To Have and To Hold, For Better or Worse – the Ideal and the Real Marriage 5

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

transcribed from the sermon preached July 17,

Scripture Readings: John 4:5-29, James 1:9-27

Dave Barry wrote a column in the Miami Herald on Anger in Marriage. “Even if you love somebody very much, you eventually discover that this person has irritating habits, such as leaving toenail clippings around the house as though they were little art displays; or not disposing of the potato-chip bag after eating everything in it except three salt molecules at the bottom; or secretly being also married to somebody else; or humming the song ”Horse With No Name”; or responding to every single statement you make — including obviously factual ones, such as that Montpelier is the capital of Vermont — by saying, “Well, that’s YOUR opinion.”
For an excellent example of a married couple coping with anger, we turn now to an incident that occurred several years ago involving my brother, Sam, and his wife, Pat, when they were on a long car trip. After many hours on the road, they reached Charleston, S.C., where they were going to visit an old family friend. Pat was driving, and Sam was giving directions, and they got into an argument about the way he was giving them. (If you don’t understand how such a petty issue could cause an argument, then you have never had a spouse.)

So Pat decided, OK, if Sam was so good at directions, then HE could drive the stupid car. She got out, slammed the front door, and opened the back door to get in the back with their 2-year-old son, Daniel. And then she decided, hey, why should she ride in the back, like a child? So she slammed the back door. But before she could open the front door, Sam, assuming she was in the car, drove off. Pat was left standing, all alone, at night, with no money, wearing a T-shirt and a miniskirt, in what turned out to be a very bad neighborhood.

”Hey, pretty lady!” called a male voice.

Meanwhile, in the car, Sam was driving with great intensity and focus, reading street signs, making left turns and right turns, showing Pat (he thought) just how excellent his directions were. It was not until he had gone a considerable distance that he realized Pat was being very quiet.

”Pat?” he said.


”Daniel,” said Sam, trying to sound as calm as possible, “is Mommy back there?”

”No,” said Daniel.

”OK, Daniel,” said Sam, performing a high-speed turn. ”Just be calm.” He immediately became lost.

Meanwhile, back in the bad neighborhood, Pat, walking briskly away from various admiring males, found a bus station with a pay phone, called 911, and explained where she was.

”Do NOT go outside,” said the 911 person.

Meanwhile, Sam, driving frantically while reminding Daniel to stay calm, had located the general area where he’d left Pat. He saw a police officer, rushed up and quickly told him what had happened.

The officer said: ”You left your wife HERE?” Without another word, the officer leaped into his patrol car and, tires squealing, roared off. Sam never saw him again.

Meanwhile, at the bus station, another officer, sent by the 911 person, had found Pat, who was explaining the situation.

”My husband and I were having a disagreement,” she said, “and …”

”Oh,” said the officer. “A domestic.”

”No,” said Pat. “It’s NOT a domestic. My husband just …”

Another officer arrived.

”Hey,” said the first officer. “I got a domestic here.”

”It’s NOT a domestic,” said Pat.

Pat was taken to the police station, where the officer called the old family friend — this being the only person Pat knew in Charleston — and explained the situation.

”I got a Pat Barry here on a domestic,” he said.

”IT’S NOT A DOMESTIC,” said Pat, in the background.

Fortunately, Sam also called the old family friend, and he and Pat were reunited at the police station, where Pat graciously elected not to seek the death penalty. So everything worked out fine except that to this day Daniel becomes mildly concerned when Mommy gets out of the car.
Read more here:  July 31, 1994


At this point in the series on marriage I feel the need to put out some qualifiers. Some of you may have noticed I am not delving very deeply into the various perspectives in scripture on the significance of marriage for various authors and the Judean and Pagan cultural context of their audiences. I have done a bit with Paul and the Corinthians but I haven’t really gotten into the notion of marriage as a part of property law in patriarchal culture and the various takes on that notion over the thousand years of biblical history or two thousand years of Church history. I have actually avoided those passages.

I have made an assumption, not without precedent in the Church, that as Christians we follow the basic ethical precedent of Jesus with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you – or love your neighbor as yourself.  This essentially cancels out any patriarchal hierarchy, including the compromise of Paul to both Pagan and Judean culture in the early Church. Paul issues the radical proclamation in Galatians 3 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Anne Wire in her brilliant book Corinthian Women Prophets reasons through solid well documented research that such a radical claim led women and slaves to get a bit uppity and begin to threaten the social order. So Paul basically qualified and backed off this radical Christian claim so that the Church was not completely squashed by angry husbands, slavemasters and authorities.

The I Chin, the Confusion book of numbers says that “The object of a great revolution is the attainment of clarified, secure conditions ensuring a general stabilization on the basis of what is possible at the moment.” We don’t need to let Paul and the Church completely off the hook, but we should acknowledge that it is easy to look back at History and judge times in which we do not live.  The complexity and difficulty of the issue of the justice system and race, the tenacity of racism, our ignorance and stubbornness before the complexity of related issues that need solving may help us with some humility as we look back into history.

More to the subject, our ignorance and stubbornness with regard to our own personality in important relationships like marriage ought to give us plenty of reason for humility. But with Christ as our guide, worshipping not on this mountain or that, but in Spirit and in truth, I have no doubt that equality, making no distinction between male and female, white, black, brown, gay or straight is the logical, ethical and historical extension of loving our neighbor as ourselves. We want a fair and just say and position therefore we extend that equally to others.

The other qualification I would like to make is more in line with the direction I have intended to go this morning. Marriage relationships are not isolated relationships but fit within relationship systems. It is how we fit and relate in the system, in the process, that drives the ups and downs of the relationship. Addressing one particular person, action or issue will rarely solve the issue for long. The relationship patterns, the way that a family or work group relates to one another creates roles for each person to fill, and together they create a balance. Balance here should not be confused with calm or steadiness or peace, though there are some families that are chronically peaceful on the surface.  Rather the balance I refer to reflects the fact that one form of behavior, strength or weakness in one individual is shaped and becomes resilient or chronic because of the way others in the family relate and respond.  Also, If a problem is really stuck in a person or family, it probably has something to do with unresolved issues of previous generations.

Here are a few examples: The loud and domineering person is offset and balanced by the timid and reactive one, and the others who try to keep the peace.  We may not be able to fix the domineering partner, but we can grow our ability to express our own selves to our spouse directly.  The chronically sick or irresponsible one is balanced by the admonisher and the ever forgiving ones.  It is rare that constant bickering and echoing the same advice changes the irresponsible one.  Yet we can work on our own boundaries and let them suffer the consequences of their actions.  The one who bluntly speaks their mind and is bitingly critical is balanced by the one who is forever positive, calm and collected, even when lament and anger are called for.  We may not be able to stop the excess criticism, but we can learn to acknowledge our own anger or sadness when appropriate. When someone is continuously dropping the ball there is usually someone who is continuously picking it up for them, or rather, stepping in front of them to catch it in fear that that the other won’t be able to catch it…which means they don’t get the privilege or pain that comes with learning, with trying, dropping the ball and trying again until we learn to catch for ourselves. Behind the one who runs away emotionally is usually someone chasing. We may not be able to get them to stop running by chasing them, but we can learn to stop chasing and maybe they will stop running. It is like a balloon that when you squeeze it here, it pops out there. Or, since we are talking about systems, it is like the old game mouse trap: where one gadget does something  to trigger another gadget to do something else, which then triggers another gadget to do something else until finally the trap falls on the mouse.

It is very common that relationships have an equal and opposite quality.  It is also common that the very action or comment of another that pushes our buttons, gets us anxious or angry is also one of our issues that we would rather not see in ourselves.

The symptoms can vary widely from family to family – disease or mental illness, addiction, sexual acting out, unemployment, anger, depression, working so hard they are never around, etc, etc. But each family will have established roles for each person to play to maintain that particular family’s patterns of relating. Also, who or where the symptoms pop out varies from family to family.  Each of us contribute to the balance and relative health and dysfunction within the family. Also, unless there is a real increase in system health, it is highly likely that if the person with the symptom or a particular role gets healthier and stronger, or if that person is removed from the system through death or divorce, someone else within the system will replace them. The family will try to reestablish balance back to its expected or common way of relating.  Rabbi Friedman says, “By definition, no one gets the problem he or she can handle.”

The symptom bearer or designated patient may be the sensitive or emotionally weaker one, but just as often it the one who may be quite strong, the one who takes on the most responsibility and bears a greater portion of the family’s emotional burden – and finally they crack under the burden.

For the controlling, fixer types, many of whom find there way into churches, when our anxiety level goes up we are likely to diagnose others, admonish and try to fix them. The problem with that is that it is highly likely we are just playing our same old role in the system which only further maintains an unhealthy balance. As you might guess, the ministry is filled with people who would like to fix and take responsibility for other people’s actions, health, comfort and pain. We want to be miracle workers, saviors, so we get up and preach, offer sagely advice and use scripture to convince people they shouldn’t be angry, sad or lonely.

Multiple times while serving on the Committee on Ministry I met ministers who were married to a particular congregation that were very critical, and yet passive aggressively certain key congregational members sat on their hands when the minister needed help. The minister worked harder and harder to please the critical spouse to no avail. Always more criticism. Finally, the minister burned out and filed for divorce. We may not be able to work hard enough to please some people, but we can learn to set our own boundaries and take care of our own health regardless of the criticism.

One wife desired to go out and do something every once in a while.  Meanwhile the husband said yes days ahead of time but when the time came he would have a good excuse to stay home.  After many rounds of anger and disappointment didn’t change him, she learned to go out and do things on her own.  She had some fun, her life was less dependent on her husband, and they stayed married. And wouldn’t you know, when she decided he was not entirely responsible for her happiness, he improved and he actually suggest and followed through with going out.

We know that relationships, especially marriages may be both beautiful and hard. I have to admit I am a bit frustrated that all your marriages and relationships are not perfect and healthy.  How dare you not be perfect and make me feel good! There are six kids in my family and I am the only one who has not been divorced – which is not to say that I am more healthy than my siblings. Remember that symptoms vary both in type and location.  I have a daughter by a woman I did not seriously consider marrying. God be with them.  I consider it a minor miracle that I found someone to marry who has been willing to put up with me for as long as she has.

While I have strung together a series of sermons where I try to be honest and forthright about things I have learned through study, pastoral care and my personal marriage, and pluck from scripture certain bits of wisdom and ethical guidelines, I’m afraid it doesn’t amount to much more than a hill of beans, especially if it is an expression of my own sadness and anxiety about being unable to make you perfect. You see, if you were perfect that would mean I would be perfect, and I want to be perfect, so you better snap to it!

So the basic Family Systems premise is that while we look for how we fit within the system, our role in healing and growth is to take responsibility for our own issues, our own feelings, actions and positions. If we find ourselves diagnosing the problem in our partner, we should ask ourselves what is it about ourselves that we do not want to see?  Or as we read in scripture this morning, judge not, that you not be judged.  And “Take the log out of your own eye before we take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.”

I saw a great cartoon the other day. A person at a podium shouted, “Who wants change?” and everyone threw up their fists and yelled, we do!  Then the speaker shouted the question: “Who wants to change?” and everyone put their head and hands down in silence.

A big part of our ability to grow depends on our ability to acknowledge our limits and boundaries. A a huge ingredient in admitting our limits is the acceptance of God’s grace. Why? Because if we know that God loves us as we are, then we are free to really admit who we are.

Our strengths do not cancel out our weakness.  But our weakness doesn’t cancel out our strength, nor the strength of God’s love.  By confessing our weakness to ourselves and our God we suffer the pain of reality, release it, and grow and move on with God’s help.  So we pray, God, grant us the courage to change the things that can and should be changed, the grace to accept those things that we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.