Friday, July 29, 2016

"How Did You Do It?" 22 Years of Marital "Bliss" and "Blisters"

22 years ago tomorrow, 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. 

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 22 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 22 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 in the 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 pastoral schedule, teaching duties 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?"

3. Because we are best friends.  I'll be brutally honest here:  When I was standing at the altar 22 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 finds us 12,000 miles apart while she does some really important work with educators in Vietnam.  So when she gets back and we are finally able to celebrate, it will probably involve a jacked-up body clock.

And then there was three 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?

Over the past 22 years, we've had many more experiences like what we faced three 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.  If you think otherwise, you have placed sex on a throne where only God belongs.  

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. 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 22 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!

So I sit here this morning grateful to Jesus for holding Amy and me 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!  Come home safe!

Monday, July 11, 2016

When Your Pastor Falls

Yesterday, the elders of NewSpring Church, the 30,000 attendee, multi-site congregation in my home state, announced the release of Senior Pastor Perry Noble due to behaviors that disqualify him for pastoral ministry.  This announcement was understandably shocking, both to the evangelical world, and more so to the NewSpring church family.

Some predictable responses to this sad news have already transpired--from secular media outlets pointing out NewSpring's status as the "richest church," to angry fundamentalists shouting "See! I told you so!"  For my part, my heart goes out to Perry, and to the church he founded.

When the first church I ever planted was just an infant, NewSpring was itself just learning how to walk.  Those were trying times in my own life and ministry, and I remember several conversations with Perry that helped me greatly.  Perry cares about the church--all churches.  Perry cares about pastors.  But mostly, Perry cares deeply about lost people finding Jesus.  Perry did  many things differently than I would do them, and a few things I would never do.  But you don't have to be twins to be brothers, and as a whole, I have been very thankful for this brother and the difference he has made.

And since yesterday, I've been thinking a lot about NewSpring Church, and many other churches like her who have had to bid farewell to a pastor who disqualified himself for ministry.  Noble and NewSpring may currently be alone in the spotlight, but they are far from the only pastor and church that have encountered a situation like this.  When this kind of thing happens, it doesn't matter how big or how "rich" you are.  Its excruciatingly painful for all involved.  I've consulted with multiple churches in the wake of their leader's moral failure--be it sexual, financial, substance abuse, or other lack of personal discipline.  Moments like that in the life of a church are humiliating for the pastor, impossibly difficult for those who hold him accountable, and painful for a church family that, whether or not they realize it, are dealing with a level of grief commensurate with losing a family member to death.

Often, churches don't know what to do in a situation like this.  Based on my own experience in helping churches through crises like this, let me make the following suggestions.  How should you view the pastor who has disappointed you and let you down?  And, what does the pastor who now no longer leads your church need from you?

He needs your discipline.  This is a difficult thing for many to hear, especially those in the body of Christ who are gifted with mercy and helps.  They rightly expect restoration and often cry out "why can't we just forgive him and move on?"  Within that cry is an honorable desire to redeem the situation and the person.  But often, this cry is accompanied by ignorance of the fact that "forgiveness" and "restoration" are two completely different things.  1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are clear about the character qualities of those who dare to be pastors.  In the case of Perry Noble, those principles were violated by an over-dependency on alcohol.  But I've seen similar circumstances arise from sexual sin, lack of discipline, or the inability to control one's temper.  When disqualifying sin has taken place and all other avenues have been exhausted, removal is best for the church, for the community, and even for the pastor.  The fact that it is also painful doesn't mean its wrong.

So if you are faced with the removal of your pastor over disqualifying sin, trust your leaders who have rightly held him accountable, and follow them as they seek to lead the church forward while simultaneously getting the pastor the resources he and his family need to heal.

He needs your stay shut!  News of what happened at NewSpring yesterday had spread to every major news outlet in North America by last night.  Imagine how you would feel if your worst moments not only cost you your job, but were also on display on TV screens, computer screens and smartphones all over America.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself "but Perry was a mega-church pastor.  Our church is much smaller--much less well-known."  But while it is true that your pastor's sins may never end up on CNN, in a situation like this they will certainly end up on the "Community Bulletin Board" where all the "real news" in your small town gets read anyway.  My point?  Your pastor and his family will be humiliated by a situation like this regardless, and the absolute last thing he needs are those he has served as shepherd adding gossip and rumor to the situation.

Yesterday, the leaders of NewSpring balanced transparency with discretion.  And because they didn't "tell it all" there will be plenty of gaps in the story, and people naturally want to fill in the gaps.  If you are part of a church where this is happening, your time is much better spent praying for your church family and your former pastor.  Don't feed the rumor mill.  Doing so only brings greater humiliation.

He needs your unity.  Your church needs it too.  This is not the time to "jump ship" and head to the church across town.  This is not the time to hit the exit ramp because church doesn't feel like Disney World any more.  And its certainly not the time to give the impression that the former pastor is the whole reason you joined the church anyway (Truthfully, if the pastor is the only reason you are there, you are there for the wrong reason!).  Now is the time to lock arms with your hurting church family.

One of the things I"m thankful for in the NewSpring situation is that Perry is humbly receiving the rebuke and discipline from church leaders.  Without that posture, this could have been much worse.  In the worst cases I've seen, the pastor resists loving discipline and "splants" a church by dividing the house and taking those loyal to him down the street to start another one.  Being part of something like that isn't honoring to your former pastor.  It enables him in further misconduct, and does traumatic damage to your church family, the community, and the witness of the Gospel.  Don't play the "God is leading me....." card on this one.  That's just ridiculous.  Now more than ever, stay with your church family!  Years from now, your former pastor will be encouraged to know that his behavior didn't do lasting damage to the body of Christ.

He needs your appreciation  While many gifted with mery and helps want to quickly "forgive" and "restore," may gifted with prophecy and discernment--the "justice" gifts--will want to find a tall tree and a short piece of rope from which to hang their former pastor.  This too, is unhealthy.

When a pastor falls, many are devastated because they say to themselves "I never thought he would be capable of something like this!"  Trust has been broken.  Spiritual trauma has been inflicted on the body.  In moments like that, it is easy to forget that you can't measure a man's life in one bad moment.

As you process your grief and disappointment, also keep in mind that it was the guy who couldn't control his drinking who also baptized your children.  It was the guy who cheated on his wife who was also there for you when your mother died suddenly.  In those moments, he never left your side.  Now, he needs you by his side.  That doesn't mean you can't feel disappointment or even anger.  It does mean you shouldn't forget how often he blessed you and your family.  Recall those moments, and communicate them to him to encourage him.

He needs your prayers  How often do you think he prayed for you?  He and his family now stand in great need of your prayers.  Ask God to give him greater wisdom for the future.  Ask God to heal him.  Ask God to heal his family.  Ask God to one day restore him to ministry.

One of the signatures on my ministry license is that of a man who would be later removed from a church because of substance abuse.  Yes, he sinned and disqualified himself..  And yes, the church did the right thing by removing him.  But whatever good anyone sees in my ministry now is largely due to his investment in me as a young man.  We shouldn't forget things like that, nor should we let those who have fallen forget them.

By God's grace, both Perry Noble and NewSpring Church have a future.  If your church has been through similar circumstances, you have a future too, and so does the man you once called "Pastor."  Give him what he needs, and trust God to give your church what it needs.