I felt the Lord begin
to peel off all my skin
and I felt the weight within
reveal the bigger mess
that you can’t fix.
“Shake It Out” by Manchester Orchestra
I’ve been married and in full-time youth ministry for almost the same amount of time – 2. 5 years. It’s a different story from other youth pastors who started off single, giving them some extra freedom in the amount of time they can dedicate to their ministries – meeting with youth all the time, doing lots of late/all nighters, and having no problem putting in 40, 50, 60 hours a week. If I’m honest, sometimes I envy this story.
But there are some things I’ve learned within this story of marriage and youth ministry that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. With the moment Jess and I spoke our vows to each other we were committed to fidelity to each other. As Steve Frost puts it in his engagement with Walter Brueggemann’s view of the Psalms, “Fidelity isn’t a commitment to control; it is a commitement to stay with us no matter what.”* And fidelity means is less about changing the other person and more about sticking with them as we allow them to be who they were created to be.
I’ve learned this no better place than within my own marriage. It doesn’t take long to realize that your significant other and yourself are well established in personality, practices, habits, opinions, etc. And they’re probably not going to change unless it is by brute force…not the ingredients for a healthy or vibrant marriage. And one of the things I love most about Jess is her willingness to love me despite my flaws – the way I’ve messed up in the past and still mess up sometimes – and even through how I change still.
Fidelity: a commitment to stay, not control.
My favorite C.S. Lewis book is The Dawn Treader from his Narnia series. Though I didn’t initially compare myself to any characters when I read it, I think think the character I identify with most might be Eustace. I don’t like comparing myself to the brattiest character – possibly ever – so I’m going to say that I’m probably more like Eustace the Dragon rather than Eustace the bratty cousin (I hope I’m not fooling myself).
Eustace the Dragon is covered in scales that not even the sharpest sword can penetrate. His outward appearance protects the boy within. It masks what’s underneath. Though his temper is fueled by the gold bracelet tightly and painfully stuck to his arm, it was the little boy underneath that desired this bracelet for his very own. Though his outer appearance seems to tell the whole story, it betrays an inner character who is almost given up on by his cousins. It’s this boy dragon that cries at night realizing what he’s come to.
I can imagine Eustace crying out the words of the Psalmist: You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief (ps. 88)
It’s not until the great lion, Aslan, comes and with a single claw and tears away layer upon layer of scales and skin to reveal the boy within. It’s painful but it’s something that no human being (or Reepicheep the mouse) seems to be able to do. It’s not until this Great Other comes and is able to reveal the “bigger mess” underneath that created everything on the outside. It’s a greater mess that no one else could fix. Despite how much frustration, criticizing, and ignoring his cousins showed, they could only endure him. They had no power to change him.
…Ok, so maybe we’re all a little bit like the Boy Dragon…
Lewis portrays a Jesus figure who stuck it through, even with the toughest of characters. When things got bad he didn’t give up. In fact he was seemingly most present and most transforming in pain and despair. Jesus is present in the midst of pain.
And this doesn’t mean telling people “Well I’m sure God will get you through this” or “Don’t worry, God is with you.” I think we only know God is with us when others are with us. We only realize that Jesus has not given up on us when others have not given up on us. Is this not the call of the Church? Is this not grace?
So what have I learned from Marriage and Boy Dragons?**
Staying is more important than controlling…or staying is better than controlling.
There’s always more to the picture. What shows on the outside is a manifestation of the mess within…and we’ve all got our messes within.
If we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we realize that we were made less to fix than to stay present.
*This quote is from a curriculum on The Work of the People with Walter Brueggemann. The videos can be found here: http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/person/walter-brueggemann
**Fidelity has a lot of implications for youth ministry as well. It may warrant another post another time 🙂