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October’s Verse

(From the Irish Christian Calendar 2011)

A man drowning. Not waving but drowning. Frantic. From safety a hand reaches out. Grab on! Still he thrashes. Grab on! More thrashing around—panic. Take hold! The thrashing ceases. A gradual sinking… too late, now.

Why? A voice from the depths. I didn’t need rescued. Not by him. I was doing fine myself. I couldn’t admit that he was right. It would cost too much. I’d lose face. What would my family think—rescued by him. Just pride. Pride. And fear. Fear of what? Not drowning. People. Opinions. Talk. Just pride really.

And where has it got me?

“These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” – John 5:39-40

Haunting words from Jesus Christ. In Ireland we have the scripture in Irish and English and many other languages. It’s only a click away on the internet, a step away on a shelf or cupboard, a walk away in Easons or other bookshops.

But it’s not the having that counts, it’s our hearts—
“yet you refuse.”

Haunting words. Words that will haunt for all eternity. French philosopher John Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people”. He was wrong. Part of Hell will be ourselves. Our own memories—recriminating, accusing, “I had the message, yet I refused it. I had the opportunity and I refused. Why O why did I not take it? How could I have been so stubborn, so proud, so fearful of others’ opinion?”

Haunting words, for our attitude to Jesus in this life determines the next. If we accept him in this life he will accept us in the next. If we refuse him in this life, he will refuse us in the next. It is not our actions or our good lives, but our acceptance or refusal of Jesus’ salvation that determines it.

And one of the staggering things about Jesus’ statement is that he spoke it to the devoutly religious of his day, even to people who
‘diligently study the Scriptures’ (John 5:39). They thought that by reading and keeping commands they were in. Jesus says that it’s about more than the commands. It is about him—‘testify about me…come to me’. You can come so close, and still refuse the hand that reaches out.

You who read this column, thank you for reading, but can I ask “Have you got Him?” Or is something causing you to hold back, as yet, refusing to come to him that you may have life?

Haunting words. May they haunt you here, so that they do not haunt you there.

The Four Horsemen of Divorce

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink quotes University of Washington psychologist John Gottman who studies couples and their interactions. For years he has taped couples chatting about topics and studied a whole range of indicators from the tiny facial movements to posture to tone to verbal content. Piecing it all together after watching and analysing an hour of conversation on any subject between husband and wife, he is able to predict with 95% accuracy whether or not they will be married in 15 years or not.

Watching only 15 minutes still allowed him to predict with 90% accuracy. In fact, watching only 3 minutes of a conversation contains enough clues.

That’s phenomenal—especially when you take into account that when they gave the same tapes to 200 psychiatrists and marriage counsellors they had only a 54% success rate of predicting success or failure—little better than tossing a coin.

But Gottman is able to narrow it down even further. Amidst all the welter of data about a marriage there are four key factors—Four Horsemen he calls them—that are signs that a marriage is in a critical situation.

The Four Horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.

Criticism—“You don’t appreciate me”, “You never do anything about this place”, “You’re stupid/ugly/lazy.” Personal generalised sweeping statements that aren’t designed to be helpful, just to hurt.

Defensiveness—It’s often the response to criticism, you know how it goes, you’re in the wrong, but you won’t admit it. She says “You never take the bin out” and you retort with “I would do, but you never put anything in it, just leave it lying around here looking like a tip.” “You’re always in a foul mood”—“That’s ’cos I’m married to you.” And so on—excuses and blame-shifting are the order of the day.

Stonewalling—Another response to either legitimate issues, or to illegitimate criticism. There is no spitefulness, just a tuning out. 85% of time it’s the husband. He hears the issue and refuses to engage—sighs and changes channel, or walks out of the room or house. It says, “I don’t rate your opinion, I don’t rate this as an issue worth my time or effort to solve. I’m done.” It’s unspoken contempt.

Contempt—The insult, the name-call, a sneer, the mocking taunt, the rolling of eyes, scorn, treating your spouse with disdain in front of family or friends. They all communicate disgust. The aim is simply to belittle, to score points.

Of the four, Gottman says contempt is the worst. You might have thought it would be criticism. Criticism is about what a person does, and will cause them to react defensively, but contempt displays disgust for who a person actually is.

Where’s your marriage at? Do any of the horsemen inhabit your home? The good news is that it isn’t too late. Hard work will need to be done—the hard work of repentance and forgiveness. But we need to start with the vertical relationship between us and God—with repentance and forgiveness from Jesus—then we find him enabling us to repent and forgive each other on a horizontal level, and our marriages transformed and relationships healed.

What do children really want?

How do you satisfy that small person who just doesn’t seem to be happy? “What more can I give them?” the frustrated parent cries when they feel they aren’t doing enough. Phrases like “You never wanted for anything” ring out from parents to ‘unappreciative’ youngsters.

A UNICEF report on the well-being of children delivered a shock for UK parents last week as the UK came in bottom of a league of 21 nations for happiness among its children. The BBC summed it up succinctly: “Our children need time not stuff”.

Although it’s about the UK, I wonder how much of these home truths apply to Ireland too. We may have come a little late to the economic prosperity party, but we jumped in well and truly once it arrived. Suddenly there were jobs, more hours, more work. Let’s work more, buy bigger houses, go on better holidays. Now they are gone, but the mindset lingers.

We are caught up in a world where we get our sense of identity from our work, or what we purchase with the money we earn, and we impose these values on our children—expecting them to be satisfied with possessions too.

We come home from work, tired and frustrated because we didn’t get any deep sense of satisfaction from it, we feel deeply in need of some time to ourselves—after all, “We’ve earned it”. And there is a little person, whom we brought into the world, who is hardwired for time with us, waiting—and all we can see is an interruption, a nuisance, another person needing our attention. So we send them to play with the expensive toys we bought them, or to park themselves in front of the TV to watch another DVD we purchased for them, not really because we love them, but because we love ourselves and want some time for ourselves.

UNICEF paints a picture of a country that has got its priorities wrong—trading quality time with our children for cupboards full of expensive toys that aren't used.

Dr Tessa Livingstone writes on the Daily Telegraph’s website:

‘The average 10-year-old can name-check 400 brands and is increasingly likely to use them to measure self-worth. British children are inundated with presents. There is £7.3 billion worth of goods in children’s bedrooms.

‘I remember talking to an unemployed father whose wish was to be able to give his son a games console and other presents. I asked whether he played with his son: “I only want to give him something. It’s my job to give the kids what they want, not to do anything else.” That’s what being a successful dad was to him.’

UNICEF found that Spanish and Swedish children have more contact time with their families and rarely buy into the consumerist dream. Sadly we give less time and buy more.

“What more can I give you?”—the answer is ‘Yourself’.
“You never wanted for anything”—yes, in fact, they wanted, but didn’t get time with their parents.

“Children are an inheritance from the LORD, offspring a reward from him.” (Psalm 127:3) One day we will have to give account of what we did, and how we raised the children God has given to us.

Love is…

Do you remember those cheesy cards that had the little cherubic boy and girl looking slightly wistfully at each other and slightly embarrassed, with the slogan “Love is…”?

I’ve been reading a book on marriage recently and came across a list of definitions of the kind of love that marriage requires. We live in a world where people believe that the emotional feelings they mistake for love are enough to hold a marriage together. Instead marriage is a commitment of the will (although not devoid of emotion!) to the good of the other—for better, for worse etc.

Here are some of Paul Tripp’s definitions of the love that is called for both in husbands and in wives. They’ll probably not make it as far as the card shop, or grace a range of fridge magnets, but they will doubtless help form the basis of lasting marriages.

“Love is being willing to have your life complicated by the needs and struggles of your husband or wife without impatience or anger”—Is your marriage just about having someone there for you when you need them, or are you prepared to serve them and their needs?

“Love is being unwilling to make any personal decision or choice that would harm your marriage, hurt your husband or wife, or weaken the bond of trust between you.”

“Love is the willingness to make regular and costly sacrifices for the sake of your marriage without asking anything in return or using your sacrifices to place your spouse in your debt”— Love requires us to say no to our selfish instincts, and to look for specific ways to serve, support, and encourage, even when busy or tired, without saying “look at all I’ve done for you”.

“Love is staying faithful to your commitment to treat your spouse with appreciation, respect, and grace, even in moments when he or she doesn’t seem to deserve it or is unwilling to reciprocate”—Lovey dovey conversation is all fine over a romantic dinner, but what is the conversation like when the dinner is burnt, the car has a fresh dent, and tempers are running high? Love means speaking kindly and gently, even in moments of disagreement, refusing to attack your spouse’s character or assault their intelligence.

“Love is being unwilling to flatter, lie, or manipulate, in any way in order to co-opt your spouse into giving you what you want or doing something your way”—The foundation of a marriage is where both partners trust that the other loves them enough to want what is best for them.

“Love is always being willing to ask for forgiveness and always being committed to grant forgiveness when it is requested.”

It’s a high standard, and one we have drifted far from. But it’s not possible simply to try harder in order to improve our marriages. We need more—we need to have experienced ourselves what unconditional, sacrificial, forgiving, servant love is like. And the only place to find that is in Jesus Christ.

(Quotes taken from Paul Tripp “What did you expect - Redeeming the Realities of Marriage”)

Christianity and Culture

We live in a so-called Christian culture. What precisely does that mean? It’s not simply a statement about our religious beliefs. Witness the recent shootings in Norway where the assailant claimed he was a Christian, but stated that he had no personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Rather than being a religious Christian, he saw himself as a cultural Christian—ie. he liked the morals (apart, apparently, from the command not to murder) and the Christian heritage of Europe.

In his, as in many others’ minds, Christianity is far wider than a set of religious beliefs—so wide in fact that it could even be disconnected from the religious beliefs themselves.

What has this got to with Ireland? We have our own set of cultures—Catholic and Protestant—both claiming Christianity. It strikes me that both have broadened out their definition from their initial religious one to a much broader cultural one.

To be a Catholic or a Protestant is much more than a set of religious beliefs. It is a whole cultural package made up of different strands—from politics (nationalist or unionist), to our view of history (invaded or rightful settlers), right down through to sport (GAA or rugby) and music (uillean pipes or flute bands). And somewhere occasionally in the mix there is our religious belief (Catholic or Protestant). I’m generalising of course, but generally that’s the case.

But it is the religious labels that have become the focal point of crystallisation of these cultures—every strand of the culture hangs on either one of these labels. The religious component has become the dominant label even when it is not the main component. It was not always so, nor is it helpful on many levels. But the level that concerns me is the spiritual level.

We have simplified society in Ireland into these two categories, such that to be a good protestant or a good catholic is less about what you believe religiously and more about your politics, your clan, and your social preferences. There are plenty of people who consider themselves Protestant or Catholic who know exactly where they stand on history, politics and culture, but have little concept of what they are meant to believe religiously.

This is a tragedy because eternity hangs, not on our political or cultural preferences, but on the content of what we believe—the very area where we assume the most, but perhaps question or even know the least.

True Christianity is above culture. To be a Christian isn’t making a statement about our politics, or history, or culture—although Christianity will impact these areas for good. It is simply about our relationship with God.

You can have a right relationship with God and retain your politics, history, music, sport etc. We Irish people, whether from Protestant or Catholic backgrounds, need to look beyond the confines of our culture, and make sure that our relationship with God is based on God’s terms not our culture’s.