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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Marriage of the Flesh, Marriage of the Spirit

It's a poetic and unwieldy sentence: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."

It isn't one sentence at all. It's two sentences. Actually, it's one full sentence and the independent clause of a second.

The first one should be "A man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife" - that's it. Put the period in right at the end.

Before we move on, let's deal with a little issue of the word "cleave".

Cleave, literally, means both to adhere closely and inseparably and to cut away completely. A muscle cleaves to a bone, but a butcher cleaves this adjoining when he butchers an animal. It's an odd word. It is its own antonym. It contradicts itself. How can it be possible that a man can join himself inseparably to his wife and still remain apart from her?

The word comes from an Old English term "cleven". If it looks or sounds familiar, it's the same root for the word "cloven" - as in a cloven hoof. I happen to know a little about hooves because I grew up raising cattle and sheep and pigs and horses. Let me explain how marriage is like a hoof.

Here's a cow's hoof for reference. Yechh! I know it isn't pretty, but do you know how difficult it is to find a picture on the web of a cow's hoof that is still connected to the body and isn't diseased? No, I didn't think you would.

Anyway, notice the structure. There are two distinct sections of hard, black, semi-shiny enamel that the cow stands on. Those are actually the cow's toenails - which we call a hoof. Yes, a cow actually walks on tip-toe. Didn't know cows were natural ballarinas, did ya? Yep, all a cow really wants is a pink tu-tu and matching pointe shoes.

Back to the picture. Just above the hairline, you see a narrowing of the leg. This cow made it easy on us by having a stripe of lighter colored hair at this spot. That's the fetlock - what we could call the ankle. Everything below it is the foot.

For a large animal, the cloven hoof is a miracle of design that allows it to walk. The toes move independently, yet are held stable by the foot. As the cow presses down on the foot, the toes shift weight automatically, balancing a two-thousand pound animal effortlessly on its toenails. The hard enamel obviously allows the soft footed cow to protect the intricate bone mechanism in its foot from being punctured or otherwise injured. The hoof is two parts working together independently to accomplish a common goal.

Not unlike a marriage.

I could get very preachy here about how God put this into the Bible as a blueprint for marriage - but I won't. Everyone has heard that line of reasoning and either they like it or not. The point I want to make is that a good marriage consists of two people working together. They are joined by a common bond that allows them to pursue common goals. However, they are also slightly independent of each other in how best to adjust to the demands of reaching that goal. At least, that's the way it works when it's good.

Now, let's go back to the remaining clause and fill out the rest of the sentence.

"They shall become one flesh." It works well as an independent sentence, but it misses the thrust of the passage as a whole. Let's tack on what is normally considered the next sentence as a dependent clause.

"They shall become one flesh, and so they find no shame in their nakedness."

This is th reason Adam entones, "Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh". Because there is no shame in marriage - at least when it's healthy. Two people face each other naked - not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally and, yes, financially. They accept what they see as part of themselves because they are cloven - they are joined without losing identity.

It is this nature that makes marriage strong - but also what makes it fragile. If we over-value either the joining or the unjoining that comes with marriage, we under-value that other aspect that makes it work. For the hoof to work, both joining and unjoining must work. For a marriage to work, both dependence and independence must balance.

I was not fortunate enough to see this sort of relationship modeled in my home when I grew up. I was not able to model it to my children in my first marriage - to the point where my daughter once told me, "If I ever get married, I hope my marriage isn't like yours." Ah - our children know how to kill us with the truth.

The wonderful thing is that Christianity is, if nothing else, a religion that promises a second-chance. What is salvation if not an opportunity to set things right and start anew? How many second chances are we offered? Jesus taught, "even seven times seventy." That's a lot of divorce attorneys!

I read a lot of blogs these days and I get a peek into a lot of lives. Like everyone, I measure them against my own and often find things in my life are not what I want. That is never true when I look at my marriage, though. It sustains me through my bouts of depression, my periods of unemployment, my doubts, and my fears. More than that, it provides me with a boundless joy that I would never have without it. It is the simple joy of holding hands, the invigorating joy of passion, the sustaining love of family.

And, like a toe that works effortlessly, it is easy to take for granted. I'm sure I'll get an odd look for this post - comparing my marriage to a cow's foot and my wife to a toe. What can I say? My mind works in odd ways. I'm fortunate enough to have a wife who not only loves me despite this fact - but because of this fact. I am, in so many ways, a very fortunate man.

Though our marriage is not perfect - and none are - I do believe whole-heartedly that I now have a marriage my daughter would like to emulate one day. I know that it is a cloven relationship and one in which there is no shame.

May you all be so richly blessed.


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