Thursday, May 23, 2013

The End of a Courtship: One Mother's Perspective

Step back in time for a moment to your college biology class.  You were a good student. You read the text; you attended every class; you took notes, despite the prof's hypnotic drone. You were going to rock this class.

Then you went to the lab. And try as you might, you could find nothing under the microscope that even remotely resembled the beautiful drawing in the book. The TA rolled her eyes at your stunning ignorance. You responded, with an indignant hand on your hip, "Not even Isaac Newton could locate the paramecium on this slide!" The textbook was one thing; the lab was another.

Enter the World of Courtship. There are some mighty fine textbooks out there (Her Hand in Marriage by Doug Wilson, What He Must Be by Voddie Bauchum, Boy Meets Girl by Josh Harris...). But even Doug, Voddie, and Josh can't accurately predict your experience.

Courtship is not scientific; it is organic, and it involves organic creatures. Above all the lessons listed below, the overarching, number one lesson we learned is that no two families will have the same approach to courtship. And that is perfectly okay; it just never occurred to us. No one has written The Book on courtship because every courtship is as individual as the individuals involved.  So, too, I cannot here document The Truth about courtship; I can merely share the lessons we've learned this time around.

Welcome to our Lab.

1. "Goldie, do you love me?" "Do I what?!?!"
If the mantra in the real estate industry is location, location, location, the mantra in courtship should be chemistry, chemistry, chemistry. We know--and we tell our kids--that any godly man and godly woman can make a godly marriage. But we also know that any godly marriage is hard work, and it would be helpful to not put our kids in the position of Tevye, who, even after twenty-five years of marriage, feels compelled to ask his wife Goldie,"Do you love me?"  Looking for chemistry between two people means we're not going to settle for, "They'll grow to love each other." If the couple starts with lots of agreement, if their perspectives fit together like pieces of a puzzle, then they have the kind of solid foundation that can handle the occasional difference of opinion. But if the prospective mates start with too much difference in their perspectives, they will struggle to find points of agreement. We need to look for mates for our children who will be that puzzle piece that fits together with them to complete them and make one beautiful picture. You can't make pieces fit. You can't make chemistry happen. It's either there, or it is not.
Lesson #1: Little chemistry, even between a godly man and woman, is a show stopper.

2. That Little Check Should be Telling You Something
As parents, we want to be reasonable. These are marriage-ready adults, after all. And in an effort to honor them, we have refrained from manipulating their feelings.So when we have a check niggling around in our heads or our hearts, we don't want to knee-jerk. We want a reason, a word, a definition. Honestly, though, sometimes it looked more like:
"I guess I thought there would be more something-that-eludes-me..." or
"I always assumed there would be less I-can't-put-my-finger-on-it."
At a time like this, go with your gut. Communicate asap with your child what you're thinking. How surprising yet confirming when you find s/he's right there with you.
Lesson #2: That undefined check IS the check.

3. Be Conformed to Whose Image?
We need to resist the temptation to enroll our son's sweetheart (or worse--her parents or siblings) in the Adams Family Sanctification Plan. She already has a spiritual health care provider in the form of her parents, her elders, and her church.

Of course, there is room for discipleship. And in the event of marriage, discipleship will be a life-long opportunity. But strictly speaking, vetting is a simple up-or-down vote. We would never advise our child to marry someone because our child could change them. Likewise, we should not give a thumbs' up to a person whom we cannot approve 'as-is.' Still, we forty-something parents who are vetting the prospective mate must keep in mind that these twenty-somethings are twenty-something...and we should be looking for a twenty-something level of sanctification. Think about it. Have you, parent, matured since you were twenty years old? If we don't keep that in mind, the vetting process can take on a whiff of the tyrannical. We never want to go there as parents; we never want our children to be subjected to that in a courtship.

We marveled this week at this timely piece of advice for our family:
Even the wisest parents make this mistake: They expect Wisdom to look a lot like them.  They've come to know her under their own peculiar circumstances, over the course of their own history. She has been good to them, and they desire that she be good to you. For that to occur (they think), it's probably best that you [sic] look like them. As much as possible.
But true Wisdom finds you where you are, and takes you beyond.
For wisdom to be truly wise, she must talk with you--meaning, you have to talk back. This can lead to disagreements with your parents or family friends or teachers or anyone you've grown to respect--and sometimes with Wisdom herself. Those disagreements should be mostly about appearances, because She doesn't look the same to everyone; her face, her clothes, the terminology she uses will vary. But not her heart; at heart, she never changes for anyone. Ironically, the best way to learn what abides is by discovering what's different. 
"Challenge authority" is a popular piece of commencement advice. Question everything. As pernicious as that counsel can be, there's a grain of truth in it. Wisdom must be challenged, and truth must be owned: studied, felt, experimented on, tested and approved, each individual for himself. Truth can stand up to this--that's one reason it's truth. But don't just challenge Wisdom. Talk with her. (Cheaney, World Magazine, Vol 28, p.22)
If you have raised your child to debate ideas, if s/he is allowed to disagree with you, to own truth, then you have raised a healthy adult. And your child might just 'talk back' during the vetting process. If that happens, don't censure his/her character; celebrate his/her pursuit of wisdom!!!
Lesson #3: If it becomes as important that the young man/woman be conformed to your image as to Christ's, that is a show stopper.

4. The Power of the Parental Blessing
Our children know that the parental blessing offers protection. And we very much want to give it to them. But this time around, we learned that the most freeing words your child might hear from you are not, "We give our blessing," but "We cannot give our blessing." We know this; we saw it with our own eyes.
Lesson: #4: As odd as it may seem, your independent, adult, marriage-ready son/daughter might be depending on you to be the eyes and ears and discernment that sets him/her free. 

5. Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow
They both saw the inevitable, and they handled it with mature grace. This wasn't a lesson learned so much as a reason to be thankful at an otherwise difficult time. This young man and young woman who had been steadily moving towards engagement demonstrated honor, dignity, and love, despite the show-stopping differences they could no longer ignore. Their parting was sad but necessary. And their behavior was commendable. The sweetness and respectfulness of the goodbye confirmed to us that our son is, indeed, ready to be married.

And that's the story of our first foray into courtship. It brought an end rather than an engagement. And some might think that would turn us against courtship.
Au contraire.
This experience confirmed to us that courtship works. Two wonderful kids were protected and are wiser for it. They needed other, more objective, sets of eyes. They needed that parental niggle. They needed a sanctification check. And they needed us to either affirm or protect.
Whether a courtship ends in engagement...or just did what it was supposed to do.