Relationships revisited

When I started blogging I slightly accidentally stumbled into the label of being a relationship blogger. This wasn’t a title I wanted, nor what I wanted the blog to be.

But then again, I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted the blog to be. So for the first few weeks relationships was what I wrote about and that was what people wanted to read. However, I’ve got a small confession to offer to you: I don’t know much about relationships, I just make it up. Yet the more I talk to people, the more I read, the more I realise that this is a subject that people want to talk about, as they too feel as they are making it up as they go along. And regardless of the number of relationships that people have been in, or the experiences they have had, the questions remain.

I recently asked someone what it was about those early relationship related posts that they appreciated. Apparently it was because I was being brave. In talking about issues with openness and honesty I was doing something that other people weren’t.

I don’t feel particularly brave, the number of times I held back from saying things because I was worried about being open in so public a forum, and the frequency with which masqueraded the point I sought to make. On top of all that I was speaking about these issues online partly because I so patently fail to broach them in conversations face to face, they live in the solitary confines of my mind.

Since those early summer days I’ve returned to tales of romance and attraction from time to time but I’ve mixed it up with bits of politics, theology and the occasional more philosophical post which only 27 people read.

Over the next six weeks my church (Christchurch London) will be covering sex and relationships in a Sunday sermon series. And this news has had a mixed reaction. People I speak to individually are quietly fascinated to hear what will be said, but in groups there’s a fair dealing of groaning and scepticism.

What I intended to do is blog alongside this series. Each week I’ll post some reflections and thoughts on the talk, along with a link to the audio for those who don’t go to Christchurch. But I also want to cover some other topics, I’ve got a few lurking in the back of my mind which I plan to cover, but I want you to provide the topics as well.

I want to write with honest and openness, and I hope to create a space where you can join me and we can discuss issues which intrigue and terrify us, and all too often tend to define us.

So please let me know, in the comments here, on twitter, facebook or carrier pigeon, what you want to talk about. It can relate to dating, singleness, lust and temptation, or just about any related issue you have on the mind. And if you want to guest-post during this series, you’d be very welcome, again just pitch me an idea.

A merger of gluttony and lust

I’ve got a bit of a confession to make: occasionally I go to the cinema on my own. I’ve always thought that it’s an unusual social activity, but the first time I went to the counter to buy a ticket – just one ticket – it was rather awkward, I could feel the person at the counter judging me.

But that’s enough of a tangent before I actually begin, it is all to say that earlier this week I walked out of work with my head spinning and headed to the cinema picking the film that best suited my arrival time regardless of what it was. This is how I ended up watching ‘This Means War’. I know that’s no excuse, my taste in films is dreadful, but as usually happens, even in the most dreadful films, something catches my attention.

Curiously it was a similar theme that had already piqued my interest while rampaging through the Hunger Games trilogy all in around a week.

A girl likes two guys at the same time.

Yes, I’m back to blogging about relationships.

I had slightly accidentally eased off writing too much about relationships because I didn’t like being referred to as having a ‘relationship blog’. But you may have noticed that I have more or less eased off writing about anything in these hallowed lines of html in the past month or so. Here a minor side note: I will return to women in leadership at some point, and those who offered to write guest posts, I haven’t forgotten.

In the Hunger Games the issue lingers below the surface gradually pushing its way to the surface as the pages turn into books and one cover closes and the sequel opens as quickly as you can get to the shop to pick up the next instalment. In contrast, This Means War could not be more obvious if it tried, the posters make watching the film an optional extra.

There are stand out lines in each that sum up the main protagonist’s efforts to make their minds up. In This Means War she is told to pick the man who will make her better, in the Hunger Games the two competing love interests accept she’ll go for the one who she thinks will give her the best chance of survival.

Because we all make choices. We all have a frame of reference that informs and influences our decisions. In Bill Hybels’ book Courageous Leadership he examines how he makes decisions and the factors that come into play; it’s a combination of experience, rationality, emotion and prejudice. The things that allow us to decide when to cross the road. The things that tell us that we like one person a little more than appropriate for us to be friends.

The things that might tell us we like more than one person more than appropriate to just be friends.

Is that just crazy? Or is it really just owning up to what actually goes on in our crazy little heads? And does it force us to re-evaluate the frame of reference that we use to come to those conclusions?

First of all, this is not crazy. It happens, I don’t think I’m making some stunning revelation to dare suggest that I have, and others have too, liked more than one person at once. And in my case, I should say not at present, that dilemma has been the cause of hesitation and avoidance, and the hope that in time one would take precedence. Usually in time honoured fashion not one but both fade from my affection.

Now we’ve got over the fact that it is not analogous to polygamy to have split affections how do we deal with it? Because it’s not a sustainable place to linger. For a while you can juggle the competing claims on your heart, and rearrange the aspects of your life that tessellate with each in turn. But sooner or later you have to make a decision. And that’s where it stops being about emotion and it starts being about will.

So often I opt out of making a choice in the hope that it will be made for me. I hope that events will conspire to lead me to one and them to me. And make it clear that choosing them is like waking up each morning and the night sky eclipsed each morning as it fades to light.

Both the Hunger Games and This Means War offer a selfish view of love, but a selfish view that exists within us, and one which we often do not try to disown. We chose the partner who will make us happy, or make us better, or making it sound all to utilitarian the one who will give us the best chance to survive.

And there is something selfish in our thinking when we try and decide if we like someone and if they like us. When we might be attracted to more than one person at once maybe it is time to make you mind up and follow through on that decision. It’s not easy, or perfect, or certain, but it’s better than trying to get everything you want. That’s just a merger of gluttony and lust.

But when that phase of shadow boxing is in the past and we are committed to one person as an act of will. Then selfishness just doesn’t get a look in. It is, as marriage was recently described, something designed to gently destroy the ego.

Perhaps, in the words of Summer, we hope that one day we will wake up and just know. But I think it’s a bit harder than that.

Is singleness an issue in the church?

Should the church do anything about the single people in its midst?

I threw this out on twitter and got more feedback than on anything I’ve ever tweeted before. So one thinks there might be a few things to ponder here.

The responses fitted into two broad groups, those who thought it wasn’t really an issue, and those who wanted the church to stop being so sympathetic and patronising.

But maybe we conflate the church with the church leadership, or the church staff, or the officially organised and sanctioned programmes of the church.

Because the church doing something about it is you and me deciding to help people get together. Or encourage people struggling with relationships. Or discipling people to help them not find their identity in being someone’s girlfriend – or having that girl on your arm. The girls blame it on there being too few guys, and the guys say there’s too many girls. (seriously, they do.)

And I’ve heard enough sermons with the intentional brief asides that challenge guys to man up and ask girls out. And I’ve had enough conversations with girls frustrated with guys not asking them out, and with guys daunted by the prospect, or dizzied by indecision.

The core criticism seems to be that the church treats married people as the norm, and single people as those who are waiting for the right person to come along. Thrown into this mix are those with the specific calling to be single, which we are told to remember to affirm as a gift from God andSt Pauland John Stott are cited as our exemplars.

This description lets two groups of people off the hook and leaves the people out side these mutually exclusive groups rather stranded. If you’re married then you’re ok, if you want to be single, you’re affirmed. If you are single and pretty desperate not to be you’re kind of in trouble.

You are in trouble because the church doesn’t know what to tell you. Should they tell you that marriage is an ideal that you strive for? Of counsel that singleness is a wonderful calling?

We’re not very good at living in a place where things don’t add up. We’re unable to handle the ideal of one thing, the gift of another, and the role of God in redeeming humankind and working in each of our lives at all times.

We want it simple. We want someone else to do something about it. But we also want our independence. So we like the idea of speed dating in the church. Of semi arranged marriages avoiding the social awkwardness of dating, and well, removing the risk element from it all.

But that’s the fastest post I’ve ever written, so I haven’t really thought this through. What are your thoughts? Is there such a thing as a singleness problem, and if so, is it in the number of single people or the way in which they’re treated?

Please tell me.

From one to another

Dear guys,

Last week I wrote a letter to the female race, you may have read it. If you didn’t, it might be a good place to start.

This is quite a different letter, to the ladies I was trying to give a glimpse of insight into the way one particular guy thought, felt and acted. To you I’ve got a few words of advice.

Decide if you like a girl, find a way to let her know, and explore if that liking turns to love.

I told you I only had a few. Because, who am I to try and tell you much else?

You have walked a road that I have not travelled. The chances for love may have been punctuated with disappointment. I do not think I can write for every situation that you will have experienced.

It is not my place to opine about you longing after a girl who has walked away.

Can I with any credibility chastise the philanderer who leads each girl on and into his arms, but finds that there is another more pleasing to his eyes?

When you tell me that you have asked out one woman and then the next, and this has happened time and time again and they continue to turn you down: because my rejection count does not compare, I cannot advise.

And when you meet the one who you love, when she takes a step into the church and you turn and gaze up the aisle, the joy that overwhelms must be contained.

Because I have not been there. I have not lived the life you live.

But in fact, we need to help each other. We need to be honest about the challenges we face, share the hopes that we have and the dreams that one day might be our reality.

We need to cry when sadness darkens our day, confide when we’ve nowhere left to turn. Tell each other when we are being idiots, encourage us in our pursuit, or caution against heartache that might lurk ahead.

We do not know the life that each other leads unless we let each other in. We cannot help each other until first we welcome help. We are not ready to love a lady, with all our heart, with all our strength, if we have not first learnt who we are.

We cannot use the exceptionalness of our lives as a shroud to permit secrecy. Of course we all have experiences that others have not shared, and we will sometimes struggle to comprehend what greets each others’ day. The words of advice may be idiotic, the comfort we bring ineffectual, but that is not an excuse to close our lives off. And how will we ever get better at helping one another if we do not give it a go.

I talked to a few girls before writing this letter, and basically, they want to know if we like them. I recounted a story, maybe because it’s quirkiness hid my true vulnerability. That there was a girl who I liked, and I chose to spend time around her, and as my affection grew I realised that my actions could be construed as evidence of my interest so I backed off. I was worried that the girl to whom I was expressing an interest might actually realise how I felt. I also didn’t want anyone else getting onto the idea that I liked her. That might puncture my charade.

That’s how crazy I can be, I can tie myself in knots. And the ladies I told struggled to comprehend this ludicrous behaviour.

And I know that in other ways, you too can act a little crazy. Sometimes we purport ourselves as content on our own that we ignore the interest of the fairer sex. Sometimes we are so desperate for attention that we take the easy chances, find the girls that will have us. Sometimes we stay with someone long after our interest has waned because our fear of conflict takes over.

We have also emasculated our emotions in an attempt to conform to the cultural caste of gender.

We think that guys should be manly, concerned only with adventures, hand-wrestling grizzly bears and we have turned Jesus into that man. We have tried too hard to make God masculine. We have forgotten how to cry.

As Joe Carter put it: “Young men don’t need a Jesus who strolls like the Duke, squints like Clint Eastwood, and snarls like dick Cheney. They don’t need Jesus the cagefighter, they just need Jesus the Savior”.

Until we are comfortable with Jesus as a paragon of vulnerable masculinity we will try to live a life that isn’t reflecting Him. And I think for a start this means countering our pride. I’ve made it clear before that I’m open to girls giving a relationship a kick start. This can be a hard thing for us, it seems like we’ve been pre-empted, had our role taken. But we get things so very wrong so very often, whether it is about misplaced attraction, about ignorance of how other feel, about how we may have led a girl to think we were interested. About how we may shy away from facing that spectre of rejection, and if a girl gives a guy a helping hand we should welcome it and not resent it.

Finally, a word on singleness and marriage. We have got to esteem marriage more highly, and stop just thinking one day it will come to us, at a time when it is convenient, at a moment when we are less busy, less lustful for the next beautiful girl, at a time when we are ready to settle down.

But it’s also a problem when we are too desperate for marriage, I could pretty much quote all of what Max Dubinsky has written over at the Good Women Project, but this will suffice: “The enemy loves that you so desperately want to be married, that you’re crying on your bedroom floor begging God for a boyfriend or girlfriend because you can’t handle being alone. That your attention is focused on finding someone to marry. He loves that you don’t think you will be happy until you find ‘the one’”. We have to learn to be single well.

If this all sounds a bit too emotional, that’s okay, we’re all made differently. But if it does sound like I’m trying to get you to open up, think about your feelings, then I am. I think there is nothing worse that the facade that we perpetuate that we men do not have feelings. That we are unemotional beings with a lustful intent that we conquer by brute force as Ulysses chained himself to the mast to avoid the charms of the Sirens.

There’s much more I could say, but for now let’s end it here, and let us also remember to talk. So maybe my words were not as few as I made out, or my advice as limited as I suggested, but we shouldn’t shy away from taking time to grapple with complexity.

Your brother.

Girls, if you’ve been reading I guess that’s okay. Give us a chance, and help us where you can.

The dark underbelly of internet dating

I know nothing about internet dating. So I’m not going to blog much about it, if anyone wants to write a guest post about why it’s great, or why it’s dreadful please get in touch. I’m sure it’s something people are interested in and a challenge for Christians to know how to engage with it. Otherwise you’ll just get my ignorant ramblings at some point in the future.

But that’s not what I’m writing about now. This is something that I do not need to know much about to be outraged. Advertising encouraging people to have an affair. It is wrong, it is immoral and it is a deeply disturbing aspect of our society that tolerates and perpetuates such damaging behaviour.

Jon Kuhrt has taken on this shameful type of advertising before, last year a website ran billboard posters encouraging affairs, Jon stepped up to the plate, took them on and won. But now they are back at it again, different name, different website, same horrific attempt to profiteer by ruining marriages. Jon’s written an open letter to the boss, Ross Williams, of the parent company, Global Personals. Read through his letter and I’d encourage you to give them a call and express your thoughts in a kind and considered manner. Also, join the facebook group for the campaign. For good reason the name of the site is being kept out of this, the controversy could just end up sending more traffic to the site.

And that’s almost all I would have to say on the topic.

If it wasn’t for which I stumbled upon while digging around the Global Personal website, which conveniently seems to be undergoing some redevelopment right now.

So a Christian dating website is part of a company which also runs a site which promotes unfaithfulness. It would seem so. That is, if you want to describe Just Christian Dating as a Christian dating website. Because it can’t be, unless you want to also call the mafia turning up for confession as the epitome of radical discipleship.

There are somethings which we shouldn’t accept. They may not be illegal, but the brazen attempt to make money by pulling people’s lives apart should not go unnoticed. And the thought that by putting ‘Christian’ into a dating site’s address could make it so.

Actually, that’s not so uncommon a problem. It’s not just online dating entrepreneurs who market their products to the church. We do it too. The books and the music, the conferences and the courses. If we call something Christian then surely Christians will buy. Sadly we are too often sucked into this lie.

I’m not convinced about Christian dating websites, but if we are going to use them, please make sure they’re not money spinners tied to an enterprise which Jon Kurht describes as “like a drug dealer who promotes what they are pushing as harmless when really they are trading in something deadly and destructive”.

Games of attraction

In the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’ Russell Crowe’s character applies game theory to asking girls out. He explains why it is the best bet to ask out the second best looking girls. Because the best girls will be swamped with offers: guys will be fighting between themselves for a precious commodity and this will leave the way clear for him to go for the next best option.

This all makes sense in a world where beauty and attraction are objective facts, and rational choice prevails. But that is rarely the world we live in. Instead we live in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, of stunning beauty and waning attraction. We are designed to love beauty, and it comes naturally to seek it out.

So just how much weight should be given to our physical attraction to someone?

It has been said that true beauty exists on the edge of chaos, where something magnificent emerges from something that so nearly doesn’t work. The solar system finely tuned to sustain life, works of art that bring together styles, materials and forms.

It was Gustav Klimt that got me thinking about this. As I looked at ‘The Kiss’ I tried to wonder why this was such a magnificent piece. It is one of his most famous, and from the case in which it was housed most expensive paintings. But it shouldn’t be any good, it does not provide a likeness, the colours are all wrong; I don’t even think it holds any deep symbolic value: yet somehow this chaotic collage of gold leaf, silver and oil creates something quite incredible.

Some time ago Portsmouth University advertised its courses with the slogan, ‘What Comes After The Internet?’ Unfortunately the answer does not lie in any of their courses; innovation cannot be taught, only inspired. Likewise beauty is not located on a map, there is no guidebook, no ‘x’ marks the spot. Beauty may be captured, but it cannot be controlled. Something that is truly brilliant and beautiful, that exists on the very brink of chaos, has an equilibrium, it is so finely tuned that the faintest shift can lead to disruption and failure.

So when I find a girl attractive, what cue should I take from it? Is it the indication of a deep soul connection, or a momentary infatuation?

That’s why attraction alone is never enough. Because beauty does not always win the day. The search for physical perfection leaves us hollow, it suggests that we can attain something which will not last. I have no idea who first said it but, ‘Real girls aren’t perfect and perfect girls aren’t real’.

It also lets lust win us over. If we are guided by what we find attractive we will find ourselves liking something new. Novelty too often attracts us. We grow bored by what we have and want something new. I remember hearing Pete Greig talk about materialism, and how in fact materialism as we understand it deeply rejects material goods, because it always wants to move onto the next thing. To really value something is to commit to it, to stay with it, and not be sidetracked when the big new thing comes along.

It is preposterous to think that if we are married we will never be attracted to another person. That doesn’t mean that the person is not beautiful, but this thought should change the way we respond to attraction.

So we should also be wary of our attraction if we are single. The options are more open, but if we are only ever guided by what we find beautiful we will be drawn in countless directions.

But physical attraction does play a role. I might like to think that I am only attracted to someone because of their godly character, virtuous actions or biblical wisdom. It might be more convenient to sideline my thoughts of who is good looking and who is not, and instead choose a girl based on more holy criteria.

Except, God created all of me. He created my emotions and my mind, he created my brain and my heart, he created my spirit and my body. The task is not to be ruled by our body, and this is not done by ignoring it. If we shut off our desires we are letting them win.

There’s one other interesting thing in play here: avoiding complementing someone on their looks because you don’t want to appear superficial, or just interested in them because of their physical attributes. But then what are we trying to achieve by side-lining these feelings? Are we trying to deny something that is intrinsic to who we are, or are we appropriately managing a desire within us that needs to be checked?

So guys like girls…

I’ve discovered something remarkable in the course of writing about relationships. It has sparked a lot of interest and a lot of conversations, I’ve found myself in the absurd position of offering counsel and hearing stories that range from the comic to the heart warming. I’ve heard from guys who have no idea what they should do and girls who know exactly what the guys should do.

But I’ve learnt one immutable fact, guys like girls and girls like guys.

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it, that this is what I’ve learnt? Sounds like I’ve been on another planet for the past 27 years. Except we often think that we are the exception. That we are experiencing something that no one else is. So when we hear from others that they face the same challenges and feel the same, it wakes us up that something is going on.

And I have come to two conclusions. The first I’ve already mentioned, and that is that this is a big issue, it gets people thinking and talking, and considering, it evokes lively emotions and painful decisions.

The second is that we have to get talking about it. I speak only for my situation, in a church of 500-600 people, most of whom are young and single. And in that situation I’ve taken a bit of a straw poll. I’ve inquired as to people’s dating experience, who they’ve asked out, who has asked them out. And I’ve tested a little hypothesis, and I didn’t expect to get as much agreement as I did.

The hypothesis is this, speaking of the single people in my church, most of them at most times are interested in someone of the opposite sex. And usually the person they are interested in is likely to be someone who they spend time around. So take any group of people from the church and it is to be expected that there are a lot of emotions lingering in the ether. Some of these feelings will be tentative, others will be unrequited, occasionally they will be obviously reciprocated. But all the time they will affect the group.

Except that’s not how we act. We act as though we are all just friends, and we push the romantic attraction below the surface, sometimes to preserve our own frail facade, sometimes to steer clear of awkwardness, but I think most of the time because we are happy living in the now. We are happy with what we have got, and we want to make the most of it. In a crowd of singles we share a common bond, an unspoken rebellion against the cultural norm.

It’s never that intentional, most would say they are looking for a partner, it’s just they don’t say much about it. It exists as a backdrop to our community and it affects it in two parallel ways, it inhibits the formation of strong non-romantic friendships and it stifles the open pursuit of romance. So back to my little straw poll, how much dating goes on, not much. It does take place and it usually happens quietly and discreetly in a most respectful way.

But go back to my premise, if most people like someone most of the time, and the people I surveyed had asked or been asked out between zero and three times. That leaves a lot of affection that goes unspoken.

I’ve also been asked for some solutions as I’ve written, the truth is I’m all out of those.

So let me offer one other consequence if we repress our feelings too much, we are living double lives.

Harsh? Yes.

But if we like someone and continue to act around them as though we are just friends we are deceiving them and deluding ourselves.