My 13 year old is concerned that I should be more active, drinking less coffee, not snacking on chocolate, and shedding the kilos. He is now well trained as a ‘personal trainer’ after watching just about every episode of The Biggest Loser. Hence, he thought he’d write a fully integrated program for me, and then make sure I stick to it! I’ve attached it here, just in case it might be of benefit to any of you too!
I’m taking my 45th wedding today. Or, as I like to put it, today I’ll be marrying my 46th woman… and my 45th man! You should be able to figure it out :). It’s a beautiful Canberra Autumn day, the sun is shining, it’s not too cold, and the wedding is happening in a park by the lake. Fantastic!
The service is planned, music selected, talk written, prayers organised, vows crafted, certificates prepared, poem orchestrated, and Bible readings chosen. I’ve had my shave, selected my tie, ironed my shirt (actually my wife did that!), arranged my suit, got my notes, register, certificates, Bible, L plates (props!)… ready to go… licensed to marry!
People love weddings. The beauty, the pageantry, the joy, the love, the tears. They are very special occasions. So much time, money, and effort goes into making this special day one to remember for a life time. And why not? This is a huge day.
But herein lies a problem. I think people often have a blind spot when it comes to weddings. Let’s compare how much goes into preparing for the wedding day with how much goes into preparing for the years of marriage that follow. Tens of thousands of dollars on the wedding and reception. Every waking hour for months stressing over the reception arrangements. Fittings for dresses and suits. Pouring over wedding catalogues. The agony of culling guest lists and organising seating arrangements. Getting the flowers just right. Choosing the best photographer (and later discovering they rule the day). Hours at the hairdressers. Trying to please the mother and the mother in law. The weight-loss program, so as to look fabulous on the day, to fit in that dress, or that suit. All that, and much more, just for ONE day!
And what about preparing for the marriage? “What do you mean?”, I hear some say. What I mean is, preparing to transition from being single to being married. Learning about yourselves, and each other, and what you would like to make of your marriage. Learning to communicate. Working out good ways to resolve conflict. Discussing your families of origin. How you want to rewrite the script and do things differently. Exploring your views on children, how many, and how soon, parenting strategies, roles and responsibilities. Discussing issues of intimacy and sex. Sharing your fears, hopes, dreams, expectations.
How much time is put into laying a foundation for a lifetime together? What is the rock that you will build your marriage on? Do you share the same spiritual convictions? Who will matter most in the marriage? Will it be you, or will you put your partner first, or will both of you seek to put God first? These are big issues, and they surely matter much more than matching the groomsmen’s ties to the bridesmaids dresses?!
As I prepare for another wedding, my prayer for the couple is that they will be prepared for their marriage. I will be encouraging them to…
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others (each other) better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5)
Looking to Jesus offers the best hope that a marriage can have. My marriage, my children’s marriages, my friends marriages, the couple whom I will marry today. Jesus is to be our foundation and rock. He is to be the model for the husband, for me, as he lays down his life for his bride, the church, his people.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… (Ephesians 5:25)
What a challenge this is! If only I, and other husbands, would take this to heart. It certainly doesn’t come naturally to me. And so I should keep praying:
Dear God, please help me to love Fiona, as Jesus has loved me. Help me to overcome my selfishness, my pride, my impatience, my greed, my laziness. Please empower me to care for the beautiful wife that you have entrusted to my care. Please strengthen me to show love, to be loving, to love from the heart. Please enable me to minister to my wife, not for what I can get, but always to give and to bless. Please enrich our marriage and keep us growing together, until death do we part.
Looking back through my marriage register is a bitter sweet experience. So much history, and such a mixture of emotions. It mixes the tears of joy and the tears of broken hearts. One couple celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary. Many marriages going strong. But some of them have broken apart. Some have been parted by death. Others fractured by unfaithfulness. Some might say they have drifted from their foundations. Maybe one or two might wish they had worried less about the wedding and put more into preparing for the marriage.
Every time I take a wedding it causes me to pause, reflect, and consider my own. Not the wedding so much – that was nearly 29 years ago – but the marriage. I’m praying for 29 more years together! If we make that it will be a miracle, and I’m not just referring to God removing the cancer from my body. It will mean God continuing to work in both our hearts, to keep us looking to Jesus, and putting each other before ourselves.
Please God, may it be so!
My experience of Christians is that many of them – including me – are really quite clumsy. Not literally stumbling or falling over ourselves, but often doing the social equivalent. We put our feet in our mouths, we make others feel uncomfortable, we have a knack of saying the right thing at the wrong time, and vice versa.
It may be the exuberant charismatic Christian who just assumes that everybody else is on the same page as them. It might be the type who drops Christian jargon and ideas into every conversation. It could be the awkward, shy, ‘uncomfortable to be around’ Christian. Or even the one who seems embarrassed to be, or at least to be known to be, a Christian.
I suspect that whether you’re a Christian, not a Christian, or not sure what you believe, you can at least identify with my experience. That is, we Christians can be quite clumsy. In fact, as I read back over this, I’ve used the word Christian eight times already – am I just proving my point?!
Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why some people gel together and others don’t. Like attracts like. We feel comfortable with our ‘tribe’. We get nervous around people we don’t understand. We fear the unknown. We want to be accepted, and fit in, and have people understand us – and sometimes we just try too hard. These things can be the same across all sorts of groupings – political, sporting, work, ethnic, hobbies, you name it. Sometimes it’s just really awkward to bridge the gap.
But, to be honest, these factors don’t get to the very heart of my clumsiness. I think there is something more profound that often makes things awkward for me in relating to others – and that is, what I believe. You see, I sincerely believe in many things that others will find quite unusual, maybe even absurd. Let me offer a list to start with:
I believe in God.
I believe he made everything.
I believe that he made everyone – including me and you – to be able to relate with him.
Apparently, most Aussies still believe something like this. But then my Christian beliefs start to get a little more uncomfortable, more pointed:
I believe we all push God to the periphery of our life, if not shut him out altogether.
I believe we get what we ask for when we choose to reject him, and it’s serious – separation from God in this life and beyond.
I believe that without God, we are without hope.
These beliefs are foundational, but they’re only the prelude to the most important message I want people to know and embrace:
God has not left us without hope.
He sent Jesus into this world so that we can know him.
Jesus was crucified to show us the depths of God’s love for us, to personally pay the cost of our rejection of God, and to overcome all barriers separating us from God.
God physically raised Jesus to life, opening the door for us to have a genuine relationship with him, and real hope for life now and in eternity.
I know that when I speak with some of my friends about these beliefs they will glaze over. They won’t understand. They’ll put me in the weirdo box. “He seems an otherwise normal bloke. How can he possibly believe this stuff?” Santa Claus, flat earth, tooth fairies, Harry Potter, religion, Jesus, resurrection!
Some probably think I’ve been brainwashed into believing a fiction, that I am willing to base my life on a myth or fantasy or fabrication. Some explain it to me as, “You’re into religion, but I’m not.” Some of my friends might even feel a bit sorry for me. I don’t know!
Let me say this. I hope that none of my friends dismiss the Christian message simply because of my clumsiness. I pray they’ll put up with some of my mistakes, my awkwardness, even my selfishness, and hypocrisy… and look beyond me to Jesus.
As I read more and more of Jesus in the Bible, so I get to know the one who came to bring reconciliation, to break down walls and hostility. He is the one who made religious people uncomfortable, and yet welcomed the outcasts and despised. Jesus connects people to God. He breaks through our tribes and divisions. He builds genuine community. I’ve seen and experienced this in profound ways, that cross all kinds of barriers and boundaries. In fact, this community and depth of relationship has been one of the real joys of my Christian experience. My desire is to enjoy this more and more – not by keeping things ‘in house’, but by sharing the reality with others.
I’ll keep making mistakes. I don’t want to, or plan to… I just will!
Please, don’t be put off by my Christian clumsiness.
Some time back, Fiona and I attended a marriage enrichment workshop with other couples from our church. We were all encouraged to graph the high points and low points of our marriages. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly the point of the exercise. Perhaps it was to remind some of us that there have been highs as well as lows!
Well, I was thinking about this again recently, and there are three experiences in our relationship that stand out above all the others. They’ve drawn us closer together as a couple, we’ve come to appreciate each other more deeply, and they have enriched our relationship beyond all expectation. And they’ve each been hard – harder than we would have imagined we could bear.
The first took place 15 years ago. We’d just planted a new church, moved into a new house, and Fiona was expecting our third child. We decided to grab a holiday to catch our breath a few months before our baby was due. We were camping in a tent up the coast, and the next thing we knew our daughter was born – at 26 weeks, weighing 900 grams, and not much bigger than a can of coke. She spent the next three months in neo-natal intensive care and we made two or more trips to the hospital everyday. On many occasions we weren’t sure if she was going to make it. The social workers told us that events like this can damage marriages, pull couples apart and often result in divorce. It was hard – SO hard. But for us, it drew us together and deepened our love for each other.
The second experience is more recent. We were travelling on our long service leave, having just experienced the breathtaking wonder of the Kimberley and the Pilbara regions. Travelling across a remote cattle-station, we suddenly found ourselves – 4wd and camper – sideways, out of control, and rolling like a dice. The scene was awful. Our 12 year old had been thrown from the vehicle, my wife was badly hurt, and we were so far from anywhere or anyone. After ambulances, flying doctor, cross-continent travel, two surgeries and a shoulder replacement for Fiona, our family returned home with everyone alive and mending. It’s still hard to relive the experience of the accident. And the rehab and struggles continue for Fiona. But there is no doubt these experiences enriched our marriage, and our family. Petty conflicts, annoying habits and foibles, concerns for ‘possessions over people’ – were shown to be so stupid, so insignificant. We treasured each other, and thanked God that we still had each other. And realised that we needed to keep looking after each other.
The last situation is happening now. It’s been documented already in this blog. We were only days from leaving Canberra to start over in the Northern Territory. We’d been planning, building a team, getting excited and exciting others, and getting ready to begin a new church with a fresh vision in Palmerston. And then, out of the blue, no warning, no preparation – we discover that I have cancer, and all our plans go out the window. Hospital, sickness, surgery, weakness, fear, grief, sadness, tears, panic, and more. Let me say, in all truth, that I have never loved my wife as well as I should. But the last three months have helped me to see what a precious jewel she really is. She has been my deepest friend, carer, lover, pray-er, advocate, nurse, doctor, organiser, empathiser, researcher, communicator, caring mother to our children… and so so much more. And I know she too has been hurting so deeply at times. The journey has a long way to go, but I thank God that we journey together.
Why do I share these three high points? Not so that we can plan for things to go wrong and then reap some magical benefits from our suffering. We can’t and don’t plan these things. But we have both learned, and it’s been confirmed through our experiences, that God works through our weaknesses and struggles. He gives us grace when we so desperately need it. He enables us to experience real joy in the midst of suffering. Not a superficial happiness, but a deeply contented joy that is not dependent on our circumstances.
Fiona and I have never been very good at reading the Bible together as a couple. But over the last three months we have done this quite a bit. I’d like to quote a few verses that have taken on a greater significance for us recently. Firstly, from 2 Corinthians 1:8-11:
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.
And from 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:
…but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
The key thing in each of our experiences is that God has been at work. In the darkest of hours, God has always been there. He has picked us up, and carried us, and cared for us. He has reminded us of the foolish arrogance of thinking that we can do better on our own. He has taught us humility and patience, and these are among the hardest lessons to learn. (And we’re still in preschool in these matters!) God has given us a unity in our relationship – not by focusing on ourselves and our own needs, nor by simply focusing on each other, but profoundly by getting us both to focus on him.