Relationships

There are so many things one can say on an occasion like this that it is hard to know where to begin. In preparing for my remarks today, I couldn’t help but think of the story of an Officer Cadet in the Army who was learning how to drill his troops, and had them marching up and down the barrack square, counter marching, doubling and so on, under the instruction of his Sergeant Major. On one side of the square was a very steep cliff. He wanted to shout the command to stop them, but the words wouldn’t come. As he helplessly tried to give the command to ‘halt’ and as the first ranks started to disappear over the edge, the Sergeant Major turned to him and said: “For heaven’s sake, Sir, say something, even if it’s only ‘Goodbye’!”

On an occasion like this, just to be here, and say “hullo” rather than “goodbye” would perhaps be enough—in these celebrations, the real reward is in renewing your acquaintance with those whom life has taken elsewhere, and anything by way of a message is an extra. As I look around, I can see that some things have changed since I was with you twelve years ago, and some remain the same. The lovely building with its wonderful acoustics is still here—the carpet under the altar is blue now, and the choir has blue gowns instead of the surplices we wore. On your walls I see hangings I never knew, and across the ceiling a fearful array of electrical gadgets of all sorts. In the congregation, though, I see many familiar faces—above which, I am afraid, like myself, I see more grey hair than I used to remember. I, too, left you as a choir director and return now as a priest. Times change, but the underlying spirit and friendliness of this church is something that the years don’t change.

Still, I do have a message for you, and it’s connected to the day we are celebrating today—Mother’s Day. I want to take up the theme that a mother is someone special, not so much for what she is, but for the relationships she enjoys with the members of her family, and from this go on to talk a little about this whole question of relationships in our world today.

A mother cannot exist alone. By definition, she is the parent of a child. And if she has a child, it must be because some other person is a father. Just being a mother involves being at the point of tension between two different relationships, towards husband and towards child. No wonder that the Church also, with its same tension between obedience to God and the demands of her children, is referred to as a ‘mother’. The tensions and the conflicts and the need to provide are really not so different.

A mother is a person involved in relationships—and this in a world where relationships seem daily to be becoming less and less essential in the scheme of things. It used to be that buying the groceries, filling the car up, calling the doctor—these everyday activities of life—were all of them occasions involving human contact. Now they are passing progressively out of our lives. We pump our own gas, select our own groceries, and our visits to professionals are timed by the minute, because human contact is an expensive luxury in the grinding pressure of doing the most business at the least cost. Worse than that, though, we have become believers that this is all to the good—that being individuals in a society where we all look after ourselves is good. This has left our families shattered and our world full of confused and lonely people. Modern travel means that many children grow up not knowing the relationship of aunts and uncles and grandparents that was the ‘extended family’ of old. People feel lost, and in trying to ‘find themselves’ cut themselves even more adrift from these ties of relationship. I am thinking of a good friend, a very intelligent man, who faced with a mid-life crisis and the need to ‘find himself’, has left his wife and two children, his job, and his acquaintances, to head off down East to start again and discover who he really is. My fear is that he will never find anything that way, and in fact, by leaving behind the relationships and responsibilities of a lifetime, he is likely to do nothing so much as to end up on skid row. He is like the biologist who tried to find out the essential nature of an onion, by peeling off layer after layer to get to the core of things. When he had peeled all the layers away, there was nothing left—at which point, I guess, he decided that onions are a figment of the imagination that don’t ‘really’ exist at all. Something like the cosmonaut, who went up to outer space and was disappointed that he “didn’t find God up there.”

We live in a scientific world, and we love to find out how things work by taking them to pieces. That is fine, so long as we remember that the pieces are not the same as the whole we started from. A clock may be no more than a collection of springs, plates and cogwheels—but a collection of springs, plates and cogwheels does not tell the time—a clock does. So with the universe. We can take human society to pieces, and say it is just a mass of individual people. We can take the people to pieces and say they are just a collection of organs. We can take the organs to pieces and say they are just collections of living cells—cells are collections of macro-molecules, the molecules of atoms, the atoms of subatomic particles. We can show that the whole universe is composed of energy in curiously complicated forms of relationship—nothing more.

All this is true enough, but then people go on to say that what they see around them in God’s world is ‘nothing but’ a collection of atoms: people are ‘nothing but’ a few dollars’ worth of chemicals, forgetting that it is precisely in their relationship of one level of organization to another that God as made His visible universe from the elements of the invisible world. God puts an atom of Sodium and an atom of Chlorine in a particular relationship, and we have something new that was never there before, namely salt. The atom of sodium is still there, the atom of chlorine is still there. But in the relationship between this very corrosive metal and chocking, poisonous gas, something new has come into the world—salt—that is essential to life on this planet.

The Christian message is that something new is created, without destroying anything of the old, when relationships are established in this way. Atoms become molecules, molecules become living cells, organs become bodies, when the parts are properly related to the whole. The transformation of character that takes place is not from a change of the smaller unit—it is from the new creation that comes from the manner in which the smaller units relate to each other. The atoms are unchanged. Mrs. Chlorine well may get up in front of the divorce court judge, and sob on His Lordship’s arm that “My husband is like an unstable, corrosive metal”—and her husband will have his say to tell the judge that “my wife is like a choking, poisonous gas”—and at the end of it all His Lordship is likely to say to them both “I find you two are quite incompatible: you should never have tried to live together: Decree granted.” But even in circumstances like these, the voice I hear is the voice of God, that says “Ye are the salt of the earth”, and “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

The essence of relationships is that those who take part in them are unchanged—yet the result of their togetherness is something that none could have achieved alone. In my very happy days directing the choir here, I remember now many people I approached to see if they would be interested in singing and so may answered that their “voices just weren’t good enough”. Maybe I can tell you a secret. In the physics of musical appreciation, there is something known as the ‘choir effect’. If all the singers in a musical line are not exactly in tune—not too far off being in tune either, mind you—the effect to the ear will not be unpleasant—rather it will be a greater richness than a single, correct, solo voice. The relationship we have with the other singers makes our little contribution that much the better. And if I could make another comment on musical matters—I guess I can because I won’t be back for some time!—it is that I find the tenor line of the “Hallelujah Chorus” rather dull to sing. So much of it is pushing out a single rhythmic phrase on a high ‘G’ that, alone, is almost unpleasant. But add the other voices, the organ or the orchestra, and that chorus will be one that brings royalty to its feet, and opens Heaven itself to the vision, as Handel himself said when he wrote it. There ought to be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Altos for the dullness of some of the parts they sing. Yet the beauty of the choir when the parts all sing together can bring tears to your eyes, and it is the monotonous, dull Alto line that binds all the harmony together. Mothers, please note!

So with other groups. If you have been glued to your TV watching the hockey finals these past days, you will know the spirit between the team members—when they play together and support each other—is what wins the game. The game is lost when the spirit cracks and the team ‘falls to pieces’. So in a church. So in a family. So in society.

The hymn says “Just as I am”—and that has to be the key to our relationships. Wives and Husbands—stop trying to change the person you are married to. The key to your relationship is your success in blending within the relationship of marriage the resources that you have. The Kingdom of Heaven is composed not of the righteous, but of sinners. In His wisdom, God has a way of making a whole that is magnificent out of component parts that leave much to be desired. Don’t argue with Him. Enjoy it.

Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” finds out that “the difference between a Duchess and a flower girl is not who she is, but how she’s treated,” and that’s a thought worth pondering as we think of our Mothers today. If I could sum up what I am trying to say, it is in this ‘prose poem’ that was passed on to me by a great friend who lost his wife recently, after many years of marriage in which she had been a wonderful support both to her husband and her children: it’s headed “I Love You”:

I Love You
Not only for what you are
But for what I am
When I am with you

I Love You
Not only for what you
Have made for yourself
But for what you are making of me

I Love You
For the part of me that you bring out

I Love You
For putting your hand
Into my heaped up heart
And passing over all the foolish
Weak things that you can’t help dimly
Seeing there

And for drawing out into the light
All the beautiful belongings
That no one else had looked
Quite so far to find

I Love You
Because you have done
More than any creed to make me good
And more than any fate could have done
To make me happy

You have done it without a touch
Without a word
Without a sign
You have done it
By being Yourself

– Text of a Sermon delivered in May 1984
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Getting the Love You Want

After thirty five years in family law practice, I still keep finding that I haven’t yet heard everything. The latest was a book I picked up on sale at Classic Bookstore (thank you, James), by psychologist Harville Hendrix, called Getting the Love You Want.

Why do young couples fall madly in love with people who resemble their parents? Even when their parents are the last people they want anything to do with? Why do honeymoons end in acrimony? Whence comes that inner voice, by which people identify ‘Mr. (or Mrs.) Right’? Why do people fall in love at all? What can we do about it—if anything?

The answer, says Hendrix, lies in our brains. Not the upper, ‘cognitive’ level of the brain, which we use for passing our Mensa test. People don’t fall in love that way. It’s the primitive, ‘reptilian’ area of the brain—the brain stem, inherited in common with most of the animal world from before the age of the dinosaurs, separated from the thinking part of the brain by the limbic system, seat of the emotions. The brain stem is the most primitive and automatic part of our mental equipment. In an instant, being confronted with a new situation, it runs through a lifetime’s memories, and decides whether what it perceives is friend or foe. If it’s hostile, an instinctive decision is made on fight, flight, or submission. If unthreatening, the decision is whether to nurture, to be nurtured, or to make love.

This primitive brain simply records experiences, bad or good. It has no sense of time. Anything a child has grown up with in its nurture, whether bad or good, creative or destructive, feels right because it is familiar. Therefore, should a person of the opposite sex come into one’s life, and if that person resembles a composite of the primary caregivers of one’s youth, there will be a strange sense of familiarity and rightness coming from the reptilian brain. Actually, the more unsuccessful the home environment has been in the past, the more intense the desire for this other person—just because there is so much ‘unfinished business’ with the earlier caregiver, that the primitive brain hopes it can resolve with this new companion. By the evaluation of this primitive section of our brain, Fairy Princess has met Prince Charming, and both plan to live happily ever after. What each of them is in love with, however, is not a real human being at all, but a mental image. After the honeymoon has ended, Fairy Princess and Prince Charming are found to be only human.

Hendrix gives us an account of the painful times he had as a counsellor, realizing that his patients had all made the terrible mistake of marrying people who reflected back to them all the failures and miseries in personal relationships that they had endured in childhood. Most of them, he found, were exhibiting exactly the same childish behaviour to each other that would have been appropriate for infants to use to their parents.

The outcome of his experience, however, was to conclude that instinct was perhaps right after all. Revisiting the hurts of the child’s environment through marriage gives each partner a chance to ‘do it right’ the second time around—to apply the resources of a mature brain to situations that had hurt the infant, who had not had at that time tools with which to cope with the situation. The early days of marriage are not a time to plan divorce, but to use unconditional, helpful, adult love to heal the hurts that the partner has inherited from childhood. It is in carrying out such healing that the childhood victim finds a way also to be healed of his or her own ancient emotional wounds.

So ‘love conquers everything’. It just has to be the love we give—not the love we expect to receive, and are disappointed when it doesn’t come.

– Gemini, July/August 1992

Birth Order

Where were you born?

No, I don’t mean the country or the city. My question relates to the place you held in the family in which you grew up.

Dr. Kevin Leman’s Birth Order Book (written by a youngest child) raises a fascinating theory of how important one’s place in the family is, in determining your character.

The basic attitudes of character that any of us show are developed in the first five years or so of life. If we are the firstborn, we do not have any brothers or sisters for a period of likely at least a couple of years. Our upbringing is therefore almost completely in the hands of adults. Bigger, wiser and stronger than we are, they impress on us both a sense of the need to excel, and a further sense of how far we fall short of their expectations, even when we try our best. Firstborns therefore tend to be leaders, fixed in their opinions, and very often frustrated and depressed at the way their lives are going, because they cannot be 100% perfect, even to the point of suicide.

If younger siblings come along, the eldest have plenty of scope to practice their leadership skills on them. If they stay as only children, then they can be even more fixed, authoritarian and depressed than when they become ‘one of a family’. Yet an amazing number of people in leadership positions in the working world—politicians, clergy, airline pilots, for instance—are found to be firstborns.

The youngest child is quite different. By the time there are more children, the attention of parents is diluted, and the youngest one is likely more influenced by elder siblings than by parents. So the youngest child is often spoiled, irresponsible, and highly creative, always looking for attention—a monkey and a trouble maker, to the great annoyance of the eldest.

Other children, like myself, have been sandwiched between the oldest and the youngest. In order to survive, they learn to compromise and to negotiate and settle the differences between the older and the younger, and how to avoid making waves.

This is just an outline of Leman’s basic ideas, but there are endless variations. Some second children aggressively steal the leadership position of the eldest. Children born as youngest after a long interval, or who are adopted into a new family, may take on a leadership attitude—hence the difficulty of blending two families if there has been remarriage after a divorce. The attitudes and expectations of parents towards the different sexes can also make a difference.

Success and failure in marriage can be affected by birth order. Two firstborns may well make their marriage a continual struggle for control. On the other hand, an eldest matched with a youngest can be a very good pair—one steering the ship, and the other giving humour and creativity that would otherwise be lacking. Two last borns are in danger of dissolving into irresponsibility and chaos. Two middle borns may well lack creativity and/or a sense of direction.

Interesting things happen when family events, such as the death of a firstborn, move others into a position for which they had not been prepared—they may find themselves trying to play two roles at once. And so on.

I’ll leave you, therefore, to take a look at your own personal history, and see if the good doctor makes sense—or is just playing a last born joke on us. I’ll also leave you with a word of advice. Before you buy that ring, find out from your intended spouse just where in birth order the two of you fit. At the very least, it will enable you to understand what to expect from your partner. At best, it may help you avoid a catastrophe!

– Gemini, 2007*

An Evolving Society

I was discussing her work with a friend of mine who acts as an auditor for a Pension Fund. One of her major problems was to know the marital status of the employees that were covered by the benefits of the fund. Were they married, divorced, shacking up, cohabiting, living common-law, common-law but separated, equivalent to married for purposes of pensions but not for welfare or the Income Tax Act, cohabiting homosexuals, or what have you, and if so, what were the legal implications? I didn’t envy her task.

In truth, the modern permissive society has led to an incredible variety of domestic arrangements, and a legal morass when it comes to sorting them out in the event of death or breakdown of the relationship. A husband who has lived common law for twenty years and brought up a family gets run over on the highway—and his undivorced wife of twenty five years back appears from nowhere and scoops up his estate. A woman whose common law union has lasted for thirteen years is appalled that her husband is not even guilty of adultery when she finds him in bed with another. A faithful wife who works to assist in her husband’s career finds herself with no remedy when her husband divorces her, unless she takes advantage of the Matrimonial Property Act (which involves a limited time for taking action). And so on.

It strikes me that our classical model of marriage, with all the rights, ceremonies and responsibilities that the law provides, is failing to satisfy the needs of society. In the past year, no fewer than five couples have asked me to perform the wedding ceremony for them, but in all cases, the religious setting, symbolism and preparation is not what they want, so I have had to disappoint them. The last three children I have been asked to baptize all have had unmarried parents.

What we need is something much simpler and more comprehensive than the variety of arrangements that take place today. What I suggest is that, as an alternative or a supplement to marriage, we devise a Registered Cohabitation Agreement.

Any couple, regardless of the sex of any of the parties, would then be able to go to their local License Issuer, and provided they were not already registered as the cohabiting partner of some other person, could register their relationship. Without such registration, no legal rights or obligations of any kind would accrue to any party at all.

In registering the Agreement, there would be a checklist of rights each gives to the other. The Canada Pension Plan (and other private or employment pensions), The Divorce Act, the Dower Act, the Income Tax Act, the Insurance Act, the Matrimonial Property Act, the Wills Act, the Workers’ Compensation Act. The question of custody and maintenance for children arising from the arrangements would be decided in advance, subject to statutory minimum requirements. I am sure the list could go much further.

Termination of such an agreement could be immediate by mutual consent, or on three months’ notice by either party to the other. No muss, no ill feeling, no lawyer’s costs. You didn’t ask for the fully protected and tied down status of matrimony, so don’t complain if you don’t get it.

The point is, that marriage is a relationship established by the promises of the couple involved, supported and sanctioned by society. Society needs the relationship to be publicly known and acknowledged, and has a responsibility to see that the care and support of children is looked after, but couples do not have to be blackmailed into traditional rites and ceremonies as the only means of entry into their state of wedded bliss. Nor do we need a complete uniformity of rights and obligations for every couple who decide to cohabit. Nor do we have to put up with the confused and expensive situation that we have nowadays, when a relationship breaks down.

I recall our late Ombudsman, Randall Ivany, suggesting that it was time for a change in our marriage arrangements. Maybe it’s time that the Alberta Law Reform Institute took him up.

– Gemini, February 1996

Religion and Sexuality

Religions are never at their best when allied too closely to the political power.

The Christian church ought to have learned the lesson well, since its founder suffered a painful death when a Roman governor yielded to religious pressure and ordered his execution. In spite of that, established Christian churches have since had crusades, inquisitions, compulsory church attendance, and have imposed suspension of civil rights for ‘Jews, Papists and Dissenters’. In more recent years in Canada, the phenomenon was seen in a tragic endeavour by both Church and State to replace aboriginal culture with compulsory Christianity, through the residential schools system.

Equally, though, the enforcement of Muslim law in different parts of the globe has aroused concern with organizations devoted to promoting human rights, particularly the rights of women, who are alarmed by the cruel and unusual punishments imposed, particularly on those not of the true faith, by Muslim law.

An especial area where Church and State have (figuratively) been in bed together over a long period of time, has to do with the institution of marriage. On the one hand, sexual unions of all kinds have been taking place in the human and animal world since the dawn of time. Beyond the traditional lifelong marriage of one male, one female, the world has seen casual sex, prostitution, polyandry and polygamy, concubinage, ‘trial marriages’, and various kinds of homosexual couplings, all approved of or disapproved of by the prevailing culture, throughout recorded history.

The Christian church’s ideal has always been that marriage be a lifelong union of one man and one woman in a climate of mutual love and support, to the exclusion of all others, an image of the Christian concept of God as a Holy Trinity. Overlaid on that, though it is a view branded as heretical by several New Testament writers, is the additional teaching that real perfection lies in celibacy. Various proof texts are also brought up, mainly from the Old Testament, that condemn bestiality, consanguinity, fornication and homosexual relationships, as well as limiting divorce. Contraception and abortion have also been frowned on in certain religious circles—items that likely were not even on the radar screen in Biblical times. These requirements became, almost without thinking, the basis of matrimonial law in most European countries and in the Americas.

The church’s teaching may well be a counsel of perfection, but human nature is not perfect. As the influence of the church has declined, we have seen the state recognize marriages without the participation of the church. We have seen limitations on availability of contraception thrown to the winds, and a corresponding tolerance of abortion as a form of birth control. We have seen easier mechanisms for divorce. And now a rearguard action is being fought by the mainline churches over the recognition by the State (and possibly even by their churches) of same sex cohabitation agreements.

One wonders whether the Church itself is not a little bit too hung up on this question of sex—the main rival to religion in this world in directing conduct and (allegedly) bringing love, joy, peace and happiness to humanity. The Bible certainly has excellent examples within it of same sex pledges of loyalty—of David to Jonathan for the male sex, and Ruth to Naomi for the female—and I was interested to note a passage in Ezekiel recently, that implied that the ‘sin of Sodom’ had nothing to do with homosexuality, but involved the abuse of the needy and the homeless, an entirely different matter, about which the prophets continually railed in their own time, and could very well continue to rail today.

The teachings of Jesus on what is the ideal for marriage certainly have been proved by experience to be valid: a recent survey showed that couples who work through their difficult times rather than divorcing in the long run claim to be happier, and the connection of the AIDS epidemic with promiscuous sexual behaviour is well established. On the other hand, the church is a voluntary organization of those with specific beliefs, who are committed to certain types of conduct as a result of those beliefs. It is beyond the mandate of the church to insist that the behaviour that its beliefs dictate should be imposed on all. Conversely, all States have an obligation to prevent religious enthusiasms from resulting in unfair and destructive behaviour towards their citizens by religious zealots.

The outcome? Likely that the State will start to allow civil rights to be given to contracting parties by virtue of their relationship, whether this is called ‘marriage’ or something else, based entirely on their wishes, and its own social policy. Churches will supplement those contracts of which they approve, by their own celebrations of ‘Holy Matrimony’, using whatever ceremonies and imposing whatever obligations its members think it proper to adopt. The two systems of State and Church will proceed independently.

And my guess is that, just as divorced people are now accepted fully as members of the church, and even as clergy, so also the day will come when same sex partners will ask for and receive some form of blessing from their church, even if such a blessing is not called ‘marriage’.

– Gemini, 2002*

Celibacy

When it comes to the question of celibacy, whether it is Jesus, Saint Paul, or the author of our Prayer Book, Thomas Cranmer, one conclusion is shared by all of them. Celibacy is not for everyone.

Jesus talks of “Eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven”, and expressly indicates that “not everyone can receive this teaching, but only those to whom it has been given” (Matthew 19:12). Paul, discussing marriage with his Corinthian converts, wishes that everyone would be unmarried as he is, but recognizes that celibacy is a “particular gift from God”, and for those who do not have this gift, “it is better to marry than be aflame with passion.” (I Corinthians 7:7-9).

Cranmer’s prayer book pulls no punches either. Besides two reasons for marriage carried forward to our time—procreation of children and mutual support—there is a third one that nowadays that we are perhaps too bashful to talk about:

Secondly, It [marriage] was ordained as a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication, that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

It seems to me that this acknowledgment of the strength of sexual passions has a place in the current discussions on same sex unions. Whether the reason is genetic, or the result of foetal development or early childhood experiences, it appears to be an established fact that some people are attracted to members of the same sex.

Until recently, both such persons have been expected by Society and the Church to remain celibate, and there have been unpleasant scandals and punishments when they have been unwilling or unable to do so. Now the pressure is mounting both in Church and State to allow such persons to enter into some form of marital or quasi-marital union.

There’s a difference between irresponsible promiscuity, and a committed relationship between two persons. Going as far back as the story of Sodom’s destruction, the former has been everywhere condemned. The latter, however, whether it is the story of the faithful love of Ruth and Naomi or of David and Jonathan, are moving stories of faithfulness and mutual support, examples to be admired and followed.

General Synod has this question on its agenda when it meets later this year, and has spent many years in study without coming to unanimity. It is going to be an interesting challenge for it to decide just where the Church will stand on the issue.

– Gemini, 2007*

Mary

About a year ago, I drove twice to Manitoba. First, to pay a final visit to a sister in law, Mary, severely ill in a nursing home. Later, it was to attend her funeral.

Mary’s life was a difficult one. At the age of sixteen she had developed mental problems. A number of methods of treatment had been tried, none with great success. She had spent much of her life in sheltered employment at an institution. In her later years, she had been able to live independently in a residence, helped by a government day program that provided supervised activities, medication, and help with living problems to people with mental disorders. After the program was terminated for reasons of cost, she spent her last years in an (obviously more expensive!) nursing home. Eventually, the lithium she had been taking as a medication for much of her life affected her kidneys. Dialysis proved less and less effective, and ultimately she died.

A wasted life? Perhaps. But at her funeral, a different picture emerged. A picture of someone who gave what she could—cards and messages on family birthdays; attending family reunions at Christmas time with great good humour; singing carols with her very lovely voice. Above all, though, her very neediness had drawn out the best in so many other people who had helped her make her path through life.

There is a lesson here. We live in a world that is much tempted to abort the unwanted or defective unborn, and euthanize the incurably ill, thinking that such have no usefulness for the rest of us. Yet God sent His Son to earth, and Jesus sent his disciples out to evangelize, in a deliberately needy condition. The baby lay helpless in a manger: the disciples were told to go out without money, food or change of clothing. People responded with kindness to that neediness. So, even before a word was preached, such people experienced the Gospel truth that “It is more blessed to give than to receive”.

Perhaps we need the needy more than we think. Not for what they give us, but for the compassion and helpfulness they draw out of us. They make us better people.

Perhaps, too, there is a lesson here about evangelism. Evangelism does not require bribery, great theological knowledge, or well financed crusades. It can succeed by asking those outside to show compassion for the very human suffering and needs of its ministers. It is the martyrs who are the seed of the church.

On the day of judgment, we are told, we will recognize that Christ was in the hungry, the naked, the poor, the sick, the captives.

How have we responded to His needs?

– Anglican Messenger, October 1999