Thursday, October 20, 2011

Emotional Pain in My Left Big Toe

This week I nearly broke the big toe on my left foot and, in the process, was painfully reminded that pushing emotions inside you doesn’t make them go away. They are still there and may come out in unexpected ways. Here’s what happened:
I am the pastor of a church without a building. So we rent space from a local elementary school every Sunday. We rent the cafeteria for our worship service and the media center for our Sunday school and childcare
When I arrived on a recent Sunday morning, a group of people already was meeting in the media center which we had reserved and paid for. The maintenance worker, Bill (not his real name), approached me as I was looking in the media center wondering what was going on. Bill asked me if I would mind using other rooms this morning for our childcare and Sunday school. I was not inclined to since we had paid for and reserved the media center. The media center is the location our regular attenders expect and it is the most visible place for childcare, which is important for visitors.
Bill explained to me that this group had been meeting all weekend for some sort of continuing education. They had somehow come to believe that they had reserved this space and had a right to be there. The previous evening when one of Bill’s coworkers had asked them to move, a conversation had ensued that involved a considerable increase in volume and intensity but, in the end, did not result in the group's moving. I think you get the picture.
You need to know that I used to be the sort of person who could be intimidated into backing down in a situation like this. Having worked on that weakness over the years, I am not so any more. But at this point, friendship and expediency came into play. It was Sunday morning and our worship service started in less than 90 minutes, so I didn’t have time for a 20-minute conversation to work slowly through whatever was going on. Also, Bill asked me if, because there had already been a big “thing” the night before, I would mind just using a couple of other rooms this morning. Bill is a friend who is flexible with and supportive of our ministry.
So, between the timing involved and Bill’s request, I let it go and moved on. Or so I thought.
Because I snore, I often end up sleeping in a Murphy bed in my office. Such was the case Sunday night. The bed is very low to the ground and there is only a few inches of clearance between the bed and a very sturdy blanket chest to one side of it.
I had a dream early Monday morning that was more than likely my brain continuing to process Sunday morning’s incident — and very nearly resulted in a broken toe.
I was skiing on very short German skis. (Remember, dreams are weird, right?) One of the ski resort employees was on at the bottom of the slope next to me and told me I could not ski on those skis. It seemed quite clear to me that he was really just trying to get me out of their resort. But instead of giving in, I began to argue with him. “There are people on French skis. There are people on snowboards. Why is it just my skis that aren’t allowed on the slopes?” He was not backing down and expected me to do what he said simply because he was the authority. I was not interested in backing down simply because he was the authority so, in the middle of the lodge (we were now inside) packed with people, I yelled, “Who thinks I should be allowed to ski here on my German skis?” Every person raised their hand. That’s when the ski resort employee got so mad he tried to attack me physically.
I’m no fighter, but I have studied a bit of martial arts. When he tried to hit me, I defended myself by kicking him with my left foot. A slight side kick, knee up first then snap the lower leg. Perfectly executed, it did the job.
I don’t know if you have experienced this phenomenon, but sometimes there is a direct correspondence between dream actions and real actions. Many people have had dreams of falling only to wake up and realize they have rolled out of their beds.
In my case, evidently I was sleeping on my side because as I kicked my attacker in my dream, I kicked the blanket chest in real life… hard. I woke up instantly with excruciating pain in the big toe on my left foot. I am now writing on the fourth day from this episode and it still hurts. I feel quite fortunate that I didn’t break my toe.

The moral of the story is simply this: your feelings don’t go away just because you stuff them inside.
Certainly there are times when expediency may trump resolution in the short term. I would make the same decision if I could go back and do it again. And you don’t need to bring up everything with everybody. Often we can just overlook minor offenses. The Bible tells us that is a wonderful thing to do. (Proverbs 11:19)
But if you keep thinking about some incident or relationship, then you need to seek resolution in some way (and that’s a whole subject on its own) rather than just stuffing your feelings inside because, let me tell you, the feelings you have shoved down can surface later in painful ways!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Marriage and the Art of Water Heater Maintenance

I was sitting down this morning to figure out what to feed the blog-monster this week. It was like pulling teeth. I had even descended to the point where I was thinking about pulling out something old and just posting it.

Then my neighbor Peter (not his real name) knocked on the door.

Peter wanted me to help him drain and clean his water heater. Florida water is very hard and carries sediment, so it’s a good idea to drain your water heater every six months or so to clean out the sediment. Peter had seen me draining my water heater a few weeks ago. He asked me what I was doing and I explained it to him, offering to walk him through the process if he ever wanted some help.

Normally, this is an easy 20-minute deal.  Turn the power off. Turn the water supply off. Open the pressure release valve. Drain the tank using the spigot near the base of the water heater. Turn the water supply on and let the tank flush for a few minutes. Close everything up and refill the water heater, bleeding the air out of the tank by way of the pressure release valve.

As I mentioned, normally it’s pretty easy. So I said, “Let’s just do it now,” and walked over to his house.

My wife and I are friends with the couple that lived in the house before Peter. They hadn’t drained their water heater in the six years they lived there. Peter moved in with his wife three years ago and this is the first time he’d done it. So the water heater was neglected for nine years.

The procedure started off in the standard way. As we drained the water heater we saw quite a bit of sand and small calcium pebbles rolling out of the end of the hose. Then the flow stopped. It was totally blocked by silt, sand and calcium fragments. After two-and-a-half hours of digging in the drain with a wire, getting squirted several times as the pressure burst through each new dam, and seeing calcium chunks the size of human teeth coming out of his water heater, we finally got it to flow free and clear.

In the throes of our adventure, I had this thought: marriages are a little bit like water heaters. (For real. I’m not making this up. I even talked to Peter about it.)

Peter’s water heater was functioning fine from the standpoint of his family’s having hot water. There really wasn’t any easily discernable indication that necessary maintenance was being neglected and trouble was piling up unseen. But it was.

Marriages are like that. Two people are attracted to each other and get married. The initial marriage attraction can carry you forward for quite a while. The marriage can endure busy lives and some neglect. But the trouble builds up unseen in the quiet places inside each person.

When I do my six-month flush on my water heater, it is easy. I know what to expect. I know about how long it will take.

Marriages that have been tended experience the same relative ease when things get difficult… when the marriage needs a little “flush” so to speak. Both parties know they’ve hit a little bump to work through and it will be fine in a while and likely even better than it was before the bump was discovered.

In marriages with no maintenance — marriages where the husband and wife just let the crud build up inside rather than talking through it — when the time finally comes for some work, it is a major ordeal.

Let me tell you, there was more than once when I wanted to tell Peter that his water heater was a lost cause. Just close up the valve, use it ‘till it croaks, then buy a new one. Every time Peter and I thought we had the water heater cleared out, the drain clogged again with more silt or an even bigger chunk of calcium. “Will this ever end?” and “Is this really worth it?” crossed my mind more than once.

Neglected marriages can be like that. If your marriage has been neglected, it can be a daunting task to think about even getting things cleaned up so both of you are peaceful and happy in your marriage. Overwhelming, really, because by the time you realize that you have neglected your marriage, you often cannot conceive of things being happy and peaceful again. You either think, “This is just the way my life is going to be,” or, “Just let it die.”

But Peter and I persevered. Every time the drain got blocked, we took off the hose (and sometimes took the valve apart), cleared it, and started to flush again until we hit another block. Eventually the process was done and his water heater was clean.

Marriages absolutely can be fixed if both people want the marriage to work. Sometimes even if only one person wants the marriage to work as the cleaning starts. If your marriage has been long-neglected and you are sharing a house instead of a life, the sooner you start the process of digging out the crud, the less crud you will find. And the sooner you will have done all the major cleanup. The key is to start on the road of a healthy marriage and then just keep on keepin’ on. One day you may look back and say, “Holy cow, I’m actually happy in this marriage!”

If you think your marriage is doing fine, don’t neglect the periodic maintenance. You must talk. My wife and I have coffee together every morning. It’s only three to five minutes, and sometimes we talk while our 4-year-old is using one of us as a jungle gym, but even that daily maintenance time makes a huge difference. We have a short devotion. We talk about whatever is going on with each of us. We usually laugh about something. And we pray together. We rarely have to have “big” conversations because we have so many little conversations. And when it’s time for a “big” conversation, we are already in the habit of talking about “stuff” so the “big” conversations come easier.

Go out together. Talk about your own lives, not just your kids. You might even consider adding an annual appointment with a marriage counselor or a marriage retreat as part of your maintenance plan.

Verily, verily, I say unto thee: If you are married, the work will come whether you like it or not. You are two broken people trying to make a life together. Your choice is whether it’s going to be regular light maintenance, a major overhaul, or simply picking up the broken pieces.

As a pastor, I feel compelled to end this article with a reminder of God’s grace. Things crash. We make stupid decisions. We react out of fear. We are not in control of all the factors affecting our marriage, least of all our spouses. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works so that no one can boast.
When a woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus to be stoned according to the law, he lifted her up and said, “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.” If you are reading this and realizing that things need to change, know that you have God’s forgiveness and love. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, He is not counting your sins against you. While you often cannot avoid the earthly consequences of decisions you regret, you need to know that even in those times God looks on you as a loving father looks on his dear children, desiring the very best for you in every moment.