Okay, so I am not a great husband. My personal history and my lovely wife bear this out. I am constantly in reform, always reading and realizing what a dope I am maritally. So it is with relish that I approach premarital counseling as a priest. Don’t worry, I always send couples with big obvious issues away to someone who knows what they are doing, but the rest I figure I can at least save from my stupidest mistakes.
Actually, my general plan is to present some models and guide couples into a series of conversations with a little well-seasoned wisdom from someone who has been there. I really do read a lot because I really do feel inadequate to be married. But then we all are according to David Schnarch, PhD. He is the therapist I use the most. His book Passionate Marriage should be on your reading list if you are a person. There is no qualifier for that because the book presents deep wisdom about life through the lens of marriage and sex.
I will not go into the whole thing here, but I have preached about it before. (See Sounds Like Grace at gracetc.blogspot.com.) So as I said in the sermon, this year I was asked to do a wedding the weekend before Christmas, and I said yes. It was a great wedding, wonderful couple, great church, and I was only mildly stressed by it all.
But it weirded my preparation for Christmas. We have seven services between Christmas Eve and Day, beginning with one for our Jubilee Ministries Community, and going through a whole gamut of styles and shapes. I preach along an arc, so I don’t bore myself or the people who come to multiple services. So I have been thinking and writing about Incarnation for a while in preparation, like normal.
Incarnation is the theological notion that God is made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. The enfleshed reality of God is a hard one to swallow these days, and I think more people doubt Jesus’ divinity than his teachings, though to be honest the teachings aren’t all that popular at the implementation level. Jesus is God and fully human. This idea is at the heart of our faith. I think it is beautiful, and while it is unique in Christ, it is also made true in all of us in Christ. But what does this have to do with sex?
Intimacy is this loaded topic for most of us. We want more, we want to be closer to our spouses and other people, yet being close to people freaks us out. It brings up some pretty basic insecurities and even existential terror. We are scared of intimacy because it asks us to be open, honest, present, vulnerable. It asks us to have integrity and stay close as we become scared. Scharch points out that self-validated intimacy is the only real kind we can have, really, because we can do it no matter what the other person does. I can show you who I really am.
It doesn’t really matter what you do in response. I cannot control you. I want to, but I can’t. What I can do is soothe my fears and anxiety and stay present with you. You have to choose your response. In marriage it would seem that this is what we want from our spouse. Show me who you are and I will love you, we seem to say. But we don’t really either, because their self revelation, while not demanding anything in itself, changes our relationship and challenges us and our ways of insecurity and fear. It asks us without asking us to show up and reveal ourselves and love them by giving like the little drummer boy, the only gift we really have.
And so we get back to incarnation. In Jesus, God reveals God’s own self. And it does not seem to demand anything really. I think that is why we prefer Christmas to Easter sometimes. God shows up. God Emmanuel. We long for that, and yet when God does show up, even mediated as angels, what do they have to say every time? Peace. Be still. Chill out. Calm down. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds all are told. Do not be afraid.
This Christmas, what if we entered into this divine offering of God’s self, this earthy and heavenly intimacy without fear? Can we be present to God’s self and unhook our fears and expectations, our self-doubts and self-concern and trust that God loves us and just wants us to show up?
To be able to be present to another while being intimate requires self-differentiation. We have to recognize that we are not our partner and see them as they are. This is harder and more demanding that it sounds as I write it. My wife and I laugh about her leaving town a couple of years ago, when I bought Velveeta shells and cheese. She was startled to realize that I would choose something she would never choose. It was like a revelation to her that I would eat it. It was also a massive disappointment, and it challenged my secret love of fake horrible cheese-like products.
Now I am no master of intimacy. I have often hidden, like others, behind all sorts of defenses, from anger and distance to knowledge and judgement. I am amazed this Christmas at how the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings point right through all of these issues and call us to live courageously open, intimate lives.
I don’t think this is possible without strong morals and integrity and boundaries. If we are to able to stand so close to others and hold ourselves open and loving, we have to be able to do so without victimizing the other or abusing them or losing ourselves in sloppy sentimentalism. We need the whole teachings of Christ. Love and courage and holiness together.
So it is Christmas, and I am trying to figure out how to talk about all of this. Are you more open this year? Are you more courageous and loving? Are you more holy? I want that intimacy with Amy that we both long for, and I fear that I am going to have to keep growing up to get there. I want that intimacy with God that I hear promised in the prophets and in Christ. And I fear that I come to the manger as a place of hope of course, but also a place of challenge to my deepest, most human self to be with the God who loves me enough to show up, vulnerable, honest, and holy.