Naked and Unashamed—Friendship and Dating

As mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve recently had the joy of publishing, along with Jerry and Claudia Root, a book on marriage called Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Paraclete Press). For the past fifteen years now, the material at the heart of this book has been shaping and nourishing my own marriage to Liesel. It’s a huge pleasure to be able to share its blessings with more people now.

Jerry and ClaudiaLiesel and I met with Jerry for five or six sessions back in 2003. We’d come over to his house, hang out on couches, and listen to him talk about marriage. Then, we’d stay afterwards and pepper him with further questions about life, marriage, parenting, and faith. It was a fantastic series of months. Those five sessions have now become a book of fifteen chapters, digestible, straightforward, and hopefully easily accessible to couples of all types and stages of life.

In today’s excerpt, we’ve got a passage on friendship and dating. As I said last time, please read! And be encouraged! Be a little challenged! If you feel like you want more, you can find copies in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and on the Paraclete Press website. (Also, if you are interested in a review copy, send me a note with your email address and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher!)

“Friendship and Dating”
Excerpted from, Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Chapter 4)

As we hope you can see, these shared interests become the basis of your ongoing friendship as a couple. And it is important to note that a couple with good experiences together, common interests, and positive regard, is significantly buffered against the everyday stresses of life in the world and life together. A couple who commit to being and becoming friends very nearly guarantees the success of their marriage as well as a high level of relational happiness.

Why should this be the case? Consider something C.S. Lewis wrote in his book on the four loves,

Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever talk about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest. (The Four Loves)

The gaze at, while wonderful, is insufficient to keep a couple throughout life—there must also be a gaze alongside. In this, the couple strive to find places of commonality—shared books, shared experiences, shared interests—which will keep them fresh and interesting as the years progress. All too often it happens that couples neglect this critical aspect of their relationship, allowing work, then children, to crowd out their investment in one another. The result, tragically, is that at some point the children move out of the home and the husband and wife discover to their mutual dismay that they are married to a virtual stranger. If you would have love thrive in your marriage for the long term, you would be wise to seek to share passions beyond simply one another.

Many couples implicitly feel that dating belongs to the time before marriage, and that once they are married they no longer need to date. Indeed, many challenges begin to arise as life becomes more complex. Finances, children, hiring babysitters—these things can make dating your spouse seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But dating clearly is a key way to continue to develop friendship and interest with one another—whether it be eating at a favorite restaurant, or seeing the latest film together, going on a walk, attending a play, sitting on a blanket together in a park, or simply getting dessert and talking. A date is an activity which bridges the gap between the gaze which looks at your spouse, and the gaze which looks together with your spouse. In the words of the author of Ecclesiastes,

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Perhaps, in this circumstance, the third strand of the cord which strengthens a couple is their cultivated interest in subjects which bring life to their relationship—in their commitment to friendship, dating, and a life together grounded in a look alongside one another.

The Paragraph Sentence and Other Horrors

I read a lot of books. I enjoy a lot of books. Because there are so many books to read in the world, I try to focus my limited time on books that are worth reading. That doesn’t mean I don’t read candy—after all, one of my favourite genres is fantasy and sci-fi. But there’s a trend I’ve been noticing lately that causes my eyes to roll and my blood pressure to rise, causes me to snort in disgust at authors and publishers alike.

I’m talking about the paragraph sentence.

It hangs there, alone, pregnant, the typesetting equivalent of those three notes that play after a big reveal on old television shows—dun dun dun! It suggests significance and meaning, but doesn’t deliver; tantalizes the reader, making a big claim that begs you to read on. A cliff-hanger by formatting, click-bait for readers.

Dun-Dun-DUUUUUN-penguins-of-madagascar

It has to stop.

It has to stop because it’s bad writing. It’s the formatting equivalent of excessive exclamation points, of SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS!!!!!!1! It shouts at the reader like a decrepit Facebook user, invites nuanced meaning with all the skill and talent of a lovestruck teenager who only speaks in txt. It’s becoming habitual in books, blogs, and stories on the net (did the bite-sized demands of an internet age contribute to its rise and acceptance?). Like italics and scare-quotes, it uses formatting to stress the “appearance” of being meaningful.

They’re not especially meaningful.

Sure, the words appear meaningful. Sure, their situation on the page, or altered font, invites a veneer of meaningfulness. But the truth of the matter is that their meaning is borrowed from the formatting. The sentence paragraph is a cheat which pretends that its contents are especially significant, in the hope that terse phrasing and special formatting will make up for a lack of creativity, insight, and ability. Instead of writing well, of leading the reader wisely through a given passage, the sentence paragraph exposes the temptation to make formatting do a special work for the writer—instead of utilizing the vast scope of powerful literary tools at hand, instead of serving up a dish of vocabulary, word order, description, evocation, metaphor, simile, sound, and rhythm, the lazy author retreats to a simple emotive trope.

And tropes should be avoided.

Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

The man for whom the dark and stormy night was something fresh and original. Check out his wiki entry for other famous phrases he coined!

Tropes can be useful, of course, and I’ll be the first to admit that abuse does not negate proper use. Tropes can get a story started, can be useful, humourous, recontextualized, or subverted. When Edward Bulwer-Lytton opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night…” he had no clue what he was about to unleash on the world. The thing to remember is that when he said it, it wasn’t yet a trope. Now, the stuff of jokes, it takes on its own life and meaning and can be utilized to great effect. But when writers excessively rely on these canned features they betray a deep literary laziness, even a contempt of the reader.

It is we who should be contemptuous of them.

Why You Should Read Wil Derkse’s “The Rule of Benedict for Beginners.”

derkse-coverThe Rule of Benedict for Beginners: Spirituality for Daily Life is easily the best book of Christian spirituality I have read in recent memory. I read it once last year, recommended it to my church elders, and read it again with my summer interns over the past few months. Without reservation I think you should read it too.

Roughly two years ago I was in a bit of a bad way. I was stressed and struggling to find balance and order in my ministry life. Recognizing that a fresh approach to my personal calendar was going to be part of bringing order to the frustration, I resolved myself to set apart the first Wednesday of each month as a personal retreat day. From some friends in ministry I had heard that there was a Benedictine monastery nearby which facilitated day retreats. I contacted the guestmaster there and set up a day to come by. Little did I know how life-altering that simple choice would be.

I arrived on a chilly February day. I met the guestmaster at the door. He gave me a brief tour and showed me to a room where I could rest and pray. He told me about the lunch hour and that I would need to join the monks for prayer in the Abbey Church beforehand. After he left I closed the door and was struck almost immediately by the near absolute quiet of the place. No conversations. No computer noise. No electronic hums. No music. No blowing air. It was exactly what I needed. I joined the monks for prayer in their stunningly beautiful chapel, then for lunch (which we ate in silence while a monk read aloud from a book). After lunch I re-entered the front door and looked around. There, by the entrance, was a small selection of books for sale (you drop money in a box if you want the book). My eye was immediately drawn to a goldenrod volume with iconographic images. It was Wil Derkse’s book, and I bought a copy.

westminster-abbey-interior

Image from trekearth.com

Malcolm Muggeridge writes that “There are always ideal circumstances for reading any book, which should, perhaps, be indicated on the dust-jacket, along with particulars of the authors and subject.” These were ideal circumstances for me to read Derkse’s book, because upstairs, in solitude, while journaling and reading, his simple prose spoke to my needs.

If I were to summarize Benedictine spirituality in a single phrase, I think I would say that it is grounded in a kind of attentiveness, a listening. Its chief aim is to attempt to query every situation, person, task, or event, with a divine perspective: “What is God asking of me at this moment?” How am I serving God in washing these dishes? In conversing with this friend? In writing this blog post? In answering this email? From such simple attentiveness, Benedictine spirituality invites us to follow those prompts with obedience; obedience to the call of God in my daily circumstances. Eating, then, is the time for eating; praying the time for praying; working the time for working; and so forth. These are enormously simple admonitions, but in Derkse’s straightforward and readable prose they resonate with import. There is, in these plain understandings of life and work and meaning, something that provides a way for us—who are so often busy, harried, and divided—to bring our Christian convictions to bear upon our life’s vocation. There is something extraordinarily wholesome about Derkse’s book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Over the next months I continued to drive out to the monastery on a monthly basis. I came to value the ordinary ordering of the lives of the monks, of whom I was but a distant and casual observer. While I am not called to a monastic vocation (and while I am also not Catholic!), my association with that place did me no small amount of good. I fed off of their stability, and was enriched by their order. It has given me a vision of this daily spirituality—the spirituality of dishes, and service, and solitude, and work, and prayer—which I believe we all require in some measure.

westminster-abbey-exterior

Image from trekearth.com

After finishing Derkse’s book I read a copy of St. Benedict’s Rule (also purchased from the monastery), as well as Esther de Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Both books further enriched my appreciation of Benedictine spirituality. Over time, I developed my own routine for visiting the monastery—a morning set aside for silence, prayer, and journaling, lunch with the monks (always silent, of course), an after lunch walk to shake off the sleep, time sitting still at the monastery lookout, then more time to read and journal and pray. With each successive visit I came to appreciate more and more the simplicity of the place. It has shaped me.

This shaping is not without some irony. I am, at the moment, an ordained minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and across the street from the monastery entrance is an Alliance Church. So, I travel a distance to find a place to restore my soul from the burdens of ministry, and when I arrive I turn symbolically away from my denomination and into the arms of the Catholics! But this may not be so strange after all. Protestants are gifted activists, but we make poor contemplatives; we value our spiritual highs, but are not particularly competent when it comes to everyday spirituality. When you think of a great Protestant Christian, he is either someone “filled with the Spirit,” or someone possessed of extensive doctrinal knowledge. But the great Catholic is as often a man or woman of contemplation. I can’t help but imagine that a solution to Protestant burnout might be found in the patient spirituality of our Catholic brothers and sisters.

In view of this, it is unfortunate that many Protestants remain skeptical of Catholic expressions of spirituality. Such skepticism robs us of the fullness of what it means to be a communion of saints, and facilitates what is often in Protestants a highly regrettable ignorance of the breadths and riches of the Church in all her historic glory. Benedict, clearly, was a follower of Jesus who sought to outline how other such followers could effectively dedicate themselves to a life of prayer and communal living. His words strike us at our Christian and human need, which suggests why they have stayed with such power for such lengths of time.

Regardless of your situation or your vocation, whether you are an ordinary layman or a minister, I recommend that you spend a little time exploring the contours of the Benedictine vision for life. In Derkse’s book you will find a readable, rich, memorable, and wholesome guide. I pray it might shape you as it has me.

The Heavenly Man… or not?

Christian biography is one of my go-to genres for encouragement and refreshment; my delight, with the Psalmist’s, lies with the Saints who are in the land (Ps 16:3). Consequently, I was excited when The Heavenly Man, the story of Brother Yun, was glowingly recommended to me. Perhaps here was another book to add to my list of greats—to place alongside Brother Andrew and Corrie Ten Boom on my shelf of Saints. However, as I worked my way through Yun’s story a strange cadre of emotions followed me; this was a book that left me… uncertain. Let me see if I can explain why.

Brother Yun is a Chinese house church leader, and The Heavenly Man is his story, told with the help of Paul Hattaway. It begins in Yun’s youth when he begins to earnestly pray for a bible. He prays fervently and faithfully—so fervently that his family begins to think him crazy. Then, one day, God miraculously provided a bible for Yun. He began to consume, then memorize the scriptures, and then was almost immediately called to preach. What follows (the remainder of his story) is an amazing account of miracles (among these were healings, miraculous transportation, provision, supernatural wisdom, and multiple divinely planned escapes from the authorities). In short, Yun travels, preaches, brings people to faith, spends time in prison, ministers to prisoners, is tortured, is released, is imprisoned more, is tortured more, and through it all is provided for by God on numerous occasions.

What I say next I want to say carefully: there is nothing wrong with Yun’s book; but there is also something not quite right about it. The cadre of strange emotions that traipsed through his story with me nagged again and again, raising small flags here and there, that something didn’t add up.

Let’s begin with what was right with Yun’s book. First, his life story, as one of commitment to Christ through suffering, is admirable. Yun’s faithfulness is a wonderful testimony to Christ’s goodness. Second, Yun is clear in that he gives glory to Christ for what has happened and not to himself. (Incidentally, Yun’s nickname, “Heavenly Man” isn’t about Yun’s holiness, but about a time when the authorities asked him where he was from. He responded, in order to protect his village, by saying he belonged to Heaven, and the nickname stuck.) Third, and this is terribly important, whenever Yun quoted scripture—whether to teach, to explain a situation, or in defense of his actions—he quoted them accurately. There was no proof texting, but healthy interpretation of the bible. Often, I find that if a teacher is faulty, those faults show up first in the teacher’s interpretation of scripture. So this factor—the accurate use of scripture—is one that gave, to my mind, the greatest credibility to Yun’s story.

But alongside theses goods came, every few pages or so, the red flags which left me uncertain. And the first red flag was Yun’s accounts of miracles. Now before I go on let me be clear—abundantly clear—that I believe in the power of the Spirit to do whatever He wants to do. That is, I have no problem believing in miracles—in transportation, in fasting, in healings, in knowledge, in miraculous escapes. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever; he is the same one who acted in the past, he is the same who acts today. So my concerns about Yun’s book have precisely nothing to do with a prejudiced dismissal of the miraculous. My concerns are different, so let me try to explain them. When I read about Brother Andrew’s miraculously surviving Volkswagen, or his miraculous encounters at hostile borders, there are no questions in my mind. When I read about Corrie Ten Boom’s miraculous bottle of vitamins while in the concentration camp, I am undeterred. When I read about Jack Hayford getting words from the Lord and having visions I am unfazed. And when I read about John Wimber’s miraculous accounts I am encouraged. In each case one factor is consistent: the Spirit within me ratifies His own work. And this may seem unfairly subjective, but I have experienced the Spirit, know what He is like, and recognize the scent of His actions when I encounter them. That flavor was missing from Yun’s book—and that lack of confirmation troubled me deeply. Do I believe that he was miraculously transported from one location to another? I’m not sure. Do I believe that he fasted from food and water for more than 70 days? I’m not sure. Do I believe that he miraculously walked out of a maximum security prison in China? Again, I’m not sure.

Still, my uncertainty shouldn’t negate a book’s testimony—especially without evidence!—otherwise it would just be my word against his. But other elements combined to create a deeper suspicion. One of these other red flags was the frequent use of what I’ll call “everybody” language. Yun preaches, and “everybody” repents. Yun holds a meeting and “everybody” weeps. Yun shares the gospel in prison and “everybody” is enrapt. Now, this is, most likely, a blatant exaggeration. There’s always some Eutychus who nods off, even when the preaching is first-rate. And this idea of exaggeration began to lodge itself in my mind. It is easy, as a preacher, to exaggerate—to make the story bigger, the salvation more poignant, the miracle more miraculous. I began to wonder if Yun had fallen into that trap.

Reflecting on both the miracles and the ‘everybody’ language, a new thought occurred to me: Yun’s book closely resembles the book of Acts. And not just ‘closely resembles’, but appears to be written as a copy of the book of Acts. Yun is saved, set apart for a mission like Paul, is miraculously transported like Philip, is part of healings and radical community like the early church, escapes from the authorities like Paul, escapes from prison like Peter—Yun is even met at the door by a girl who forgets to open it for him after his escape! Through this all my inner eye began to narrow more and more as I scrutinized Yun’s book. Why does this book so closely parallel the story of Acts? Again, I must ask, is it possible for God to do these things? Certainly! But does this all add up?

In the end, I left Yun’s book feeling like I had been fed a story I wanted to believe, as if this was just what I wanted to hear about the underground Chinese church, its size, its miracles, its freshness, its closeness to the apostolic Church of Acts. And because of all this, I’m not sure Yun’s book was entirely truthful. Do I doubt that Yun has a ministry in China, possibly a highly effective one with the Spirit’s power? No. But I’m not sure that this book is an accurate picture of that ministry. And for that reason I don’t feel comfortable recommending it. Sadly, it won’t go on my shelf of saints. Does that mean I won’t be proved wrong? Far from it—nothing would please me more than to learn that I’ve made a misjudment about Yun and his story. But I don’t think that’s the case. And until that time, if you read his book, I suggest you read it with caution.