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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“I want to give you an opportunity to expand your soul.”

Sam Pursley is standing today in the unhindered presence of Christ after living faithfully as a follower of Jesus and leader in His Church for 92 years.

Sam was one of those guys who had what my mother (who loved Sam dearly) would have Sam-pursley2called a “bad case of the cain’t-help-its” when it came to influencing others. There was a quality about him that went past his small stature and quiet spirit. He carried authority. He could hold his own in a roomful of executives and care gently and respectfully for those in the margins.

Sam loved a good cause and loved a lost cause even more. He saw the humanity in folks where others might miss it, and didn’t actually think anyone was really lost. He believed people could change, given a chance, and that spirit compelled him to serve faithfully in challenging places. Who knows how many lives he profoundly impacted by his presence at Augusta Rescue Mission, Easter Seals, the Exchange Club, Gracewood, Regional Hospital … and any church of which he was a part?

My path managed to cross Sam’s several times over the years. He was a voice in my life as a teenager and again when I was a young woman just coming back to Christ. He was a partner in my work as a fundraiser at Easter Seals and a dear, dear friend when I chose the path of preaching.

He was among the first with whom I met when I came home to start Mosaic. He was there for our first worship service, sitting on the front row beaming proudly. And he was with us just a couple of years ago when we celebrated our tenth anniversary as a church.

When Sam was in the room, I felt like a celebrity was with us. There are few other men I’ve respected as much and none I’ve respected more.

In our days of fundraising together for Easter Seals, Sam used to say to potential donors, “I want to give you an opportunity to expand your soul.” And he meant it. He knew the power of giving and the connection between a generous spirit and what matters most in life. Sam’s own story of learning to tithe is what inspired Steve and I to begin that journey. It was one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever poured into our marriage.

When we first started going back to church, we did what most people do. We dropped a twenty in the plate most Sundays. We were probably giving about 2% of our income to the church and to be honest, we felt good about that. We were renters and had credit card debt and owed on two cars, so giving anything was a stretch for us.

Then one day, Sam stood up in church and talked about that line from Jesus: “Give and it will be given to you, a good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over.” Sam talked about how his grandfather would sell grain that way and how the farmers would tell him, “Mr. Pursley, you give good measure.” Then Sam talked about the Sunday School teacher who taught him as a young man. She told him, “Sam, you will never be all you are supposed to be until you begin to tithe.”

Sam asked her what exactly she meant by tithing and she said, “Ten percent. Tithing is giving ten percent of your income back to God. It is an act of faith.” Sam says he then asked her the question we all want to ask. “Is that ten percent of my gross income … or net?” And she said, “Gross.”

From that day on, Sam tithed. He would say that as he gave it was given to him, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

We heard Sam’s story in church one Sunday and when we got home, Steve said, “Carolyn, I think we ought to do it. I think we ought to give ten percent.” I didn’t see how that could reasonably happen but Steve was convinced by Sam’s story so in one week, we went from giving about two percent to giving ten percent. We’ve done so ever since and live a joyful, debt-free life thanks to the wisdom and example of a godly man.

“The rent we pay for the little space we occupy on earth is the service we render to others,” is something else Sam used to say. I give God such thanks and praise for the lives of the saints who live and serve among us, who pour into us and make us better people by their presence. Today, I celebrate the best of the best among servant-hearted men, whose expansive soul made room for countless acts of love and kindness while he “paid rent” among us.

Well done, Sam. Well done.

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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.

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Why We Tithe (or, How to Make a Marriage Great)

Steve and I can’t take much credit for twenty-nine years of a great marriage. Mostly, it has been mercy and mistakes. But there are a few things we’ve done to make our marriage work that we often share with young couples — things we’ve done intentionally that have made a significant difference.

For instance, about twenty years ago, we began to pray together nightly, and we believe that has carried our family and especially our daughter. About fifteen years ago, we instituted an intentional Sabbath in our home. From 6:00 Friday to 6:00 Saturday, our home is a work-free zone — at least as much as church life allows.

That third thing? Tithing.

When we married we were not practicing Christians, so tithing was not part of our life for those first few years together. We started going to church in our late twenties when we got involved in a Bible study. That’s when we started doing what most people do, dropping a twenty in the plate most Sundays. We were probably giving about 2% of our income to the church and to be honest, we felt good about that. We were tippers, not tithers. We were also  renters with credit card debt and two car payments, so giving anything was a stretch for us.

Then a man we both respected a lot (Sam Pursley) stood up in church one day and talked about the line from Jesus, where he says, “Give and it will be given to you, a good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over.” He talked about how his dad would sell grain that way, and how the farmers would tell his dad, “Mr. Pursley, you give good measure.”

Then Sam talked about his Sunday School teacher, who told him as a young man, “Sam, you will never be all you are supposed to be until you begin to tithe.” He asked her what exactly she meant by tithing and she said, “Ten percent. Tithing is giving 10% of your income back to God. It is an act of faith.”

Sam then asked the question we all ask. “Is that 10% of my gross income … or net?” And she said, “Gross.” From that day on, Sam tithed and discovered that as he gave, it was given to him — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

We heard Sam’s story in church one Sunday and when we got home, Steve said, “Carolyn, I think we ought to do it. I think we ought to give 10%.” Now, I hate when my husband gets spiritual on me about money. I told him it wasn’t possible. We were renters. We had credit card debt. We owed on two cars. We were barely scraping by when we gave about 2%. It wasn’t possible to give more. I argued reasonably with Steve, but he didn’t back down. Finally, I gave up. I figured, when we ended up with more month than money, he’d get it. I mean, how many ramen noodles do you have eat before you get it?

So we went from 2% to 10% in one week. And I know it isn’t supposed to happen this way, and I know how dangerous it is to tell our story just the way it happened, but this is how it happened for us. We gave, and it was given to us — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

In the twenty-plus years since we started taking God at His word, everything we’ve needed we’ve had. Without debt. We’ve even continued to step forward from the tithe in our giving. We’ve learned that the Lord provides. And as I said, I know it’s dangerous to tell these kinds of stories, but I think it is important.

I want you to hear how our marriage has thrived, and I would be doing a disservice if I said anything less than what that lady said to our friend, Sam, that day. “As a follower of Jesus, you will never be all you are supposed to be (and your marriage will never be all it is supposed to be) until you begin to tithe.”

Why?

Because the tithe is how we get past the lie that life is short and into the truth that life is designed to be eternal.

And the tithe has changed the spiritual atmosphere of our home. It makes us approach life and finances and big adventures as givers, and that changes everything.

No wonder God asks us to give. He asks, because he knows how we are made and he knows what works.

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