a gentle benison from Heaven.

With all this, how can I keep from singing? And more importantly, how can I keep from loving?

Achievement is nice, but it’s not for this that God made us.

Success is grand, but it isn’t God’s ultimate plan for our lives.

A bright future is wonderful, but it’s not something God ever guaranteed.

What we have is now, and we have a simple mission statement – to love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

We learn to love God through the practice of loving others, and we can only truly love others when we let go of ourselves. Jesus was and is the servant and sacrifice to those He loved and loves. He laid the stones along the path we are to take.

And in dying, I have learned to let go. I have let go my earthly hopes and aspirations, giving them over to God. I’m sure He’ll treat them with care; He saves each tear we shed, and can we expect He will do less with the dreams He gave us, that we couldn’t fulfill in this life? They’ll be waiting.

I’ve learned to let go of my concern for myself. Yes, it hurts, but it’s OK that it hurts; I was never in control of this, though I tried to pretend through defiance and will that I was, but God is in control of it all.

I’ve learned to let go of possessiveness in relationship. I don’t want my wife, who is quite young, to make the rest of her life a monument to our time together. I want her heart to go on from the point where I leave this life, hurt for sure but healing, and hoping. I don’t want to see her lonely.

And may be most important, I’ve learned to let go of my preconceptions about God. I wanted to believe that I was favoured in that things went ‘right’ for me; the breaks fell my way.

And then it was me that broke.

I saw that favour was not the good job or the research contact or the book deal. Favour was being led by the hand by the Almighty, into a place where I could accept, without resentment, the hand that is dealt me, and embrace, without anger, the further pain that will surely be mine before this life is done.

By not looking back in resentment or forward in sullen dread…only along this road can I fully love in the now.

And as I love, so am I Loved, and so, further…I’m terminal and loving every minute.

 

Andrew Budek-Schmeisser is the author of two novels, “Blessed Are the
Pure Of Heart” and “Emerald Isle“, and three short e-books. Formerly a
security contractor and teacher, he lives on a remote mesa in New
Mexico with his wife and a number of rescued dogs and cats.

I am very grateful to Andrew for his willingness to share such hard-won wisdom and perspective with us. Live in peace, brother: in this life and the life to come. Readers, if you’d like to respond to Andrew – leave him a comment below or reach out to him via his blog. He is house-bound but our words can reach his living room, and our prayers can reach on high.

The Fine Print on the Finest of Marriage Proposals

If you want to while away a couple of hours filled with laughter, tears, and OMG moments, search “marriage proposals” on YouTube. Here’s one that was a YEAR in the making:

Dear reader, our wedding proposal was nothing like that. In fact, we kinda decided to get married by accident. Or rather, we had a conversation late one night which got away from us and by the time we said goodbye at 2am or so, had talked about dates, location, and plans to meet one another’s families (we really hadn’t been dating long). The next day, we were both a little stunned: “Whoa. Wait. What WAS that? Are we… engaged?” We had effectively decided to get married, but there had been no declarations, or rings, or questions-asked-on-one-knee.

We decided to call that phase “pre-engaged”, and spent the next weeks talking with parents and looking at rings and imagining the possibilities. But the “proposal”—with ring and question and an official announcement to the world—was yet to happen at a later date.

One afternoon, it did. My boyfriend/beloved/pre-fiancè picked me up early so we could go walking before meeting friends for a birthday dinner. We drove five minutes from my house to the trail head of a walk along the slopes of the most beautiful mountain in the most beautiful city in the world.

This is the view from that walking trail:

The walk is called "The Pipe Track". I think the name is meant to throw tourists off the scent and keep it a local secret.

The pipe track runs along the contour path just below the sheer rock of this mountain, and above this set of beaches:

CPT Cape Town Camps Bay beach with Twelve Apostles b

So far, the scene is seeming pretty picturesque, right? (Just a regular afternoon walk for those blessed to live in Cape Town, folks) So we walked a while—maybe 45 mins or so—and came to a look out point with a bench. We stopped to catch our breath and sat down, taking in the sun slipping slowly out of the sky to the west, admiring the sparkle and relishing the breeze.

And then, without taking his eyes from the horizon, my dearest guy said: “So, you know that I’m a total sinner, right?”

Friends, I had no idea where the conversation was going. What on earth was he about to confess? 

He kept talking; reminding me that he makes mistakes and he fails and that although he tries to be a faithful friend and worker, he sometimes messes up. “I do love you,” he said, “but you know I’ll disappoint you.”

Still, I had no idea. 

I think I countered with some combination of “nobody’s perfect” and “we are forgiven all our sins” and “is there something you want to tell me?”

He paused. And then, turning to me, said this: “So, even knowing all this, are you sure you want to marry me?” I laughed. I said “of course!” I mean, after all, hadn’t we been talking about getting married for weeks already? If he was having second thoughts or doubts about my commitment, I wanted to put him at ease.

And you know what? I nearly goofed it. That “are you sure you want to marry me?” was the proposal. In case I had missed it (and I nearly had), a red velvet box had appeared in which sat nested a very, very sparkly ring. This was it: THIS was the proposal.

No “You are the most beautiful woman in the world and I can’t live without you.”

No “I love you more than life itself.”

No “Will you make me the happiest man in the world?”

No “I want to grow old with you.”

Instead, “So you know I’m a sinner… are you sure you want to marry me?”

What was I to do in the face of what seemed—certainly by YouTube standards—to be a colossal anticlimax of a proposal? Well, as Jane Eyre famously said:

Reader, I married him.

I’ve told the motley story of our engagement to many dating college students over the years: I’ve laughed and reminisced and loved the re-telling of it because, after all, it may not be Reality TV’s most fantastic story, but it is our story, and it is precious for that reason alone.

But over the years, as we have weathered more and more years of marriage, I look back on our engagement and marvel at the wisdom my then-pre-fiancè showed in his proposal. He knew from the get-go that marriage wasn’t about feeling-so-overwhelmed-by-love that all you could do was propose. He knew, and wanted to make I knew, that we were committing to loving each other as deeply flawed people: that marriage would be for better and for worse. In our heady days of imagining our future, it was easy to imagine the better part. He wanted to make sure I knew there would be days of worse. And that he would do his best to love me through those, and wanted to know if I’d do the same.

No one starts a building project without first doing a budget; and no king goes to war against another without first figuring out the relative strength of their troops, said Jesus. In the same way, people shouldn’t make commitments to Jesus without figuring out what’s involved. And, I daresay, they shouldn’t get engaged until they’ve taken a good hard look at the weaknesses and struggles in both themselves and their beloved and asked: “are you really sure you still want to do this?”

That’s wisdom. It doesn’t make for the best proposal videos, perhaps, but in hindsight, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy engagement-aversary, my love.

Why I Don’t Want My Kids To Be Fearless

Fearless kids

There are many things I want for my children: Kindness. Gentleness. Courage. Love. But one thing I don’t want for my kids is for them to be fearless.

I’ve been listening to a bunch of platitudes that we Older People offer scared kids: “there’s nothing to be afraid of”, “this won’t hurt”, “it’ll be okay”… and you know what? Sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes there is something to be afraid of. Sometimes it will hurt. And sometimes, it won’t be okay.

Not that I want our kids to be quivering bundles of anxiety, afraid to stick out their neck and look at the world – but I want my kids to be appropriately fearful: fearful of things that are, in fact, dangerous. I want them to be afraid of fast cars, drunk friends, and the things you could find on the internet. I want them to be afraid of playing with the supernatural. I want them to keep their distance from the ledge, from drugs, from cavalier attitudes to sex and death.

There’s another word that comes to mind when I think about some of the “fearless” people I’ve met: foolish. People who live as if leap without looking, believing that “it couldn’t happen to them”. They believe they are invincible. Bulletproof. They think there is little, if any, correlation between their choices and consequent events. That they’ll “be just fine”, because after all, haven’t they been hearing that “there was nothing to be afraid of” since they were itty-bitty little ones?

This thought came to me as I was talking with a friend about why I’m uncomfortable with some of the TV shows my kids want to watch. One in particular has increasingly included themes with ghosts and the forces of evil, and it shows in my boys’ play. That particular show is no longer allowed. I hadn’t quite nailed down why until I found myself blurting it to a friend: “It would be one thing if I could just pooh-pooh the show and say ‘oh, that’s not real’, but the danger for me here is that this show flirts with things that are really real and from which I want my kids to keep a healthy distance. It blurs the lines, and I feel like they’re becoming flippant about the existence of evil, as if you can flirt with really dark things and simply dispel them with a quick change into a brightly colored lycra suit and a ninja-move.”

In short, I want my kids to be a little afraid of evil, and many “hero shows” don’t respect that. For all the debacle about Harry Potter, I at least feel that it teaches a healthy respect for the dark side, whatever that may look like.

So yes, I want my kids to be a little fearful. Appropriately fearful. I want them to fear the spirit world enough to not mess around with Ouija boards when they are teens. I want them to fear my wrath enough not to play in the street… at least until they’re old enough to develop a fear of the injuries that car accidents can cause. I want them to fear death enough to not text while they drive. I want them to fear the sea enough to not try and swim against a rip tide.

A failure to fear things that really can hurt us is actually foolishness. And fearing—in the sense of a healthy-respect-for-our-vulnerability-to-powers-beyond-our-control —is the path to wisdom. I think that’s what the Bible means by the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom: not that we quake and cower before a mean and capricious God (for he is not like that), but we take it seriously that he is not to be trifled with. God–like fire, and the ocean—can be engaged with, and a source of joy and delight, but only if there’s a healthy respect… or fear… of how very vulnerable we are.

I’m not saying I want to raise fearful kids, where fear of loss or rejection or whatever becomes their anthem. Remember our friend Disgust from Inside Out? Disgust does important work in protecting us from poisonous snacks or scenarios (“eeeew. Eat THAT? No thank you.”) And Sadness? She is vital to our learning empathy and connection with people. As uncomfortable as anger, disgust, sadness, and fear may be – they serve an important purpose in teaching us to relate wisely to the world inside and the world out there.

So no, I don’t want fearless kids. I want kids just a little afraid of the really scary things out there, with the courage and wisdom to make better choices in the face of fear.

 

Image Credit: Fear/Juan Julbe (Flickr Creative Commons), edited by Bronwyn Lea

Help: I Think I Made The Wrong Choice

You're worried you've made a

Dear Bronwyn,

What do you do when you think you’ve followed God’s leading, but then it just sort of falls apart and no longer feels right or makes any sense? I know God’s plan does not involve everything being easy all the time and things don’t always make sense right away. I just feel so insecure about the choices I’ve made. I am constantly asking myself did I hear God correctly? Was that even God speaking? What if I had chosen differently?

The situation is this: after I graduated, I took a job nearby. I had prayed for a dream job elsewhere and wanted it so badly, but when it was offered I didn’t feel I could take it because I had already committed to another job. I also just didn’t feel “right” about it. I can’t say it’s been a disaster, but this job has proved extremely challenging, and recent management changes have been eye-opening. I feel like a fool for choosing to stay here and being loyal to an employer that I realize doesn’t care much about me as an employee. A big part of all of this was keeping my word and commitment, but now I’m questioning if I was subconsciously trying to be a martyr and choose that hard road because I thought it would make God happier with me. I’m on the other side of the country from my family and friends, and I am constantly asking myself -why am I here? What does God want from me?

Please help,

Second-Guessing.

Dear SG,

Those are such good questions. What I can’t do is say: Yes, you made the right decision to stay, or no, you didn’t. What I can say is this: I can really sympathize with where you’re at. We have had seasons of SERIOUSLY second-guessing some decisions in our lives – most notably the decision to come to the USA because so many things went CATASTROPHICALLY wrong that first year and we kept on saying “God, really? Is this your way of saying we shouldn’t have come?”
Here’s what I had to keep saying to myself in the midst of that uncertainty: James 1 promises that if we ask for wisdom, He gives it, and we must believe and not doubt that that is the case. So, in the face of much doubt, we HAD to believe that God had, in fact, given us wisdom in that decision making, even if the consequences of the decision did not appear to be panning out well. I believe you prayed over accepting your current job, as well as praying over turning down the “dream” job, and that God gave wisdom to you. Second guessing is not going to help you here.
My advice to you is that, rather than figuring out whether the past was a mistake, consider what you should do now. Again, James 1 applies – trusting that as you think and pray this through, God WILL give you wisdom for the next step. Maybe he is calling you to faithfulness for another few months. Maybe you should reach out and reapply to that dream job (which will no doubt have its own challenges mind you – our expectations for what work ‘should’ be like often need tempering),  and just work to keep lines of communication there. Maybe there are other alternatives God has in the wings and you need to “jiggle some handles” around you just to see what doors might open. Maybe all three of those options need to be pursued. (staying faihtfully now, but being open to a change of plan).
Thinking about what may have motivated your previous decision and analyzing what happened in the past is important for understanding the factors at play and being self-aware, but I don’t know that over-analyzing it is going to help. Regret certainly isn’t. We do need to think through our past, and learn from it and confess where appropriate, but we are also called not to dwell on the past: “forgetting what is behind, we press on…” I don’t think this means ‘forget’ in the sense that we treat it as if it didn’t happen, but that we don’t put our main focus on the past. Instead, we focus on present day faithfulness with a view to God’s promises and purposes in the future.
Know this though: These months of you being faithful and loyal are not wasted. God rewards his servants who serve Him and His world with upright hearts. He will redeem this time, and who knows what wisdom and truth He will yet pull from this experience in the years to come. Lord knows, I’ve been surprised so often by the ways in which the “questionable decisions” and sticky circumstances land up being used in wonderful and unexpected ways in the future.
I”m sorry you are in a hard space right now – it must be SO HARD to be there all the time second guessing yourself – but I don’t believe it is wasted, and I KNOW that regret/worrying about whether it was a mistake is not a helpful way for you to approach this climate. Call some praying friends around you to help you figure out what your options are, and see what step God shines the light on next.
With love and prayers for God’s wisdom and comfort to you,
Bronwyn.
Photo Credit: Will Montague – petal shadows (Flickr Creative Commons) – edited by Bronwyn Lea

Who Should I Date? (Notes from the Trenches of Happily Ever After)

who should I date

(Fair warning: this is a longer-than-usual post because it is actually from a talk I did to a college group this week.)

When people hear that my husband and I met on my front door step, I am often asked “was it love at first sight?” The answer is a resounding NO. It took us a couple of hits and misses, and a whole lot of awkward to figure out whether to date. As I’ve said before, he really didn’t seem like my “type”.  However, one thing I learned is that sometimes it’s wise to be open to dating a little beyond the boundaries of what you think your “type” is.

This begs the question: who should I date, then? It’s a question I spent dozens hundreds countless hours thinking about at college.

Dating is the process through which you figure out whether you and this other person are “right” for each other. Admittedly, part of what is so horrid about dating is that 1) we don’t like to mistakes and 2) we like to know the end from the beginning, and so the idea of committing to someone, albeit loosely, when you really don’t know how this is going to work out, is a scary thing.

There is, of course, a prior question, which is “Should I date at all?” My answer is “not necessarily. There is no reason that you have to date, or indeed should date.

But, it is statistically likely that most of you are interested in sex, and statistically likely that most of you will get married – and so unless you come from one of those privileged cultures where people with wisdom and connections and love for you are willing to arrange your marriage – you are probably going to have to do most of the leg work yourself. In other words, you’re going to have to date.

Dating is our cultural norm, the customary vehicle for how we get from one place to another. As a Christian, I believe that dating is a morally neutral thing: it is neither “good” nor “bad”. I think dating is a bit like driving. It’s the way we get from one place to another given where and when we live in history.  You can drive well or you can drive badly. And similarly, you can date well or you can date badly.

So, if you are someone who wants to date well and wisely, this is a collection of my thoughts on who and how to date, from the perspective of someone in the trenches of happily ever after. I use the word trenches advisedly. The view on the horizon is gorgeous, but there are battles to be staged. The company in the bunkers is critical. Sometimes you have to hunker down, but it’s the togetherness that makes the difference.

A curious story about houses…

A few years back, my husband and decided it was probably time for us to start thinking about buying a house. We had a third kid on the way and were now in our late 30s… in other words, even though we didn’t feel like “real adults”, the delusion was starting to wear a little thin. So we started looking for houses. We made a list of the things of things that were important to us in a house: how many bedrooms, where we wanted it to be, and some other values: like it had to have a yard, and we wanted a big enough living are to be able to invite people over. We started browsing properties on the internet, and at some point met up with a realtor who took us to look at a few houses.

A curious thing happened while we were looking at houses. We discovered some things that became more important to us as we looked, and we learned some things we really didn’t like… which we didn’t even know were important to us beforehand. We learned that we’re picky about how living spaces flow into each other, and how removed the kitchen is from the yard.  We didn’t know this was important to us until we’d actually been there.

My point is this: we thought we were looking for houses and evaluating them so we could choose one. But once we started the process, we learned so many new things about OURSELVES. The process turned us into different buyers. It accentuated certain things, and made other things we thought were critical seem less so.

The same can be said of dating. We have this idea that we go into dating in order to “find and evaluate the right person”, but the truth is that dating serves TWO purposes: yes, you get to know more about being in relationship with the other person, but importantly – you are also getting to know YOURSELF.

Who you are BECOMING while you date is as important as who you are date, and who they are becoming.

The first time my Mom met my husband was over a lunch. They chatted  politely for an hour or two before he made his way home. Afterwards, I was all over her: what did you think?? What did you think? My mom said this: “I like him. And I like YOU WITH HIM.”

What an important distinction: to not just like the other person, but the YOU you are with that person.

Two things to write on a post-it: 

There are two implications to realizing that dating is a process of other-person discovery as well as self-discovery.

The first is this: you have permission to break up if your dating journey reveals that this is not a good fit for you. If there are red flags about the direction either of you are growing in together, then it’s okay to walk away. You have permission to break up. Dating involves clarifying and refining who you are and what’s important. You can change direction in the process.

The second is this: remember that just because you have two first class people doesn’t mean you will have a first-class relationship. Sometimes two first class people can have a second-class relationship. I dated a guy for four years in college, which was longer than we probably should have dated. He is a great guy: smart and funny and he loves God – but when we were together we brought some real snark out of each other and it wasn’t healthy or edifying. I think one of the reasons it took us so long to break up is that we felt like we needed to find some critical flaw in the other in order to give us an “excuse” to move on. But the truth was, although I liked him, I didn’t always like Me-With-Him.

Get to the point already: Who should I be dating?

So, it’s okay to date. And it’s okay to break up: you are going to be discovering who you are and who the other person is during this process. But WHAT SHOULD WE BE LOOKING FOR?

This is where the notes from the trenches of married life become helpful. So many of my early conversations about dating were held with people who were in exactly the same boat as me – and all we really had going for us was pooled ignorance. We didn’t even know what questions to ask, nor did we think to ask them of people who had actually survived the dating years and could reflect with the luminous 20/20 vision afforded by hindsight.

Instead, we had pooled ignorance, and I confess that the majority of the conversation I had or heard about marriage relationships before I got married had to do with two topics: 1) sex, and 2) who gets to lead and who has to submit. These were the two things that most everyone was talking about when it came to marriage.

Then I got married and within a few months, we hit a bumpy patch and I remember my husband holing up in his office with his computer to escape the stress while I sat in our bedroom sobbing into my pillow and dramatically resigning myself to be miserable forever. I remember opening up my bible and flipping through all of the marriage passages I could think of to try and find some counsel: I read Ephesians 5 and Jesus’ words on marriage in Matthew 18 and Colossians 3’s instructions to married folk. I did not feel particularly helped.

But at some point my eyes flicked to the verses just above those addressed to married people in Colossians 3, and there – in a passage not particularly about marriage – I found the most helpful relationship advice possible.

In verses 12-17, the apostle Paul writes this:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

This was GOLD. Be kind, compassionate, humble. Remember who you are. Be PATIENT with one another’s weaknesses. Forgive. Love. Remember you are called to peace. Encourage one another. Practice thankfulness.

This right here in Colossians is a relationship gold nugget, preserved for over 2000 years, but also – you’ll be glad to hear – recently backed up by science.

An article in the Atlantic from November last year entitled “Masters of Love” detailed the work of two psychologists and marriage experts. One of these was Ty Tashiro, author of The Science of Happily Ever After. The other was John Gottman, who has studied thousands of married couples over the years in his “love lab”, where he and his researchers have invited couples to spend a weekend together under observation.

Over the years these guys have studied what the single biggest indicators of relational success are in a marriage: regardless of age, socio-economic status, religious affiliation, age gap or the number of shared interests.

Are you ready? Here they are: the two biggest indicators for relationship success, as “discovered” by science: kindness and generosity.

To which the Bible says a very polite: “I told you so.”

Why is this important?

This is important because it means that far from figuring out sexual compatibility (and I’ll have more to say on that in a minute), or shared interests or who gets to make decisions and how – the biggest benchmarks for relational success are in fact the QUALITY OF HOW YOU TREAT PEOPLE DAY TO DAY.

And friends, this is VERY good news for dating.

It is very good news because you don’t need to be married to find out whether you’ve got what it takes to work. And it’s good news because you don’t have to wait until you’re married, or even until you’re dating, in order to be preparing well for the most successful relationships.

Dating and marriage is a micro-study in the broader subject of healthy Christian living, and what this means for dating is that we have the tools already not just to start evaluating others, but also to evaluate ourselves and the quality of our interactions with someone.

On the day we got married, my husband made a speech and, in his typical understated way, this is what he had to say of me and our marriage. He said “I realized long ago that asking “is this the right person for me?” is not the right question to be asking. The right question is “am I willing to become the right person for them?”) We had dated for long enough for him to decide that he wanted to commit to the journey of being the right person for me, and I had dated him for long enough to know that I wanted to commit to the journey of being the right person for him.

So…. (“At last!”, you say, “insert drumroll here!”)…. if this is what both Science and Scripture say about having healthy long-term relationships…

Here are some things to  consider when you’re asking “who should I date?” (keeping in mind that these are the same questions which someone should be asking of you as to whether you’re dateable….)

  • is this person kind, and growing in kindness? How do they treat their friends? How do they talk to their family when they’re with them, and how do they talk about their family when they’re away from them? How do they treat the ‘lowly’ people – like restaurant servers and janitors and those they aren’t trying to impress?
  • How do they handle anger? Are they able to express anger appropriately? It’s important to know how to talk about the things that make you angry, instead of stuffing feelings and silently seething, or does their room have a bunch of punch holes in the wall? Can they handle hanger? There’s healthy anger and there’s unhealthy anger – do they know the difference? And, if they are wronged, are they able to forgive and move past it?
  • How does this person handle conflict? Colossians 3 calls us to be able to let the peace of Christ rule. Are you the kind of person who wants to be right, even if it’s at the expense of your relationship? You can be right about an issue, and still handle it in all the wrong ways… so look at how this person handles conflict, because this is GUARANTEED to come up in your relationship. Super important: date someone who knows how to apologize. I’m serious.
  • Does this person know WHO they are and WHOSE they are? Colossians 3:12 starts out by saying “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved… put on compassion, kindness and humility.” Friends, this is SO important. Knowing that your identity is found in belonging to God and being WILDLY, RECKLESSLY, UNCONDITIONALLY loved by him is crucial for healthy relationships… or else, we begin to try and find our identity and affirmation in how loved and respected the other person makes us “feel”. No person, no matter how wonderful, can fill this deep, deep need we have to be unconditionally loved and belong. This is a God-shaped hole, and we need to be people and date people who let God fill the God-shaped hole – and then we supplement and complement that.
  • In the same vein as that, is this a person I can GROW together in the Christian life with? Colossians 3:16 says this: Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. At a very basic level: is this someone with whom the message of Christ can dwell between you richly, and with whom you can share God’s wisdom and encouragement and instruction? Colossians 3 is about the basic bedrock for good relationships, and our marriage relationships should at least meet this standard.
  • Is this person aware of (and patient with) weakness? Here is a striking thing about Colossians 3:13 – it doesn’t say “fix one another with all your wonderful suggestions”, it says “bear with one another”. In other words, it acknowledges that there is always going to be  sin pressure points, or weaknesses in us, which are going to rub against other people. No matter how long you are married and no matter how many great communication skills you have – you NEVER will outwit, outsmart or outmaneuver sin. You will ALWAYS have weaknesses, and your partner will ALWAYS have weaknesses. The question is: do you know what they are? And are you willing to bear with each other? Yes, we hope for growth and maturity and sanctification… and that does happen. But those fault lines in my soul will be there until the day I see Jesus face to face, and only then will I be perfect… and you know what? That’s the day that my marriage ends because “Death will have parted us”. So. All of that to say – date with an awareness of and a grace towards both your own and someone else’s weakness.
  • Can this person be faithful? Are they faithful to do what they say, faithful to keep a confidence, and faithful with their (and your) sexuality.

{Now, this is the part where I want to digress and talk about sex for a minute. A few weeks before I got married, someone I dearly love and trust pulled me aside and told me that one thing I really needed to do before marrying was to test whether we were sexually compatible. I love her still, but on this issue she was dead wrong. Here’s why:

  • Having sex with the person you are dating hinders your discovery process about all the other things you are trying to figure out. Once you start getting naked physically, you stop talking, or at least you slow down significantly on the journey of getting to know one another. It defeats one of the main goals of dating – testing character, and building relationship, while adding a whole bunch of other confusing dynamics. Instead of going on a date thinking “we’re getting to know each other”, you’re wondering how the evening is going to end.
  • Secondly, having sex when you’re dating tells you very little, if anything, about what the quality of your long term sexual compatibility will be. Honestly – ask some married folk you trust –  were the first 20, or 50, or even 100 times they had sex a good indicator of the quality of their sex life now? I’m willing to bet not. Sex is not about bodies doing something biological. Sex is primarily about PEOPLE doing something spiritual with their bodies. It involves the whole person, not just biology. So all that to say, having sex while you’re dating is actually going to tell you VERY little about your sexual compatibility, which depends so much more on your established intimacy in other areas.
  • Thirdly, God says it’s a bad idea. And since he created it and wrote the blue print for it, we should probably trust the designer’s manual. You know how when you get an electrical appliance it has a sheet which says stuff like “do not immerse this appliance in water?” Because they know how things can explode if you use them incorrectly? There are consequences to using good things in stupid ways. Sex is a hot stuff appliance, but it really shouldn’t be dunked into dating waters. (I have some more thoughts on this here, if you’re curious. Also, that post has funny pictures.)
  • Lastly, and this is on the point of faithfulness – I want to suggest that while dating is a terrible time to test sexual compatibility, it is a KEY time to test sexual integrity. People who are in control of their own sexuality are the ones who are free to enjoy it. Out of controlness might seem fun at first, but it can get scary and dangerous quickly. Key factors in long term sexual health are the questions of how well you steward and express your own sexual desires: learning to respect your partner, to be able to say no to lust, to control your own appetites – these things are CRUCIAL in marriage.

It is worth spending some time thinking about what you are learning about your own and your partner’s sexual responsibility in dating: learn what is actually lying beneath your sexual drive – Sexuality is so much more than a primal physical urge. is it a desire to be in control? To be satisfied? To be found attractive? To be close? How do YOU handle these things? And how does the person you are dating handle these things?

Furthermore: I have some gender-specific things to say on this issue when you are in the dating phase.

To the women: be wise about the fact that more often than not, what drives our desire to get sexual with a person is not so much that we desire THEM, but that we desire their desire of us. We want to move physically closer to people who have moved emotionally closer to us and make us feel safe and wanted and beautiful. This is important to know about yourself, and it’s important to develop responsibility over those feelings. Don’t egg guys on because you love the feeling of being desired and attractive to someone. Be careful of that. (Men who are reading this paragraph – this is what it means for you: know that for women, physical desire is often about wanting to feel wanted, more than it is about sex.)

To the men:  this is what I need to say to you: the #1 way you can screw up your sexual future is by being involved in porn.  I have been around long enough to see the terrific damage it does to people’s sexual relationships in the long run. So, a key way you can be a guy worth dating from a girl’s point of view is to handle your sexuality well in this area. (Women who are reading this paragraph – obviously this would be a really awkward thing to ask someone outright about, so this is where it’s important to be dating someone who has healthy, accountable relationships with other Christian guys. Because you don’t want to date someone who has an out of control porn problem.)

To men and women alike – date someone who is being FAITHFUL and responsible in handling their sexuality. It’s your best bet at sexual satisfaction and enjoyment in the long run.

(Phew! Take a deep breath! Serious part is over… now, back to Colossians and the things to think about in dating…)

  • Is this person thankful? Do they practice thankfulness both in big and small ways? Colossians 3:17 talks about a habit of gratitude, giving thanks in all circumstances. Date someone who practices saying thank you: to God and to others. Be someone who practices saying thank you: to God and to others. It’s the gateway to joy.
  • And finally, friends, date someone who loves Jesus. Really. That is your single best indicator that they will be someone who loves YOU well.

So what?So where does this leave us? I think it leaves us with two distinct take aways. The first is this: culture’s wisdom on “getting a guy” or “Getting a girl” is just really terrible advice. Almost all of it is focused on enhancing physical attraction: be bigger, be smaller, be smilier, be more ripped, be bustier, be more confident etc. And it puts tremendous pressure on us to pour all our energy into these things that have little or no correlation to dating – which is actually about figuring out whether you can DO LIFE with this person. You marry someone to LIVE with them, not to look good in instagram vacation shots.

Rather, dating well means dating someone who is becoming a person you trust and respect, and with whom you can partner to live for God for the rest of your life. And it means discovering more about yourself so that YOU can become more that person.

At this stage of my life I know people of all races, all weights and heights and BMI’s, of all professions who are happily married and unhappily married… and this is what I want to say in light of all this: what someone LOOKS like is an almost IRRELEVANT indicator of whether you should date them.

So, maybe consider dating with a bit more of an open mind. You don’t have to know all the answers about where this is going when you start… you just need to know enough about this person to think that you might want to know them a bit better.

Date to get to know yourself.

Date to get to know whether this person is kind and generous.

Date to see if you can talk about fun things as well as hard things in a way that is gracious.

Date to learn about sexual responsibility.

Date, and give yourself the freedom to break it off as you learn more: remember, two first class people can still have a second class relationship. So work on being a first class person, and as you date – ask the community around you not just if they like the person you’re dating, but if they like the YOU you are becoming in the process.

Colossians 3 is GOOD NEWS for dating, because we learn that marriage relationships, like dating relationships and friendships and family relationships… all depend on the quality of how we treat each other. There is no mystical “x factor” you have to worry about finding as a mystery ingredient to the perfect marriage. Rather: it’s the stuff we already know and appreciate about others, and it’s stuff that is do-able and know-able in every day.

So date, friends. Be kind, be generous, and date.

 

 

On why we said no to preschool

In the past few weeks, our 4-year old has been keeping us entertained. I’ve been posting side-splittingly funny quotes and anecdotes on Facebook, and noticed that in a number of them I’ve referred to him as our “preschooler”. Except, he isn’t in preschool. Nor was his sister (who is now in kindergarten). And at the moment, it seems unlikely that our youngest will go to preschool either. For us, ‘preschooler’ is a handy way of denoting this phase of life when they are older-than-toddlers but not-yet-school-goers. They are pre-schoolers only in the sense that they are not yet in school.

Dirt school

Dirt school

Every year we consider whether preschool is something we could or should do, and every year we have landed up saying “no”.

Now before I go any further, let me say this:

This post is not about whether YOU should send your kids to preschool. This post is about our personal choice which I find myself explaining to people fairly often, since it seems we are in the minority in our decision.

Also, this post is not about whether preschools are great places for kids. I absolutely believe they are. I believe my kids would LOVE preschool and would benefit from it. I know a number of preschool teachers, and a whole host of kids who are in neighborhood preschools, and I admire their curriculum and kind of envy that experience. I think preschool is amazing.

However, year after year, I keep finding myself saying no. And more than that, every year, I feel I need to justify my ‘no’, because there is pressure (I don’t know where it comes from) to do what others do and enroll our kids in fabulous preschools with their fabulous friends. But the reasons for our annual “no” remain.

1. We don’t need preschool, because I get to stay home with my kids. Chaotic and messy as that choice may be, we have built-in child care at home. We count ourselves fortunate that we have a choice in this matter and don’t need day care. For us, preschool is a want, and not a need.

2. It was important for us to recognize that preschool is a want, and not a need, because it helped us with the math of household budgeting.

  • Mortgage = need.
  • Food = need.
  • Ice-cream = want.
  • Coffee = need
  • Clothing = need
  • Shoes = want
  • Gas & electricity = need
  • Netflix = want
  • Preschool = want

Families the world over have limited budgets, and we are no exception. We choose where and how to spend our money: taking care of needs first, and then weighting our wants if we have the luxury of indulging any of those. We choose to give money away, we ask “should I buy this?” of almost every purchase we make, we are grateful for the things we have. We have spent time discussing whether $7.99 for Hulu plus is worth it, when we already pay $7.99 for a Netflix subscription.

It was irrationally hard, then, to look at the cost of even a modestly-priced preschool. 3 hours a day, 4 days a week would run us between $200 and $325 per month, per child. The cost is fair, given the quality of the teachers and the rich environment these schools provide… but oh my hat! That’s $3000 per year, per child!

I’ve looked this over again and again, and I just can’t do it. If I had $300 a month to spend on my child’s enrichment (and I don’t, really), I choose to put that towards their college enrichment rather than their preschool enrichment. Again and again, I’ve had people ask curiously: “why wouldn’t you send your kids to preschool?”, and more and more I wonder, “would would I?”

In that moment, I know why I would: because preschool is wonderful. They would learn social lessons and scissors skills and have circle time. They would make friends and get invited to birthday parties and go on field trips. They would mix paints and experience conflict and be under the guidance of an adult who actually knows what kindergarten readiness looks like, as opposed to my blindly feeling my way to the school start line.

But I just can’t do it. For us, preschool is a luxury: one my children would enjoy and learn from, but a luxury nonetheless. And so my children are at home: knocking about, perhaps sometimes a little under stimulated, perhaps sometimes a little jealous that they don’t get invited to as many birthday parties as other 4-year olds… but we’re doing our best. I try to remember to make play dough. I try to create opportunities for social interaction. We read, we play in the dirt, we work in the garden and we bake cakes. Also, sometimes they watch too many shows and complain that they are bored.

I second-guess this decision constantly. I suspect my son would thrive with the schedule of a preschool and the learn-to-respect-another-adult’s-rules atmosphere of a classroom. We are finding it “challenging” to have him home, to say the least. But not for $3k a year. Nope, sorry. I just can’t do it. In the mean time, I let the guilt of our “no” try to motivate me to get more organized and try a little harder at home; and I look forward to the day that we can one day send them off to college and say: “here you go, kiddo, here’s a little something we saved from your preschool days. We’re sorry if you missed out then, but we didn’t want you to miss out now.”

Ancient Conclusions for New Year’s Resolutions

It’s the week after Christmas, which means this is the week in which we are all supposed to be reflecting meaningfully on the past year and preparing our new year’s resolutions for the year ahead, right? Cue wisdom, profundity and insight.

New Years ResolutionsSo far, this is what my list looks like:

  • reduce sugar intake
  • exercise more
  • sleep more
  • pray more
  • spend less time on my ipad

This is hardly the stuff of Yoda-like wisdom. The list seems so paltry that it hardly seems worth making any “resolutions” about it. If I rack my brain, I can make the list a little more quantifiable:

  • complete the children’s annual photo books from the last two, three, four years
  • read more classic works of literature
  • switch off screens by 10pm

What is unnerving to me is that my list of resolutions, half-hearted as they may be, looks strikingly similar to last year’s one. And the year before that too. There is nothing new under the sun, the wise King said in Ecclesiastes. Nothing new indeed.

A little time in Ecclesiastes is refreshing, though, for a week such as this. At a time of year when we roll out all sorts of ambitions and plans of things we wish to do, to be and to accomplish; the teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us (as a veteran in life-changing plans and projects himself), that these things are destined to be fleeting unless we find our motivation and comfort in knowing God and being known by him.

“Meaningless” is the word most commonly associated with Ecclesiastes, but perhaps a better translation of the Hebrew word “hebel” is “fleeting” or “short-lived”. Whatever it is that the Teacher had planned: gardening, a dating strategy, managing his money, or accomplishing (other, great, fill-in-the-blank awesome) projects – his conclusion in the end was that they were all hebel: fleeting, transitory, here today but gone tomorrow.

What made the difference between those endeavors being baloney or blessed, says the teacher, was whether you did them mindful of God: knowing Him, revering Him, thanking Him, and enjoying good things as gifts from his hand. And so, as I look at the year ahead and consider my options, these (slightly abridged) words from Ecclesiastes are echoing in my thoughts:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your Resolution-making, before the busy days come and the to-do lists are forgotten… The end of the matter is this, after all has been heard: Fear God and keep his commandments – for this is everything God requires of us.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13)

Whatever 2014 brings, let it not be meaningless.