That You May Be One

With all our differences, how do we become one? In marriage? In the church? In God? We look to the love of Jesus revealed in his glory.

Full Text: 

I’d like to ask you to do something – Everyone clasp their hands together so that all the fingers are intertwined.  Now look to see if your right thumb is on top or your left thumb is on top.

How many people have their right thumb on top?  Studies show that people who have their right thumb on top are good at thinking.  How many people have their left thumb on top?  Studies show that these people are sexy.  How many people are now trying to figure out a way to get both thumbs on top at the same time?  That only means you think you’re sexy!

Actually, it doesn’t mean anything of the kind.  There are no such studies.  I was only making that up.  But what I didn’t make up is that some of you have your right thumb on top and some have your left thumb on top.

Now, let me ask you to do one more thing – unclasp your hands, rotate them and re-clasp your so that your other thumb is on top. How does that feel?  It probably feels OK, but not quite as good as the other way.  Return to the first way you did it.  Does that feel better?  More comfortable?  More natural?

This exercise does not reveal anything deep about our personalities.  It only illustrates that we all have preferences in the way that we do things.  We prefer to do things in a particular way. We are able to do things in other ways and often do so, given the situation.  But we retain our preference for doing things one way and will use that way whenever we can.

We never realize this about ourselves as long as we’re around people who like to do things just as we do.  But when we spend very much time with someone who likes to do it another way, then we become aware of the difference.  There are many ways this may happen – at work, at school, at home – but there is no better way to realize our individual differences than in marriage.

These differences can run from the very mundane – do you roll the toothpaste tube from the bottom up, or do you squeeze it in the middle? – to the more complex – do you like to plan your days so that you know in advance what’s going to be happening, or do you like to stay open to whatever comes up in the moment?

In an intimate and long-term relationship like marriage, our reactions to these differences can run from cute and endearing to downright infuriating.  These differences are part of every marriage and most of these differences will never change.  In fact, marriage researcher John Gottman says that 70% of all conflicts in a marriage will remain unresolved – 70%!  It’s a wonder anyone stay married for more than about two or three weeks.

How do we do it?  Is it the 30% that keeps us together?  Is it a various combination of compromise, patience and forbearance?  Or is it something else?

Let’s look at another long-term, intimate relationship – the Trinity.  Trinity Sunday is still two weeks away, but Jesus gives us a glimpse to its inner workings in John 17.

John 17 is known as the high priestly prayer.  It is Jesus’ prayer to the Father in intercession for his disciples.  It is a prayer for, among other things, their unity.  This unity is not based on a set of beliefs or doctrines.  It is not built on practices or rituals.  It is not encompassed by organization or institution.  It is a unity that is essential to their life in God.  In fact, it is the unity of God that makes possible their unity with each other.  Jesus is doing nothing other than inviting the disciples into the life that Father, Son and Holy Spirit already share.

In this prayer we learn what eternal life is.  It is knowing God and knowing Jesus whom God sent.  But don’t be confused.  This is not the language of intellectualism.  It is the language of intimacy.  

Knowing Jesus means seeing his glory.  In John, we see the glory of Jesus in various miracles – the wine at the wedding, the woman at the well, the bread for the multitudes, the man born blind, Lazarus dead four days.  But mostly we see it in the cross – the Son of Man lifted up, drawing all people to himself.  

This is the glory of God.  This is how God reveals Godself to us - in humility, in vulnerability, in pain, even in death.  And this is how we most reveal ourselves to each other.  Not primarily in the meals we cook or the cars we fix or the salary we bring home, although these may require their own sacrifices.  It is when we become most vulnerable with each other, when we expose our weaknesses and they are received with kindness, when we are in darkness and the other enters that darkness with us.

This is what happens in the Trinity – The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit offering themselves to each other out of love.  And this is what happens in our most significant relationships.

In his homily at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the Anglican bishop of London, Richard Chartres, said:

The spiritual life grows as love finds its center beyond ourselves.  Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this: the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed.  In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life. 

This is true of spiritual life.  It is true of marriage.  And, if Jesus is to be believed, it is also true of God.  It is in the giving ourselves that we become our true selves.  It is going beyond ourselves in love that we share the life that God intends for us.

On one of my nights at Meriter, a nurse asked if I would visit an 81 year-old women named Betty, who had just received a diagnosis of breast cancer.  She had not listed any faith or church home on her admission record, so I wasn’t sure how open she would be to a visit from a chaplain.  But almost as soon as I walked in, she started talking.  So I decided to have a seat.

She had come in because she was having trouble with her pace maker.  Her doctor discovered it had moved up into her right shoulder.

I said, “I didn’t know it could do that.”

She said, “My doctor didn’t know it either.”  But when the doctor went in to move the pace maker back in place, he found a lump in her breast.  When it was tested, it turned out to be cancer.  Now she had to decided what to do about it.

“I’ve had a long good life,” she said.  “I don’t want to have surgery at my age.  The recovery would be difficult.  My husband supports me, so I’ve a good mind to call it quits.”

As I sat there, she continued to talk.  She told me about her life in a small town in southwestern Wisconsin, her kids and especially about her husband.  She told me about how they had met and about their courtship.  She said, “I’ve never been tempted to leave.  Oh, there have been a couple of times when I’ve been really angry, but I’ve never been tempted to leave.  We’ve had a wonderful marriage.”

But eventually she confided to me that he had never said, “I love you,” to her.  He had said other things, like, “You’re the best!”  But he had never used those words.  She had asked him about it, about why he couldn’t say, “I love you,” but he just brushed her off.

Then she told me that she had talked to him earlier in the day.  She told him about her breast cancer.  Before they hung up, he said, “I love you.”  It was the first time in over 50 years of marriage that he had used those words.

At last, before I left she said, “I don’t see the oncologist for another couple of days.  I have some time to think it over.  I’ve been through surgery before and I’ve done just fine.  Maybe I could do it once more.”

I prayed with her and then I left.

To say, “I love you,” is a risky thing, even in marriage.  There are all kinds of reasons, I suppose, not to say, “I love you.”  But none of them are really any good.  But it one very clear way of showing tenderness and kindness and a desire to stay deeply connected even when things are not going well, even when things are not going well for our loved one.

This is how we become one and stay one.  It is also how we become one with God.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.  God gave beyond Godself.  God gave love to you, to me, to all of us, that we might be one.