I didn’t see it when it first came out on February 27, but on Sunday morning, March 12, just before I left for church, a friend posted on Facebook an article from Inc. magazine entitled, “This 75-Year Harvard Study Found the 1 Secret to Leading a Fulfilling Life.” The title grabbed my attention: 75 years is a loooong study; and, that the “secret” to a fulfilling life all came down to one thing, proved too much to resist! Not only that, but I was heading toward a gathering that generally attempts to help people find fulfillment in life. So, I took a moment to read through the article.
I won’t bother recapping the whole thing, here is a link. I’ll just reveal the secret: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” To read that conclusion, and the way the rest of the article fleshed that out, confirmed for me something I had been leaning toward for a long time. However, to read that conclusion, and some of the other specific observations related to it, on that particular morning brought a little puddling to my eyes and a lump to my throat.
I had been struggling all week with the passage I had chosen for that Sunday. I’ve been working through the Gospel according to Mark since Advent, in December. That particular week in March, I had intentionally chosen a passage that scared the hell out of me to preach. I do this to myself every series I preach – I pick several passages in the book that confuse me, worry me, even anger me. In this particular passage, Mark 10:1-12, some Pharisees confront Jesus on his understanding of the “lawfulness” of divorce. Specifically, they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
I’ve been preaching pretty much every Sunday for over twenty years. I’ve written pretty close to 1,000 sermons from scratch. Still, realizing that the topic for the sermon would be on marriage and divorce felt a bit like stepping on a land mine. Not one that blows up on contact. One that you step on and hear the “click”; but it doesn’t blow up until you move. So you know, if you move, even the slightest bit, in any direction, you’re done! That’s what I felt like at the beginning of the week.
But what caught my attention as I spent more time with the text was what Jesus did with the question. He never answered it directly. Instead, he pushed them back to the beginning of things. It’s almost as if he said to them, “Simply asking that question, and the way you phrased it, reveals how far off the path you’ve wandered. You need to try to get back to the very start and try again.” So Jesus refers them to Genesis. Specifically he quotes the passage that “the two shall become one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no human separate.” The point being that marriage is far more than a legal document, it is a deeply intimate relationship sealed with a covenant. Going back even one step further, this type of relationship was established by God because, “Human beings are not good on their own.” We have been created for community – intimate, loving community. We have been created in the image of God who is community in essence, Father/Mother, Son, and Holy Spirit – the Trinity.
Yet, as significant as is the covenant relationship of marriage, it is not the only covenant relationship in the scriptures. God enters into a covenant relationship with Abram and Sara early on. He will be “their God,” and they will be “His people.” This covenant is extended to all Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. They become the “covenant people of God.” In numerous passages throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, this covenant people are even referred to as “the bride” of God, such is the depth of intimacy and communion. Jesus says the same of the church of his followers; we are “the bride of Christ.”
Consequently, in this life, marriage is a significant model for intimate community, but it is not – and cannot be – the only one. Jesus never married. Was Jesus a lesser human being because he didn’t? No. Conversely, in 1 Corinthians, chapter 7, Paul pretty much looks down on marriage in general. He grants that those who just can’t get by without having sex should go ahead and get married; but it would be better (in his mind) if they could be as “self-controlled” as he is. Does that mean that marriage makes a person a lesser human being? No. The ultimate goal for all of us is to love God with all our heart, mind and strength and to love others as ourselves, in whatever relationships to which we belong. But in order for all humans to be able to experience the type of relationship that brings life, there must be something other than marriage that makes it possible.
As I wrestled with all of these thoughts and more, both those that won out and those I tossed, I realized: on one hand, marriage proves to be one profound answer from God for our human need of intimate relationship; on the other hand, marriage is not the only answer to fulfilling that need. As I came to the end of writing my sermon that Friday, I felt at least one other significant answer to our profound need should come from the congregations of followers of Christ. Specifically, I wrote: “The quality of community within Christian congregations ought to be such that every person feels known, loved and secure – single, married, divorced, widowed – ALL should feel known, loved and secure.”
When I wrote that on Friday, to be honest, I wondered if I was putting too much responsibility onto the quality of community within congregations. By Sunday morning, reviewing my sermon before heading into church, I still felt uncertain. Then a friend posted the article on the 75-year Harvard study that found the one secret to leading a fulfilling life. And not only did the authors of the study write that, ” … the clearest message … is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” I also read the following conclusions:
It doesn’t matter whether you have a huge group of friends and go out every weekend or if you’re in a “perfect” romantic relationship (as if those exist). It’s the quality of the relationships – how much vulnerability and depth exists within them; how safe you feel sharing with one another; the extent to which you can relax and be seen for who you truly are, and truly see another.
As I read those words, I almost started crying. For two reasons: 1) Relief! I rarely know for sure whether what I’m saying really conveys truth. Reading the article allowed me some sense of reassurance. 2) I realized that I have been fortunate enough to be a part of a congregation that provides this type of community for those who have gathered together in it.
I know it’s hard to get to church on Sunday mornings. I also know that far too few congregations provide the type of community where all are known, loved and secure. But I also know how vital it is for all of us to be a part of something so life-giving. If you do feel known, loved and secure in your congregation, cherish every moment with that community and invite others to be a part of it. If you do not experience that quality of community within your congregation, be a part of the change that makes that happen, even if you create it with only two or three others. And if you find yourself longing for a community that might help you experience love and care in greater ways, I imagine somewhere fairly nearby at least a handful of folks are gathering every Sunday morning hoping for the same thing.