by Eddie Pipkin

This year marked one of the rare occasions on which Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday aligned.  The two “holidays” have antithetical purposes – one to celebrate the joys of romantic love and one to remind us that life is short and then we die.  It’s a tricky balance to pay homage to the spirit of both occasions.  If you’re Catholic, the bishop of Boston issued a gentle reminder that even if you were tempted to celebrate with a traditional Valentine’s dinner, fasting rules were still in effect.  And even if you’re not Catholic, but you were planning on giving up chocolate for Lent, you might have had a difficult moment when your lover gifted you with one of those ubiquitous heart-shaped boxes.  But I think this unusual confluence of two of the central preoccupations of human existence is a great reminder of how the church can do a more robust job of taking on topics with which everybody struggles: Love and Death.

Our cultural conceptions of love as communicated by the media are twisted and confusing.  The church offers a more holistic understanding of what true love and healthy relationships should look like, but while the sermons and Bible studies provide a solid theological basis for understanding the nature of God’s love for us and how we can reflect that kind of love in our dealings with others, we do an incomplete job of offering people practical tips for living in daily loving relationships.  Love is work.  And as a pragmatic consideration, loving your co-worker or your next-door-neighbor is very different that the daily demands of loving your spouse.

It turns out that married couples who actively participate in the life of the local church have sturdier marriages, but just showing up on Sundays is not a form of magical protection.  It’s effective when correlative to an embrace of the work of holy commitment:

Many people who seriously practice a traditional religious faith – be it Christian or other – have a divorce rate markedly lower than the general population.

The factor making the most difference is religious commitment and practice.

The intuitive is true! Couples who regularly practice any combination of serious religious behaviors and attitudes – attend church nearly every week, read their Bibles and spiritual materials regularly; pray privately and together; generally take their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but serious disciples – enjoy significantly lower divorce rates than mere church members, the general public and unbelievers.

Professor Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, explains from his analysis of people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church, that 60 percent of these have been divorced. Of those who attend church regularly, 38 percent have been divorced. (Bradley R.E. Wright, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2010, p. 133)

Other data from additional sociologists of family and religion suggest a significant marital stability divide between those who take their faith seriously and those who do not.

The key, it seems clear, is to educate couples who are serious about their relationships, not just theologically, but with knowledge about what makes healthy and successful relationships work.  Also, we have to give these aspirational couples plenty of opportunities to connect with a broader support community and plenty of opportunities to serve others in meaningful ways.

There are plenty of ways to do this, and any local church that considers its support of family ministry to be a fundamental part of its identity should be doing these things on a regular and sustained basis:

  • Marriage workshops and curricula.
  • Relationship workshops.
  • Conflict resolution workshops.
  • Understanding “love languages.” Communication workshops.
  • Dating seminars. For the people in your community who are divorced or otherwise single, the prospects of dating in the swipe-right, app-based world can be horrifying.  It’s harder than ever to meet people and form healthy romantic relationships, and churches have a chance to be a safe and helpful forum for people who are negotiating this frustrating territory.
  • Training for young people in building safe and healthy relationships.
  • A library of easily accessible resources to explore these topics.

Having helped people grasp the practicalities of love, we turn our attention to the inevitability of death.  Personally, I have always loved Ash Wednesday’s tangible, experiential reference to the truth of Genesis 3:19: “From dust we came, to dust we shall return.”  As Christians we take great comfort in Jesus’ promise to “go and prepare a place for us”: the promise of eternal life.  Or at least, we’re supposed to!  In reality, studies have indicated that the counter-intuitive reality is that some Christians fear death more than non-religious people.  This is due to the inadequate way in which we address people’s fears, and perhaps more saliently, their fear of the process of dying, often associated with diminishment, pain, and a loss of identity and agency.  It’s a parallel problem with the persistent myth that Christians should only ever be in a state of joy – that to be less than joyful is to be spiritually weak.  Similarly, there is an undercurrent of belief that, as a Christian, to be fearful of death is to somehow deny our joyful reservation in eternity.

Death has always been the great dread of all human beings everywhere.

Local congregations could do much, much more in terms of giving people the tools to deal confidently with death and dying:

  • Forums for honest discussions about death and dying where people can share their fears without judgment.
  • Seminars in which health care and planning professionals can help people think through the practicalities of their eventual final stages. This includes estate and funeral planning, which an astonishing number of people leave undone, burdening their loved ones who are left to deal with the aftermath.
  • Support groups which give people the chance to share and process their grief, not only for those who have lost someone (well-known and awesome support groups like GriefShare), but also for those who are grieving the ongoing, slow moving loss of loved ones succumbing to illness.
  • Intergenerational ministry that can connect older generations with younger generations, bring together lonely people with new friends with a purpose, pair the wisdom of experience with the energy and insights of a fresh perspective, and keep people actively engaged in ways that give hope.
  • A library of easily accessible resources to explore these topics.

Dying is, after all, just another stage of life, and we should live it with dignity.  Our faith community should be an exemplar of this attitude.  Along with a place to learn about love, it’s one of the gifts that living in community can give: loving support in our final act on Earth.

How is your local church doing at providing useful opportunities to learn the practical aspects of loving relationships?  How do you do at giving people ways to process their fears of death and dying?  Do you give a glossy overview that downplays people’s concerns and makes them feel less-than if they are struggling, or do you deal forthrightly and practically with their real needs and desires?  Share some examples of how your church has helped people deal with these most basic of human concerns, and we shall all learn from your experience and wisdom.