Marriage with a Mission (excerpted from A New Way to Be Church by Jack Jezreel and revised)
As I have imagined and engaged the possibilities of church renewal over the years, I have often considered how a mission orientation would impact the way we think about and prepare people for marriage. To be forthcoming about my interest, I have often reflected on how grace-filled and satisfying my marriage with Maggie has been, which was birthed, in large part, by a shared interest in mission, compassion, and justice.
Maggie and I first met while I was a member of a Catholic Worker community. Shortly after that, Maggie joined the community and the beginning and early chapters of our relationship were framed by the work and vision of the Catholic Worker experience. The community of fifteen we were a part of oversaw the operation of a soup kitchen that served lunch each day to 250 – 350 people. We also ran and staffed three hospitality houses for men and women who were suffering homelessness. A great many of our guests at the soup kitchen and hospitality houses struggled with mental illness or addiction, sometimes both. Our guests often included children.
The community was also committed to peacemaking and it was not uncommon for one or more members to be in jail for having committed an act of nonviolent resistance in response to political decisions that promoted violence or unnecessary military engagement. Maggie and I, believe it or not, got engaged while she was in jail for having occupied a legislator’s office in protest of his vote to fund a terrorist group. I figured that proposing to her while she was incarcerated might be good timing, since her prospects at that moment were fairly limited.
We chose not to have health insurance as a sign of solidarity with the poorest people in the community and as a way of honoring Jesus’ encouragement that we “not worry about tomorrow; today has enough worries.” To put it slightly differently, we were interested in spending our resources on the profound need we saw around us today rather than the needs we might or might not have tomorrow.
Most of us had few clothes and that which we had was typically well worn. We took few, if any, vacations. We owned very little.
Doesn’t sound too romantic, does it?
In fact, it was great. This, as it turned out, was an extraordinary way to begin and to frame the expectations and hopes and dreams of marriage. Here are six brief reflections on why I think this “missional orientation” has made for a rich and lifegiving relationship between Maggie and me and why it might be important for others.
First, Maggie and I met, courted and married with a shared assumption that we would spend the rest of our lives together working to address the needs of those impoverished, living simply, acting nonviolently and exploring our faith with an ardent intentionality. We could not imagine ourselves taking jobs just to get wealthy or living in an affluent neighborhood or maxing out a credit card. In other words, there was a binding vision of what our lives would look like. It was a narrative that we have since spent our lives trying to live into, often inadequately. However, this shared vision or narrative provided a set of touchstones that would serve to anchor our choices, inform our shared lifestyle and correct our missteps. Over the years, Maggie and I have relied, in varied and changing ways, on the reference points of prayer, compassion, simplicity and community as the primary signposts by which to live our lives with a sense of integrity and fidelity.
While Maggie and I chose to leave the Catholic Worker Community shortly before the birth of our second daughter, the lived experience of caring for those who were homeless, having few things, working and living with other people in community were so profoundly life-giving that they have guided our steps through the many chapters of our lives since then. So, for example, when I decided later to work at a parish, the job I sought was a position focused on outreach and justice. Later, when Maggie and I decided to farm full-time, we opted to explore the possibilities of simplicity, building a straw bale house without running water, electricity or telephone (with three young daughters!) When an invitation came our way to start an organic farm project at the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Central Kentucky, we rejoiced that we would be surrounded by a Christian community of so many fine and committed women.
In short, the shared embrace of the Gospel vision of a world made holy only by generosity, care and mutuality has guided and enriched our shared life together.
Second, there is a powerful but little-discussed linkage between compassion and passion. Yes, loving Maggie was/is not all about solving the world’s many problems. I love her. And, when I was a young man, I fell in love with her and loved her like any self-respecting young man would love his young and alluring spouse. Little has changed in that regard. However, as any experienced married person reading these words knows, passion and being-in-love come and go. One of the great and under-rated falling-in-love and being-in-love experiences is to witness your partner’s generosity and care for others. I am very aware how much I can fall back in love each time Maggie does yet another generous, patient and sacrificing deed for someone else. Sometimes that “someone else” is a family member, but just as often it is someone on the street, in prison, or just in pain.
I have a memory of when Maggie and I were living on a farm; money was always tight. When our youngest child was old enough to attend school, Maggie decided she would go back to work to help with finances. As someone who had always dabbled in art, she was planning to apply for a part-time art teacher position that had opened at a local school in rural Kentucky where we were then living. She was excited about it because she loved art and thought she would enjoy teaching art to kids. So, she went off that morning to interview at the school.
When she got back home I asked her how it went. She told me that she got a job, but the way she said it made me curious. “Did you get the art teacher job?” I asked. “Well, yes,” she said, “but I decided not to take it.” And then I listened as she shared what had happened. The school had need for someone to work one-on-one with a little boy with a rare and devastating disease called Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome that results in a neurological condition that interrupts motor skills and, strangely, triggers children to hurt themselves. Most die by the time they are age fifteen due to organ failure. The condition looks like cerebral palsy because the children are confined to wheelchairs, have their heads harnessed so they can’t bang them against walls or hard objects and wear mouthpieces, so they don’t chew on their tongues or lips. It is a cruel disease.
Maggie said, simply, “Nobody applied so I figured I could do it.” And my heart swelled with awe and wonder and the greatest admiration and love. It is hard to fall out of love with a person like that. Day after day, Maggie would come home from work with her stories, spoken sometimes with a smile and sometimes with tears, of caring for Raymond who had been given such a tough hand to play in life. It wasn’t long before Raymond loved her. As the medical manuals predicted, he later died just before his 17th birthday.
In our culture, way too much is made of the link between passion and physical appearance and much too little is made of the link between selflessness and beauty. I have always found Maggie compelling and attractive; and a big part of that is her generosity, self-forgetfulness and hospitality.
Third, it is unhelpful to romanticize the work of caring about those who live on the street (or in a wheelchair); it is often very difficult. Loving your neighbor can be wonderfully satisfying or remarkably trying; it is usually both. As a young couple soon to be married, our experience of working with people who were homeless gave us a direct view into the nature of commitment and care. Love is not always a response to something attractive; in fact, as it matures, it’s not a responsive action at all. It’s a choice, a way of being, a recognition of a commonality that invites, no, requires our investment in each other. It can be and is often trying.
As Maggie and I have walked together the very human path, including error, distractibility, and selfishness, the option of forgiveness has come more and more readily, birthed, in part, from the graced lessons we learned from trying to be neighbors to our abandoned sisters and brothers on the street. Recognizing the obvious woundedness that expresses itself as homelessness afforded Maggie and me the room to admit and embrace our own, less obvious wounds, and each other’s vulnerability. I think this made it more possible for us to forgive each other, probably the single biggest asset for a marriage and a necessary part of the journey of love. There’s no option for love if we require perfection from each other. Maggie and I do not have a perfect relationship. Far from it. But we do have a relationship in which we forgive regularly.
Choosing to love is different than falling in love, but they’re not unrelated. Choosing to love, to forgive, to be patient and kind even in a rough patch, as far as I can tell, is the most promising container in which falling in love can happen over and over. Laughter and joy are sustained only by commitment through tears and rupture.
Fourth, knowing what to say “yes” (amen) to, also informs what to say “no” to. Believing that each of us is here only because of a divine generosity, and that every human life is precious, and that we are therefore called, first and foremost, to tend to that gift of life, helped us to put other, unhelpful narratives in their place. For example, the idea that we human beings are primarily competitors, sparring in the pursuit of financial trophies, pales in comparison. To imagine that this gift of life should be spent in earning, collecting and hoarding is intellectually insulting, environmentally disastrous, and spiritually bankrupt. And, yet, in the absence of a more compelling, very different vision, it can swallow up the human soul. Indeed, much of American politics and religion seems to worship at the altar of this lousy idea.
The practice of various forms of simplicity—which inherently includes a suspicion of consumption—has, perhaps paradoxically, en”riched” our lives. I remember when we bought our first farm in Central Kentucky and the insurance agent asked what the “contents” of our house were worth. We went from room to room, closet to closet, did the math and told him, “About $1,000,” which caused him to laugh skeptically. But we had done the math correctly; we had purchased the few things we owned at garage sales and thrift stores. And while it makes life easier to travel lightly, the real benefit of simplicity is to direct one’s attention to relationship. Instead of being distracted by stuff and its upkeep and protection, there is the liberating space to focus only on relationship. One of my favorite memories of living in our non-electrified, straw bale home on the farm was that we would light the house with oil lamps and candles. In the darkness of late evening, sitting at a table with only candlelight in the center of the table meant that Maggie and I and our daughters would talk and all that we could really see was each other’s face. With no telephone or TV (and before computers and cell phones), it was hard to get distracted.
One of the common factors that often results in divorce is financial pressure caused by overspending by one or both spouses. A shared commitment to simplicity can help reduce financial worries. Marriage is hard enough without arguing about the credit card bill and being anxious about mounting debt. Over the years, Maggie and I have crafted little competitions about who can spend less; she usually wins. But the happy reality is that we have never really been troubled about money, even when we didn’t have much of it.
The final testimony I can offer is that it has been such a good life with Maggie. I have often reflected on the paradoxical promise of faith: we gain our lives by losing them. We gain our lives by giving them away. To say it another way, we discover life and meaning and love and deepest satisfaction and the sacred by investing ourselves in the good of others, including and necessarily with those who are in harm’s way. This Gospel promise, I believe, is at the heart of what it means to be a whole and holy human being. As such, it is a message for all people, married and unmarried. Maggie and I together aspired to make this message our own. All I can say is that it is hard to imagine another message that would have been as life-giving. To aspire to a missional life has meant that I have tried to invest my life in one way or another in the good of others, including Maggie, especially Maggie, but not only Maggie. Maggie and I see each other not only as someone we care about but someone we care WITH. We are a partnership in the name of love, mercy, generosity. We frequently fall short, but at least we know who we are trying to be.
My hunch and observation are that when couples embrace this message and partnership together, there is a very good chance it will make their marriage better—richer, deeper, more life-giving, more satisfying, less distracted, more impactful, more thoughtful, more prayerful, more generative, more soulful—just better. People will stay together, not out of obligation but out of a deeply-held and shared vocation to bring hope and healing to the world.
It strikes me that the Christian tradition has put a lot of emphasis on the indissolubility of marriage by trying to outlaw divorce. May I propose, alternatively, that a missional orientation to marriage supplies the distinctive content which would inspire and empower people to make a commitment to each other, to the world and to their faith which honors the Gospel invitation and the hope of fidelity. If there is something truly distinctive about Christian marriage, it’s not that it just lasts a lifetime. Many selfish and/or unhappy people have managed to stay married until one or the other dies. Rather, what is distinctive about Christian marriage is that it aims for a shared relationship that is so generous, so hospitable and so broadly loving in the now that it flowers into a lifetime. If young people are to be convinced that a lifetime commitment is better than “living together” (which is to describe a relationship in the most uninspiring, unimaginative way possible), it will be because of the distinctive quality of a shared, committed mission. When we get so happily tangled up in the teamwork of loving the world together, it is hard to imagine walking away from that communion.
Do you have your own “marriage with a mission” story to tell? If so, please email me at [email protected]. It doesn’t need to be but a few paragraphs. I would like to curate whatever is sent and share in a future newsletter.