Thursday, September 21, 2017

Five Stages of Marriage – and Faith

Years ago, I heard someone make an astute observation about marriage. The speaker stated even the most successful marriages typically move through five stages: infatuation, disillusionment, misery, acceptance, and true love.

There’s much wisdom in this assessment. On wedding day, both bride and groom arrive starry-eyed, convinced the ceremony’s just the start of perpetual, uninterrupted bliss. They see one another as the answer to their prayers, fulfillment of their dreams, the person to meet all their needs. This marks the “infatuation” stage. It might last through the honeymoon, maybe weeks or months more.

Inevitably the initial stage ends and “disillusionment” arrives. They discover their new mate isn’t so perfect after all, and what’s worse, they have no desire to be fulfiller of the other’s dreams. The marriage isn’t bad, but visions of perfection are forever shattered.

Next comes the “misery” stage, when memories of “I do” turn into “I did? Why?!” They begin wondering, “Who is this person I married?” Bliss becomes a distant memory. Thoughts of the relationship continuing into perpetuity cease to be pleasant. It seems more of a lifetime sentence.

Often marriages never escape this stage. Couples either grin and bear it, or reach a point when divorce seems inevitable. However, if willing to persevere – aided by the grace and strength of God – things start to improve, advancing to “acceptance.” Virtually every marriage spanning several decades has managed to endure the journey to acceptance. It’s the realization that when the words “better or worse” were uttered, there actually would be some worse times, but in hindsight, they weren’t as bad as they seemed at the time.

Happily, many whose marriages have spanned 30, 40, or even 50 years or more discover the “true love” stage is by far the best. And well worth the wait. It’s the love described in 1 Corinthians 13 – the patient, kind, humble, selfless, slow-to-anger, forgiving, honest, protective, trusting, ever hopeful and persevering kind that rarely if ever is portrayed on TV or the movie screen.

I cite this not as a marriage authority, although having been married to the same woman for more than 40 years, I’ve learned a lot. No, these five stages of marriage are important because in a sense, they parallel the stages of spiritual growth.

We could describe the first stage of faith in Christ as infatuation, the giddy sense of excitement that is centered on feelings, the unwavering conviction that from now on, it’s “me and Jesus all the way!”

It may take months or even a few years, but that childlike zeal segues into disillusionment. We realize God isn’t a divine sugar daddy who answers all our prayers the way we ask. He allows hardships, pain, and even loss to enter our lives. We don’t understand why.

Then comes the time of misery, when questions and doubts emerge. This prompts us to dig deep, asking ourselves what we really believe – and why. In best-case scenarios, we come through this process with faith stronger than ever, not necessarily having every question answered, but with a greater trust in a transcendent God who’s not unsettled by our uncertainties.

Acceptance, in our faith journey, involves being able to trust that although we won’t always know why the Lord does what He does – or when or how – we’re in this for the long haul, sharing the confidence of the prophet who wrote, “So do not fear, for I am with you, do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

Finally, our goal as followers of Jesus should be the true love stage, recognizing, There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19). This is what God desires for each one of us.

As with couples in marriage, believers do not arrive at this last stage in their faith walk quickly, or easily. But it’s well worth the travail to get there.

Romans 5:3-6 declares, And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

It’s a long, convoluted, sometimes seemingly impossible path for faith to travel from infatuation to true love. But as Jesus said, in a slightly different context, With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God(Mark 10:27).

Monday, September 18, 2017

Overcoming Racism and Prejudice

When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast,
racial and ethnic differences were cast aside, 

as this Getty Images news photo shows.
Borrowing from Charles Dickens’ classic novel, we’ve been presented “a tale of two cities”: Charlottesville, Va. and Houston, Texas.

Following the death of a young woman and injuries to dozens, Charlottesville became vivid evidence that racism in the U.S.A. is far from dead. For days afterward, it’s about all we heard – protestations of racial hatred and bigotry, including accusations that President Trump didn’t choose the right words in denouncing the horror of the day in which protesters clashed in violence.

Then came Hurricane Harvey and its relentless assault on the Texas Gulf Coast. We saw incredible devastation; for once, the term “catastrophic” was not hyperbole. But what we didn’t see was…racism and bigotry. We saw men, women and children of all ethnicities and colors, responders heroically assisting desperate Houstonians. Average citizens without emergency training banding together, oblivious to differences, literally joining hands to rescue victims, plucking them out of rising, life-threatening waters.

Comparing the two cities and the events that thrust them into the national headlines, if we want a true barometer of the state of racism in America today, we needed only to look at Houston and the other storm-ravaged coastal cities. Ethnic backgrounds, skin pigmentation, cultures, and even language differences suddenly became irrelevant. There was no hatred or bigotry, only compassion and kindness. Some called it a triumph of the human spirit.

This is not to deny that racism and prejudice still exist. We regularly see and hear manifestations of it. Bigotry is heinous, without excuse. But sadly, we can’t legislate hate. Racism may defy reason, but soapbox rhetoric won’t eradicate it. As ancient as time itself, they exhibit no signs of old age. Sadly, these evil human flaws still flourish.

Are there no solutions? I believe there are, but only by appealing to – and seeing the transformation of – the human heart. Painting the outside of a garbage can may make it appear shiny and new, but it's to no effect if the refuse and decay on the inside aren’t addressed. Similarly, racism must be cured from the inside out.

Among the Bible’s honest, unvarnished descriptions of the best and worst of humanity are numerous accounts we’d label today as racism or bigotry. We see the Egyptians’ fearful response to the Israelites as they multiply in numbers, as well as Jonah’s hatred of the Ninevites. But nowhere is the issue of prejudice more clearly addressed than through the eyes of Jesus.

In His day, the people of Samaria were despised, viewed by the Jews as inferior half-breeds. Yet one of Jesus’ best-known parables is that of the “good Samaritan,” a humble man who came to the rescue of a traveler who’d been robbed and brutally assaulted. In the Luke 10:30-37 account, Jesus said a priest and a religious leader both intentionally avoided the suffering individual. A Samaritan, however, “took pity on him.” He not only dressed the victim’s wounds, but also paid for him to stay at an inn to recover.

Were Jesus telling this story today, He might have chosen to describe the victim as a white supremacist and the rescuer as an African-American. In this context, we can grasp the irony.

Later in the same gospel, we find Jesus ministering to 10 lepers, social pariahs for no other reason than being afflicted with a horrid disease. It states He healed all of them, but only one “threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:16). Double irony.

Then John 4:4-42 tells of His encounter with a woman at a well outside a town in Samaria. She too was an outcast, having had five husbands and presently living with a man she wasn’t married to. Again, in the context of the times, speaking to such a woman, much less one that was a Samaritan, was considered scandalous. But Jesus showed her great compassion and invited her to partake of the “living water” only He could give.

Years ago, I began meeting weekly with a young African-American man, Rhon, who had just committed his life to Jesus Christ. One day he looked me in the eyes and asked, “Bob, if Jesus were standing here today and saw me, would he see a black man?” I pointed him to Galatians 3:28, which declares, “There is neither Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This I believe is without doubt God’s perspective. How, then, are we to gain this view as well?

More recently I’ve enjoyed getting to know two other black men I meet with frequently. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I never really knew any African-Americans, although the term wasn’t used back then. In high school there were some black students, but again in those days blacks and Caucasians didn’t mix much except in extracurricular activities like athletics. So much for the myth of the non-racist North, right?

So being able spend time with Clarence and John has been a blessing for me. I’m not so certain “racism” and “prejudice” mean the same thing, because we can be prejudiced toward many types of people simply because we don’t know them and, in some respects, they’re not like us. Meeting with my two friends has helped me to recognize that apart from skin pigmentation, and ethnic culture to a degree, we’re very much alike.

Sometimes it takes a crisis, like a hurricane or a 9/11, to bring people together and help them to look past superficialities. But often all it takes is intentionality, resolving to really get to know others who aren’t just like us, so we can soon realize that in reality, we’re not all that different.

As the apostle Paul wrote, differences mean nothing for those who “are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Just a Little Farther Down the Road

About 15 years ago, I collaborated with my late friend, David Stoddard, to write The Heart of Mentoring. To sum up the book’s message, we wanted to suggest that everyone should be a “mentored mentor.” In other words, each of us should be mentoring someone else, and we should find someone willing to be a mentor for us.

Today much is said and written about mentoring, with good reason. As we trudge along this journey we call life, it helps to have someone to offer wisdom, advice and guidance whenever we encounter occasions of uncertainty. Which we will. Daily life is more complex than ever; competing and often conflicting messages are plentiful. If we’re humble enough to admit it, having someone to show the way – or least assist us in sifting through the alternatives – can be indispensable.

If we don’t already have a mentor, we might be inclined to admit it could be useful to find one. But when challenged to mentor another person, a typical response would be, “Oh, I’m not qualified to mentor anyone. I don’t know enough.” As if being a mentor requires being an expert or recognized authority.

That’s hardly the case. As we stated in The Heart of Mentoring, all that’s necessary is that you be just a little bit farther down the road from the person you’re starting to mentor. You might be a bit older, or a bit more experienced. It doesn’t require a lot. A college student can mentor a high school student. A young married person can mentor a single person. A long-time married person can mentor a newlywed. Someone who’s been on the job for several years can mentor someone that’s newly hired. And anyone can mentor a child or adolescent.

We can mentor others not only by talking about our successes, but also our failures. Why do we have to make all of our own mistakes? We can benefit from hearing about the mistakes others made, and trying to avoid repeating them.

When it comes to mentoring, the demand always exceeds the supply. But as I’ve learned over more than 30 years of mentoring and discipling others, the return on investment can’t be beat. It’s a great example of the principle Jesus taught, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Because by investing time and a little energy in meeting with someone over time in a mentoring relationship, we receive not only the satisfaction of helping another person, but also learn ourselves – gaining from their perspectives and unique life experiences.

Mentoring might be unpleasant for both parties, as Dave and I acknowledged in our book, if the mentor takes a condescending, “I’m doing you a favor” approach. However, if it’s understood and approached as a mutually beneficial relationship, in which the mentor recognizes he or she can learn from the “mentoring partner,” it becomes not only a good experience – it can be life-changing.

One of my favorite passages from the Scriptures related to this is Proverbs 27:17, which reminds us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” As I’ve made myself available to other men, offering to share some of what God and life have taught me, I’ve found them “sharpening” me, too, through their insights and questions.

A great thing about mentoring – or if you prefer, discipling (in a spiritual context) – is that it multiplies. Once someone starts being mentored, they can begin mentoring another individual and before long, the pattern starts repeating itself. As the apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé, Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).

That’s at the heart of what Jesus was commanding when He left His disciples with the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus expected His followers to multiply – as they have through the centuries, from a mere handful to countless millions around the world. And this has occurred simply by men and women willing to be used by Him to pass along to others what the Lord has given to them.

If you’d like know more about what a mentoring process looks like, I’d suggest getting a copy of The Heart of Mentoring. I assure you it would be money well-spent. But most of all, if you don’t already have a mentor, try to find one. Ask God to direct you to the right person. Also ask Him to identify someone you could start mentoring. In both cases, it will be time well-spent.