Love That Changes

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I think there must be no finer earthly blessing than to enter the autumn of life with good health and the spouse of your youth still your lover and best friend. Such is my joy. With our nest emptied and most of those volatile issues that could ignite week-long conflicts finally resolved (or at least negotiated), there is a pleasant peacefulness in our home - a home whose structure as well as atmosphere Peggy is largely responsible for creating. There is no one on earth with whom I would rather spend my time than Peggy. I do not like being apart from her for very long. When I do have to spend nights away, I always call at day's end to catch up on the day's activities and exchange good night "I love you's." Our love is very different from the way it started out. The passion of our courtship and honeymoon days is now a distant memory. The pressures of career building and child rearing soon consumed our best energies and left us with precious little time for each other. And then there was the emotional toll of value clashing, patience testing, head-butting, and trust breaking that stripped away most of the romantic ideals of the perfect marriage we knew we were going to have. Yet, over the years we negotiated our roles and made countless compromises, and learned more about each other from each other than we might have wished. And in the process we forged a friendship and mutual appreciation grounded in reality rather than fantasy.

Every once in a while the strains of an old song or the sight of a scrapbook picture will trigger a powerful rush of romantic emotions that have lain dormant somewhere in the archives of my memory. But there is no way to sustain the intensity. The tingling sensations of youthful infatuation have given way to a different kind of love, a love based in a deep knowing of the soul of another.

Peggy and I take frequent evening walks around the neighborhood. Sometimes we hold hands, especially when we are feeling particularly close or nostalgic. I have noticed, however, that we no longer seem to feel the need to fill each moment with conversation. When we walk or travel or simply sit in the living room there are often long periods of silence when we exchange not a word. Unlike the "silent treatment" (those severe silences that we inflicted upon each other with painful intent), our long quietnesses these days are more a reflection of security and ease in our relationship.

I have discovered, with some uneasiness, that my relationship with God has over time followed a similar pattern. Perhaps this should not be surprising since scripture in many places likens the Divine-human experience to marriage, even describing us as the bride of Christ. The ecstasy of those early days when my relationship with God was young, when my passion to experience His fullness propelled me to consume His word, when I confidently asked Him to grant the most trivial desires of my heart (some that in retrospect were embarrassingly self-serving) - those were days of fervent spiritual aliveness. Each new insight was a personal revelation from the Spirit that ignited and re-ignited my zeal to serve God with every fiber of my being.

But apparently this kind of intensity was not sustainable over time. Mountain top highs became less frequent and familiarity stole away some of the magic. And there were foundation-shaking disappointments when God seemed to change the rules without notice, when promises I was counting on were not fulfilled, when prayers I made in faith were not answered. A blissful honeymoon eventually gave way to a turbulent testing time filled as much with anger as affection, as much with disillusionment as trust. I longed - prayed diligently - to return to the simplicity and innocence of the early romance but there was no going back. Through long periods of confusion and rebellion I struggled, dark valleys where I learned that I could not manipulate this God who I loved but sometimes did not like.

It has been nearly fifty years since I first encountered God in a personal way and, like my marriage to Peggy, this relationship has undergone substantial changes. I find that there are lengthening periods of silence, sometimes disquieting but often comfortable, when neither of us speaks. Much of the structured communication, that has often felt more like a discipline than a dialogue, has given way to an on-going daily conversation, more like an awareness of presence than a scheduled appointment. I ask less of God these days, realizing that I often do not know what is in my own best interests (or that of others) but, conversely, I expect more of Him as I learn how actively and intimately He is involved in all of His creation. My appreciation for the wonder and mystery of God has deepened, replacing my need to understand just how He will act. My trust lies less in my knowledge of scripture and theology than in the security that He is good.

I think I understand why explorers down through the centuries searched the world over for the elusive fountain of youth. This quest is about more than merely adding years to one's lifespan. It is about recapturing the passions and intensities of youth. I have seen rational businessmen lean and tan their bodies, buy expensive toys, even abandon successful careers to experience once more the flush and tingle of young love. I have seen seemingly mature adults trade in a lifetime of relationships for the alluring power of that emotional rush. I have concluded, however, that there is a more satisfying course. I will gladly choose the deep security of love refined by life's testing fires, even though its sizzle may be somewhat diminished, over the thrill of untested intimacy. And as for my relationship with God, though my spiritual life stirs my physical sensations far less frequently these days, it is more than sufficient to be known deeply and accepted completely by One who loves me without condition.

P.S. Philip Yancey's candor and transparency in his new book Reaching for the Invisible God inspired the preceding reflections. I commend it to you.

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