"There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage."
--Martin Luther

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

On Anticipation

I've been feeling the February blahs lately.  It just seems like life is bland lately.  Am I the only one?  Maybe it's the long wait until spring, or the weird weather we've been having...

I realized something strange the other day.  When I worked in an office, my life was often hectic and stressful, but I always had something to look forward to.  I worked 8 hours a day and looked forward to the weekends.  Additionally, there was always a long weekend some time off, or a vacation in the works, or Gil's next visit, and I would set my eye on that.  "Just two weeks until Victoria Day."  "Only a month until I go to Florida."  It wasn't just me; everyone did it.  I wondered sometimes whether it wasn't somewhat unhealthy, to spend a lot of your time waiting for the future.  Now that I have a less stressful lifestyle, however, I actually *miss* having those dates in the future to anticipate.  I don't normally work Mondays, so most long weekends are not a big deal, and since Gil works so many weekends, I often find them boring.  It's so hard to get my husband into the mode of vacation planning, so we don't have anything like that upcoming either. 

Is it weird that I feel this way, like a more stressful life with anticipation may be preferable to a calmer life with less anticipation?  Is it Biblical?  The Bible does tell us not to worry about tomorrow, but it also says to look forward to our life in Heaven.  Hmmm...  What do you think?  And what are you looking forward to, these days?

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Meaning of Marriage, Part II

Welcome back! I'm discussing the book The Meaning of Marriage, and because it was such a meaty read, I've divided my thoughts into two posts. You can read Part I here.

I took a lot out of the book, but the most important lesson for me was taming selfishness. This was a lesson that kept coming back to me through the chapters. Keller starts out by explaining what marriage is at its heart: Mutual sacrifice and mutual fulfillment. Marriage is not a relationship where I get whatever I want, but rather it should refine my character so that as I give to my spouse, I am more satisfied with what I am getting out of it. If I focus on my own fulfillment, and Gil focuses on his, then we will ultimately miss out on seeing each other fulfilled through our mutual efforts.

The Kellers say that marriage is about helping one another become the person God has in mind for us. When we commit to love one another, we are committing not to feel warm thoughts about each other, but to help each other become the best person they can be. It's about getting excited about what God can do in our lives. Jesus is our truest friend, who walks by us even when we're at our worst, and who is committed to our sanctification. I need to be like that for my husband. And when I do that for him, I become a better person myself.

With this in mind, I have to be honest about my own selfishness. Keller reminds us that humans are often blind to their own self-centredness, justifying it for a million different reasons, but are over-sensitive to the self-centredness of others. When you get married, you are suddenly more involved in your spouse's life than before, and see them at their worst, so their flaws and self-absorption are more evident than before. So you start to say, “My husband/wife is soooo selfish! How did I never realize this?” Because this is a consumer society where people tend to want to get their “money's worth”, when I realize my spouse is more self-centred than I previously thought, my immediate response is to pull back and put less into the relationship. After all, why should I put so much effort into the relationship if he isn't trying hard enough?! Of course, when I pull back, my spouse sees that he is now getting less out of the relationship than before, so he pulls back as well. We become more and more dissatisfied with the marriage. That doesn't necessarily mean divorce; we might instead might put our efforts into other things that we find satisfying: our careers, hobbies, children, friendships. Overall, however, our marriage (and our growth) will suffer.

See, he's pretty unselfish, giving me his jacket and all...
The answer to this problem is to take our own selfishness more seriously. In fact, Keller says that each of us needs to, “see your own selfishness as a fundamental problem and treat it more seriously than your spouse's” (p. 64). Why is my selfishness worse than Gil's? Because it's the only thing that I can change. If I go up to my husband with a list of all the ways he has been selfish, that will probably lead to an argument, and he will be tempted to tell me all of my own flaws. Of course, there is room in marriage for loving critique, but saying “You're so selfish!” rarely ends well. Honestly, reading these chapters was a bit of a slap upside the head for me. I was really challenged to see places where even in serving my husband, I was motivated by my own wants and needs. I've been earnestly praying that God reveal my selfishness to me and help me to change it.

Have any of you read The Meaning of Marriage? What did you think of it? Did it impact your marriage? I'd love to hear your impressions.

Also, stay tuned for the next installment of this series, in April-ish, when I will post about The Five Love Languages.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Marriage Reading: The Meaning of Marriage

A while back, I shared my intention to read through six marriage-related books this year and post my impressions. The first book I read was The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy and Kathy Keller. My intention with this post and tomorrow's is not to write a book review, but rather to write what I learned from my reading. There are some topics that I haven't discussed at all, including the chapters on “sex and marriage” and “singleness”. That's not because they weren't interesting, but so that I won't recap the entire book instead of encouraging you to read it yourself!

My overall opinion of The Meaning of Marriage is as follows: Read this book. Now. This was a fantastic read, both challenging and encouraging. I took so many notes that it's been difficult summing up my thoughts in a blog post or two. I loved that this book was solidly biblically-based, as well as relying on the experiences of the Kellers' 30-year marriage and many years of pastoring churches.

Some Interesting Points
One thing that stood out was how Keller often discussed what the Bible says marriage should be in comparison to what our culture says about it AND what the traditional views about it. Christians in North America are often seen as being traditional and conservative, and Keller pointed out in several places that traditional is not the same as biblical. For example, when he discussed singleness, he noted that our culture's view of dating is neither biblical nor healthy, especially in our search for a “soul mate” who will complete our lives. He also, however, said that courtship, as practiced in some conservative circles, is not inherently more biblical (because the Bible doesn't tell us instructions on how to find a spouse), nor is it practical for many people.

The book challenged my expectations for marriage. Keller says that in most of human history, marriage was about stability and provision for the future, rather than love (although of course you did hope to get along with your spouse); religion and culture provided a broader idea of what was meaningful in life. Nowadays, many people are skeptical of religion or are not meaningfully engaged in religious practice. This means we can end up looking to our relationships to give our lives meaning, and that is a whole lot of expectation to put on one person. I asked myself several times during the book whether I have been expecting Gil to make me feel fulfilled and happy.

Keller also says that marriage puts love in a framework, makes it binding. So many people ask why marriage is any different than dating or living together. Does it really change the relationship? Keller says that because marriage puts a framework around your relationship, we can truly be intimate and vulnerable. Otherwise, we will be afraid to scare the other person away. So while many see a framework or a binding commitment as oppressive, it is really what allows your love to be free.

Kathy Keller wrote a chapter about submission, which I won't discuss at length as I've talked about submission before. I especially liked her point that submission isn't about traditional gender roles, and in fact rules on the division of household chores are not found in the Bible. While the man is the head of the household, the expression of that is for the couple to determine. I was so glad that she made this point, as it drives me batty when people reduce submission to doing the household chores.

Marriage and the Gospel
One of the book's main points was how marriage is a reflection of the gospel. I've heard this before, but hadn't thought it through that much. Keller says that the gospel can help me understand my marriage, but that marriage can also help me to understand the gospel. I wrote above that in a healthy marriage, I won't see Gil as the one who makes me happy. This goes a step further and says that if I understand the gospel and spend time with God, I'll be filled with His love, which I pass on to my husband. If, on the other hand, I only give love when I feel loved by Gil, and he does the same, then we will be in big trouble when hard or stressful times come, and one or both of us is not able to give love in the same way as before. The gospel also shows me that I am flawed, yet God loves me and accepts me. Knowing that, I can accept that my husband is flawed; I can love him when he's not being particularly loving, because God did that for me. (See Romans 5:6-7)

Keller talks about the three powers in marriage: Truth, Love, and Grace. We have the power of telling the truth about each other: because we see so much of our spouse, we are best able to point out their flaws. This helps us grow. The love of a spouse has the power to “reprogram” us, to make us feel accepted despite all the rejections we've faced in the past. We need to learn our spouse's “love language” to do that the best. This love helps us to face the truth mentioned above, or as Keller says: “We need to feel so loved by our partners that when they criticize us, we have the security to admit our own faults.” (p. 163). The power of grace is forgiveness and repentance which we need so that truth and love can mix. This is essentially the Gospel: The truth about us (we are sinners) and the love of God for us can only be brought together by God's grace in sending Jesus to us so that we can be forgiven when we repent and trust Him. This is how God uses marriage to be a picture of the gospel.

Please come on back tomorrow to read the rest of my thoughts!

Friday, 15 February 2013

On Being an In-Law: Cultural Considerations

This is a continuation of my thoughts from last week. I wrote about my struggle to feel connected with a new family, especially one so far away. My in-laws are not only on the other side of the globe, but they are of a different culture and speak another language, which adds to my stress about being a good daughter-in-law. I know that no matter what I do, I will never look or sound like part of the family, or maybe even know how to be part of it.

Eating dim sum before my wedding

Family ties are very important in Asia, as are social customs and roles. In the Chinese custom, there are specific names for everyone in the family; for example, cousins have different titles based on whether they're on your father's or mother's side, and whether they are younger or older than you; it's often considered rude to call aunts and cousins by their first names. For an outsider, these customs can be difficult to learn. Attendance at family get-togethers can be a non-negotiable. In our case, being here in Canada gets us off the hook for some of the filial responsibilities, but I sometimes feel stressed because I don't know if I'm messing up without even realizing it, missing opportunities to call and congratulate on holidays I didn't know existed.

It is said that women are the bearers of culture. Because women tend to spend more time with children, they are typically the ones that teach language and tradition to the next generation. This comes into play with my marriage because Gil doesn't really care about traditions. For the past few years, I asked him whether he wanted me to buy something or do something for Chinese New Year, but he has never cared to celebrate it. He is, to paraphrase Dr. McCoy from Star Trek, “a doctor, not an anthropologist”. He pays little attention to traditions or cultural differences, so he rarely informs me of how our own traditions differ, and what my role should be in his family. For now that's not a big issue, but it may be harder when we have children. While our kids will be a typical Canadian mishmash of backgrounds, I don't want them to feel alien to their own family and culture.

Last year I read the book Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda. Though so much of the book is thought-provoking, I was particularly impacted by a scene in which an American woman and her Indian-born husband go to India to see his parents. She goes outside for a walk and comes back with half of a sandwich, which she leaves in the fridge. She has no idea that the meat in the sandwich is defiling the whole kitchen for her in-laws. Her husband gets angry, because she should have known that as the in-laws are strict vegetarians, they can't have any meat in the house. I was really moved by the scene, as it seemed like something that could happen to us. When you're from that culture, it probably makes sense that vegetarians = no meat in the whole house. Being from Canada, I would never expect an extreme reaction like tossing out all the defiled food. I would assume that at most, the in-laws may not appreciate meat in their fridge. Should the wife have known? Maybe, but it seemed to me that the husband had not adequately prepared her for his parents' culture and expectations, and I was surprisingly offended about it. The scene captured one of my biggest fears: That I would deeply offend my new family unknowingly.

This is a bit of a rambling entry, because I really don't have any answers. The number of Canadians invoved in inter-racial and/or inter-cultural marriages is rising rapidly, so there must be many of us in this situation. (See for example this and this.)  We can be thankful that, unlike the characters in the scene above, we have access to Google and can at least read up on our spouse's traditions; this is why I'm working so hard to learn Mandarin. Sometimes the most we can do, however, is extend grace to each other and to ourselves as we navigate a new world.

Are you in an inter-cultural marriage or relationship?  How do you try to bridge the cultural gap?

Friday, 8 February 2013

Thanks for Praying!

Thank you so much for your prayers! Almost all the flights to Montreal were cancelled today... But ours wasn't. We are now at the airport about to board. Moreover, God gave me such a strong sense of peace with not knowing, when ordinarily I would have been stressed about the uncertainty. Praise God!

Have a great weekend, friends!

Snow Day - Please Pray!

Hi friends,

Just a quick post today requesting you to pray for us.  We're in the midst of a huge snowstorm.  In general, I love snow, but tonight Gil and I are supposed to fly to Montreal then drive to Mont Tremblant to attend a conference.  I'm concerned that the flight will be cancelled, as there is even talk of closing a couple of the highways here in Toronto.  Please pray for God's hand on the situation.  Gil is supposed to speak at the conference tomorrow morning, and I was really looking forward to a weekend away in a winter wonderland.

Thanks for your prayers, and stay safe!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

On Being an In-Law

Lately, I've been thinking about in-laws, not only the in-laws that I now have, but also the in-law that I've become. “Awful in-laws” are one of the most commonly stereotyped aspects of married life. Sitcoms have produced a miriad of jokes about the prying mother-in-law. It's easy to think about the in-laws you're getting when you marry... but sometimes you forget that you're also becoming an in-law at the same time.

I've actually been an in-law for nearly nine years, since my step-sister's 2004 wedding, but this reality hit closest to home when my little brother got married last fall. My mom and I were very conscious that of our responsibility to welcome his bride into our family (although we'd already considered her family for years). I hosted a shower and tried to stick it out into the wee hours of the night for her full-day bachelorette festivities.

While I do think I'm a pretty good sister-in-law to my siblings' spouses, I don't feel the same about my performance as a daughter-in-law. In some senses, I've lucked out: My in-laws are in Asia and Australia, so there is no reasonable way for them to expect frequent visits or our attendance at Christmas dinner. They don't come by and critique our housekeeping because they've never been to our house. You could say that I have it super-easy, but on the other hand, it is so difficult to feel close to them. I only met my mother- and brother-in-law three days before our wedding, and I've never met (or even spoken to) my husband's dad and older sister. Even keeping in phone contact with Gil's mom is difficult as there is a signicant time difference and she is one busy woman!

All of this makes me feel discouraged. My husband's mother is a lovely woman and she does make an effort. This past fall she sent me a gorgeous jade bracelet, and recently she sent an envelope of photos from Gil's childhood. (Oh, how I wish I could post some here... but I'm pretty sure he'd be livid!) I'm often at a loss over what to do to show that I do care for them, and how to feel like they're part of my family. Write letters? Send maple syrup? (Yes, I'm kidding about the last one.)

On top of not knowing what to do, I struggle with feeling connected to people I barely know. Obviously, I love my husband, but he's not a person to reminisce about his childhood or discuss his family a lot, which makes them seem a bit like voices at the end of the phone or names on a greeting card. I'm assuming/hoping this distanced feeling is normal when you first marry into a family. It would be odd for me to feel as close to them as I do to my own family members, most of whom I've known my entire life. Still, it's difficult. I want to come to love these people, but it just takes time.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your suggestions! If you're married, how long did it take before you felt close to your in-laws? What kinds of things did you do to help you feel like part of the family? Just be aware that Gil's mom is not so into technology, so Skype is not an option for us.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

An Update on My Chinese Studies

I've mentioned it a few times on my blog, but in case you missed it, I have been taking Mandarin Chinese classes for the past year.  When I catch up with people in real life they often ask me how the classes are going, so I decided to post an update.

People ask me why on earth I would start learning Mandarin.  Isn't it hard?  Don't you have to learn characters?  My opinion is that of course it's not easy, but that's part of the fun!  I have always loved languages.  It's rare that I travel to a foreign country without buying at least a basic phrasebook and trying to use it.  I like the way we have so many ways to convey universal emotions and ideas.  I enjoy pondering the ways that distinctions in languages reflect the ways that different cultures perceive concepts.  I love meeting Christians from all over the world and knowing that even though God's Word sounds different to them than it does to me, it is the same Truth.

I first got interested in Mandarin when I lived with my friend C.  We were both language nerds, and would talk often about points of grammar and the similarity or dissimilarity of a word in different languages.  She spoke Mandarin, so she would teach me some terms, and I in turn taught her a little Russian.  From C, I learned to count to 10 in Mandarin, and my all time favourite Mandarin expression:  麻烦, (máfan) which means annoying, inconvenient, or troublesome. 

All of C's and my language-learning books and resources

When Gil and I started getting serious, I decided I would have to learn Mandarin.  His dad was a Mandarin teacher, and our niece and nephew in Asia speak Mandarin at home, so it makes sense for me to learn the language.  In addition, while I know I won't be able to bring our kids up bilingual Mandarin-English (or trilingual with German, which is my secret nerdy dream!), I'd like to be able to help them have some basic Mandarin skills.

Shortly after moving to Toronto, I decided to start Mandarin classes.  After all, I wasn't working, so why not fill the days with something useful.  My school specializes in small classes (usually with two or three students), so we get individual attention.  They also try to encourage us to use our skills by hosting Mandarin conversation time (which I rarely attend), and parties such as a Chinese New Year dumpling-making soiree, and a summer BBQ.  I love it!  There are students are literally from all around the world who have come to live here in Toronto:  I've met people from Germany, Russia, Korea, Hungary, Hong Kong, and Burundi.  I'm actually one of the very few native-born Canadians at the school.  It's a travel- and language-lovers dream.

Making dumplings (饺子) for Chinese New Year
Oh wait, I was supposed to update you on my progress...  :-P  I've been progressing pretty quickly.  When I started in late 2011, I knew a little conversational Mandarin from past studies, and could recognize a couple of characters.  I did about three months of strictly oral classes (using pinyin to write down vocabulary), and then last winter started learning to read and write characters.  In the spring, my teacher encouraged me to take a standardized test, and I thought she was crazy, but signed up anyway.  (I'm a glutton for punishment.)  It took a LOT of studying, but I passed the HSK Level 3 test last May and Level 4 in October.  I'm hoping to write Level 5 in the spring, along with an oral test, and have already started studying, as there is so much new vocabulary.

A lot of people have been surprised at how fast I've learned and have taken to writing Chinese characters.  While I do have a God-given knack for languages, I also want to stress that it's not easy.  I study a lot.  I have devoted hours and hours to writing out vocabulary and going through flashcards.  It's a lot of work... but I like it.  I can't wait to finally meet my niece and nephew and be able to talk to them in their mother tongue.  And if you're in the same boat as me, studying Mandarin or another language, I just want to encourage you to keep on persevering.  加油!