“Rifkin’s characters are ruined, desperate creatures, comic and soulful, perpetually in line for a ladle full of redemption.” —Hammer Museum
“Rifkin is what might have happened had Nathanael West lived on and been even more talented . . . . Exquisite.” —Kirkus Reviews
Consider the Richardsons
THE BORN-AGAIN COUPLE AS BONNIE AND CLYDE.
By Alan Rifkin
ABOUT A YEAR before I married the kind of religious Christian who
believes that the whole Bible is God’s inerrant word--including those
lines commanding wives to submit graciously to husbands--I remember
praying, with the sincerity that comes from real selfishness, for
God to send a godly Christian wife. This even given the fine print
of the next verse, commanding the husband to give himself up for his
partner just as Christ gave himself up for the church. Every man secretly
dreams of doing that anyway for someone who won’t laugh at him for
trying. Not that I thought it was possible to do so and still fit
anywhere in my old world, and the future will tell.
But it was a time for vulnerability and dreaming. I was divorced six years with a seven-year-old son. I’d been laid up half a year on my sofa from a basketball injury on Valentine’s Day, having tried to play against men half my age after sending unwelcome flowers to an estranged girlfriend who was younger than the men. I had never belonged to a church, even though in my part of the world a drive up Palo Verde Avenue toward the town of Bellflower was like a film loop of chapels interrupted by parks.
My image of a Christian single until then was Kelly, who was sexy and untouchable, who would listen to music in your bedroom but not dance, although she knew that you knew she could dance. She moved away to Santa Barbara in her thirties (almost overnight, on a vision) and rented a maid’s quarters there, working as a secretary for a church. I drove up and said hi a couple times, both of us pretending it wasn’t far out of my way, but we finally lost touch. She was damaged, like a lot of people who come to God, like me, but she had a raucous free laugh-a laugh that feared no one, a sibling, presexual laugh-and she was chastely touched by my sacrilegious crush on her, a response too knowing and gracious to have come from any of the women I used to date in those days. Implicit in her self-control, even to an outsider like me, was the understanding that if you married her she’d be wholeheartedly yours.
If God is who he claims to be, then any prayer starts out selfish in the deepest way; the ugliest facts about us form our most genuine offering, a fingerpainting in blood and jam. If we were so princely on our own, He wouldn’t need to be Him. Granted, I was praying to be a gift worth giving too-but I didn’t kid myself that my generosity matched my want. No one whose family history inspires any confidence in marriage bothers to pray the way I prayed. My whole motive was my belief that with a godly wife I was less likely to be abandoned or mutilated or betrayed, and the other particulars were fluff: that she would be a Daughter of the King, sewing curtains out of bedsheets, lovely in sandals, laughing at days to come-details inspired by Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and a book on how to save your marriage by prayer, which someone pressed upon my last wife right before she divorced me. So I wrote down and folded into my wallet this request for a partner and a playmate, a fitting word choice in a life shaped by Hefner.
As it happened, she pedaled up on a bike at a yard sale and made friends (she says she had a Mountaintop Moment, halfway between premonition and deja vu); later we discovered she was the acquaintance who’d loaned my former wife that book. She’d tried to be an angel, in other words, then lost her own husband to cancer after they’d had two children. She was everything I could want, despite needing a family almost as pathetically as I did-and for the first six months I was brilliantly reluctant. Who needed the baggage? But what I have to tell here is how grateful I am, not only for the cosmic coincidence of meeting and marrying the marriage-book girl, but for being unashamed to jump at it-for being impoverished, essentially, and letting myself be rescued from a divorced dad’s shitty excuse for a life. It will be my desert island book, this Love Life for Every Married Couple; you’ll have to pry it from my fingers while the house is burning down. Marriage being to me the most obvious path to the hardest lesson we’ve all got to learn-how to love another human-with all other roads leading backwards to dust. Versus forward, to a different kind of dust.
It changes something when you open yourself to the proposition that a transfiguring God, the God of the preachers, spoke literally about becoming One Flesh. On our honeymoon, not the first night but close enough, my wife examined my body for both erogenous zones and cancerous moles; I had been married twice before, and it wasn’t like this. Early on, wounded by her lukewarm reaction to my writing, I announced that I was done opening up “that area of my life,” provoking what in her eyes amounted to a crisis, if not a foothold for the devil. Later I was water baptized at her church’s Wednesday night Power Encounter, a public declaration of my inward decision, holding both sides of the tub as if I were waiting for the ride to begin, the mainland of casual spirituality drifting away.
A couple of times my wife and I have made love with such triumphant friendship and trust that it seems another species of sex altogether, one nonstop affirmation building to orgasm-momentarily intersecting the garden of freedom and security that partners without jaded pasts take for granted. (We’ve wondered; we’ve asked.) I’ve been spending more and more time with such people.
Before I got engaged, an editor I know told me that none of her married friends seemed happy-and I told her that all the marriages in my neighborhood seemed perfectly happy, as long as the men were Republican and workaholic. I didn’t know if it was true but it sounded provocative, and part of me believed it. All my images of marital harmony (whether fifties-stoical or modern-open) involved giving up trying. At the same time, I was encountering a community of born-again types who believed they were the real feely progressives, because they hadn’t given up on the opposite sex, and because they believed in being more intimate rather than less. The buzzword about marriage in my wife’s church was accountability. Men were accountable (both to their wives and other men) for “unclean thoughts,” women for “hardened hearts” and “critical spirits.” Saving each other from error was a sacred duty (from scripture: “speaking the truth in love”). Being a doormat by self-sacrifice was a pejorative, but only barely.
I first met the Richardsons at the Long Beach Christian Fellowship family Christmas celebration, with Doug the pastor beaming from the piano and Valerie leaning forward in a velvet chair with her ankles crossed and a children’s storybook in her lap. In what I thought was going to be a receiving-line encounter-an occasion to drop off a business card and leave-I told Valerie I wanted to write about the daily struggle of a real Bible-based Christian marriage, how life is for the sort of couple who would as soon die as broach the subject of divorce. She said, “Oh, how nice,” but dropped the subject immediately to welcome me and ask about me and tell me all the nice things she had noticed about my son. We didn’t do the interviews until nine months later.
DOUG RICHARDSON WEARS a square-bottomed plaid shirt, roomy jeans and loafers, with a pager on his belt. His full head of evangelical hair is brown and groomed back in the style of a count. The unlined face and sloping shoulders create an almost disturbing posture of exposure, halfway between Richard Nixon and Andy Kaufman, as though he were standing all alone beneath a shower. That is the slouch he assumes on stage Sunday mornings when he’s waiting to sing a new song to the Lord.
Valerie wears a black V-neck over pre-washed jeans and is almost too thin, with the haunted, waify beauty of a seahorse. Her voice is soothing, and she has a deep gallows laugh. When Doug was a nerdy twenty-year-old music minister and saw her picture in the wedding album of a friend, she was a new believer and wore her hair like Karen Carpenter. She must have made an impression in a bridesmaid’s dress, because he went home and told his parents he’d just seen the woman he would love for the rest of his life. Thirteen days later he proposed, acting on the courage to make himself a prophet or a fool.
At the time, Doug Richardson was not only a virgin, but had never had a girlfriend. From these facts, his parents derived that he meant business. “My mom and dad knew that kind of thing had never come out of my mouth, and they also knew they had a pretty strange kid.”.
Whereas Valerie was a woman with a past. Drugs, already married and divorced, and then Jesus.
Doug says, “My parents’ big concern was: is she a woman that really loves God, and how do we know that? And I said, Mother, I heard her pray.”
He brought a Dutch apple pie on his first visit to her house for tea. The next week, not to be outdone, Valerie made filet mignon and served it on her mother’s fine china. Their first restaurant was the El Torito in Huntington Beach, where Valerie disclosed her pre-religious wildness, not as any apology, and they cried. After two abortions and a divorce, she had followed the newly saved ex-husband to church. There a youth pastor looked in her eyes with a hand on each shoulder and repeated, so many times Valerie says she lost count, You are a child of the living God. “I knew what God did for me on the cross,” she says. “I’m not second-class in his kingdom in any way. But I wanted to make sure that Doug understood.”
Besides which, she thought he was a prince, with life in his eyes and a love for the Lord. They drove to Long Beach’s Terrace Theater, for the terrace, where they strolled with Valerie’s arm inside Doug’s, because she cut the inexperienced man a break and put it there.
Not that Doug Richardson was spotless. “There were patterns of self-hatred-inward things,” he says. “Some men’s sins, like the Bible says, are obvious, while the sins of others trail behind them. I didn’t actually do all the things that she’d done, but there were ways that were just as destructive, ways I rejected myself.”.
Valerie’s nature had been to shut down under stress or interrogation. Doug was a lifelong verbal processor. (“The poor woman,” he says devoutly. “The-poor-woman.”) They also had culture shock to overcome. Years into their marriage, when they saw a man smoking a joint of marijuana, Valerie had to tell Doug what it was. After a Christmas dinner where one of Valerie’s relatives, then addicted to drugs, slumped half-consciously onto a couch, Doug refused to accept the possibility that the man was loaded. “But honey,” he explained to her, “it’s Christmas!”.
On the other hand, what good was purity if it wasn’t fanatical? There was more to lose than gain, for example, by exposure to the culture of pop. Schindler’s List was an important movie, and they took themselves and their teenaged sons to see it. But Valerie shielded Doug’s eyes at his own request from the scenes of violence and heartless sex, because he knew the holding power of images in his head.
WHY THE MOST CONSERVATIVE evangelical churches in America always look the least sacred is, to anyone unfamiliar with Protestant history, one of God’s abiding mysteries. Doug Richardson’s explanation sounds as reasonable to a new Christian as any: God’s forever appearing in new forms. Which is why very few Sundays he turns the stage over to a worship band in Generation Y packaging (droning, acoustic), then courageously defends them against the intolerant spirits in the audience, who in reality are nowhere to be seen.
Afterward people mingle in the foyer where clannish banners hang and the bulletin board announces prayer meetings and Bible studies with names like “Ignite,” “Turning Point,” “Fresh Fire” and, for kids K-5, “Diggin’ Deeper.” Almost everyone of age is married (does domesticity lead to the harder drug of religion, or vice versa?), and a lot of the congregation’s roofers and floor guys and dry-wall contractors helped build the church itself, a block from the Long Beach Airport and across from a place that either produces or disposes of tufts and tumbleweeds of shredded aluminum.
Although Doug’s verbal manner always snaps back to cerebral, he preaches a message that is decidedly anti-intellectual (an upcoming men’s outing is torn between paintball and indoor rock climbing), a style so fixed within evangelical politics that the Christian right famously tried to embrace born-again Jimmy Carter, who opposed them on almost everything, and distrusted Episcopal George Herbert Bush, an Ivy-leaguer who agreed with them nearly across the board. By affiliation the Long Beach Christian Fellowship is nondenominational charismatic, by way of the Pentecostals, who took their name from the biblical ingathering of believers so passionate with the Holy Spirit that onlookers concluded they were drunk. Both Doug and Valerie recently graduated from King’s Seminary in the San Fernando Valley, whose online mission paragraph uses the term Spirit-filled three times. The Pentecostal litmus test of talking in tongues-unchallenged at LBCF but not really talked about, practiced politely in the spaces of songs-grew from historical events just up the 710 Freeway (the 1906 flowering of the Holiness Movement, the 1961 confession of a Van Nuys minister), a context that makes you look twice at stucco-dwelling California and ask if God’s plan is really experiencing a mighty unfolding here, as the Richardsons thought in the 1980s and still do.
From the start they had no one to please but God, which was simple enough, but this raised the stakes on their daily behavior. So the Richardsons planned their marriage by the Bible, and the Bible laid the challenge out neatly. First and foremost they were to “cleave to one another.” (“Anything that is a secret for you can be enjoyed in private, and this is what we are trying to do away with,” reads an advice column I saved from Christianity Today, titled “Why Affairs Happen.”) They were to leave their mothers and fathers for marriage, wives submitting graciously, and husbands loving their wives, and then a couple lines later each submitting “one to another,” a confusion that could drive anyone to Jesus. They were to be patient and kind and keep no record of wrongs, a text familiar to anybody who’s ever attended a wedding of any kind, with the difference being that to the Bible-based Christian it is a test for salvation.
One day, Doug tried to drag Valerie out of bed for a morning devotion. She gave him a look, and he backed off. The next day it occurred to him to prop her up with pillows and hand her a Bible and coffee and give her forty-five minutes to herself. “Churches were emphasizing order and structure,” he says, “and we tried.” She was working a swing shift after caring for their two small boys during the day. Doug needed to leave early to work at an aircraft facility, and morning was their only chance to pray as a couple.
The morning devotional never took in a formalized way. Instead, prayer became their background music. “We walk now at night,” Valerie says. “Sometimes we walk and talk, and sometimes we walk and talk and pray.”
But it seemed like a shaky start, with altars exploding all around them. “I remember Doug trying to Teach Us Around the Table.” Valerie’s laugh says where this idea went. “The boys had little workbooks they had to do.”
Doug’s face is so noncontesting, she moves to soften the blow instinctively. “It was sweet! But it wasn’t really...inspirational,” she says, and her tactfulness nearly gives way to laughter again.
Because they were obedient, God liked taking away the things they thought they knew, to show them that he was bigger than any preconception. Sometimes they would fight, and the fights seemed to get worse for a while. One time, inevitably, Doug pulled out Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians and said, “I’m the head-submit.” And Valerie said, “No, no, you’re supposed to earn it.” He’d pulled what was a trump card in their church, and she ripped it up, and they had to start again, broken before God.
I LIKED HEARING HOW they weathered their fights. One recent morning Doug jumped on Valerie for “rescuing” a manipulative congregant, and Val jumped on Doug for barfing up her history as a rescuer-“And I feel like I’ve come a long way, baby, from that history”-all before breakfast.
Doug: I eventually said, “Do you see how it could have sounded to me like you were rescuing?”
And Valerie said, “Yes, I could see that.”
Q: What do you do in the middle of a fight?
Doug: It depends. When you’ve been married for twenty-three years, you don’t have to be that skilled to decide where to go for dinner. But when you have a major conflict, that’s where you’ve got to have the goods. I would say in the first twelve, thirteen, fourteen years, we went into breakdown fairly often. [Breakdown is terminology from Breakthrough Training, a Christian relationship seminar developed in Santa Rosa, California.] Sometimes we would walk out of the room.
Valerie: Raise our voices. Or want to shut down.
Doug: The typical thing. I’d get mad, and as I’d go out the door-you know what I’m going to say-
Valerie: He starts thinking about me.
Doug: I’d end up shopping for her, buying her a card to make up.
Valerie: And I’d end up getting a call from his cell phone.
Doug: She always did have the capacity to stay mad longer.
Valerie: That’s a terrible thing.
Doug: It got her nervous, though, after a few years, when she noticed that I was starting to stay mad longer.
Valerie: It was what I’d been sowing into the relationship.
Doug: But that’s not the pattern today.
Valerie: I think one of the most wonderful tools we have-and I have to give Breakthrough credit for helping clarify this whole concept-is to ask yourself in the middle of conflict, what are you “committed to cause” for the other person? What do you want them to experience? Are they getting your heart? Because sometimes people get our words, but they don’t get our heart.
Doug: That’s the difference between being right and being authentic.
Q: Does the other one ever not want your heart?
Doug: I remember her being madder than a pistol one day, and in the midst of the altercation I realized: she’s pissed off, and I’ve caused this. She is ready to jump off a cliff. She is gone. She is Done With This Conversation. I remember taking hold of her arm and begging her, please, give me another chance. Let’s go again.
Valerie: Stay in it.
Doug: Please, don’t ditch the conversation. I know you have every reason to. Let’s just see if we can’t get through this.
Valerie: He salvaged that episode.
Doug: That’s because she got my heart. At that volatile point, she could tell: he’s getting that he’s been a jerk. And we finally turned it around.
Q (to Valerie): What about him not wanting your heart?
Valerie: He doesn’t get angry angry. I’ve seen him angry angry less than half a dozen times. And then it’s like [deeply feminine regret, as though she’d accidentally launched a nuclear missile]: Oh, my. This isn’t good. This is very bad. He’s never been violent or anything like that, but there have been times when I knew he was very angry, and [mortified laugh] I was the cause of it. But he was very forgiving when I came to that realization.
EARLY IN MY MARRIAGE I GOT JEALOUS. When my wife talked to other men she made deep, deep eye contact and was never the first to walk away, despite crying children, raised eyebrows, sulking guests. She either knew nothing about men’s conflicted motives, or knew all about them and needed the attention-an accusation I longed to make if I could do so without appearing...jealous. When I tell my life story, I can make it all about people being cheated on, people being left, people lashing out in fear of being left. The Richardsons respond to this confession by barely comprehending--and their innocence makes the goal of not passing despair on to another generation seem worth fighting to attain. Once, Doug told me, Valerie got hit on by the neighborhood mechanic, and afterward Doug corrected her in love-not for flirting (she hadn’t), but for missing the spiritual opportunity to tell the mechanic his behavior didn’t flatter him or her.
Falls from grace are everywhere. First there were the Bakkers, and then Jimmy Swaggart, straying onto the gravel motel parking lot of the heart, and then it was Jane Fonda, dropping Ted Turner for not following her into the Bible, perhaps failing to find the just-right scriptural self-reproach (“be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words when they see the purity and reverence of your lives”). The evangelical recording industry is an inferno all its own. Amy Grant divorced Gary Chapman, the host of Prime Time Country. Sandi Patty married backup singer Don Peslis, with whom she’d been having an affair. All told, Christian divorce is as common as secular divorce, with the adultery rate among pastors in ministry a weirdly impressive twenty three percent (Christianity Today).
The Richardsons do not run from these hissing grenades so much as stride right through. “I can’t believe it’s true among real believers,” Valerie says. It is her turn in this marriage to be incredulous. She is thumbing a copy of the L.A. Weekly, from the back, innocently encountering twenty pages of sex ads, which in Doug’s office recede as if through the wrong end of a telescope. To Doug’s mind, sexual “brokenness” (as he calls everything from homosexual lust to hetero porn) is everywhere, largely the church’s fault for not addressing it. God has given him an ability to speak this truth in love (he’d preached on masturbation one infamous Easter, the sanctuary filled with everyone’s visiting friends and family). He himself was molested by a relative in childhood. This is a man who’s done some work at leaving shame. A late bloomer in the department of openness.
“We live at the far end of the openness spectrum,” he says. “How many times a day do we say, a penny for your thoughts?”
A turning point, back before openness became intolerably necessary, was when Doug returned with Valerie from vacation to find a message from his best friend, the music pastor, confessing that he’d been hiding an affair. (Always the music pastor.) Two prominent couples were destroyed, and the congregation was in chaos, weeping and blaming; Doug continued preaching for a few weeks, having been struck somewhere between the shoulder blades, less advancing really than falling forward. He may not have been the most intimate fellow in the world (it seemed to signify something that his closest friend had never hinted about a problem), but no one ever said he wasn’t sensitive. For a few months he shut down, making everything worse. Finally he agreed with Val to have dinner at the Belmont Brewing Company with a couple who’d gone through Breakthrough Training and knew all the lingo, the sort of couple who, when you confessed what you were doing, would respond, “Is it working?”
Valerie went to Breakthrough first, where she says she learned to “experience the way others experience you.” She did this because relationships were the most important thing in life (“How can you say you love God whom you don’t see, when you hate your brother whom you do see?”), and what turned Doug around was that later, during his depression, she made a stand. They were driving to minister to a congregant, and he didn’t know if he could make it to the door. He said, “Honey, I believe that you love me more than anyone on earth. And I believe that God hears prayers of love. Would you put your hand on my heart and pray for me?”.
She put her hand on his heart and prayed, and he had “a physical manifestation. I felt strengthened in my body, and I was strengthened for the next two weeks while I was waiting to go to Breakthrough in Nashville. We know-I’m certain-I would never have got on the plane.”
She also told him he was more important to her than the church or what they did-a standard of self-sacrifice Doug began prescribing to husbands at LBCF, by telling them they would reap from marriage as they sowed. For a time, men cringed when he rose to the pulpit. Once, he directed couples to study a series of videotapes and books by the Christian relationship guru Gary Smalley, whose foundation for marital therapy is summarized in the all-capitals axiom:
IF A COUPLE HAS BEEN MARRIED FOR MORE THAN FIVE YEARS, ANY PERSISTENT DISHARMONY IS USUALLY ATTRIBUTABLE TO THE HUSBAND’S LACK OF APPLYING GENUINE LOVE.
Wives who lacked parental love themselves may be “difficult to deal with,” Smalley warned men, but this was an academic qualification, because “biblically speaking, you’re still responsible for the disharmony in your home”-the sort of Promise Keepers riff that, depending on whom you ask, either sugarcoats sexism or creates a booby-prize authority that only a man could want.
Doug Richardson is serene on this question, in a Christian sex-education way. “God has designed us physically so that men impart a seed and women receive it. And there’s a mirror to that emotionally, which is that women are ready to respond, but men have to be ready to contribute love. And when that’s absent, trouble ensues. Now, that’s not just my opinion-that’s twenty five years of pastoral experience in listening to couples’ stuff. Men are generally stupid, self-absorbed, and don’t have a clue what a relationship is about. Most women want intimacy, and most men don’t even know what it is. In our own marriage, there’s no doubt that I’ve brought most of the chaos, the long-term stuff that weighs us down.”
“It used to be that way,” Valerie says. “We’ve switched.”
In the past, after a fight, Doug used to worry Val might leave. Or, convinced no one could love him, he might say something preemptively harsh. But she’d call him on his put-downs, until he had no place to turn but to the proposition that a spouse was a sharpening stone. This was his prayer to God: “I’ll go anyplace and do anything, I just want you to deal with this part of my life.”
Sometimes the Richardsons sound like senior citizens though only in their forties, maybe because religion provides a shortcut to the kind of wisdom in which disappointment becomes the bread of contentment. I see this in people who’ve gone through decades together, or want to. Even the potential frills of religious marriage (the Bible says Doug’s body belongs to Valerie and hers to him-is God sure?) are too deep to be strictly fun. To an outsider, all the misgivings are about the cost. I ask if it honors God to give yourself sexually if you aren’t in the mood.
“Being in the mood has become such a mutual thing to us,” Valerie says. “We become sensitive to each other’s needs.”
During one bad period they were challenged to deal with sexual loneliness, on account of Doug’s rheumatoid arthritis. “It was all I could do to get through a day. Sometimes I’d have to stop my day and go home. And anything that wasn’t a necessity was impacted.”
“But I never felt detachment from him emotionally,” Valerie says. “We kept connected largely due to his desire to know what was going on inside of me. I always felt we were intimately connected.”
Inevitably, they’ve led Christian marriage retreats. These differ from the world of secular self-help somewhat in tone, though maybe not so much from Cosmo, addressing the opposite sex from a perspective of Care and Feeding. Partners are told to think up ways to “Meet Your Partner’s Physical Needs” and “Increase Spontaneous Loving Acts,” and “Support Him Through Loving Prayer.” To close, there are romantic dinners with ceremonial recitals.
“I sang ‘Unforgettable’ to you,” Doug remembers.
“Oh, you sang it to me, and Gail was singing it to Bill.” Their friend Gail died of cancer not long after. “She had a beautiful voice. That was a great memory,” Valerie says.
“Do you remember we were recarpeting the boys’ room that night, and the sample we’d picked happened to be called ‘Unforgettable’?”
Valerie’s jaw drops. “How did you remember that!” she says. “It was unforgettable!”
Doug is not a great funny man. He surprises himself too much.
Some of the Richardson’s marital recommendations evoke Dilbert’s America: mission statements, Unified Visions. Each week, one spouse should say to the other: What is it we want to accomplish? “We take it right down to the practicalities,” Doug says. “Not just, what am I doing, or what are you doing. But is family the number one thing? Do we want to call the kids and have them over for dinner? So we’re actually doing things according to what’s important to us, as opposed to being absorbed by being busy. When we let work or responsibilities dictate our lives, we’re unhappy.”
Vision-sharing, an obsession with translating prophesy into earthly detail, is important in the culture of LBCF. When a congregant says he wants to be more trusting of God or more honoring of his wife, the stock response is: what would that look like? One husband might commit to pursuing his wife by leaving her a note each day (God pushing him to grow; he hates writing). Another has agreed to purchase internet software that will notify his wife where he’s been online. That Doug leads and outdoes the flock in sheer zealotry is a running joke among some of these guys, who had to sit next to their own wives in church the Sunday Doug announced he was building Valerie a meditation garden in their side yard.
Small gifts and gestures are nice but less crucial from the wife. Asked to name a counterpart gesture from Valerie, one church elder winks, “She’s lived with Doug.”
YET I FEEL I OWE SOME EXPLANATION as to where my own marriage and religious life are heading now; this won’t be easy, because I don’t happen to know. I want my wife and me to be as married as the Richardsons, without quite becoming them-not that we could, but I am drawn. I am drawn. I don’t have a hostile question to ask them, if you’re waiting for something like that. I am sad that however cleansed my baptized soul may be, my life to date isn’t. And confronted by a cleanliness as hard-won and preserved as Doug Richardson’s, I feel like a bit of a creep, I feel like hitting him, and then I know that I honestly admire him, admire them both like the bride and groom on a cake, and this drama feels about as old as life.
I’m someplace far upriver from my comfort zone, a dislocation so thorough that the vista from my suburb in North Long Beach sometimes takes on an aspect of time travel. The guys in my men’s group would say this is good, that it’s natural that the first fruit of prayer would be the demolition of my prejudices, the expansion of my world. Unless in the guise of a seeker what I really am is a chameleon, fodder for gangs and cults and whoever has loved me most, in which competition Christ’s sacrifice may be said to have effectively closed the bidding.
Not that religion itself is such a shocking development in middle life. But ultrareligion might follow, if you’re sincere. You will read the Bible asking God and only God to show you if it’s all true and if you’ve been an ass. Prayer will become, to paraphrase William Temple, not the support to a life of action, but the whole point of life, which action tests. You will pray out loud with people on the phone and with guests over dinner, as I have, sometimes with such humble inspiration that we’ve cried, other times so fraudulently that I break into a sweat, certain that I had more of God in the old days, when I was honestly confused. And so on, at the outskirts of organized belief.
After a full year of marriage I’m being coached to make promises. My wife now has the right to stop me in the middle of any argument if she doesn’t get that I’m for her, and demand humility, whether she’s confessed her part of the problem or not. She has played this card two or three times. I myself went to Breakthrough Training. In one game involving a shipwreck, I had to shout dying words explaining to my family why I wasn’t voted a seat on the lifeboat (three out of forty-one people survived). If that thought doesn’t make you give your whole heart to the people in your life-now, today-it shines a reasonably hard light on your excuses.
I do believe that God will have his way with my new family, and as scary as the Bible may be, it’s a love story, holding marriage above virtually everything, blessing marriage to the point that there’s no such thing as a mistake in what God has joined together-that to sell everything, even your soul, for love is to gain it. Bringing outlaw romantics full circle. The Richardsons as Bonnie and Clyde.
SO WE TALK ABOUT LOVE, and I can picture them still as they were on their first date at the Terrace Theater going safely, almost unfairly, in a swoon. If they were doing love and marriage all for themselves, you would have to hate them. Valerie quotes St. Peter: you’ve been blessed to be a blessing. “So if we do this, our marriage has a blessing quotient. Nonbelievers might be blessed by it.”
“The bottom line,” says Doug, “is that the cross has dealt our selfishness a death blow. Relationships don’t work, because people are selfish.”
Maybe to challenge himself on that point, Doug lobbed a small bombshell at the congregation last fall, announcing that Valerie would be ordained co-pastor of the church. In some gender individual-snowflake way unique to the Richardsons, you could see this trying to happen-Doug the Pygmalion, both absorbed in his wife’s untapped potential and fantasizing about an occasional breather from his role as the oddly cast patriarch. Nevertheless it was going to be a difficult sell. Paul’s words in the Bible (“not suffer a woman to teach”) seemed inconvenient to say the least, and for two straight Sundays the largely conservative congregation fidgeted and took notes while Doug turned academic, explaining the epistle to the Ephesians as a “contextual particularity,” addressed to an age when education had been limited to men.
The date arrived. Guest speaker Dr. Paul Chappel, King’s Seminary, Who’s Who in Religion, touched all the bases of the Richardsons’ story: that they were called to the Lord, and then to each other, and then to Long Beach to do a new work. He retraced the movement of the Holy Spirit through the history of the Pentecostal Charismatic movement (representing 530 million followers worldwide, Chappel claimed, two thirds of those who newly come to the kingdom of God) to his own quickening, that led him to call Valerie to head the King’s Seminary Committee on Women in Ministry. He invited her up to the stage, and she sat down in that velvet chair in which no one reclines, hands folded over the book in her lap that this time was her Bible, the elders of the Long Beach Christian Fellowship surrounding her, hands laid on to pray, Doug standing nervous and proud.
And here things got confused: whether this was Valerie’s ordination or Doug’s retirement, whether he was empowering his wife or himself, whether she was fulfilling her destiny or his, whether one helping another ever failed to help oneself. I get your heart, Valerie said to the congregation in Breakthrough language. I get your love for me. Slowly at first but then heartily, Dr. Chappel spoke in tongues, a lot of people wept, adoring their royal couple, celebrating the Richardsons’ marriage, and from the back of the room you could see the whole group around the couple listening with heads bowed for a new word from God. Finally Doug released the parents in attendance to retrieve their children from Sunday school classes, because the praying was going to continue for a long time.