Terms of Endearment
Terms of Endearment
Lamentations 3:19-26; Luke 17:5-10
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
The Book of Lamentations does not come around that often in our Biblical rotation. That could be for many reasons, but I think it has to do with the tone of the book – it is quite a downer. The name of the book suggests that it will not be all hearts and flowers, Lamentations, but that is a translation of equivalence. Traditionally, in the Hebrew, the title of the book is ‘ekah which is the first word of the first verse. ‘Ekah translates to the word “how.”
How could any of this have happened to us?
Lamentations is a reflection on the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The city deserted, the people scattered. In the third chapter there is a slight shift as the dark grief of the preceding lines gives way to a moment of hope.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Even after disaster, even after all the suffering that has come, there is a break in the clouds. God’s love is steadfast, his mercy eternal, and so the people may take comfort in the faithfulness of God and in turn have faith for themselves.
The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
And so the people must wait. They must wait in longing and with hope.
This week, I watched a movie I had not seen in years, Terms of Endearment. It is not a movie I would typically watch, all about relationships. Who wants to watch that? Give me something with action or comedy, not relationships. And not just relationships, but complicated relationships, strained relationships. Difficult relationships evolving over time.
The movie is about a mother and daughter, Aurora and Emma. Aurora, played by Shirley MacLaine, is beautiful but stiff, dressed carefully at all times as if she was posed. Emma, played by Debra Winger, is completely different: wild, freewheeling, impulsive. She is beautiful in a far less careful way, embracing life rather than keeping it at arm’s length. Compare that to her mother who, like her namesake the aurora, is beautiful but distant, a force of nature to be looked upon rather than held close.
The first scene of the movie shows Aurora in her infant daughter’s bedroom, concerned that the baby is not breathing. Her husband from off screen tells her that the baby is fine, but she will not be dissuaded from checking. She actually tries to climb into the crib. She is wearing high heels and a tight skirt and cannot manage the exercise. So she reaches in and pinches the baby awake. As the baby cries, Aurora walks away saying, “That’s better.” Aurora is satisfied that the girl will live through the night and leaves the baby awake and unhappy.
Now some may think that this was a crazy thing to do. The baby was quiet, so why wake her up? Why not take comfort in what the husband said, that the baby is fine. Leave her alone. I can only share with you my memories of being a new parent. Panicked all the time, our heads filled with every form of catastrophe waiting to happen. Checking breathing, listening for croup or pneumonia or filling-in the blank with some alarming diagnosis.
In the movie, time jumps ahead to reveal that Aurora’s husband has died. Emma is maybe 8 years old. After the service, Aurora goes into Emma’s bedroom and wakes her up out of a sound sleep. Aurora claims that she was tense and asks the girl how she is feeling. Well, she was asleep. Aurora then asks if Emma would like to sleep in the mother’s bed. Emma says no, but then asks Aurora if she would like to sleep in Emma’s little bed with her, just as she had done the night before. Aurora had difficulty with things being out of place, including her feelings.
In the gospel reading, the apostles were also having difficulties. They ask Jesus to increase their faith. Why ask for this?
Jesus had just cautioned them that occasions for stumbling, for sin, were bound to come into their lives. He explained that woe to anyone to whom those occasions for sin might come, meaning woe for everyone it seems. And better that a millstone be hung around their neck and they be thrown into the sea than to have one of the little ones stumble because of them. Jesus was referring to other disciples for whom the apostles stood in a relationship of responsibility.
Jesus explained “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Even a little faith is a powerful thing, strong like the taste of mustard even if otherwise small. Having faith then is one thing, applying it is another. Faith not just in the moment, but cast out into the future, into the unknown.
Jesus then likens them to slaves, slaves who do what is expected without reward, without praise. What did you expect a medal for doing what you were supposed to do? Do what you are supposed to do.
In the movie, the relationship between mother and daughter, Aurora and Emma, is often tense. What is expected by the mother does not coincide with what is desired by, or done by, the daughter.
Emma was planning to marry a man, who goes by the name of Flap. I learned this was a corruption of the name “Phillip” which a young Flap could not say. “Flap” is not a subtle way of portraying this man who becomes the embodiment of a dispute. Aurora does not approve of Flap, who plans to be an English professor, which is too modest an ambition for someone marrying her daughter. Aurora discusses her misgivings with Emma on the day before the wedding. This is an odd conversation.
It begins with Aurora explaining that she was trying to decide what gift to give her daughter for the wedding. For example, an original Renoir painting that is a prized possession. But then she shifts quickly to her concerns, that marrying Flap would ruin Emma’s life and “make wretched her destiny.” A dramatic segue. Aurora then tells her daughter that she is not special enough to overcome a bad marriage. Ouch.
Emma is not happy and says that if that is the mother’s attitude, she should not bother showing up for the wedding. Aurora takes all that in dispassionately. She looks down and nods as if it were a point of discussion rather than a pointed comment from her increasingly annoyed daughter. Aurora decides that it was her hypocrisy of going along with the bad marriage that was bothering her. She takes Emma up on her offer and chooses not to attend the wedding. This style of weirdly strained relationship continues throughout the movie.
I read one description of the movie as portraying a love-hate relationship between mother and daughter. When I think about it, however, I do not get any sense of hate between the two women. It is not a simple dynamic of unconditional love, by any means. Instead, it is conditioned love. Love bounded and ranged, love with expectations.
The title of the movie, Terms of Endearment, on one level reflects the kind of language often expected within a relationship. Honey, dear, sweetheart: words used to convey a sense of feeling toward a person we love. It could be a pet name, a nick name, even an ongoing inside joke.
Terms of endearment can refer to the names we use for the people we love. But it could also have another meaning. The terms of endearment, or the term sheet within a relationship: in other words, the conditions placed upon and around the love we have for one another. We hear about unconditional love. And yet the relationships we have with family, friends, and even spouses are often filled with structure, fraught with expectations. These are the terms of our endearment.
What do I mean? Think about your relationship with someone, past or present. Aren’t there specific ways in which you were expected to act? Patterns of behavior that came into being, sometimes consciously but often without much thought or question. Christmas is at grandma’s house. Dad always sits in a certain chair. My friends and I gather at the same sports bar during the holidays year after year. Firm handshakes and steady eye contact, always.
These are not ironclad rules set down somewhere, but imagine casting them all aside. Imagine doing everything differently. The relationship in question may not be broken by the changes, but it might be uncomfortable, certainly unfamiliar. And if someone else is the one deciding to make that change without asking you, you might be hurt by the change. Upset that the terms of endearment have been cast aside without so much as a discussion.
This shifting of relationships happens throughout the movie. Emma moves away, from Houston, Texas to Des Moines, Iowa. Flap has taken a teaching job at a university there. Emma hears the news of the position and is ambivalent. This does not sit well with her husband, but she says to him that he must have known she would not be happy. She says, “Let’s be honest with each other before we start pretending.” Emma was used to a bluntly honest relationship with her mother, one often devoid of niceties. She was not interested in creating pretenses in her marriage.
Maybe that is a “term” of some relationships. Not outright lying necessarily, but some level of pretense. We will not talk about that. That your husband is not what I expected, that you are not living up to my expectations. As Flap once says about Aurora, she only holds her daughter in medium esteem.
There can be a way of speaking that softens the blow, that avoids confrontation. Maybe you are upfront and honest with one person but with someone else it would be too hard, too hurtful, too complicated. And when you are used to one way of being, of behaving, it can be difficult to translate one’s behavior into another setting.
Say I come from a straightforward family – call it blunt and tactless. Then I go into another family’s setting and act like that. It might come as a shock. There are different terms of endearment to follow but I do not know what to do.
The readings allude to this. The people of Israel are lamenting their fate because their way of life has been destroyed. They do not know what to do, where to turn, how to act. In the midst of that, they still have hope, hope that their way of being might be restored through the steadfast love of God. And so change for the better means a change back to what was.
The apostles were asking for their faith to be increased because they thought that would prevent them from going astray. Or, worse, leading someone else astray. But Jesus explains that it is not about the amount of faith. Even a small amount of faith was enough. The hard part, the missing piece, was a change in expectations.
What did you expect faithfulness to look like? It is ordinary, everyday, one step after the other, without reward or praise. Just like a marriage is not one long wedding reception, a life of faith is not a string of miracles. It is a life one step at a time, one day at a time, with and among the people we care about.
And that can be hard. Aurora lives a carefully planned life. Flowers arranged, clothes perfect. She has male admirers all around, one might call them worshipers. It is creepy. She keeps them around but at a distance emotionally. She develops, however, an infatuation for a man who lives next door. He is an aging astronaut, played by Jack Nicholson. A man frequently drunk and often with young women.
In one scene Aurora is celebrating her 50th birthday with her male worshipers. One of them, her doctor, tells her that it is ridiculous to lie about her age, which is in fact 52. She storms out and goes to her astronaut neighbor. He had crudely propositioned her 5 years before and she suddenly went to take him up on the offer. Confused, he nonetheless accepts.
This leads to a date. A date which at one point has the astronaut standing up through the sunroof of a speeding Corvette, steering it with his foot while Aurora floors the accelerator. It ends with him catapulting into the Gulf of Mexico when she pulls the emergency brake as they speed along the shoreline. Inexplicably, this date leads to an extended romantic relationship, one that lasts until he breaks it off when it becomes too intense. She wanted more of him than he was willing to give. But Aurora desperately needed him to bring her back down to earth.
The movie takes a sad turn about this time. Emma suspects that her husband is having an affair and she in turn takes up with another man, a rather boring banker, a straight-laced Iowan eager to be with this wild-seeming Texan. Emma and Flap separate but reconcile when he decides without asking her to move jobs to a college in Nebraska. Emma soon discovers that the move was to allow Flap to follow his grad student girlfriend. And it all goes about how you would imagine from there.
There is an even sadder turn when Emma discovers by chance that she has cancer. Treatments do not work. She does not get better. Emma then has to choose what will happen to her children after she dies. Do they go with her philandering husband off in Nebraska, a man who works constantly and has had little involvement in raising the children? Or do they go with her mother Aurora, who is still as blunt and fussy and peculiar as ever? Emma decides, along with her reluctant husband, that there is no other choice than to send the children to live with Aurora.
As Emma is dying, she has two important conversations. She speaks to her two sons, perhaps 10 and 6 years old. The younger boy, Teddy, is inconsolable, crying as his mother says good bye to them one last time. The older boy, Tommy, does not cry. Emma tells him that she does not want him later on to feel guilty that he was mad at her for that last year. Mad about her fighting with his father. Mad about her leaving him now and forever. And she tells him not to feel guilty that he could not bring himself to say that he loved her even at the end. Their terms of endearment were clear, still there regardless.
The other conversation was with her mother. Aurora at one point gets flustered and says she does not want to spend their limited time together fighting. Emma states that they were not fighting. Aurora responds that they were, that she always thinks of them as fighting. Emma explains that that is how Aurora sees it, from her end, because she has never been satisfied with Emma. The scene ends. Unspoken is the message that Emma has always been satisfied with Aurora. Their terms of endearment were unspoken.
No praise or adulation. No dear, honey or sweetheart. Barely an “I love you.” Is the love there even when it is unspoken? Even when we think about love in certain ways, with certain expectations?
When two people love each other and yet do not know how the other person tries to manifest that love, it can seem like there is no love. Hearing “I love you” a thousand times may not be enough. The words cannot find their way into the person who just wants to hold your hand instead or feed you until you burst. Some people do not ever speak of love yet their love can still be heard loudly. And others can talk about love all the time and fall far short of the mark.
The steadfast love of God is not in what we receive. It is not to be found in the light of the sun only to then be lost in the still of the night. The love of God is not to be measured out in blessings and tallied up with miracles. To understand God’s love is to comprehend unspoken love, to feel it without hearts and flowers. It is there amidst our joys and sorrows, always without ceasing.
But it takes faith. A little bit of faith. Faith that it is there though the nights are long. Faith that it is there though the road is hard. Faith that love endures amidst suffering and love survives beyond our many failures, our many sins.
The love of God is not conditioned upon who we are but on how willing we are to open ourselves to it. It may seem like God is mad at us, fighting with us all the. But in fact, that is how we see God, what we somehow come to expect of God.
What if God does not feel that way at all? We may be dissatisfied with God but what if God is not dissatisfied with us? We may want more, expect more from our terms of endearment with God. But that may have far more to do with our love of God than anything to do with God’s love for us.