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Bob and Sue Prunebottom were a few years into their marriage when Sue felt the need to challenge Bob on the lack of romance they were experiencing. Gone were the days when he initiated exciting and unexpected events that brought the two of them together romantically. Now their marriage consisted of a steady diet of predictable rituals and routines that maintained stability but lacked passion. This was, understandably, not enough for Sue. Bob agreed and committed to taking the initiative to help rekindle some of the former romance they had shared together.
One Tuesday evening, around six thirty, the door bell rang: ding, dong. Sue went to the door to find little Maureen Tupperman, their usual babysitter. Sue was surprised since she knew she hadn’t booked Maureen, and she was even more surprised when Maureen explained: “Mr. Prunebottom booked me.” Now this was a first. Bob had called the babysitter all on his own?
Sure enough, Bob came to the door, welcomed in little Maureen, and asked Sue to head upstairs and put on whatever she would enjoy wearing out on the town. Wow. Romance was returning.
Sue came down minutes later in a beautiful red dress and off they drove together. They pulled into the parking lot of a fancy little Italian restaurant. As they walked in the front door, they were cheerfully greeted by the manager. “Your table is all ready, Mr. Prunebottom,” he said with a knowing smile. Then he led the couple to a charming, candle-lit table for two in the back corner of the restaurant. Waiting for Sue at her place setting was a card with her name on it. She opened it to see something beautiful. It wasn’t the usual Hallmark special with a prefab message and Bob’s signature. It was a simple card with no factory message on the inside, but a deeply thoughtful, handwritten note from Bob about his love for – and delight with – Sue.
As the evening progressed, Bob and Sue enjoyed a truly meaningful conversation over candlelight and wine. When the dessert came, Bob reached under the table and pulled out Sue’s favorite flower – a single, stunning blue rose. His thoughtfulness down to the last detail was a precious gift to Sue, and she was moved to tears.
That week was one of the most wonderful weeks of their married life. Bob’s intentionality, mindfulness, and creative initiative filled Sue with renewed hope for the future. And Bob was feeling like he had become the husband he always wanted to be. “How can I make this last?” Bob wondered.
The next Tuesday night, at exactly six thirty, the door bell rang: ding, dong. Sure enough it was young Maureen Tupperman. Sue was again taken aback, especially when she learned that Mr. Prunebottom had made the arrangements again. Two weeks in a row! thought Sue. I could get used to this!
She did think it was a bit odd when Bob encouraged her to put on that same red dress that she wore the previous week, but gladly made herself ready for another night out together. As they pulled into the parking lot of the same little Italian restaurant, Sue thought to herself that Bob might not get full marks for creativity this time, but a night out was a night out, and she would be happy with their evening together. She was again touched to find a card waiting for her at the same table at the back of the restaurant. But her delight turned to disappointment when she saw that Bob had written almost exactly the same words on the inside. Now the evening was beginning to feel not romantic but just plain weird. Refusing to draw attention to Bob’s lack of creativity, Sue determined to enjoy the night. Bob ordered the exact same meal as the week previous, and as the evening moved forward Sue became aware of how he manipulated their conversation to cover the same basic relational territory as the week before. Now Sue could almost hear the Twilight Zone theme playing in the back of her mind. Whenever she tried to take their conversation in a new direction, Bob seemed to find a way to bring it back to the same issues, the same questions, even the same jokes that passed between them the former Tuesday. For Sue, the evening went from feeling weird to feeling suffocating. A part of her wanted out, yet another part of her wanted to give Bob every benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the joke would soon end. It came as no surprise that when dessert arrived Bob reached under the table and pulled out – you guessed it – a single blue rose. Sue received it polite gratitude, but the tears that welled up in her eyes this night were for a different reason.
Bob and Sue enjoyed and cordially but mildly distant relationship that week, until the following Tuesday evening, at six thirty, when Sue heard: ding, dong. Once again Bob manipulated Sue through a scripted evening of supposed romance. Very little was different from the previous two Tuesdays. Now Sue was plainly discouraged. Visions of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day kept coming to mind. Sure enough, the following Tuesday at six thirty: ding, dong. And a week later: ding, dong. And so on, and so forth, Tuesday after Tuesday, blue rose after blue rose.
And today, if you asked Bob how his marriage is doing, he would probably smile with a sense of accomplishment and say, “I romance my wife religiously.” He might even boast about finding the secret to a successful relationship and encourage you to follow his system for a healthy marriage.
If you were to ask Sue how things are going, you know you would get a different take on things. Most likely, she would burst into tears and tell you she feels trapped, imprisoned in a loveless relationship by someone who means well, but who doesn’t have a sweet clue what relationship is all about. And me, I’m left wondering if this is how God feels sometimes.
Bob mistook the form for the substance. He turned their relationship into a kind of religion. He lost the heartconnection with his wife. The fact is, after months of Bob’s dinner routine, Sue could have been dining with anyone who had memorized their dating traditions. Love was unnecessary. The system Bob created allowed him to function on autopilot.
This illustrates why Jesus always – ALWAYS – puts the emphasis of his teaching on heart issues, not behavioral routines. If the heart is right, loving actions will follow.
Routines. Rituals. Customs. Traditions. They can be used to enhance or to kill intimacy. Over time, intentional thoughtfulness can be lost since the routines do all the thinking for us. We are left with something that looks good on the outside, but is filled with nothing but the bones of a long-dead relationship. This is true of any relationship, including our relationship with God.
Excerpt from The End of Religion: Encounter the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus by Bruxy Cavey