Imperfect Marriage, Perfect Grace

trRecently, I shared a song I recorded to Facebook for my wife as we celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary. Along the way, I was humbled by comments from viewers who remarked about how we demonstrated our love for one another and kudos for being married so long. I say humbled because I don’t really feel I have done anything extraordinary. I believe my wife would say the same thing (although I have been the beneficiary of many her extraordinary acts of love).

Just a vessel, and a broken one at that.

For every time a person complimented me for singing a song for my wife, I could point to dozens of requests by my wife to record many songs over the years. Whether due to laziness or an exaggerated sense of perfectionism, I didn’t fulfill my promise to her to record many songs. In reality, a successful marriage can hardly be defined by the utter volume of broken or unfulfilled promises on my part… unless…..unless there is a greater husband than me…unless there is a greater promise-keeper than me….unless there is a greater promise than all of those wrapped up in the marriage vows.

When asked what the secret of a long marriage is, you often hear the stock answer “it’s not us, it’s by the grace of God” or “it’s because of our faith”. Those are correct responses, but they don’t mean very much until you know how utterly weak we are as vessels. I will not speak for Tina, but as for myself I confess that I’m extremely lacking as a husband. I’m self-absorbed, insecure, prone to anger and lust, and as the classic hymn would say, prone to wander.

In light of the modern day celebrity examples of males who use and abuse women, I can’t point fingers. Though I haven’t egregiously acted out in some of the ways that many of these men have, I confess that my heart is every bit as bent toward these behaviors apart from God’s grace. So when we say, “but for the grace of God”, it must be prefaced with the acceptance that we are creatures who are inherently doomed to fail without it.

Glory unfolded

God created the institution of marriage to bring glory (or put on display) the redemptive characteristics of his covenant between Himself and his people. It is a covenant that only He has fulfilled as his people repeatedly fail to live up to their requirements much like spouses fail at living up to vows they made to each other. But God is the perfect spouse. He is a good God, so he calls on spouses to show His goodness to each other. He is a forgiving God, so he calls on spouses to forgive each other. He is a merciful God, so he calls on spouses to show mercy to each other. He is a longsuffering God, so he calls on spouses to suffer one another until death parts us. He is a loving God, so he calls on spouses to love each other. He loved us by humbly serving us, so he calls us as spouses to serve one another. He loved us by dying for us, so he calls us to die to ourselves and our selfish pursuits.

So, while the mountains, oceans, stars, and galaxies effectively speak of his majestic power, God was not satisfied to be seen as mere impersonal abstract force. We are all doomed to annihilation if God isn’t a person. However, if God is indeed the Person behind all of creation, we will not survive his righteous wrath and thrive in His perfect holiness apart from an intimate knowledge of the person of God. How is that even possible? If he is perfect as we are imperfect, how could we ever get close enough in order to truly know Him? It was made possible because at a particular time in history, He condescended to us, that is, the Son of God who is the perfect embodiment of all these personal characteristics came to us to fulfill the Father’s righteous demands in both his life on earth and death on a cross. He resurrected bodily to complete the transaction of forever clothing us in his righteousness cleansing us of our sin with its guilt and shame. Finally, he sustains his promise by His Spirit whose work is to point our gaze to Christ and upon his finished work all the while empowering us to properly bear his image before a world that is willfully blinded to His beauty. Marriage is one such vehicle where by His power we bear his image to one another and to the world which enables us to rightfully say, “But for His grace.”

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Confessions of a former “ish-er”

DR10 years ago, my wife and I completed Financial Peace University. Up until this time, our pattern was to live paycheck to paycheck and to instantly gratify ourselves with “no interest” revolving credit with the goal of paying it off before the interest kicked in. Needless to say, that never happened. The furniture we purchased wore out long before the debt. In addition, we financed cars and TV sets and whatever else we weren’t willing to wait on. We never saved. When we tried to save money, we always took it right back out before the month was up. The worst of all our attempts at savings was when we cashed out an IRA hat I had from a previous employer.  I was unemployed for 8 months and thought this was the right decision at the time, in spite of the 10% penalty and ensuing taxes which, you guessed it, couldn’t afford to pay at tax time.

So when we went through FPU, we were enlightened. We were able to complete baby step 1 by saving a thousand dollars and we were on our way. Except, we weren’t.  We loved the idea of having an emergency fund so much that we skipped baby step 2 and went to baby step 3. We “ished” it. The next 10 years seemed peaceful when things happened like home AC repairs, auto repairs and the like. We thought we were so smart. We would humble-brag about how great it was to have an emergency fund and not sweat it when Murphy showed up on our doorstep.

In addition to time-traveling to baby step 3, we also swore off credit cards (mostly) and paid off many of our debts when we sold our house and bought a new house 4 years ago. On top of all that, we were both contributing to our 401k and making more money. But worst of all, our Emergency Fund was also a slush fund. We had replaced making unnecessary credit purchases with unnecessary cash purchases. (Buying a stove to better color match the refrigerator is an emergency right?)

When you think about it, using your emergency fund to buy toys when you are not out of debt and not investing enough into retirement is basically credit isn’t it? Instead of borrowing from Citibank, you are borrowing from your future…check that…you’re STEALING from your future because you are taking funds that will never have the chance to experience compound interest. So, let me shoot down the myth of “borrowing from yourself” and call it what it really is. Stealing from yourself. Ouch!

To many, all of this sounds great! This would sound like financial peace to a lot of people, and truthfully it did to us. Except, it isn’t. In spite of all we were able to accomplish, we both turned 50 and realized we were far behind on our retirement savings. We were not able to do the recommended 15% contribution to our 401k because guess what? We were still in debt.

Now, we were blessed not to ever have exorbitant debt like student loans, “more house than we could afford”, or high end cars. But, we did have car loans, we did have a couple low balance credit cards, we did have a mortgage, we were only contributing half of what we should to our 401k, and we were not as generous as we wanted to be.

Finally, in February of this year, I rediscovered Dave Ramsey and the baby steps. Like a bolt of lightning I realized how much our “ish-ness” had cost us. If we had followed the steps 10 years ago, we would not only be out of debt already, we would have a lot more in our retirement accounts and I would not be stressing about age 65 and beyond so much.

A couple things that Dave pointed out that motivated me. First, we needed to halt our 401k contributions and use those funds to speed up the debt snowball. Secondly, we needed to apply any savings above $1000.00 we had toward our debt. You don’t know how difficult it was to do these two things. They seemed counter to everything I thought we should be doing which was saving money. But, I realized, the only financial peace to be had would come by following the steps…in the order they were meant to be followed. There was a reason for this and our experience of the past 10 years proved us. Lesson learned.

Since my rediscovery of Dave Ramsey, we have paid off 2 credit cards and a car loan. Currently, we are on pace to pay off our 2017 Honda CRV (another poor decision made last summer) by the beginning of 2019.

Let me insert a side note here. The way we lived our financial life was normal. It is the way most people live their lives in our culture. Everything in our culture is instantaneous whether it be information, fast food, sexual pleasure, and sadly even religion. Our culture is bent away from reading lengthy books, prepping and cooking meals, courtship in pursuit of marriage, and intentional slow ordinary care of one’s own soul.

With everything I know from experience, a trap awaits us at the end of baby step 2. We could feel a false sense of peace having all of our non-mortgage debt paid off, but I know now this wouldn’t be true financial peace. Baby Step 3 will be to build that emergency fund of 3-6 months, and then we can finally increase our retirement contribution to the minimum 15% (baby step 4).

I would like to say we do everything perfect, but that would be untrue. We are still struggling to control our spending and tighten our budget. Changing 30 years of bad habits will take some time. Let our experience be an encouragement to you, not to do things the way we did it the last 30 years, or even the last 10 years because to do so would be to rob yourself of much more than retiring comfortably. It will rob of you the joy that comes from spontaneously helping others, obtaining contentment, and of course….financial peace.

P.S. and of course as Dave says, the only true Peace is to walk daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus.

The Island and the Hurricane

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Storm Brewing

It was the fall of 1985 when I was sitting in the student union building of a local Baptist bible college eating bacon and eggs while reading the sports page. I had been sitting at one end of a long table or perhaps multiple tables put together. With my head buried in a sea of black ink and football news, a Hispanic hurricane of frenzy at the far end of the table caught my attention. Her audience was a small group of fellow students who were caught up in the conversational storm she was generating.  In contrast, I was like an uncharted island on the outskirts, a mound of sand with no prospects for habitation. At least for now.

I did not catch her name though her white cotton dress with the shoulder ties she wore that day made the perfect backdrop for her long jet black hair and remains branded in my memory banks. Throughout our freshman year, I would see this hurricane popping up all over the tiny campus. I eventually learned that her name was Tina with a funny last name. Incredibly, when you’re talking about a small college like ours, we actually ran in different circles.  For example, I was oblivious to any knowledge of a dance party she hosted at her parents’ house that surely would have caused a huge scandal in this Baptist college, if only for the dancing that took place.  Imagine 25% of a 180 student body crammed into her parent’s modest  Euless,  Texas home, and I wasn’t even there!  It’s just as well. My moves are not exactly ones of local legend.

Swiftly She Moves

The first time I can even remember speaking with her that year was when she approached me to inquire about the availability of one of my friends. Now, I can’t say I tried very hard to help her out as I’m not one for match-making. The next time I remember talking to her was 1 year later as she again grilled me about a guy, a different one who I had just met and who would later end up being my closest friend for the next 3 decades and counting.  This time I made a little more effort and mentioned her to him,  but as it turned out, he wasn’t interested.  But his rebuttal did not deter her from trying and he didn’t realize how difficult it would be to flee such a storm as she relentlessly pursued him.  Even though he had a new girlfriend, the Hurricane wouldn’t be easily dismissed. Ultimately, my friend would not be swept away by the storm. Meanwhile, the three of us starting hanging out and going places because I guess he needed me as some kind of Bizarro wing man.  So I became the quintessential third wheel as my friend drove us around in his early 70’s Buick. Tina sat in the middle of front bench seat and would frequently scoot over as close to him as possible while I sat contently on the passenger side.  This arrangement would go on for many nights out..dinners, movies, what have you.  Even though I was an extra in this little production, the Island and the Hurricane became friends. She would become the sounding board for my girl problems while I covertly ran interference for my friend.  In spite of this development, the hurricane was still nowhere on the radar of this uncharted island.

So, here she was chasing my best friend while I was striking out in my own romantic pursuits. Then came an unexpected twist. As she began to face the reality that my friend would not return her feelings and as I endured my own heartbreak, she and I… the Hurricane and the Island… started doing things together sans the Buick driving buddy.  It started out as simple little excursions, like driving a couple blocks from the college to Whataburger between classes to catch breakfast. I used to get the breakfast on a bun ranchero (do they still make that?) and she would get a hamburger! What? Who eats hamburgers for breakfast?? Hurricanes do, that’s who!  This was rather odd behavior I surmised, for I had been brought up with the novel idea that you eat eggs for breakfast and hamburgers for lunch.  In addition to our many breakfast runs, the hurricane would invite me to her house where I would begin to experience the culinary delights of papas y huevos. (It wouldn’t take me long to learn that Pancho’s is not fine Mexican cuisine).  Of course, she being just as white as I was, called them potatoes and eggs.  (This dish would become my comfort food for the next 32 years.)

One of the strangest times we went out together, as friends of course, was to Randol Mill Park in Arlington. We had been driving around, probably looking at Christmas lights, and decided to go park. It was strange because I have no idea why 2 friends go parking at night. I don’t remember for sure whose idea it was (probably mine), but I do remember that night contemplating holding her hand or putting my arm around her, but I didn’t.  Deep down something was developing beyond the friendship, but I just wasn’t sure about her. I mean, she wasn’t someone I had considered dating before, yet here we were in a sense, dating. We certainly didn’t call it that. It was just one of those many nights we hung out together as friends.

Another thing that was the basis for our friendship was our membership in the college’s traveling ensemble.  When singing on stage she was paired with my friend, and I was paired with…well no one. I was the pianist which means I was by myself in my own little world as the musical accompaniment for this fine singing group. The ensemble would sing at local churches and on campus in chapel services as well as a couple 2 week tours in the winter and spring to recruit for the college. I was enjoying my 3rd semester in the group, and this was Tina’s first. The ensemble presented the first occasion where the hurricane would enter the general vicinity of my coordinates. This experience would prove to be the catalyst for shifting winds that would soon occur.

After an autumn schedule of concerts, the ensemble’s winter tour was coming.  In late December of 1986, 15-17 people jumped on a charter bus and headed for the Southeast region of the country.  When we took off for Florida, the hurricane was still somewhat making waves for my friend, but her patience was finally beginning to waver. (see what I did there?) The storm was finally weakening a little bit.  During the first several days of the tour she sat next to him on the bus while I sat alone across the aisle. Don’t feel sorry for me though as I was perfectly fine with all that. But on January 1st, 1987, the winds shifted.

Baptists in seedy motel rooms

Many of the tour stops were in Florida that winter. The routine was simple. We arrived at a church, unpacked, set up sound equipment, went back to the motel where we stayed, got dressed…guys in matching blue suits with pink and blue paisley ties,  the girls in glossy pink dresses, (Hey, it was the 80’s ok?) and finally back to the church to put on an hour and a half concert.

group2

 

Though sometimes we would stay in the homes of local church members, more often than not we stayed in motels usually 4 guys to a room and 4 girls to a room. In the evenings we’d go watch TV or play games in other rooms, usually where most of the group members were hanging out.  The three of us were hanging out in one of the rooms watching TV.  Now, before I continue with how this night went, I think it’s important to mention that Tina and I had never had any discussion about us ever being a couple. You could say that the whole concept would have been laughable (for all parties) if it had ever been entertained.  Yet, we were always together during the fall of 1986.  Usually, these times were spent sorting out each other’s romantic pursuits.  In fact, she tried to fix me up with another girl she knew from church after I had finally struck out with the girl I had been pining for. I can vividly remember the particular afternoon where she had set up a meeting between me and this other girl. It was to be at a Burger King in a nearby town. To this day, she makes fun of the little bottle of cologne that sat in the cubby hole of my 1975 brown Dodge Duster with its white vinyl bucket seats. The product was called “Hawk”! And at this point in my life, I had not quite mastered the proper ratio of cologne to splash my face with. The whole car reeked of this potion. It’s a wonder the girl at Burger King agreed to a date shortly after. I don’t even think I asked her out. I was so shy that I think it was actually Tina that asked her out for me.  So I did take this girl out, but as fate would have it, there was no real spark between us and I was back to square one.  The lonely little island with an oncoming storm approaching.

The island and the hurricane were as opposite as could be.  She was an extroverted, relational, grade 5 storm of hospitality while I was an introverted mist of corny humor.  We were the original Monica and Chandler. Just like Chandler, humor was my defense mechanism. One such attempt at humor I performed was when I would grab her, pull her in close, look longingly into her eyes, and move in for a passionate kiss or so it would appear. Then at the last Lucy-holding-the-football moment, I would cover her mouth with my hand and then kiss the back of it. To an onlooker, they would have assumed our lips were locked only to discover with close examination that I was faking the whole thing.group3

robpiano

 

So, back to the motel room. (Sounds seedy doesn’t it?) It was New Years Day and the Orange Bowl was playing on television. There we were, the three of us, watching the football game.  I think there might have been a commercial playing when I decided to dust off the old fake kiss comedy routine. (I probably performed this bit a half dozen times)  So as we sat on the bed in front of the tv, I pulled her in close….looked longingly into her eyes, and finally moved in for a passionate fake kiss.  Except, I didn’t cover her mouth this time. My heart began to race and the voices in my head screamed, “what are you doing?!? What are you doing?!!” …and then it happened… The kiss heard around the world!  What must have lasted 5 seconds would transform my life for decades! The look on her face was one of utter shock or pure ecstasy…I can’t be sure.  Meanwhile my friend had the same look on his face (shock, not ecstasy). Of course, I can’t really say with any certainty what his facial expression was because my eyes were clearly fixed on her deep brown eyes the whole time.  There was no joking this time. And these weren’t mere pupils.  For the first time, I was gazing into the windows of my soul mate, this hurricane that whisked into my life, sending waves crashing into my lonely shores. Now, little did I know, the ramifications of all this. I couldn’t see that far into the future. In the moment, I could only think about how this all would be received by our friends the next day on the tour bus as she moved across the aisle to sit next to me. They would surely be stunned by this turn of events.  At that moment, as I looked into her soul, I failed to realize that it would eventually be the one that God would entrust me to cultivate, to encourage, to care for, and to love.  I would be lying if I said that I came to this realization on our wedding day 3 1/2 years later, but even now, after 27  years of marriage, parenthood, and ministry, there is still so much to learn, so much to discover about her…about myself….about Christ at the center.

I could write about the ensuing weeks and months, about how I put us both through hell trying to break up with her only to come crawling back 24 hours after I had secured my “freedom”.  Even when I came to my senses, I still didn’t think this would last. As she would attest, she was the emotion-driven antithesis to my quirky stoicism. I found great comfort in my aloofness as an uncharted island that might never be discovered. She was that hurricane I couldn’t control..I only hoped I could survive the unpredictability.  As it turned out,  my talent for detachment only exacerbated her emotions, and her outbursts served only to stoke the inward fires of my reticence. But by God’s grace, we’ve grown out of our childish ways, which isn’t to say we’re fundamentally different than we were back then. But the view is vastly different. I no longer see her as someone to survive… if that were even possible.  I now only see her as a beautiful, flourishing force of nature!

Paradise Found

No one could have predicted how the Island and the Hurricane would come together to be this perfect match. It’s not what what either one of us was seeking for in the fall of 1986.  You can only attribute it to God’s creativity as he often uses the unimaginable to enlarge our imagination and dispel our presumptions. If not for the Hurricane, this Island would have easily drifted out of view. But God knew it wasn’t good for me to be alone and whipped up a storm to be his appointed means of tethering me to Him.  An island needs a storm to jostle it out of lethargy and a Hurricane needs a place to touch down lest she dissipate into nothingness. God performs unfathomable miracles.  After all, He created this world we live in out of utter chaos. For us, He created our union from the raw materials of passion and introspection.  If left to our natural state, we would have been a chaotic mess, but formed by a Sovereign God, we’re a living testament to His mercy and grace.

Now, on this day, her 51st birthday, I’m so grateful for the chance to grow old with this Proverbs 31 woman…..for the Godly wife she’s been to me, for her forgiveness, for that ferocious heart of hers that pursues her family and never gives up on us, for her model of motherhood marked by patience and endurance not perfection.  I thank God for her as his means to calm my anxious heart while I get to be his means for protecting hers.

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