One Arizona December day, when my wife was fourteen, she took a baseball to the jaw that knocked her out cold, her brain sloshed. Her teammates gathered around her as she attempted to come to, temples burning. Months passed before doctors figured she would be a candidate for surgery to clean out damaged cartilage where mandible joined skull. Metal plates were screwed in to where soft tissue-lined sockets used to be.
Nine years later, when I met her, I could not tell she had had surgery. Scars were faded, range of motion had returned, and her pain was minor—yet persistent. As her new friend, I was all about helping her find relief. Thankfully, a maxillofacial surgeon in Vancouver succeeded with cortisone injections.
Six months later, we married, and together life was good. New careers, budget home, sons one, two, three in forty-three months, school roles, church service, loyal deep friendships.
All the while, mandibles bumping on steel.
Twenty-three years later, on a bright blue day, while hiking Mt. Baker, something twigged, and Shelaine’s smarting became stinging. Zinging. Jabbing. It was more than just downhill to the trailhead.
I learned quickly what happens in a relationship when one person takes a hit physically, emotionally, vocationally. I had to choose each day to support her, adjust, and find new patterns. Together we went from three nights out per week to three per month at most, and we learned to accept help and love from friends and community who cared deeply for our plight.
Shelaine’s jaw journey trudged on month after month, then into years, as specialists scratched their heads as to best next steps. Finally, she received the most radical option—total jaw joint replacement. We entered that season knowing her pain would increase, but with hope for long-term relief. And we continued to make choices regarding work, rehab, careers, and relationships.
Next Tuesday, January 23, Shelaine will provide a glimpse of her sojourn from pain, to surgery, to renewed health and redefined self. She does so at the book launch of her personal memoir, But Pain Crept In.
I am so proud that she persisted, and praise God for his hand of healing.
I hope you can join us in the celebration.
House of James Bookstore, 7 p.m., Abbotsford
This month Shelaine and I celebrate 29 years of marriage. “Twenty-nine and thriving” I told someone.
Lady Gaga laments that her man has given her a “Million Reasons” to dump the relationship. She asks for just one reason to stay.
I offer 29 reasons why I stay committed to Shelaine.
We got away earlier this summer.
The road leading away from the island airport was well paved and passed by a stately resort with neat lawns and waving palms. As we drove further, the taxi driver began choosing his path carefully to avoid bumps and dips, and the homes set back from the roadside became simple and livable. After fifteen minutes, as we neared our destination, we saw a sign: Welcome to Paradise.
I smiled. The sign looked hand-painted and sat at the intersection of two humble roads where tin-roofed houses and empty beverage containers crowded its shoulders. But I knew what the writer meant—the small village, however modest, was in Antigua, West Indies, a kilometer from surf, white sand, and pleasure.
The Genesis story came to mind. God made light—life-giving, back-warming light. Then sky—with clouds never-the-same against azure gray; then earth meeting sea creating horizons pointy and flat; then vegetation like hibiscus, date palms, and aloe; then sun and moon for warm days and nights; then living creatures like laughing gulls, mongooses, and lizards; then amazing people. And God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. Paradise.
The resort where we stayed had a restaurant overlooking the bay—a Caribbean layout resembling a forest station lookout with three walls, some poles, and two Whitewood trees crawling skyward. A tradition at the restaurant is to leave one’s mark by writing your name on wooden planks and nailing them to poles, wall, or trees. Hundreds of signs crowd the view.
So we made one too: “Bill + Shelaine, 2017, ‘… and it was good’.”
So very good.
Welcome to Paradise.
“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Genesis 1:31
Dear God, Thank you for all you made that continues to be very good. May we respect, enjoy, and steward the world around us and not take it for granted. May we marvel at the wonders of your hand, and your sustaining presence, in your creation.
[I write this when our beautiful province is ablaze with over 100 forest fires, and smoke has leached its way to where we live three hours away. May we be careful camping, and be wise with soaring temperatures and poor air quality.]
Need stocking stuffers?
Love to share relationship wisdom with someone?
In the spirit of Black Friday, Relating Redemptively kicks off an opportunity for winning a copy of The Relationship Project. Starts today, and draws held the next three weeks through December 16.
1. Post your story of virtuous relating in the 'comment' section of this post. Make it about self-control, humility, relational work, faithfulness, and/or wisdom.
2. Each week all contributors' names will be put in the draw, and one selected randomly.
3. Winners will be contacted at the end of each week (Fridays).
4. We will mail out hard-copies in time for Christmas.
Thanks for participating.
To my American friends and relatives, Happy Thanksgiving! In the spirit of this grand holiday, and Christmas around the corner, I offer this look at hospitality through the unlikely story of ... Zachhaeus.
Luke records part of the story this way: “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly." (Luke 19: 5-6)
Have you ever considered that Zacchaeus gladly welcomed Jesus to his home? Given his occupation—a tax collector whom many despised—you might think he would have hid among the leaves of that sycamore tree. But he didn’t; he came down, escorted Jesus to his home, and threw a little party, and an unplanned one at that.
I wonder who else joined them. Probably not those who watched this happen; they were muttering, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” I can see them with arms crossed and faces scowling.
But something tells me Zacchaeus would have welcomed his enemies to his home that day. Consider his new heart when he says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” His generous heart flowed in love for the poor, and his pocketbook with justice for mistreated clients.
What explains his change of heart? One clue is the reason he climbed the tree—“he wanted to see who Jesus was.” And who did he see? He saw someone worthy of calling “Lord.” Perhaps Jesus’ reputation preceded him, and Zacchaeus knew that with Jesus wine overflowed, blind saw, lame walked, and dead people revived. Jesus was a rock star, and the rich tax man had to catch a look. And now, with Jesus present in the flesh, Zacchaeus humbled himself, acknowledged his wrong-doing, and sought to make things right. So right was his heart as shown through his speech and actions that Jesus declared, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (vv. 9 & 10).
What will our response be to the present Christ this season? Will we open our homes to celebrate the Lord of the universe? Will we give away our wealth to help people in need? Doing so may put us outside our comfort zone, or require more effort than usual. But in the grand scheme it will indicate our relationship under God as one of his children eager to gather others into his community of grace.
Dear God, thank you for sending Jesus to show us a life worthy imitating. May I bow in awe of his glory and from that place open my heart to people. Show me whom I may invite to my home to celebrate the presence and love of Jesus. Amen.
These last several weeks have been hectic with preparations for our son’s wedding and the start-up of a new school year, but it’s good to be back.
The wedding was special for my wife and me as it was the first among our three sons. We were blessed with a warm August day (tucked between scorcher and cool days) for the outdoor wedding. I have never seen my son so happy nor his bride so beautiful. Their loving vows, hopeful hearts, and faithful commitment made me think of Paul’s love chapter in I Corinthians.
There he warns us that fine-sounding speech, ramped-up knowledge, and super-spirituality amount to nothing if we fumble on love.
That truth brings conviction to a professor like me at a Christian university: I’m paid to be articulate, know lots, and integrate faith into my curriculum. I wouldn’t want my students to grow thick of brain yet thin of heart. I hope I’m loving too.
Along these lines, the tale is told of Henry and Margaret who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. During the program the guests were allowed to ask questions of the couple to gain nuggets of marital wisdom. Someone stood up and asked, “Henry and Margaret, if you could go back and do anything differently in your married life, what would it be?”
The two looked at each other, and then Margaret answered, “Well…I would have Henry tell me he loved me a whole lot more.” Everyone got quiet and turned their eyes on Henry.
Henry stood up, adjusted his tie, and said, “Margaret, you’ve known I loved you, because the day we got married in 1966 I told you so, even twice if I recall. If I had ever changed my mind, I would have let you know!”
Sometimes knowledge falls short.
Have you told someone lately that you love them? It never gets old.
When we struggle to find personal humility, we can ride roughshod over others. Kendyl condescended on her husband as he struggled to finish his graduate education. She tells her story.
My husband Jim was facing the comprehensive exams for his PhD, and when the time came to take the exams, he didn’t take them—he put them off. He felt he wasn’t ready and didn’t know enough; I felt that he had procrastinated and hadn’t worked hard enough to prepare. I was incredibly judgmental of him, because I am a person to whom deadlines are sacred. I even became physically ill because I felt so alienated by what I perceived as Jim’s failure—I felt that it reflected on me, and I felt ashamed that he missed the deadline.
I feel that my failure to exercise humility in relationship with my husband caused damage to our relationship at the time, though I know he has since forgiven me. I was the one who “failed.” I deeply regret not being humble enough to encourage, support, and stand along side my husband during this stressful time in his life and in our marriage.
I define humility as recognizing the goodness in another person, not inflating one’s sense of self-worth by deflating another’s and not judging another person harshly by one’s own standards. Humility is egalitarian—it says that we are on the same level, and we can help each other out sacrificially. Humility allows God to work through me to help another.
The opposite of humility is pride. I define it as a self-centered, self-seeking vice that does not seek the good of the other but only the good of the self. Pride is hierarchical—it says that I am better than you, and my needs are the only ones that matter. Pride says that I am godlike in comparison to you, and I don’t need any help.
Kendyl’s story shares a common tale. We have expectations in relationships, and when friends fall short of our ideals, we have a decision to make. A knee jerk reaction is to judge and blame, however a more serving response requires us to listen, understand and support.
Kendyl's story is in Chapter 4 of The Relationship Project.
Get a glimpse of your humility. Take the quiz.
So we connect a lot through social media. I’m a digital immigrant and yet I sport a Facebook site, accounts with Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, a phone and of course Skype. That’s a small list compared to app-happy millennials who are digital natives.
Some critics praise social media for bringing us back together in the 2000's after television confined us to our living rooms from the 60's to the 90's. Now grandkids can chat with Oma up north cheaply and full-screen. Yet others point at the casual language of Likes, posts and comments and say we’ve lost the art of significant conversation, even if we call everyone a Friend.
My reading this week dug into that place where social media and relating meet, and I discovered a few myths that need debunking.
Myth 1: Using social media cheapens communication and leads to less satisfying relationships.
Actually, just the opposite. We know that technology doesn’t shape relationship quality, but that quality of relationships determines our use of social media. For example, people who are highly connected offline are highly connected online, but people who struggle in real-world relationships tend to use social media less. Also, even “thin” social media such as email and texting can draw us close if we say the right relational things and use emoticons well.
Myth 2: People are fake in their profiles and routinely lie to make themselves look good.
Part of this is right—we use social media to manage impressions people have of us. But except for a small percent of crooks, most people describe themselves in accurate terms on Facebook and even on dating sites. The ‘fake’ part is that we tend to post the happy, positive, beneficial aspects of our personality or accomplishments—which are true—but tend to avoid posting the negative. It’s like a big cocktail party—everyone’s putting their best foot forward. But we can’t get away with too much gloss, because some digital environments allow others to post comments and keep us in check. Also, knowing we might someday meet an online acquaintance offline keeps us honest.
Myth 3: The more Friends you have on Facebook, the more popular you seem to others.
Sorry, but the more Friends you have over 500, the more likely people will perceive you as needy, and their perceptions may be right. Self-esteem has been shown to predict the high and low end of how many Friends we keep online: people with lower esteem tend to compensate by Friending tons, or, conversely, shy away and Friend under 100 people. The sweet spot is the 150-300 range where most people fall who generally feel good about themselves.
Of course we all know people who don’t fit these trends, or who fit them for other reasons (like celebs attracting tons of Friends.)
Social media seem to be an extension of our emotions, identities and offline friendships. This prompts the idea that if we invest in good friends face-to-face, we can enjoy rich virtual connection too.
Source: Chambers, Deborah, Social Media and Personal Relationships: Online Intimacies and Networked Friendship (Palgrave-McMillan, 2013).
All four sat in silence waiting for their meals to arrive. One couple was to our right, the other to our left in a popular lunch spot in town.
Shelaine and I were debriefing an event of the day, and then I whispered, “No one nearby is speaking”. She nodded; she had noticed too.
Each couple was in their 60s; each seemingly married; each looking past their spouse to other patrons or out the window.
And then their food arrived.
More silence. This time with justified reason—it was time to chow down.
Meanwhile earlier that day we had learned that a saintly man at our church had passed away unexpectedly. While his health was not good—he suffered from Parkinson’s since 1993—his wife of fifty-four years had just visited him the day before and said he was in good spirits.
We attended a gathering to commemorate the deceased and support the family. After others had spoken, and hymns sung, the new widow stood and gave testimony of their life together. “There were good years, and there were difficult years, but overall, it was good.” Heads nodded in understanding as people likely recalled his twenty-three years of declining health and her faithful care during it all.
I was reminded of research that shows that couples married over forty years typically refer to lifetime commitment, loyalty, commitment to sexual fidelity, and commitment to spouse and marriage as reasons for their longevity. Three cheers for commitment and fidelity. I am sure the church couple were committed and faithful.
But there we sat, in the restaurant, with another picture of what long-term unions might look like—that grin-and-bear-it version. Perhaps these two couple stuck it out for the kids, or to protect their assets, or because they had no better options.
And then, after their table was cleared, the gentleman on our right reached his hands across the table, open-palmed. His wife smiled and said, “What?” He smiled back, and soon she reached up and put her hands in his.
Speaking of long-term relationships, have you seen this photo?
Book Summary: Relational Masks: Removing the Barriers That Keep Us Apart (Russell Willingham, IVP Books, 2004)
Russell Willingham serves as executive director of New Creation Ministries, Fresno, California, an organization dedicated to helping people heal from sexual addictions and relational brokenness. Based on decades of individual and group counselling experiences Willingham provides an insightful proposal of how the wounds from our youth show up as ‘masks’ in Christian circles.
He builds his typology around seven hurtful beliefs we often carry into adulthood:
1. God can’t be trusted.
2. The Bible doesn’t apply to me.
3. I don’t need other people.
4. Intimate relationships bring only pain.
5. Romance or sex will meet my deepest needs.
6. I must do everything perfectly or I am worthless.
7. If I am honest I will be abandoned.
Willingham thinks these twisted beliefs, in various combinations, are the root of relational masks. Those masks include:
1. The Avoider: because of so much hurt the avoider believes it best to check out of life. The avoider doesn't address problems, avoids people, and procrastinates from getting at anything important. Believes they can’t help the way they are.
2. The Deflector: ignores deep pain by becoming a jokester who keeps conversations superficial, stays busy with work or children, and avoids talking about their emotions. Prone to say “Sure, I have my issues, but what about him?”
3. The Self-Blamer: sees childhood wounds as deserved because of their own incompetence or sin and carries heavy guilt and self-condemnation. Believes God is the critical parent who is mad, disappointed or disgusted with them.
4. The Savior: succumbs to “idolatry of serving” through workaholic activity for others and the church. Prone to take on too much responsibility ‘saving’ needy others, boasting of ‘service’ on the surface yet prone to bitterness down deep.
5. The Aggressor: hides deep hurt through high activity, controlling others, and dogmatic expression of their ideas. Likely to think building a successful church program is more important than worshiping or knowing God intimately.
6. The Spiritualizer: baptizes everything in Christian terms, holds “right beliefs”, and has strong us-and-them ideas about who makes up God’s kingdom. Thinks human problems are solved by more prayer and Bible study, confession of sin, and a closer walk with Jesus. Knows a lot of information, but is slow to share personal problems with others.
The author concludes with two chapters: The Secret to Life with God and The Secret to Life with Others to underscore God’s primary work among us right now is to restore us to intimate, trusting, loving relationship with himself, and among His people. In doing so he shows ways the avoider, deflector, self-blamer, savior, aggressor, and spiritualizer may know God’s sufficiency, and genuine healing through the church community.
For readers who are acquainted with the ideas of attachment and wounds, you will find Russell Willingham’s Relational Masks a welcomed Christian perspective to the conversation.
Available through IVP Books.
Bill Strom, Author
I am a believer by faith, a professor by vocation, a husband by choice, a father by blessing, and a friend by hanging out. Along the way I have learned about close relating through my experiences, biblical models, and social science research. Hopefully my ideas and encouragement show up here in ways meaningful to you.