The Essential Ingredient

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One of the cultural markers of the emerging equalization of the sexes is the increasing proliferation of men's magazines. Growing up I was aware of Playboy and muscle magazines advertised in comic books, and Sports Illustrated, which was largely geared to a male audience. As I recall that pretty well summed up the options for men.

But checking out a newsstand today, one is astounded to find every manner of magazine for every manner of male interest. Glossy and sophisticated, they hype their gender specific propaganda much the way women's magazines have for years. Some have specific, targeted concerns, others try to cover it all with a general interest blitz covering topics as diverse as health, sports, dating, sex, diet, household tips, exercise, fashion, you name it.

An issue of Men's Health tells the tale (October 1994). The cover announces that inside I'll find a healthy man's guide to pizza, how to gain muscle in record time, how to improve my sex life, how to beat insomnia, how to get lipstick off my collar, a miracle cure for the flu and 101 ways to live smarter, look younger and last longer.

I won't tell you which one of those topics peaked my curiosity, but I bit. I opened it up and read. It wasn't exactly Scientific American, but it had a lively, amusing style. One of the articles that caught my attention was entitled, "The Last Tangle - a man's guide to untying the knot". In other words, it was advice on how to get divorced.

The tone of the piece wasn't cynical, just matter-of-fact. It had a sort of homey, straightforward acceptance that sometimes marriages end and if that happens to be the case for you, dear reader, then here's some advice. It ticked off several common sense items like these: remember your defenses are down, you're under stress ~ don't make the mistake of not developing a strategy; get a lawyer immediately; don't move out of the house; get control of your finances; know the details of your kids lives; watch out for abuse allegations; keep a log and get educated.

It also provided some first hand accounts of how certain guys came to know their marriage had big problems. A 33-year-old accountant said, "She served me a meal that was way overdone and asked if the dinner tasted like our relationship." A 43-year-old stonemason had this to report: "I knew my marriage of 18 years was over when my crimes stopped getting punished. In the early days, it was tears and locked bedroom doors when I had misbehaved. Then we moved to the anger era, when my slip-ups were likely to get a lamp sent my way. Then nothing. Around year 15, my wife started to go numb to my nonsense, and that ~ I can now see ~ is when I should have started looking for a new place to live." (You will note he did not say that, maybe, this should have led him to take a second look at his so-called nonsense.)

What's new here, of course, compared with 10 or 15 years ago, is men talking this way to one another in a magazine format. It's downright chatty, moderately revealing. And I wonder... Is this an advance? Indicative of the further evolution of the male gender? Does it mean that us guys are learning to be more in touch with our feelings and ready to share them?

One of the interesting aspects of the men's spiritual movement, Promise Keepers, which amassed over a half a million men in Washington D.C. last October, is their very public emotionalism. Video clips of these gathered men invariably depict a whole lot of hugging and weeping. This is a relatively new cultural development.

In general, I'm in favor of men loosening up, learning to communicate feelings and emotions. For that matter, I'm in favor of that for everyone. But it struck me as more than a little ironic that in the particular intimate sharing in the issue of Men's Health magazine I was looking at, concerned the subject of divorce, which often is the result of massively failed communication.

We have all heard the statistics: over 50% of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. Three out of four teenage suicides occur in households where there is an absent parent. Eighty percent of adolescents in psychiatric hospitals come from broken homes. Five out of six adolescents caught in the criminal justice system were raised by one parent. It would be a pretty fair guess that a large majority of persons within the sound of my voice have been touched by divorce, as a child, spouse, parent, or friend.

What's curious about this is, that at least on the surface of things, there's a whole lot more communication going on in this generation than in prior generations. Hasn't our time been nicknamed, "The Information Age"? Considering the current state of divorce, it would then seem that while failed communication may indeed be a major culprit in many situations, something more than the sharing of information, emotional or rational, provides a larger context for understanding the problems of our society.

In western culture over the past several centuries, we have come to believe that romantic love should be the guiding force behind marriage. The problem with this is that the word "love" actually serves a wide variety of purposes. Changing its context ever so slightly can completely alter it's meaning. We speak of familial love, brotherly and sisterly love, mother's love, love of country, falling-in-love, making love. There's the simple descriptive word, "lovers". We speak of love among friends, even the love of inanimate things like a car, a bank account, a career, a house. When shaken together these meanings seem to disallow any fundamental, primary meaning of intention when the word is used.

If you've attended many weddings, you probably recognize the passage from Corinthians which is one of our readings for today. More often than not, when presented with a variety of possibilities from which to choose, couples will opt for the 13th chapter ~ Paul's magnificent summation on love. They will choose this even though it has become a near cliche to do so.

There's good reason for this: I know of no other passage from literature that so masterfully captures, in such few words, what we aspire to when we Christians claim love as our guiding principle. At the heart of it, Biblical teaching on love reveals that God intends for humanity profound companionship, a holy communion. It's in our bones, in our genes, in our hearts and in our souls, this longing for deep and abiding companionship.

This longing is at the very center of our existence and we spend most of our days looking for that which might complete us. On the short run, a person might do. On the long run, nothing but God will do. The danger is that if God does not figure into an authentic strategy for our lives, we will put humans into the vacuum with disastrous results.

Now there is no guarantee that if we have genuinely pursued loving companionship with God we will than have problem-free relationships on this earth. But we will have the sacred tools and methods for forgiveness and reconciliation, even in the midst of failure. After all, didn't Jesus wind up spending himself for us in love, despite, or perhaps, because of, our fickle and broken natures?

Here's another way to look at this point. Given the shaky success rate of marriage today, why are people still flocking to get married? And why to they insist on having 1st Corinthians chapter 13 read at their weddings? Is it simply some holdover from days gone by? I don't think so. For all of the risks involved, I'm convinced that the majority of persons who show up in my office yearning to be married have every intention of making this commitment work, and sense this commitment as a holy obligation, a sacred covenant of mutuality and abiding companionship that reaches way beyond their normal frames of reference.

They don't often speak of it like this, but it's there all the same ~ this yearning for something larger than themselves that has clear antecedents in their experience of love no matter how flawed. They will discover that marriage places exacting demands upon them, and this in a day and age when they have few external supports. The so-called nuclear family has been stripped to the nubs. Loving partnership has never been so isolated, so disconnected from other bonds of mutuality and support. And yet, we cling to one another, for better or worse, hoping and praying that our shared lives will bring forth something greater than the individual components. I tell you, it is a holy longing.

This is true for all manner of human relationships, including for those for whom marriage is not an option for whatever reason. We were made for one another, plain and simple. We are communal creatures, dependent upon one another. In this sense, marriage is symbolic of what is true for humanity in general ~ we are created with holy communion and companionship in mind. It is intended.

This is why bonds of friendship are also vitally important. This is why, in my view, the scriptures refer to fellow travelers on the spiritual road as sisters and brothers and why Jesus can call anyone who follows in his path, "his family". This holy calling we name love, is not limited by blood and genetics and body parts. Love has been revealed as the fundamental commandment of our existence.

Remember how Jesus summarized the essential law of life: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. This is why the central act of Christian worship is literally called "Holy Communion". It's when we lose the sacred content of our relationships that we wreak havoc with our mistakes and errors.

A number of years ago Life magazine asked 173 people the question, "What is the meaning of life?" It was uncanny how many of these persons from the Dalai Lama to Rosa Parks, from Richard Nixon to George Lucas, from John Updike to Desmond Tutu, from Timothy Leary to Maya Angelou spoke of "love" as the fount and foundation of meaning in life. Among them was this response from Martin Marty, the prominent Christian interpreter of modern Christianity: "What is the meaning of life? Love. To love. To be loved. No surprise there... our experience confirms that before she is the thinking being or the willing being, the human is the loving being... while love is not God, God is love."

He continues, "I have no good idea and have never met or read anyone who did, as to why evil in the form of hatred exists to counter love. In the drama between love and hatred, however, I find some unfolding of meaning. In communion with nearly two billion fellow humans identified with his name, I find this dramatic unfolding decisively connected with Jesus Christ."

"Three italicized words from 1st Corinthians 13 line up in this game of life: 'So faith, hope, love abide, these three: but the greatest of these is love'. Hence, the meaning of life. Or at least the first hint of a whisper of a clue of finding it."

Its no wonder that public marriage ceremonies are still front and center in our culture. They serve as reference to this most essential meaning of our lives ~ namely, love. It's a foundational commitment which binds up human society and it has sacred underpinnings.

But here is a simple truth that is just as important for us to grasp: we live in an imperfect world. Though created in love for loving companionship, we are imperfect creatures, bound by the limitations of our ignorance and willful selfish natures. What we begin often we cannot finish. And even what we finish is often less than what we intended. Yet love has been so fashioned in the hands of our God, that nothing, certainly no human error or ignorance or limitation, can ultimately separate us from the One for whom we have been created. Love is so fashioned that all of our limitations find their completion in the self-giving love that Jesus shared and demonstrated. That's resurrection faith. That's the essence of the Good News we have to share.

So whether we are married, divorced, single, whatever our past, wherever we've been, whatever we've done, in this present moment, divine love has the power to refashion us into something which more nearly resembles the person God created us to become in the first place. Let no prior mistake, no failed communication, no perceived limitation keep you from learning about the more excellent way the Apostle Paul proclaims. Remember that whatever we might lack in all of our striving, God makes up for.

Go forth in confidence today with the knowledge that you were made in love, for love. Cherish your friendships and partnerships. See in all your relationships the refracted light of the divine relationship. See in them all the potential for holy communion.

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