A few years ago I participated in a conversation with a group of my friends. The terms of the conversation were purely hypothetical. Where would we be if… that was the question in proposed scenario after scenario. One of my friends whose wild oats seemed slightly more feral than is average was asked what if he had not married. His reply gave me pause as I expected a different response than what he offered. He shuddered and as though shutting the door on a truly dark thought said he hated to even imagine.
I’ve thought of that response repeatedly since. The limiting nature of marriage was a topic of conversation often amongst my friends as we grew to alleged maturity. Some advocated wholeheartedly for wandering life alone, never slowing down or being captured by the opposite gender. But invariably age and maybe something deeper crept into our lives one by one as we succumbed to marital bliss, closing the door to the many unexplored opportunities.
This is not a blog about relationships or the opposite gender. It’s about being limited. My friend’s analysis of his life was a grateful assessment of the joys of being restrained. Marriage for him was everything we had feared it would be and yet, as it turned out, that was one of its great joys. Where would he be without the blessing of limitation offered by his spouse? What choice may he have made? His conclusion was that more fun may have meant less joy and he was grateful to be held back from all that exploration to be limited by his covenant bond to one person.
So let me turn to a different bride, the one Jesus professes again and again to love, regardless of flaws and even a level of infidelity. The church, metaphorically regarded as the bride of Jesus, has failed again and again. And in our era, contrasting to some that have gone before, we are even more focused on how it fails us than we are on how it fails God himself.
If you question this, check out recent statistics about how often parishioners change churches or leave church all together, often citing their needs are just not met. Our needs not being met is often code language for the lack of self actualization we feel amidst people who apparently just don’t understand us all that well.
The missing link that could help us to be more than we are may be out there. We may find another lover more fulfilling. We may shrug off the limitations presently placed upon us. But isn’t that part of the point. Marriage is about more than us becoming better versions of ourselves in some fantastical fulfilling of desire. It is about us being limited from all we would become.
The old ball and chain, referred to infamously by men who have tied the knot and apparently rued the day, is alive and well. But may it be that all that freedom un-gained may be the very stuff that faithfully shapes us into more than spiritual nomads? Is it the limitation that founds within us true civility?
If so, may it be, that we have grown to value church for traits that are far outside its design parameters? We love its musical artistry and eloquent story telling. We appreciate its camaraderie, at least until conflict emerges. We love the way ministry can make more of us adding meaning to ecclesiastical tradition.
But then it all rains down. Harper Lee once called the trappings of church ecclesiastical impedimenta implying that possibly all of the seemingly helpful components are actually barriers to the final purpose. The music grows stale. Eloquence becomes loquaciousness. Offenses build and meaning lessens.
So why believe? Years ago I recall reading Phillip Yancey register surprise upon coming upon an article in Harpers about why the author still believed in the power of the cross. The author, a Harvard trained psychologist and professor, was a seeming unique voice as he defended his understanding of the Christian faith. In our day, the cross may be less offensive than the institution this symbol represents and the message to believe in church, regardless of its dysfunction makes little sense to our pragmatic minds.
Yet in its interior lays key components of the redemptive plan. Beyond the classes on marriage, parenting, spirituality, etcetera the church offers the opportunity of limitation. Beyond the worshipful feelings lays a covenant relationship. It is a marriage that God himself participates in as He has promised to for thousands of years. Our wide, opportunistic eyes trained by years of Wal-Mart shopping to find what we desire require reshaping when it comes to church’s benefits.
For the community of others and the rule of a millenniums-old tradition are vehicles that ultimately develop us through the baptism of limitation. We are betrothed to a faulty and broken institution whose livelihood is tied to its adherent’s belief in self-sacrifice rather than self-aggrandizement. Addicted to our lifestyle of ascension where our expectation is for constant, organizational improvement, church is an unexpected cross current, a rip tide that works only on a forgotten, subterranean level. (Though many of us still advertise on the surface like any number of other competitive institutions.)
For it is within the church, again and again, that we are approached by Jesus himself. We are reminded that He loves us without the great numbers of improvements that we have planned for ourselves. We receive mercy from the pressure to be better, from the addiction to improvement. He has covenanted with us as we are, endlessly promising transformation that comes from within, and costs us greatly as we forego arrays of opportunities, all of them positive and yet distracting sirens that would pull us from our place at his side.
We have been warned repeatedly, if one reads the Scriptures, that church is not the place where our dreams are finally realized. Rather it is the place where we approach the altar and tie ourselves to a spouse who promises us forever.