The model of marriage as a model for more

Sixteen days until Jen and Dan’s wedding, so says the Countdown app on my Sony Dash (love that thing!).

It seems like Craig and I are long past the years when we attended the weddings of our peers. Now we are going to about one wedding each year, mainly those of couples whom we’ve mentored through the “Couples Mentoring Couples” program at our church. There are even a few weddings of friends’ children that have worked their way into the mix. I love weddings, but let me just say right here: maybe we need to find some younger friends.

In any case, mentoring engaged couples is, first of all, humbling. The time comes to mind when we postponed one mentoring session because an after-church argument sapped our enthusiasm for the cause. If nothing else, we are real, right? It’s a good thing for a couple to see a genuine example of a not-so-perfect marriage, I suppose, especially when Christians and Christian literature tend to water down our real problems to something akin to this: “He spends too much time washing his truck” and “She spends too much time in Bible study.” I wish I had those kinds of problems.

Most of the arguments in my house, admittedly, are related to such nuances as tone of voice, choice of words, sleepiness or wakefulness, and enthusiasm for this or that activity. While we (I) sometimes panic about money, we rarely argue about it. For us (me) it’s more like, “I can’t believe you said that” and “Don’t look at me like that.” I swear, it’s like kids on the playground with me sometimes. Note to self: grow up.

Next to being humbling, mentoring engaged couples is just plain enlightening. For example, one of the things we cover in our sessions is the role of men and women in marriage. The Biblical model is that the man is the head (read here as “servant-leader”), and the woman is to submit to him by being a helper-lover (that is, a helpful encourager and lover of her man, his children, and their family together).

Now, I know that this is the model that the Bible describes in Ephesians 5:22-33 and other places, but I don’t know that I agree with the book that we use in our mentoring sessions. It describes this model as the best because it is practical to have one person in charge rather than two people competing for leadership. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl, but I don’t think that co-leaders necessarily compete for leadership. I think that many egalitarian-style and co-leader arrangements work out well, especially when the partners (in classrooms, in business, in marriage) recognize that one person is good at some things and the other is good at other things. And whatever one is good at, that is what he or she should do (plus the things that no one wants to do, because, let’s face it, somebody’s got to do them).

Nor do I agree with those (few, I hope) who suggest that the man should be the head and the woman a helper/lover because they are, by virtue of their gender-based hard-wiring, naturally better at those roles. This natural bent toward their assigned roles may be true for some men and women, perhaps for many or most men and women. But I would suggest that there are not a few guys who are happy to relinquish the driver’s seat to someone more able simply because they have an easy-going attitude…or because of fear, lack of confidence, or secret shortcomings. I’m not saying that those guys shouldn’t step up to the plate and be men in their family responsibilities—just that they may not be naturally good at leadership.

Likewise, many women are intense, lack fear, overabound with confidence, and act as if they have no shortcomings. Decision-making, planning, and needs identification and alleviation are a snap for them. These women are experienced, capable, and assertive—real “get-it-done” girls. Playing the role of the meek helper/lover is a stretch for them. It can be done, but it comes with a lot of character reassignment and a lot of suggestion swallowing—not natural for some, and certainly not easy.

So if these roles are not practically ideal or universally borne out as our true nature as men and women, then what’s the real reason for them? I think I’ve found it.

In his book “That You May Believe: New Life in the Son,” Skip Ryan talks about the Wedding at Cana, as documented in John 2. There, the party runs out of wine, and Jesus replenishes the supply by turning into wine the water from large jars used for ceremonial purification. Ryan suggests that this is not just a miracle showing Jesus’ supernatural power. It is also a signpost that reads, “This way to the real wedding.”

Consider what he says about the role of Jesus and the church in the wedding that Jesus describes. He says, “John is giving us a signpost to the greatest wedding of all, and telling us that the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, will have His bride, the church, presented to him spotless, because she will be wearing his righteousness. Why does a bride wear white? It is a direct indication that, in the plan and economy of God, He intends His church to be white and spotless. That is the historical background to the white dress a bride wears. It is the purity given to the bride of Christ by the Bridegroom, who gives to her His own perfect righteousness.”

You thought the white wedding dress was a symbol of virginity, right? Wrong. In the marriage ceremony, the groom is a representation of Christ and the bride is a representation of the church. Together they are a model of God’s heavenly intent for his people: perfect righteousness effected by ultimate sacrifice.

Would it be too much to say, then, that in practicing our marriage roles as God intended that we will gain a deeper, even more profound understanding of what Christ has done for us and of who we are in Christ? In fulfilling his Biblical role as servant-leader, wouldn’t a self-centered man or one who feels ill-equipped to lead his family come to understand more deeply the humble sacrifice that Christ made for us as an expression of his love for us? Wouldn’t he be able to see that just as a man can create security and stability for his family by serving and leading them, even more so, Christ has created eternal security for us by redeeming us?

Likewise wouldn’t a capable or even self-sufficient woman be able to see that in submitting to her husband’s leadership, she is demonstrating the trust and obedience that the church should have in Jesus Christ? In receiving the direction that her husband offers, isn’t she acknowledging our powerlessness as believers to be effectual in our own righteousness? In allowing her husband to do the work that he sees fit in their relationship, isn’t she being the object of transformation that the church is to Christ?

In this sense our marriages are a lifelong devotional exercise. In them we rehearse what it means for Christ to be who He is and the church to be who He intends us to be.

It is a challenge to fulfill these roles because of our imperfections and our lack of trust for the other person. Don’t get me wrong, in many cases the lack of trust is more than justified. A man may not lead or lead well because he is lazy, unwise, unwilling, or simply because his wife overpowers him. A woman submitting to this kind of man may be walking with him down a path that leads to destruction. But a man must not lead blindly, indulging his whim or vices, without thought of the consequences or of his responsibility. To the man, this is the message: be more like Christ, leading as one who is pure and worthy.

Likewise, a woman may not be willing to submit or play the “second fiddle” role of helper because she is productive, capable, and self-assured, or simply because she doesn’t trust her man. Burned once she may be unwilling to set herself up again, even to a man who is repentant and committed to not only their marriage but to his Christian life as well. To the woman, this is the message: in submitting do not stagnate, but grow in sanctification, trusting more.

I’m not sure how to advise a man who leads where his wife will not follow. Nor am I sure how to advise a woman who has only a poor leader to submit to. I trust that I will be enlightened on these points as well. Stay tuned.

Never Let Them See You Smile

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My husband once said that when he retires, he’ll buy an old beater of a car, fill the trunk with concrete, and stop dead in front of any lousy tailgater who crosses the line that is the boundary of his personal vehicular space.

Not exactly my idea of driving off into the sunset, but he can dream, right?

Yesterday I came up with my own post-retirement dream driving scenario. Now, I must qualify by saying that my utopian dream of “retirement” is one in which I make no binding time commitments to any cause whatsoever, and am free to twiddle away my time as if the clock ticks not at all. In my idealized version of retirement there will be no dishes to do, no laundry to wash, and no volunteer commitments to fulfill. I will eat off of compostable paper plates, wear disposable enviro-friendly paper clothes, and lead off every conversational exchange with, “I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t fit into my schedule.”

In that “time is no object” world, in which I will drive for pleasure to nowhere in particular, my dog will always ride along with me. And if I do say so myself, he’ll be the cutest, most irresistible dog in the world, as he will be a clone of my current dog, who is by far the world’s current cutest, most irresistible dog. He’ll sit right there in the passenger seat, buckled in with a strappy canine fashion seatbelt that somehow lets him have the extraordinary freedom to stick his head out into a gloriously ear-flapping world while still enjoying cutting edge safety technology.

But here’s the thing. I wouldn’t just be doing it for my dog. I’d really be doing it for all those poor, sad, bored-looking drivers and crossing guards and bikers and walkers, who go through their days with their heads angled down or frozen straight ahead because they’re weighed down by the chore-ridden angst of everyday life. But when they see my dog, the world’s cutest and most irresistible, they’ll awake from that stupor, as if roused from the hypnotic incantations of an evil, soul-killing sorcerer, and they’ll smile.

That thing in all of us that makes us truly human will be rekindled in them. They’ll forget their troubles, if only for a moment, because what they’ll be thinking is, “Hey, that dog is really cute.” And they’ll also be thinking, “I really want to stop and pet that cute little dog.” And maybe when I’m stopped at a red light, they’ll even come over and reach a hand into my open window and give my dog’s softy fur a couple of satisfying strokes.

Maybe they’ll be so moved that they’ll ditch their crummy cars and their torn up sneakers and their soul-sapping jobs, and they’ll hop in the car with me and my super-cute dog. He’ll make sure that they’re completely strapped in for safety, of course, and when they are, he’ll teach them how to stick their heads out the window so they too can soak in some of that ear-flapping goodness that is what life very well may be all about.

Before you know it, our nation’s streets and highways will become as one great big dogs-in-cars, ear-flapping party bus. Allergic Americans will be issued protective suits by the government so they too can jump on the doggie train. Dogs will become a staple of court proceedings, legislative sessions, community gatherings, and ecumenical church services because deep down everyone knows that a couple of cute dogs are all it really takes to bring people together.

In our new canine-revived society, lips will part, teeth will show, paws will shake, barriers will fall, doors will be opened, and the world will finally be as the Coca-cola marketing team has always envisioned it.

Except what about this? What if I’m driving along and I get behind a guy who’s driving a really old beat-up car, who’s all grouchy and cynical, and when I creep up real close so he can get a look at the rear-view mirror reflection of the cutest, most irresistible dog in the world, the guy suddenly stops dead in front of me, and I smash, dog and all, headlong into his concrete-filled trunk?

Oh dear, what then?

Classroom Confessions, Next Time on “Cheaters”

A new Vatican study identifying the most frequently confessed sins, by gender, shows lust, gluttony and sloth in the win, place, show positions for men and pride, envy, and anger in the top three for women.

No mention of the most commonly confessed sins for children, but I suspect that cheating in school is probably somewhere pretty high on the list (followed closely by ditching your peas under the table and “cleaning up” your room by taking every last thing off the floor and cramming it into your closet).

I haven’t bugged any confessionals to back up my theory, but I know me, and I know my daughter, and that’s all I need to know to make a case for cheating as one of the big ones. I did it, she’s done it, and, her teachers tell me, she and I are not alone.

My cheating career was not long, nor was it glamorous. I’m not proud of it, but there was that time in third grade when I lifted the entire Henry Hudson chapter from an explorers book and passed it off as my own (attention, teachers: when a third grader hands in a 14-page paper, do some digging, will ya?) There was that time in fourth grade when, just to keep from breaking the chain of gold stars on the class spelling test performance chart, I cribbed off another kid’s test paper (my first real-life ends/means dilemma). And there was that time in my senior year of high school, when I faked my way through our class discussion of The Grapes of Wrath, the only book assigned to me for high school English that I hadn’t actually read (still haven’t, incidentally, though I did find Steinbeck‘s East of Eden pretty darn amazing).

Scandalous, yes, but awfully white bread, right?

Well, before Christmas, my daughter came to me boasting an incredibly high AR score—the month’s best in her class, in fact. (For those of you not familiar with it, AR, or Accelerated Reader, is a school program where kids read books, then take computerized reading comprehension quizzes; it’s great for goal-setting and achievement-tracking, and it’s a big educational component in many of the schools in my area). But while I cheered her sudden surge to the top of the charts, her dad was skeptical. Turns out his suspicions were confirmed: the printed AR report showed that she’d scored big for quizzes that she’d taken on several Harry Potter books—several of which she’d not actually read.

Her explanation? She’d read one of the books, and had seen the movies for the others, and just got “carried away” when she took the tests. Oh boy.

Thankfully, I’d learned long ago from a Leave it to Beaver rerun on Nickelodeon’s TV Land that the “I saw the movie, so that’s good enough” approach doesn’t work. Poor Beaver was supposed to have read The Three Musketeers, but on the advice of his dopey friends, he watched a televised movie version instead, which, as it seems, could have starred the Three Stooges in the title roles. Athos, Aramis, and Porthos or Larry, Moe, and Curly—same difference, right?

So, my husband and I set up a conference with the teacher, where my red-handed daughter presented a confessional note, complete with her own suggestions for punishment, which included no recess, lost points, and, of course, actually reading the books and retaking the tests. The teacher, God bless her, went for door number 3, and sent my daughter back to class with a stern “thank you” for her honesty.

Truth is, she said, that my kid is by no means the first of the cheater-pants; the other kids in the “gifted” class (the little rascals) have been gaming the AR system since the day it was installed.

My daughter may be a cheater, I guess, but at least she’s developmentally on par.

Fertile Ground for Controversy

The Nadya Suleman Octo-mom” controversy has many of us wondering about the ethics of providing fertility treatment to a dubiously-financed woman who is already the mother of six. We’re wondering how robust a treatment would have to be provided in order to result in such a high order multiple birth. And, in the most practical sense, we’re also wondering when Nadya, her parents, or anyone else she knows will ever dig out from under 14 children worth of laundry.

In light of all those considerations, I was happy to hear yesterday’s Fresh Air broadcast featuring journalist Liza Mundy, whose 2007 book Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Our World covered the medical challenges, ethical dilemmas, and social issues related to the relatively recent boom in fertility treatment-generated multiple births. I haven’t read the book, but I did listen to Terry Gross’s interview with Mundy, and, to be honest, I had no idea about the behind-the-scenes of fertility treatment.

Not that it’s morally wrong per se; it’s just, well, complicated.

The cost of fertility treatment ($12,000 per course for artificial insemination, according to Mundy) was not news to me. But the wear and tear on a woman’s body, the mortality risk of often premature and low birth-weight multiple birth babies, the risk/benefit analysis involved in deciding how many embryos to implant and whether to selectively destroy some, and the possible developmental and long-term medical impact on the co-carried babies themselves—these are curves on the roller coaster of infertility that were not even on my radar.

Sure, I knew that some of these issues were out there, but I never really thought about a couple actually going through the decision-making process that asks hard questions like, is the possible benefit of having one healthy child worth the risk of finding ourselves with triplets (or quintuplets) 9 months down the road?

Talking about it with my husband last night, I found out that he’s more up-to-date on the infertility front than I am. Turns out that a former work colleague of his, along with his wife, adopted an embryo a couple of years ago; the embryo was implanted in the wife’s uterus and grew into the little person who is now—and I guess always has been—their daughter.

It’s controversial, I know. And, believe me, I don’t want to sound glib. But having had 2 children myself, and not having gone through any fertility problems, I’m curious. So I’d love for you to comment…

If you’ve gone through fertility treatment, what tough decisions did you have to make?

If you’ve had a multiple birth as a result of fertility treatment (especially one on the order of 4, 5, or more), how did you adjust to (what would be for me) the incredibly overwhelming prospect of that many babies going through infancy—and beyond—all at once?

If you’re having infertility problems now, would you ever consider embryo adoption? What pros and cons do you see in that approach compared to “conventional” adoption?

Drop me a line—I’m interested to see what you have to say.

Tell Them What They’ve Won

There’s nothing that’ll take the wind out of your Valentine’s Day sails faster than coming in third in the Newlywed Game at the church’s Sweetheart’s Dinner.

Nothing except maybe coming in fourth. Or being led away from the Sweetheart’s Dinner in handcuffs. Yeah, that wouldn’t be so good.

When I agreed to be part of the church Newlywed Game (cleverly renamed “Marital Blitz,” because, I guess, Bob Eubanks is such a royalties hound), I didn’t realize that the first question of the night—the one I should have been asking myself—is this: If you and your husband screw up royally in matching your answers to bogus made-up questions, then does that mean that (a) you’ve provided rollicking entertainment for some of your closest friends, (b) you look at life from different, but often complementary, points of view, or (c) you should whip out your BlackBerry because the church counselor’s only got openings on Thursday nights, and they’re filling up fast.

Consider question number one: If your marriage was a movie, what genre would it be? (a) romance, (b) family comedy, or (c) drama.

(I suggested “horror” but didn’t get nearly the laugh I was expecting. Wrong crowd, I guess.)

My marriage, like yours (and believe me, I hope it’s like yours, or else I’d better reserve my spot on the couch now), is a combination of all three. Really, it is. There’s romance, but my viewing of only one drippy, sentimental, emotion-manipulating Nicholas Sparks-based movie convinced me I was NOT going to answer (a). There’s drama, of course, brought to us by anything and everything (including myself, my husband, my kids, my dog, my furnace, my dryer, and, just this week, my local phone company), but without explanation “drama” sends the wrong message. Sort of like “diva” or “dictator.”

But I’m a family humor writer. So you’d think “family comedy,” right? I answered (b), but my husband said (c), and boy did the gang love that. I’m sure that this discrepancy was particularly enjoyed by the parents of the young engaged couple that my husband and I just spent six weeks mentoring.

This kind of thing, I think, is why neither of us is in politics. Needless to say, I’m putting Marital Blitz on that ever-growing list of “we won’t be doing THAT again.”

Last night at our pitch perfect Valentine’s Day dinner out (which almost didn’t happen because I was so wrapped around the axel about the ridiculous “What would your husband do if he unexpectedly had the day off?” question), we talked about the movie question more. I think that we’re square on our genre, so next time we’ll be more prepared.

If our marriage was a movie, it would be a rockumentary. Starring Brad and Angelina. Playing Sonny and Cher.

Because even after an embarrassing night at the church, I’ve found, the beat certainly does go on.

 

Will You Be My Behaviorally-Modified Valentine?

[originally appeared in “Scheir Madness” in The Dover Post, 2/11/09]

If you’re in the mid-winter “Boy, I messed up on keeping my New Year’s resolutions again this year” slump, take heart: help is a mouse click away.

Besides being the ultimate workplace time enhancer, the Internet is also a great place to go for the encouragement and accountability you might need to meet your behavior modification goals.

Let’s suppose that with Valentine’s Day approaching, an armchair relationship status assessment has turned up some growth areas. Perhaps you, like I, sometimes find yourself on autopilot, jumping through the hoops that are your job, your household responsibilities, and your daily kid transport routine.

You can’t remember the last time you told your spouse, “I love you.” In fact, you can’t remember the last time you talked to your spouse about anything that didn’t need to be fixed, cleaned up, scheduled for, or purchased from Sam’s Club.

You’d like to do the things you did before the cares of life encroached: to go out for romantic candlelit dinners, to leave love notes and chocolates on your sweetie’s pillow, to drop everything and fly to Paris for an intimate champagne toast at the foot of the Eiffel Tower (or just to ditch the night’s dinner dishes so you can crash on the couch and watch the SciFi channel’s latest “Twilight Zone” marathon…whichever).

Now you can track your lovey-dovey or other goals on the web, using the handy tools offered by sites like joesgoals.com. At joesgoals, you can enter the habits you’d like to develop (like saying “I love you” every day) and the habits you’d like to squelch (like eating take-out on paper plates in front of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” every day). You indicate goal-meeting activities (“I flossed!”) and bad habit avoidance (“I walked right by the WWE Valentines…and they were 90% off!”). Whenever goals are met, you earn yellow smiley faces, which, as any pre-school teacher knows, are the world’s greatest motivator.

You can also track your goals on stickk.com, where the self-imposed stakes are much higher. The idea behind StickK (yes, that’s a capitalized ‘K’ at the end) is that you make a contract with yourself, putting money on the line in case you don’t meet your goal. Suppose my husband and I fall short of our goal to go out on a weekly date; then our penalty, say a donation of $100, goes to a charity we loathe, like the Walmart on Every Corner Alliance or the United Federation of More Soda in Schools.

If smiley faces and money are not motivators for you, then the web offers dontbreakthechain.com. This super-stripped-down goal-tracking mechanism features a calendar on which you can put a red circle around every date that you’ve met your stated goal. Apparently, this tool is a version of Jerry Seinfeld’s calendar-based good habit building technique wherein the unbroken chain of red circles is, by itself, motivation enough.

In closing, I’m happy to report that I’ve successfully managed to achieve my life goal of mentioning Jerry Seinfeld in this column twice in as many weeks.

That’ll be two yellow smiley faces for me. Goody!

A Sprinkle of Smacktalk

Dustin vs. Dustin. On the playground. With the smacktalk.

Even if you’re not hip to the lingo, you’d know smacktalk if you heard it. It’s that competitive, sarcastic, self-aggrandizing, other-dissing conversational style of friends and foes alike that has become the very bedrock of the young (and not-so-young) American vernacular, both on and off the playing field.

According to my fifth grader, the first big school fistfight of 2009 was smacktalk-initiated. Apparently, my son’s friend, Dustin, mixed it up with another child (also named Dustin) over a non-enriching remark he’d made about Dustin #1’s mother.

“Does that child know Dustin’s mother?” I asked. “Nope.” “Well, what did he say about her?” My son paused, then said, “Trust me, Mom. You don’t want to know.”

My father’s generation directed their barbs at women we would now consider edgy fashionistas (as in, “Your mother wears combat boots.”) Today, though, just try saying something like, “Your mother leaves toxic dish soap residue in your reusable metal water bottle” or “No one buys as many trans-fat loaded processed food products as your mother,” and you’ll have a one-way ticket to the principal’s office.

Whether it’s mother-related or not, smacktalk really doesn’t suit me. It may be because as a kid I was on the receiving end of real, mean-spirited teasing. It may also be because I’m one of those sensitive girls who responds to, thrives on, and lives for encouragement and praise.

(Looking at it now, it may be that there’s a connection between those two things. You think?)

Despite my reservations, though, I’m trying to keep an open mind about smacktalk. It is possible, I suppose, that the insults, put-downs, and zingers that are the building blocks of smacktalk vocabulary, while painful, may create thicker skin, a fighting spirit, and, ultimately, stronger competitors. Maybe smacktalk fosters the ideal environment for separating the “men” from the “boys.”

But I’m not sure I’m sold on that. What I am sure about is that smacktalk is effective in separating out the nice guys who’ll come through in the clutch someday from the obnoxious jerks who will mow you down with their grass seed spreaders just because your kid’s bike tire came within inches of their precious manicured lawn.

While I may consider smacktalk to be unhealthy, unsportsmanlike, and just plain unkind, I also know that there’s a picked-on little kid in all of us who really digs the snappy smacktalk comeback. With that, I present to you my all-time favorite.

A husband and wife are arguing. For an hour, the wife runs down a laundry list of her husband’s inadequacies. After she’s covered his neglect of the trash, his long hours at work , his unsympathetic ear, and her other complaints, her husband has his turn to speak.

“Oh yeah?” he says, looking her square in the eyes. “Well you’re not too thin yourself.”

Ouch.

And touché.