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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Trust God (and other things I learned from a penny).

Maybe you have heard me tell the story of my pennies. About six years ago I started finding them everywhere. The first time it happened was just about the time we found out that the cost of our first warehouse renovation would be more than we could afford. One morning I was out walking and talking to God about the situation. I remember saying, “Lord, I don’t see how this is going to happen. I don’t see how we’ll ever get the funds together to get into this building.” And just as I said that, I looked down and saw a penny in the road.

Now, I’m never one to see coins on the ground. I’m a big picture person; I don’t see details. But there it was — a penny shining in the early-morning dark — so I picked it up and laughed to myself. “Okay, God, so is this your contribution to the project?” Then it hit me that maybe this was God’s way of reminding me that he will provide. Not in the ways I expect and not on my timeline, but he will provide.

Be skeptical if you must, but I decided to take that penny as that kind of message from God.

After that, I started seeing pennies everywhere. It got to be a joke almost, like someone was planting them in my path. And almost like the punchline, one day just I pulled into a parking place a woman on the sidewalk stepped toward my car and started picking up change by the driver’s-side door. She looked up at me and said, “Look at all these pennies!” I had to laugh! I let her pick them up but I was thinking, “Lady, those are my pennies.”

Years have passed since that moment, and the penny phenomenon waned … until recently. We’re in the middle of another building renovation and campaign and again I found myself wondering if God will provide. These seasons can be complicated — keeping all hearts and minds moving in the same direction, helping the late adopters get there. One day in my office, I heard myself whining about something building-related. The person I was unloading on had the wisdom to suggest we pray and when I bowed my head there it was.

Right there on the floor staring back up at me was a penny.

I don’t believe God is walking before me tossing pennies in my path like some kind of cosmic flower girl. Not at all. But I do have to wonder if he uses the occasion of a penny on the ground to remind me not that He will provide all the funds we need but that He can be trusted.  After all, God wants us to trust him and every single penny carries that message: “In God we trust.”

Whether with pennies or unsure moments or invitations to jump, what if God is constantly trying to start a conversation with us about trust? Maybe pennies or critical moments or small decisions we make every day are a way Jesus is training us to trust him in the small things so we can trust him with more. Maybe this is why the “micro” matters. If we’re going to accomplish the macro, we have to be able to see where he is working right now … to accept the gift being held before us now.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. In this word, Jesus is hoping to convince us to lean on God for our needs because Jesus gets it that we don’t lean on God for our needs. When we choose anxiety and whining over trust, we expose our deepest fear — that God is not a giver, that God will not provide, that God can not be trusted. We won’t ever say this out loud but in the ways we over-protect, over-plan, over-defend, in the ways we guard our hearts and control our circumstances, we expose what we really believe.

Our actions betray us. They expose to the world our deep fear that God will take us only so far, that God can be trusted but not completely. That if we want something, we’d better go get it ourselves.

So what is that thing you don’t want to trust God for? Maybe you will trust him for a lot of things, but not for that thing. What is that thing? And how will you practice trusting him today in the small things, so you can build up strength to trust him for that thing?

Listen: God is the ultimate Giver and self-giving is at his very heart. Trust him … and then live for him.

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