What I’ve learned in marriage: to give sometimes

Once upon a time, in our early years of sharing a name and a home, Ryan and I concocted the Ultimate Telling Question about marriage.

Let’s say that the mister and missus are going outside to dig in the yard. Maybe she needs a new flowerbed, or maybe the septic system is acting up again. One of their two shovels is a little unwieldy; the other is the perfect size, strong and reliable, with a comfortable handle grip.

WHO GETS THE BETTER SHOVEL?

We came at this point to an impasse, because in our families of origin the answer was obvious. And opposite.

In Ryan’s family, his mother would have offered the better shovel to her husband (of course!), because he is the king of their castle. She is a helper well suited to her husband, coming alongside him in his work. In my family, my dad would have offered the better shovel to his wife (of course!), because he is a gentleman. He treats his lady with deference, showing honor to her as the weaker vessel. Both families have a strong Scriptural precedent on their side.

Did you know that men and women can come to marriage with very different expectations? And that the longer they are held, the touchier they become? It got to the place that Ryan couldn’t stick his head in the door to ask for a drink of water without me feeling put upon and treated like a doormat.

Sometimes we wonder what would have happened if the Coblentz half of our marriage had been masculine and the Zook half had been feminine. We might have had the most mutually sacrificial, boring marriage in the history of ever; except we’re human too, and we’d have managed to mess it up somehow.

But listen now – The most important phrase in that whole scenario is the one most easily overlooked. I said one of the spouses “would have offered.” With joy. Would have come into the situation with the expectation of giving. The longer we looked at that posture, the more beautiful it became, and we both wanted a share in it. Happiness came to this Zook-and-Coblentz-match-of-differing-expectations when we decided that in our marriage, it would go either way. Many couples have found harmony on one side of the question or the other, including our beautiful parents – but for us, there would be no “of course.” In the most extreme sense: I don’t have to kowtow to a heap big man; he doesn’t have to indulge a queen. We are heirs together of the grace of life.

These days, sometimes he offers me the better shovel and sometimes I offer it to him (though I often suspect I’m getting the better end of the deal). It’s sort of funny now.


Ryan and I have a deep respect and gratitude for all four of our parents. Each set has grown in love together for 45 years – a miraculous and incredible legacy.

My mother

Confession: There is a whole new level of pain and beauty involved in seeing your mother without her hair. It was such pretty hair, long and thick and shining white. I miss it, and I miss the part of her that is not the same without it.

The first time she took off her hat to show me her shorn head, it was a jolt and a sickness, a thing wrong with the world that could never be made right.

But I also got a good look at her face. It seemed revealed, as though a skin had been pulled away, giving a glimpse of personality I’d never seen before. I’m a face reader, but I had missed a whole layer in my mother.

Once I went to a ladies’ seminar where each attendee was asked to bring along a sheet and a pillowcase, no explanations given. When I arrived at the registration table, I was told to wrap the sheet all around my clothes and put the pillowcase on my head, covering all of my body but my face. Every lady at the seminar wore that absurd disguise for half the day, and I was a little sulky about it and let some of my hair show. But the point was (and I liked it afterwards) to see how you felt about yourself, and how you viewed other people, if all you could see was a face.

Gone were the quick summaries – Oh, she goes to that kind of church – She has gray hair, so she must be over this age – Wow, nice dress – Okay, I’d never wear that together – She’s a trendsetter – That one’s Amish – All of it was gone. All you had were the faces, and what nice, friendly faces they were! Separated from all other impressions, they were more visible, more speaking, more important.

So with my mom.

She has common sense and grit and earthy wisdom and not-quite-kosher humor in that face.

And she is not well right now. But she is well cared for. It’s a team effort, loving a cancer fighter, and I am a small cog in the wheel with my four kids and my multi-faceted sickness germs to steer away.

But family and friends are offering incredible support. My siblings and their spouses send up love and texts and beautiful gift packages – my two nurse brothers stay tuned to her numbers and vitals – my remarkable sister with a cancer history of her own used her furlough to offer in-home support for a whole month – and my dad is doing everything else singlehandedly. Okay, not quite. There are many, many other givers: You know who you are. Thanks so much for doing this for my mom.

On the right is my mom with my baby, last summer. On the left is my mom’s mom with me!

We are very proud of her. And God is in the redeeming business.

Shari

Call back later

Confession: When my phone rang at 5:44 Monday morning, I thought it was the alarm, and groggily I punched around on its face a few times until it finally stopped.

That is how I sent a text template to Faith Builders Christian School (calling to inform parents of a two-hour delay), saying Sorry, I’m busy. Call back later.

After I stopped blushing, I wished I could’ve used that response on several more of the unexpected events December brought me.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is the third person in my immediate family to face the c-word, not to mention my sister-in-law, my aunt, and my late grandma. Sorry cancer, we’re busy. Call back later. Mom is brave and calm, trusting Jesus to take care of her through chemo, hair loss, and a lumpectomy. But oh, we dread to walk this path again.

My baby got hand-foot-and-mouth disease and spent a miserable week with it. We missed a Christmas party or two. Sorry, I’m busy. Call back later.

And then (all three of these events occurred in the same week), my six-year-old daughter developed acute stomach pain at school one lunchtime, moving from a pained face to tears to sobbing to screaming in less than an hour.* We thought appendicitis, but when they did the CT scan in the emergency room, they said “If it is her appendix, it’s already ruptured. There’s a mass in there. We can’t tell for sure.” And they transferred us to Children’s Hospital. Sorry, my daughter is busy. Pain, pain, go away. Please, please.

*(This is how my friend Anna described it, and she was there.)

in-the-hospital-20161206_074000

Hours crawled past us.

“There’s a mass of tissue, not fluid. Probably an ovarian cyst,” the surgeons told us after the senior radiologist’s report. “We don’t know what to expect until we remove it. They’re usually benign, but we may need to take her ovary as well. Please sign here.”

I will sign if you will help my daughter. Please, please.

In surgery, the doctors found and corrected an ovarian torsion, the “mass” nothing but her own body tissue, swollen but healthy. Nothing to remove? Really? Oh Jesus, really? And because it was all laparoscopic, she had very little recovery time, no stitches, no scars. The path felt interminable as we walked, but in retrospect I could measure it—from the onset of the pain to the first apple juice post-surgery was exactly 24 hours. Two days after her operation, she returned to school for the dress rehearsal of her Christmas program. On the third day she was her own sassy self, having to be reminded not to run.

Our resurrection story, just in time for Christmas. Thank you, thank you Jesus! We felt his miraculous healing in the skill of the surgeons, the kindness of the staff, the gift of living in 2016.

I spoke with another woman I love. She was cutting vegetables at my sink. She said, “I know it’s supposed to be such a season of joy, but it’s hard. It’s always been a little hard for me.” I know, I know. There are so many things we cannot say.

Sometimes I think that if we really knew what was involved, we’d say no to everything. Sorry, I’m busy. Call back later. Picnics and marriage and doorways and friendship and babies—and it hurts worst when everyone around seems so happy.

(Didn’t you know they each carry their own sorrows?)

But if we said no, we would never have the answers, the miracles, the resurrection stories, love. Sometimes I think if we really knew the joy on the far side, we’d say yes, yes, yes! Pain is the unexpected ring of the telephone, the bad news. Jesus is the one who shows up at the door at the same moment, with a loaf of warm bread and a stiff drink. His body and blood. God with us.

He is not afraid of sorrow, a man intimately acquainted with grief. We don’t have to make ourselves rollicking and carefree to celebrate Christmas properly. We just have to watch for him, answer when he calls, pick up the pain and say hello.

He said it will be all right.

Roe v. Wade, and the lullabye my mother taught me

Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction. Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9

Confession: I’m not sure if I am reading all the dark stories on purpose, or if I am being unconsciously drawn to them because of where my heart is, or if I am walking with purpose through divine literary appointments.

It is difficult to write of abortion without being either gruesome or weepy. But if anyone has a right to try, it is Norma McCorvey. You may not know her by that name—she was called Jane Roe in the famous 1970’s legal case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in all fifty states.

She wrote I Am Roe in 1994 to celebrate abortion rights and to tell her life story, stripped of the lies on which her case was built. She wrote Won By Love only three years later, to recant her earlier beliefs and give glory to Jesus for healing and forgiving her.

I just read both. They are painful books, the first full of stories of abuse and despair, and the second uncovering the horrors of the pro-choice world. But they also made things clearer to me.

  • They clarified both sides of the abortion issue—why people fight for this right, and why they fight against it.
  • They clarified my own commitment to the holiness of human life, from conception on—and my commitment to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
  • They even clarified my own childhood, and the memories I have of my mother’s concern about abortion.

Roe v. Wade was decided in the first months of my mom’s married life. In the late eighties and early nineties when the legal battle resurfaced, she listened to Tilly by Frank Peretti, with tears dripping off her face. And she taught her children to sing a song called Lullabye for the Unborn.

Reading Norma McCorvey’s story reminded me of the song, and so I searched for it. I found the lyrics, just as I remembered them, but what I really wanted was a link to someone performing the music. I could not find one anywhere online—and so I decided to sing it myself.

I was more frightened than I look.

I wanted to sing it without mistakes, but I couldn’t.

And I offer it because Mr. Johnson’s message is worth hearing, even 36 years after he wrote it, and because all babies deserve life.

This post contains affiliate links.

If you could say one thing to the frightened mother of an unborn child, what would it be?

Productive controversy

There’s no doubt about it: Mennonite bloggers are getting braver. Ooh, and this is a good thing, for voices to be found and viewpoints to be expressed.

It does have its issues.

I read three articles in the past couple of weeks, by three of them—

(Don’t you love the lumping all-conclusiveness of “them”? As though they are one of a kind?)

Correction: I read three articles by three different bloggers in the past couple of weeks. Though their topics differed widely (from Anabaptist ministry to multi-level marketing), each presented a fairly pointed critique of a problematic situation. Each posted an appeal to a wide group of people. Each was brave, and well-worded, and raised important though controversial issues. Each was followed by quite a hubbub of agreement or disagreement.

Only one article was difficult for me to read. Though I agreed with many of its points, I found myself on the defensive throughout the article. Surprisingly or not, this one sparked the sharpest feedback, with numerous people objecting to the “attitude” of the writer while others found her “funny” and “spot-on.”

Hmm.

I am thinking about this now.

On social media, it’s so easy to slant the rules. For example, “My blog is my own space for airing whatever I wish to address.”

??

We never give that right to physical spaces, as if “in her house” or “in his pulpit” or “on that street corner” a person may say anything, at any length, to anyone, without accountability…? I don’t think so.

However, I seldom question the “right” to speak, but the courtesy of the speaker.

What do you think? What makes it possible for you to hear a viewpoint you disagree with without becoming defensive in response? Does it have anything to do with the speaker? Does it have anything to do with your own heart?

Of course the same questions may be asked in any social group, not only online or in the media. Families, churches, and businesses all have to find ways of communicating differing opinions productively. How do we do this? What adjectives describe the kind of pushback people can actually hear and receive?

Personally, there are two things that (rightfully or no) put me on guard against the proponent of a viewpoint, especially online.

First is facelessness. If you are going to claim the right to speak, and particularly to criticize, it’s only fair that we can see you—your real face, your true name, something of your actual self. I may be too incautious here personally, having never been burned by masked gunmen or irate readers showing up at my physical-address-which-I-was-too-free-with-online. But I’m frustrated by the number of times I show up at someone’s site only to find no identifying information whatsoever. No real name, no photo, no history, nothing by which the writer could be caught hold of and taken to account.

Now—I’m Mennonite, right? Which means I don’t properly know you until we’ve discussed your grandfather, your older sister who went to Bible school with my big brother, and the farmhouse you lived in as a child.

But isn’t there a happy medium between the two? Must we have full disclosure or… lurking? We are becoming a generation of eels, uncatchable, untraceable, slipping in and out of deliberately blurred backgrounds. I think I understand our wish to escape our histories, to be known only as “ourselves,” but it’s simply not possible. (Nor is it the way to influence people and situations.) We can’t reinvent ourselves to suit. We have real lives, guys—with real faces, real ancestors, real problems.* Can we have them online too?

*(Sometimes the faces, the ancestors, and the problems are all the same thing. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

The second turnoff for me is ire*, though I have trouble with this one myself—biting my tongue until I HAVE HAD IT UP TO HERE WITH THESE IDIOTS AND NOW I’M GOING TO SPEAK UP. This doesn’t work, does it? It only makes your listeners raise their shields. And then their swords.

*(The definition is worth clicking on!)

If the explosion approach isn’t successful in real life, with collegues or church families or close friends, it’s not going to work in the cyberworld either. Oh yes, I have the right to speak! but depending on the tone I choose I may find no one to listen. (And then it’s fun to label them “intolerant” of “a valid viewpoint no one is willing to consider!”—but could it possibly be my method?)

It’s so easy to demand a respect for myself and my position that I am unwilling to extend to others and their ways. If I am so passionate as to pour ire on those who disagree with me (cynicism, belittling, blame throwing), I need to take a deep breath and a large chill pill before putting the world through what I have to say.

(Shari Zook, take note.)

I like to hear different opinions. I like when they are well said, when they are respectful, when they are meaty. I don’t even quite believe all our words have to be “kind.” The last time I checked, Jesus’ flaming epithets of “whited sepulchres” and “dead men’s bones” probably had the emotional effect of a punch—though I am not so wise and good as He is, by a long mile. Truth in love is at times sharp-shooting and intense, but there’s a long stretch between cowardly and brutal. Can we permit others the space to disagree with us without making them feel like utter nincompoops?

What makes controversy meaningful? productive? good? What pushes you to engage with a speaker or writer you disagree with?

*****

Your turn! Here are the questions I asked above.

What do you think? What makes it possible for you to hear a viewpoint you disagree with without becoming defensive in response? Does it have anything to do with the speaker? Does it have anything to do with your own heart?

Families, churches, and businesses all have to find ways of communicating differing opinions productively. How do we do this? What adjectives describe the kind of pushback people can actually hear and receive?

What makes controversy meaningful? productive? good? What pushes you to engage with a speaker or writer you disagree with?