The “Quieter Love” That Comes with Time

I met my husband when I was fifteen years old. We fell in love as kids. Jordan used to pick me up at my parents’ house in his white mustang to take me out on dates: to movies; to go swing dancing; to the local Albuquerque coffee shop where he had asked me to be his girlfriend in the first place. We dated for several years (broke up once in the middle) and married two months before my twentieth birthday.

The groundwork for our relationship was laid in the early days of our youth, which paired nicely with the pleasant dizziness of youthful love: love that is just starting out, just revving up, just blossoming and overwhelming you with its sweet fragrance.

Sometimes I miss those early days of being in love. I’ve seen more and more engagement announcements in my Facebook feed in recent years, always accompanied by photos of the smiling couple and the girl showing off her ring, always full of the particular excitement and giddiness that comes with still-young love.

Let me be clear: I love my husband more than anyone. He’s my favorite person in the world. I certainly haven’t “fallen out of love” with him (whatever that means). Our romance is still young in a lot of ways, and there’s always something new and exciting to look forward to next.

But our love is different than it was back in high school, or when we first got married, and I’ve learned that that’s okay. That’s how it’s supposed to be. We have both changed over the years, because that’s what human beings do as they grow and learn. We’ve gotten to know each other (and ourselves) better. We’ve faced some challenges and made some big decisions together. We’ve seen each other at our worst, our most vulnerable, and our weakest. We’ve enjoyed each other at our best.

There’s a passage about love from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity I’ve been thinking on lately (and which I’ve mentioned on here before). It’s long, but it’s great, so here it is:

“Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. There are many things below it, but there are also things above it. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called ‘being in love’ usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending ‘They lived happily ever after’ is taken to mean ‘They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,’ then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships? But, of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense — love as distinct from ‘being in love’ — is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be ‘in love’ with someone else. ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.

This quieter love is what, I think, Jordan and I are beginning to experience now, after entering our fifth year of marriage (and the eighth year of our relationship). Because not only do we as individuals change with time, but love changes, too. After you’ve left the stage of new, young love, you begin to experience what older love is like…not that I would classify what Jordan and I have as particularly “old,” but it’s older than it was eight years ago when we started dating or five years ago when we married. Like us, it’s aging and growing and changing. Love is not a static thing. And (Lord willing) in five, ten, twenty-five, or fifty years, I’m sure our love will be different than it is now.

Relationships are fortified through little, everyday things. Earlier this summer, Jordan and I were apart for over three weeks, which is the longest we’ve spent apart since getting married. (It unpleasantly reminded us of the roughly two years we spent long-distance dating, which, as I articulated in an exasperated Twitter post while Jordan was away, “SUCKED FOREVER.”)

Some of the things I missed most during that time were just the everyday parts of our relationship. I missed our evening routine of making dinner and watching something on Hulu or Netflix together. I missed having someone just to talk to about my feelings. I missed the silly little things we’d do to make each other laugh, like doing a dorky dance while taking the dishes to the kitchen or making up our own lyrics to cheesy love songs to sing to each other from the next room. I missed lying in bed together, staring up at the dark ceiling, and talking about our days or our future or how we want to raise our kids and all of the other little, secret things you only share with a spouse. This must be the stuff of Lewis’ “quieter love.”

I am excited by this new stage of love that, while not as flashy as its predecessor, is a little deeper and richer and growing more so day by day. I remember fondly the early days of our romance, but I wouldn’t trade what we have now to go back and start all over again.

Onwards and upwards.

Image via IM Creator.

Happy Endings in Love and Life: The Keys to Satisfaction

Man was never created to be an independent creature, free to do as he pleased.  In the garden, God created man to be in constant communion with him. Adam’s sole purpose was found in relationship with God. God created Eve because it was not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18).  Relationship is a core component of human nature.  Humans were made to be in constant relationship both with God and with each other. Eve broke that relationship when she took the forbidden fruit, choosing  her own way instead of God’s way, disrupting the natural state of man.  Man was no longer in constant subjection to God.  Listening to self instead of God soon became an option for living.  Obviously, this was not without consequence.  Discord and strife, instead of peace and harmony, immediately became the norm for life.  Hello to the world as we know it.

Marriage is an institution ordained by God designed to replicate the harmony in the garden.  Husband and wife entering into perfect harmony with each other; two becoming one (Genesis 2:25). However, just as it was in the garden, the husband and wife experience unity in their submission to God.  This requires mutual submission and self-sacrificial love.  Acting for yourself in opposition to your spouse results in strife.  For many, this kind of marriage seems very constraining.  It is.  You are not allowed to follow all your passions on a whim.  Marriage is a life time commitment to submitting to and loving another human being.  But in this commitment comes great joy that is not possible in relationship outside of marriage.

Desire is an important part of any relationship.  But as with any passion, desire can come and go.  Following desire can lead you down many stray paths.  Desire alone is not enough for a thriving relationship.   Commitment and security are needed.  In Song of Solomon, the bride says, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me (7:10).”  Without this firm sense of belonging, insecurity and doubt will destroy even the most passionate relationship.  Marriage provides a framework for desire where security and exclusivity allow it to blossom.

What about people in abusive marriages?  What about adultery?  There is no doubt that these will drastically affect and possibly shatter any union.  Strife and discord are inevitable in any relationship, no matter how committed the two spouses are to God and each other.  But my point here is not to write about the affects of sin on marriage.  My point is simply to present the best bet for a lasting love.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the story of a tragic love affair.  Anna and Vronsky are destroyed by a love that cannot satisfy.  Anna soon becomes consumed with doubt and insecurity regarding Vronky’s commitment.  Without marriage, there is no assurance of commitment or belonging, thereby making insecurity overtake passion.  Vronksy strives to retain his “manly independence” and keep a life apart from Anna.  He holds onto part of himself that he refuses to give to Anna.  This too prevents them from becoming one flesh.  Chaffing is the natural result.  Destruction instead of a blossoming love becomes the outcome of their affair.  Desire outside the bounds of marriage yields nothing but strife.

Anna and Vronsky are perhaps an extreme example of something so commonplace in our culture, love outside of marriage.  Anna and Vronsky’s destruction was in part caused by their rejection by society.  Today, “living together” is a common place behavior.  While it may not be openly destructive, as with any other self-centered behavior, it can result in nothing but inward strife and discord.  It may feel good at times, but does it satisfy? True satisfaction only comes through living a life in relationship with and submission to God, and, if that life involves the love of your life, a God centered marriage.

Why is God important?  This too goes back to the garden.  God created us to be in constant relationship with him.  Thriving is only possible through this relationship.  Veering away from God might lead to earthly pleasures but will never lead to ultimate fulfillment.  Jesus came so that we might be fulfilled in a post-fall world.

Are you engaging in a self-centered behavior right now?  Whether it is an extra-marital affair, or something like excessive drinking or viewing pornography, I have to ask you, “Does it satisfy?”  Not just on the surface, but deep down inside.   Jesus tells his followers, ”The thief comes to kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).”  Choose life.

An Insurmountable Obstacle

Did you know it’s estimated that in 2011-1012 about 7.1 billion people were considered chronically undernourished? Or did you know that the estimated number of orphans world-wide is around 1.5 billion? Statistics like these are often employed to raise awareness and are often effective in alerting an audience to the magnitude and importance of a problem. However, they can also have the unintended effect of overwhelming an audience. In light of solving a problem that seems hopeless, how are we supposed to respond?

a) walk away

Even when faced with a small problem, it’s tempting to leave it alone believing someone else will fix it or it will be resolved on its own. Dirty dishes in the sink? Maybe I can pretend I didn’t see them and my roommate will wash them when she gets home. Or maybe they’re not actually a problem at all; maybe she put them into the sink for a reason. As ridiculous as these excuses may sound, they still run through our mind and  cause us to realize there is a daily temptation to ignore and give up on the small problems.

When faced with a huge problem, especially one that doesn’t personally affect us, the temptation becomes even bigger to just walk away. Of course, nobody wants to admit this. Nobody would say, “I don’t care if global hunger continues” because theoretically, everybody wants the problem to end. While there are some who actively work to fix the problem, many seem content only expressing a desire to fix the problem and then ignoring the needed work.

b) settle for less

Sometimes when confronted with a large problem, sometimes one attempt won’t offer a solution so it’s necessary to begin by taking small steps. The small steps then offer a better approach by breaking the problem up into manageable pieces. This approach can be extremely useful and is often necessary to begin addressing the problem.

However with this option, there is a risk of contenting oneself with only the small steps and never resolving the larger problem. For example, removing a tree means the roots eventually need to be removed. Beforehand, sometimes its necessary to prune the branches which is an example of taking small steps to fix the problem. However, sometimes only the branches are pruned and the trunk is never touched. Similarly with a large problem, sometimes actions are only taken to relieve the problem and fail to follow through in solving the entire problem. This option is tricky because it follows the same lines as an appropriate response. However, this option becomes faulty when the small steps fall short of addressing the problem either at its core or in its entirety.

c) try harder

Especially for those plagued with guilt or self-doubt, trying harder seems to be the simple solution to an unsolved problem. We know that when we care about something, we will spend time and effort with it, so if we truly cared about an issue, it would then seem we should spend a maximum amount of time and effort. However, this mindset is a recipe for burnout since it usually doesn’t realistically view the problem’s extent or man’s ability.

Although these options differ in their approach, whether it’s overworking or underworking, they all fail to offer a satisfying solution because of one simple reason. They forget the basic truth that’s taught all throughout Sunday school: the right answer is Jesus. While it’s somewhat of a trite saying, in this case it’s the correct answer. As believers, we are now children of God and we are in the process of being fashioned like Christ.

Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” We are called to be obedient to this command in a way that mirrors Jesus’ love. Jesus didn’t abandon the world or settle for the minimum, but in His life and death, He fully engaged with life’s essential and daily problems. While we don’t have Jesus’ divine ability to completely fix the world’s problems, we do have the motivation and the ability to mirror His love. This doesn’t mean trying harder to solve immense problems but rather trying properly by pointing to the ultimate solution of Jesus.

Finally, in spite of our feelings of hopelessness, the truth is He has already overcome the world. Jesus loved us with a love that carried Him through the earth and the heavens and we have been shown this love. If we are filled with this love, our response to the world problems around us will not cause us to become overwhelmed or afraid. Instead, we will be able to act in a way that demonstrates Christ’s love and thus allows our love to be stronger than our fear.

 

Bad Life Lessons I Learned from “How I Met Your Mother”

[This article contains LOTS of spoilers about the HIMYM season finale.]

A Google search turns up plenty of lists online with titles like “Life Lessons Learned from How I Met Your Mother.” While some talk about how the show taught them to trust that things will work out or to give things they previously didn’t like another try, others are compilations of lines or morals from episodes that honestly sound more like something you’d read on the inside of a Dove chocolate wrapper: “Perfect isn’t always perfect” is one example, or “Things happen for a reason,” or, my personal (least) favorite: “Don’t chase after things that don’t work. Let the universe take over.”

Now that the finale has aired, I thought I’d reflect on some of the bad life lessons the show teaches us. I’ve written before about why I think Ted Mosby is in fact quite the immoral antihero. I’ve also previously argued that the show falsely presents true romantic love as marked by perfection and ease: our soul mates, guided by “the Universe,” come to us ready-made as everything we could ever want, and they are the ultimate source of our happiness and fulfillment in life. Now that the show has come to a close, I’d like to explore and expand on these and some other bad lessons it teaches us about what we should expect from romance and life in general.

I’ve watched every season of HIMYM, and I don’t categorically dislike the show. HIMYM has several pros going for it, such as its unique premise and talented cast. There are also, admittedly, some good messages that can be gleaned from the show: that nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m., for instance, or that marriage can be a good and happy thing (a message that’s rather counter-cultural these days as our society delays or dismisses marriage and often praises hyper-sexuality over monogamy). I actually found this article more difficult to write than I thought it would be because of the good things the show has to offer. If it were all bad, it would be easy to dismiss. It’s deceptive mixture of good and bad makes it, I believe, all the more dangerous, because it is easier to be fooled into believing some of the bad lessons it tries to teach us.

I understand that it’s a sitcom and that much of the humor is intentionally ridiculous (e.g., the cockamouse). But HIMYM chooses to, at times, live in a gray area between comedy and drama, and it has received praised it for its willingness to address darker issues (such as the death of Marshall’s father in Season 6). Because of this, I feel the show gives its audience the freedom to dismiss the not-so-serious stuff as simple comedy but also the right to take the serious stuff, well, seriously. The show treats its defining themes—finding your way in life and finding true love—seriously, so I treat them seriously, too.

(I write this article assuming that most readers are familiar with the show, and I sometimes reference characters or events without giving detailed background information. If you get lost, you’ll find the HIMYM Wiki helpful.)

Like a lot of people, I was pretty shocked when what I had considered to be one of the more outlandish theories about how the show would end turned out to be true: Barney and Robin divorce shortly after their wedding, the Mother (whose name is revealed to be Tracy McConnell) dies of an anonymous illness several years after meeting Ted and bearing his children, and the closing scene of the show is Ted (true to form) returning to Robin. The finale, then, pretty strongly supports one of the more prominent Bad Life Lessons woven throughout the series:

Bad Life Lesson #1: Love is something that happens to us: it is a powerful, uncontrollable, external force that influences us whether we want it to or not, and it is defined by feeling rather than action.

In the first episode of Season 8, “Farhampton,” Klaus (Victoria’s ex-fiancée) tells Ted that he’ll know he’s found his soul mate because the realization of it will hit him instantaneously. You see, it is impossible for a person to become your soul mate over time, and anyone besides “the one” will only ever be, at best, your Almost Soul Mate.

Marshall and Lily have a moment like this, as we learn during their telling of how they met in the Season 3 episode “How I Met Everyone Else.” “It was love at first sight,” they coo in unison.

Ted seems to have a similar moment with Tracy when we finally see them meet on the train platform, but he also has lightning-bolt moments with both Victoria and (most notably post-finale) Robin.

In reality, love is not an external force that influences our lives and our choices. Love is a choice. Love is committing to someone in spite of all of their imperfections and shortcomings (as well as your own). Love is choosing to be faithful to someone for a lifetime, no matter what happens. Sometimes being loving means going through the motions of love, even when you don’t feel giddy or carefree, even when things aren’t easy. There’s a line from one of my favorite films, Paris, je t’aime, that speaks to this: upon learning that his wife has terminal cancer, one of the characters abandons his plan to run off with his mistress and decides that he must support his wife in her final months. “By acting like a man in love,” the narrator says, “he became a man in love again.”

Love is not a force that exerts power over us; love is something we choose to do, and that’s what makes it powerful. It is the choice to love and commit to someone that gives the relationship value. My husband, as he does so many things, once put it best: “I know you’re the person I’m meant to be with because you’re the person I decided to be with.”

While Marshall and Lily’s relationship gets lots of praise from critics, it still relies upon the belief in love at first sight and discovering soul mate status in an instant. I actually came to see a lot of merit in Barney and Robin’s relationship, especially compared to Ted’s quest for a soul mate. In Barney and Robin, the show portrays two people who like each other, have a lot in common, and navigate the transition from friendship to romance. It’s clear from Season 1 that they’re a good match (I re-watched the first time they played laser tag together, and it’s still very endearing). Their love is not defined by a lightning-bolt moment of realization; rather, they get to know each other, discern feelings, and eventually get married. Barney’s character growth is the most distinctive over the course of the show, and because of this I came to find him more admirable than Ted (who is just as selfish and promiscuous throughout the show as Barney ever was). Barney realizes that he needs to change something about himself in order to pursue a meaningful relationship with Robin, and he makes a visible effort to do so.

However, the finale reveals that the writers’ intended endgame was for Ted to be with Robin. Ted never fully let go of his feelings for Robin (no matter how many times he—or the audience—thought he did), a fact that his children immediately discern. After finally getting to the moment in his story when he meets Tracy, we return to the year 2030. Ted’s daughter Penny tells him, “I don’t buy it. That is not the reason you made us listen to this…You made us sit down and listen to the story about how you met Mom. Yet Mom’s hardly in the story. No. This is a story about how you’re totally in love with Aunt Robin.” I appreciate that the writers included this because it’s actually quite self-aware on their part. A problem I’ve had with the show for a while is that Tracy is hardly present in a story that’s supposed to be about her, and Ted spends much more time recounting to his children his complicated romantic history with Robin, a woman who is definitively not their mother, as established by the pilot episode. I’m glad that the show finally addressed this, but I’m still disappointed with the ending. Ted’s children ultimately prompt him to return to Robin, who is still single after her divorce, and act on the feelings he clearly still has for her.

The fact that Ted returns to Robin in the end places emphasis back on their relationship, implying that the lightning-bolt moment when he sees her across the bar at the beginning of the series is the onset of true love. In “The End of the Aisle,” Ted tries to calm Robin down before her wedding to Barney as she is having second thoughts, saying that her relationship with Barney doesn’t make sense. In retrospect, Ted’s speech to her seems to apply more to him: “But love doesn’t make sense! You can’t logic your way into or out of it; love is totally nonsensical. But we have to keep doing it, or else we’re lost and love is dead and humanity should just pack it in. Because love is the best thing we do. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s just true. You love Barney. And he loves you. And that doesn’t have to make sense to make sense.” Ted and Robin don’t make sense in a couple of key ways: they want different things out of life, and she rejected him several times throughout the series.

If love is a force we can’t control that prompts us to pursue a relationship even if it doesn’t “make sense,” this explains why Ted has never been able to fully shake his feelings for Robin, to the point that even when he sits down to tell his kids a story about their mother he ends up unintentionally talking mostly about Robin instead. The final scene of the show depicts Ted standing outside Robin’s apartment, holding a blue French horn, (presumably) the same one he stole from a restaurant to impress her on their first date twenty-five years earlier. This makes it seem like even Ted’s relationship with the mother of his children is, like his relationship with Victoria and all the other women he’s loved along the way, just another denial of his deeper, irrevocable love for Robin, and the Universe (that is, the writers) had to kill Tracy just to get her out of the way of Ted’s greater destiny.

This ending negates any growth or maturation Ted undergoes up until this point in order to let go of Robin, the woman who represents everything he thought he wanted in a mate; as he tells her in this season’s “Sunrise” episode, “There’s no Top Five [women for me], Robin. There’s just a Top One, and it’s you.” Shortly after saying this, Ted appears to make a conscious decision to finally let Robin go, but again, the end of the finale undercuts this. It also diminishes the significance of his relationship with Tracy and makes her seem more like a means to fulfilling another life goal for Ted: having children (it was revealed that Robin is infertile in an earlier season).

At the risk of sounding heartless, I was hoping that the Mother would end up dead or dying in 2030, but not because I wanted Ted and Robin to be together. I wanted to see a character experience an enduring cost in exchange for attaining something good in life instead of just temporary struggle before getting everything he or she wants, which leads to the next Bad Life Lesson:

Bad Life Lesson #2: “If you’re really honest with yourself about what you want out of life, life will give it to you.”

That is one of Future Ted’s quotes (and worse pieces of parental advice, I have to say) from the end of Season 2, and  this sentiment proves very true for Ted in the end. His nine-year quest to find a mate was hardly a “long, difficult road,” as he says in the finale’s last few minutes. Long, maybe, but difficult? He screwed around with a bunch of beautiful women until magically finding his perfect spouse who provides him with the family he always wanted. Indeed, Tracy was so perfect for him, I didn’t want them to have a completely happy ending because it would have solidified the show’s wrong and cliché messages about love (which I’ve already touched on in my previous articles): that we are all destined to meet a perfect-for-us soul mate, or that said soul mate will fulfill our every desire and be the source of all of our happiness. Finally, if meeting his wife and living happily ever after was the end of Ted’s story, it would have further idolized romantic love and romantic partners. As Marshall says in Season 2, “the one” is the girl you can look at “knowing she’s all you really want out of life.” Oh, boy.

Related to Bad Life Lesson #2 is Bad Life Lesson #3: “The Universe” has a grand plan for your life, the focal point of which is finding your soul mate.

I wanted the show to explore how to move forward when your ideal life plan is legitimately disrupted, how to find joy and peace in the midst of truly sad circumstances, and what that would mean in light of all of Ted’s talk about trusting that “the Universe” has a grand plan and that we should simply expect to get everything we want.

Before the finale, all of the characters were poised to achieve everything they hoped to achieve, with their lives turning out exactly how they hoped they would: career success, wealth, fame, and blissful family lives. While I’m glad on one level that the show did not conform to the cliché ending I was expecting, the finale, in its way, still ends with the ultimate no-cost scenario for the protagonist: Ted gets his wife, his two kids, his enormous house in the suburbs, and his original and most enduring love, Robin.

To be honest, I had so many issues with the show to begin with that it’s unlikely I would have found any ending completely satisfying, and the ending I wanted was probably too tall an order for a single, albeit hour-long, finale. As James Poniewozik says in his piece on TIME: “Intellectually, maybe [the show’s] destination did make sense. Couples do divorce…People take years to find themselves, people drift apart and come back together, people die too soon. A great series could tell those stories and lay out those complicated, hard truths. The problem is, that is not the series that How I Met Your Mother was for the previous nine years. It was just the series it tried to force itself to be for its last hour.”

A more optimistic reading of the finale is that it did convey the message that, in spite of unexpected tragedy, we can eventually heal, move on, and maybe even find love again, as Tracy did with Ted (after her boyfriend, whom we learn of in “How Your Mother Met Me,” died) and then Ted did with Robin (after Tracy died). Jessica Goodman adopts this view on The Huffington Post: “The whole nine seasons became one long tale about moving on from loss, accepting growth in pain, the reality of friends drifting apart and the negation of ‘one true loves.’ Ted didn’t have one true love. He had two, maybe more. May we all be so lucky.” I think the argument that the show actually negates the notion of “one true loves” is better made with Tracy’s example: she had Max, her boyfriend from years before she met Ted, who died tragically. Convinced she had already found and lost her soul mate, Tracy held back on opening herself up to love until just before meeting Ted. However, as Ted’s daughter points out in the final minutes of the finale, the whole point of Ted’s story is that he “totally, totally, TOTALLY [has] the hots for Aunt Robin.”

Overall, Poniewozik is more correct, I think: the finale does not change the overarching messages of the entire show, as much as it may attempt to. With the shift of focus back to Ted and Robin and the kids’ sharp insight into Ted’s underlying feelings for Robin, the driving narrative of being with “the one” still holds up amidst the rushed and stunning events of the final episode.

Now, I might more easily accept Goodman’s interpretation if the show had not invested so much in developing Barney as a character and Barney and Robin as a couple. Poniewozik posits in his article that Robin was not ready for marriage at all, and others say that Barney and Robin simply “don’t really make sense together .” While it’s true that Barney’s history as a manipulative womanizer and Robin’s aversion to marriage and family made it surprising that these two would end up marrying each other, the writers did a good job of making sure that surprise did not feel unrealistic as we watched their relationship grow and develop over time. Quickly divorcing them for no better reason than “We’re not happy” (which really translates to “My job is stressful and you can’t update your blog as often as you’d like, so…wanna get divorced?”) resulted in a jarring about-face for both characters, and it does a disservice to one of the more true-to-life romantic relationships on the show. The flimsy reasons for ending their relationship only further demonstrate that the writers just needed to make Robin available for Ted.

I am also unimpressed with Barney’s other surprise: a love child born when he impregnates a girl during his attempt to have a “perfect month,” in which he sleeps with thirty-one women in thirty-one days. Finding “true love” in his love for his daughter after divorcing Robin and reverting back to his old ways feels more like a thrown-together consolation prize for viewers than a legitimate resolution to his character arc.

There is much more I could say about bad lessons HIMYM teaches us about life and love, as well as other flaws I see in both the finale and the show as a whole (you should see my notes for this article). Alyson Hannigan said that the finale answered questions “you didn’t know you had—or never knew to ask.” Given the cruelty with which the writers treat Tracy, the acrobatic leaps they take in order to get Ted back on Robin’s doorstep, and the undoing of all the good they drew out of Barney, I’m left feeling more like the finale disappointed me in ways I never knew it could.

Rooted in Love–What We Can Learn From the Flowers

Humans have an innate appreciation for nature.  Except for the occasional bee sting or troublesome allergies, nature often enchants all of our senses.  Smelling the crisp scent of evergreens, tasting the salty sea air, feeling the soft grass against our toes, hearing the chirping of the birds, and seeing the beauty of God’s creation around us are a few examples of how we experience and enjoy nature.  It is natural and good that we thank God for giving us these good things.  But to stop with gratitude would be to limit ourselves to self-centered appreciation of God’s creation.  We should step away from our own experience of nature and engage with something much bigger than ourselves.  If we allow ourselves to listen, the flowers remind us of the vanity of our own existence and the reality of our eternal value in Christ.

Christina Rossetti, a 19th century poet, is widely known for her gloomy, yet biblically centered poetry.  Hope and despair are prevalent themes in her writing.  While Rossetti often despairs about earthly griefs, she remains grounded in her eternal hope.  In her poetry, Rossetti constantly uses nature to re-ground herself in her hope. In “Consider the Lilies of the Field (p24,25), she writes:

“Flowers preach to us if we will hear…
Men scent our fragrance on the air,
Yet take no heed
Of humble lessons we would read…”

Anyone can smell the flowers and take pleasure in it.  However, very few actually learn from the flowers.  Learning from the flowers takes humility and a willingness to experience nature in a way much bigger than our own personal enjoyment.  It is easiest to view the flowers in their relation to us.  “Thank you God for allowing us to enjoy these beautiful flowers.”  And that response is perfectly acceptable.  However, the flowers can teach us so much more rather than just reinforcing a me-centered existence.

It is the natural human tendency to think of our existence in terms of ourselves.  Well, duh, you may say, we are the ones existing.  However, in a God-centered universe, we are never the main focus.  We may be the ones doing the actual living, but nothing we do can give value to our lives.  Yet we are never perfect at living a God-centered life.  We forget how fleeting and invaluable we are on our own.

This is not a new problem.  In Psalm 90:12, the Psalmist asks God on behalf of the Israelites, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  Israel forgot how short their life was.  Disobedience to God’s commands is the natural result of forgetting your place in eternity.  After experiencing punishment for embarking on a self-centered lifestyle, they come crawling back to God asking him to help them remember.  In a God-centered universe, a self-centered lifestyle does not satisfy.  Especially when you are being directly punished by God!

Isaiah says, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades… surely the people are grass… but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). The quickly fading flower reminds us that our “blossom” is but a brief moment in eternity.  Hopeless can often be the result of this realization if we view our brief existence simply in terms of our life here on earth.  However, investing in an eternal hope through Jesus Christ allows us to live a hope-filled life while here on earth.  We live full lives here on earth, all the while knowing our ultimate value is not found in this world.  Nature can remind us of how small we are on our own and allow us to re-ground ourselves in truth—that true value can only come through God.

But the flowers’ teaching does not stop there.  They remind us of something much greater than our own insignificance.  They remind us of God’s great love for us in spite of our puny existence.  In Luke, Jesus says “If God so clothes the grass.. how much more will he clothe you(Luke 12:28).”  Nature IS beautiful! Even though a flower only blooms for a short time, it is none the less beautiful! So it is with us.  Even though we are seemingly insignificant, God values us.  Even though our life is but a moment, God concerns himself with the details of our life.

In her poem, “Consider the Lilies of the Field,” Rossetti continues,

“Flowers ….
Tell of his love who sends the dew,
The rain and sunshine too,
To nourish one small seed.”

The flowers do not just tell us truths about ourselves, but truths about God, too!

Contrary to what you may be thinking, this is not just a happy go lucky post.   Life is not just daisies and roses.  Even with a firm understanding of your eternal value and God’s love for you, life sucks sometimes.  Sadness is a natural part of life.  From Rossetti’s poetry, it seems like she was seriously depressed most of the time.  We would be lying to ourselves if we tried to never experience sadness.  Even Jesus wept.  But at the same time, we should never be guided by our emotions.  When experiencing despair, we should always anchor ourselves in our eternal hope.  Rossetti got through her darkest moments because of her eternal hope.  So also should we, in moments of despair, cling to the One that can never be taken away from us, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Taking a moment to listen to the flowers can help reground you in what is truly valuable.

Whether it’s in the simple hustle and bustle of everyday life or one of your darkest moments, grounding yourself in Christ’s deep love for you gives you strength to carry on.  However, being reminded of your true value in Christ is worthless if your actions do not change.   Taking a moment to listen to the flowers can help you live your life in a meaningful way.

So next time you are outside, stop and listen to the flowers.  What are they saying to you?

“In this world you will have tribulation.  But take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

*Quotations taken from “Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems.”  Penguin Classics.

 

 

 

Frozen: True Love isn’t something that happens to you

 

“Love can thaw a frozen heart.”

That is the mantra of Disney’s newest film, Frozen, which is awesome and you should totally see it. This post contains spoilers, so if you don’t want that, then you probably shouldn’t read it.

Quick synopsis:  The world of Frozen is one filled with magic, which (according to trolls) can be either a blessing or a curse. Elsa is a princess who has magic powers over all things cold, with the ability to create a peaceful snow-fall in the great hall or freeze fountains on a whim. This is an endless source of joy for her and her younger sister Anna… until she accidentally zaps Anna in the head, briefly killing her. In healing Anna, the elder troll removes all memory of magic, warning them that though the head is easy to repair, the heart is much more difficult.

There are no more impromptu snow-falls, no more indoor ice skating. The castle is closed, the gates are shut, and Elsa withdraws, keeping her powers a secret and fearing to use them even as they grow  out of control. Immediately following her coronation, she snaps, (accidentally) sending the kingdom into an endless winter and withdrawing to the wilderness, where she makes a super sweet ice castle.

Anna goes to bring her back and end the winter, but Elsa accidentally blasts her through the heart. The elder troll proclaims that only an act of true love can prevent her from becoming solid ice. “Love can thaw a frozen heart,” he says. “True love’s kiss!” they exclaim! Cue the frantic ride back to the city, Elsa is captured, there’s betrayal, etc. etc., climax! Anna limps through a blizzard, trying to find her true love so that he can kiss her and save her life. Her true love is frantically running through the blizzard trying to do exactly that. And suddenly, just as they catch sight of each other, Anna glimpses something else through the snow: Her sister Elsa is about to be stabbed by the traitor.

Dramatic look back at True Love. Fearful gaze! Then she’s off, running away from T. Love and throwing herself in front of the downward-swinging sword. She turns completely to ice in mid-lunge, and the sword breaks on her frozen hand. A brief period of mourning ensues, but… what’s this? Her heart is thawing, and it’s bringing the rest of her with it! She didn’t need an act of true love performed on her: She didn’t need someone to kiss her, to profess their love for her. She needed to enact true love.

“True love isn’t something that happens to you,” my wife said as we were walking to the car, discussing the movie. That is indeed the message of Frozen, and  it’s a far cry from the True Love found in many other Disney films. In Sleeping Beauty and  Snow White, the heroines are the passive recipients of true love: They receive a kiss which brings them back to life. In Frozen, that idea is dramatically done away with. Sure, a kiss might have done it, but not because of her reception of the kiss. In Frozen, True Love is an act. It is something which is actively performed, not passively received.  And it is that action which saves.

Obviously, because I’m that type of person, I immediately began putting that into the context of salvation and the Christian life. And it turns out that both of Disney’s portrayals of True Love are correct (and necessary).

First, everything is initiated by God.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” and that trend has continued throughout history. God’s spirit upon the formless waters, God’s breath into dusty lungs, and God’s Son lying in a manger. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden,” Jesus called out on the dusty streets of Israel, and “Come to me,” he still calls out today. And none can come without being called.

But the response is equally necessary. We are not called to merely be loved: We are called to love. We are not called to be passive recipients: We are called to act. After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Greater love has no man, than he who is loved a lot. Like, a lot.” Jesus exclaimed that the true measure of love is demonstrated in action: In a step to the block, or to the fire. And when Paul speaks of spiritual gifts, the capstone to his discussion and the thing that makes all of it worthwhile is not the passive reception of love, but the active and outward expression of it.

Bottom line: Frozen is well worth your time, and not merely for the theological musings it will provoke. It teaches a lesson that is equally applicable to men and women alike: True Love–love that is true, and active, and efficacious– is found in action. It is found in loving. And as Christians, we recognize that in loving,we become more and more like God, who is Love. And that love can thaw a frozen heart.

 

Mackenzie Mulligan is the author of “Simon, Who Is Called Peter,” which will show you the world of the New Testament through the eyes of Jesus’ most notorious disciple. Learn more, and get a free excerpt, here.

Love and Knowledge: Why ditching theology isn’t the answer

“Theology is ok for some people, but for me, I think it’s a lot better just to love people, you know?”

At least, that’s what a growing chunk of evangelicals are saying. But does it hold up? Does it actually work? Does it even make any sense?

This sentiment gets part of it right, at least. The Church is supposed to love people as Christ loves people. That is, we are supposed to desire the good of others and to act for that good, even when that requires sacrifice. To love, in the Christian sense, is to be selflessly committed to the capital-G “Good” of the beloved (which, for the Christian, is everyone).

So far, so good. But here’s where it gets tricky: that desire and commitment for the good of the beloved is actually fairly useless without a corresponding knowledge of both the beloved and the Good. Because while it might be fairly easy to affect happiness in the beloved, Good is often a lot trickier.

This is easiest to see in areas like parenting, where working towards the Good of your children is often uncomfortable and even counter-intuitive. Making your children happy, without caring for any other consequences, is easy: working towards their actual Good is difficult. That’s why it’s possible for parents to genuinely love their children, to genuinely desire their Good, yet spoil them rotten. Some parents believe that the best way to achieve the Good of the child is to make them happy, to give them whatever they want, to appease them at all costs. This kind of “love” takes the form of limitless candy, unending indulgence, and an utter lack of discipline: a course of action sure to produce a happy child. Unfortunately, that child will also likely be insufferable, malnourished, and utterly unprepared for the larger world. In this case, genuinely loving actions on the part of the parents actually work against the Good of the child, due to a lack of knowledge regarding both children and their Good.

Even actions motivated by true, unselfish love can have disastrous consequences, if not based on true knowledge. Love alone is insufficient, because working towards the Good of the beloved requires a real knowledge both of the beloved and the Good. And this especially applies to the Church’s relationship to people.

We are to love people, as Christ loved us. On this the Bible is very clear, and on this, at least, all of the varied claimants to the title of Christians can agree. “God so loved the world,” John 3:16 tells us, and one of Jesus’ last commands to the disciples before his death is “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” That is, indeed, the mark of the Christian, and 1 John emphasizes that God himself is love, and that loving is the mark of a true Christian.

And, to a certain extent, we can love well thanks to common grace and general revelation, gifts given by God to all people. Paul tells us in Romans that the Law, intended to guide humanity towards God, is written on the hearts of men. To some extent, we know what is Good for people. We know that parents should feed and protect their children, we know that some things are good and some things are bad. As far as this knowledge takes us, we can love rightly, we can know what is Good and act towards it.

Again: so far, so good.

Unfortunately, that knowledge of the Good is fundamentally broken and insufficient. Whatever true knowledge we retain, we have lost much more, and we’re even worse off when it comes to acting on it.   Jeremiah 17 states our situation clearly: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick: Who can understand it?” It is actively deceitful, pushing us towards what we know is evil; it is also constantly sick, an utterly insufficient guide. If you rely solely on your heart to make decisions, you’re gonna have a bad time. You might be acting out of love, but you will not be acting for the Good of your beloved.

So where do we get this knowledge? Where are we to find this knowledge of humanity, if our heart is so deceitful? Who will tell us how to love, if we are so desperately sick? For the Church, there is only one answer: God. The one who knows what we are for, because he is the one who made us that way to begin with. True knowledge of humanity, and humanity’s Good,  can only come from true knowledge of God and what he created us for.

And unfortunately for some denominations, it does not work backwards: you cannot look to your own heart and try to find God with that, because you will only end up with an even larger lie, consumed by an even more desperate sickness. We cannot make God in our own image, for our image is already disfigured. Nor can we look to our own selves for the good of humanity, because we are fundamentally broken, barely even human ourselves.

We are left with only one solution: theology. What we as people are, what we were created for, how we best pursue our Good and the Good of others…the ultimate guide to all of that must be God, and God alone.

So no, blog writers and internet commenters that so irritate me, you cannot leave the theology and “just get on with the business of love.” You cannot learn to love well without theology. If you want to love people well, to genuinely work towards their Good, you cannot afford to leave the theology behind. It is theology that tells us about God, and in turn tells us about people. The two go hand-in-hand.

One last thing: I do understand where this desire to step away from theology comes from. There’s also a problem at the opposite end of the spectrum, where people have theology that is technically correct, but do not use it to love well (or worse still, use faulty theology as a weapon to harm people). But throwing out theology entirely (or separating it from our day-to-day lives) cannot be the solution.

Memorized and Meaningless? A Fresh Look at 1 Corinthians 13

Something is rotten in the state of the pro-life movement.  We are fighting so hard to save unborn babies from abortion that we become tunnel-visioned.  It isn’t that we should stop being mindful of the plight of the unborn.  But we shouldn’t focus on the unborn to the neglect of everyone else.  What are we missing?

Love.

“But Tim, we love babies; we aren’t missing love.”

I’m glad you love babies; I do, too.  Over a million of them are dying each year, so we had better do something about that.  But do you love their moms?  Do you love their dads?  Do you love your pro-choice friends?  Sometimes I don’t.

While I was reflecting on this problem a few months ago, it reminded me of 1 Corinthians 13.  I wrote my struggles into the text, not to elevate my thoughts to the level of Scripture, but to remind myself of the power of a passage quoted so often that I hear the words without thinking about what they mean.  Below, I’ve placed the original text in bold type with my added thoughts in normal type.

If I speak with the conviction of a great apologist, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have great powers of perception, and understand all science and philosophy, and if I have all faith, so as to inspire a congregation, but have not love, I am nothing.

If I give away all excess income to pregnancy care centers and take in unwed mothers, and if I deliver up my reputation for the cause of saving unborn babies, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; it listens and seeks to understand rather than merely waiting for the chance to respond.

Love is kind; it treats everyone as a valuable human being made in the image of God – not just embryos, fetuses, and those who agree with us.

Love does not envy or boast; it gives all glory to God and does not seek to be honored by men.

Love is not arrogant; it remembers how many times it has made mistakes in reasoning.

Love is not rude; it does not dehumanize people by calling them faggots, homos, or fairies.

Love does not insist on its own way; it does not need to have the last word in a debate.

Love is not irritable; it is slow to anger and quick to forgive.

Love is not resentful; it does not dwell on the failures of those around us.

Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing; it is not excited when those who oppose us are caught in sin.

Love rejoices with the truth; it does not distort the facts or misconstrue another’s arguments.

Love bears all things; it does not need to be defensive when insulted.

Love believes all things; it does not assume that people have evil intentions just because they disagree.

Love hopes all things; it is not cynical, but remembers that God is good and He is in control.

Love endures all things; it does not give up on the unborn no matter how discouraged we feel.

Every time I read this I can’t help but remember times I utterly failed to love people.  God forgive me; when I was seventeen years old, I told an obnoxious pro-choice woman on an online forum that I wasn’t going to “cast my pearls before her anymore.”  Yes, I had that much nerve.  And yes, I was that arrogant.  In my conversations now, I don’t imply that the people I encounter are swine.  But almost ten years later I still struggle sometimes to think of the person I’m talking to as a human being made in the image of God, just as precious as the unborn babies we’re trying to save.

Even if you feel convicted, don’t let a fear of making mistakes cause you not to try.  On the day that you read this there will be more than three thousand abortions (in the US alone), killing more than three thousand babies and deeply wounding more than three thousand moms.  There are also millions and millions of people who don’t know Jesus.  Who will tell them about Him if you and I give up out of fear?

We can’t help them all, but by God’s grace we can help many of them.