the marriage will take place in Jerusalem

I’m re-posting this quotation from a beautiful book by Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters. I’ve been too busy the past couple of weeks to do much cooking or photography or writing or thinking, so this is just a quotation, but it’s a good one.  It’s from a story about Rebbe Levi-Yitzhak, who was drawing up his son’s engagement contract:

“The scribe had specified that the marriage was to take place on a certain date in Berditchev.  Levi Yitzhak furiously tore the contract to shreds: ‘Berditchev? Why Berditchev? This is what you will write: “The marriage will take place on such a date in Jerusalem, except if the Messiah has not yet come; in which case the ceremony will be performed in Berditchev.””

If that doesn’t make you want to weep like a baby, I don’t know what will.

beautiful post about marriage

Guys, my sweet sister-in-law just posted this beautiful post about marriage on her blog. Such a wonderful reminder.  She links to an article by Tim Keller called “You Never Marry the Right Person” which is a must-read.  Anyway, please read her post.  It’s lovely.

Also, last night John and I went to a dinner thing where one woman had made some rice pudding with maple syrup that had been tapped and boiled down within about half a mile of the place where we were eating.  She also made it with bourbon, and I nearly broke down in tears to think that maybe here, too, in the cold, dark north, people understand how to drench a good thing with bourbon, and make it better.

some books for lovers

Valentine’s Day is coming up and I thought I would list a few books that are really helpful for marriage, to read in preparation for marriage, or for help in whatever romantic relationship you are in (or not in– a lot of these are beneficial in just thinking about what kind of person you should be looking for, describing realistic expectations for romance, and showing you ways to thrive as a person regardless of your relationship status).

The books are listed in no particular order, and the titles are linked to the book’s Amazon page.

 The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis.  He describes beautifully the loves of affection, friendship, eros, and charity (which is not like giving money to charity, but you must read it to find out what he means by the word).  This contains his incredibly famous paragraph that begins, “There is no safe investment.  To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken…”  The book is just a beautiful treatment of all sorts of human relationships (and of God’s love for people), and I highly recommend it to anyone, whatever your particular relationship status is at this moment.

The Confessions by St. Augustine.  My ethics professor in divinity school described this book as a romance novel.  And it is, the very best kind.  “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our souls find no rest, until they find their rest in thee…” A must-read, especially for those, whether married or single, whose hearts ache for something more.

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller.  Tim Keller is a Christian pastor in New York city, but this book isn’t preachy at all. It’s extremely accessibly and culturally relevant.  He analyzes a lot of current data about relationships and examines just why it is that young people are so afraid of marriage.  His wife Kathy actually wrote the chapter on gender issues, and it’s beautiful.  The Kellers talk about how love is not primarily about our feelings, because as any married person knows, feelings will go up and down and the giddy, butterfly in the stomach, ecstatic feelings of an early relationship will actually die a painful death… But something deeper and more beautiful will be re-born, if you let it, if you stick with the marriage rather than pursue those fleeting feelings with another person (Keller quotes a lot of C. S. Lewis on this topic).  This is actually a GREAT book for people who are not married– who are dating, engaged, or want to be in a relationship.

Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas.  I think this book may have single-handedly saved our marriage during that crazy first year.  The premise of this book is the question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”  That might sound a little depressing; it’s definitely not the romantic comedy/fairy tale version of marriage, which is basically: you find the perfect person, and they complete you, and you live happily ever after (and the corollary: when they stop making you happy, you must find another person who will).  This book recognizes that real marriages are gritty and messy and not perfect and shows you how to make a beautiful, joyful marriage in the midst of the imperfection.

Intimate Allies by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman.  Allender is a counselor and a professor of counseling, and Longman is a brilliant Old Testament scholar.  This book combines the wisdom and heart of both approaches.  They say: “Life is war, and marriage provides us with a close and intimate ally with whom we may wage this war.” Nice, eh?

Anyway, these books are for people who know that relationships about rolling up your sleeves and dealing with the grit and pain and sweat and tears of real life.  And for people who know that in the midst of the sweat and tears there is beauty and joy to be found.  And for people who suspect that maybe these romantic relationships are almost but not entirely the very thing we were made for in life. (Oh, and if anyone else has good recommendations of books on relationships I would love to hear your thoughts!)

the marriage will take place in Jerusalem

I’ve been reading this beautiful book by Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters.  And it is just that: stories about Hasidic leaders from the 1700s on.  Short sketches, stories, sayings, memories passed on from one to another, sometimes two or three wildly divergent accounts of the same story.

One of the most beautiful things to me about these stories is that they all, in different ways, are about this intense longing for the Messiah.  A longing that in itself is enough to give meaning to everything else.  A longing that nothing else can replace.

One of my favorite stories so far in the book recounts a story about Rebbe Levi-Yitzhak, who was drawing up his son’s engagement contract:

“The scribe had specified that the marriage was to take place on a certain date in Berditchev.  Levi Yitzhak furiously tore the contract to shreds: ‘Berditchev? Why Berditchev? This is what you will write: “The marriage will take place on such a date in Jerusalem, except if the Messiah has not yet come; in which case the ceremony will be performed in Berditchev.””

If that doesn’t make you want to weep like a baby, I don’t know what will.

advent: irresponsibility and wedding dresses

One of the lectionary readings for this week is from Isaiah 61: “for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness… as a bride adorns herself with jewels…” (Is. 61:10).

A strange text for Christmastime.

I mean, you know how sometimes you look at pictures of celebrities in their red carpet gowns and see how they are draped with diamonds that they either own or have been lent to them by some fabulously wealthy jeweler or designer?  And how sure, some of these women have worked hard to get where they are, but even then the amount of work is grossly disproportionate to the level of opulence in which they live, and how it’s funny that these people honestly don’t really deserve to be draped with diamonds and enveloped in silk and chiffon  (I mean, who really does deserve that?) but how we still love and also sort of hate watching them, looking at pictures of them.  And weddings.  The weddings, especially of the super rich… Something draws us to those, against our better judgment (I couldn’t help looking at some of the photographs of Kate’s dress after the fact and didn’t my little life seem all the more drab after absorbing into my skin the palatial glories?)…

And in this little advent text we find some strange words about salvation.  About how we are dressed in the garments of yesha (the Hebrew means salvation, rescue, deliverance, and it’s basically Jesus’ name… the garments of Jesus…). How “love is a dress” to quote my friend Ashley, how love is strings of glittering diamonds.

And Isaiah is telling us is that salvation means that we (poor, naked, pitiable, wretched, blind) are clothed by Someone.  And the verbs here are passive… We are dressed by someone else, and most of us have no idea what that would even be like… To stand there, naked, while someone puts a dress on you, sit idly while others work pins through a delicate veil, one that was lent to you, that you didn’t buy… To do nothing, and have everything.

This text reminded me of the Barth that I wrote about recently, about irresponsibility...

Here is a little of it, as a reminder:

“To have our master unavoidably in Jesus Christ is to exist in an ultimate and most profound irresponsibility.”

(Surely he must mean that we exist and an ultimate and most profound responsibility, because that is how I try to live, and when I can’t live up to all the responsibility, at least I try to feel guilty enough to make up for my irresponsibility….)

But no:

All other masters and teachers and leaders and lords load and burden us with responsibilities, i.e., with questions which we answer out of our own knowledge, with obligations which we satisfy by our own wish and action, with programmes which we have to fulfill and realise by our own achievements”

(Isn’t that the beauty of advent, that God achieved something that we could never have done, brought one baby from a withered and another from a virgin womb? That even the manner in which Jesus came into the world stands as an ultimatum to us and our works, our responsibilities.)

(quotations from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I,2 pp. 274-5)

I don’t know how this is supposed to sink in or even really what to do with it.  It seems a little awkward, thinking about irresponsibility and wedding dresses and jewels during the season of so much responsibility, and of Jesus in a barn among piles of hay. (Which even that, to us sounds sort of warm and rustic, but honestly, where would that be today?  A parking garage, an alley, a gas station…)

And the funny thing is, this verse here, about the dress and jewels, it’s in the past tense.  “He has [already] clothed me with the garments of salvation.”

We already stand here draped in strings of diamonds and pearls.  We are already wrapped in the whitest silk.

anniversary eve

Tonight marks two years since the night of our rehearsal dinner, the beautiful beyond beautiful dinner at the place on the water, the place that served the best merlot I’ve ever tasted and some chocolate mousse concoction for dessert, with, I think, some kind of mango topping… Where John and I snuck off somewhere during dinner to go kiss in the bushes… I don’t know how we managed that, or what we were thinking, but we did.

And these two, among others, gave us a beautiful toast…

The same rehearsal dinner where my hair looked like this:

And where, yes, I apparently look like I’m at a funeral.  I swear I was happy, or maybe I am taking a moment to mourn my displaced hair…

And then, two years ago tonight, after that dinner, we went to the Brick House to sit on the patio with these good people.

That day, the day before we said our vows, we were surrounded with our wonderful, generous, thoughtful, supportive families, and such friends… I still don’t know how I got so lucky to have these beautiful women as friends.  Ladies, if any of you are reading this, thank you.  Thank you for coming all the way from LA, Texas (several of you!), Washington State, and Chicago.  Charlotte friends, thank you for all the planning and hosting and everything.  I miss you all so much.  I am overflowing with thanks for everyone who made that weekend so wonderful for John and me.  It was a taste of heaven to have everyone together, feasting.

So tonight, two years later, we ate smoked salmon on olive bread and drank merlot, to celebrate the eve of our second anniversary.  It’s just us now, minus the grand entourage of friends and family, and the merlot isn’t as good as it was that night.  But life together is sweet, and we are happy.

I’m not writing this to say, “Look how great we are!” but because I think it’s important to remember our stories, and to see how much mercy God gives us. Because Howard and Kellie saw the mess we were that summer and must’ve wondered what in the world we were doing, and some of you have witnessed the crazy drama of two broken people learning to be married.  It hasn’t been pretty.  But it’s been beautiful, the kind of beauty that God makes out of broken things.

So these pictures are not to declare to the world how great we are for being married.  They are a testament to the miracle of God’s grace that we made it from that night to this, and for that, we are thankful.

poor blog, etc

It’s been so long, I don’t know where to start or what to write.  I think the kiddos have sucked the life out of me for the most part.  I haven’t taken any pictures of life here for awhile…. We’ve been at the beach but we just don’t think to take the camera.  So here’s one taken by my dear friend Chelsea the night before John and I got married.  Our post rehearsal dinner gathering at the Brick House in Davidson.  Ah, the porch at the Brick House.  It’s where good friends took me the night of my 21st birthday and drank too much, where I had poignant drinks with one boy or the other at certain points in college, and ultimately where I sat next to my fiance and among my dearest, dearest friends the night before we said our vows and I became the luckiest girl in the world.  Look at that handsome face, that beaming smile.   A taste of heaven, it was.

I have 4 more days of teaching 4 year olds and oh I will miss the unbridled, generous outpouring of affection (so little deserved) in the form of tiny hugs and kisses and all the pictures they draw…. And my precious, dear children who come to my little after school program.  It’s been a good run, and I am thankful for the chance to work there.  And I am thankful to be done.  Everything is a blessing.

It’s hot here, and the bugs have moved back into our house.  I don’t mind so much anymore,  and mostly I don’t even try to kill them.  I just shoo them back underneath whatever object of furniture they came from and am done with it.  We’ve been at the beach so much recently, and I love it.

Well, lunch calls.  John just made us portobello mushroom quesadillas & I must go sit and eat.  I will write soon, I promise.

Road Sign of Christendom and Notions of Success

(photo from here)

“So also with the road sign ‘Christendom.’ It designates the direction, but has one therefore arrived at the goal, or is one always only– on the way?” (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 48).

It’s funny how Christianity gets so twisted up with false ideals of selfhood, worth, and progress. The often subtle (and, well, often not so subtle) ways that church culture and American Christendom (exemplified both in conservative and liberal political and ecclesial ideologies) tell us who we are supposed to be, what our families are supposed to look like, etc. There are lots of good Christians who talk about women’s role as wife and mother, and the fulfillment that comes through those roles. There are book titles like Heaven at Home: Establishing and Enjoying a Peaceful Home. I haven’t read it, and it may have some excellent pointers about making a home (which is a good and valuable enterprise). The author may even have meant her title in an ironic sense and may address the total discrepancy between the notions of heaven and (earthly) home in her book. But my guess is that this book is part of the Christian culture that idolizes the home, idolizes specific ways that gender roles MUST look, and gently whispers to us that we can make heaven for ourselves in our homes. This is creepy and wrong.

I’m saying all this because my birthday was a few days ago, and rather than rejoicing for all the blessings that have been lavished on me, all I could think is how little I have made of my life so far and how I don’t have any babies yet. I can’t help but think of all the people my age who already have 2 or 3 babies. Or who have fantastic careers. Or who are able to work full time and keep a perfect house somehow. But I have been gently reminded that Jesus is my only heaven. It isn’t marriage (which is wonderful and I am so thankful for my amazing husband). It isn’t babies (even though I want one!). It isn’t my home or my ability to be a “homemaker.” It’s Jesus. Heaven is a person, not our homes. Jesus didn’t even have a place to lay his head. Jesus was single. Jesus didn’t plan a wedding, get a bunch of Pottery Barn furniture, procreate and buy a bunch of Pottery Barn Kids stuff. Jesus’ life should mess with our ideas of family and home.

Anyway, I have quoted this before, but it bears repeating.

“The world’s idea that everyone, from childhood up, should be able at all times to succeed in measurable ways, and that it is a great disgrace not to, hangs over the Christian community like a pall of acrid smoke.” (J.I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom From the Book of Nehemiah)

We have not arrived. We will not arrive this side of heaven. We are always only– on our way.

n.b.– I had a feeling as I was writing yesterday that I might have to put my foot in my mouth with respect to the Heaven at Home bit. I still stand by what I said, but a dear, thoughtful, and wise friend mentioned that the beauty of following Jesus is that we do get glimpses of glory in everyday life, that bits of heaven do break in, that in a sense the kingdom of heaven is here… So, so, so true. But I think the danger of the title is that it implies that Glory breaks in and heaven is established because of our efforts to maintain a peaceful, “heavenly,” home through nurturing, disciplining, etc. We are not able to control or channel the workings of the Spirit or the inbreaking of the Kingdom. It always comes to us from above. It is always a gift. And it always remains partial and eschatological: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).

through lattices. waiting for love.

(A short paper I wrote for OT 230. April 15, 2009. Edited slightly.)

Song of Songs: Notebook on Theresa, Walsh et al

(n.b.—I got a little carried away and deviated slightly from the text; didn’t get to Theresa, but perhaps this page could be read by a charitable reader as an echo of Theresa’s style—pastoral reflections birthed from the Song but not tied to it in any strict sense, reflections written for the sake of my “sisters,” or if not them, for the sake of my own soul!)

I was drawn to read Carey Walsh’s little essay, “In the Absence of Love” because its title in some ways suggests the theme I have been drawn to time and time again in reading the Song and its commentators. The precariousness of love– or perhaps, rather, the precariousness of the physical presence of the lover, of the experience and sensation of love (for Love itself is stronger than death, etc.)– has seemed to me one of the strangest elements of the Song as well as one of its most fruitful theological lessons. Indeed, Walsh notes that “desire itself, rather than consummation drives the poem” (286)— and for her, also drives our reading of the Song. Indeed, “Language is our effort to drawn near to what we do not have” (286). (In which case, prayer and songs of worship are language par excellence, for in these forms of language we attempt to draw near to the ultimate person for whom we long. The interesting thing is that language does not bring consummation. If language is “our effort to draw near” to what we desire, language alone cannot fulfill our desires. Perhaps we must be spoken to….. perhaps we must be sung over with– by—Love; we must be addressed, identified, we must close our mouths and, perhaps, repent of our efforts to fulfill our desires through our many words.)

Walsh’s emphasis on the necessary role of lack within the Song points to what I believe is an immensely important theological and pastoral understanding. If we follow some of her insights as we read the Song theologically, what do we learn from the absence, the lack, the unsatisfied desire, the fleeting hints of consummation but their ultimate disruption? I would suggest, first of all, that the nature of humanly love in all its forms is precarious, unstable, never complete, etc. Even in the warmest of marriages, with a husband and wife covenantally bound together, desire is never totally absent. There is still a sense of longing—there is no point when the two have had enough (either physically or emotionally), there is no point when the two are totally comfortable, totally known and understood…. There is no static point, petrification or fossilization. Perfect consummation between even husband and wife lies somewhat out of reach, somewhat inaccessible.

As a woman who has spent the past two months up to my elbows in wedding planning magazines and websites, I can say that the wedding industry packages and sells weddings as perfect days. It is “your perfect day,” your fairy tale, a day you control, contrive, and ultimately, through your thousands of dollars spent on photographs and videos, possess. These magazines and websites (almost) never talk about the marriage itself.  Women are rigorously trained to be in control and to seek perfection and satisfaction of desire through their production of a wedding. Women are trained to place their desires in the material components of the wedding itself; when the wedding is over, desire can be transferred to the new house & gifts, and soon after to the babies and their paraphernalia…. Perhaps under all of this lies the sleeping beast, the twinge of unfulfilled romantic desire, of a sense that the husband-to-be does not heal their wound of longing. This might sound anti-romantic, and not something that an engaged woman should be writing about… After all, we are taught to find the “perfect” dress, “perfect” invitations, color schemes, menus, lighting, music….. Implicit is that the groom is also a perfect accessory, one whose value lies in his ability to fulfill our desire, grant us the kiss of peace, so to speak… If he does not manage to fulfill us—if he cannot penetrate the lattice, the doorway, the wall[1] of our existence—then we will read infinite numbers of articles about perfecting our wedding day smile, about etiquette, hair-dos, favor ideas, bridesmaids’ dresses, china patterns, thread count, etc. etc. The wedding-magazine rhetoric explains in an unequivocal manner that “our” day is to be perfectly polished—and that it is within our control to effect it—and that such perfection will be the crowning consummation of the wedding-day-desires that have been inculcated in us (largely by the genius of the wedding industry itself) from girlhood.

It is perhaps a little self-referential to spend so much time thinking about weddings, but if there is one thing we learn from commentaries on the Song (as seen so poignantly in its feminist interpretations), the book can function as a witness to almost anyone’s situation. I would like to suggest that the Song actually disrupts constructions of romance (as embodied in wedding industry propaganda) that teach us to expect fulfillment and satisfaction. This expectation, when (as it inevitably will be) thwarted, leads to so much unfaithfulness and divorce. The Song, rather, points to the interruptions, gaps, and points of disharmony that are woven into the very fabric of romance. The undulations, the precariousness, the pangs of yearning even within marriage—these are signs, not that one has selected the incorrect spouse and must, for the sake of one’s happiness, find another, but of the lattice, the barrier, that exists between all of us. Adam and Eve’s fig leaves (and subsequent animal skins) remain with us, the barriers to intimacy that prevent us from true and lasting consummation of desire.

I have written too much already, but I must conclude by at least pointing to the element of the divine in all of this. Walsh seems to leave us with the reality of lack and unfulfilled desire. She points to the “allure of milk and honey in the Song… coupled with the intoxicating properties of wine” (291). Noting that milk and honey are a “strong biblical trope,” evoking the promises of Canaan’s abundance and peace. She says that in the Song, milk and honey are “recontexualized” and present the woman’s body as the new “Promised Land” (291). Indeed, “the Song’s language about desire is a fine balancing act between Lack and flamboyance” (or jouissance). It seems that the Song does not simply commandeer imagery of milk, honey, and wine from its divine context to a merely human one. If the Song points to a “Promised Land” flowing abundantly with richness, it seems rather that God himself is the Land, the source of flowing wine (Is. 25, 55, etc.). Walsh speaks again and again of “desire” and “absence,” but it does not become clear until the very end what—or, rather, Who we desire, and Who is absent. Indeed, “The absence of this Other… fuels the biblical quest. The Bible is desire—it is interpreting the ineffable through language, a task surely as bold as it is unending” (293). The Song, then, in all its complications, its interpretive and textual riddles, its total frustration of our attempts to control it, draws us, as Walsh beautifully states, “to the Ark of the Covenant’s empty Mercy Seat, where absence marks divine presence” (293).

Walsh’s insight that the Song’s co-opting of Biblical “milk and honey” language points to a body as the new site of promise and grace offers a faint glimpse of what might be very close to the truth. There is, perhaps, a body that is the new Promised Land, the new stream of milk and honey, the new source of well-aged and abundant wine. There is, perhaps, a body that bore in its very flesh our own diseases and iniquities, that was bruised, crushed, and wounded, who was trampled like grapes for rich wine. Julian of Norwich, for example, speaks of the abundance of milk that flows from Christ’s breasts to nourish us, as well as the abundance (which seems to be one of her favorite words) of his blood. I hope my reader will forgive the Christological readings to which I seem perpetually unable to avoid in my readings of these texts. Ultimately, I suppose, I must hope that the pangs of our desires will be satisfied by the gracious hand of our Creator, that the wounds of longing, the pains of shame and fear, will be healed by the hesed of one whose Words have the power to create, heal, and restore. To this God we can only approach with our impotent words, and open mouths, praying, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” If we do receive his kiss of peace (the milk, honey and wine; the grace; the Eucharist) we will know that it is a gift, and one that we have not captured of our own competence, devotion, and striving. For we exist as ones exiled, trapped behind lattices, bound in locked gardens, covered in animal skins, barred from the intimacy we desire and the fulfillment that eludes us. Perhaps He is able to rend in twain the barriers and to bring us—at some point—into the consummation that lies ever ahead.

[1] Song 2:9, 5:2-6. The lattice, window, doorway, etc. should perhaps be read not primarily as sexual images, but as symbols of the barrier that exists necessarily between lovers who, even in the midst of their most intimate union, never can be totally united in a way that precludes loss, instability, lack, absence, etc.