“Just This Once?”

One of the many ironies of our marriage was that Phyllis thought (at least theoretically!) that the husband should be the head of the house, and I didn’t. As you have seen in the last several posts here and here and here, I thought we should be a team.

One time, however, about ten years into our marriage, some friends of ours were in a crisis. Phyllis was very distressed. Their situation consumed her. So I said, “Go over to their house. Be with them. I’ll watch our kids.” But she thought that might be presumptuous because even though we cared a lot about these people, we weren’t super close at the time.

“No,” I said, “it’s fine. They’ll be delighted to see you.” Yet despite how upset she was about what was going on in their lives, she wouldn’t go.

Back and forth we went. I encouraged her to go, and she refused.

She piled up reasons—she’d be intruding; there were probably many people with them already; it was too late in the evening. Yet I knew exactly what would help her even if she didn’t. Not only would she encourage them if she went, but they would be a comfort to her in a way I wasn’t able to. Their centeredness, faith, and peaceful strength would lift her up.

Finally, in joking desperation, I pleaded, “Phyllis, won’t you please submit—just this once!”

She laughed, brightened up, and then said with stern cheerfulness, “Okay, mister, but you’ve had your once!”

And that was indeed the only time in our years of marriage that I asked. But it was so worthwhile because she came back a few hours later thoroughly refreshed. Her mind and heart were much more at ease. Our friends were also very glad for her visit. And the friendship of the four of us began to grow more deeply after that.

All of that, however, didn’t stop Phyllis from reminding me regularly over the decades, “You’ve had your once, Le Peau!”

Paul’s Shocking Ideas about Marriage

My brother-in-law was fond of saying with a wry grin, “Wives are supposed to submit with joy, and husbands are supposed to . . . er, are supposed to . . . um, I always forget that part!”

Many have tripped over what the apostle Paul says in his infamous passage about marriage. That’s the one in his letter to the Ephesians where he talks about submission. What he actually says, though, may surprise some–including my brother-in-law.

First, Paul introduces this section on husbands and wives with, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Submission for Paul is mutual, not just something a wife offers her husband.

This is consistent with his whole letter which tells us that unity, oneness in Christ, summarizes the whole purpose and aims of God (Eph 1:9-10). One particular example of this is the unity that different groups of people, Jews and Gentiles in this case, were to have in Christ (Eph 2:14; 3:6). In fact such oneness is the key evidence for the principalities and powers that they are no longer in charge but that God is instead (Eph 3:10-11).

The next three chapters are about how this unity is to be maintained (Eph 4:2-3). Humility, gentleness, patience, and love are to characterize how all Christians relate to all other Christians. Pride, harshness, and domination are not how Jews and Gentiles, or men and women, should relate to each other.

Second, when it comes to Paul’s specific instructions, note that he addresses wives and husbands separately (Eph 5:22-24 and 25-33). What’s the significance of this? For one, Paul never says, “Husbands, make sure your wives submit!” The instruction is to wives, not husbands. It’s an issue between a wife and her Lord. Husbands need to leave Ephesians 5:22-24 to their wives and not use it as a weapon in their relationship. The same is true for wives regarding 5:25-33.

Third, Paul devotes three verse to wives but nine verse to husbands—three times as much. Why? In the typically patriarchal culture of Paul’s day, what he says to wives may not sound that new except for the key point he emphasizes—the motivation and means for being a wife is centered on Christ.

Everything Paul says to husbands, however, is very different from what they would have heard from their society. So Paul needs extra time to impress these differences on them. And what does Paul say?

He says husbands are to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Husbands are to die—like Jesus. Christ sacrificed his life, set aside his status and authority, so the church could flourish in holiness and union with God (Eph 5:25-27). The main job of a husband is not to rule, not to command, not to decide, but to die. If his career goals get in the way of the good of his wife, his ambitions must die. If the part of the country he wants to live in gets in the way of his wife flourishing in Christ, that must die.

Years ago my wife Phyllis felt stunted in her spiritual life by the church we were in. I took that seriously, even though I liked the church. I liked the people. I liked the music. I liked the preaching. It was great for me. After many months of discussion and prayer, however, we were not able to resolve the issue. Then I remembered that Ephesians 5 meant that my wife’s spiritual well-being came before mine. I had to die. So I told her, “It’s up to you. If you want us to go to a different church, we will. I want what’s best for you.”

The primary job of a husband is not to make sure his wife stays in her lane. Rather, if she has gifts in hospitality, generosity, leadership, evangelism, compassion, teaching, getting people organized, or more, my role is to support, encourage, and pave the way for her. After all, as Genesis 1:28 says, God’s design for men and women is to rule the created order together as God’s representatives.

My parents had a tremendously positive influence on me by modeling a marriage of true partnership. But throughout the five decades of my own marriage, Ephesians 5 had more. My love for Phyllis focused me on making sure she had every opportunity to grow closer to God and use all the many gifts God gave her.

Now if you are very good and very quiet and if you listen very carefully, in my next time installment I will tell you a story full of twists and turns, pathos and poetry (not to mention uproarious surprises) in which Andy tries to do something good for Phyllis, and she just won’t cooperate.

Image: Wedding rings by Arek Socha from Pixabay
Image: Church from Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Warrenville, IL.

God Said to Them . . . Rule

My mom and dad offered me a wonderful model of married life (as I wrote here). They led our family as partners. Interestingly, my dad (though not a religious person) nonetheless related to my mom in a way that I later found was very consistent with a biblical perspective. And what did I find?

At the very beginning, Genesis 1 offers this picture:

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (1:27)

Humanity, male and female, is created in God’s image. This is emphasized by repeating it in three slightly different ways. Together we bear God’s image. And what does it mean to do that? The answer is in the very next verse:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (1:28)

The image of God is not a character trait (like kindness) nor an innate capacity (like consciousness). Rather it is a role, a responsibility. God calls us to be his priests in the cosmic garden he has just made. We are to be his representatives, his vice regents for the world he has created. And note how this is to be done! Men and women are to rule together—“God blessed them and said to them, ‘…Rule over…’” They are to be a team.

This joint project, tragically, was bent by sin. The result was a disruption of God’s original design in two ways. First, instead of harmoniously ruling jointly, husbands would rule over women (3:16). Second, instead of enjoying their rule over “every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth” (1:29), “through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (3:17).

God’s project over and over through the Bible has ever since been to undo the effects of sin by restoring our relationship with him, with each other, and with nature. The primary means for achieving this was through the person and work of Christ (Ephesians 2:8-10, 13-16).

Much could be said about this theme throughout the Old and New Testaments, but consider just one remarkable passage from Paul. He writes, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife” (1 Cor 7:4). In the new humanity that Christ creates, the effects of the fall are reversed so that husbands don’t only rule over wives. They rule together, over each other.

This would have blown the minds of the patriarchal world of Paul’s day. That’s just not how Romans, Greeks, or Jews commonly thought. Paul was instead calling on his readers to return to God’s original design of Genesis 1. And we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that such mutuality only concerned this one aspect of marriage. When introducing how husbands and wives should relate, he offers a very broad instruction to both, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

“Ephesians 5? The Ephesians 5 which notoriously says wives should submit to their husbands, you’re going to tell me that that Ephesians 5 is about mutuality and about ruling together?” I do in fact have a few more things to say about Ephesians 5. That will be my next installment in this series.

St. Louis Botanical Garden image by Andrew T. Le Peau.

Mom and Dad, Husband and Wife

“Your dad and I have divided family responsibilities 50-50,” Mom would tell us kids. “I make all the small decisions, and he makes all the big decisions. I decide what jobs to take, what cities to live in, what houses to buy. He decides who gets to be president and whether or not we go to war.”

No, Mom was not subtly suggesting that she had my dad under her thumb. Dad was no dishrag. My young backside gave proof of that! Instead, Mom and Dad made decisions together.

Even in the 1950s, I was growing up in a household that modeled partnership and mutual respect in a marriage. Yes, they were traditional in that my mom didn’t work outside the home, but she was a strong, mature, wise, loving person who my dad respected and listened to.

But there’s something else you should know about my dad. He was a confirmed bachelor for forty-six years. He had decided he would not get married because he had never seen a happily married couple. And as he told us, the reason for the unhappiness was always money.

So when my mom won him over and they got married, he decided to never let money be an issue between them. That meant two things for him. First, he would always try to make enough money so that it didn’t have to be a problem. But second, he was never going to argue about money with mom regardless of how much money they did or didn’t have.

How did this work out in practice? I will give you one example. Once my mom and dad were at a store and my mom showed him two purses she liked. Since she couldn’t decide between them, she asked dad which one she should buy. Of course one was more expensive than the other.

Without hesitation, my dad said, “Buy both.”

Extravagance wasn’t the lesson I got from this episode or from watching my parents for decades. After all, they had both lived through the Depression, and frugality was baked into my DNA.

No, what I learned was how a husband and wife can function together, how they can make decisions together, and how right and good it can be for a husband and wife to defer to each other.

Within some Christian circles today, this is not always the way things are viewed. But even though my father was not a religious person, as I looked more closely at Scripture in the years ahead, I found out how close both of them were to a truly biblical perspective.

What is that perspective? Stay tuned. I’ll take that up at my next installment in this new series of posts.

Image by Mohammed Ryad Hossain Salman from Pixabay

A Simple Key to Great Conversations

“Yes, I’d like to be better at talking to people. But I always blank out. What do I say?”

The beauty is we don’t have to say much at all. Why? Because most people want the opportunity to talk about themselves. All we have to do is ask them.

In my last post I mentioned Holleman’s four mindsets that prepare us for talking to others. In The Six Conversations, she also offers (not surprisingly) six types of questions we can ask that largely cover the scope of our lives. While she gives dozens of examples with excellent advice on how to use them, here a few of the sorts of questions she suggests.

◊ How are things going with your [roommate, parents, siblings]?
◊ If you could have dinner with anyone, past or present, who would it be?
◊ What upcoming plans do you have with friends?

◊ What’s made you grateful recently?
◊ What are you looking forward to?
◊ Wow. That’s a big deal. How did you feel about that?

◊ What have you been doing to relax lately?
◊ What restaurants/new meals have you tried lately?
◊ Was that [recent experience] refreshing or draining for you?

◊ What have you been learning about or thinking about lately?
◊ Who else have you talked to about these ideas? [social]
◊ How do those ideas make you feel? [emotional]
◊ Have those ideas made you think about doing anything different? [volitional]

◊ In light of your [news, concern, complaint, problem, opportunity], what choices do you have?
◊ What’s your next step?
◊ Do you have any goals you are working on? Or as a friend recently asked me, “What big goals would you like to accomplish before your kids take away your car keys?” (!)

◊ What’s your spiritual journey been like?
◊ What spiritual traditions do you resonate with?
◊ What kind of spiritual environment did you grow up in?

To keep great conversations and relationships growing, it’s key to be nonjudgmental, to ask follow-up questions, and not be too quick to give our perspective.

My Three-Question Starter Kit
I keep reviewing this list so the questions become more second nature, but if you want just three to remember, here’s the ones I’ve used:

◊ What’s the story behind [your pet, the college you picked, your interest in ____, etc.]?
What surprised (excited, disappointed) you about [your weekend, the test, the trip, etc.]?
◊ Before we go, what else would you like me ask that you haven’t had a chance to talk about yet?

Holleman has so much more to offer in her wise, practical book which can lead us out of the isolation and polarization we’ve felt. If we can stay curious and believe the best about others, we may not only help others be less lonely, we may also help ourselves.

Giraffe image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay
Friends image by Eva Michálková from Pixabay

Learning How to Talk to People Again

The 2018 Cigna health study reported that nearly half of all Americans said they sometimes or always feel alone or left out. Younger generations are even lonelier. And that was before Covid! Other countries report the same.

Loneliness is not only a mental health issue. As I mentioned here, it is often at the root of our political polarization.

Much of this is because we are isolated and have forgotten how to talk to each other. How do we get out of this cycle? As someone who is not a great conversationalist, I found The Six Conversations by Heather Holleman, associate professor at Penn State, to be wise and practical. The place to start, she says, is with four mindsets.

Be curious. Everyone has a backstory. Everyone has childhood memories. Everyone has learned hard or happy life lessons. Discovering this can be as easy as saying, “I’m so curious. Tell me about __________.”

By doing so we show that we value other people and open a door to connection. I’ve also seen that once a curiosity question is asked, it often gets turned back to the asker. “OK, I told you how I like to relax. What about you?”

Believe the best. Social media and news media have trained us to start with a mindset of judging, shaming, and changing others. Much better for us and them to begin with acceptance, sympathy, and respect. Remember the grandparent or friend whose face lights up when they see us? We can be that for others.

We all know that in marriage or parenting, relationships just go better if we don’t jump to conclusions about motives or intentions. You may have heard the saying, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” How much better it is to start with that assumption if the laundry didn’t get folded instead of accusing someone of laziness!

Express genuine concern. Holleman says that this means we are invested in another person. So yes, we start with sympathy or empathy, but we try to find appropriate ways to act too. “Investment doesn’t mean to take on everyone’s problems as your own, but it does mean you position yourself to support others as you can” (p. 33).

It means celebrating with those who celebrate and mourning with those who mourn. And if you’re not sure what the best way would be to do either of those, just ask about some specific options. “I want to hear more. What would be best—a walk, a call, going for coffee?” Or “How can I help—taking the car in for repair, watching the kids, bringing a meal?”

Share yourself. The first three mindsets can have an amazing effect. But if we never talk about our own victories or defeats, the other person can feel like they are our project.

While we shouldn’t say we know just how someone feels about trouble at work, a parent being sick, or conflict with a neighbor (because we don’t know exactly how someone else feels!), we can say how we feel. “It makes me sad knowing you are in such a tough situation.”

After listening well and asking follow-up questions, we could also say, “What you’re describing makes me wonder what thoughts you might have about a situation I’m in.”

Taking in all four mindsets could be a lot. So start small. If we can grow in even one of the first two (be curious; believe the best), we can see real changes in our relationships.

Holleman offers much more to guide us into healthier and deeper relationships. The four mindsets are just the first chapter! In my next installment, I’ll focus on just one other aspect of her excellent book—how to ask great questions.

Having Friends Again

The cause of our increasingly polarized society is not primarily due to political conflict but to loneliness. That is the surprising conclusion of four books from four different authors I mentioned in my last post.

Because more and more of us in society feel isolated and disconnected, we are drawn to twisted forms of community to fill the void. These tribes are bound together by a common enemy rather than by the common good.

What is the solution for loneliness? As there is no one single cause, there is no one silver bullet that will solve this. Here’s a small sampling.

Limit time on devices. Every hour in front of a screen is an hour we are not spending with other people. We don’t have to go cold turkey. We can reduce the number of social media apps we engage with from five to two. We can cut the time we follow the news in half. Instead of using our phones to help us relax before sleeping, we could read a novel. Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family has all kinds of great ideas—as well as just a lot of wisdom for life.

Reengage with lifelong friends. Admittedly it can be hard to make new friends. An easier but still very fruitful path might be to renew connections with old friends near and far. In recent years I’ve deliberately increased the emails to, calls and zooms with, and visits to several longstanding friends. Some I’ve had spotty contact with over the years, and some I hadn’t seen in decades. But I’ve so enjoyed the results of more regular connection with all of them.

Join a group. I’ve always enjoyed singing, so joining a choral group is an obvious option for me. Community theater groups and bowling leagues usually welcome newcomers. Volunteering offers the satisfaction of giving back to your community while enjoying new social connections. Just Google “volunteering” and the name of your town and you are bound to find opportunities at hospitals, forest preserves, food pantries, park districts, tutoring, homeless shelters, or humane societies. Or ask a neighbor!

Walk the neighborhood. Speaking of asking a neighbor, Bilbro says in his book Reading the Times that one of the simplest ways to combat our isolation (and get a bit of exercise) is to go for a walk (pp. 165-69). When we walk out our front door, rather than drive, we have the opportunity to chat with a neighbor walking her dog or someone weeding his garden or kids playing basketball. We find out such folks aren’t mere political units. We get to know flesh-and-blood people who have problems with aphids or are celebrating a birthday or have an elderly parent living with them.

Of the four authors, Sasse has the most practical ideas to offer. In addition to a chapter on technology in Them, he has three constructive chapters on re-educating ourselves on how democracy works, putting politics in its place, on finding ways to be rooted even in our nomadic culture, and more (pp. 133-256).

All of these and other options can rehumanize our world and ourselves. Both Brooks and Sasse emphasize that getting to know people face to face can break down the hate that unnecessarily divides us from each other. The guy who doesn’t vote like us is not an enemy, but someone who also has good ideas on home repair, has a special needs child, and knows a good new restaurant in town.

Meeting neighbors? Joining new groups? Some of us are still intimidated by all this because we just have trouble knowing what to say when we meet someone. That’s the topic of my next installment.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Keeping Our Hearts Warm

Our eyes are riveted to news updates about earthquakes, wars, and shootings, even though so much of it is depressing. But there can be other negative side effects.

Twenty-five years ago, Christine Pohl wrote, “News reports and documentaries broadcast the most terrible details of the lives of refugees or famine victims thousands of miles away, and regularly bring their faces and stories into the most intimate spaces of our homes.”

This, she says, can have two unintended but related effects. “A steady exposure to distant human need that is beyond our personal response can gradually inoculate us against particular action. It can also dilute us into thinking that by simply knowing about it we are somehow sharing in the suffering of others. Isolation from local need, and over exposure to overwhelming but distant need, make our responses to strangers uncertain and tentative at best.”*

What can we do to not become numb to those in need nearby or far away? One obvious option is to stop following the news, or at least to consume much less (for this and other reasons discussed here).

But then how would I know where to contribute when a crisis arises? Simply by giving to a relief organization you trust on a regular basis, regardless of whether or not there is a special need. Such crises, sadly, happen often. Send your gift to someone like the Red Cross, World Relief, Doctors Without Borders, or World Vision and designate it to “where needed most.”

Volunteering locally can also keep us from going numb. Tutoring, helping at a homeless shelter, and many other options are easy to find through your church, your library, or a quick web search. A neighbor recently joined me regularly at a food pantry, and she loves it.

Rather than constantly watching the news, these opportunities can put us in direct contact with people who need help and at the same time keep our hearts warm.

*Christine Pohl, Making Room (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 91.

Photo credits: Andrew T. Le Peau

The Night We Needed Rescue

One winter day, almost four decades ago, our family was driving south on the plains of Illinois on our way to visit relatives. All too soon we experienced white-out conditions, and we ended up in a fifty-car pileup on Interstate 55.

With the blizzard still raging, our car was eventually able to limp to a nearby exit for a small town where Phyllis and I sheltered in a restaurant with our four young children, all of us dazed and uncertain what to do. As we were standing there among dozens of other stranded motorists, we heard rumors that the town was going to open up the local high school gym so people would have a place to stay that cold winter night.

A local family saw us and our four small children and said, “You’re not staying in the high school gym.”

“We’re not?” we responded somewhat confused.

“No,” they replied, “you’re staying with us tonight.”

That night, we were the strangers. We were in need of a warm place, warm food, and friendly faces. These people welcomed us into their home, fed us all we wanted, had us join in their family activities, and as we left the next morning, I was astonished to hear them say, “It has been wonderful to have you here. You blessed us. You’ve reminded us of what’s important in life, of how good God is.”

I could hardly believe it. We were the ones in need. We were the ones who had been helped, but somehow they were the ones who were blessed.

That night we were reminded vividly how God welcomes us into the hospitality of his love through the gift of his own Son sent to the people of earth. We were reminded that God calls us to find ways to follow his example by also reaching out to those in need, those who are weak or oppressed—just has he had done for us, entering this world as a baby who would give us the greatest welcome of all.

And this was especially vivid to us because that winter night in which the six of us were stranded and helpless, that night in which we needed rescue—that night was Christmas Eve.

Credits: Blizzard photo: uknowgayle on Pixabay.
Nativity: mskathrynne on Pixabay.

What My Wife Taught Me About Life

Last month, just about a year after my wife Phyllis died, I reread her book Handbook for Caring People, now out of print. I once again saw how this book reflected her own life of being deeply attuned to the needs of people—emotionally, physically, spiritually. I wasn’t the only one who thought she was perhaps the most caring person they’d ever known. So did dozens and hundreds of others.

Phyllis didn’t show her concern only when people were overtly hurting. She took delight in getting to know everyone she encountered—on a bus, standing in line, sitting in a park. Because of her genuine interest and ready laugh, they were quite willing to engage her in conversation. People just felt better about life and themselves after being with Phyllis.

Professionally, as a nurse she had hands-on experience dealing with the physical concerns of patients. But she cared about the whole person, and if patients gave evidence of emotional or spiritual needs, she was there for them.

When a man said he was afraid he wouldn’t make it through surgery, she didn’t ignore it or brush it off. She took time, asked questions and listened deeply. When she had found another patient sitting on the side of her bed crying, and a chair that had been thrown against a wall lying sideways on the floor, she took time to stop and gently ask, “What happened?”

Over the years that she worked with a Christian university ministry, students received the same care and attention—about academic stresses, problems at home, relationship issues, questions about God.

When Phyllis retired, she wondered what she would do next. After taking several months to see what her new rhythms of life might be, she eventually felt guided to obey Jesus in three particular ways—to feed the hungry, care for widows, and visit those in prison. And she did. She began volunteering once or twice a week at the food pantry our church operates, which helps feed hundreds of people every month.

In addition, she began giving more focused attention to an elderly widow who lived on our block. She played board games with her and brought over meals once a week or more.

Finally, she volunteered with JUST, an organization that works within the DuPage County Correctional Facility. They offered dozens of different classes a week on spiritual enrichment, addiction recovery, education, vocational and life skills. Every Friday morning, as she went to lead a Bible study for women inmates, she would tell me with a grin, “I’m going to jail now!”

She especially loved meeting with these women who were awaiting trial. These were people without pretense who knew they were broken. She told remarkable stories of those at the extremities of life. One said she thought jail saved her life. Otherwise she would be out on the street, and likely not survive that. Another put her faith in Christ, and Phyllis saw a striking transformation in the next weeks.

Over the almost fifty years I knew her, Phyllis had a massive impact on me. She shaped a nerd who was always in his head into someone who gained a habit for hospitality and for creating welcoming spaces for people. We constantly had people staying in our home for a night, a week, even months at a time.

Phyllis was always ready with an offer of a bed and a meal and friendship and laughter. Whenever a need arose, Phyllis would ask me about it. I’d roll my eyes (sometimes inwardly, often outwardly) wondering if I always had to stretch like this to include others into our household. But we did, and I was better for it.

Phyllis showed me how to love others with the love of Jesus in a way that they loved too.

Certainly we had an influence on one another. But while I may have widened her world, she widened my soul.