For Better, or for the Better
Matthew Battiato stood pensively in front of the large congregation at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. As the familiar song started playing and the people rose, the doors swung open in the back of church. Suddenly, his countenance weakened, and he began to cry. Standing arm in arm with her father, Kelly Lehman, the love of his life, began to slowly walk toward him. Years prior, having met on the campus of Ball State University, the courtship began and matured. Then, one day Matt boldly proposed to her in front of his to-be extended family on the back deck at her grandparent’s home, where Kelly had spent countless hours growing from a gregarious little girl to a grown woman. A year or so later, the two would be united in holy matrimony at the place where she had been baptized decades before.
As I stood there watching the scene unfold, I couldn’t help but immerse myself in what was unfolding. Just over two decades prior, I was standing where Matt was, in the very same church, watching in awe as my bride-to-be walked up the aisle toward me. I remember being overwhelmed by the moment, when a sea of people parted and all I could see was her beautiful face gleaming as her beloved late father passed her on to me. As I stood in the pews, two decades removed from this timeless, surreal day, I wondered just what Matt and Kelly’s course would look like over their next 20 years.
No doubt most of us would love to regularly recapture the utter joy and excitement experienced on that wedding day. But like any good love story, just as the wedding vows profess, the reality of marriage and any committed relationship is one of ups and downs, joys and tribulations, regressions and growth. Some of the trials are intricately linked to the circumstances that follow that blessed day of marriage, whether it be illnesses, loss of job or close family members, financial hardships, or any other factor. But some of the challenges are inherent in the relationship itself, as two different people, fully committed and in love, start to understand what it means to live and raise a family together. Oftentimes, personal dissimilarities that seemed just a little annoying or even endearing prior to the commitment can gradually become perpetual challenges that are magnified by the demands that children, work, and life bring. Simply put, it is our closest relationships that expose us for who we really are, even painfully so, and force us to consider just who we are being asked to be.
One of the most shocking lines of the New Testament is when Jesus uttered the following, “You think I have come to bring about peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three…” For all that we have been taught regard Jesus’s desire to unify and redeem humanity, this particular passage seems to stand in stark contrast to what we would expect. Yet, as I have reflected on the teachings of this passage over many years, it seems that one of the keys in understanding this lies in the nature of our close relationships.
For most romantic attachments, the early stages are filled with initial attraction, curiosity, interest, and infatuation. Although experts and laypersons can often be critical of these early stages, as if the couple is blind to obvious differences and incompatibilities, the reality is that it appeared God designed these realities to be binding for a greater purpose that would only later unfold. For most of us, if we are truly honest, had we fully perceived all the stark realities that would later come as part of a committed life together, there may have been a hesitancy to move forward as had occurred. But, as the world not only depends on this course for its survival and search for meaning, we also see that God depends on this pathway as a clear mechanism (of opportunity) to bring people closer to Him. Again, it is within our close relationships, in ways that are rarely available in any other aspect of our lives, that we are called to a greater wholeness, a greater expression, of His image and likeness for us.
At times, in our own homes, we may be divided in ways that often are unsettling, that we would rather avoid or just dispel. Certainly, not every situation of division is a primer for spiritual growth, but with our significant others especially, we are repeatedly given an opportunity to be a better, more whole person, even if it is contrary to our desires. While opportunities for growth are available through many different avenues, there is something about being so intimately and closely connected to an individual that makes it difficult to simply sidestep or ignore these possibilities. It is why I believe that God designed relationships to evolve in a way that binding often occurs well before full ascertainment of the challenges, and potential for growth, that will later come. It is almost as if God knew his people well enough to know that if it happened in the opposite order, his people and his planet would be threatened in ways that are both obvious and hard to understand.
In my own life, I have seen this come to fruition in multiple ways, but I will use one very specific example that has dominated much of the past 15 years. As a first born male, and the oldest of almost 40 first cousins, it’s fair to say that I embody many of the characteristics associated with this position. People who know me would likely say that I am structured (or at times, rigid), driven (or stubborn), reliable (hopefully), have a desire to achieve, and am generally conscientious. Although I don’t always love the leadership role, it “feels” like where I should be. And yet, over the last many years, I have been challenged in a way that contradicts the natural ways in which I feel most comfortable, and exposes my weaknesses. Prior to committing to marriage, it was because of my wife, Amy, that I pledged to a degree of openness to life that frankly was not in my original plans. Little did I know that 14 years and 8 kids later, I would be challenged to grow as a caregiver in ways I am sometimes reluctant, or even resent. In essence, through the gift of our relationship and our children, I am being called to be more whole. For all the ways that the world could have influenced me, and pushed me to grow, it simply would not have led to me to consider a particular pathway that our marriage, and my subsequent relationships with our kids, have created for me. For Amy and me both, it is the differences that we embody, in heart, mind, and soul, that have become the greatest agent of change for each other.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that each of us abandon the particular gifts and skills we have been given, and assume a role based simply on where others think we should be. But rather, I am suggesting that the nature of close relationships was specifically designed to help us embrace a fullness of life, a truer sense of self-actualization, which would not have otherwise been possible if those with whom we married and lived simply shared our personality, our disposition, and our perspective. Being around those who agree and concur with you is obviously the most comfortable, and often the most the enjoyable. But it is being with those who challenge you, even when he or she is your spouse, that you can truly see doorways opening to a dimension of life previously not seen. The question is, do we go where the door has been opened?
Twenty years ago, standing in front of the altar, I knew that faith was going to be a critical component in our marriage. I understood that in order to weather the storms and remain resilient to the challenges of life, keeping God in the center, in whatever ways this was meant, was necessary to love and live how we desired. But what I didn’t know, but have increasingly learned over the past two decades, is that it would be our differences, our division, which would spur some of the greatest opportunities for growth not just in our marriage, but for each of us personally. When I think of Jesus bringing division, I first and foremost think of this. While warring nations and divisive communities may clash over ideologies and practicalities that seem at odds, each in hopes of positive change, it is in the daily, intimate moments of our lives, with those who know us best, that the greatest opportunities for change in this world exists. In what may seem like a “battle of wills”, both towards each other and inward, we are confronted with the acute realization that there is always room to grow. As Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Well, that is until he comes home.