Friday, September 17, 2010

The petri-dish

When I was a graduate student at WSU, I also had a job working at the student bookstore or 'the Bookie', as it's called.  I worked in the athletic department, where I learned to fold t-shirts the right way, sold tennis shoes, and rubbed shoulders with alumni when they swelled our small town to its breaking point on the autumn Saturdays when there were home football games.  That was the first year (in about a thousand!) when WSU was actually successful enough that they won all but one of those games (including the Apple Cup--GO COUGS!), and even went to a bowl game (the Holiday Bowl).  I got to know, in a sort of nodding acquaintance way, many of the football players when they'd come through our department, and later in the year, got to know the basketball players in the same kind of way.

I worked with some women who were Bookie 'lifers', so to speak.  They were the wives of men who worked for WSU in some way or another, salt of the earth kind of women who still smoked in the break room and liked to drink at company parties.  Others I worked with were wives of graduate or undergraduate students (yes, mostly it was women I worked with, other than the managers, whom I rarely interacted with).  There weren't many Christians among them, to say the least.  To be specific, only one other Christian worked there, and she went to a church in town that many considered a cult, so I was friendly, but not exactly friends with her.  I did, however, become friends with all these other non-believing women, most of whom were much older than me, worldly and slightly rough around the edges, which was quite a unique experience for me, after 8 years or so of mostly having Christian friends.

One evening, at a baby shower for one of the women in our department, these women (there must have been about 25 there) got to talking about marriage. About their husbands.  It was the most negative conversation I'd ever heard in my life from people who supposedly loved the people they were talking about. At least they'd loved them enough at one time to have stood up before someone and said some vows (though in at least one situation, that someone was merely a judge in San Francisco before a sailor shipped out to Vietnam). Anyway, that night you would have thought these women were consigned to hard labor at some prison camp by how they complained. Up one side and down the other about everything from the way those men left the seats up in the bathroom to how they didn't talk--just plain didn't talk--to their wives.  There were only three of us who weren't married there and one of those was living with her boyfriend and the other one was a lesbian.  Each of those women also had plenty of bad things to say about men too!  This man left his socks--his socks!--on the floor.  That husband didn't bring in the garbage cans immediately after work.  One was too demanding and the next was too lazy.  I'm telling you it didn't sound to me like there was a single woman in the room who was just plain content with the man she had chosen.  I mean, she had chosen this life, hadn't she?  In the almost 30 years since then, I've been in plenty of women's groups where the conversation has taken on something of that tone, though never quite as bad at that evening.  But unfortunately, worse than one might expect too from women who love the Lord and profess to love their husbands as well.

But I remember driving away that night thinking there was no way I would ever--EVER--sit in a room full of women and speak ill of my spouse, if God meant me to have one (and it wasn't at all clear at that time that He did intend it).  No way, no how.  Because I believed (and still do) that even if there were things to complain about, there were plenty more fingers to point back at myself all the time. PLENTY.  I knew who I was, knew who he'd be getting. Besides, it felt disloyal and ugly to complain of what I believed (and still do) was a--the!--great gift from God.  

I've discovered, certainly, all kinds of things about marriage and Beve and myself since that long ago day when I naively judged those women.  And sure, there are moments when Beve drives me crazy.  But my fundamental notion that night has never wavered. It still feels disloyal and ugly to complain about this remarkable, funny, giant of a man God gave to me.  Marriage is every bit the great gift I imagined.

And--and this is my point--also what it takes to make me holy.  There are long and varied paths to holiness, I think.  Temperaments, gifts, callings all combine to make a person's path unique.  But we often overlook the mundane elements God uses to that end (which is always His end).  I think of all the women who look at their marriages and domestic responsibilities as difficulties, but these--the forms of our lives--are really the place where holiness must grow.  Yes, marriage as the petri-dish, the presence of God's Holy Spirit between us the bacteria, and the resulting culture is holiness.  Yes, that's it, a man and woman commit themselves to God and each other and His Holy Spirit begins to work from that union a culture of holiness in that petri-dish.  Oh my, what a stretch.  But something true about the idea too.   Either what grows out of a marriage is the kind of culture that can destroy, perhaps in tiny whines and complaints, or its the kind that becomes a culture of salvation for all who encounter it.  Let what grows from the petri-dish of my marriage be like penicillin, holy and acceptable and able to save a thousand souls.

But, as a caveat, I should make it clear that I'm not talking about real difficulties in marriages.  Not infidelity, abuse or other horrors.  I've also had the privilege of sitting with women when their hearts were breaking about their marriages, when they were shaking with the pain of betrayal and loss.  In such moments as those, being there to take some of the burden, to lift the pain gently from those heaving shoulders just for a few moments because words were spoken that a woman had needed to say, those moments are swamped with God's presence and just about as far from those sniping women at the baby shower as I can imagine.  When marriages falter, and true pain is exposed, people tend to forget all the things they rolled their eyes about when life was ordinary.

But if the petri-dish of our marriages creates holiness, we will be able to stand with those whose lives need us most.  Married or not.  However, if the culture in our own lives isn't holy, why would anyone lean on us?  How can we expect God to use us?  I want the holiness between Beve and me to be THE culture--yes, the tissue for growth, as the dictionary calls it--of our lives. 

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