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.

Read More

Living A New Year Under the Leadership of the Holy Spirit

A version of this article appeared on Seedbed’s Church Planter Collective (to which I occasionally contribute) under the title “Planting Under the Leadership of the Holy Spirit.”  Find  it here.

To be a Methodist is to be disciplined. This is our great contribution to the Body of Christ. We believe spiritual disciplines work when we work them. As you plan for this new year, I want to encourage you to choose one or two spiritual disciplines and use them to move your spiritual life forward in 2017.

Spiritual inventory: In recovery, the real work begins when the inventory starts. This is a time to be honest with yourself about where you’ve been and where you are now in your spiritual journey. This tilling work can be an effective tool for anyone who is serious about going deeper. How often to you sit in quiet with the Lord? How often to you read the Bible? Who is challenging you spiritually? Confess to God and yourself where you are, so you can more productively pray into where you should be heading.

Examination of conscience: Honest self-examination will help to uncover unhealed wounds and character issues that can be dealt with in the presence of Jesus but it only works when we are willing to be brutally honest about how we are living. No excuses. No denial. Make a list of realities. What are your character flaws? What are your sins? This is like the spiritual inventory but it goes deeper, challenging us to honestly consider what we’re doing with our time, where we’re living in denial, where we’re wrapped up in unholy ambitions. An examination helps us to clarify God’s call on our lives so we’re living proactively instead of passively. It also helps us cleanse our days of mind-numbing escapes. What are you spending time on that you need to curb, for the sake of living your life with more integrity?

Devotional reading: Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest became a second Bible for me in my first year as a church planter. Chambers had the heart of a missionary, and his words seemed to resonate deeply day in and day out with the work of planting a new church. I recommend My Utmost for anyone who is on a journey with Jesus. If not that book, then find another wise devotional voice to speak into your life, who will remind you to stay in the deep end spiritually.

Bible study: I suggest you get a reading plan and a hunger for sticking with it daily. I will be working through the Life Journal Reading Plan found in the YouVersion app. Created by Wayne Cordeiro, this plan will take me through the whole Bible in 2017. But reading through the Bible isn’t the only option. It is also okay to focus. If you’re in leadership read Exodus and Nehemiah early on. If you’re new to Christ, read James and John. If you need to be recharged in your relationship with Jesus, get a red-letter Bible and read only the words of Jesus in all four gospels. It will change how you know him.

Sabbath: Keep one. This is your personal expression of faith in God’s ability to complete the work. If you want to read more on Sabbath-keeping, read here. Dr. Steve Seamands asks a challenging question that gets at the heart of Sabbath-keeping: “Who carries the burden of ministry in your life? You, or the Holy Spirit?” In other words, what is your starting point? Sabbath is about restoring the factory settings on my life, so that my default starting point is the Holy Spirit.

Fasting: Fasting has provided for me some of the most dramatic spiritual break-throughs over the years. I practice it especially when I have unanswered questions, as a sacramental way of expressing my hunger to God. I teach it to my leaders, and encourage them to fast regularly, with deeper seasons of fasting annually. Fasting humbles us. It is an act of obedience. It is proof that discipline matters to God. Bill Bright says fasting “enables the Holy Spirit to reveal your true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life.” And as we begin to cut through the agendas and see truth more clearly and as we honestly begin to repent of unconfessed sin, we experience more blessings from God. For more on fasting, read this.

Journaling: This has been a great source of healing for me, and a great way to hear from the Lord. I used to journal in a notebook. Now, I journal on my computer. I make it a conversation with the Lord, and have often received answers to prayer through this practice. I prefer to journal in two colors, writing my own thoughts and questions in black or blue ink, and what I sense may be Spirit-inspired thoughts in red. I don’t try to analyze it; I just listen for the voice of the Spirit and write what I hear. A week or so down the road, I may come back to that entry to see how it sounds with the benefit of a little time and perspective. When I come across a thought that seems profound (“smarter than I could have thought of myself,” as Asbury professor Dr. Bob Tuttle would say), I note that thought in red, too, just like the words of Jesus in my Bible.  Often, I am amazed at how helpful those entries can be to my journey with Jesus. I do believe He still speaks into our lives; I have encountered him in the practice of journaling.

The most important thing you can do to create a healthy congregation, family, or workplace is to live the gospel in front of people. A regular diet of spiritual disciplines will help you to do that. Make it your passion this year to live a disciplined life.

Read More

Lessons on Eight Wheels (or, what skating teaches me about life)

I skate. Or at least, I own some skates and when I get an hour on a weekend or Friday morning, I find some flat asphalt and roll around. This is a relatively new thing for me. I took it up because the gym gets old after a while and my area isn’t bike-friendly.

I like skating outside and I like going fast; walking doesn’t do it for me. Soon after buying my skates, I went online to find out if anything has changed in the skating world since 1978 (when I last skated). I found this statistic: 1% of all skaters in the U.S. are older than fifty.

I am the one percent.

Over the weekend, I skated on a familiar paved path but right after a big storm. There were gum balls and fallen limbs everywhere. Seeing the carnage and continuing to skate was probably not my best idea ever, but on the very careful five-mile skate, I did a lot of analogizing. Skating can teach a person a lot about life, especially when one’s health is determined by one’s ability to dodge gum balls.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned on eight wheels:

1. Slowing down takes different muscles than going fast, but just as many. On skates, slowing down is actually harder than speeding up. It takes almost no distance to get the speed up but it takes a lot of space and effort to slow down (at least for me it does). That’s also true in life or at least in my life. It is much easier to keep increasing my speed, and much harder to figure out how to slow to a saner pace. Sometimes we need to slow down so we can exercise a different set of muscles, just for the sake of keeping those muscles limber and in practice. Maybe this is why God calls us to a Sabbath every week?

2. Slowing down is important for sanity’s sake; sometimes, it is critical. When the landscape is littered with storm damage, going slower is how we keep from hurting ourselves or someone else. Grieving requires a slower pace (we so rarely understand that grief is an illness that requires recovery and rest, like any other wound). Increased stress requires a slower pace. Being able to judge the path and move accordingly is a test of one’s wisdom.

3. Staying on our feet when we stumble is good. Staying on our feet graciously is even better. I’ve noticed over my year or so of skating that I’m better at staying on my feet when I wobble than I was when I first started. Still, it is not pretty when a skater almost falls. It doesn’t just stress the person who stumbles; it stresses the people watching. In much the same way, it is one thing to negotiate a crisis on the job or in a family relationship and somehow come through the other side without killing anyone. It is another thing entirely to negotiate that crisis in such a way that it raises everyone up to a higher level. Learning to move through situations with such grace that others can enjoy my presence and not be stressed by it is a skill worth mastering.

4. It is the big things that spook us but the small things that get us. That storm we had last week shook every loose gum ball from every tree in my path … and countless twigs, a few big limbs, and every spare leaf. That path was an obstacle course. On a good day, my main concern on that path is two streets I have to cross along the way. Those street crossings are always a source of anxiety. I hate having to skate over curbs. It takes everything I’ve got to make it from one side of the road to the other without falling.

But here’s the thing: curbs are obvious hazards and I know to take them delicately. What is more likely to get me is not the curb I can see but the gum ball I miss seeing. In other words, it is the little things that throw us off. As I learn to pay attention to the small things — expressing gratitude often and creatively, following through on promises, learning to listen well — I notice that the big things aren’t nearly so scary.

5. People are inspired by risk-takers. In general, people like old women on skates. I get a lot of smiles and thumbs-up. I’m a rock star with kids. People are inspired by someone who tries something different. I hope it gives them joy to see someone enjoying life. Most people need something external to themselves to remind them that until we die, we are charged with living life fully. This life is a gift meant to be enjoyed, not just endured.

6. There is a big difference between commitment and involvement. Eight wheels is a commitment. Unlike biking, I can’t stop and walk when I skate. I can’t steady myself before rolling on. When I put those skates on, I’ve committed to a mode of travel that doesn’t change until I take them off. It is something like the difference between the the chicken and the pig in a breakfast meal. Chickens are involved; pigs are committed. Likewise, I believe we make the greatest impact in those places where we fully commit. People respect those who let their “yes” be “yes,” and they lose trust in those who don’t follow through consistently. As a pastor, it is always more difficult to hear the criticism of someone walking out the door; I have much more respect for the advice of one who is invested for the long haul. It doesn’t mean there won’t be skinned knees along the way, but that we’ll help each other up and get rolling again.

Because life is too short to let a few falls stop us from this grand adventure.

Read More

Three Secrets of a Strong Marriage

In my last post, I mentioned three things Steve and I have done intentionally that have had a positive impact on our twenty-nine-year marriage. The first one is that we learned how to approach life as givers by tithing. The second one has to do with prayer.

strong-marriageDo you know the percentage of marriages that end in divorce in the U.S.? 50% of all marriages don’t make it. How many Christian marriages end in divorce? 50%. Evidently, saying you’re a Christian doesn’t improve the odds.

However, in marriages where two people who call themselves Christian pray daily together, something like one in a thousand ends in divorce. It really is true that the family that prays together, stays together.

About the time we got serious about our walk with Christ, Steve and I started praying together. The first few times we did it, it felt awkward. To me, prayer is the most intimate thing you can do with your spouse. Getting that personal and that real with each other takes some practice. But over time, we got used to it and now, it is such a gift in our life together.

Here’s what we do. When we get in bed at night, the first thing we do is a little mental check to see if there’s anything we needed to tell each other that we haven’t had the chance to say. Then eventually, one of us will say, “Who’s turn is it?” And whoever’s turn it is will pray. The next night, it is the other person’s turn.

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. We pray together. And the third thing we’ve done intentionally to build our marriage is that we 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, and play and nap and 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, our Sabbath is 6:00p Friday to 6:00p Saturday. At least in theory, it is. We don’t make it there every week. I am in a season now when Sabbath rest has been scarce, and I am recalibrating to restore it to my life. Sabbath has to be the goal, because this is one way we get our lives back in line with God’s design.

Here’s what we’ve learned after twenty-nine 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 means of grace.

Read More