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Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Whitman "Mission" to the Oregon Country (1836-1847) by Chris White

St. Louis-Gateway to the Oregon Trail

How very few of us ever fully aware of the ramifications of our decisions on any given day.  Sometimes we have an inkling that a choice we have just made has altered the future (for better or worse) in some way, but rarely are the consequences of our choosing in clear view.  This is a story about the fateful choices of several people and how those choices converged in such a way as to shape American history.  The interesting thing is that a good deal of these choices were religiously motivated and yet the final outcome was largely secular in its impact.
Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea

The year is 1831. 25 years had passed since the Lewis and Clark expedition had traversed the American continent from St. Louis to what is now Astoria Oregon and back again, making contact with the many Native American tribes that inhabited the western frontier.  Although, the Oregon Trail was not yet in existence, the route from the east to the Oregon country and vice-versa  was by now well-known to the white man and Indian alike.  That summer, 4 Indians (likely of the Nez Perce tribe) arrive in St. Louis.  Their mission was to find out more about the ‘paleface religion’ having only heard of it in bits and pieces from traders and trappers and hopefully to find someone who will instruct them in Christianity.
Nez Perce

This single event spurred great interest among many Protestant circles east of the Mississippi river.  One such group was the Presbyterian church and their mission wing, The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM for the remainder of this article).  Within two years the ABCFM sent a representative named  Samuel Parker to the far west to survey the situation.  Rev. Parker returned with great enthusiasm about the potential of an outreach to the natives of the Oregon country and upon his return he tirelessly spoke in churches raising support and recruits for a future mission. 

Four people who were deeply moved by Rev. Parker’s talks about the Oregon country were Marcus Whitman, Narcissa Prentiss, Henry Spalding, and Eliza Hart.  Spalding and Prentiss were from New York, Whitman was from Massachusetts, but living in Wheeler New York working as a local physician, and Hart was from Connecticut.  Whitman and Prentiss both applied to ABCFM and were rejected.  Narcissa Prentiss was a school teacher and had a deep desire to go west but the mission was not accepting unmarried women at the time.  Whitman was initially rejected because he had no real theological training beyond attending church but was later accepted because his medical skills would be useful.  Henry Spalding was a seminarian who had once proposed marriage to Narcissa Prentiss but was rejected.  Eliza Hart was very interested in becoming a missionary and through the orchestration of a mutual friend became a pen-pal of Spalding for a year before accepting a marriage proposal from him.  In a similar turn of events a mutual friend put Marcus Whitman and Narcissa Prentiss in touch with one another and Marcus made an offer of marriage to Narcissa so that she could also join the ABCFM mission.  Initially it was a mission partnership but the Whitman’s fast became a marriage of love.
Marcus and Narcissa Whitman

The Whitman’s married in late winter of 1836 and left the day after their wedding for Missouri to join the expedition heading to the Oregon country.  There they met up with Henry and Eliza Spalding and though there had been some hard feelings because of Henry’s failed courtship with Narcissa, all had made the decision to put the past behind them for the sake of the future mission.  But, truth be told, in their case past was prologue and though the two couples even shared the same tent each night (or maybe because of it) by the time they crossed the Rockies tension were so high they decided to go their separate ways and not collaborate with one another.  This they did and in some ways it proved quite detrimental and in others proved to be a fruitful choice.
Pioneers on Oregon Trail

 This journey to Oregon for establishing a mission established something else at the same time.  It proved the feasibility of migration to the Pacific Northwest by an overland route instead of a long ocean journey.  By the time the Spaldings and Whitmans entered the Oregon country, they had completed several other firsts.  Narcissa and Eliza were the first women in recorded history to have crossed the Rocky mountains.  The Spaldings were the first white people to build a home in (present day) Idaho, and the Whitman’s were expecting a daughter who in a few months became the first Anglo-American girl born in the Oregon country.  How the Whitmans conceived little Alice Clarissa on a 2000 mile journey in a shared tent with Henry and Eliza Spalding seems almost a greater feat, but I digress.
Marker of the Historic Trek

When they parted ways, the Spauldings went to a bleak, mountainous region to set up their mission to the Nez Perce at Lapwai.  The Whitmans went to a verdant valley to set up their mission to the Cayuse at Waiilatpo (near present-day Walla-Walla Washington).  In something akin to the parting of Abraham and Lot in the Bible, it turns out the Whitmans (like Lot) became very sidetracked with the beauty and prosperity of their land and had much less impact on the Cayuse, while the Spauldings, though jealous of the Whitmans prosperity, never were sidetracked and ministered with great effectiveness to the Nez Perce.  In my opinion, neither family was well-equipped or guided by knowledgeable persons in this enterprise, which left them to operate on their own assumptions and western bias.  In part, the success of the Spaldings with the Nez Perce was in the tribe’s openness to outsiders.  The Cayuse had a propensity to treat outsiders with a lot of suspicion.
Spalding Mission at Lapwai

From the perspective of the 21st century, I don’t think there is anyone who would argue the case that any party, be they Christian missionaries or the American government, did a really great job with the aboriginal populace of North America.  I am not suggesting there were no pockets of excellence or people of good will in matters relating to the Indians, but for the most part ‘manifest destiny’ took precedence over human rights most of the time.  Without excusing (or for that matter expiating anyone’s sins) for what actually happened in the past,  I do want to explain the worldview of 19th century Protestant missions and how it played out in the respective missions of the Whitmans and Spaldings.

Christian missions in the 19th century operated on twin tracks of civilization and Christianization.  Western missionaries (from Europe and America) held the idea that Christianity flourishes best in a civilized culture and by culture they meant adopting western habits of living, thinking, and behaving.  Once a culture becomes civilized, then they will readily become Christian.  This didn’t mean that civilizing came first and then Christian preaching came after, but that both of these activities were the legitimate actions of Christian mission.

As well-intentioned as this may have seemed to the missionaries at the time, it was full of blind-spots and arrogance and eventually did much to slow down the spread of the Gospel.  Thankfully, the modern missionary has far more appreciation differing cultures and understands that God desires to meet people in the context of their culture rather than destroy their culture altogether so they can be Christians.  This is not to say that all cultures don’t have aspects which grieve the heart of God as sin.  But conversion of souls within a culture usually has a strong transformative effect.  And I am of the opinion that if God became human flesh in Christ (Jn. 1) to represent man in the plan of redemption, and all men (which includes women) of every culture are the objects of God’s saving grace, then the religion of Christ (Christianity) can be at home in every human culture.
As this touches on the Whitman and Spalding mission, both men and their wives arrived with little support or direction from the ABCFM and more or less just set out doing what they thought best.  Spalding, who was seminary trained built a modest compound and focused his efforts largely on evangelism.  Henry Spalding emphasized Christianizing the Nez Perce but also did some civilizing in the sense that he as the representative of the Lord would criticize and sometimes even punish the Indians for doing things against his moral standard.  That said, to the credit of the Spaldings, they engaged in literacy and Bible translations and before they left had published several portions of the Bible in the Nez Perce tongue.
Henry H. Spalding

Marcus Whitman, not having any seminary training, did much more civilizing than he did Christianizing.  The Whitman’s built a large missionary compound over several years which included a school, church, and agricultural facilities such as a barn and water powered grist-mill.  Narcissa opened a school for the Cayuse children and Marcus introduced agriculture and provided medical help to the Indians.  Because the farmland was rich, it was not long before the Whitman mission became quite financially prosperous.

Several reinforcements from the ABCFM came out west to join the mission, but the Christian impact of the mission continued on a path of decline because of continued strife and dissension between the missionary families.

In 1839 tragedy struck the Whitman family when on a Sunday afternoon when Marcus and Narcissa were enjoying their rest and some leisured reading, their little 2 year old daughter wandered away from the house without their knowing it and slipped and drowned in a nearby creek.  The Whitmans grieved as all parents do, but their faith in God and his providence enabled them to carry the work on and for a time a lot of dissension and grievances among the missionaries were set aside.
Whitman Mission near Walla Walla

By 1842, six years into the mission, the Whitman compound was seen as an outpost of civilization in the vast Oregon country.  It became a magnet to other settlers moving in to the area and a source of supplies for traders and pioneers already there.  Although there was some mission work to the Cayuse it had been slowed down by the mounting resentment that was building among them over more and more of their lands being encroached upon by settlers.  By then, the Whitmans had established the first Presbyterian church in the Oregon country and services were very well-attended, but there were few Indians who converted and the majority of ministry efforts were going towards the white families in the area.  Unexpectedly, the ABCFM sends a letter to the Whitman’s telling them to close the mission down due to its ineffectiveness with the native peoples.

This causes Marcus Whitman to cross the Rockies in the dead of winter and travel all the way back to Boston and New York to ask the ABCFM to rescind their order and to send more reinforcements to continue the work.   The next spring, Whitman led the first wagon train back to the far west.   This first group would be followed by thousands of other people looking for land and a place of opportunity for their families in the next decade.  Because of his missionary model, Whitman looked at the influx of Anglo-American settlers as a positive development.  Their presence in numbers would create a Christian civilization from which the Cayuse could learn by example.  Neither of these outcomes were actually realized but it was the way Whitman thought of things.

Naturally, the Whitman mission compound was the first stop back in the Pacific Northwest and soon it became a resting spot for later migrations of pioneers.  One thing it inadvertently did was cause the Oregon Trail to go straight through the Cayuse territory which in turn further escalated tensions between the Cayuse and the mission.
Oregon Trail Routes

By the next year (1844) the Whitmans were utterly consumed with their work tending to the huge influx of pioneers.  They had lost their zeal and enthusiasm to reach the Indians around them.  Mrs. Whitman ran a boarding school of a sort for the incoming pioneer children and also a separate school for Cayuse children.

With the Great Emigration came the diseases of the white man.  In 1847 an epidemic of the measles broke out in the area.  Many pioneer families lost family members but the effects on the Cayuse were devastating having so little immunity to Eurasian diseases.  It is believed that nearly 50% of the Cayuse tribe was lost to that one epidemic.  Marcus Whitman brought medical help to the Cayuse and even mild immunizations to them but when they saw more of the white settlers live than their group, they came to suspect the missionaries were killing them off in an effort to steal even more of their land.  

Not long after this 5 Cayuse who had animus towards the Whitmans came to the compound and knocked on the door.  When the Whitmans answered it, they pulled their tomahawks out and slaughtered Marcus and Narcissa and 12 other men who were living on the compound at the time.  Many others living at the mission compound were taken hostage by the Cayuse and it took months of negotiation to get them freed.
The Whitman Massacre

Oregon fur trapper, political operative and later a U.S. Marshall Joseph Meek was sent to Washington D.C. to officially report the Whitman Massacre to the government.  Meek was also the first cousin of President Polk’s wife and thus had immediate access to the White House.  Because the massacre involved American citizens, Polk immediately recommended Congress pass legislation to annex Oregon as an American territory.  In August 1848 the Oregon country officially became the Oregon Territory.

The Whitman massacre led the U.S. government to send troops in the fight the Indians and ordered all missionaries to evacuate the area.  In 1850, the 5 responsible Cayuse were caught, brought to trial, and executed by hanging.  The government ordered the suspension of all missionary activity in the territory for two decades.
President James K. Polk

In the following years, American missions to aboriginal people collapsed.  Most funding and interest focused on peoples outside of North America.

Read about the trial over the Whitman Massacre here 

The Spauldings remained and never left their missionary post.  Their effort, despite its flaws, brought a great harvest of the Nez Perce and Spokane Indians to the Lord.  Both of these tribes in turn evangelized other Indian groups around the Northwest.  Although Henry Spalding eventually left Idaho and settled in the new state of Oregon, he labored on behalf of Indian groups the remainder of his life.  Henry Spalding is also credited with teaching the Indians to grow potatoes something for which the state of Idaho is famous for today.
Mission and Grave site today

The Whitmans, having come as missionaries, are actually more well-known for opening the Oregon Trail and inspiring the westward advance of Americans to inhabit the continent from “sea to shining sea.”




Drury, Clifford.  Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. (Seattle : Northwest Interpretive Association, 1986)

Latourette, Kenneth Scott.  Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: The 19th Century Outside of Europe- The Americas, The Pacific, Asia and Africa.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1961)

“Marcus and Narcissa Whitman”  Dictionary of Christianity in America  Reid, Linder, Shelley, and Stout Eds.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity, 1990)

“Marcus Whitman”  Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America.  D.G. Hart Ed.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity, 1999)

Noll, Mark A.  A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada.  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmanns. 1992)

Sweet, William W.  The Story of Religion in America.  (Grand Rapids : Baker, 1973)

Tucker, Ruth A.  From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya : A Biographical History of Christian Missions.  (Grand Rapids : Academie Books, 1983)

Wills, Garry.  Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America.   (New York : Penguin, 2007) 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Jonathan Edwards Owned a Slave (and Other Moral Incongruities Among Church Leaders of the Past) by Chris White

Actual Irishmen not pictured

And so it begins with a story:

 Three Irishmen are sitting in the pub window seat, watching the front  door of the brothel over the road.

 The local Methodist pastor appears, looks up and down the street, and quickly goes inside.

 "Would you look at that!" says the first Irishman. "Didn't I always say what a bunch of hypocrites they are?"

 No sooner are the words out of his mouth than a Rabbi appears at the door, looks up and down the street, knocks, and goes inside.

 "Another one trying to fool everyone with pious preaching and stupid hats!" They continue drinking their beer roundly condemning the vicar and the rabbi when they see their own Catholic priest knock on the door.

 "Ah, now dat's sad." says the third Irishman. "One of the girls must have died."

It’s interesting how we can be so clear about the moral failings of others and yet be blinded to our own or those in our own society.

As someone who has been a serious student and teacher of church history for many years, one of the constant issues I have grappled with is what to make of some of the decisions, behaviors, and ideas of some of the church’s great luminaries.  Here are people of great vision and piety and theological imagination who at the same time do things that seem radically at odds with their Christian commitment.

A few well known examples:
Martin Luther in exile

Martin Luther had a strong tendency towards anti-Semitism that at times was quite vicious.

Constantine, the great Christian emperor, ordered the death of one of his sons and his wife.

John Calvin, no stranger to persecution by Catholics, was responsible for having a teacher holding heretical views burned at the stake in downtown Geneva.

Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s greatest thinkers and theologians, owned at 3 slaves during his lifetime and even justified his holding of them when confronted by other church leaders for doing so.

John Wesley and George Whitefield virtually abandoned their wives to pursue their preaching careers.
Constantine the Christian Emperor

Of course there are more, many more, examples if time and space permitted.

So what are we to make of these things and how should we respond to them towards critics of the faith or the church?  Let me make 3 suggestions:

1.  Approach historic figures charitably and not judgmentally.  It is certainly not my original thought (I think I may have got it from C.S. Lewis or R.C. Sproul) but we must exercise a Christian charity not just to the living, but especially the dead for they are unable to defend or explain themselves.  Brendan Manning speaks to this quite eloquently: “None of us has ever seen a motive. Therefore, we don't know we can't do anything more than suspect what inspires the action of another. For this good and valid reason, we're told not to judge. ..Tragedy is that our attention centers on what people are not, rather than on what they are and who they might become.” With historical figures we often know what they did but are often left without a shred of evidence about why they did something.  Sometimes historical context sheds light, sometimes the person leaves a memoir explaining (or justifying) themselves, but many times it is still conjecture.  We can’t walk a mile in their shoes, we don’t understand their particular sin matrix, we know nothing of the fears and prejudices that fed their thinking.  What we do know for certain is that Christians are people and people are sinners and sinners need the grace of God.

2. Recognize cultural myopia; theirs and your own. Myopia is another word for near-sightedness where things up close are very clear but anything in the distance is quite blurred.  Every one of us is shaped by our times and culture and this does in fact color our sense of ethics and values.  Truth be told, it even shapes the interpretation of scripture.  Mark A. Noll presents a clear example of this in his book The Civil War as Theological Crisis.  How could a nation which was at the time predominantly Christian, Protestant, Bible-reading, and Church-going literally plunge into the dark hole of fratricide over slavery when slavery is clearly unethical by the standards of Jesus?  Among many things, Noll points out that habits of Bible reading and interpretation of the day tended to support slavery because verses were often read in isolation from one another.

But this applies to many things besides scriptural interpretation.  We live in a time of consumerism, leisure, sex-saturation, and obsession with choices and independence.  We know these things, but we know them like a goldfish knows it lives it water.  Jonathan Edwards (who lived in colonial America) owned a slave(s) but so did a lot of other ministers in New England.  Unlike George Washington who actually set his slaves free upon his death because his conscience was troubled by his ownership, Edwards did nothing of the sort.  We are grieved by the blindness of this great man of God who had a fierce intellect and was so devoted to preaching and holiness in his community.  But no doubt Edwards would be grieved to meet our generation with so little concern for pleasing God and that wastes so much time fiddling with telephone apps and looking at sex and violence on television.  We think nothing of it!
I'm sure Edwards would be amused with phone apps!

What will future generations say of us when we are the people in the graveyard?  Evil is still evil and Jonathan Edwards (and all the other examples I mentioned) was definitely blind to that species of sin, but that does not mean that God couldn’t or didn’t use them for a good purpose.  We are all works in progress and if anything it reveals the patience and grace of God through all the ages.

3. Learn from their mistakes without justifying their evil.  When we encounter these terrible blemishes on the records of great men, we need not shrug them off or worse yet adopt their sinful behavior.  We should learn the moral lesson their lives offer.  We should be humbled by the fact that if great people who serve Christ are capable of making really bad choices and doing evil things, what of ourselves?  None of us is so faithful as to never fail.

St. Paul exhorts all of us to “examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5-6).”  Let us not judge one another, but examine our own life that we may be pleasing to Christ in every respect.

For a great practical devotion on how to put this verse into practice go to:


Monday, August 11, 2014

5 Ways You Can Improve Your Marriage Today (from the Scriptures) by Chris White

Having a good marriage is one of the greatest blessings you can ever have in life.  But like all good things, a rewarding relationship takes quality time and effort to develop and grow.  Here are 5 things, rooted in the wisdom of the Bible, that you can do starting today that will add to the quality of your marriage and will make your spouse wonder how they got so lucky to find a person like you.  This is intended for marriages of all ages, but if you know someone who is newly married or is preparing for marriage please consider sharing this.

1.  Warm-Up the Tone of Your Communication.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
                                                                                                                                -- Ephesians 4:31-32

St. Paul’s command to the church in Ephesus was to put away the anger and negativity that so easily ruptures relationships and to adopt settled standard of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness towards one another.  To be tenderhearted means to try to understand how others might feel in a given circumstance.  When you see a story on the television about a family or town that has suffered a devastating loss or tragedy and you find your heart moved in sympathy or even service, this is an example of being tenderhearted.

When I think about how this applies to marriage, my mind goes directly towards the tone and content of our communication with one another.  Many years ago my wife and I were going through a real rough patch in our marriage.  Frustration was high (for many reasons) and love had worn thin.  A friend recommended I read Margaret Hardisty’s book  Forever My Love (and I would commend this book to you if you haven't read it).  It had much to say about couple communication but the big take-away for me was speaking to my wife in a warm and gentle way (even though my feelings towards her and hers towards me were frustrated and distant).  Eventually my feelings caught up with my words and I found that I truly did love and value my wife much more than I realized.  Let me also say, if you think this is some form of manipulative technique or pop-psychology, just try doing the opposite and see where it takes you.  If you continually speak in words of anger and sarcasm or use demeaning or derogatory terms towards anyone but especially your spouse, it will become the settled position of the heart.

As a veteran married-man, I can tell you there are many days and moments where I know I could have done better, but in general a warm and loving tone in my communication with my wife usually always begets more of the same in our relationship.  The golden rule that Jesus gave the world is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  This wisdom is never more apropos than in the words we speak to our help-mate on a daily basis.

2. Verbally Appreciate the Contribution of Your Spouse to Your Marriage (and family if you have one).

“ Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
    and those who love it will eat its fruits.” -- Proverbs 18:21

What the proverb is telling us is we will reap a harvest of either death or life in our lives based on how we speak and what we speak to each other.  Certainly this touches on point #1, but I want to direct it to a particular sin many of us commit so often we aren’t even aware of it anymore.  The sin I am speaking of is being a complainer.  There is a legitimate time to complain (especially to God) if we have been overwhelmed by evil or injustice.  In fact, some of the greatest and most honest prayers of the Bible begin with the words “hear my complaint O Lord!”  But there is another kind of complaining that the Bible warns against many times as being faithless and evil in the sight of the Lord.  This is complaining that is sourced in personal ingratitude amidst many blessings or complaining calculated to dishearten and demoralize others.

This requires little illustration as most of us have at least one friend or family-member that utterly repels us with their chronic complaining.  They speak in terms of bearing a personal cross about matters like not having enough ice in their drink or how the custom leather they ordered from the factory for their luxury car was just not up to their expectations.  I’ll never forget the Christmas where I had moved heaven and earth in my schedule and family budget to make the long journey to celebrate the holiday with my aged grandmother.  After the six hour drive in traffic and bad weather with young children, she thought it was important to communicate her disappointment that I didn’t call her on the phone very often.  I’m really not complaining myself here, but it just struck me at the time as being probably the most absurd complaint I have ever received.  But like my youngest daughter (now an adult) constantly reminds me, in this life no good deed ever goes unpunished.

As this touches on your marriage, can I point out that complaining about your spouse to them or someone else is probably one of the most destructive uses of your tongue.  There is no wife or husband that couldn’t use some improvement, but most people I know are quite frankly good enough even though they are not perfect.  Maybe your husband doesn’t make enough money to buy you the house or car you want right now, but celebrate and appreciate the fact that he makes an effort every day to get up and go to work to provide for you and the children and see if he doesn’t strive harder.  Maybe your wife isn’t the so-called ‘trophy wife’ but celebrate and appreciate all she does for you and the family and watch her become a truly beautiful woman.

The words you say to and about your spouse have great power to build up or tear down.  Appreciation and celebration will always bring a net gain to your marriage, while a complaining spirit is a certain path to bankrupting your relationship of all its joy and love.

3. Pray for Blessing and Spiritual Growth for Your Spouse (and trust God for the results).

 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.   –Luke 11:9-10

Jesus’ promise that asking, seeking, and knocking in prayer will receive a positive response from God is part of a larger teaching on prayer that stresses persistence and importunity (a sense of our great neediness) before God.  How often do you pray for your wife or husband?  And when you pray do you ask God to make them the person you want them to be, or the person society expects them to be, or do you ask God to make them all He intended them to be?

God hears all prayers, but as far as I can tell, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, he does not answer all of our requests.  Let’s face it, most of us very quickly lose track of the fact that our own happiness is not paramount in the mind of God.  I’m not saying God wants everyone unhappy and miserable, but he does have a greater plan in the universe that when fully realized will make everyone it touches as happy as humanly possible.

We all have a tendency to project what a perfect version of our marriage partner would look like and I can tell you if they ever became that person, you would probably not be worthy of them.  I hope you don’t think I’m prevaricating here when I say by all means pray for the things you know are an obvious struggle for your spouse.  More than one of my inner demons has been vanquished through the faithful prayers of my wife to God on my behalf.  But in a general sense, wouldn’t the greatest act of love be to pray that your beloved would simply become and be free to be all that God himself has designed them to be?  That’s the kind of spouse you really want and that’s the prayer the Lord truly delights in answering because it is an act of faith and trust in him.

4. Joyfully Do an Act of Service for your Spouse Today (with no expectation of reciprocation).

‘And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” ’  --Mk. 10:42-45

It is one of the great ironies of this world that men (and women) who would claim great power measure it in how many people serve them, while God who is truly the most powerful person in the universe considered it the mark of greatness to pour out his life in humble service to mankind.  The paradigm of Jesus is not tracking how much others are doing for you, but pouring your life out for the sake of others.

One of the chief places we are to honor God is in our marriage and therefore serving your spouse is a high calling in the eyes of the Lord.  Most successful marriages have defined duties for both husband and wife.  Some of these are divinely ordained by gender (a man will never be a mother to his children in a natural sense) or through God’s revelation (such as a woman is called to place herself under her husband’s leadership even as a man is called to love and respect his wife as Christ loves the church) or by a couple’s preferences and giftings as they grow together.  For instance, I am very good with words and very poor with numbers and though it seemed right for me as the husband to handle the family checkbook early in our marriage, after messing up our bank account and tax returns many times with my poor math skills, we quickly learned that this should be within the purview of my wife’s duties as she is by temperament and mentality more geared to the details of balancing the check book and paying our creditors than I am.

But within these duties there are always things we have to do but don’t really want to do.  This is the point where we can lighten the load of our spouse through giving them the deliberate gift of service.  One of my weekly duties is rolling out the trash cans to the street on Wednesday night.  I hate doing this because I usually work late on Wednesdays and I have to do it the dark and frequently in bad weather.  When I drive up to the house and find Christean has already done this for me, it is not only a personal gift, but she achieves “rock star” status in my mind.  I know she feels the same when she comes home from work and finds I cleaned the kitchen before I left in the morning.  Service to one another will probably never achieve the romantic status of a bouquet of roses or a candlelight dinner, but in terms of expressing heartfelt love, it is just as tangible and timed just right, may easily be its equivalent.

5. Freely Give Affectionate Touch (and of course intimate touch if mutually desired).

 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.  And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
                                                                                                                                       –Genesis 2:24-25

One of the most touching stories in the Bible is the creation of Adam and the subsequent creation of Eve.  In this account, men and women share the dignity of having been created in the image of God but also in the creation process we are taught the eternal lesson that we (as men and women) have a vital and heartfelt need to bond with one another in marriage.  But I want to approach this from another angle that is not usually considered but very much related to our humanity as created by God.

God has made humans as spirits enrobed in flesh.  At our essence we are not spirits with a body add-on, but a tapestry of physicality and spirituality woven and bound together.  These together make us fully a person.  In fact, the greatest mystery of the Gospel is contained in the words of the Apostle John “the Word became flesh” (Jn.1) where deity purposely took on the limitations of those made in his image that he might be our savior.  To become flesh and bone as Christ did is to affirm the goodness of God’s creation of people as we are made.  The resurrection of Christ in his body shows us that the intention of God is redeem us in the fullness of who we are which is body and soul.

It is striking that our flesh, the skin we all have, is the largest organ of our body and that it is in nearly all places a sensory organ able to regulate our temperature, to sense contact with the outside world, and able to sense and make emotional contact with people and other creatures.  Our skin working with our brain has an indelible memory of things and how they feel to the touch.  Nearly a decade ago I had contracted a virus which affected the sensory nerves in my skin.  When this happened I was forced to go through a battery of examinations with a neurologist to rule out any serious diseases.  One of tests required me to be blindfolded and hold my hands out.  Different objects were placed on the palm of my hand and without seeing them or rolling them around to sense their size, I was asked to identify what they were.  Amazingly I was able to identify nearly everything the first time.  Our skin is very perceptive of all it touches.

But there is also a communication that comes with skin to skin contact that comes in the form of a cascade of neurochemicals which do amazing things in our bodies.  Two of the most well-known are called oxytocin and dopamine.  Both are released in periods of hugging and cuddling and touching in both erotic and non-erotic forms.  The secretion of these chemicals in our blood actually bond us to one another, produce a general sense of well-being, reduce feelings of stress, and even lowers blood pressure.  There is a reason why babies feel close to their mothers when they are held, or why a heartfelt hug from a friend reassures you when you just heard some bad news, or why after making love the problems you are facing that day seem a bit smaller.

God created this world with incredible detail and precision that it would work perfectly and be a blessing to all who live here.  One of the entailments of this is the gift of touch.  As we give this gift in its many forms within marriage, we have been given the ability through God’s creative genius to build up the bond of love we share and contribute to their life through better health and well-being.  We have skin for a reason and it is very good.

I hope as you read through these ideas that you were inspired in some way to be a better husband or wife to your beloved today.  If you have any questions or additional thoughts that might improve this article for others, please use the comment box below.  Have a great day and thanks for dropping by!