Marriage and the Means of Grace

I’ve been married for thirty years to a man I absolutely adore. When my husband and I met, we were not practicing Christians. We shared an interest in the faith and a history of it, but spiritually we were far from home. It wasn’t until we’d dated three years and were married for four that spiritual fires were kindled in our marriage.

Since then, we’ve made every possible mistake, some of which should have been the death of us. But God, in his mercy, has not only preserved our covenant but has given us beauty for ashes, the oil of joy and the garment of praise.

For all the mistakes, there are three things we’ve done intentionally that I believe have made all the difference in the health and duration of our marriage: tithing, prayer and Sabbath-keeping.

Tithing taught us to approach life as givers. It helped us make the mental shift from consumption to generosity and that has taken the fire out of any money-based arguments we might have had. We approach our finances, our investments and our possessions as givers.

That sounds like something a pastor would say, right? But I’m convinced that this shift in our approach to family finances has made all the difference in the world in how we talk about money (which, statistically, is the most divisive topic in a marriage). Rather than talking about what we make and what we want, our most animated discussions are about what we give and to whom. It has made us more appreciative of the work of others and sort of stunned by the fact that the funds never seem to run out. There is a lot to be said for approaching life as a giver.

The second thing we’ve done has to do with prayer. They say that about 50% of all marriages in the U.S. fail, and that statistic holds whether a couple is “Christian” or not. Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t improve the odds. But in marriages where two people who call themselves Christian pray daily together, they say that the odds of success are dramatically improved (a study I read years ago said that only one in a thousand ends in divorce, when couples pray daily together). If those stats are even close to right, then it really is true that the family that prays together, stays together.

The ability and comfort we have in praying together daily is such a gift in our marriage. Praying together does two things in a marriage. First, because it is such a real and intimate thing, it is a place where you really get to hear the other person’s heart. People tend to be more honest, more transparent when they pray. Second, because it is a prayer, God hears it. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered together, he is right there with them. So if you want to make that triangle thing happen in your marriage, prayer will do it for you. Prayer is like a zipline that takes you immediately into God’s presence.

So we tithe and we pray together daily. And the third thing we’ve done intentionally to build our marriage is to observe a Sabbath.
In other words, we pay, we pray, and we play!

Sabbath. Every major figure in the Bible talked about this habit. Jesus himself was faithful to practice it. The Bible in both testaments claims it as the key to healthy living — spiritually, mentally and physically. And yet, we rarely discuss it and seldom take it seriously. It runs consistently through the Bible, but it’s the one thing I’ve consistently and dangerously neglected in my own life.

When we first came to Augusta to plant a church, I was really wrapped up in the work. I got so wrapped up in it, in fact, that I began to neglect not only my family but my own spiritual life. And I was a pastor! Somewhere along the way, we decided that the only way for us to restore some kind of rhythm to our lives was to begin practicing a day of rest every week — one day when we could cease work and worry and just be with each other. It is a day we rest, play and sleep. In other words, we try to just enjoy life.

Sabbath gives a holy rhythm to the practice of our faith, and it has been the one thing in our home that has the power to calm the storms.

Because I’m a pastor and work on Sunday, my Sabbath is 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday. My husband usually takes the whole day on Saturday as his Sabbath. We’re not legalistic about it. There are plenty of Saturdays taken up by mission projects at the church and by paperwork that needs to be caught up on. And laundry. But there are also naps and slow lunches, second cups of coffee and plenty of time to talk. We don’t do the Sabbath perfectly every week but we do make it our goal because this is one way we get our lives back in line with God’s design.

Here’s what we’ve learned after thirty years of giving this our best shot: You will never make enough money to make yourself happy, and you will never have enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Tithing, prayer and Sabbath are ways of trusting God and for us, they have been the means of grace that have made this union a treasure.

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Six Ways to Communicate Like an Adult

I believe healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community. Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls. And good communication proves we are the adults in the room, and not just children with adult bodies.

As a leader, it becomes a high priority for me to develop a habit of communicating in ways that foster grace, sensitivity and understanding. If I learn to do this, those around me will not only respond with good will, but will hopefully adopt those habits and pass them along in their circles.

If I want to make the practice of healthy communication a priority this year in my church, home or organization, here are six things I’d do to get started:

1. Say more. What we think of as “over-communicating” is likely the amount needed for someone to get it. Never mind what you think they need; start with what they actually need.

Are your meetings under-attended? Do people in your church have a habit of saying, “I didn’t hear about that”? Even after you’ve said it more than once? It is possible they are dumb, but more likely they are just good people who haven’t heard.

Try this assumption: Assume people have a lot going on in their lives, a lot more than just the stuff you want them to pay attention to. And with that assumption in mind, give your folks the benefit of more information than you might think they need. I guarantee it will build good will. People will be grateful for your sensitivity to their over-crowded lives.

2. Affirm more. I learned this from Paul. You’ll notice that in most of Paul’s letters, even those where he’s obviously frustrated, he begins with encouragement. From that biblical pattern, I glean that I need to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say before I can say anything at all.

Start every conversation with affirmation. It helps right-size expectations, so the gap between what people are doing and what we think they ought to be doing is less noticeable.

3. Blast less. When I assume the worst and blast someone with a lot of negative words, I erode trust. Send enough email bombs and I’ll produce someone who cringes when they see my name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and I’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

Here’s the decision I’ve made where corporate communication is concerned: I will not send any emotion by email/ text/ facebook message/ twitter that isn’t positive and affirming and I will not communicate negativity in public (which includes facebook and twitter). It just doesn’t seem like a mature or healthy way to get a message across.

(Note to self and anyone else who needs a reminder: I will also not allow myself to react out of my woundedness in meetings. When I feel defensive, I will let God take care of my reputation and allow only the adult in me to respond.)

4. Check yourself. If you’re prone to sending angry emails, make a rule about that. Decide that any negative email must wait 24 hours before it is sent (the angrier you are, the more time you should take). Or find someone who will agree to read anything you send before you send it — someone who won’t mind being honest. Or write out what you’d like to say, then mail it to yourself and see how it feels when you’re reading it as if written to you.

Then, delete your email, pick up the phone and make time for a face to face conversation (I can’t overemphasize the value of person-to-person communication), which leads to the next idea …

5. Ask more questions. This ends up being a Kingdom-building habit. Far too late in life, I’ve learned that most of my frustration and miscommunication is a product of not asking enough questions before jumping to conclusions. Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings, but on God and His Kingdom. When I invest the time it takes to ask clarifying questions, seeking not so much “to be understood as to understand” (a prayer of St. Francis), I am reaching for God’s vision, God’s perspective, God’s Kingdom.

6. Assume the best. Maybe I don’t know all there is to know about the intentions even of those closest to me. Perhaps I would do better to assume the best in them, to assume their intentions are good and their hearts are for me, not against me, even if their approach to a situation is not what I’d have chosen. I can accomplish this attitude if I keep a “Kingdom of Heaven” perspective – big, hopeful and focused on God. If I’m willing to begin back where this piece begins — by saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions — I set myself up to assume the good intentions of those around me, believing they care as much as I do about what really matters.

The bottom line is that what Paul teaches is never more relevant than when we are talking about communication: take every thought captive, and grow up in every way into Him who is our Head. If I can get that right, then those around me will be more likely to get it right, and the ripples will extend to their circles of influence. And on it goes.

The Kingdom of Heaven works like that.

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Dear Paul: Did you choose the single life, or did it choose you?

Reflecting a great deal lately on human design, I find myself thinking about the nature of marriage, the single life and friendship. That has me thinking a lot about Paul, a single man whose words have probably done more than anyone else’s to shape our thoughts on gender and how we relate to each other. Because I’m a fan of his, I wrote him a letter …

Dear Paul,

I have always wondered if you had any idea when you were living out your first-century faith in Christ that you’d have such a profound influence on the world. Did you have a clue when you were sitting in prison dictating letters that your words would become our theology? Could you have known as a single man just what kind of influence you’d have over all our relationships, not to mention our understanding of gender (and yes, I wonder — if you’d known the ripple effect — if you would ever have penned those lines about women)?

Did you choose the single life, or did it choose you? Was it part of the small-print of first-century Christian life? Or did it just seem to happen as an effect of your driven personality? Either way, thank you for living that life out loud so we could soak in what you learned. I’m struck by your yearning to “get back to the Garden” and by your passion for the coming Kingdom. I love that you had such a drive to push through your own needs for the sake of a bigger vision.

By your letters, it seems you genuinely believed the Messiah would be back in your lifetime. You lived as if that were so; even your romancing was shaped by how convinced you were of this. I completely agree with your comments to the Corinthians, that until we fully appreciate our completeness in God and have a solid foundation “in Christ,” romance can be a distraction and even a detriment to our relationship with Christ. You were wise to counsel new believers to stay married, even if faith was a sticking point in their relationships. That counsel still works today. I’ve known too many folks who have made their biggest mistakes by trying to get others to change, or worse yet to “complete” them.

Your decision to remain single for the cause of Christ was bold. I appreciate your giving the world permission to explore what we’re really cut out for. While loneliness, the desire for intimacy and family life will prevent most of us from taking the path of the single life, your example is honorable. You’ve added something important to the community of Christ.

Thanks for providing the example for those who are called to vocations and Kingdom work that require a single-minded focus. Thanks for showing us what a call to and not just a call from might look like. I’m thinking about how a person in our day and time might follow the narrow path you chose. If I listen to your life, some clarifying questions begin to bubble up.

If I were considering the single life, what litmus test would help me discern God’s best?

1. Am I called to express Christ’s love for the Church not through marriage but through a singular focus on God?
2. Am I called to a Kingdom work that requires my single-minded focus? In other words, for some positive Kingdom-building reason has God called me to the single life?
3. Do I have not just strength but a holy resolve to resist the pull toward my natural design and drive?
4. Am I willing to embrace loneliness as part of this vocation?
5. Have I sufficiently grieved the loss of parenthood, children, family, physical intimacy with someone else so that I enter the single-focused life from a place of strength and not victimhood?
6. And maybe the most important and first question to ask is this one: Have I sufficiently dealt with things that might distort my sense of call, like self-hatred, shame, fear, issues of control, a desire for independence (or what Tim Tennent calls autonomous solitude), feelings of inadequacy, perfectionism …. ? Because until a person has explored how all those things enter into or impede an ability to be “naked and unashamed” I am not sure a person can honestly answer the question of whether or not they are called to a life of singleness or marriage.

Paul, thank you for living your life so honestly and openly. Thank you for teaching transparently about marriage, singleness, divorce, gender, and vocation. Thank you for showing us how to live in community and for acknowledging so graciously that community is messy. But worth it.

I love your courage. I love your boldness. I love that you didn’t put up with any foolishness, but challenged generations of Christ-followers to grow up. I’d like to think that if I lived in your day or you lived in mine, we’d be genuinely good and faithful friends.

In Christ,

Carolyn

 

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