A Tomb Which Hides Your Life
Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
Though yet Heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, ‘This poet lies,
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.’
So should my papers yellow’d with their age,
Be scorn’d like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice,– in it and in my rhyme. – William Shakespeare, Sonnet 17
So far on this Lenten Journey, I’ve spent my time pretty much doing what’s expected. I’ve talked about my dalliances with the Cardinal Sins, and how they’ve woven their way through my life. I’ve described sins of betrayal, of dehumanization, of selfishness expressed as pride, and humility, and lust. I have talked about the need to carry the shame that my sin has created, like an enormous rock, along this long trek down this dirt road to the events of Holy Week. None of this is, or should be, surprising. Isn’t this what we do when we confess? Don’t we discuss our sins, errors, crimes?
For all I’ve exposed parts of myself and my life I would rather no one ever see, this next part of the journey is far more difficult. Not because there are worse things lurking in the closets of my life. No, now we get down to admitting how even those parts of my life I consider the best parts are no less tainted by sin, run through with pride and selfishness, and are no less in need of being set before the Cross for redemption than that which we normally consider our worst parts. If we’re willing to confess to our sins, can we be strong enough to confess our virtues as well?
I see autumn around me. Not deep autumn. At least, not yet. No, it’s just that time when summer’s worst heat is ending, the morning air has a crispness to it; even in the afternoon, as the air warms, there’s an undercurrent of cool that keeps the worst of the heat from being unbearable. The leaves aren’t so much starting to turn as they are hinting that turning might be coming soon. After months of humidity, that damp smell is gone and everything smells crisp, clean, ready to get ready for the sleep of winter.
I smile as I stroll, stone of shame or no, because this is one my favorite moments of the passing year. Summer has always been a time when the world takes a break from routine; it is just now, at this point when the world announces that summer is over, that routine returns, that long, warm rest of summer is over, and we have work to do. What I see, surprisingly, is the old Cokesbury Bookstore at Wesley Theological Seminary. I feel younger. Despite other things just prior to this moment in my life, I’m smiling because the new students have arrived, and that’s always a time to see who comes in with a chip on their shoulder; who comes in ready to learn; who comes in unsure of why they’re in this strange place (that, by the way, was me). I see myself, sitting at the receiver’s desk, boxes piled around me. The line of new students buying their textbooks stretches around the store; we only have one cash register, so everyone has to be patient. I don’t notice a pair of eyes on me, busy as I am putting price labels with bar codes on the backs of all the new books that have come in.
I look to my right, and I’m inside the house of the President of the Seminary. This isn’t as big a deal as it might sound. The President’s house used to sit just at the bottom of the hill below the dormitory, and former President Doug Lewis always hosted a reception that invited both returning students and returning students. I’m talking with a couple friends who’ve returned to campus after their long summer away. I’m sipping some punch and glance across the room. Standing, leaning against the opposite wall, I see someone looking at me, her eyes never flinching or moving from mine.
I won’t lie. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. That she was looking at me, and with such intensity, without fear, was a bit unsettling. Someone said something to me, and the moment passed as I turned to ask for a repeat of the question.
It didn’t take me long to put a name to the face – Lisa Kruse. She had come from Richmond, although that was about all anyone seemed to know.
A couple weeks later, I was working on the catering crew for a wedding reception to be held in the Dining Hall. I was busy doing prep work when who should I see coming down the back steps outside but Lisa. I thought I was working with someone else, but Lisa told me that person wasn’t feeling well, and she was filling in. She confessed later that she actually had kind of wormed her way in to working that day because I was working, too. Talk about flattering . . .
I don’t remember much about that first time we worked together at a reception. Except for one thing. It was hot, and the dress shirt I was required to wear was causing me not only to sweat but to itch. I didn’t even realize I was doing it, but I scratched my chest. Lisa said to me, “Fleas?” thinking she was clever. I looked her in the eye and said, “No. I’m allergic to weddings.” And then I went, washed my hands, and went back to work.
Within a couple more week, we went on our first date. The next night we went on our second date. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Wedding. A year still at Wesley getting adjusted to this whole “marriage” thing, then suddenly we’re in this little town down south, Lisa’s a preacher, then it’s all – BAM!BAM!BAM! – house, pets, kids . . . At least, looking back on it, it feels it was like that. After all these years, the time in-between, the days and weeks and months and even years, are all a bit of a blur. With one constant, however: Lisa and me, together.
Twenty-two years later, we’re both much older. Our older child is going to be heading off to college in a few months. We’re a thousand miles from where we started. If someone had told me where we’d be, what we’d be doing, the only thing that wouldn’t surprise me is Lisa being a District Superintendent. Beyond that, I probably would have laughed.
I can hear the questions. It’s like rusty wheels turning. What the hell do I have to confess about any of this? I met a beautiful woman, we fell in love, we started a family, a career, a life together. If the photo above is nothing else, it’s a portrait of the American dream realized. Nothing seems out of place, amiss, awry, or otherwise worth confessing as sinful about our life together, right? I mean, shoot, we have a St. Bernard, for crying out loud!
Except, as I look around at all the images from our life together, I know there’s so much more beneath those surface images. Moments of anger. Spans of time when each of us were unhappy. Persistent doubts each of us had about the love and commitment to the other. The struggles of early parenthood. The struggles of living together, when each of us were, even at that young age, set in ways from years of being alone and single. Former lovers who kept intruding in one way or another.
d Yet it is more than these mundane realities all married couples have and either get through or don’t; no, our love and our life together, for all it has survived the various changes in weather and time, is no less steeped in sin – selfishness and lust (the bad kind); anger and sloth; a lack of concern for the feelings of the other, crossing in to ignoring the other, sometimes for days or weeks at a time – than any other part of our life. And by “sin” I am being quite serious here. Sin as in death are the wages of. Sin as in brokenness that lies at the heart of our human relationship with God, as well as our relationships with one another. No matter how hard we try, no matter how much we work at it, no matter the professions of love and dedication to one another – ours is a relationship no less broken, no less battered by our weaknesses, our insecurities, and our outright horrid inner natures than any other. That we have managed to stay together, stay committed to one another, to raise two happy, basically well-adjusted children; share a home and a bed and pets and laughter; these things aren’t because there’s something special, or unique, or blessed about our life together. I know plenty of married folks who are little different from us in all these regards.
We are together, and are who we are together, because we both know just how broken each of us is. Perhaps not all the ways we’re broken, but that we’re broken, and that this mutual brokenness creates barriers to a full life together, that is something we not only know, but acknowledge. We work on these parts together, knowing full well they will never disappear. Anger. Self-doubt. The fact that we just don’t believe the other loves us in the way the other says. All these things could tear us apart before we’re even aware it’s happened. We’ve had our close calls; I won’t lie.
All of this swirls around me, and that smile with which I began is gone. I start to cry. No, I start to weep. None of it makes sense. Love is supposed to be one of the few truly good things in human existence; in particular, that love between a man and a woman that brings children in to the world, does the hard work of raising them, and all that work of staying together. This is good, right?
Actually, it is good. At one time, all creation was called good, and human beings were called very good. In an instant, however, all that vanished. Even this, with its all-American goodness, is something I need to bring before God; it is something I need confess is sinful, a failure, something in which I take inordinate pride, a thing that lives despite the two of us rather than because of the two of us. To do otherwise would be to lie. We are always praising one another on how hard we work at being married, on how good things between us are, even after decades together when other couples are getting tired of one another. We congratulate each other and ourselves on our parenting, on our ability to carry on a conversation, on how much better we relate to one another, because we’ve just worked so hard at it.
Except, to be blunt – that’s all bullshit. When we praise one another, and that thing that is greater than each of us alone that is us married, we are no less idolatrous than if we entered a pagan temple and set fruit basket in front of some statue. Until and unless we’re willing, individually and together, to carry all our self-serving lies and mutual back-patting for just how wonderful we are together, lay it at the foot of the cross, and declare, individually and together, how much we’ve fooled ourselves, how much we’ve lied to ourselves, to one another, and to God.
All those scenes from our life together, they fade. What I see now are two people, sullen, distant, casting angry, hurt glances at one another, unable and unwilling to speak to one another, even to look one another in the eye. This, rather than the Hallmark scenes and all the sweet words and photographs, is who and what we are. All the rest are sweet, consoling lies I tell myself, and we tell each and one another so that we don’t have to see the anger and hurt and lack of any sense of self-worth that lies not that far below the surface of so much of our life together.
This isn’t added to that stone of shame I carry. No, instead that ring I wear on left hand, it tightens to the point of pain. I can’t move that finger. For all it symbolizes the bond of love that cannot be broken, it now carries the weight of years of lies – lies to ourselves, lies to each other, lies to the world. Until and unless we are willing to confess this, and admit that all the smiles, the laughter, the happiness and love and lovemaking has nothing to do with any virtues we have, but comes from God and God alone, that ring will continue to shrink, the pain increase, until it becomes unbearable. It is one more thing I know I have to set at the foot of the cross: For all its seeming success, for all the “love” we share together, for all the smiles and laughter, if we don’t recognize our individual and mutual brokenness, if we’re not able to look at it and name it for what it is, if we’re not able to lay even this, what is supposed to be our best before the cross and confess that it, too, is sinful – if we can’t do that, I’m not even sure why I’m going down this road.
Confessing to evil stuff is easy. Confessing the broken, sinful nature of human love – that’s hard. But that pinched finger reminds me that if I don’t, none of the rest matters.