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Marriage: Excruciatingly Wonderful

I have found marriage to be excruciatingly wonderful. It sounds like an oxymoron when really it is a both/and. Let’s start with the wonderful part. Romance is one of life’s keenest compliments. It feels magical to have another person love you, choose you, woo you. And it feels equally good reciprocating that love. You are best friends or good companions, sexual intimates, home builders and partners through the challenges of life. You may raise children together or care for extended family members. In marriage you get support to be the person you were meant to be and, as a marriage team, you bring your gifts to the world. You are enlarged to embrace complexity, to learn tolerance and to overlook your partner’s dirty socks. Through the tragedies you share, you develop an even deeper bond, and maybe even a special calling in your lives together. Together you enrich, heal or challenge the world.

In the movie, Shall We Dance, Susan Sarandon, the wife of an attorney (Richard Gere) is secretly having him followed because she thinks he is having an affair. It turns out he is learning to dance and is embarrassed to tell her. In a conversation with the investigator she describes the importance of marriage. She says the most important thing about it is that you have another person who is a witness to your life. Someone who knows you best and is there for the most important moments of your life, both positive and negative. It is, indeed, wonderful to have that special someone who knows more about you than anyone else and still loves you. I have experienced profound witnesses to my life in marriage. And I believe that marriage has been the single most transforming experience of my life, molding me into the kind of woman I was always intended to be. Even though marriage as an institution, has been through some tough times, with high divorce rates, these rough times seem, also, to make it resilient.

And…in all marriage there comes the excruciating part as well, when your romantic expectations aren’t met, when your witness doesn’t show up for the important event, or when your life together feels nothing like a team. All of these experiences are normal. They are things that happen to get our attention that it is time for us to grow.

Here’s my version of the truth about marriage. Marriage brings us our work to do. My advice: Do it. Get help. Go for classes. Ask others how they manage the issues they face. Don’t get adept at complaining about your loved one. Learn to have your own voice and speak your truth in love. And remember, sometimes tough love is the best kind for a while. I’m not a marriage expert and, Lord knows, my own track record is sub-par, but there are a few things I’ve learned about marriage that lead to life instead of resignation. I offer them for your reflection.

I’ve learned that love is what you’ve been through together. Live it to the fullest. I now know that if there is an addiction or mental illness going on in either of us, it’s my job to do my own inner work to get healthy and not take on the other person’s work, while still holding them accountable for their behavior. Sort of like the airline instruction of putting on your own oxygen mask before attending to others! It’s clear to me that if I’m drawn to another man outside my marriage it is a sign that I am avoiding some important issues I need to address within my marriage. I’ve learned that if marriage is not safe, due to any kind of abuse, what I need are clear boundaries, a strong advocate and an exit plan. I believe that God has to be central to my marriage or I am less likely to have the courage to do my inner work in order to grow. It is just too easy to stop growing if I get scared, insecure or withdrawn. Once I learned how to face my own fears in my marriage, I could see a similar pattern was going on everywhere else in my life, so facing it and changing my own fear response had a transforming effect on my whole life. Lastly I’ve learned that if you are waiting for someone else to make you happy, you will wait for a very long time indeed.

Healthy marriages grow deeper layer upon layer upon layer. They just keep getting better and more intimate. It’s not easy and sometimes it looks rather bleak. In fact sometimes there are years in which the marriage sustains your love rather than your love sustaining the marriage. But if we stop growing we settle into a pattern of resignation or, worse yet, bitterness. A wonderful therapist gave me this wisdom on marriage; we marry a person who is like one of our parents so when we do the work we need to do within our marriage, it can heal both relationships. I have found this to be a profound truth.

And let’s not forget the most transforming gift of marriage, that which has the most potential to form us as human beings—its ending. All marriages end, either in death, divorce or dissolution. We rarely consider the emotional cost of these losses going in. But how we deal with these losses, whether we deny them, embrace them, get bitter, get depressed or sick determines who we will become. Each loss takes us deeper into wisdom if we embrace it well or with good support. Those who have loved and then lost well—even though the loss is excruciating—are those who can love well again. It is a difficult truth to ponder but worth the effort. If we can be truly present to what we have together as a couple now, and if we can talk about it, it will be an easier journey after one of us is gone.

I’m in favor of marriage even though I do not think it is necessary for everyone. What I’m really in favor of is the opportunity to do the personal work that marriage calls us to do in order to heal our inner selves and live well. Then marriage has fulfilled its purpose in us. God uses marriage to profoundly heal us and open our hearts to who we are called to be. For me, marriage is also a metaphor for our relationship with God—our Beloved. If we have come to know how great it feels to bask in the glow of love from a person on earth …

What if we lived as if we really were God’s Beloved?

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

What is your positive experience of marriage or a long-term relationships?

What is your excruciating experience?

How are you a different person because of marriage?

Did you make a decision to “settle” or to grow in your marriage? What resulted?

How did you process the loss of marriage if you’ve experienced it?

How do you experience yourself as God’s Beloved?

The Poor in Spirit; Why are They Blessed?

I’ve been intrigued with the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5) all of my adult life. I think my interest comes from the challenge that Jesus is extending to us, to be so counter cultural, so unrealistic, maybe even unhealthy. The three beatitudes that bother me—or perhaps intrigue me—the most are blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted for my name’s sake, and the ultimate one, blessed are the poor in spirit. I’ve always wondered about this one. What does it mean to be poor in spirit and how can that be blessed?

After years of experiencing the pilgrimage we call the inner life I have found some kindred spirits throughout history who describe rather profoundly what it is like to be poor in spirit. People like Teresa of Avila, Evelyn Underhill, Macrina Weideker, Ignatius of Loyola, Barbara Brown Taylor and Jean Vanier all speak of the journey of being poor in spirit in words that are simple and yet profound. I find their words best summed up this way: self-emptying.

Macrina Weideker’s description send chills down my spine whenever I hear it. She says, in an excerpt from her poem, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit,
Being poor in spirit means
having nothing to call your own,
except your own poverty.
It is a joyful awareness of your emptiness.
It is the soil of opportunity
for God has space to work
in emptiness that is owned.

Being poor in spirit means
knowing that you are so small
and dependent
needy and powerless
that you live with an open heart
waiting to be blessed.
For only then can you be blessed
If you know
that you need blessing.

Jesus is our ultimate role model for self-emptying. He gave up equality with God, the writer of Philippines tells us (Phil. 2:3-7). He emptied himself, was born in human form and became obedient to the point of giving up his life. It’s hard for me to read these words yet they are so inspiring. I want to let go of the illusion of control in my life. I want to live a smaller, simpler and more meaningful life. I want to live with an open heart and open hands. I long to feel blessed. I know I need blessing. But it is so hard to live into this in a culture that values all of the opposites of what I long for. I need daily reminders and a lot of support from kindred spirits just to stay focused on wanting to live these desires.

Just recently I had a vivid reminder that I am not yet able to take everything in stride because it is not mine to control. I thought I had sold my condo. A woman had been to see it several times, emailing me for more details. She had offered to rent it with a large deposit until she could sell her own home. I thought we were well on the way to closure. Then I got an email saying she had found another condo that fit her needs better. This jarred me and I slipped into fear and dread.

Why was this so upsetting? Well first, it was just plain disappointing. But more than that, I had orchestrated this deal so that I could move when I wanted to and get a particular apartment. So I had it all completed in my mind. This really upset my plans. And beneath that there was also another truth.

I really don’t trust God. In fact, I am afraid of God.

I can see this truth as my cutting edge in life. Can I trust God? Do I believe God is there for me, that God will care for me, find me worthy to be loved? When I calm down and reflect, I have had dozens of examples of ways in which God is there for me, cares for me, seeks me out to show me how cherished I am, whether I feel worthy or not. Yet I still need reminders, especially when the unexpected happens. This condo sale is a way for me to simplify, to get smaller, to move closer to the heart of God, to self-empty; yet some part of me is afraid that I might lose myself completely, so that part of me fights to hold on, to get control.

Only God can help me with this dilemma. Only God can soothe me to the point where self-emptying feels holy and where dependency feels sacred. Only God can bless my emptiness and show me the way to God’s heart and a new way of living my life, a life of love.

Henri Nouwen puts into words what I am longing to experience in my emptiness.
It is very hard to allow emptiness in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. It requires trust, surrender, and openness to guidance. God wants to dwell in our emptiness. But as long as we are afraid of God and God’s actions in our lives, it is unlikely that we will offer our emptiness to God. Let’s pray that we can let go of our fear of God and embrace God as the source of all love.

Maybe the secret to moving forward in faith, no matter where we are, is to ask God to help us even to let go of our fear of God. That may seem risky but it also feels like the beginning of a new adventure. After all Jesus did say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Self-emptying brings us into the kingdom. Self-emptying connects us in community at deeper levels than we can describe. Community is the kingdom on earth. When I am open to love, to my poverty, to my need for blessing, I am in that kingdom community which is my deepest hearts desire. I’m not afraid of God when I experience that community– and I’m no longer bothered by that beatitude.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.
Macrina’s poem excerpt is from Tree Full of Angels and Nouwen’s quote is from his book, Gracias.

Reflections on this essay
What does poor in spirit mean to you?

Which line in Macrina’s poem most resonates with you? Why?

Do you trust God? How do you know that?

Are you afraid of God? How do you know that?

When does self-emptying feel holy and dependence feel sacred for you?

What Awakens God in the Middle of the Night?


Perhaps God awakens with joy

 over those of us who long for love

as a deer pants for a flowing stream

and give our whole lives

for one moment of divine union

Maybe it’s anguish over the ways we smother love

by setting forest fires in our souls

or the ways we harness one another

to our smoldering pain

What if God awakens just to accompany us

on our treacherous path into the dark woods

of our own awakening

I’d like to think God

awakens in the middle of the night

just to be with me

 ©Janet O. Hagberg, 2006

Reflections on this poem

How do you think God reacts to your feelings and behavior?

How do you experience God caring about what happens in your life?

Do you ever talk with God or listen for God in the middle of the night?

How does it feel that maybe God really cares enough about you to want to spend some free time just with you?

This is a sermon by one of my favorite people, Gary Klingsporn, describing the story of one of my favorite women in scripture. With his permission I share the notorious woman with you. The questions he asks at the end are the ones I offer you for reflection. Sorry about the editorial glitches. I tried:-)
“In Memory of Her”
Mark 14:1-11; Psalm 23:5
March 17, 2013
The Rev. Dr. Gary W. Klingsporn
First Congregational Church in Nantucket, MA
Novelist Sue Monk Kidd tells of something a woman once said to her that struck her as odd: Recently on the eve of my birthday a woman said to me with a completely serious face, “When I turn fifty, I want to become notorious.” “Notorious for what?” I asked. This seemed to throw her. “Well, I’m not sure,” she said. “I haven’t gotten that far along with the idea.”

Becoming notorious for the sake of becoming notorious was a peculiar idea to me. Besides that, had she consulted a dictionary for the meaning of notorious? I went home and looked it up. It said: “Notorious—widely but infamously [unfavorably] known or talked about.” I couldn’t see the appeal. But after my conversation with the woman, practically against my will, I began to entertain a thought: What would I want to be notorious for at fifty?”1

Later, we’ll hear how Kidd answers that question for herself. But first, the story of another woman who once became “notorious.” She appears in our reading from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper having dinner one night. It was a room full of men. Dinners like this were for men only. As Simon, Jesus,
and the others were eating and talking, a woman suddenly appeared out of nowhere—unnamed, uninvited, unannounced. She walked into the room carrying an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. She went over to Jesus, broke open the jar, and poured the perfume on his head. In that world it was a sign of love and respect.

But to those gathered at the table with Jesus, it was not a good thing at all. They immediately became angry, saying, “What’s this woman doing here? Why was this ointment wasted this way? This perfume could have been sold for a large sum of money and the money given to the poor.” The writer of Mark’s Gospel doesn’t identify those who protested, but Matthew says it was some of Jesus’ own disciples. They scolded the woman. With righteous indignation they reprimanded her for what she had done. It was an unconscionable extravagance and waste.

They were right about one thing. This was very expensive perfume imported from India. It could have been sold for three hundred denarii—more than a year’s wages for the common worker in that day. Can you imagine pouring your annual income on someone’s head? The money could have been given to the poor, they said. They had a point. After all, hadn’t Jesus often taught about caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless? Hadn’t Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “Go, sell all you have, and give it to the poor”? So they saw this woman’s act as a waste of money
that could have done great good elsewhere.

My good friend and colleague David Fisher says he’s heard that discussion in every church he’s been part of. Usually it follows a major expenditure or budget allocation with which some people disagree. Someone says, “We should have given that money to missions.” Or, “We shouldn’t be spending that money on that”—meaning something they don’t favor. This story sets up a tension between what is useful and practical versus what God may call us to do that seems impractical or even wasteful. But that’s a sermon for another day.

Jesus interrupts their complaining with a reply that is powerful and to the point. “Let her alone,” he says. “Why trouble the woman? She has done a beautiful thing for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.”

Jesus defends the woman’s extravagance saying, “She has done a beautiful thing, a special thing, for me.” The poor you always have with you, he says, and the obligation to care for them is ongoing and unceasing. That never changes. But this woman has done a
special thing, a timely thing. “She has prepared me for burial.” Whether the woman herself knew or sensed that Jesus was going to die later that week, Jesus interprets her act as preparing him for burial. What she did was a selfless act of love and devotion.

“She has done a beautiful thing” (RSV). The Greek word here for beautiful, kalos, means “good and morally right” as well as “aesthetically pleasing.” What she has done is admirable because it is an aesthetically pleasing act that is soothing, relaxing, and filled with a pleasing fragrance. Her act is also beautiful because it is a good and right act of love.

The woman’s act contrasts sharply with what happens just before and just after this scene in Simon’s house. Just before this, Mark tells us, the chief priests and scribes are looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and to kill him. Just after this, Judas Iscariot goes to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them for a price. Between these two dark scenes of plotting and betrayal Mark places this story of an unnamed woman’s act of love. The beauty of her deed contrasts sharply with the ugliness and hostility around Jesus.2 So Jesus says of her, “She has done a good and beautiful thing to me. She has prepared me for burial”—a reference to his death that was soon to come.

Then Jesus closes this story by saying, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” The rest is history. The story was told. It has been told ever since. And here we are again, two thousand years later, still remembering her. Appearing out of nowhere, unnamed, uninvited, she broke all the rules. She flagrantly crossed the lines of gender, social
custom, and propriety. She did the unexpected, in the minds of some, the unthinkable. “Wasteful” they called it, and it was. “Senseless,” they called it, and it was. “Unorthodox,” and it was. She became notorious, perhaps in every sense of that word.

My wife loves that bumper sticker that says, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” I love it too. You see it now on T-shirts, coffee mugs, plaques, and greeting cards. The saying was first used in 1976 in an academic paper by a scholar named Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. It found its way into popular culture, and because of that, in 2007 Ulrich wrote a
book called Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. The book is about how women have shaped history: American women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Harriet Tubman and other African-American women; and women like Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King.3

Well-behaved women rarely make history. When I hear those words I smile to myself and think of this unnamed woman in the Gospels. She broke the rules. I suppose many women who make history are regarded by some as negatively notorious before they are positively celebrated.

Theologian Paul Tillich says this woman’s act was “a holy waste, a waste growing out of the abundance of the heart.” Tillich says that Jesus and the early church regarded it as beautiful because “they knew that without the abundance of the heart nothing great can happen.” “Religion within the limits of reasonableness,” Tillich says, “is a mutilated religion.” “Calculating love is not love at all.”

Jesus affirmed this woman because he saw in her a fullness of heart that was willing to give of itself, to “waste itself” for others without calculating the cost in self-serving ways. Tillich asks, “Are we not in danger of a religious and moral utilitarianism which always asks for the reasonable purpose of something”—what use is this, what good is this, what will it do practically—the same question as that of the disciples in Bethany?4

Holy waste is the way of self-giving love that does not count the cost and does not put pragmatism above the beauty and wonder of love. It is the way of Jesus, the way of the Cross. One way to think about all this is to think about God as the Creator of this beautiful world. God’s creation is filled with the extravagance of God’s creative grace. Day by day there are gorgeous sunrises and spectacular sunsets, whether we see them or not. The tiniest flowering cactus in the desert, the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the sea, the fish and the whales, this magnificent universe of stars and galaxies, the complex,
intricate beauty of the microscopic world.

God’s world is filled with “holy waste.” God wastes beauty on us every day, whether we see it or not. But is it really a waste? No. God seems to enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake. The least we can do is try to be aware, to see and to enjoy God’s creation.5

That leads us back to Sue Monk Kidd who found herself pondering that odd question: What would I want to be notorious for at fifty? Sometime later, gathered with a group of her friends, Kidd read aloud a poem by the poet Mary Oliver. A poem in which Oliver writes about coming to the end of life and wanting to be able to say that she had spent her
life “married to amazement.” The words of the poem are these:

“When it’s over [when death comes], I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”6

When she read those words, Kidd says,“Suddenly something unexpected happened to me. My throat tightened. My eyes filled. I
don’t mean sad tears, but the kind that leak from something brimming.
“I looked at the faces around the room. They seemed beautiful and shining to me. I glanced at the common white lily in a vase and honestly, the sight nearly wiped me out. It was that impertinently gorgeous….I couldn’t think what to name the feeling except amazement at life. It was as if something fell from my eyes and I saw everything just as it is…. “Somehow I’d begun moving through life on automatic pilot, half-seeing, half-here, abducted by the dreaded small stuff.

But that evening, she says, “I resolved the question about what I wished to become notorious for at fifty. Let it be nothing more than harboring a wild amazement at life.”7 Let me become notorious, Kidd says, for having a deep awareness and a wild amazement at this life God has given us and this world in which God has placed us. Let us be
“notorious” for being aware of and amazed at God’s abundant gifts of grace in our lives.

Centuries before the woman anointed Jesus, the psalmist in Psalm 23 spoke of the abundance of God’s gifts in this way: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” It is a picture of God as the gracious host who prepares a feast for us as honored guests.

Even in the presence of our enemies—in the darkness of this world and the things that threaten us—God provides for us. “You prepare a table for me; you anoint my head with oil.” The psalmist uses the image of God anointing our heads with precious oil as honored guests—just like the woman did for Jesus that night at the table. God blesses us
with extravagant love. That love calls us to live a life of love in response to God’s goodness and mercy that pursues us all the days of our lives.

“She has done a beautiful thing for me….Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” She broke the rules. She brought beauty into that room and gave it away. She filled the room with sweet fragrance. Her story calls us to think about what acts of love—small or large, simple or extravagant—God calls us to for those around us.

So the question this morning is this: Who needs your love? I don’t know what there is for you to say or to do for someone. All I know is that there is someone who needs our love. And when we speak and act in love, whether in large or small ways, we never know what a difference that makes. God takes a word spoken, a gift given, a hand extended, and gives it a life and power far beyond what we can imagine.

So who needs your love? Who are you called to be in someone’s life? What are you called to do? It’s not about being notorious. It’s about being faithful.
1Sue Monk Kidd, Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings of Sue Monk Kidd (New York: Guideposts Books, 2006), p. 41.
2Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), pp. 246-48.
3Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, Inc., 2007).
4Paul Tillich, “Holy Waste,” in The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955). See
5For the illustration of God’s “holy waste” in creation I am indebted to Clover Beal in a sermon, “Costly Generosity,” March 11, 2012, Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, Cleveland Heights, OH
6Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), pp. 10-11.
7Kidd, Firstlight, pp. 42-43.

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