Friday, March 17, 2006

Wedding Words

Pastors see marriages in so many stages of growth and struggle, including their own. We are sometimes called on to listen or intervene when things have become unworkable. We don't see much more success with those inside the church than we do with those outside, regretably. I've been asked whether I prefer "doing weddings or doing funerals." (Pastors get asked a lot of unusual things, but then I guess people are just curious.) I sometimes reply that I am much better with funerals than weddings. All the people I've ever buried are still dead. (One day that statistic will be ruined, too, however).

I have officiated a hundred wedding ceremonies, more or less. A couple of years ago I presided over two that were unusual. My sons were getting married. I couldn't simply use the words I'd used in others. Instead, I thought long and hard about what I would say as spokesman not only for Christ and the church, but also for myself, my wife and the brides' parents. Preparing a service for a young couple this morning, I re-read what I wrote for one of our boy's ceremonies, and I thought about how much I really believe these words. I also thought about how much I need to be living them.

"The metaphor of life as a journey is buried deep in the human heart. Like a journey, life has a beginning and a destination. When you first start out, you travel with your family. Most of the decisions about the journey belong to your parents. But eventually, both you and they know, you will strike out on your own.

As the journey continues, you meet people, and when you find that they are headed for the same destination, you might travel together for a time. Some become friends and companions. A few never leave. You are blessed to have people like that in your life.

And, you are greatly blessed if you eventually meet someone whom you want more anything to accompany you on the remainder of the journey, every day, whatever the road may hold, however long the journey may last, all the way to its completion.

So your paths crossed more than seven years ago. You have traveled a while together. And now you have discerned that it is God’s will for you to complete the journey together. This is as it should be. Genesis 2:24 says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife…”

As you prepare to leave together on this journey, what can we, who have traveled this far with you, say to you? We want to give you maps to guide you, but for the most part, they are simply maps of our journeys, and would do you little good. Like ancient mariners, your maps have boundaries and beyond the boundaries is marked the warning, “Here be dragons!” You are preparing to embark on a journey off the maps that we hold. It will be your own journey together, one that has never before been taken.

So, although it is impossible to offer specific advice for your journey, two things you must know, if you are to remain partners on the journey of life as partners in the covenant of marriage: You need to know that marriage is difficult, and you need to know that marriage is easy.

You need to accept that marriage is difficult. The challenge of bringing the lives of two sinners together cuts against every grain of selfishness in our souls. The Scripture says,

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
That sounds simple enough. But following Genesis 2:24 is the story of Genesis 3 – the entrance of sin into human affairs. Two becoming one does not happen now without crucifixion, without many experiences of death to our selfishness.

One person can dominate the other in a marriage and simply refuse to die, while the other surrenders to their power. But two do not thus become one. One perishes and the other survives. It happens all the time.

Or both can refuse to die and insist on saving their lives. But two do not thus become one. They may live together for many years, but they never become married.

What Jesus said of the life of discipleship is true of life in a marriage:

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

Two become one when each takes seriously living life a third way, Jesus’ way,

  • where you have many chances to die,
  • where you take up your cross and follow,
  • where having your own way and will are no longer necessary in order to be happy,
  • where you choose Christ-following over self,
  • where a husband loves his wife as Christ loved the church,
  • where a wife loves her husband as the church – Christ’s bride – loves him.

In the pursuit of the life that Jesus taught us to live lies the real possibility of two becoming one. Given our sinfulness, this is a difficult path. So you need to know, first of all, that marriage, two becoming one, is difficult.

The second thing you must know as you set out is that marriage is easy. You need to know that God was right when he said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Nor is it good for the woman to be alone. You need to know that two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9).

It is much to your advantage to travel the journey of life and discipleship in the covenant of marriage. You find in that partnership the help and security, the warmth and companionship that comes with not traveling alone. With a partner, you find the burdens only half as heavy and the joys twice as delightful. So you need to know that two really are better than one and that marriage is easy.

You need to know that marriage is difficult because life is difficult. The challenges on your journey that cannot now be foreseen are strong enough to destroy your marriage. It happens all the time. Challenges with health and hope, family and finances, children and career, dreams and disappointments, temptations and trials all lie in your future. They are not on your map, so they cannot be avoided. You cannot plan for them. But there are two things you can do in advance.

1. You can determine to become a certain kind of people. You can intend to follow Christ with the daily decisions of your lives. You can engage in those practices that make you strong – prayer, worship, service, solitude, and study. You can gather strength for the rigors of the journey, so that when the resources are needed, they will be there. You determine to be Christ-followers with each other.

2. And you can bind yourselves to each other with vows and promises as you begin the journey. You promise before God and family and friends that when it becomes the most difficult, you will turn toward each other rather than away, that you will offer each other grace and forgiveness, kindness and compassion, gentleness and patience. You promise to be Christ-followers to each other.

Marriage is difficult because life is difficult. You will need to be Christians to each other.

You need to know that marriage is easy because life is sweet. You have decided to make this one journey through life together. Even if you carry out all the promises you make today, and even if God blesses you with long life, your journey together will nevertheless be brief. Perhaps at the outside, you’ll journey around the sun together 60 more times, see the wildflowers of only 60 more springs, enjoy the warmth of only 60 more summers, celebrate only 60 more Christmases.

And in the course of those five dozen orbits, you’ll pass through all the seasons of life, and they are all good. You will enjoy years of settling into your life’s work and find the satisfaction that comes from that. You will find ways to invest your lives together in the service of Christ in the world, and the joy that will come from that will be deep. There will be children to love, to know, and to nurture. Friends will come alongside to walk with you. You will take pleasure in God’s world, God’s goodness, and God’s gifts. These pleasures lie on your path. You need to know that marriage is easy, because life is good.

You need to know that the journey is difficult. Be strong. Don’t be ruled by your feelings. Keep a longer view.

You need to know that the journey is easy. Take it as a gift. Don’t be hardened by the struggles. Be present and savor the moment.

You need to know that the journey is difficult. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Don’t turn back. Let your vows and promises bind you when your feelings will not.

You need to know that the journey is easy. Laugh. Don’t take it so seriously. Celebrate and play.

You need to know that the journey is difficult. Husbands and wives take time. Families require sacrifice. You will sometimes struggle to give any more. But give anyway and let it shape you toward Christlikeness.

You need to know that the journey is easy. Husbands and wives are a joy. Families make life full and rich. You will sometimes struggle to find room to contain it all. Let that shape you toward the likeness of Christ as well.

So you prepare to embark on the next stage of your journey. From this point on you will travel in the covenant of marriage. The journey will be your own. And those who have walked this far with you, and who love you, and who have an investment in your future together want you know that our prayers and commitments to you continue. We bless you as you head out on the difficult and easy journey of becoming married."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ezra & Me

Ezra lives in Bushenyi, a Ugandan town about 30 km from Mbarara. Twice he has played Aaron to my Moses, interpreting my English into Runyankore so that pastors could understand my attempts at teaching.

The first time we worked together was in 2002. A pastors’ training conference was held in his church building—a cinderblock structure with a few straight back benches for pews. I taught and he translated.

Ezra is a bright young man and a good pastor. I suspect his knowledge of English vocabulary is probably a sixth or seventh grade level. That made teaching with him a challenge. Besides having to weed out the many metaphors that flow naturally from my life experience and that would have spoken clearly on my home field and finding instead comparisons that would make sense to rural African pastors, I had to choose my words carefully.

I had to find simple words. Not because Ezra is simple. It was just a language thing. Like someone would have to speak in the simplest Spanish if they expected me to tell someone else what they were saying. Even then I’d probably get most of it wrong. That’s a challenge for a teacher, but a good one. Be simple. Be direct. Be clear.

Last summer Ezra and I teamed up again. This time the meeting was at the University Baptist Church in Mbarara. More pastors were present this time, perhaps fifty. On Wednesday of the week Ezra confided in me that he had spoken with his wife and learned that their young son had contracted malaria. He could not leave to be with his family until Friday when the bus would take him back. He asked me to pray for him.

I placed one pale white hand in his dark black one and laid the other on his shoulder. I asked our Father to heal my brother’s little boy and to give his wife the peace of Christ. On Friday we parted ways again.

A couple of weeks later Ezra found his way to an Internet connection and sent me a brief note through his Yahoo! account:

“Greetings from Bushenyi more especially from my family. How are you and how is your family? In Bushenyi we are okay and thanks be to God for He has healed my son and my wife. Robert, thank you so much for your prayers towards my family when they were down sick and by the time I come from the Seminary I found they were okay and that showed me that really your prayers worked.”
I was grateful to learn that his boy would be ok. I sent him an English Bible through (isn’t this an incredible century to live in?) He emailed me a note of thanks:

“Once again I thank you for the present you sent to me through Postal Office. I really appreciated so much. My the Almighty God bless you and may His Loce, Joy and Peace be with you always.”

Ezra sent me another message by email last week. He said:
"Praise the living God! and greetings from Bushenyi Baptist Church members. Let me hope that everythig is okay. Here in Bushenyi we are okay ecept that we had just lost our brother and he has left us with 6 children, 3girls and boys. So we trying to see how they are going to be looked after. In fact we need your prayers because he had died of AIDS and some of his children already infected by the disease."

Send my greetings to your family and keep prayiny for us that God should give us a vision of how we are going to take care of those children.

From Ezra, Bushenyi Baptist Church.

AIDS and poverty in Africa are not academic topics for me. It is about my friend, a pastor whom I have worked alongside in the Kingdom. It is about children being left without parents. It is about a man of God and his wife who hardly have enough for themselves being asked to take in six more children, some of whom are HIV+.

How many times do you suppose that this situation is multiplied in Subsaharan Africa? I called Senator John Cornyn’s office today, at the suggestion of the ONE Campaign. President Bush has submitted a 2007 federal budget that has important increases in the international affairs line item. (You can call 1-800-786-2663 and be connected to your Senator’s office. The website has information on what you might say.)

Will calling a Senator help? I honestly don’t know. I do know that the ONE Campaign has made a difference. 400,000 people in Africa are on life-saving treatment today because of America’s historic commitment to the fight against AIDS, and billions of decades-old debts are being cancelled, redirected and monitored so these nations can educate, immunize and feed their children.

Prayer will help. It is not just something I CAN do it is something I MUST do. Yes, I must pray for Ezra and his family and the millions like him. And I can pray for Dr. Larry Pepper and his ministry and those all over Africa who are battling this plague. But I must pray for the leaders in government in wealthy Western nations to see that they have a role to play in Africa's future. I must pray to be able to see that I have a role to play as well. I must pray for the plague of complacency and the hypnotic power of our affluence to be overcome in my life. I must pray for God's Kingdom to come, for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I’m going back to Uganda in June. I’m eager to visit with Ezra.