Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Key to Finding Mr./Mrs. Right… is Selfishness

They were nuzzling each other in the checkout line directly in front of me, to the point where I turned slightly so as not to impugn on their moment. We've all witnessed the embarrassing teenage couples clinging to one another in outrageous public displays of affection, but this couple wasn't young at all. They looked to be in their mid-forties. He was short and balding, the woman even shorter with thick black hair and a tired, happy face. Their son, who looked to be about five, was quietly dragging a foam sword near the cereal aisle, and he responded quickly when his dad called him over and gave him a hug. I couldn't help but smile. This is what we all wanted, I thought. More specifically, I thought about my female friends and their frustrations in finding "Mr. Right", someone who they could count on as a partner and teammate. For all the advances we'd made towards equality, the most chauvinistic portion of our population was young men between the ages of 16-22. What that said about our culture, I could only speculate, but what it meant for young women was less abstract. It meant sifting through a populace that was not only increasingly disinterested in equality, but one in which violence continued to play a major role. Conditions in the church were no better. In some ways, the situation was worse, as young men purporting to be Christians did not seem to perceive a contradiction from their faith and their tendency to raise their hand against their wives. So many of my friends and acquaintances had given up, either marrying someone who was 'okay' or ending up with a man they were not proud to be with. It was better than being alone. Or was it? And why was it so hard for women to find "Mr. Right"? There weren't that many jerks, were there? Or were my friends simply being too picky. Whatever the answer, it was something worth looking into, if only so that I'd have something to say to my friends when they asked me yet again where all the good men had gone.

***

I have a confession to make. I'm happily married. And oh yeah, I've been married before. We were both miserable. Fortunately, my ex-wife met someone great after we broke up and became happily married. So we're both happily married now, just not to each other. I mention that because undoubtedly someone will read this and dismiss it because my credentials are 'impure.' Of course, my credentials are already impure because I'm male, and my advice is (largely)directed towards women. A couple of weeks ago however, I received an email from a reader/friend, who was frustrated by what she'd witnessed in the dating world and in her friends' relationships. "What's wrong with all these men? These so-called Christians are mean, ego-driven and often violent. What do I do?" Her letter touched a chord in me, because it was something I'd seen often the past decade in my work with youth and families. Especially young women in their twenties who were looking to the future. I'd seen the things she mentioned in her letter in my Seminary, supposedly the training ground for young pastors, in everything from the books we were forced to read to the attitude of many of the male students. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that whatever answers I did have were not going to be well received, and in many cases, would upset a lot of people. Would in fact make some people very angry. But I've never been good at hedging, even when it's pushed me into rocky waters.

HARD TRUTHS AHEAD. CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED.

***

Tyndale College University & Seminary is a red bricked building set amidst a series of quiet, rolling streets just north of Toronto. Million dollar homes are the norm in this largely Asian suburb, each house more precisely manicured than the next. About the size of an elementary school, it has evolved into the largest evangelical seminary in Canada, with over two hundred full time students and eight hundred part timers. When I moved to Toronto for graduate studies in the fall of 2007 I wasn't sure what to expect. Having long since given up my patriarchal zealot days of my early twenties – when I would talk about spiritual leadership and men (only)in the same breath – and having witnessed the tragedy of patriarchal tendencies, I was pleasantly surprised by my professors. Coming from a wide variety of Christian traditions, they were almost universally progressive and thoughtful. By the time I'd picked up the textbooks for my course on Leadership, I'd long since given up the fear that I would be subjected to content that promoted a 1950's domesticity and inequality towards women. That ended however, upon my reading of the text, Being Leaders by Aubrey Malphurs. In one of his 'helpful' appendices, he documented two leadership checklists. One for men. One for women. I still remember the way my stomach clutched at my throat upon reading about a woman's 'love for her children' and her 'support for her husband' (among others) as qualities necessary for leadership. There were no such checks for the men of course. For the men, the book listed things such as the necessity of being the husband of 'but one wife' and 'intellectually capable'. Even more disturbing than the book was the reaction by most of the male students, the exception being my best friend and one other, who didn't see anything wrong with the textbook and rolled their eyes when I continued to hammer my professor about it. "It's just a book, Steve. It's not a big deal." The women in the class were split nearly down the middle. When I expressed my outrage at the sexist ideas expressed in Malphurs' work, not a few of them shrugged. They'd seen it a million times. It wasn't THAT big a deal. That was, without a doubt, the saddest part of it all. The women who either refused to see the sexism or had seen it so many times before had given up hope of change.

Hard Truth: So long as we believe that we do not deserve equality in our relationships, we will never find it.

Hard Truth 2: Young pastors and young Christian men continue to be taught that misogyny is an acceptable part of the Christian faith. Unless women recognize that they have to apply their own 'filter' for sifting out men who will look down on them, they will continue to end up in relationships with preening, self-righteous jerks who treat them badly.

Sound harsh? Probably to some men reading this, men who honestly believe that they consider women as equals. Meanwhile, these are the same men who would never accept a female pastor or talk about spiritual leadership in the context of women. (Women should be silent!) They follow self styled leaders like John Piper who counsel women to stay in abusive relationships. Make no mistake, while there are some churches working hard to see equality and teamwork between the sexes, most churches teach male superiority, though they will clothe it with words like "function, not value", or that they are just "following the Bible."(The next time someone says that to you, ask them what they think of slavery. If slavery is not acceptable, although Paul specifically orders slaves to submit, then why are women supposed to be silent?)

Therefore, you need to develop a check list of your own for prospective suitors to answer. Frame your questions around things such as spiritual leadership and gender roles. If he/she shows an inclination towards a set roles for either gender, and believes spiritual leadership is for men, get up and run away. Do not look back. Forget how good looking he is. In five years you will be miserable, if not sooner. Don't ignore the warning signs ('shouldn't women take care of the kids, they're like, made to handle them.") Trust me, you won't regret it.

***

If my wife was twenty pounds heavier I never would have married her.

Sounds gross, doesn't it? Alas, it's true. And she's a size two, sometimes a zero.

What's also true is that if I hadn't lifted enough weights over the years to develop my body so that I can push three hundred pounds above my head, she wouldn't have been interested anyway. We laugh about it, but her interest was peaked as much by my arms as by my smile. (All I can say is thank you, Lord, for getting me to the weight room when I was seventeen.) Yes, her intelligence, kindness, faith and strong sense of self were just as important. But they weren't more important. They still aren't. The same is true for her. In all the church blather about the importance of a woman being 'godly' (whatever that means), and our rejection of the commercialization of sex and female bodies, we bury an important truth: that how we look matters. And not a little. It matters a lot. Being fit not only increases our likeliness to attract others, it speaks to something else, especially in an obese culture like this one. I watch how my wife treats herself, how she cares for herself, how hard she works to stay fit by eating healthy and working out hard, whatever her schedule. I've known a number of women through the years who are looking for a partner, and while they remain smart and kind, they have physically let themselves go. Unfortunately, they've been taught a set of lies, usually by obese men behind a pulpit who hammer away at the importance of 'spiritual' qualities and 'selflessness' without ever telling women that they need to be a little selfish. That they need to focus on taking care of how they look so they can stay independent and strong.

Now when a man says that a woman needs to stay in shape, it comes across, at the very least, as presumptuous, and almost always condescending. Unfortunately, the truth is that a woman who allows herself to become overweight gives up something far worse than simply her conditioning or her ability to choose better looking guys.

We don't think of fitness or being in shape in relation to our spirituality, mainly because we've spent the past two thousand years dividing our body from our mind and our soul. (These are Greek ideas.) But everything we do reflects what we believe, including how we take care of ourselves.

Hard Truth 3: If we're not willing to work hard (and it is VERY hard work) at staying fit, how can we complain when people do not find us attractive?

Hard Truth 4: The irony is that while being fit increases your chance of finding a significant other, you can't make fitness something you do for someone else. It has to be something you do for yourself.

A great part of the appeal in people who are fit are all the traits we unconsciously assign to them. Discipline. Self-control. Strength. Independence. Now these traits may not all be present, and not in every area of a person's life, but there is tangible proof that in least one area, that person is strong and consistent.

Start today by taking control of your life. Insist on creating time in your life for yourself to workout. Learn about eating healthy. Remember, you're not doing this to attract a partner (that's a side benefit), you're doing it for yourself. As a trainer, I've watched women come back into their own as they have taken ownership of their bodies, and consequently, their lives. You do not belong to someone else, and while you may one day share your life with someone, no one owns you. Treat yourself as you deserve, and watch the difference it makes in your life.


***

Waiting on God is difficult, especially when it comes to relationships. Through the years I've met a number of people who insist that God will provide them with a partner, that so long as they keep their faith, their long dreamed romantic relationship, fed through the commercialized Hollywood apparatus, will suddenly appear. The idea saddens me, especially as it relates to my fellow Christians, in so much as it's inherently pagan.

Hard truth 5: The idea that we offer up a sacrifice (our time, prayer, very specific prayer, singing) so that God will mysteriously bring a stranger to our small town, to our closed life, is a great load of bunk and has nothing to do with faith, and everything to do with people manipulating us so they can use us for their own ends.

I hear this a lot in church circles. I have friends who can tell me exactly what they want their wife to look like, or what their husband's accent will be. They have been taught (wrongly) that God answers specific prayer. That God is nothing more than a plaza for us to peruse. Another shopping mall for us to line up and get things. And they'll look you in the eye and tell you that faith is enough. That God will bring so and so just like Pastor Bobby Joe said. Frankly, the whole thing is insulting.

Hard Truth 6: How in the world can we expect to meet someone when we live in the same house, the same small town, with the same people? It's utterly baffling. We expect God to bring someone to us because we are too lazy or too scared or too comfortable to change our geography or go to a different church.

The problem is more perilous if there are children involved, obviously. In which case we have to be as proactive as we can to initiate contact with possibilities. The internet is a good example. I'm not a huge fan of internet dating, but it's better than doing nothing.

I believe that meeting my wife was God ordained. I honestly do. But if I hadn't left Ottawa to take on a new challenge with new people, it never would have happened. I'm not ashamed to admit that originally I'd hoped to meet somebody at Tyndale. Why not? We need to change this mentality that God wants us to be submissive waifs, refusing to move or change unless we hear the voice of Thunder calling from heaven.

Nonsense.

Hard Truth 7: If you want to meet someone new, you have to meet new people. And that means adjusting your life so that will happen.

More than anything, we need to be more selfish. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but we need to do a better job looking out for ourselves if we hope to find someone else. We need to ask prospective suitors difficult questions, ensure that they believe in equality, and then walk away when we realize that they do NOT believe in equality. We need to guard our time selfishly, and stop saying yes to people who will rob us of our chance to be fit and healthy. People will always be grabbing for our time. Don't let them. And finally, we need to stop waiting around for God to do something and MOVE. Be active. Watch God move, but you go first! Our lives are more than relationships, so while it is wonderful to be happily married, your life is so much more than that. Waiting on God does not mean waiting as we would do in a doctor's office. Push forward, follow your passions, and don't get stuck when people try to hold you back. (Because believe me, families love to do this. And Christian men love to do this to women.)Live for God by remembering he created you and is happy with you and has plans for you OUTSIDE OF ANY RELATIONSHIP. Pursue those, and then watch as God brings people alongside you. One of them may even be suitable as a life teammate. Just remember, you have a few questions for them first.

-Steve