Transcribed from the sermon preached July 24, 2016
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Job 1:17-21, 2:3-9; Matthew 5:27-42, Ephesians 6:10-18
John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
Marriage is a relationship with another while we make our best effort to go through life. That means much of what happens to us while we are married will not be what we planned. Many things will happen to us without choice or consent, regardless of our worthiness or lack, whether it is our time or responsibility or not. We may run out of wine at the wedding, or be attempting to enjoy ourselves at a wedding when our mom gives us a new job of fixing the situation. But here is the good news: just because the wine runs out quicker than we anticipated doesn’t mean we won’t be surprised by better wine to come.
Another truth about life is that it is full of change, whether we want it or not. Change is a movement from something that was to something different. So change is loss. Even good change has an element of loss. And loss is difficult. As marriage relationship exists as a part of life, and life changes, and change entails loss, and loss entails difficulty, even a wonderful, beautiful, long marriage will be difficult. But thanks be to God, there is the rich and full bodied grace of Christ. Twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.
Most of us when we consider marriage and what makes it work or not work typically talk about the personality of the couple, maybe about communication, commitment and trust. And these are important. But so much of what happens that makes a marriage difficult comes from people and events that go beyond the couple. They happen to us while we are busy making other plans. Trying to deal with the communication issue alone may not go deep enough into what ails us.
This morning we read from the first part of Job, where he is being stricken by a series of calamities. We pick up the reading after his oxen and servants were attacked by the Sabeans, and a fire took out his sheep and shepherds. Now we hear that the Chaldeans attacked his servants and stole his camels. Then a hurricane or tornado destroyed his house with his children inside. Finally, his own personal health goes. Job holds onto his integrity and faith in God. But his wife has had it: This is not fair, “Curse God and die!” she says.
Quite aside from their own personalities or how they relate to one another, complications and difficulties have flooded into their marriage. Even if we may hope to have Job’s faith and integrity, most of us can sympathize with Job’s wife. She has lost her children, livelihood and safety due to weather and war. Now her husband has become gravely ill. She has had it. What was the nature of the loss that they faced? What are the different kinds of loss that we will face in life and marriage?
Mitchell and Anderson in All Our Losses, All Our Griefs write of six kinds of loss. There is material loss, relationship loss, intrapsychic loss, functional loss, role loss, and systemic loss. “Material loss is the loss of a physical object or of familiar surroundings to which one has an important attachment. (p.38) Early in my ministry I was an anti-materialist. After seeing people in Guatemala live with so little, survive and quite often live more contented lives than many much better off materially, I returned to the United States and was shocked at the over-emphasis on material things. Americans seemed obsessed with acquiring material stuff – and seemed to assume that they needed the latest thing to be happy. I still think we are obsessed, and that many of the marital arguments over money unnecessary. We get stuck in our own myopic world, worry about the opinions of our in-laws or neighbors while in another part of the world a mother is breast feeding two children as her third child is dying of malnutrition. Count your blessings. Give thanks for what you have. Someone said, “Some people, when they discover their cups runneth over, rather than give thanks, they pray for a bigger cup.”
Still, when I went to New Orleans to help clear out houses after Katrina, I learned something new about our material possessions. Mostly the owners were so devastated they didn’t even want to come back. But a few times the owner showed up to thank us and to grieve. After thanking us, one woman went out, sat down on the curb and wept. Each house we cleared out had its own personality. There were old family pictures still hanging on the wall, cabinets with grandmother’s china, large collections of music, – Marvin Gay, Mike Davis – pink baby shoes and Sesame Street puzzles. I realized this was a room where a couple made love and conceived children, and here was a room where the children grew up and played, and this kitchen had been the source of countless meals. And the house and all the things within it were destroyed. I realized we create and form our identity in the town and house we live in. It is a part of us. We are a part of it. And so when we lose it, when we move or our house is lost in a fire or a hurricane, or through divorce, or because we got a new job in another town, or however, it will be hard, it will cause us grief. It will put a strain on marriage. A key here I believe, it to count our blessings. Let us thank God for what we do have each and every day. And again, cut each other some slack during the transition. Maybe you are mad at them because even your new job and new house can’t keep them from being a little sad, or anxious or short tempered. So cut yourself a slice of grace too. You do not have the power to solve all your spouse’s griefs. God still loves you.
Relationship loss may be related to moving, divorce, job change, or change in personal friendships. In relationship loss, say Mitchell and Anderson, “we are no longer able to be close to, talk with, share experiences with, make love to, touch, settle issues with, fight with, team up against struggles, or just be in their presence.”(P. 39)
Each relationship loss will place strain on the other relationship that remain.
Often a loss of a parent or the loss of the health of a parent or sibling will mean a couple will take a parent in or get extensively involved in the care of someone else in the extended family – maybe a sibling with special needs. Not only will you be dealing with the grief of the loss, but also with the change in the family system, with who gets attention when, and how the finances will be managed. Now this is all good and a part of the privilege and task of having family, and as Christians we want to affirm family unity and care. The American cultural expectation of individualism and independence has got many of our extended families split apart, so that it causes strain on a marriage when we are alone and then again when we have to come back together. All change is loss, even if we consider it a gain, a good change, or a change we willingly and honorably accept. So it will place a strain on a marriage.
Another big change and relational loss in marriage may come from kids moving out of the house or getting married. We have certain attachments and emotional needs met by our kids, a role we pay with them, and so when they move away there may be a hole that our spouse cannot fill. It may be that a big part of who our child has grown into has been determined because they learned to step into that relational element that our spouse does not fulfill. Either that or they may not leave and then that may be a source of strain on the marriage. Of course, the subject of children is a huge issue no matter what. They are a source of joy, hope and dreams. They provide comic relief and we share the joy of their triumphs. And because we love them so much, and want to love them, and hope and dream for them – and life is unpredictable – the subject of children is virtually always a challenge. You may decide not to have children and that comes with its own set of issues. Or you may not be able to have children. Maybe you decide to adopt, and that is a big deal too for numerous reasons. Or you marry someone who already has children – and that has its special challenges. And then pregnancy and child birth is a big deal. And then parenting is hard no matter what, but life is neither fair nor very predictable and just about anything can happen. My nephew’s son drowned in a pool at age two. His parents struggled together for a few years, and now they have come full circle with four more kids who are champion swimmers. Many close friends have had children with mental or health issues to deal with. And of course there are cars and drinking and drugs, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends and pregnancy and society to deal with. I grieved this last week over the police shooting the health care worker who was caring for his autistic patient. The poor police man said he was trying to shoot the autistic man rather than the black man. That explanation offered little comfort. Do we have such a lack of understanding and training and fear that parents are afraid for the lives of their compassionate well employed children or their autistic son? What is the strain on an African American marriage when your husband or son my not come home from work or from buying skittles?
Clearly we have some work to do within our culture and institutions around race and also around use of force; even as we acknowledge that dangerous jobs like police officer will put a strain on a marriage too. But my main point here about marriage is that we have to have a bunch of sympathy and grace for each other. Give thanks for what you have right now today, but also give each other permission to grieve. A key in grief is identifying what it is or who you are grieving. There will be multiple losses and hardships in life and if our grief is incomplete, if we deny certain feelings around a certain loss, it may compound or be displaced onto someone or something else – like our spouse. If we try to stuff it, it will come up again in some other way. Stuffed feeling tend to act like a dam, so that it is hard for us to express ourselves in multiple ways emotionally – and that places a huge hardship on a marriage. If a relationship is stuck and bogged down with lack of feeling – go look for past unresolved grief or trauma.
“Intrapsychic loss is the experience of losing an emotionally important image of oneself, losing the possibilities of “what might have been,” abandonment of plans for a particular future, the dying of a dream.” (p.40) One psychic loss we are sure to have is the loss of the way we thought our marriage and partner would be. Very often we will marry someone in part because of the image of who we think our spouse will become, who we think we can make them, who we think we can be for them. Feliciana and I had a miscarriage and I was shocked at how I felt about the loss of my dream of the way it would be, the way we would be. I also grieved that I could not solve my wife’s grief for her. When I accepted the reality that we were human, grieved not only the loss of the baby but also recognized the unpredictability of life, marriage and child rearing, our marriage improved. It got richer because we were accepting ourselves and loving each other more for who we really were.
I will say that it is likely that cross cultural marriages will likely have a significant amount of intrapsychic loss because each person comes into the relationship with entirely different cultural expectations. How well we handle that intrapsychic loss will have more to do with how our family of origin handled such loss, regardless of culture, but cross cultural marriages will likely have more to deal with.
Functional loss occurs when something happens to our body or mind and we can no longer function in the same way. Clearly there is functional loss with age for everyone. And each of these types of loss I share can often overlap. My sister was diagnosed with MS around age 35, she had to quit her job, she got a divorce soon after and had to move. So she experience functional loss, intrapsychic loss, relational loss and material loss all at roughly the same time. We experience functional loss with age, but as Mitchell and Anderson point out, “Going blind at seventy-five is no less frightening than going blind at fifteen, even if it does happen more often.” (p.42) It is frightening for loved ones too, and of course, there is the loss of how the one losing ability functioned for us, on our behalf. I think this is one of the hardest things to acknowledge well, especially if you are kind and loving, or trying to be. He or she is the one who is experiencing the physical pain or functional loss, how dare I be so selfish and feel sorry for myself? This is where we hope and pray that couples can grieve together. Just because I grieve the loss of your physical function for me doesn’t mean I don’t still love you. Just because you grief the loss of my physical function doesn’t mean you do not still love me. And it doesn’t mean that we can’t face it together with God and move into the future with continued joy and thanksgiving. We can take a lesson from Job here.
The loss of a specific social role or of one’s accustomed place in a social network is experienced as role loss. (p. 43) The significance of a lost role is tied to how much our identity is tied to the lost role. Retirement is often a source of strain on an individual and a marriage. Even good change causes role loss strain. Getting accepted to graduate school may mean less time at home. Getting a better job may mean driving more and cooking less. An immigrant, who has been in the US for twenty five years, used to be friend and comfort to her mother. But when her mother got sick and then died, she could not return home to play that role. She was forced to weigh the role of wife and mother against the role of grieving daughter. Again I think people who cross cultures often experience role loss. They may be quite knowledgeable, useful and respected in their own family, town or culture, and then have to experience a job downgrade, racism and discrimination in a variety of forms. They are likely leaving behind relationships with valuable roles to their identity. Role loss can be disorienting.
Again, a spouse may experience grief at a role change of their partner. Grief of our partner over our loss often does not go over well: “You mean I’ve got to put up with all this stuff and you are giving me grief too?” I am trying to hold onto my faith and integrity and hope, and you are telling me to curse God and die! While there is often a need for patience on our part when our partner is going through change, if they are going through it, so are we. So both of us have to give each other some slack. Slack doesn’t mean we stuff our feelings forever, it means we allow both ourselves and our spouse to have feelings we would rather not have, we would rather they did not have, without necessarily thinking the relationship is on the rocks. Job has to cut his wife some slack. She is entitled to name her feelings too. It may be that we need to go into therapy or go talk to our pastor on our own, so we can deal with our own feelings without burying our spouse who has enough to deal with. But part of what we are trying to discern is how to express and share our real feelings and allow our spouse to do the same.
Systemic change or loss is similar to relational loss, but it is not just our relationship with one who is lost, but how they fit, what roles they played in the system. This could be a change at church or work or in society, but most often we are affected by change in the family system. I have mentioned before that families have established balance and when someone changes, grows up, moves away, gets married or dies the family will try to find a way to reestablish balance. Most family opposition to marriage probably has to do, at least in part, with the fear of the loss of the role the one who wants to get married plays in the family. This is something to watch if you are an in-law. How much of the issue is about the personality of the fiancé, and how much of our anger, anxiety or dislike is about the fact that we feel like we are losing our baby?
It is surprising how often marriage, birth, death and other forms of change and loss are connected in families. You may have noticed it in your own family, that birthdays and death days are near each other, that significant events follow in the wake of significant events. And very often separation of a marriage will follow the death or life threatening illness of a parent or someone very significant in the family. Kids get in trouble or get divorced and come home to grieving parents, or they get married and move away from the difficult emotional energy of grief. Then someone else in the family takes their place. We are usually not entirely conscious of these systemic decisions. And looks can be deceiving. It may be that those who are the most conflicted are the most stuck together emotionally. For most of us, to some degree or another, we seek to separate from our parents by exchanging it for a relationship with someone who is similar, or who comes from a similar system. This means that when we run into difficult spots in our marriage relationship, to really get to the bottom of our marital struggles, we would be wise to go back and look at our family of origin, and especially how we relate during times of grief and change.
Life is difficult. Marriage is difficult. And much of what makes it hard for a couple to stay together and love one another comes from outside the relationship. There is random chance and bad or good luck. Disease and accidents, children and parents, changes at work, in the economy and in culture. There are cultural expectations and prejudice, hurricanes, fire and war. This is life and this is marriage.
Yet there is love, beauty, tenacity, integrity and faith too. And it is an amazing and beautiful thing. If you get to a spot where you think the wine has run out, hold tight, have faith. We love the sweetness and passion of young, innocent, romantic love – the Song of Solomon love making in the vineyard in springtime. But the richest depth and beauty comes with time, when we have faced the reality of life and each other and struggled and come out the other side. Life is long and hard, and nobody married or unmarried makes it through without a broken relationship or two or three. So there is grace needed and available for all. But let us root for each other. Let’s celebrate and support relationships that they may last through plenty and want, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we shall live.
Ephesians 6:13 Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
 Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
 and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace;
 besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.
 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.