Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Making Marriage Work: What We are Still Learning

19 years ago at this time, a beautiful, smart, winsome, godly young lady with obvious issues of blindness and bad character judgement had already said "I do" to a young 22-year-old knot-head named Joel.  We were preparing to leave the wedding reception where we had been talking with friends and family for about an hour, and head to the beautiful area of Boone, North Carolina, where we would spend our Honeymoon.

If, at that moment, you had told either of us what God had in store for us over the next two decades, we would not have believed it!

As you can tell from the pictures, we don't look the same as we once did.  Amy has gotten a lot prettier, and I've gotten a lot uglier and hairier!  Additionally, there are now three other people who live with us who call us "Mom" and "Dad," and as anyone who is a parent knows, the presence of such little ones changes life in profound ways.  All in all, its been a blessed 19 years, and yes, I'd do it all over again with this wonderful woman.  It hasn't all been fun, but marriage isn't supposed to be.

Over the past several decades, divorce statistics remain unchanged, and as a minister of the Gospel, I've personally experienced those statistics.  Charles Lowery once comically said "I'd rather preach a funeral than a wedding any day.  They pay more, and they last longer!"  I can certainly vouch for that.  About 30% of the couples for whom I have officiated a wedding are now divorced.  On the other hand, everyone I've ever buried is right where I left them!

In this kind of context, we are often asked by younger couples how we have made it as long as we have.  Because we constantly praise and adore each other publicly, sometimes folks get the false impression that Amy and I have never had marriage struggles. Truth is, we have hit a few very rough patches in our years together, just like every couple does.  So, why are we still together?

1. Because we try to love Jesus more than we love each other.  Here is the unvarnished truth.  I don't deserve my wife, and the Biblical prohibition against divorce isn't about me or her.  Its about Jesus.  I think if we based our "staying power" merely on our devotion to each other, we too might have been a statistic years ago.  Keeping the wedding vows I made to my wife aren't primarily for the benefit of my wife.  Its about a promise I made to my Creator and Redeemer when I entered into the very marriage covenant that He created in order to point people to Himself.

One day in the future, one of us will pass away and leave the other one behind.  In that moment, the Rainey marriage covenant will be forever severed, because contrary to what some false religions teach, we aren't headed toward an eternal marriage between Joel and Amy. Instead, Joel and Amy are both headed toward their ultimate Bridegroom.  On that day, we won't miss each other because we will both be too busy basking in the unspeakable glory of what our earthly marriage was always supposed to be pointing to.  As wonderful as my relationship has been with Amy, I can't imagine how wonderful that day will be!

So over the past 19 years when arguments seemed to become more regular, or one of us thought the other seemed to be less tolerable, we've tried to look beyond each other, and toward what we promised God we would do our best to reflect--the very thing He expects marriage to reflect.  It hasn't always been easy, but God has a way of always out-giving us in every way, and I've certainly experienced that when it comes to how rewarded I feel by Him for our faithfulness to each other.

2. Because we allow each other to be who we are.  Amy runs almost daily, and is currently training for another half-marathon.  She genuinely loves to run.  If I'm running, its either because someone has a gun, or because I've come to the conclusion that I don't need to get any fatter than I already am.  Amy is a slow, careful, deliberate and thoughtful reader.  I go through books like chicken wings.  Amy likes to take her time in the grocery store.  I want to split up the list and do double the shopping in half the time.  When we vacation, Amy enjoys the journey.  I'm trying to break a record to get to the destination.

Bottom line:  we are different, and we allow for those differences in each other.  I have a pair of running shoes only because she loves to run.  She has a motorcycle helmet because she knows I'm most relaxed when I'm on my Harley in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains.  Because we know these things about each other, we make sure the other can make time for these things.  They come up every time we have a "calendar meeting."  And we do this because, in the midst of my work-related travel and publishing deadlines, and her juggling of the home schedule, we don't want to lose each other.  I thank God for a woman who, when she sees me stressed out, asks "so when was the last time you took a ride Babe?"

3. Because we are best friends.  I'll be brutally honest here:  When I was standing at the altar 19 years ago with my soon-to-be wife, I had a few things going through my mind, but none so intense as the thoughts of what we would be up to that evening!  (Cue the retching now from the peanut gallery.......)

And I know what some of you are asking, "but it wasn't just the physical attraction.  You did LOVE her, didn't you?"  And I will say yes, I loved her--at least as much as any 22-year-old BOY could love anyone. Furthermore, those feelings weren't wrong.  God put them there for a reason.  But, those feelings alone don't make a marriage last, principally because they come and go.  You'd be amazed at how quickly the sweet smell of cologne and perfume fades when the stench of dirty laundry and medicinal salve is in the room!

Over the years, Amy and I have had many "romantic getaways" when we hire a sitter and take off for a night away.  Our 10th anniversary was spent in Cozumel, and if we can get it worked out, we will spend next year's 20th anniversary milestone in Venice Italy.  

And then there are years like this one.  We were planning to go out for a quiet evening together at a local restaurant, but two of our three children have a stomach bug, so instead we will eat takeout, sit on our back deck, and be available in case one of them throws up.  Romantic, huh?

And over the past 19 years, we've had many more experiences like tonight than we've had trips to exotic Mexican destinations!  And through all of those experiences, we have learned that the best way to face them is to do so as friends.  There is nothing wrong with romance.  I've learned to enjoy it far more over the years. When we get dressed up to go out, Amy is always stunning.  Its funny, I can look at women's clothes on the rack, or jewelry in her jewelry box and not have a clue, but believe me, she knows where it all goes, and it looks really good when she gets it all in place!  She is beautiful, thoughtful and intelligent, and that makes candlelight dinners with her an exquisite pleasure.

Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with sex.  Matter of fact, I happen to think that sex is fantastic!  Sex can greatly enhance a permanent bond between husband and wife, but it cannot create that bond, and it isn't what makes a marriage last.  Prolonged sickness, a tough pregnancy, young children that won't sleep, stressful times at work, and a hundred other things can result in you being "on the bench" for a while where sex is concerned.  But you always have friendship, regardless of whether the lights are dimmed, whether you hear the kids puking in the background, or whether or not you can work out that getaway.  Friendship isn't dependent on context.  Its unconditional, just like the love we are commanded to have for each other in a marriage.

4. Because we have sought help.  Once early in our marriage a co-worker commented that Amy and I always seemed to get along so well.  "Do you ever fight?" she asked?  "Oh yeah, " I responded, "and sometimes, chains and billy-sticks are involved!"

I've known and pastored a lot of married couples, and the only ones I've known who never had a rough patch were those who had a problem with compulsive lying.  Amy and I have experienced those rough patches too, and one of the ways we made it through was to seek help.  Twice we have visited a counselor, because there was an issue we knew we needed to work through together, but weren't sure how to do it.  At that point, our marriage wasn't "about to fall apart" (if you wait that long, you might need more than a counselor!), but we wanted to stay on top of things together.

We have also been greatly helped through the years by other couples much older, who have been married much longer.  By living in relationship with them, we have learned from their mistakes, and gained much wisdom on how to improve our own relationship.  Professional counseling can be a good thing, but trust me, the guy with a Ph.D. who is on his third wife has nothing profitable to say to you about marriage.  On the other hand, if you can find a couple who has been married at least as long as you have been alive, you will most likely gain a lot of very useful wisdom.  Come to think of it, you shouldn't even be asking this 19 year veteran about marriage.  I'm still learning myself!  Instead, go to church and find that man who has been married for 40 or 50 or 60 years.  Find that sweet old lady who walks in every Sunday with a walking cane in one hand, and her husband's hand in the other.  You might learn something.  I know Amy and I have!

I am an undeserving, rotten-to-the-core, but forgiven and therefore incredibly blessed man.  I'm grateful to Jesus for holding us together for all these years, and I'm grateful to a wonderful wife and best friend who continues with me on this journey.  Happy Anniversary Amy!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Race Relations and the Gospel: What the Church Needs to Say.

150 years after a bloody civil war and the 13th amendment, 40 years after sweeping civil rights legislation, and 6 years after electing an African American to the most powerful office in the world, one tragic act of violence is all it takes to demonstrate the deep racial divide that still exists in this country.

Truth is, George Zimmerman is the only one still alive who knows for sure exactly what happened on that horrible night back in the spring of 2012.  Apart from context, it would appear that this was a simple case of an incredibly stupid young man choosing to pursue someone who posed no immediate threat to him, and another young man choosing to fight instead of run.  But given the long history of troublesome race relations in this country, there was no way that race was not going to play a prominent role in this trial, and the subsequent public discussion.  There has simply been too much hostility.

Of course, the United States isn't unique when it comes to the struggle for racial peace.  All over the world, people of various ethnicities have profiled, stereotyped, and prejudged each other.  Having traveled much of the globe, I could speak at length about the love lost between Chinese and Japanese, or the animus that is held by Mexicans toward Colombians.  But in our own country, the highest level of racial strain exists between black and white, and anyone even casually acquainted with our nation's history knows why.

The following post is from three years ago, and addresses the racial divide between black and white in light of sin and redemption.  There is a reason that, even at this time in history, rush judgments continue to be made based on the amount of melanin in the skin, and the answer runs more than skin deep.  The answer lies in wicked hearts, and the only ultimate answer is a Savior who died, and was raised so that in the end, there would be no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female..

Reading Leonard Pitts' Miami Herald Column in this past Sunday's paper was especially hard for me. Entitled "A Child's View of Black and White," the article described with painful detail new "doll tests" that are given to children to determine if racism might exist. Pitts, himself an African-American, rightly lamented the predispositions of children, both black and white, toward identifying "darker" dolls as "bad" and "dumb." More specifically, he cited an encounter with a young black girl who "did not think she was beautiful . . . because she is dark."

Concluding this very sad column, Pitts wrote in an exasperated manner that we are "40 years into a future where Michael Jordan is an icon, Bill Cosby is a national father figure, and a Kenyan's son is President of these United States. Forty years, and still . . ."

As should be expected, Pitts claims that such a national racial dilemma begs an explanation. "How do you explain the psychology of self-loathing and the futility of judging oneself by someone else's beauty standards?" This is an excellent question, and as a white son of the south, what made this article hard to read is that I know the answer.

There are many things about my background and upbringing that make me proud. The installation of a strong Protestant work ethic, and cultural emphases on honesty, integrity, and helping one's neighbor are just a few examples. My home culture's attitude toward race relations however, is not on this list. Growing up, I heard all the standard stereotypes aimed at anyone who didn't share my skin tone. I heard interracial dating and marriage condemned. And though I was told "we are all equal, no matter what color we are," I rarely saw this "equality" dealt out fairly in my hometown.

Thankfully, God has redeemed me from these ways of thinking. Yet the problem of racism still exists, and I have discovered that the southern United States isn't the only place where it can be found. Shortly after moving to Maryland nearly six years ago, I was shocked to sit in a barber's chair only to hear the word "n*gger" within the first five minutes from the guy cutting my hair. 40 miles north of the nation's capital, I found a more vitriolic form of racism in the northeast that I had never encountered in the south.

The truth is that racism's origins can't be defined by a region of the country, nor can it be traced ultimately to parental attitudes, cultural prejudices, or even extremist groups like neo-Nazis, the KKK, or the Black Panthers. Ultimately, each of these sources of race-based hatred finds its origins in the Garden of Eden, within the minds of our first parents who sinned out of a self-centered heart that desired the opposite of God's design.

Paul tells us in Acts 17:24 that God "made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth." In other words, God's intent from the beginning was to create a diverse human race that would bring Him glory. The various ethnicities that exist on our planet are not the result of the fall, as is so often contended by some ill-informed and badly-biased interpreters of the text. Each originated in the mind of our Creator for His own ultimate glory. Furthermore, we are told that this divine demand for diverse worshippers all over the globe will come to pass, as that great, uncountable multitude of human beings, "from every nation, from all tribes, peoples, and languages" stand before the throne of the Lamb crying out "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever!" (Revelation 7:9, 12, ESV)

In short, God intends to unite every ethnic group and language on the globe under the Lordship of Jesus for His own glory. As one of my mentors once stated, a unison choir is nice, but a choir that sings parts--the same song sung in various tones--sounds much more glorious. Racial and ethnic diversity exist because God is worthy of so much more than a unison choir at the end of the age. Race matters! And it matters because God matters!

Such is the reason why racism is such a deadly and dangerous disease in our culture. When Leonard Pitts describes it, he rightly laments the way human beings created in God's image are mistreated as a result, but he fails to see that the ultimate insult is against God Himself.

All of us are naturally more comfortable around people most like ourselves. When we allow this disposition to evolve into a prejudice, we have at that point made an idol of our ethnicity. When we show a preference for one person over another based on skin color, we are saying to God with our actions, "you are not worthy of ethnically diverse glory."

To summarize, racism is a direct offense against the Creator of all human beings. It represents a denial of and opposition to His aim to make himself known among all peoples so that He receives the glory that is His due.  It is a preference for our own glory--the lifting up of our own ethnic identity and value as created beings over His value as our Creator. This is what makes racism such an abhorrent evil.

And yet, racist attitudes are still "tolerated" among our churches. One recent example is a Louisiana Southern Baptist congregation that rescinded its invitation for an IMB missionary to speak because he and his wife had adopted interacially. I don't know whether such evil exists on a congregational level in any of the churches of the Mid-Maryland Association, but if it does, I'll go ahead now and invite that church to tender its withdrawal from our fellowship--before MMBA takes care of it for you! 

In the end, such a strong stand isn't about being politically correct. Ultimately, it isn't even about the treatment of fellow human beings, as important as that is. In the end, this issue is about whether our churches desire what God desires--a unified universal church where no ethnic or language group is left out! If your church seeks any less than this because of racial prejudice, your church isn't preaching the Gospel and it is very likely that you stand on the brink of being damned for eternity.

But there is yet another side to this issue. As Pitts rightly points out, we are 40 years beyond the civil rights movement--more than 145 years beyond the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th amendment, and the spirit of racism is still alive and well. As a journalist, Pitts seeks, and fails, to understand why this is the case. To Pitts, it seems logical that a bloody civil war, sweeping constitutional changes, and monumental cultural shifts brought on by the Civil Rights Act should be enough to create a culture wherein racism no longer exists. 

And such would seem logical, were it not for the reality of sin. To be sure, all of the above were the right decision. No nation that presumes any moral authority should tolerate involuntary servitude or government-endorsed preference for any race. At the same time, the abolition of slavery, by itself, doesn't stop one from looking with disdain on his darker-skinned brother.  (Just read up a bit on the abuse of African Americans in the "free" states up north after the Civil War!)  Likewise, government emphases like Affirmative Action might help mask the symptoms of racism, but it will never cure what is really wrong with us.

The central problem is that we are in rebellion against our Creator and thus, we hate what He loves, including racial diversity. As such, the solution to racism is the same as the solution to all sin; a bloody cross and an empty tomb. If this message is genuinely preached and lived in our churches, the evil of racism cannot last long.

Pastors and churches overcome this issue by living the Gospel. Churches will confront--and if necessary remove from membership--those who are members of groups with racist ideology. A member of the KKK is no more qualified than a member of the Taliban to be a member of the local Baptist church.  Pastors will openly confront these sinful attitudes and call men and women who possess them to repentance. 

Diversity will be celebrated and reflected in a congregation's leadership, as elders and deacons are appointed who represent and look like the community they are called to reach. Pastors will emphasize the importance of being "equally-yoked" by teaching their people that this means marriage takes place within the same FAITH, not necessarily the same RACE. Interracial marriage ceremonies will be held that give church members a foretaste of the diverse worship that we are headed for in heaven. Interracial couples and families who have repented of sin and trusted Christ will be welcomed as the brothers and sisters in Christ that they are. Families in the church will adopt children from other nations, cultures, and ethnicities, and such will be celebrated in the life of the church. Denominational entities, from the local association to the national SBC, will take a strong stand on this issue, to the extent that churches which refuse to acknowledge God's plan for all nations are removed from fellowship.

A few weeks ago, I visited and consulted with a church in this area that has exemplified this value for years--a congregation of less than 300 people--from 61 different nations!  We need congregations like this one to lead the way.

We are racist toward each other because we have sinned against our God. Thus, the Gospel is the only message that can unite us. Churches that understand this and live it will ultimately heal the scars caused by racial prejudice. This the only context in which genuine racial unity can ultimately be realized. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Great Deal on My New Book!

Last month, my new book Speaking from a Firm Foundation was released.  For the next two weeks, you can get it cheap!

The book is essentially a collection of articles I have written over the years, some here on this site, and others at places like Pastors Today by Lifeway, and The Christian Post.  The advantage of the book is that it organizes these writings by subject matter, so you can read in the traditional "front to back" style, or skip around to a subject you are trying to understand better.  The book is divided into eight parts dealing with issues such as truth, Gospel and culture, leaders and leadership, God's global mission, and how to think about and speak Biblically to significant moments.

Critical thinking is often absent in many conversations today.  Fact is, most of our national conversations are led by "talking heads" on the far left and far right, most of whom know little or nothing of what they speak, and merely seek to deepen divisions and line their pockets.  At the popular level, this often leads to lazy minds thoughtlessly committed to their respective political party or point of view.  It is tragic when any human mind is wasted in this way, but for a follower of Jesus, such waste is a sinful abuse of a great gift from God--the ability to think.

With each new generation, there is a need to apply God's unchanging truth in fresh ways.  In this book, I seek to model how to think through a broad range of issues from a distinctly Christian and Biblical perspective.

Though the bookstore retail cost is $17.99, you can get it for $5.99 by going here, and entering the discount code CJRVL4PB  when prompted.

Or, you can go here, and download the Kindle edition for only $2.99!