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 21 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 21 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 genuinely loves to run, and has completed two half-marathons. 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 21 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 my children!)
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, or several nights away. Our 10th anniversary was spent in Cozumel; our 20th in Key Largo. This year's anniversary falls less than 48 hours after Amy returned from Vietnam, so whatever we are doing, it will involve a jacked-up body clock, and she will probably need to turn in by 8 PM to catch up on 40 hours without sleep from Hanoi back to Baltimore two days ago.
And then there was two years ago. We were planning to go out for a quiet evening together at a local restaurant, but two of our three children caught a stomach bug, so instead we ate takeout, sat on our back deck, and were available in case one of them threw up. Romantic, huh?
And over the past 21 years, we've had many more experiences like what we faced two years ago than we've had trips to exotic 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 21 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, 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!