What Valentine’s Day Can Learn from Ash Wednesday

vintage_blindfolded_cupid_valentines_tarot_card-r69e9e0fbe135412f893d556e955012e3_vgbaq_8byvr_324February 14th is Ash Wednesday this year.

We should all go out to eat on Valentines Day with ashes on our foreheads.

I mean, whether you’re a Christian or not, you should go ahead and do it.  Because Ash Wednesday is a day that speaks a deep truth about humanity that we all try to avoid: we’re mortal and flawed.

So no matter what kind of foundation you gussy yourself up with before that first date, and no matter what kind of aftershave you apply to make that skin smell just so-so fine, you can’t change the fact that we all share the same mortal boat.

And I don’t say this so that you will despair.  I say it just out of honest truth.

Because here’s the thing: if you give your heart to something, you will lie to yourself.  You will say, “This. I give it to this because it is worth my heart.”  But the subtext that we too often have in such an action is some sort of delusion that the things worth our hearts are perfect or incorruptible or have earned it by some sort of morally superior truthfulness or…

Look, give your heart away to worthy things, but often times what makes them worthy is that you give your heart to them in the first place.

When I speak to couples about love and companionship and sometimes even marriage, I have to work hard to cut through the syrup and sentiment to arrive at something real at the bottom of it all: love is often, in the end, a choice.

Sure, it starts out as butterflies and pie in the sky, but once that wears away you will see what Ash Wednesday shows us: the flaw, the scar, the thing that was covered under foundation and aftershave, years of perfecting a story that omits a chapter, and hours of therapy.

But it is there, that flaw is there, and that is OK.

Do you hear me?  That is OK.

Because you cannot give your heart to something perfect; there is no such animal…at least not one immediately available.  You certainly are not perfect.

What Ash Wednesday can remind us, though, is that no flaw is fatal.  It’s why Christians mark the forehead in not just any shape, but the shape of the cross, a paradoxical sign that is the embodiment of saying, “Dead things can live again…even those dead parts of you.”

And sometimes, Beloved, all it takes is a little love to make the dead places in us rise from the grave.  Scars fade. Flaws smooth.

Just because something is dead in this life does not mean it will always be dead.

And nothing is ever perfect, mind you.  Even Jesus’ own resurrection came with scars from the hurt and the pain of the fight two nights before.

But that body walked again, by God.

This year we have this fun juxtaposition: Cupid and Christ.  Cupid blindly shoots and we romantically think we fall in love.

Christ, though…well, Christ’s love isn’t blind.  God’s love isn’t blind to all our hurt and pain and wrongs and ego and all that mess.  Christ’s love is visionary, illuminating all those shadowy parts of ourselves, exposing them for what they are: flawed but not fatal.

And that person you fall in love with?  Perhaps we should stop imagining Cupid shooting blindly and start embracing a Divine love that sees all and still finds a way to keep the arms open, the welcome present, the love intact.

Not that you have to fall in love with someone to be whole.  And even more so, sometimes the love we thought would last does not…cannot.  Sometimes our flaws do push us apart in the end. Which is when we need to lean even more into the story of Ash Wednesday and a Christ whose love is visionary and completing (rather than competing).

Because it is not a flaw to not be partnered. Sometimes it is a calling.

And it is not a flaw to be divorced. Sometimes it is a necessity.

But when it all feels like a flaw, keep in mind that the deep truth of everything is that it has an expiration date.  Feelings, life statuses, and even life itself.  Things will not always seem and be the way are today.

So embrace the truth of the situation: we are dust.  Glorious star dust, the stuff of the cosmos, wonderful and beautiful and sparkling, and yet, dust all the same.

So risk the date, fall in love, eyes wide open.  Or be single and loving it, giving your heart to many other worthwhile things.

But remember that things aren’t worthwhile because they are perfect; often they are worthwhile because you love them.

And how do I know?

Because you and I are not perfect, and yet we are loved by God.  And others.

And we’re worth it.

You’re Married, Not Besties

So, I hear “I’m marrying my best friend”…and I cringe just a bit.

It’s said honestly, and I don’t mean to belittle the sentiment at all.  But, just in time for V-day, perhaps knowing that you don’t have to share your bed with your best friend will provide some comfort to someone.

My best friend and I would never write in the sand.  Probably.

My best friend and I would never write in the sand. Probably.little bit.

And I’m not against you and your partner being, in some ways, friends.  Or even “best __________” in many ways.

But I do not think that you must (or maybe even should) be “best friends” with the person you marry.

You need to be great partners.  You need to be great lovers.  You need to be great confidants and plan out a common trajectory.

But you need a different best friend.

See, many marriages fall into the trap of “all-needs-met.”

“All-needs-met” is the syndrome where one, or both persons, in a relationship feel that all their needs will be met by this one person, in this one relationship.

And it’s just not going to happen.

Especially needs that fall within the realm of “social needs.”

Sexual needs, deep emotional needs, partnership needs…these can be met within the marriage unit.

But many friendship needs can’t, and probably shouldn’t, be met there.

Why?

Because you need to dance well together.

There was an interesting interview last night during the Olympics where a reporter was grilling a couple competing in ice dancing.  She said, “We know you spend so much time together, and that you’re best friends…”

And the couple gave such a look to the woman and to one another, you’d have thought that lobsters were crawling out of the interviewer’s ears.

They weren’t best friends.

They had a deep bond, an emotional bond, and they spent a lot of time together working hard at their craft, laughing, joking, crying, helping one another up, and making beautiful movements gliding through this world.

But they weren’t best friends because they needed to dance together, and to do that well, they couldn’t be best friends.

The term “best friends” probably has a different meaning to most everyone, I think.  So perhaps the confusion is on my end.  I may not need to cringe when I hear it.

But, then again, perhaps it’s just a truth that needs to be named: you don’t need to be best friends to be married.  In fact, maybe you shouldn’t be.

The marriage covenant is deeper than friendship.  And your marriage cannot meet all your social needs.

It shouldn’t meet all your social needs.

Because you need to dance with intimacy and having/being a family and setting a common life trajectory and, well, a complex support system needs to surround you because those things are hard enough without trying to throw “being besties” in there.

And I think this confusion lies especially within the church who often sets marriage up as the container that holds all relational meaning.  The church has set marriage up on this pedestal, has made it the culmination of everything and all things, and doesn’t mention enough that marriage is a call that not everyone feels, and that marriage will not satisfy every human longing within the heart.

We all need friends, I would say “best friends,” outside of marriage.  And we all need to know that that is OK.  It does not make your marriage anything less to say that your spouse is not your best friend.

They are more important than that.  They are your partner.  They are your lover. They are your family.

They don’t have to be your bff even if you have covenanted to be together forever.

Because you have to dance together, and even in dancing you need a certain amount of distance between the people to do it well.

Otherwise you’re just tripping over one another…

“Divorce” or “Why the Governor of Alabama Reminds Me I’m a Reluctant Xtian…”

Governor Bentley waving to people who may or may not be "brothers and sisters."

Sometimes rolling your eyes just isn’t enough; sometimes you have to slam down the paper.

That fact alone makes me wish the news cycle of Alabama Governor Robert Bentley‘s inane comments on what constitutes “brothers and sisters” in a Christian context wasn’t on CNN.com.  For one, I can’t slam my computer on the desktop.  It harms my computer.  Secondly, I fear more people read CNN.com than traditional papers nowadays.  Which means there is one more example from the clowncar of the public Christian tumbling out.

But the fact that Governor Bentley doesn’t consider those who haven’t “accepted Jesus Christ as their savior” as a sibling doesn’t irk me half as much as the underlying theological claim.  Namely, that somehow accepting (defined loosely) Jesus Christ (again, loosely defined) as a savior (again…well, you get the picture) has some sort of theological bearing.

Before you stone me, have a seat to analyze that statement.

First, what does it mean to accept something?  Do you assent to it’s veracity?  Is it a mental construction, much like I accept that the number 2 is Real, and yet can’t produce the number 2 purely?

Or is something only accepted when actions flow from its internalization,  much like I accept that the fact that I have a goddaughter requires a response on my part to her faith life?

And if I accept a concept, how can I really tell if I have truly accepted it?  That question alone leads me to my next point: which Jesus Christ?

Is it the “historical Jesus,” the 160lb Jewish guy who walked out of Galilee?  Or is it the “Christ,” the a-sexual salvific presence that God has called us into communion with?  Or is it, perhaps, the Jesus as purported to in various Scriptures who occasionally knows who he is, but more often does not?  Is it the crazy Rabbi of John or the prophecy fulfiller of Matthew?  Which Jesus?

And if we do arrive at which Jesus to accept, we must then contend with how this Jesus is a “savior” and from what this Jesus “saves.”

Sin might be an answer.  But are we talking about the beautiful definition of Sin provided by Luther, this lovely navel-gazing, or are we talking about the sins of John Edwards (the theologian, not the politician…although perhaps the Edwards of the 18th Century might have a thing to say about the contemporary Edwards as well)?  Or are we perhaps talking about communal sin?

And if so, are we discussing Substitutionary Atonement (which, by the way, is a theory to which Christopher Hitchens seems to think all Christians subscribe…yet another error in his “rational process”), or are we talking about a moral example, or…

You see, the point is, I don’t think Governor Bentley would consider us siblings.  Because even if I were to say that I have “accepted Jesus Christ as my savior,” we would probably squabble over what it means to accept something, bicker over who this Jesus guy is (let alone how Jesus is the Christ), and blatantly disagree about what it means to be “saved”…half of my work has been saving people from being “saved.”

I say this not to provide a loophole for relativity, but rather to allow for complexity.

Governor Bentley talks of unification, he longs to have “brothers and sisters,” but only if they conform.  He talks of unification, but paints a picture of divorce.  Those who do not think as he thinks are cut off from him in a very real way.  Where is the sibling nature of a shared humanity?  Where is the sibling nature of a shared state of being?!

Gone.

And divorce of this sort is dangerous.  It’s fundamentalism.

It doesn’t take a radical jump from this type of thinking to a more extreme one.  Bentley’s is one version from the theistic side, so let us look at an atheistic model.  Consider this quote:

“I think the enemies of civilization should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don’t make any apology for it.  And I think it’s sickly and stupid and suicidal to say that we should love those who hate us and try to kill us and our children and burn our libraries and destroy our society.  I have no patience with this nonsense.”

That is Christopher Hitchens from God is Not Great.  It probably goes without saying that he considers a good bit of the population to be divorced from himself as well, not brothers or sisters, because they assent to something other than his definition of reason or science (both of which are narrowly defined).

Two sides of the same coin.  Both turn my stomach.

Chris Hedges, in his work When Atheism Becomes a Religion, makes a great point concerning this coin.  He writes,

“The blustering televangelists and the atheists who rant about the evils of religion are little more than carnival barkers.  They are in show business, and those in show business know complexity does not sell.  They trade cliches and insults like cartoon characters.  They don masks.  One wears the mask of religion, the other wears the mask of science. They banter back and forth in predictable sound bites.  They promise, like all advertisers, simple and seductive dreams. This debate engages two bizarre subsets who are well suited to the television culture because of the crudeness of their arguments.”

Crudeness indeed. “Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior.”  “Accept Science and Reason as the answer to all of life’s mysteries.”

Both are as simple as can be…and both smack of divorce.

I’ve seen it in my own church as local congregations have splintered off into estrangement over sexual identity discussions.  Obviously “accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior” isn’t quite enough…you must accept the Jesus that dislikes gays.

Sigh.

Brother Bentley, sit down.

Brother Hitchens, sit down.

As Martin Luther so wisely said, “We all have gods, it just depends on which ones.”

And with that, I’ll sit down as well.