Among other heart-shaped headlines last week, the world's most famous newlyweds spent their first married Valentine's Day separated by an ocean, courtesy of a military deployment.
This was week two of what's expected to be six weeks solo for Kate Middleton, whose helicopter-pilot husband, Prince William, is training in South America with the Royal Air Force. How does a duke tackle February 14 when he's nearly 8,000 miles away from his duchess? According to Kate, William had taken enough time out of his search-and-rescue flight schedule to mail a card across the pond and arrange a flower delivery. They're the sort of gestures that have become almost expected on such a day, and to some they might even seem less than noteworthy.
Those of us who've been through a military deployment or two, however, are hesitant to minimize the significance of one note, one phone call, one bouquet, one brief moment of attentiveness.
If unwanted separations prove anything, it's that effort is vital to relationship. As a military wife, I see this every day in my time away from my husband—and if I'm honest with myself, I know the principle applies critically in my relationship with God as well.
Here's what I mean: The convenience of sharing a home with one's spouse makes many relationship-efforts seem effortless. You bump into each other whether you're trying to or not. Dinner happens at the same table, sleep happens on the same mattress, laundry gets tumbled in the same load. You glimpse expressions on each other's face and sense whether it has been a smooth day, a harried one, or something in between. Through simple interactions like these, trust is fostered, familiarity is developed, and understanding is built—yet many of us miss the significance of these moments. We miss it because we rarely have to miss the moments.
In most military marriages, this is not the case. For instance, my husband Nathan's most recent Marine Corps training exercise lasted four weeks. In that time, he and I were able to speak once, for 15 minutes, which was how long his cell phone signal lasted before abruptly cutting out. The training exercise before that was two weeks long; we could intermittently e-mail that time, but we didn't speak at all. This is the necessary culture of infantry and infantry training: for the safety of others and himself, he must be alert to the mission at all times, he always has more work on his plate than time to do it, the work is potentially life-and-death, and it happens in remote areas far from cell towers.
There's no avoiding the separations or the limits on communication, so we're learning to accept them when they come and to be grateful like crazy in the times when we can interact or be in the same place. I'm not sure I could adequately express how incredible it is, after a long separation, to hear the actual sound of my husband's voice, to stand in the same room with him, to witness his behavior up close, to observe his priorities in action. I've come to marvel at and appreciate these everyday interactions, only because I've had to spend time getting by without them.
Here is the turn and the contrast. When it comes to the other great love in my life—the only capital-L Love—I'm clearly willing to tolerate distance and limited interactions, even when they're not forced upon me. Despite God's full availability to me, my availability to him often happens in the form of a lapsed prayer pattern, a faded excitement for Scripture, apathy for worship, and cynicism about the his body, the church. There are times when you could look at my life and assume spiritual separation were normal, even expected. It's as if I've forgotten that God lives right here with me all the time—his Spirit in me. It's as if I never got used to having God around.
It's no mystery how this type of separation happens. I forget because I'm not doing the daily work of remembering. If I would set up my life so that I'd meet God every day—if I would make it more natural than not to sit with him at breakfast and talk with him in the hallway and simply listen for a bit at the end of a day—I would see so much of his glory and goodness that I couldn't help but be caught up.
The official term is spiritual disciplines: regular habits of interacting regularly with God, carving out time and focus so we can experience him and respond with the grateful obedience that results. Put simply, it's being with the one you love, and not merely by happenstance. Do you bump into God on occasion, or do you know him deeply because the two of you are living under the same roof?
Lent, which begins today, is a timely opportunity to develop the spiritual disciplines that make God familiar to his followers. It's a season in the traditional church calendar in which faithful Christians the world over will practice denying themselves in some way: denying a favorite snack, denying meals, denying habits and behaviors that steal life. Cravings will inevitably result; they will be tangible, bodily reminders of our human limitations and depravity. They'll help us be mindful of God and the scope of his sacrifice on our behalf. A simple act, an important remembering.
The mystery of fasting—whether from food or something less tangible—is that somehow God becomes present in the midst of it, right there in the fridge or in the cupboard or in the checkout aisle at the grocery store. We become more aware of him, more attentive to him, until we find we should've been missing him all along. Think of the possibility—to find that he is not far-off but close at hand, like a husband under our very own roof.
Lisa Velthouse chronicled her own six-month fast from sweets in the memoir Craving Grace: A Story of Faith, Failure, and My Search for Sweetness (Tyndale House.) A writer and speaker, Lisa blogs regularly at LisaVelthouse.com.
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