October 29, 2007
Squelched by Marriage
Have I nurtured my spouse's personality, or buried it?
When I get home tonight, I'll think awhile about Gordon MacDonald's new column. In fact, I think most pastors and leaders should think hard on his thesis: What has the dominant, big-personality, leader type squelched in his spouse? I may muster the courage to ask my wife what she thinks about it.
Those of us who have spent our lives getting close to people for pastoral reasons are quite well acquainted with the grief that floods the life of one who has lost a dearly loved spouse. We've observed the paralyzing sadness and sense of loss and know that only time will dull the pain. There are a plethora of books and seminars that speak about this experience.
What is less talked or written about is the opposite of such grief. The word that comes to me is liberation. In some cases the death of a spouse actually liberates the surviving spouse to remove something like a disguise and become a new person.
I once stood near enough to overhear a conversation between a woman and two of her adult children soon after the funeral and burial services for her husband (and their father) had concluded. Apparently, either the son or the daughter, thinking they were offering a kind of protective love to the mother, tried to take charge and tell her something that she should or shouldn't do.
The mother (freshly a widow, remember!) reacted with words wrapped in anger. "Now let's get something straight right this minute. No one! No one is going to tell me what to do any longer. I've been doing what everyone else wanted (alluding no doubt to her deceased husband) for fifty years. Now it's my turn. I'll make my own decisions from here on out. Is this understood?" I had the feeling these words has been rehearsed and that it was only a matter of time until they came out. Now they did.
They came from a small-statured woman who had always seemed content to live as a loving and serving wife in the shadow of her more-dominating husband. As far as I could tell she had always seemed happy with her marriage arrangements. Now I had some doubt.
More than a few times, I have seen surviving spouses who - soon after a period of mourning - seem to change dramatically. They buy new clothes, begin to travel (or stop traveling), redecorate their home, join organizations or find new ways to make money. They deepen spiritually or (and this shouldn't surprise) do just the opposite. Anyway, a new person emerges. A new person? Or the hidden one?
What I have learned from watching episodes like this is that many people apparently harbor a secret person inside of themselves that never sees the light of day. That hidden "person" is intimidated or refused by someone near who controls all the airspace of the relationship.
Someone, by the way, will point out that this is most certainly true in many acrimonious divorces. Terminate the relationship and you have no idea what new person may emerge.
Of course there is a corollary to all of this for which I do not have space except to mention. Sometimes the survivor goes into a kind of character or spiritual disintegration and you realize that what they were was being propped up or held together by the one who had just passed on. This scenario is not pretty.
Having seen one more of these hidden persons emerge in just the past few months, I was pressed to engage in some reflective thinking about my own marriage. Could there ever be such a person hiding in my wife, Gail? Someone that I have refused to recognize and welcome over the years of our marriage? Put another way: is this woman whom I dearly love everything she is capable of being partly through my encouragement and affirmation? Or - and this is hard to write - would my departure be that "person's" liberation? I'd like to think that the answer is a resounding "no!" There is nothing in Gail that needs to hide. Nevertheless, it is a question worth asking myself (no matter how morose) so that I can be the more sure that I have encouraged her (as well as all my friends) to be all that God meant her (and them) to be.
A wonderful read: Jonathan Aitken's John Newton (Crossway, 2007) is a marvelous biography. I'll never sing again Amazing Grace without remembering the power of Christian conversion as it was so remarkably evidenced in Newton's life. Before Aitken's book, I thought I'd covered the bases on John Newton. Not so. He's a fresh new hero to me now.
An irritating read: Jim and Casper Go to Church, by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper (BarnaBooks, 2007). A brilliant idea for a book. Two guys (one an out-of-the-closet-atheist) visit various well-known churches in America at worship time. The atheist, Casper, offers the Christian, Jim, a fresh-eyed view of what he is seeing as people gather and sing and listen to sermons. I guess I'm glad they didn't come anywhere near where I preach - although I probably would have learned a lot.
I wish the book could be rewritten with an eye toward more depth in the subject matter. There weren't a lot of surprises about what one might experience if he visits a congregation at worship for the first time. Still, the value of the book was in its reminder that some things done in church must seem pretty bizarre to the critic who stands outside the faith.
The price of the book is in the question that Casper asks Jim several times after leaving various churches to which they have traveled. "Is this really what Jesus told you guys to do?" Casper seems incredulous.
A prayer request. This was a wonderful weekend in New England: the foliage remains brilliant; the Red Sox won the World Series; the Patriots are undefeated; and Boston College is number two in the nation. We need humility. Right now it's a spiritual battle for all of us. A spiritual battle I would be happy to entertain into the foreseeable future.
Gordon MacDonald is Leadership's editor at large