Thursday, February 23, 2012

Deconstructing the Marriage Metaphor of Ephesians 5 - Part 3

In Part 1 I describe the traditional interpretation of the marriage metaphor offered by Paul in Ephesians 5 and introduced the problem of “mystery.” In Part 2, I suggest an alternative reading of Ephesians 5:21-27. Today in Part 3 of this series, I want to focus on a passage that I believe unlocks the meaning of the marriage metaphor.

In the next unit, 5:28-33, Paul takes the correspondence of husband-wife and Christ-Church to a deeper and more profound connection – the mysterious one flesh union. The head/body metaphor is not a model for setting the husband above the wife in authority or responsibility. It is a metaphor for unity, one that is founded on their union as equal partners of grace in a relationship of mutual submission. For Paul, the mystery of this union is best pictured by a human body that is viewed holistically. How the body moves as one yet with distinct parts is a representation of the mysterious union of husband and wife and of Christ and the Church.

Using a Jewish literary device called a chiasm, Paul connects the concrete metaphor of a head with its body to a theological mystery. Here is how these verses set up as chiasm:

In this same way,

husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.
This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

I believe many make a mistake in applying linear forms of thought progression to this passage of Paul’s writing. The main point is not at the end – husbands love your wives and wives respect your husbands. The main point is in the center, identified by the chiastic structure: A husband is to leave his family of origin and be united with his wife in a one-flesh union.

If Paul had wanted to provide a hierarchical model of marriage, it would have made more sense to appeal to the order of creation or the deception of Eve which he uses in 1 Timothy 2 (perhaps a passage for a future post). Instead he appeals to a verse that defines the core of a marriage – the mysterious union of husband and wife where two individuals become “one flesh.” The one flesh metaphor corresponds to the head/body metaphor.

The relationship of the head to the body is not a function of authority but a necessity to unity and life. You can cut off an arm or leg and you still have a body that lives. But cut off the head and you kill the body. Paul is exhorting husbands to embrace what has been true since the day the vows were exchanged and the marriage was consummated. A husband is connected to his wife in a mysterious union of one flesh, of one body. Therefore he must live out that union by submitting to his wife and loving his own “body” by giving himself up to her.

I do not believe Paul is exhorting the husband to step into a role of spiritual leader but to step with his wife in a partnership of unity by connecting to his wife like a head needs to connect with its body. Disconnection from his wife hurts her, even “kills” her as it would if a person was beheaded.

This is what it felt like for me during a very rough time in our marriage. Our dance had stopped. Jon was overwhelmed in his job as a chemistry teacher and manager of the drivers education program for the entire school district. He was hardly home. And I kept myself busy as well, first with homeschooling and later with seminary and church ministry. We quit spending time together just for fun and for romance. Jon was focused on juggling his work and his students. And he was happy to have me take care of everything else. We were managers living as housemates in a disconnected dance.

Finally one evening I told Jon I had lost my feelings of love for him. I told him the long-term disconnection left me numb and unable to respond to him with any feeling. I also assured him that I had no intention of leaving him. I was committed to our marriage. But I could no longer maintain my fa├žade of happiness and needed to be completely honest. There were no demands, I said, just a deep desire for him to really know me, for him to know how empty and broken my heart was.

It was terribly difficult for me to say these words to him. I knew it would hurt him deeply. Jon didn’t say much but with his eyes and his embrace, he received my words with grace and humility. And then in the following months he acted. Within one year our marriage was completely transformed and our hearts were reconnected. Our one flesh union was not just a theological statement but a deeply felt reality.

Paul’s metaphor for marriage is not a model or a mandate. It is a PROFOUND MYSTERY in its image of unity that cannot be fully explained but is intended by God to be experienced. This is true of both marriage and Christ and the Church.

This understanding of the head and body metaphor for marriage makes more sense to me than a hierarchical interpretation within the immediate context of Ephesians 5:21—6:9 as well as within the whole book where unity is a main theme. I offer this alternative understanding of Ephesians 5 to couples who want an alternative story for their marriage. I offer it to couples who actually live this kind of unity and co-leadership despite the story they have been told in the church. And I respect the decision of those who choose to remain loyal to the traditional story but I suggest that a husband’s role of leadership be assigned by gifting and agreed to by mutual consent rather than a mandate based on a possible misreading of Ephesians 5.

To conclude I read this quote recently: “Therapy is the art of changing a person’s controlling metaphor.”

So is preaching and teaching. With this blog series I offer a different controlling marriage metaphor.

I think Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captures the intent of Paul’s metaphor in his poem, Song of Hiawatha, and offers a 19th century version of the metaphor:

 As unto the bow the cord is,
So unto the man is woman;
Though she bends him, she obeys him,
Though she draws him, yet she follows;
Useless each without the other!

Can you think of a 21st century metaphor of marriage that would speak to couples today?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Deconstructing the Marriage Metaphor of Ephesians 5 - Part 2

Yesterday in Part 1, I presented the traditional interpretation of the marriage metaphor offered by Paul in Ephesians 5. Today I want to deconstruct the traditional understanding of marriage based on this passage by offering a different perspective.

In Ephesians 5:22-27 the relationship between the head and the body, or the husband and the wife, cannot be understood apart from the reigning paradigm in verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This model of mutual submission is then fleshed out in the following three spheres of relationships addressed by Paul: marriage, parenting, and management.

Starting with the last and working my way backward, slaves submit by humble obedience and wholehearted service while masters submit by treating their slaves with kindness and fairness. Children submit by obeying and honoring their parents while fathers submit by not exasperating their children but instead by involved nurturing. Assuming consistency, Paul also applies the paradigm of mutual submission to the husband and wife relationship.

Interestingly when Paul addresses the marital relationship, not much is offered as to how the wife submits to the husband. At least, not until the end of his discourse on marriage (5:33) after Paul explains how the husband earns her respect. This is conjecture on my part but perhaps the readers of Paul’s day know fairly well what submission looks like for wives (they have been submitting for hundreds of years) and that is why Paul’s instruction to wives is not very exciting.

What is new to the church is the part about husbands submitting to wives. This kingdom-defining, cultural-defying relational dynamic could be considered part of the “Lord’s will” in wise and Spirit-filled living (verses 15-20). So Paul offers more thoughts on what a husband’s submission should look like.

And it should look like Christ’s love for the Church. It is a love that sacrifices for the other and puts the other before him. However, the analogy must not be taken too far to say that a husband’s love does for the wife what only Christ can do. A husband does not make a wife holy – only Christ does. A husband cannot cleanse her through the word – only Christ does. A husband does not present his wife to Christ as a pure and blameless bride – only Christ does. Every metaphor breaks down at some point.

During the first few years of my marriage, I had a very clear picture of what I expected from Jon – a knight in shining armor come to rescue me from my slide into a spiritual pit. The slide had begun just before I graduated from Bible college. I was the top student in my class but as I had gained skill in dissecting the Scripture, I slowly lost my passionate love for Christ. By the time I got married, I knew something was terribly wrong and I had hopes that Jon as my “head” would lead me back to Christ.

That didn’t happen. And for good reason. Jon was not my “savior.”

As the awareness of my spiritual state increased so did the panic. I did everything I could to avoid the slide down, digging my heels deep into the side of the hill through counsel, mentoring, reading, and praying. I tried to respond to Jon’s attempts to lead but he had his own journey of shedding his family’s forms of spirituality and gaining his own. It was painfully awkward for both of us. Then I gave birth to three sons in three years and family devotions became child-friendly but not desperate-wife-friendly.

Sometime between births I quit taking communion. That’s when it hit Jon that I was in deep trouble spiritually. He felt helpless. Seven years into our marriage I hit bottom and abandoned my faith in Christ.

But Christ did not abandon me. Christ revealed himself to me and I was transformed. (That’s a long story.)

That transformation not only impacted my journey with Christ but it also impacted my journey with Jon. We began a new dance.

A dance of adults in which we individually took ownership of our own spirituality.

A dance of equals in which we respected each other’s unique form of spirituality and leadership.

A dance of lovers in which we shed our facades and grew in love and knowledge of each other’s true selves.

A dance of full humanity in which we faced our weaknesses and leaned into each other’s strengths.

In those years after my transformation, our dance was really awkward, at times painful as we stepped on each other’s toes. But with each passing year we got better at dancing. And it’s still getting better. Sometimes he leads and sometimes I lead. The leader is the one who is stronger and more gifted. The follower is the one who humbly accepts limitations and trusts the other. 

Over time the dance has become smoother. It’s become more graceful. Thirty-three years later it’s definitely more fun!

Tomorrow I’ll examine more closely Ephesians 5:28-33 to show the importance of and connection to Genesis 2:24: A man leaves his father and his mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Deconstructing the Marriage Metaphor of Ephesians 5 - Part 1

Metaphors are powerful. With a picture that’s worth a thousand words, they inform us. Like the focus dial on a projector, they clarify concepts for us. Like the miracle of metamorphosis, they transform us. The language of metaphors translates the unknown and abstract into concrete and known. It opens doors to discovery and truth that previously eluded us.

But at times the meaning of a metaphor is perplexing, especially when it’s used within an ancient cultural context. Understanding metaphors takes work. The images demand patience as they invite us “to walk around and look at the connection to a concept in different ways,” says Walter Brueggeman.

A metaphor is imprecise by nature. Yet it is accurate in its purpose to get our attention and arouse our emotions and imaginations. It invites examination but resists efforts to reduce it to a statement of facts. The same metaphor can be used differently depending on the context. But it also can absorb layers of meaning as it shifts with each reader’s context.

Lately I’ve been thinking about marriage metaphors. Like the one in Ephesians 5:22-33.

By tradition, the metaphor has been reduced to a model and a mandate: The husband is the authoritative head to which the wife, his body, submits. In everything. Therefore the husband must be the spiritual leader of the home and the wife must be the respectful follower. Lately conservative interpreters have added a halo of loving sacrifice on his head.

No mystery here.

The problem is Paul says there is a mystery. In fact there is a PROFOUND mystery. In verse 32 Paul explicitly ascribes it to Christ and the Church. But he also clearly links the mystery to the “one flesh” union of a husband and wife in verse 31. The quote from Genesis 2:24 occupies a special place in the immediate context which serves then to inform the head and body metaphor used by Paul. But before I address the significance of verse 31, let me back up to the previous verses and suggest an alternative understanding of those verses.

Tomorrow I’ll approach the metaphor introduced by Paul in Ephesians 5:22-27 from another angle that I believe offers a different perspective of a “biblical” marriage.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love and Laundry

Soon after my mother moved to Portland from Florida to live with my family, she decided to make the trip to Osaka to say goodbye to relatives, including her firstborn daughter.  Yes, I have an older sister, a half sister. It’s a long story.

It was 1954, not too long after World War II. When Japan surrendered, Okinawa became a U.S. possession as well as a strategic location for military bases. The federal government recruited heavily from the United States. My dad signed up to find adventure and get away from Pennsylvania. Boarding a ship in California, he sailed across the Pacific Ocean and got a job with the Marine Corps as a civilian. He was 36, single and, as he told me later, frustrated in his efforts to find a wife.

So he found one in Okinawa. My dad and mom fell in love and got married in September, 1956. Then I was born. Two months later.

 So what happened between the boat and the birth? A unique courtship. You see, my mother is a deaf-mute and she was never educated. She can’t read or write.

One of my aunts had her own romantic version of their courtship which she loved telling whenever I saw her. For many years I thought it was true. In the story my aunt tells, my dad frequented a bar which was owned by my mother’s brother. My dad saw her and it was love at first sight. But he didn’t know my mom was a deaf-mute for many months, thinking she was quiet because of her Japanese culture. According to my aunt, someone finally clued him in after he kept getting the silent treatment in his attempts to have a conversation with her. Since her brother liked my dad, he encouraged the courtship and eventual marriage.

I found out a long time ago that the story was half true – my dad had known my mom was deaf from the beginning.  But guess what, I just found out today the whole story was made up. He did not meet her in a bar. He met my mom when she offered to do his laundry! The story suddenly went from “seedy” to “spotless”! Except for the timing of my birth.

You can imagine it was a challenge for my father to develop a relationship with a beautiful Japanese woman, who was 14 years younger and could not hear him, talk to him or understand any language. He couldn’t even use a Japanese/English dictionary. So he ended up creating his own sign language to use with her. That’s the language I still use today. It’s called “charades.”

But it was also a challenge for my mom to consider marriage. When my dad met her she was already a mother and an abandoned wife. My mom had made the difficult decision to move to Okinawa after the war in order to find work. Without a husband her desperation for a means of support meant leaving her daughter behind to be raised by her own mother, my grandmother.

When I was born, my grandmother brought my half sister, Natsuko, to Okinawa so she could be reunited with her mother. The hope was that my dad would help raise her. Apparently it didn’t go as planned. She was only 5 years old, but she had already learned how to get her own way. Natsuko did not want to go back to her mother. She put up enough of a fuss that my mom and grandmother decided Natsuko would go back home for a few more years until she was older and able to discern her circumstances.

When Natsuko was 12, she returned to our home in Okinawa. I was seven at the time. The plan was for her to stay for a while and transition into our family. But it didn’t work out. After almost 3 years, she was still unhappy, she did not adjust to the Okinawan schools, and she resisted my dad’s attempt to be a father. He was a disciplinarian (not harsh, but consistent) and she hated it. Unfortunately, Natsuko was also old enough to determine that her life was better with her grandmother who more easily capitulated to her demands. Natsuko went back and my mom never mothered her again.

I often think about the decisions people make and the impact they have in the lives of people who intersect because of those decisions.

In this story, here was a woman, a deaf-mute in pre-war Japan where there wasn’t any health care or education available to her. Her life was turned upside down when her husband left her with a newborn daughter that she knew she could not raise by herself. She decided to board a boat with a friend to find work on an island far from her home and her baby, hoping to make enough money to return home someday. That day never came.

Instead she found love. And it took the form of a white man from America, an enemy country that had just defeated her own. This man wanted children very badly but she didn’t. So he struck a deal with her: You have the babies; I’ll raise them.

The decision to bear his children was not easy. Would he abandon her like her first husband? How could she care for a baby and then a second daughter two years later? She wouldn’t hear their cries. She wouldn’t hear them when they woke up from their naps or in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t hear them if they asked for food or a drink of juice. 

To bring children into her home meant she would be confronted with her helplessness again. Daily. She was totally dependent on my dad during the night and house maids during the day while he worked. But as the two girls grew older, the maids came less frequently. The girls learned early to take care of themselves and take initiative. They were raised to be strong spirited and independent because their own journeys would take them far from home. The decision to leave was inevitable.

They were married for 37 years before my dad passed away. He loved her til the end. 

My dad chose to travel 8,000 miles to a small island. My mom chose to travel 190 miles to the same island. They met over laundry.  

And here I am.

Monday, February 6, 2012

My Dream Church

 I have portraits hanging in my dining room of each of my three sons and their wedding ceremonies. Those are precious memories of special days. In every wedding I’ve ever witnessed, the couple believes their love will endure a lifetime and everyone else in the room certainly hope and pray it does. But those who have been married long enough know two things: Most marriages today don’t survive and those that do have had seasons when they almost didn’t.

Lately I have noticed an increased number of newspaper articles highlighting marriages that have lasted 75 years. The newsprint portraits now show weathered faces that glow with their own glory in having weathered storms that potentially could have sunk their marriages. Inevitably, the question is asked, “What is the secret to your long marriage?”

Usually their answer is not very secret. Most married couples already know what’s needed to survive and thrive in their relationships. It’s just very hard to do.

I think churches have similar portraits of hope when the doors first open. And they have similar journeys of crisis seasons and sadly, often a death to dreams. As I’ve encountered or heard stories from friends of troubled “Brides” (an appropriate metaphor for the Church for this post), I can’t help but envision a dream church. Then I have to remind myself  there is no such thing as a perfect church. It’s funny though. I think every church plant thinks they have found the secret to a successful church.

Like a marriage, it’s not how well you have built the house or how effectively and efficiently you operate the household that matters. And if the glue that holds the home together is a strong central (pastoral) figure, it inevitably leads to disaster since that person will not live forever. No, the strength of the house lays in how well its members navigate the real stuff of relationships – at every level, in every sphere.

As I am contemplating my dream church, I am trying to picture what it looks like. What values frame its mission and ministry and inform the relationships present within the community? I want to explore some possible responses.

I love metaphors and if there is one image that pervades my thoughts, it is the “table.” The church I am imagining creates tables and invites others to sit at them. Tables are for talking, for listening, for planning, for creating, for prayer, for learning. In essence, relationship begins at the table. (And if there’s food, it’s even better.)

Here are some possible “tables” I imagine in my dream church.

TABLE #1: The Lord’s Table

This table is in the center of the room. It is the beginning point for all the other tables. It is more than just the experience of reenacting the Last Supper. The sacrament continuallly reminds the participants that this table is what forms and informs the community. It is the place of costly redemption, of sacrificial love, of holy communion where all of us share a poverty of spirit and meet Christ.

TABLE #2: Storytelling

At this table, every person is treated as a story that is waiting to be told. And everyone else is on the edge of their chairs because they can’t wait to hear it. No one interrupts. No one offers advice or opinions or anything. Only whispers of “thank you.” Never judgments. Each one knows they have been gifted with a storied soul, a treasure to be kept safe. The table of stories is a table of knowing, the place where one feels known and embraced.

TABLE #3: Diversity

This table is the place where we may disagree with each other but instead of arguing, we work hard at understanding each other. It can get intense at times because we allow space for passion. We come to the table prepared with understanding the arguments from varying perspectives and beliefs so that we can participate in both intelligent and passionate discussion. But the goal is real understanding rather than winning or changing. Which means we overlap with Table #2 and include our stories and how we got to our beliefs, assumptions and values in the first place. We are honest so that the other can understand how their differing values impact real, live people. It's a safe table where we can voice what we really think. It's a table that encourages openness to the possibility of change rather than cemented convictions. It's a table where people value understanding the other more than being right. And they seek the expression of humility that says, "I may be wrong." 

TABLE #4: Freedom in Christ and Unity of Spirit

The participants at this table are committed to maintaining the tension between the freedom each person has in Christ and the unity created by the Spirit that binds us to one another. Freedom means we each search the Scriptures to come to our convictions and this may result in different interpretations. But that’s okay. Unity means we respect the imago dei in each person and trust the Holy Spirit who dwells in them to do the work of growth, maturity and understanding. Freedom means we don’t herd people into predetermined roles but give them space to explore the gifts of the Spirit. Unity of Spirit means we pay attention to the movement and anointing of the Spirit because God is not one to be boxed in. Since the Bible is full of exceptions to the “rule,” the participants are careful not to play God or suppress the Wind.

TABLE #5: Mutual Submission

Mutual submission is grounded in Galatians 3:28 at this table. Everyone is equal--equally valued and equally released to carry out their calling. There are no special seats here or at any head table which is never set up in the room anyway. Leadership is flattened, not hierarchal. Roles are determined by gifting, not gender. Everyone has a voice and every voice is important and invited. Authority is in Christ alone as the Head of the church who has spoken in Scripture and still speaks through the Holy Spirit. Submission is mutual as everyone competes for the lowest seat while still rising to their calling in Christ.

TABLE #6: No Condemnation

This is a table that I want but have no idea how it can happen, mainly because I’ve never seen it. This table requires a combination of all the tables above. It’s one that welcomes anyone who feels condemned by the church. But those who come create tension and discomfort for those who have often done the condemning. IF they come, they challenge our notions of right and wrong especially when Scripture is applied like a stamp on a document that says “UNBIBLICAL” or “GO TO HELL.” IF they come, they bring all their anger and pain from how they have been treated. IF they come, they ask to be accepted for who they are. Acceptance is not the same as agreement. Acceptance is the fruit of a heart that repents of condemnation.

I think I stop with these six tables. I’m sure there are more I can think of but perhaps you can help me out with responses to these two questions:

1)  What would you add to the table descriptions above?
2)  What other tables should I consider for my dream church?