Gap between ideal, real can leave us disappointed

You dated his representative.

But you married him.

A counselor said that to a young woman who came to him because the dream of romance had become the reality of daily life with an imperfect man, a man who had a habit of celebrating bodily odors and making crude comments. Six years of marriage had taken their toll.

You dated his representative.

But you married him.

This is a common experience in all areas of human life. We often balk at the experience of moving from the ideal to the real, from heaven to earth.

The poet T.S. Eliot once wrote: “Between the idea and reality/Between the motion and the act/falls the shadow.”

We live in the shadows between the ideal and the real. This is true in marriage, careers, parenthood and in the church.

In the 1500s, a French political philosopher, Montaigne, addressed a crowd in this way: “Oh my fellow democrats, there are no democrats.”

Montaigne meant that we always fall short of great ideas and ideals. We never live up to lofty claims and identities completely.

The Apostle Paul in Romans 3:23 put is this way, more than a thousand years before Montaigne: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The move from the ideal to the real often disappoints and depresses us. But we forget something. We forget that God blesses “the real.” God moves from heaven to earth in what we call “the Incarnation.” God becomes human flesh in the person of Jesus. Christianity does not deny the material world; rather, it affirms it.

In our adult Sunday school classes, we have been discussing Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross.” The Theology of the Cross gives up pretending to perfection. Luther developed his view of the cross by reading the teachings of Jesus and the apostle, Paul. The Theology of the Cross helps us admit to human limitations in thought, word, and deed. The Theology of the Cross enables us to see that Christians can experience fear, doubt, and failure in this world as we travel the road of faith.

God chose to work with real humanity and to become one of us in the person of Jesus, a Jew born in the first century. This has been called “The Scandal of Particularity.”

Christianity is not about “universals.” Instead, it is about “particulars.”

I mentioned the young woman who came to her counselor in despair over the universal of “romance” becoming “the particular” in her husband. Her counselor was wise. He told her she had dated her husband’s “best foot,” but marriage reveals the other foot. Someone told me, years ago: “We put our best foot forward; but it’s the other one that needs our attention.” The ideal becomes real in daily life.

The young woman’s counselor was wise. He helped the young woman see other aspects of her husband beside his celebration of bodily odors and his crude comments. The counselor helped her see things she could celebrate.

She began to remember how her husband’s eyes smiled when he held their children in his arms. She remembered her husband’s eyes filling with tears when he saw the suffering of an elderly woman who lived next door. She remembered him picking up extra groceries and taking them to a homeless shelter in their town. She remembered him offering to help do building maintenance at a local shelter for abused women and children. She remembered him taking the time to stop and talk with people that many other folks tend to avoid. She often marveled at how he valued those who are often devalued by most people.

In short, she remembered that her husband was not only about the celebration of bodily odors and making crude comments. He was also about specific acts of love and caring for his family and for the community.

The young woman concluded: “Life is a mixed bag, and so is my husband.” Indeed, reality contains both curses and blessings.

God came into a real world in the person of Jesus. God continues to call together a real people called “The Church.” In that Church, and in our specific churches, we realize that we are all “a mixed bag.” We have wrong ideas about what “church” is; and we have right ideas about what “church” is. We sometimes do the wrong things as a church; and we sometimes do the right things in response to the gospel.

We are all “a mixed bag.” At work, at church, and at home we leave a trail of dirty laundry. But we also become a source of great blessing to our families, to our community, and to our church — as God continues to become flesh in, with, and under our communities of faith and our practices.

The Rev. Larry Isbell is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Columbus. He can reached at