Monday, February 10, 2014

How It's All Different Now: Couples, Weddings, and Counselling.

            Weddings have changed a lot over the past thirty years. Sometimes they disappear altogether. So what is a pastor to do?

            I love weddings as much as the next person, but especially when the people getting married are close friends, their children, or relatives. On the other hand, I can’t say that weddings are the favourite part of my work as a pastor.

            When I began in the ministry, most of the difficulties were practical. They took a lot of time and money, two things that always seemed in short supply. The toughest issue was time. A wedding meant offering three or four premarital counselling sessions, another to discuss the wedding liturgy, then a rehearsal (usually on Friday nights), followed by a rehearsal dinner. Then there was the wedding itself, usually on Saturday afternoon, followed by a reception, usually in the evening, effectively eating up the whole day. My wife and I would have to sort out how much babysitter we could afford, how many invites to rehearsal dinners or receptions we could turn down, and then decide how much we could afford on wedding gifts. Preparing wedding sermons took a lot of time too. I tried to make every wedding sermon very personal and unique, so that the audience would know I was speaking to this couple in particular. As a young pastor, I sometimes had to do this five or six times during the summer. It was a big, sometimes costly load. The fifty or seventy-five dollars honorarium barely covered costs.

            Eventually, Irene and I figured most of this out. We decided that as a matter of course we would turn down rehearsal dinners. We decided that we couldn’t afford the purchase of wedding gifts—and I would explain this to the couple well before hand. If the couple were participating members of the church, Irene tried to attend the reception with me. Sometimes I would decline the invitation to the reception if it came during a busy stretch of the year. We bathed all of these guidelines in lots of communication with the couple getting married. We never had any problems—at least that I heard of.

            Over time, however, I became more and more frustrated by the expectation that I should provide premarital counselling. At first, naively, I thought, “no problem.” I treated it as a class on marriage in the Bible and agape as the Christian approach to love. We studied the formulary and its claims. I explained over and over again how Paul’s demand that women submit to husbands meant that they should love their husbands as their husbands loved them. And so on.

            Over time, however, as my wife trained to be a therapist, and then specialized in couple’s counselling, I began to realize that all I had for my couples were platitudes. My wife had real training—years of it. She had many annual seminars, and regular professional supervision as well. My two seminary classes in pastoral theology couldn’t hold a candle to any of that.

            Sure, there were a bunch of marriage training courses out there that included mail in tests that would tell me a bit about the couple. But the couple could take such tests on their own, if they wanted. And, in any case, counselling--that I'm not qualified to do--only begins once you have a (hit and miss) profile of the couple. Mail in tests are no substitute for a real therapist.

            So, as time passed, I became more and more convinced that my premarital counselling was little more than a charade. It was more for the benefit of parents who demanded free counselling for their kids than the young couple themselves. Eventually, I made a stand. I wouldn’t do it anymore. Instead, I insisted that all couples receive premarital counselling from a licensed therapist. I provided a list of names of Christian therapists if my couple insisted on it. But it was far more important to me that the couple find a great counsellor than a Christian one. "Great" and "Christian" are not synonymous. In fact, in a province like Ontario, just about anyone, trained or not, can put out a shingle (though this should change soon).

            The other big change, of course, is that now many couples choose to live together without being wed. This was already happening occasionally during my college days, among friends—even though the couple usually spread their cohabitation between two apartments to keep it quiet. But by the time I was in my last Christian Reformed congregation, it was pretty clear to me that many couples were (still often very surreptitiously, but not always) living together. I’ve written about this in another blog post. Check it out at:

            Does this mean there is nothing a pastor can and should do, anymore, before a couple marries—or even chooses to move in together—something that is quite common in my new church setting in the United Church? Not exactly.

            First, I still urge all couples who are committed to a long-term relationship to get some professional insight into their project. Lots of fine therapists offer couples counselling and/or couples retreats. My wife, Irene, has being doing retreats for years, usually sells them out, and gets consistently good reports on them, even years later. Check out her upcoming retreats at:

            Two. Saying that I’m not a therapist doesn’t mean I’m ignorant about marriage. The Bible has things to say about committed love, and I preach that. More importantly, I have a great deal of lay fascination about couple relationships—in the same way I am fascinated by global warming, or end-times prophetic groups, or evolution. I know what models are most commonly used for marital therapy and who the key scholars are. This enriches my preaching and grounds my pleas that couples get pre-moving-in counselling in something other than ignorance.

            Third. I strongly encourage couples to educate themselves about couples relationships. In that respect, I cannot recommend highly enough Sue Johnson’s new Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. The book is highly recommended by well-known scholars such as John Gottman and James Coan, as well as practitioners like my wife! Johnson’s approach, usually called Emotionally Focused Therapy, builds on the recognition that humans have a deep need for attachment. It is too complex an idea to explain in a few words—though I make a stab at it in the same post I mention two paragraphs above. One new feature of this book, compared to Johnson’s previous ones, is how it dips into neuroscience to help explain her approach. It makes frequent reference to clinical studies—a relatively new development in this field.

             Sue Johnson’s work is all the more appealing due to the breadth of her approach’s explanatory power. Thus Johnson’s book also offers great insight into contemporary issues like pornography, social media, and how to raise children.

            I wish that I had something like this thirty years ago! It would have given the lie to the reality that I was prepared to offer premarital counselling. And it would have been a great boost for the young lovers at whose weddings I officiated.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Olympic Spirituality

[This is a sermon about the relation of modern sports to spirituality, based on Ecclesiastes 9:7-12. It seemed fitting on the eve of the Olympics. What is more, the church I serve, Lawrence Park Community Church, just ran a four-week series on Sports and Spirituality in January. Our Sunday speakers included Paul Henderson, Maria Tourpakai (a Muslim squash player, TedXTeen speaker and Taliban opponent), Jerry Howarth (Voice of the Blue Jays), Kurt Harnett, Jason DeVos and others, mentioned here in this summary talk.]

            Thousands of years ago, in ancient Greece, where the Olympics were first played, the games were held in honour of the Greek god Zeus. Every champion was paraded to Zeus’s temple, where he—it was all “he’s” back then—he was given an olive crown like the one Zeus wore on his head. Greek art often pictures the goddess of victory, Nike—yes, that is where the sports company gets its name—putting the olive crown on the victors’ heads. Winning at the ancient Olympics meant joining the company of the Gods—in a way. Winners were carved in stone, and their images would be placed in the garden outside of Zeus’s temple, near Zeus’s image.

            During the ancient Olympic opening ceremonies, athletes and judges slaughtered a pig and sacrificed it on an altar of flame. Then they put their hands over the flames and promised Zeus to play fair. After the Olympics were over, winners ate at a banquet where hundreds of cows were sacrificed to Zeus and then eaten in his honor. Ultimately, the Christian and Roman Emperor Theodosius shut down the Olympic games just because they were full of these pagan religious practices.

            So do our modern Olympics still have a spiritual angle? Sure. The founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, wrote in the nineteen-thirties that sports was "a religion with its church, dogmas, service . . . but above all a religious feeling." He called his new religion Olympism, and said that its goal was world peace. Ironically, De Coubertin wrote his stirring words about Olympism as a religion of peace just before the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, a propaganda show for Hitler’s racist and violent Nazi juggernaut just before it rolled over Europe. One hopes no similar comparisons will be made fifty years from now to the Olympics being held in Sochi, which is partly a propaganda show for Putin’s dictatorial, increasingly homophobic, nationalistic, and corrupt government.

            Of course at the Sochi Olympics there's no pig meat sacrifice, though the ancient Olympic flame and oath have been revived. And if anyone doubts that these things don’t feel religious to modern Canadians, I recall that when some spectators began roasting hotdogs on one of the smaller Olympic flames at the Nakiska ski site at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, the newspapers reported that "The sacred Olympic flame is being desecrated by spectators." I’d call that a religious sentiment.

            But it isn’t just the Olympic sports that have a spiritual feel. Most professional sports do as well. A few months ago the Scottish tennis player Andy Murray won at Wimbledon, the first person from the United Kingdom to win at home in 77 years. Afterward, Simon Barnes wrote this in Britain’s paper of record, The Times. “Joy puts it too conservatively. This was beyond all earthly concepts of joy: this was, for a few moments of eternity, nothing less than bliss . . ."

           The modern world of sports has its departed saints who are forever revered—its Babe Ruths and Rocket Richards. It has its archangel coaches, people like Bo Schembechler and Scotty Bowman. Sports has its gods, the superstars before whom we kneel and swoon—the Wayne Gretzkys, Serena Williams, and maybe now our own Eugenie Bouchard. Sports has its rule-making synods, like the IOC and the NHLPA. Like ancient Judaism, it has scribes, too—that special class of priest who prints all the news that is fit to print about the saints. Sports has its temples, such as Yankee Stadium and Wimbledon’s Centre Courts. And of course, modern sports has its symbols of faith—Stanley cups, autographed baseballs and hockey sticks, maybe even signed by Nazim Kadri or Haley Wickenheiser.

           You see, we live in an experience economy. That is, today’s consumers—of anything, whether it be cars or religion, sports or vacations—today’s consumers (and I’m including myself) all want more than just a material product, we want an experience that moves us, that feels good. My all time favorite ad that gets at this is from BMW. The catch-line goes: "Engineering. Science. Technology. All worthless . . . unless they make you feel something." And what the whole sports economy is ultimately about, for competitors whether they win or lose, and especially for spectators—the sports economy is designed to make us feel something, deep inside, that we can share with others and that will glom us and our fandom and our adoration to the team. At its best it is an almost ecstatic, religious feeling, and at its worst, as when the Jays keep on losing, or our child comes in last at a school sports day, we feel something close to despair.

            But are religion and spirituality—I’ll use them synonymously for now—are religion and spirituality really just about feeling good? I have my doubts. I hope not.
            So, the most telling moment during the Sports and Spirituality series, for me, was when Paul Henderson spoke. He had not just one, but actually three great moments that still rank among the top-ten shining bright moments in world sports history. Henderson scored not just one, not just two, but the last three winning goals—three Joe Carter-like world series homeruns in a row—in the great Canada-USSR summit of 1972. All of Canada, gathered around TVs in school gyms and coffee-break rooms went crazy with joy when Henderson scored that last goal and won the series for us. The famous picture of Henderson celebrating that third goal show that he was feeling pretty good about it himself. It was a great experience. Very emotional. It felt spiritual. We worshipped Paul.

            And yet, Paul Henderson told us that soon afterwards, that moment left him feeling empty, unfulfilled, and ultimately, unhappy. The ecstatic joy only lasted a short time. The greatest sporting achievement of any Canadian ever soon left the hero personally defeated and lost.

            And then, as he told us, he “found Christ,” and became an Evangelical Christian, and he’s been spiritually happy and fulfilled ever since.

            Now, I’m not interested, really, in the fact that he became an evangelical Christian, or that Maria Tourpakai is a Muslim woman. Henderson could have become a Zen Buddhist, for all I care. What I am really interested in is that after he scored those three goals, Henderson realized that even at its best, when he was feeling his best, and the whole nation was feeling his glory, Paul Henderson realized that these feelings were not enough to give his life meaning.

            Feeling great, being moved to jump out of our seats and cheer, participating in the wave—this is all wonderful, but even when it is bliss, it doesn’t add up to something to live for. Henderson, in the quiet after his triumph realized that his destiny, that the reason the universe exists and we play a part in it, the big questions we all face about divine love and world peace, and how to love our wife and be responsible citizens—Henderson realized that such questions would never be answered on the hockey rink or even in the din of a whole nation singing his praises. He realized that building his life on even a great fleeting feeling is like building your house on the sand—whether that feeling is occasioned by a BMW or a Leaf win or too much wine, it matters not. The minute the feeling passes, the minute the rains come and the floods rise. Henderson crumbled, and so he went in search of real spirituality.

   Now listen carefully. I’m not saying that search for great experiences and the positive feelings that follow are bad. Not at all. The writer of our text from Ecclesiastes encourages us, in fact, to have the sort of experiences that leave us feeling good. He—it was probably a he—says we ought to drink wine with a merry heart. We ought to wear white clothes—a great luxurious splurge in an era where there were no washing machines or dry cleaners but lots of dust. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that we ought to enjoy whatever it is our hands find to do and the wife—or husband, or partner, of our youth. He might as well have said we ought to have a blast watching our kids win blue ribbons in relay race. God has long approved of such worldly pleasures and success, says the author.

   Except that—and here the writer of Ecclesiastes, in a moment of great insight to the human condition, uses a sports analogy—except that even when we’re having fun, we need to remember that the race does not go to the swift, and the battle does not go to the strong, and meaning cannot be found in feeling good about fleeting pleasures. All of that stuff is ultimately vanity. There is too much tragedy and suffering, too much pain and hurt in the world to devote ourselves to games. It is all, as the Apostle Paul pretty much says, killing ourselves for an olive crown that will whither.

No, religion and spirituality have to be about more than winning a race. True religion and spirituality are not about fandom ecstasy, but they are about Paul Henderson devoting the rest of his life, and much of his resources, to Teen Ranch, helping disadvantaged kids get a leg up on life. True religion is Maria Tourpakai overcoming Taliban extremism for the sake of women and children who are being kept in the dark. True religion is Kurt Harnett raising a family, supporting a wife in her career, and using all his spare time to support Special Olympics. True religion is Jonathan Power  responding to a letter from a scared girl in Pakistan, and giving her a new lease on life—not to mention his volunteer work to use squash to help scores of children in the Jane-Finch corridor stay out of the clutches of gangs or worse. True religion is all about you and I leveraging our politics, our jobs, our social standing, our resources, wisdom, and hearts to create a little bit of heaven here and now.

And while this sort of true religion doesn’t always feel good, because it can be blood, sweat and tears; while this sort of religion isn’t always convenient, it is the divine path to true inner happiness, and maybe even world peace. The meaning of life is to love God and neighbor, says Jesus; what God loves is that we do justice and embrace kindness says the prophet; true religion to visit orphans and widows in their affliction says the Apostle. And sure there will be tears of joy and happy hugs and laughter and fun and fellowship on the way; but not always. We are talking, after all, about the main thing, what life is all about and not just how we feel about it. We are following Jesus.