Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Economics of love

Frankly, a source of deep puzzlement to me is the well-documented trend in my culture towards delayed marriage.

Curt and I spend a lot of time around single adults. For going on 20 years we've welcomed them to our home and lives. We listen, teach, mentor, and learn from them. They compel us.

At first, in Alaska, they were 20-somethings. Those particular 20-somethings are now 40-somethings. Along the way some married. A few married each other. But a fair proportion of those gifted and able friends remain single.

Today in Abu Dhabi our dear ones are expatriate professionals from everywhere, 20- and 30-somethings. Sharp, educated, mature men and women. Many embody deep faith in Jesus. They are employed and well-compensated.

And there’s the puzzle. Put a room full of them together week after week to fellowship over good food, study, pray, and connect socially. Watch them chat and share and obviously enjoy one another. Watch friendships grow over the sharing of scripture and prayer, movies, camping trips, parties, ministry projects, hobbies, and coffee together. And wonder at how disinterested most seem in exploring anything further.

Don’t get me wrong. We are not inclined to be match-makers. We work hard to create a safe, un-loaded environment for those who describe other “singles group” experiences as like being in a meat market. I rejoice that we don’t suffer from relational tensions of the infatuation/disappointment/breakup/who-likes-who-this-week variety. Discretion reigns among these men and women of God.

It is the disinterest, as if it is just not on the radar, that intrigues me.

Because WE WERE SO NOT LIKE THAT! (You know, back in the olden days.)

Some allow me to explore my dilemma with questions. Which leave me more confounded. “I’ve been busy with my education.” (We thought part of education was the relationships, the search for a life-partner.) “My field, well, there are a lot more men than women there. I’ve never been around many women. And what with close friendships in my fraternity, I never thought much about it.” (HUH????)

The advanced degrees that must be completed, the school debts that must be paid, the travel and adventure that apparently can only be accomplished single, the debt-free homeownership goal…. Things that Curt and I did together are explained to me as necessities of singleness, prerequisite to love.

And then there are the boundaries. “I can’t see myself married to a man who isn’t at least five years old than me.” “I love where I live. I would only consider someone who wants to spend her life there, too. And she must have a career that fits in with that.” Boundaries of place, race, denomination, profession, education, age and personal history. Maybe it’s the influence of e-Harmony, because it starts to sound like a very customized order.

So what is going on?

History moral and economic
A hundred years ago, people married younger, had more children, and stayed married for life. Families stayed closer together. For women, at least, sexual promiscuity was out of the question. Moms stayed close to the house with the kids, cooked and cleaned, gardened, canned and sewed. Dads were nearby working the land, and were likely to pull out the Bible and lead family worship after dinner. The church looks back to those days as more moral times—better times.

Perhaps that sounds a “moral” picture. But at the same time universities were filled with men, and women were excluded from most professions. Women could not vote, and were denied other civil rights we deem basic human dignities today. As were countless others based on the color of their skin. Moral times? A wife could not resort to law to protect herself or her children from a husband’s abuse, nor could she leave the marriage. A single woman would find it very hard—or impossible—to make a living, and all who worked the land needed stable marriage and several children to achieve efficiency sufficient to provide a moderate standard of living.

Yet in the midst of it all, there were some powerful, fulfilling marriages.

Fast-forward fifty years to Ward and June Cleaver. The Industrial Revolution changed the landscape. Ward spent most of his waking hours away from the family in an office or factory while June dressed in high heels and pearls to run the vacuum cleaner. Technology rendered her contribution to family wealth minimal and her time empty, and she became luxury and ornament. If she did leave the house for work, she was paid a fraction of what a male doing the same job would make—even if she did the job better. (This was my own mother’s lot until she landed a union job when I was 13.)

June Cleaver still had no access to police or courts for domestic abuse, little control over family property, and her dignity and worth as a contributor to the family well-being was vastly diminished. In TV fiction they were happy. In the real world women of her era found their lives less laborious, but their choices about what to do with the freed-up time and energy were limited, and their satisfaction and fulfillment greatly diminished. They became restless. And poor Ward was far less involved with his wife and children, and his role in their lives narrowed to financial provider and figurehead.

Yet in the midst of it all, there were some powerful, fulfilled marriages.

The church has glorified the Cleavers with their two kids and stay-at-home mom, and faithful Ward who turned up every night for dinner, briefcase in hand. Even touted it as a biblical norm and today’s “feminism,” including the travesties of divorce, abortion and sexual promiscuity as gross moral decline and godlessness. At the same time, and similarly to the rest of the culture, Christians now marry later or not at all. Without necessarily delaying sexual activity, or marrying “until death do us part.”

Yet in the midst of it all, there are some powerful, fulfilling marriages.

Does the state of marriage today represent gross moral decline? Has not sin abounded at all times since the Fall? Could it be that changing economic realities, rather than a less moral humanity, has simply changed the conversation? A hundred years ago marriage--early and permanent, along with a plethora of children, made sound economic sense. Maybe even was economic necessity. It was a coveted marker of the passage into adulthood.

But with technology, child labor lost value and the need for higher education brought the cost of rearing a child to astronomic levels. The traditional work of wife and mother contributed less and less to the family budget. And the capstone: as earning capacity depended less on physical size and strength and as women received more equal schooling, both young men and young women could make a go of life alone.

Children, and then marriage, became luxuries. Optional. A nice thing to add to a whole list of experiences and acquisitions. Or not.

The Bible on marriage
So, if what I witness in my living room has more to do with changing economics than with moral decline and diminished “family values,” how are we who love Jesus to think about marriage and family?

As I read and pray I am struck more and more these days by things the Bible does not say, as well as by what it says. Paul, famously, makes it plain that to remain (chastely) single for the sake of the gospel is a legitimate calling. Marriage is not, apparently, necessary to a fulfilled or a godly life.

In fact, the Bible says very little about the mechanics of marriage: age, methods of choosing a mate, roles and duties. It does tell believers to marry within the faith (2 Corinthians 6:14), and that God hates divorce and family violence (Malachi 2:10-16), which Jesus permitted only in very limited circumstances, and that sexual chastity is the rule for the unmarried (Matthew 19:1-12). The loyalty of a husband is to be to his wife above all others (the “leave and cleave” principle of Genesis 2:24). And a wife is called to voluntary submission to her husband’s leadership—all within the context of their mutual submission and his sacrificial self-giving towards her best fulfillment (Ephesians 5:21-33).

Oh, there are the stories, the history—how certain people did it in a long-ago Eastern agrarian tradition. Samson, Abraham, Jacob, Judah, Bathsheba. The less-than-traditional wives Deborah and Huldah. Hosea. No good marriages described, but plenty of dysfunctional ones. Real life variety played out by messy people in a fallen world.

What is clear about God’s design for marriage is captured in just four places, and it is beautiful!

Genesis 1-3 display marriage as the God-designed fundamental human community. The first human was lonely and inadequate despite the companionship of animals, and even of God Himself. The only “not good” of creation. And so God made gender—male and female from the one human. When the man beheld the woman, he cried a joyful “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” “Wo-man:” fully as human as he was, perfect counterpart to meet his loneliness and to provide strong support in the task of stewarding God’s earth. Companion and partner. Until the Fall, his joyful exclamation declared her beloved, admired, cherished, his true completion.

The Fall brought intrinsic consequences to the fundamental natures of both the man and the woman. He would now act to dominate, as first demonstrated when he asserted over her the authority God had given him over animals. He named her. And, post-Fall he did not choose “Beloved,” or “Joyful Completion.” Instead, “Eve.” “Mom.” A name descriptive of function and economic value in a new world of scarce resources and toil for basic needs. By the end of Genesis 4 God’s perfect design of one-man-one-woman-as-one-flesh-for-life was so perverted that only 5 generations later Lamach married multiple wives and called them by names meaning “trinket” and “tinkling.” And the woman, in order to preserve the relationship, put up with (or even enabled) him to do it.

But there in Eden existed a pure married love. Companions. Partners. Because they knew no scarcity or fruitless labor, economics played no part in their community. No competition. No need for children, and reproduction is not mentioned as a reason for God’s creation of gender. Though children would surely have come as added joy and delightful expression of their one-flesh existence together, they were not needed in order to complete the man, the woman, or their union.

Song of Songs is delightful erotic poetry depicting the growth of married love between a man and woman from initial infatuation through realization of the cost of committed love to a life-bond entwining heart and soul. “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a might flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” Songs 8:6-7.

Powerful and exciting language of passion and admiration. Never once does Songs refer to economics or reproduction as reasons to marry. The lover is a shepherd and his beloved prefers him to wealthy and powerful Solomon. He longs to know her fully, body and soul, with no reference to whether she will bear him children to share his labor, protect his inheritance and continue his name.

Nor does Songs define roles like breadwinner and/or homemaker. None of that matters to the power and potential of their married love for one another.

Ephesians 5, oh, that most-quoted passage. Last year I conducted an impromptu gender seminar in an evangelical Bible school. To start, I asked students to tell me what they could recall the Bible to say about gender. They talked about Genesis, and about Ephesians 5, but what they noticed was that women are to submit. None mentioned the miracle of God’s gift of gender; the fulfilled need for companionship and community; the depth of passion, safety and sacrificial love involved in leaving and cleaving. And no one noticed the call to mutual submission or the charge to the husband to love sacrificially in the manner of Jesus Christ.

How sad! For Ephesians 5:21-33 describes marriage as loving and sacrificial self-giving, supportive partnership, and empowering respect and honor.

• Both Ephesians 5 and Revelation 19:6-9 invite us to consider human marriage as testimony, as shadow, as image of Christ’s relationship with His Church. The Church is Bride! Beloved, protected, chosen, beautiful. Chosen not because of need or for what labor or reputation she can bring, but out of pure, self-giving love.

To sum up, in God’s design and description, marriage is a deep, committed and passionate love for another human being for life. A place to find loneliness met and gifts and callings complemented and supported. A relationship with the potential to illustrate Christ’s love and desire for His people, and ours for Him. God’s design was deeply marred by the Fall as human sin perverted love’s potential and purity and an economics of scarcity created new reasons for marriage and childbearing that had nothing to do with love.

Application to what’s going on in my living room
Technology has brought to the West, at least, a wealth unimaginable even 50 years ago. And along with that, a lot of freedom and choice. The single professionals we love so much do not need marriage—or children—to build economic security, or to find a satisfying, fulfilled life. In fact many are financially better off unmarried. Along with that, they are free to go where they want, buy what they want, and do what they want without consulting anyone else or caring about another’s hopes and dreams. Marriage and childbearing are risky, and for one committed to following Jesus, they are lifetime risks.

And so marriage and childbearing are on the decline. Children are expensive, and certainly not needed to provide for old age, and with contraception and abortion readily available, sexual activity outside of committed marriage has little in the way of an economic or social downside.

Perhaps for the first time in human history, for many people singleness is a viable choice. Which means marriage is no longer a necessity either, but also choice.

We dwell in a fallen world where self prevails more often than not. Where freedom is used to serve self. Singleness is a legitimate calling for a believer when it allows a heart to be free to focus on building Christ’s Kingdom. But where it simply allows a heart to be free to play, to spend, to build one’s own kingdom—well, it is the way of our sin nature to pervert freedom and end up in lonely waste.

But what opportunity! To be free from the constraints of an economic need to marry—well, could that not be seen as a return to Eden’s potential? A return to the possibility of marriage purely for love, with all the depth and potential that entails in Jesus Christ? A shimmering, vibrant witness to the reality of God’s love for the world poured out through our lives of love for one another?

Lord, grant these ones that we love courage to love, to give themselves wholeheartedly to You—and to others as You invite them. Grant them completion in You—in whatever form You have for each one. Amen.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Parables, pictures and prayers from Kaş ... economies and investments

This is another re-post--perhaps more for me as I pray for Jesus' choice resolution to title problems with the villa.... It has been over three years, and today finds us deep in renovation of this "Spa for the Soul."

Nearly two years ago we rolled in Kaş for the first time. Another stop in a multi-year, multi-national search for a place we’d visited in God’s dreams, a place where we would “retire” and throw our doors open to the world. Without knowing what it looked like we had our shopping list: great natural beauty, fabulous view, attractive year-round climate, walkable, plenty of private spaces, outdoor activities, good local food, and culturally interesting. A place people would love to visit. Preferably in the Muslim world. Er… and something we could afford to operate without having to act like a business.

We’d considered Albania, Italy, the south of France, Morocco, Oman and the UAE. We’d been in Turkey six days and hadn’t even come close. But I’d had email contact with an English fellow who made Kaş sound worth a visit.

As we cleared the last curve and saw the town spread down the rocky hillside to the sea below we both caught our breath. It looked, well, like the dream. The road wound down to the now-familiar harbor. We located the estate agent’s office, ready to go.

“Not today,” he said. “You really should get the feel of the place first.” “But we only have this afternoon and tomorrow!” we pled. “Go. Walk around. Talk to people. Tomorrow, if you still want to, we’ll look at houses.”

So we wandered the town’s heart, stopping to talk with shopkeepers and artisans, remarking on the absence of hawkers and mass-market tourist junk, the pleasant music and easy converse floating from coffee shops, restaurants and bars. Curt took photos: the ancient sarcophagus at the top of the delightfully-preserved old streets in the pedestrian area, and the pelicans and boats in the harbor.

We looked at a lot of places the next day. We saw a gorgeous new villa with infinity pool overlooking the sea, and a weird old place that ran straight up and down a cliffside with a tiny terrace at the bottom. One villa had a huge barn-roof, and three really ugly new houses just in front of it. Another was almost right, but not enough rooms and the only access to the pool was through a bedroom.

We arrived at the last place sweaty, weary, and disappointed. Access was down a narrow, weedy track in the highest part of Gőkseke village. Behind the iron gate a vine-shaded rock stairwell led straight up the mountain-side through an weedy, overgrown garden to a tower of a house almost covered with vines and bougainvillea. Junk everywhere, and three little dogs yapping and growling.

As we wandered the disheveled five stories, it felt like we had entered God’s dream. Five shady, quiet balconies overlooked the Mediterranean and beckoned us to rest and to pray. Olive trees in the rocky, unspoilt side-yard whispered to us of the Mount of Olives, and called up images of oil and lamps. Vines invited us to abide in the True Vine. We leaned our arms on the third floor balcony railing and felt we had come home.

We bought the place the next morning.

Since that day in late August I’ve had ample opportunity to revisit our decision and to wonder whether, reality suspended, we momentarily lost our minds. I’ve lived through periods of blind panic. The place has title problems. We knew that and went ahead anyway, choosing the risk. But I’m a lawyer. Shouldn’t I have known better? Since we bought, the world economy has cratered. The dollar is much stronger, so if we had waited, maybe we could have paid less. Turns out renovation costs more in Turkey than the cheerful estate agent said it would. It might have been cheaper to build a place from scratch than to remodel this one. We bat around names for the place. Curt favors something peaceful and romantic like “Fair Haven.” I call it “House of the Cracked Pots!”

One anxious day when I was feeling certain we are complete fools, I leaned into Jesus and began to muse over images of real estate investment in the Bible. My self-critical mind turned first to Proverbs, to wisdom and stewardship images of shrewd understanding and principled management.

But then actual purchases of land rose in my mind. I can think of four that God deemed worthy of record.

In Genesis 23, Abraham buys a cave at Machpelah. Though God had promised him the whole of Canaan, he’d lived for years as an alien stranger and still possessed nothing when Sarah died. He wanted a place of his own to bury her. Given the climate, there wasn’t much time to haggle. In a formal meeting with the Hittites he refuses to use one of their tombs, and insists on giving the full asking price for Ephron’s field. That cave was Israel’s first foothold in the promised land. Generations later, Joseph honored Jacob’s deathbed request and carried his bones from Egypt to be buried alongside his ancestors.

Several hundred years later, Boaz bought some land, Naomi’s land. By then, Israel had possession of Canaan, and had divided it among tribes and families. Under the Law, if there were no direct descendants left to take title to family land, it could be redeemed by a next-of-kin, but with a catch. The land came with the dead man’s wife, and any children born of that union were deemed to belong to the dead man so that the land would stay in the family. Naomi was old, and her husband and sons were all dead. Her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, had moved to Israel with her to share her sorrow and desperate poverty. Boaz wanted to marry Ruth, but another guy was in line for the land—and the woman. Seems like Boaz already had plenty of land of his own, and no need for Naomi’s, but he had to buy it to get Ruth. So in Ruth 4 we see him buying the land, along with its “baggage”—a title problem that meant his own children would be deemed the sons of another and the land would revert to that man’s family. All for the gracious love of an alien woman who would become one of the four women named in the line of Christ.

Fast forward to David. God calls him the man after His own heart, but David still did stupid things and angered God from time to time. 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 record a census he ordered, and makes it clear that everyone knew this was a huge offense to the Lord. The repentant David is given a choice of judgments, and throws himself on God’s mercy. Seventy thousand die of plague, but at the threshing floor of Araunah, the Lord relents. David is commanded to build an altar there. Araunah, after encountering the angel, urges David to take the site and the animals. But David insists on paying full price to buy the place before he will worship, refusing to sacrifice in a way that costs him nothing. That bit of land would become the site of the Temple, a pivotal piece of land for both Jews and Muslims yet today.

Lastly, in the dark days just before Judah was conquered by Babylon and carried into exile, God directed his prophet Jeremiah to buy a field. Jeremiah 32 finds Jeremiah in prison and Jerusalem under siege, but he obeys this crazy command that no doubt made him look even more like a collaborator. After the deed is sealed away, Jeremiah wonders what God could possibly be doing, and God gives His promise to restore His people and to bring again a day when land would be bought and sold in a prosperous Israel.

Economies and investments. We evaluate a house or a piece of land in terms of financial return, or a safe and pleasant place for a home. These few purchases God thought noteworthy represent pure worship, investment in relationships, and radical acts of obedient faith. Abraham believed God would give him the whole land, and Jacob clung to that promise when he died in exile in Egypt. Boaz desired to marry to a foreign woman of faith and noble character, and was willing to incur the cost and take on the baggage that came with her. David owned his sin with a costly repentance and refused to take advantage of his God-given kingship to avoid the price of sacrifice. Jeremiah made a ludicrous purchase in a costly act of sheer faith.

All these are kingdom investments, and God’s economy knows no scarcity, no downturn. My anxious fear of loss, of appearing foolish for following what I perceived as God’s dream, and my temptation to second-guess our timing, is met and satisfied in His “do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Luke 12:32-34.

I don’t doubt we could have heard wrong on that sweltering hot day. We may indeed have been foolish. But I think I’m beginning to grasp something about God’s economics, and I can trust Him with my feeble efforts to follow. Joyfully, truth is I’ve still never visited “House of the Cracked Pots” without a profound sense of peace descending on my spirit.

Oh Lord, we do continue to ask you for resolution to the title process in Gőkseke. Today we ask for that to happen soon so that we can begin the renovation, and start welcoming the world there.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

At Home at the Crossroads

This is a repost. I think it is worthy. We are now in our 7th year in Abu Dhabi, still profoundly surprised and amazed.

Abu Dhabi--Crossroads of the World
When in 2004 Curt accepted a transfer to Abu Dhabi, I wasn’t sure whether I would smuggle my Bible in a brown paper bag, figure out how to plug myself into a circumscribed expat[1] lifestyle, find a job to fill my days, or immerse myself in local culture and learn enough Arabic to befriend a few nationals[2] and get involved with Islam. Turned out to be “none of the above,” but something richer, more challenging and more satisfying than my wildest imagination.[3]

After 26 years in Alaska, Abu Dhabi sounded like the edge of the world. Turns out to be anything but: glitzy island city, architectural dream, and capital of United Arab Emirates (UAE)—that wealthy, booming Islamic state on the Persian Gulf. Not an edge, but a crossroads, a transitional center of the world. A million people live and work here. Some 85% of them are from someplace else—expatriate to their home countries. Every “tribe and nation[4]” is gathered to build and maintain this oil-producing giant.

Crossroads of Life
People come to Abu Dhabi for a few months, or a year, or five. Some stay 30 years and raise children who barely know their home country. Expats work in every job from street sweeper to corporate manager, even in high government posts. Some, like Curt and me, come for the adventure. Most come for the money. Some bring families; many more must leave family behind to take the jobs no one wants. These sacrificial souls subsist in overcrowded housing without privacy, community or personal time, all to send home every dirham they can in hopes of a better life, a future for parents, siblings and children.

Abu Dhabi is a place to feel displaced, or even misplaced. Transient. We live at a stop on the way to someplace else—a stop chosen with the hope that staying awhile here will mean better choices on the way out. A demographic crossroad of the world peopled by those at a crossroad of life, a between-place of opportunity, risk and impermanence where new people come and good friends leave, and nobody knows or understands your roots. All that is familiar is far away, and everyone is “alien and stranger,[5]” even the nationals, I think, who find themselves a tiny minority in their own country.

At a crossroad, people ask questions. The obvious: “which road will I take from here? But other biggies like “why am I here?” and “what am I doing with my life?” and “what is important to me?” and “Am I important to Anybody Else?” The pervasive publicness of Islamic worship puts people in the way of God. “Is there a God?” “What is He like?” “Does He know or care about me?” “Would God hear me if I pray?” At this crossroads of the world a searchlight turns on the eternal Crossroad, [6] that “between” place of heart-certainty that we are not just random chemicals and energy, and that this world we can see is but a junction on the way to someplace else.

At Home at the Crossroads
Abu Dhabi surprised us with its variety and opportunity and freedom and suffering; with its piercing questions that leave people open and vulnerable. A crossroads compels people running headlong through life to pause and ponder. Whether they are bemused, or weary, or terrified, pauses and spaces of safety, refreshment, listening encouragement, and direction bless them. Far from home, homey welcome can be life-giving.

Four years have passed. We’ve made a home at the crossroads, and delight to invite “the multitude”[7] and welcome whoever God brings to our door from whatever nation, language, or station in life. And they have come--from every continent and social background, sometimes 15 nations present at one meal, or six living in our household. Cleaners, diplomats, mechanics, teachers, executives and clerks. A miracle of God’s grace that feels to us like a foretaste of heaven[8] even as we puzzle and experiment with mixing cultures in the between-space of this fallen world.

Nothing big, no clear program, definitely no titles—just “people who have time” to make place and give ear and prayer. We’ve learned and stretched and been pushed on. Maybe we’ve cracked open a little more. Our sense is that this lifestyle of giving space and welcome to the world is a call: that Jesus would have us continue to welcome whoever He brings and offer refreshment, play, quiet, listening and prayerful loving, with a measure of teaching and nurture thrown in.

Welcome to the Crossroads. Let’s talk. I’m glad to find you here.

[1] “Expat,” short for “expatriate,” here used as a noun to describe one who lives temporarily in a nation other than one’s own, generally for reasons of employment.
[2] “National” –noun. A citizen or subject of a particular nation who is entitled to its protection.
[3] Ephesians 3:20
[4] Revelation 14:6
[5] Hebrews 11:13-16
[6] Jeremiah 6:16
[7] Joel 3:14; Revelation 7:9; 19:6
[8] Ephesians 2:19; Revelation 7:9