Conflict makes stories work.
Write a book on how you succeeded with nary a mishap and made it to the top without a struggle of any kind and even your best friend, after buying a dozen copies, will lay it aside halfway through. It’s boring.
But tell how you struggled, how you failed and got back up, how life handed you lemons and you made a meringue pie, and we will all read it and cheer you on.
Our previous blog told of ten mistakes Margaret and I made over a half-century of marital bliss. (I’m putting that word in there just for her, to give her a smile. There were blissful moments, to be sure, but so many of the bad moments, the times when you’re so miserable you don’t know what to do except throw yourself on the mercy of God and love each other by faith.)
I told a friend yesterday that, in retrospect, the good times in our marriage were like the Smoky Mountains, and the bad times like the Rockies. That is, the good were nice and pleasant, green and verdant and sweet. But it’s the jagged outcrops of granite that seem to loom above everything else, causing us to remember those more than the other.
The first article was about the Rockies. This one is about the Smokies.
So, as promised, here are ten things we got right in a half-century of marriage. And so you won’t wonder, Margaret and I made the list last night over supper. It’s a joint project.
1. When the going got tough, we hung in there.
As we said in the previous epistle, we talked about parachuting out of the pain, but hung tough. Consequently, God has blessed us richly in a thousand ways.
2. We got counsel.
Again, this is told in the previous article.
When I encounter some husband who is reluctant to accompany his wife for marriage counseling, I tell him I sympathize. I protested for nearly 20 years of marriage. The best surprise I received from sitting in the counseling room was discovering that the counselor is a friend, not a judge, not the referee, and not partial. Our counselors have always become great friends for both of us.
3. We had some great kids.
Our three are now in their 40’s and are the joy of our lives. Neil is the oldest (Joe Neil, Jr.), then Marty (John Marshall) and finally Carla, known to many of our oldest friends as Jinoke. We adopted her from Korea in 1974 when she was 5 years old.
Neil is married to Julie, lives here in the N.O. area, and they are parents of Grant, 17, and Abby and Erin, 15. Marty lives in Charlotte, NC., is married to Misha, and they are parents of Darilyn, nearly 15, and Jack, 10. Carla lives in Laconia, New Hampshire, and is a single mom of Leah, 22, Jessica, 20, and JoAnne, 14.
How does that line go–Grandchildren are God’s reward for your not killing your children when they were teenagers! I tell my three they will never know just how close they came! But it was worth the wait for these incredible 8 youngsters who are grandpa’s heart.
4. Our friends made a world of difference.
When I hear preachers say that pastors should not make close friends among church members, I want to respond, “Are you out of your mind? Where else are you going to find friends? These are the people you spend most of your time with.”
Margaret and I have a few close friends in the ministry, but most of our dearest friends over the years have come from our church families. These days they live all over the country, not just in a Mississippi town where we first met them.
When we got in trouble, our friends were there. The true friends, I mean. The kind who would take a bullet for you.
When our sons were in their late teens and, alongwith their buddies, were trying to become gangsters (that’s called hyperbole), Margaret rallied our friends. She pulled together the mothers of these boys. They met for coffee from time to time, talked about what they were experiencing, gave each other support, and prayed for one another.
The number one reason our marriage lasted 50 years (and threatens to go onward) is friends.
5. We had supportive churches.
Two of the last three churches we served established the gold standard for supporting a pastor and his wife. The First Baptist churches of Columbus, Mississippi, and Kenner, Louisiana, were led by solid, mature, sweet Christian men and women, who did not panic when they discovered their pastor and his mate were having difficulty in their home or trouble raising a kid.
In the previous article, where I told of Margaret’s and my testimony on a Sunday night in March of 1981 (“The Home God Healed”), at the end, I told the church that we were there because of them. They were steadfast, they were loving and prayerful and understanding. And they did one thing more that made all the difference.
They let me know that if I walked away from this marriage, I could not be their pastor. (Call me stupid–I was–but I really had thought my position as pastor might survive a divorce. The leadership telling me ‘no’ was a wakeup call I had needed. There is a time, friends, to tell a preacher, “If you do that, you are gone.”)
6. We gave each other mutual encouragement to grow.
Readers should not assume that Margaret and I were always at odds with each other. We weren’t. Sometimes we got it right, even for lengthy periods. Case in point.
Margaret had never been much of a student in school. She dropped out of her freshman year at UAB and went to work. And yet, the first time I saw her in church to know who she was, she was 17 and giving a talk before a youth group. I was blown away by her eloquence and intelligence.
Imagine my surprise when we began dating and I learned her self-confidence was at the basement level.
After I finished seminary and we were pastoring in the Mississippi Delta, she and a friend decided to take a couple of easy freshman courses at nearby Delta Junior College. Many years later, she graduated from Mississippi University for Women (Columbus, MS) summa cum laude. And I threw her a party to celebrate.
I supported her in her continuing education, and in 1972, she supported my plans to return to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for a doctorate.
We were on each other’s team and never competitors or rivals. We got a lot of things like that right.
7. We made vacations special.
Our son Neil sometimes makes a point of reminding us of trips to the King Tut Exhibit in New Orleans in 1977, of short vacations at various state parks, and of lengthy vacation trips into New England with stops all along the way at the homes of U.S. presidents.
I read the Chronicles of Narnia to our children at a state park in rural Mississippi. We went fishing and hiking, we killed snakes and cooked out.
Once Margaret looked up from a magazine she was reading. “Now I know why you’re no fun on vacation.” An article in Psychology Today pointed out that it takes the average vacationer 3 days to gear down to rest, and 3 days before returning home he/she begins gearing back up. “That means you have 1 day to enjoy the vacation,” Margaret said.
Thereafter, when we could, we scheduled vacations for 2 weeks or even three.
8. We honored each other’s parents.
Fortunately, our parents loved us and we loved them. So, this was never a chore.
Once when we were newlyweds and living around the corner from Margaret’s parents, I came home from work to find her in tears. Her mother had reamed her out about something. I walked out the door and down the block. “Mother,” I said, “She’s my wife. And you will not ever, ever do that to her again.”
Give her credit. She took that well, respected me for it, and treated her daughter like a married woman thereafter.
9. We learned how to solve problems, how to discuss the bad stuff, how to pray together.
In our fairly miserable North Carolina years (the late 1980s), when a few sick church members were harassing us and some nicer ones were pressuring us to leave, we developed a practice which I’ve recommended to pastors ever since. We had a time on the back porch every afternoon to discuss, fuss, and/or cuss. We read Scripture, we prayed, and we griped. We laughed, we cried, and we talked about the “sons of belial” (S.O.B.s). And then we left it on the porch.
We had an understanding you could say anything on the porch, but you could not bring it in the house.
Once we were about to read Psalm 67. I have no idea why that particular psalm. But suddenly, everything inside me said, “No. Psalm 66.” I couldn’t have told you anything about either one, but I moved back to 66, and began reading.
Right in the middle of that psalm–verses 10-12–we saw our situation perfectly described. It was stunning. What are the chances of that happening accidentally?
Margaret saw something else there that I missed. “You brought us out to a place of abundance.” In our prayer, she said, “And Lord, we thank you for the promise you’ve given us here, that you will bring us to a place of abundance.”
Thereafter, we claimed that promise. In September of 1990, when the Lord led us to New Orleans to pastor the FBC of Kenner (and in 2004 to become the area missionary for over 130 SBC churches), we found out what “abundance” really means. Romans 5:20 comes to mind: Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. (New Orleans, like Las Vegas and a few other places, had a well-earned reputation for the abundance of its sin. One more instance of the Lord surprising His disciples by the specificity of His fulfilling His word.)
10. We learned from the mistakes of others.
Margaret’s parents, Waller and Inez Henderson, were wonderful people in a hundred ways. They loved me from start to finish and were precious in-laws. But they seem to have been a mismatch in marriage and their children paid a dear price for the unhappiness they experienced.
We more or less insisted they have a 50th anniversary reception. Margaret and her sisters put it on, and old friends flocked to the occasion. Later, I said to her, “I’m so glad your parents have persevered through the tough times. Now, in their twilight years, they can provide pleasant companionship for each other.”
You would have thought.
But it was not to be.
After 55 years of marriage, she moved out and divorced him.
A couple in their 90s went to see a lawyer. “We want to get a divorce,” they told him. He was astounded. “How long have you people been married?” he asked. “Seventy-five years.” “Why have you waited this long to get a divorce?” “Well sir, we were sort of waiting until the children died.”
Bad joke. But it seemed to fit what my in-laws did.
Margaret and I are learning that these retirement years really can be the sweetest and most rewarding of all. We have a wonderful, supportive relationship with each other and with our children and their families. We have income enough to live on, and I’m still being invited to preach all over. We’re members of an outstanding church (the one I last pastored, from 1990-2004, where our son is chairman of deacons and his wife is the pastor’s administrative assistant) and have friends all over.
Thank you, Lord.