08 July 2011

Six Books on Marriage

Lots of things change once you get married. Some are big, and you see them coming- home arrangements, lifestyle changes, eating habits, etc. And other things are smaller, more innocuous, and take you by surprise. For example, I had no idea that Kelli and I would become such avid video gamers once we got married. It's just something we really enjoy doing together. We like puzzle games (You can do some serious bonding through the difficulties of the Portal and Portal 2 test chambers), and we enjoy hearing "Killamanjaro!" while taking out grunts and elites in Halo: Reach. 

Another thing that changed was my reading habits. I never hated reading, I just never had the patience to finish a book. It had to be really, really, really good to keep my attention for the required 200-400 pages. But leading up to our wedding, and certainly thereafter, I started reading more books. I still don't read a lot. But I'm normally in the middle of at least two books. It still takes me forever to finish them, but at least I usually finish them now!

I attribute a lot of this to the fact that Kelli and I read quite a few books on marriage leading up to our own marriage. The books we choose to read ended up being just perfect, and all were very helpful. We have a lot of friends getting married before this year is up, so I wanted to encourage them with some very instructional reading.

6. & 5. For Better or for Best and If Only He Knew by Gary Smalley

Gary Smalley has written a ton of books on marriage and relationships, but we found these two to be his best. For Better or for Best is written for wives, and If Only He Knew is written for husbands. Each goes into great detail explaining the inner workings of the opposite sex, and how they react within the confines of marriage to situations that arise. He approaches the subject matter as a counselor, so it can get kinda dry sometimes, but the wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from these books is great.

Kelli and I came up with a fun system to further the experience of reading through these books- I read the book written for women about men first, and wrote notes on all the pages, detailing where I thought Smalley nailed how I, as a man, think and react, and where he missed the mark. I highlighted things he said that especially resonated, and dismissed for Kelli sections I didn't think applied. She did the same thing as she read the book about women written for the men. Once we were done, we swapped, and read the books we were intended to read from the get go, but now with all kinds of notes from our partners as a guide through the process. It ended up being such a good exercise, that we repeated it with a couple more books further down the list.

4. Waking the Dead by John Eldredge

This is not, strictly speaking, a book about marriage. So I'll share a story to qualify it. I received this book as a high school graduation present in the summer of 2006 from my Bible study leader. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I've never been much of a reader. So when I started it, I didn't make it past the first chapter. It would be two years before I finally picked it up for another try. I can't even remember why I gave it a second shot - probably Divine intervention! But I informed by former Bible study leader that I had finally set about to finish the book she had gifted to me years before. "You better be careful, Josh!" She told me, "If you take that book to heart, someone's gonna fall head over heels for you!"

I mostly laughed it off and thought it was sweet, even though I didn't really understand why she'd said it.  As a nineteen-year-old who had never even had a girlfriend, I highly doubted a book with the flowery language of an Eldredge text was going to dramatically change my love life. As it turns out, however, my Bible Study leader was exactly right. Not even four months after she had predicted John Edredge's impact on the rest of my life, Kelli and I began the two year journey that led to our marriage.

Well? Well?! What did the book say? What was the secret?! I suggest reading Waking the Dead and finding out for yourself. But if you want a brief overview, the book is all about awakening the desires within ourselves as the living breath of Yahweh. I can't do it justice here, but suffice it to say, I never looked at other people the same way again. I began to actively seek out what brought everyone I knew to life. What it was that made their eyes light up. What that one thing was that they were perhaps afraid to really let anyone in on because they were afraid of being rejected.

Of course, I focused most of my attention on a sweet young woman with whom I was becoming quite smitten. And you know what? Kelli told me later that she couldn't help but fall for someone with whom she could share her dreams and desires, someone with whom she felt absolutely safe with her heart! I was too young and naive to have done this on my own, so I'm thankful to this book and my Bible study leader and the Good Lord for nudging me in the right direction. This book is essential whether you're dating, engaged, married, or as single as single can be.

3. & 2. Letters to Karen and Letters to Philip by Charlie W. Shedd

These books are not dissimilar to the Gary Smalley books listed above- one is written for men, the other for women. What makes these books so special is how timeless they are (both were written in the late 1970s) and the perspective from which they were written- These are letters from a father to his children. Minister Charlie W. Shedd was asked by his daughter before her wedding for letters from her daddy on how to be a good wife. The results were published as Letters to Karen, and then a couple of years later, as Letters to Philip when Minister Shedd's son asked the same of his father before his own wedding. The results are deep, intimate, and beautiful. While Gary Smalley's books are largely clinical and fact-driven in their approach, Charlie W. Shedd approaches these books as only a father can- from his heart. He is obviously a man who has counseled many, many couples, but these are his kids, and he approached the challenge with a personal love you won't find in many books. 

These are the shortest reads on the list, and could both be easily finished in one sitting. Kelli and I enhanced the experience by repeating our Gary Smalley exercise and trading books first to take careful notes. We had a lot of fun with these. I cannot recommend them more highly.

1. Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas

This probably isn't a surprise to anyone that keeps up with this blog. But for anyone who has never heard of it- this is the best book I have ever read on the subject of marriage. Hands down. No questions asked. No debate necessary. Thomas' thesis is: "What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?" And he spends the entire book tirelessly defending, expanding, and answering this question.

It isn't light reading, and you won't finish it with a warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach as with the other books on this list. Gary Thomas looks you in the eye for 300+ pages and says "Marriage is the hardest thing you will ever do in your entire life, and you will spend all of that time trying to get good at it. Are you really, truly sure you want to do this?" But this isn't a book encouraging the rising culture of "singleness" that has appeared in Christianity. He sums up his sentiment on the issue early on in the book: "If you want to be free to serve Jesus, there's no question- stay single. Marriage takes a lot of time. But if you want to become more like Jesus, I can't imagine any better thing to do than to get married."

Rarely does Thomas speak about the personal benefits of marriage. Rather, 99% of his attention is spent discussing how best to serve your spouse (and God!) through marriage.

Thomas paints a picture of marriage as the ultimate line in the sand- you will either serve Yahweh and succeed, or serve yourself and be miserable. There is no middle ground. It forces your hand. He details the ultimate irony- that the only way to be truly happy in marriage is to completely die to yourself and your own desires. In doing so, he illustrates what is meant when the Bible says the marriage between a man and a woman is a picture of the one between Yahweh and humanity.

You will finish Sacred Marriage feeling one of two ways- scared to death, or more resolute and excited than ever. If ever there was a litmus test determining a person's readiness regarding marriage, it is this book. I cannot sing its praises more highly. Biblically grounded on every page- you will be thinking about it long after you finish.


That's my list. Each of these books helped immeasurably as Kelli and I prepared ourselves for our wedding day. What books have you found that help in regards to relationships and marriage?

07 May 2011

Take Heart! Everyone Else is as Stupid as You.

In high school, I was the definition of a puppy dog crush, chasing this girl around as best I could without being too obvious. She always seemed cool, collected, calculated, mysterious... all the things I was not, growing up. I was attracted to that, but also saw it as a barrier separating us; because, after all- how could a girl like that like a guy like me?

I was a holy mess. Socially awkward. Never quite sure of my place. Drifting in and out of close friendships, and never really feeling like I was worth the time it took to get to know me. But no way I was going to let anyone know that.

So instead of bottling it up and being shy and reserved, I did the opposite growing up. I told jokes. I spread myself around. I made sure everyone had a high opinion of me at all times, regardless of how tiring that eventually got.

Of course, the only opinion I really cared about at the time was that of my high school crush. Sometimes she paid attention, sometimes she didn't. Sometimes I'd hear she'd mentioned me in conversations with others, sometimes she would comment on my Xanga and MySpace pages... and sometimes I'd hear nothing from her for weeks at a time. I lived for the moments when she noticed me.

Because I was a wreck. I was figuring out who I was. And she appeared to have most everything already figured out.

Years later, I ended up marrying that same girl, and we have lots of conversations now about what life was like for us back then. I'm sure you know where this is going...

Kelli was probably even more confused, awkward, and socially inept than I was. She never fit in either, she was just good at hiding it like I was. I thought she spent almost every night partying it up with all of the school friends I wasn't cool enough to hang out with all the time; when in reality, she spent most every night of the week quietly watching television or playing video games with her siblings- pretty much the exact same thing I did every night during high school.

I grew up thinking I was the weirdest, dumbest, strangest person I knew. Everyone else around me had their stuff together, and I was just barely hanging on- making moves as I saw others making moves, hoping to be seen and noted, but only because I was cool like everyone else. But at some point you have enough conversations with people to realize that everyone is the exact same way.

One of my favorite episodes of the radio drama Adventures in Odyssey is called "Coming of Age." Little Jimmy Barclay starts going through adolescence; and he is confused, and feeling alone in the world. So Mr. Whittaker gives him one of the best nuggets of truth that the program has ever put forth: "Everyone your age feels the same way you do. No matter how cool or together they may seem on the outside, inside, they're just as scared and confused as you are."

A while ago, I was riffling through some old emails and came across one from a good friend years ago. "I'm a great liar," he confessed, "I'm a pro at the mask," he went on, before speaking more broadly: "It's not that you can't trust anyone, but seriously- everyone's messed up no matter how good their mask looks. They're a train wreck like everyone else."

These are just things I've been thinking about lately. There's no neat bow to wrap around it. It just is what it is. No one has a clue, everyone's just making it up as they go along. So, I guess, I mean it more as a stress reliever than a call to action.

Take heart! Everyone else is as stupid as you are. We're all in it together. Your confusion and insecurity is just more obvious to you because you're the only one who has to live in your own body.

So just rest in that knowledge, let yourself breath. Equipped with that knowledge, maybe find someone not so comfortable in their own skin and let them know they have a friend in you, because you have no idea what you're doing either. Thank Yahweh for it!

One of my best friends since senior year of high school is a guy named Barry. His friendship has always been greatly appreciated, because he's pretty much the only really close guy friend I've had since high school, aside from my brother and my father. But the thing is, Barry and I don't have much in common. We get along great, and we have fun, always. He's a great friend, and we've seen each other through a lot of good and hard times. But if I really had to sit back and think about it, I'd be hard pressed to come up with even a short list of similarities that we share. It's always puzzled me how we've stayed such good buds for so long. I related this to Kelli the other day- "Barry and I have very little in common," I said. "I think the only reason we're still friends is because he has stuck with me."

"Well, you've stuck with him, too," she replied. "You two have that in common."

31 December 2010

When Our Grand Kids Want to Hear the Story

It's 2005, and I'm a nervous high school senior with a serious crush on the prettiest girl at school. Likelihood of feelings being reciprocated are hanging somewhere between not likely and absolutely not. Try as I may to focus on other things, to be mature and not let this silly little crush end me, I can't seem to shake the feeling. We don't talk that much, but when we do, it just feels special. At least it does on my end. I want to get to know this girl. I want to be the one she calls when things are good, and not so good. But it's all just a pleasant fantasy, I'm sure.

In a flash, I'm sitting in the back of my family's van, five years later. Suitcases packed, it's obvious we're heading to Florida to see the relatives. It must be Christmas time! I'm aware of the presence of someone in the backseat with me, curled up and sleeping. But with my eyes forward, I see the rest of my family first. Dad driving, mom shotgun, my two siblings just ahead of me. So who is next to me?

I slowly turn my head to find that it's Her, asleep. Her hair is a holy mess, the result of some serious bedhead, but she looks like an angel. Why is she here?

I am then keenly aware of a slight pressure on a finger on my left hand, my ring finger, specifically. I've never been one for jewelry, so that piece of white gold must have some serious significance. I start to put two and two together, and all I can think to think is: "How on earth did I get here?"

Sometimes, it's fun to do this, when something otherwise mundane is going on- Take myself out of the scene for a second, and pretend a 17-18 year old me has been thrust into the very moment I am currently living, transported multiple years with no real explanation. What would I think? Would I be able to comprehend all the changes?

Only one thing is really for sure: I would be so thankful. I wouldn't be able to get over how thankful I was.

In his fantastic book Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy?, Gary Thomas spends a lot of time stressing the importance of remembering your sacred history with your spouse. It sounds a little corny when you read it out loud. But, four months into this thing, it's already hugely apparent that this is vital!

Remembering your sacred history keeps you humble and honest and, most importantly, clear minded. There are times when the shimmer wanes and all the flash of being newlyweds disappears and being married is just... normal. I'm pretty sure that being married should never be normal.

So when Kelli and/or I threaten complacency in our young marriage, I grab her close and remind her of the time we had our "movie moment" in front of prom in 2007, or the night we finally talked about our feelings in 2008, or just how long and confusing and breathtaking our young friendship was for the first few years- all the things that make it apparent that there's a divine plan and an unmistakable romance in our relationship that is so, so special.

Oh, how thankful I am that long before we were even together, the story of our first meeting was so deeply ingrained in our minds, and was retold often, almost as though Yahweh knew our meeting needed to be just like a movie. It's for this very reason that I asked Kelli to date and marry me in the same place we first met! There is a reverence and beauty in the sacred history He has written for us, and it must not be forgotten, but celebrated. It is worship, after all!

So when we're old and our grand kids want to know the moment I knew I was going to marry their grandmother, I'll smile with pride because I'll remember exactly when it was. Because Kelli and I retell those stories to each other all of the time.

Because that stuff is important.

30 November 2010

If I could change one thing about you, I wouldn't.

If there is one point my dad tried to hammer into me when I was younger, it's that you can't change anybody.

People can change their own behaviors, and God can change their hearts, but you are responsible for you. It's the great struggle. The inevitable inner-turmoil we all stare down at some point: You can't change anyone.

So it goes without saying that you can't change your wife. But it should be said anyway: You can't change your wife.

And of course you always hear this, but once you're married, you understand why God found it good and right to make sure you heard it so often growing up. It's hard. And it doesn't matter how great of a wife you have (Or whether or not you're still in your "honeymoon stage" of the marriage), at some point you sit back, evaluate, and decide there's about a million "Well if she would just..."

It's the ultimate guise because it almost seems noble. At its supposed root, you feel like you're just trying to help them live a better life (And all the benefits you yourself would reap from this change are just happy accidents.).

Of course, the real root is selfishness. It's this unconscious "if she would change, I'd be happy." And it's all wrong. It's this idea that things have to be right to be good. And it's wrong.

I look back on Kelli's and my short three months of marriage so far (And years of being together), and the times I cherish the most are the ones we were growing by leaps and bounds through adversity. Throughout our relationship, it's been hard, and it's been slow goings, but on our wedding day when I could honestly say I wasn't the least bit nervous, but actually peaceful, it was totally worth it.

Because we'd tried to change each other. And we found it doesn't work.

This is what I've found, instead: For every one annoying, I-honestly-can't-believe-she-does-this that I can find, there's about one hundred How-is-it-God-blessed-me-with-such-a-perfect-mate?s to be found, and I am a fool to focus on the plank in my best friend's eye. So instead, I praise her for all of her incredible attributes (Be they actions, or identity. It's important to praise her simply for who God made her!)

And y'know what? Eventually, the things she does that annoy me, either stop bothering me or she simply stops doing them.

It's like the opening to my favorite radio show, Adventures in Odyssey: "Oh hi there! I was just working on one of my inventions here! ...This is Odyssey! Hey! Let's see if this thing works!" (Clattering and chaos) "Woah woah, hold it! Okay... so, it needs a little more work! But that's the exciting part, because you never know what you'll discover along the way."

The things you learn when you surrender yourself and die to the flesh make it seem silly to even get annoyed by annoyances in the first place.

I'm thankful for the things about Kelli that drive me crazy. It's an invitation to fall deeper in love with her, and to love her because she's simply...her. It's an invitation to die to self. I can't say I'm even close to getting good at it, but I rejoice in the knowledge that there is joy in adversity, and wisdom in struggle.

If I could change one thing about Kelli, I wouldn't! Can you imagine the mess I'd make if I could? Praise Yahweh!

05 November 2010

Where I Act Like a Wife and She Acts Like a Husband

Anyone who knows Kelli and I knows that I'm the talker and she's the quiet one. Not by definition, but if you had to decide which of those title went to which, I'd be the talker and she'd be the quiet one. I'm a little more outgoing, a little more willing to put myself out there, and she's more reserved, more introspective, more pensive.

So I don't really know why I came into our marriage believing all those marriage books and everything I'd ever heard about communication within marriage were going to apply to us. The general understanding is that wives love to chat about their days, and their husbands need to hang on their every word, all the time, because we're getting glimpses into their spirit. Communication, communication, communication. The lack of it is the number one cause of divorce, or something.

I understood this, and I was so ready. When I got home from work, I'd devote as much time as Kelli wanted to just chatting it up, as she revealed her spirit to me through conversation. I was pumped. I was going to be the best husband ever. I was going to listen to her even if she talked my ear off for five hours and then it was time for bed.

So understand my confusion when Kelli just didn't really want to talk. I'd try and broach subjects. I'd try and open those lines of communication. But sometimes she just didn't want to throw me a bone, or at least as much of a bone as I was hoping for.

Nope, sometimes I'd get home and she'd just want to put on a movie and lie on the couch with me. I didn't get it. Why didn't she want to talk to me? Was I being a good enough husband? Was I bad at conversation? Did she feel she could relate things to me? Wives are supposed to want to talk... right? Why am I the one that wants to communicate?

What I was failing to realize was that lying on the couch and watching a movie is communicating to Kelli. It speaks to her spirit just to spend some quality time together with our brains turned off and the safety that comes from marriage. She needs that.

A lot of it has to do with how we grew up. While her siblings and her were spending quiet evenings watching movies, my siblings and I were making them with home camcorders. One isn't better than the other, they're just different.

So it's the opposite of the social norm, but now, I recognize her need for the occasional quiet evening, and she recognizes my need for conversation. It's taken some getting used to, but I love loving my wife in that way.

File it under "Things You Couldn't Have Planned For." The roles are reversed, and it took some time and patience, but we were able to adapt for each other. And that's good communication.

26 October 2010

Rule #32: Enjoy the Little Things

Kelli and I love grocery shopping together. Maybe it's the fact we were both initially so nervous about being the sole shoppers for our new home, with no experienced mothers in the mix to keep things on the rails. Or maybe it's just that we're enjoying getting good at it. Or maybe it's getting to pick out our "one treat" each. Whatever it is, we love going together. We make it fun.

So it was a bummer yesterday when Kelli made a restock trip while I was working. We both expressed a little remorse that it'd worked out that way, but we had some old friends coming over that night, and we wouldn't have time to go after I got home. It really wasn't a big deal, just one of those "well, darn" kind of things. But that was the first time it really struck me that I really enjoy doing that with my wife. It's a little thing, but we treasure doing it together.

Over the weekend, Kelli and I watched a movie where one of the rules was to always "Enjoy the little things" (Even in a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic world where the "little things" include trashing an abandoned gift shop to release some pent up anxiety. Also, Twinkies.). And sure, it's a pretty basic idea, but in the context of this particular film, it was an ironic juxtaposition. You should always be enjoying the little things! It ought to be a rule.

I think it's important to stop every once and a while and completely remove yourself from the moment you're living, and just think about everything that led up to that particular moment. So many little, mundane things become meaningful.

We had a blast with our old friends last night. And it was great to think back on our history with all of these particular people. So much has happened over the years, and it was truly a blessing to have all of them together, goofing off and carrying on in one room, having a great time. It would have been easy to just think of it as another fun game night, but, for me, it was the accumulation of years of history together leading to one great evening. We didn't really talked about it last night, but Kelli touched on my sentiments when she pulled me aside in the kitchen and simply whispered, "I like this." Me too, Keener!

So it may be a simple thing, but it's really and honestly a form of worship, to sit across the table from your wife, laughing about something stupid, and then removing yourself just long enough to think about everything that went into creating this one moment. Your only response is to tip your hat to the Big Man and give him a heartfelt, "Thank You for this. It's wonderful."

12 October 2010

That Our Home May Be a Praise

I absolutely love my parents' home.

It was mine too for eighteen or so years. Let me tell you a little about it.

The home actually starts on the front lawn. Back in the day, that's where all the neighborhood kids knew the best game of touch football could be found most every summer day.

As long as there's someone awake in the house, the door is always unlocked, and friends know they never have to knock. Who wants to be greeted at the door anyway. Come on in, plop down, and tell me about your day. There's always someone at the house. Usually multiple someones. I think I can count the number of times I was alone in that home on two hands. In eighteen years.

If there's something good on TV, everyone knew where the party would be. "The Office Season Premiere" and "The Taylor House" became synonymous for a long time. The house was so packed one year that multiple rooms with different TVs were filled to capacity to accommodate.

And there's always something delicious going on in the kitchen. My mom is always cooking something tasty for anyone at the house, and she knows everyone's favorite meals. She'll tailor the menu depending on who is there that night, and she'll bribe you with her world famous quesadillas if it means you'll come over to the house. She loves having people over.

And it shows. That place has always felt like home to a whole lot of people. If ever anyone was in need of a place to crash for a day or a week or a month, my parents were always more than willing to oblige. There's always someone staying the night.

You always walk out of that house feeling better than when you walked into it- I guess that's the main point. I always loved that. I always loved how safe everyone- my family, my friends, and anyone else who happened to enter- felt there. We grew up wondering why so many neighborhood kids wanted to spend so much time at our house. When we entered the world outside the doorstep for ourselves, we understood.

Some good friends got married this past weekend, and among the many promises they made that day was this gem: "...that our home may be a praise to Him." What a beautiful way to illustrate that point!

My parents' home is praise. Ask anyone who has been there. Go ahead, ask! It's not presumptive- It's a fact! My parents' home is praise to Yahweh.

One of the first things I told Kelli about our new place was that I want everyone to feel at home here. I want the door to always be opened for anyone in need of an open door. I want this place to be a safe house- a Trust. Anyone entering is to feel completely wrapped in love, and when they leave, I want them to feel better than when they arrived.

Just last night we had three of our dearest friends over (two of whom happened to be my siblings), and already I see this home being praise. Obviously it takes time to establish a trust in a new place, but I believe the groundwork has been laid by the hard work of my parents at their home over the years. They taught us well.

So, here's to the prayer that as long as Kelli and I occupy this place, that it may be a praise to Him.