Posts Tagged Christianity

Marriage: the scariest, most beautiful thing

I’m getting to that age, that age where your friends start pairing off into couples and becoming married. Do not worry, this post is not about how mortified I am that I am still single and how there’s no end in sight. Instead I want to say something about the incredible commitment that marriage is.

I can think of nothing more beautiful and more terrifying than marriage. If you’re a Christian, then, in theory at least, marriage is for life. The certainty you must have to make that commitment… I think I might have to wait till I’m a hundred before I am that certain about anything (except death and taxes).

Marriages do not always last. When you enter into one, you must (even if you are a Christian) be aware that it may end prematurely. That does not mean you should not try. And marriages that do not end in divorce, end in death. There must be no greater grief (except the loss of a child) than the loss of your life partner. If you’re a woman that is most likely what you will experience (women live longer and marry younger), but men are not exempt of course.

Still, a life shared is a beautiful thing. I am thinking beyond the wedding and the honeymoon. It is in every day’s living, in the little joys, in the dull, the dreary, in toil, strife and hardship, that a marriage is built. It is in saying “I love you” every day, to mean it even if you’re in the middle of a heated argument.

Marriage is not a cure for a lonely life. It does not make a broken person complete. But it does, sometimes, make of two people, a single being, inseparable, a force of joy and love and an inspiration to all. It is truly a gift from God (one that like a plant must be nurtured if it is to last).  I hope that all my friends who are married and soon to be married (and those who will marry later) experience this gift.

I wrote this poem for you:

Love is grand – it deserves a festival
and a honeymoon
and a yearly anniversary
romantic dinners and flowers and gifts
perfume and makeup

Love starts with a beating heart
and sweaty palms
with grandiose gestures
but it is in everyday things
that love is made complete
in two lives that become
in  every day’s living
a life shared
in little joys
in leaving for work
in weekday dinners
in the love (or hate) of football
in the dull, the dreary
in shopping
in the choice of asymmetric carpets and paint
in toil, strife and hardship
in paying the bills
together

Love is quiet and unrelenting
its strength is the strength of God
its weakness is the weakness of man
love matures with its hosts
becomes the finer for their wrinkles
and frailty

Love is a gift from God

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The God in our language

Do you listen to the things you say? I listen to what people say and their words do not always reflect their beliefs. Atheists call upon God and Christians who otherwise profess things to be the will of God blame things on luck or coincidence when it is convenient.

Admittedly, it’s often hardly their fault. Our language has evolved this way. It’s hard to make utterances completely congruent with your beliefs – in fact people might think you’re a little strange. If your friend is about to write a big exam, do you say

a)      Good luck,

b)      May the will of God let you succeed, or

c)       Your hard work will pay off

Everyone says a) at least some of the time, even if their beliefs are more consistent with b) or c). “Good luck” is just something one says. In some sense it’s lost its meaning. No one thinks they can control whimsical chance. If you’re a Christian, perhaps the best thing to say is “God speed”, which literally means “let God prosper you”, but this now has connotations of impending doom (thanks, probably, to movies and the US military) and so your friend may lose heart entirely.

When you narrowly avoid disaster, do you say

a)      Thank God,

b)      Thank goodness,

c)       I was lucky, or

d)      It was God’s will

At different points you may find yourself saying more one of the above.  Even Atheists like to say
“Thank God” and they don’t seem to see the irony. I think you should only thank God if you really mean to thank God. But then, should we avoid thanking goodness? I think the world is random (designed that way) and so I see no problem in blaming things on luck – as long as by luck you mean probability or chance.

When something upsets you, do you say

a)      f***

b)      Jesus Christ

c)       Mary mother of God

d)      Darn

e)      Shit

I say “flip”. It’s less coarse than any of the above, but its purpose is pretty much the same: A thoughtless word expressed in anger.  Why do we want to be profane when things go wrong? Perhaps we want blame the God whose name we invoke, even if we foreswear His existence.  Perhaps we want to punish the universe for our predicament (as if it cares). Perhaps we don’t think at all.

There is a particular usage of words that some Christians like and which I avoid. They may say things such as

a)      I felt God say to me…

b)      The spirit moved me…

c)       I had a calling…

d)      I just felt something…

d) is probably the most honest. There is probably nothing wrong with a) to c), but unless you make it clear that you’re just interpreting your circumstances, your thoughts, your dreams, or your feelings, you can mislead people.

When someone sneezes, do you say “bless you?”
Are lovers fated to be together?
When you meet someone in an unexpected place, is it a coincidence?
Is getting that promotion an answer to your prayers or did you deserve it?
Is it a miracle or an as yet unexplained mystery?

Our language betrays us.  In some sense, as Christians, God is alive in our language, in how we interpret the world. A cynic might say God only exists in our language. When I say something is a miracle, I acknowledge God’s power over reality. But does that mean I should pepper my language with references to God? If God wills I will go to such and such a place and make money…

I think we should practice make our language consistent with what we really mean in every circumstance. Atheists should not thank God. If I think something is a coincidence or just pure luck I shall call it that.  Leave it to someone else to say it is the will of God, if that is what they mean.

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Let’s talk about abstinence

Here follows a gratuitous (and poorly gimped) picture in a shameless attempt to capture your attention:

40-Year-OldVirginMoviePoster_lambchop

Now for some serious life-thoughts. The 40-year-old virgin , I am led to believe, is a movie about a man in his forties who is still a virgin. I have so far refused to watch the movie – mainly because the title seems suggest being a 40-year old virgin is somehow shameful.  This post is, however, not about the movie. It is about this: people are taking longer and longer to get married, and if they’re Christian (in a more-or-less traditional sense that is) they are taking longer and longer to have sex.

These Christians (at least in the Western world) live in a society in which the average age of losing one’s virginity is probably below 20. To be 30 or 40, single, still waiting for mr(s) right, can feel shameful.  It is not the same as a taking a vow of celibacy (as Catholic priests do) because the intention was never to abstain from sex completely: it was to wait for marriage. And there is perhaps only cold comfort in the knowledge that you have acted according to your highly cherished beliefs.

By the secular one may be viewed as pitiable for being unable to “get laid”, or as stupid for not making use of (or finding) opportunities to engage in a clearly pleasurable activity. Within the church community you may be surrounded by younger couples (some even with Children), churchgoers who pity you (behind your back) for still being unmarried, and well-meant comments such as “I can’t believe some guy/girl has snatched you yet” or “I can’t believe you’re still single” probably don’t help.

I take the above comments from the blog I kissed my date goodnight1. in which a 32-year old woman reflects on her experience with Christian dating. With Christianity in decline in the Western world, the pool of eligible partners for these long-time singles shrinks (unless they are willing to consider inter-religious relationships). The Christian dating process (if you consider Christian dating to be viable at all) seems to have additional complexities. The common way dating is portrayed on television and in movies (that is American television and movies) in which dating seems to go hand-in-hand (so to speak) with sex can put off devout Christian singles.  Indeed there is even a book I kissed dating goodbye (which I have not read), which outlines an alternative closer to traditional courting for Christians.

I know little about dating, so don’t read my blog for dating advice. The truth is, though, dating is probably the best way for these singles to meet potential partners. And indeed,  Christians seem to have found ways to adapt the secular dating methods. I often find, on biblegateway.com that I am presented with advertisements for Christian dating sites, none of which I have used, at least not yet. However, I am single, and I may be single for a while still. I may yet turn to dating sites, speed dating, or some other nifty dating gimmick.

One “solution” to the problem of “40-year-old virgins” is, of course, to just change your opinion about pre-marital sex and join the world – date like you’re in the movies. Better yet, date like you’re in Grey’s Anatomy (those doctors have a lot of sex). One could even try to justify it Biblically (the outrage).  But I don’t think this is the way to go.

I am a single man, waiting for that one special person. The idea of uncommitted sex fills me with dread. (The book SuperFreakonomics informs me that in 1930s America 20% of men lost their virginity to prostitutes , which is horrifying. Now 70% of men have sex before they marry, which is not much better). For now at least, I am committed to the lifestyle I have chosen. If you are waiting too, you are not alone.

1. Disclaimer: the I kissed my date goodnight blog is about dating, not about sex. I do not presume to know anything about anyone’s sex life other than my own

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The church in the red light district

(The following is based on an article I wrote for ISN Insiders magazine entitled “Meeting God in Amsterdam”. If you have already read this article, you may wish to only read the poem)

I often visit the red light district, in Amsterdam’s city centre. Here I walk past windows luridly lit with red lights, where prostitutes display themselves. A man (who appears to be acting as a pimp) yells “girls, sex for free”. Across the street a “coffee shop” sells cannabis to curious tourists. Just across from another such shop, and right in front of a row of red-lit windows, is my destination, “De Oude Kerk”, the oldest church in Amsterdam.

Visiting De Oude Kerk is a deeply spiritual experience. I am a Christian, brought up as such in a conservative Afrikaans home in South Africa. Faced with the almost laughable contrast of the beautiful church (which still has services every Sunday) and its debauched surroundings, I cannot but contemplate the nature of humanity, and of faith. Such contemplation has been the hallmark of my experience in Amsterdam.

The Netherlands is very secular with a declining religious population. One reads in the newspapers of Churches being sold and used for other purposes because they no longer have congregations. I do not think any Christian can hear this and visit De Oude Kerk without mourning. The Good News should be spreading, not retreating. In fact, not long after first visiting De Oude Kerk I wrote a poem about it.

how can you invite me?
	     when I stand in front of those walls
(you see them, you must, through the lurid glass)
	     that for 700 years
	     have condemned it

   that should condemn it still
	      oh dear God, are you still there?
	      do you laugh at the old church coffee shop’s
				                  mockery?
the church that is the neighbour of prostitutes
		       and dopers
	   calling by its very presence them

                                    to enter

	and so many do, and look and gawp and awe and marvel
			         but look not on God

God is the juggler in the plein
	     a few coins in his hat
		           and no hearts

The feelings of this poem are true. I do not think they are wrong. But they are not the whole story either. It is tempting to dismiss Amsterdam as an immoral city, now Godless. This would be a mistake. Amsterdam is no more immoral than any other major city. It is just more open. Underlying Dutch culture seems to be the belief that people should have the freedom to make decisions about religion, lifestyle, sex, orientation, and so on. There is no judgement here.

The red light district and the coffee shops are a testament to this attitude. But so is the church right in its heart and other Christian organisations that have placed themselves there. In many areas of the city you can see Muslim women wearing their Hijabs. I am glad to be in a country where people are free to express their deepest beliefs, free to explore, free both to find and to reject God. (It is worrisome to me that an anti-immigration and anti-Islam political movement has recently gained some footing, polluting this atmosphere).

Amsterdam is not a Godless city. God is present in the passionate community of Christians that still live here (the Christians I have met have been very passionate). He is present in the many beautiful churches that abound in the city. He is present in me.

Amsterdam is definitely a place to grow spiritually. There are enough English-speaking Christian denominations that any Christian can find a home. However, in this cosmopolitan city you can  easily surround yourself with people with viewpoints that differ radically from your own. Be willing to listen. Your preconceived notions will be challenged – do not hold to them too tightly. You may hear about the differences in the practice of Islam in Iran and in other Arab countries. You may speak to vegans and reconsider what you eat. You are certain to meet plenty of atheists.

Like me, you may well often find yourself the only Christian in a group of students, many of whom are curious to hear about your faith. When you have to explain your beliefs to others, it is no longer possible to take them for granted. You may find yourself meeting God anew, or even for the first time.

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