Tuesday, 5 May 2015

How to win in marriage

At Christmas last year, some lovely friends of ours got married. And they very graciously (bravely?) asked me to speak at their wedding. People afterwards were very kind about this little talk so here it is if it's helpful to anyone else...

Hi everyone,

My name’s Ben. What a joy it is to be here – really delighted for you both.

I’m not a vicar or anything – I’ve just been asked to say a few words this afternoon. I think my only real qualification is that I’ve been married for a little over 10 years myself. And as such, Hazel and Steve, I feel like it’s my duty to share a few home truths with you.

See, the thing is, marriage, like any human relationship, is about...power.

To use business speak, it’s a bit like a merger – but also a bit like a hostile takeover.

Money, space in the home, time to yourself – basically, it’s a whole load of finite resources for which there is essentially increased competition.

When she’s trying to drag you to visit those people you really don’t wanna see; when he’s wanting to spend your savings on some crazy frivolous folly… How are you going to make sure you get your own way? How are you gonna make sure you come out ahead?

I mean, you’ll find there’s only so much duvet, y’know? If you don’t grab it for yourself first, how will you avoid having it all rolled away from you?

We know how the world works: there are winners and there are losers. So the question is: how do you win in marriage?

I’d like to suggest that there’s an answer in one short line from a song you’ve probably heard a hundred times already this Christmas. And it’s just this: ‘mild, he lays his glory by’. ‘He lays his glory by’.

You see, actually, the power of marriage is that it’s precisely NOT about getting what you can for yourself, looking after number one, accumulating and holding on to glory. It’s an opportunity to locate your life outside yourself, in selfless love – to lay your own glory to one side, and to seek to serve instead.

I’m just gonna read a couple of bits from the Bible and then try to briefly explain what I mean by that.

This is from Matthew 20. Jesus is talking to his disciples about how to achieve power in his setup:

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

And this is from Philippians 2, with Paul writing about how to live like Jesus:

‘In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,’

I know that you two are convinced that life in all its fullness is a life lived with God, God who is fully revealed in Jesus. And I want to encourage you that your marriage can be a fantastic way to follow Jesus – because he is the God who ‘lays his glory by’. And that is the secret to winning in marriage: to lay your own individual glory by, and instead to live out the radically different power dynamic that marks out the Kingdom of God.

'He lays his glory by' means all the power, all the fame, all the entitlement, all the leverage over other people is put to one side. It’s the totally unexpected thing we see in the Christmas story: an all-powerful God not pushing everyone aside to grab on to getting his own way, but instead entering into a life of humility, service, compassion and grace to others.

Let your marriage be a place to practice and model that same amazing selflessness. It’s like a house of cards – the strength is in the interdependence. The more you give your life away to each other, to God, to your neighbours, the more you’ll find it.

I’m not talking about being a doormat here – like, whoever gets the request in first, the other person just has to do what they say. It’s a fundamental reordering of priorities and motivation – being anchored not in self-interest but in a love outside yourself. But it can be found in the smallest things: yes, even the washing of dishes, the emptying of bins, the sharing of meals, the choosing of a film (always contentious!) – let everything be an opportunity to grow together in the character of servant-heartedness, of self-sacrifice instead of power-grabbing – because that can transform the world.

It’s not just a feeling, it’s a covenant – a promise, a resolution. It’s a choice you make today – and then every day for the rest of your life together.

You won’t always get it right – but God will. He loves you unchangingly, even on your worst day. As Romans 5 says, ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’. He doesn’t wait for you to be good enough; he has already shown his love for the whole world, with all our screw-ups and failures and selfishness, in choosing to give up his life to rescue us. You believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection opens up a way to God – well, don’t forget it! He chose to make a way for people to be in relationship with him without it being conditional on how well those people are doing – so you can be sure that, like the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son, he will always come rushing out to meet you, however much you might feel you’ve messed up.

And I want you to know that you have both been a huge blessing and encouragement to many people already – both individually and in your relationship together. I pray that your marriage will continue that – to be a testament to the the Kingdom of God, and the power of selfless love, grace, mercy, forgiveness. That you’ll grow and learn that radical power in your marriage, that it will overflow into the lives of those around you – and that, on the days where things are a long way from rosy, that it will still be seen in the perfect love, grace and mercy that God always has for you.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Comment Thread

There but for the grace of God go all of us:
Headlong after Icarus,
Eyes bursting with beams,
The way of all flesh –
Into the untamed sea.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Bouncer at the Echo Chamber

I'm troubled by echo chambers – and it increasingly feels like that's all there is at the moment. Maybe it's 'cos I spend too much time consuming and thinking about digital content, where the MO is 'throw a million things at the wall, see which ones get pageviews, then do more of that' (see Facebook groups, HuffPo, YouTubers, Daily Mail online, any content producer really). Perpetuation and reinforcement is the name of the game.

I'm starting to feel like everyone has a private club going on in their head, complete with a gruff bouncer who surveys all the 'stuff' (opinions, articles, research, conversations etc) that wants to come in. This bouncer has a limited set of possible responses:

  • The warm welcome
    Here comes some content that agrees with your preconceptions. It reinforces your worldview, it validates your arguments or vindicates your prejudices. It adds power to your 'side'.
    This designer's client doesn't understand typography either! Michael Gove made a maths gaffe! That benefits cheat had an Asian-sounding name! This religious moraliser was corrupt all along!
    It doesn't matter what the 'side' is, the dynamic's the same – just gleefully thrilled to be able to welcome another person to the party. Even better if they're a VIP.
'Ello, mate! How ya doin'? Love the get-up! Come on in, the gang's all here. You'll be right at home.'
  • The grudging let-off
    Hmm. Next in the queue is some content that definitely isn't the right type. It doesn't align with your preconceptions. It's decidedly shifty. It makes you feel uncomfortable just looking at it. It's trainers in a shoes-only establishment.
    Actually, I'd vote Republican. But Donnie Darko was a masterpiece! Jesus loves you. Everyone in power is part of a massive conspiracy against all that is good.
    Thing is, though... you like the person the content's coming in with (yes, I'm mixing my metaphors, get over it). So it's grudgingly allowed in – but it's definitely not allowed to request any music or order any funky cocktails. The opinion can exist, as a favour to your friend, but mustn't change anything.

    'Alright, I won't chuck you out just yet. But I've got my eye on you, sunshine. And you'd best leave when she does.'
  • The hostile shut-out
    And then there's, well, everything else. Everything else is terrible. A blot, a stain, a disaster, an 'undesirable' that mustn't be allowed to darken your door or spoil your party. This content, at best, doesn't coincide with your preconceptions. At worst, it actively opposes them. And it doesn't have have any redeeming features, like having been brought along by a person you have a crush on.
    If you're feeling generous, you will just fix this content with a hard, disapproving stare from across the street and then glower at it until you're sure it knows its place and has retreated far out of sight again. If you, or it, are feeling a bit more facety, then it's time to get tough. Bring on the aggro. Chuck that despicable different opinion forcefully out on its backside, in full view of everyone else, to make an example of it. Maybe give it a few kicks for good measure. Your friends will back you up, no doubt.

    'Get OUT. And don't even think about coming back. Scum.'
  • The didn't-even-leave-the-house
    Last, but probably not least (though how would you ever know?), there's actually everything else. Because for any of the above to come into play, you need to at least be aware of the content in the first place. And with things like the press's sheeplike clustering around a handful of identikit stories and issues, Facebook's EdgeRank, Twitter's 'follow-unfollow' setup, even the way geography and income severely limit your exposure to people unlike yourself, the chances are that you are only ever seeing a very tiny, tailor-made tip of an unimaginably massive iceberg of 'stuff'.
    There are entirely different categories of situation, thought and experience that you'll simply never come into contact with. To stretch the bouncer metaphor, it would be like having an amoeba or an alien or a dinosaur rock up in the queue. Do they get to come in? Fortunately, you never have to worry about such a bewilderingly bizarre and category-smashing decision because it will never cross your path. Phew, right?
I know this is nothing new. I'm sure I could find plenty of content 'on my side', expressing the same concerns, from all through history, probably. And the world's still turning, so maybe it's all fine. But it still troubles me. Where's the room for challenge? The preconception bouncer is so strict and the guest list so short – does anything different or new ever get in, or actually are we fated to be Guardianistas or Sun-readers all our life?

I don't know when these preconceptions get set but, I tell ya, it puts a serious dent in one's confidence in ideologies of individual choice, free will/strong volition, man-as-rational-actor etc... (like, all the ideologies that characterise 21st century Western life).


Or maybe reassure me with a story of open-mindedness, embracing challenge and a time your outlook was changed. Unless valuing all of those things is just another echo-chamber typology into which I'm already locked! The plot thickens...

Friday, 18 October 2013

''''''Cool''''' Christians'

At school, I prided myself on fiercely resisting - so I thought - the sheeplike rise and fall of social cliques (neither a 'trendy' nor a 'goth' or 'geeky kid' be...). But now, I fear I find myself riding a wave of a sort of faithy hipsterism. I think I might be part of a tribe I'm going to sardonically label ''''''cool'''''' Christian'. (There aren't enough scare quotes in the world for that phrase).

Here's how it seems to work. Us '''''cool'''' Christians' are followers of Jesus who find ourselves living in a post-religious context. The people around us – you, probably – are lovely, good, smart people. That aside, you're pretty similar to us in most ways we can observe, but are somewhere on a spectrum between 'meh', 'if it works for you' and 'convictedly anti-' when it comes to anything faintly Christian or churchy.

We desperately want you to like us - or, in fact, not us but JesUS (yeaaaahhhh! See? We're not above a pun or a meme, we're so with it).

We like what you like: we'll get nostalgic about the same cartoons, share the same right-on outrage about whatever is today's political scandal, enjoy the same alcoholic beverages at the same pubs.

We go clubbing and to the theatre and on holiday with you – crazily, just because we think it's fun. We'd never be crassly driven by some insidious proselytising agenda.

When it comes to the God stuff, we can roll with your punches. Yeah, you're right, various bits of the church have had some shockers. Your critique of hellfire street preachers is, like, totes legit. Young Earth Creation? Ha! We're with you, that is rubbish science...

We welcome your critical thinking and your hard questions. Bring on the Dawkins and the Hitchens and the /r/atheism. We don't believe in the god that they're so cross about, anyway.

We even dance in fusty, formal-looking church wedding services, would you believe?! OMG, so ZANY! (The G is for goodness – we're still a bit tentative about casually taking the Lord's name in abbreviated vain.)

And, perhaps above all, we write blog after blog, tweet upon tweet – heck we'll even get on Snapchat or Vine to show how down with digital media we are – busting myths like there's no tomorrow. (Though, ho ho, let's be clear: there IS a tomorrow. None of us are worried about anything so silly as that Harold Camping imminent flying-Christian rapture stuff).

We churn out piles of words, so very earnestly longing to be shared, to be 'talkable' and 'relevant' and 'connect to where you're at'. Sometimes showing but more often telling you how God/church/the Bible/Christianity doesn't look like you think it does, how your preconceptions are way off-beam, how we blow your stereotypes to smithereens:
  • '50 Shades of Song of Songs: why kinky sex is super-Christian' 
  • '10 ways church should be more like TED' 
  • 'On monarchists, republicans and the REAL Royal Baby' (yep, it's Jesus) 
  • 'What Murray Mania can teach us about worship'

Because if we could just get a foot in the door of your attention, if we could just redeem some of that entertainment time for a higher purpose, if we could just MAKE YOU SEE...that God is love, that faith is reasonable, that church is good, that the Bible is relevant, that we love you, then maybe it would all be OK.

(And, for what it's worth, this desire is totally heartfelt and, I think, totally valid.)

But do you know what? Mostly, as far as I can tell, you don't care. In fact, scratch that - THEY don't care. Because, let's be honest, this post won't be any different either. It might, if I'm lucky (oop, controversial, a Christian using the word 'lucky'), do the rounds of you, my fellow '''''cool'''' Christians' (hello! [wave]).

But, really, is it ever going to even be a drop in the same ocean as the huge tide of BBC News or Buzzfeed or TalkSport or funny pics on Facebook or celeb chat on Twitter or whatever else? Let's be honest, on these audiences' terms, Christians trying to be more interesting than the alternatives is surely pretty Cnut-ish behaviour.

That's not to say I have a solution right now. Maybe there isn't one; maybe it has to be about drip-drip-dripping away, starting in my little corner and hoping something will eventually overflow into someone else's peripheral vision. But I really, really don't want to be a '''''cool'''' Christian' in a closed loop, talking to myself. I want to be available to the world out there. World, if you're out there, just tell me how...