Monday, October 31, 2011

The Meaning of Fifty Years

Below are comments I made at the celebration of my parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary.

What does this celebration represent? What is The Meaning of Fifth Years?

According to the National Family Growth Survey and the National Center for Health Statistics, only 65% of American marriages manage to make it ten years. Census Bureau statistics show that no more than 5% of marriages in this country make it to fifty years. That makes this event we celebrate tonight a statistically significant achievement. Then, when you think about the times in which we live, and in which Mom and Dad have lived as a married couple – the sixties, the seventies, the Me decade, postmodernism, Generations X and Y and whatever we are in now, the so-called post-Christian America - you realize what American society has decided about marriage over these past fifty years. When Mom and Dad married, more than 85% of American adults were married; now, that number hovers just over 50%, and just over a quarter of American adults under the age of 30 have chosen to tie the knot. Pew Research’s latest survey shows that nearly 40% of survey respondents say that marriage is becoming obsolete.

That can make this anniversary sound pretty impressive, but we all know that statistics can lie. So let’s move beyond statistics. Basic psychology teaches us that the most common stressors we face, in marriage and in life, include money issues, health issues, deaths of loved ones, moves, job changes, and kids. This marriage has survived by my count at least twenty-four different jobs, eleven moves, cancer in each spouse, deaths of parents and siblings, the bursting of the internet stock bubble, miscarriages, church splits, and me.

As an only child, I have had a unique perspective – the best view in the house - to watch this marriage. In thinking about what I wanted to say tonight, I have decided to focus on what I have learned from watching Mom and Dad be married. There are, of course, a plethora of things I (and most of you) could say about both Mom and Dad individually. These are two of the smartest, most involved, most varied, and most dearly loved people around. They have more degrees, life experiences, and friends than anybody else I know. Each of them is a teacher, an example, a writer, a speaker, a role model, a witness, and a leader.

But I want to focus on what I have learned from the two of them together, because, after all, tonight is a celebration of what they have done together, what they have made together. If you noticed, every single picture you have seen up on this screen has included both of them. I have lots of great and funny and candid pictures of each of them, but tonight is about the two of them together.

So, what have I, the only child with the ringside seat, learned from the fifty-year-old marriage? In the best Baptist tradition, I have three points to make.

1. Having a lot in common is overrated; having the right things in common is essential.

I did not know Wayne and Faye Robbins in 1961, but here is what I know about them. One was from Covington, Tennessee, the son of a farmer, who had grown up chopping cotton until he found baseball as a way out, a way to college, a way to being something more. The other was the child of a Texas school principal who became an attorney, the valedictorian who was ABD on a doctor’s degree from Vanderbilt. One had worked on church staffs and for Baptist Student Unions, as well as for more than one denominational college; the other had been a military policeman, a radio announcer, a private detective, a high school teacher, and a professional baseball player. One had been engaged – or nearly engaged – multiple times; the other never had. One had a brother who was a nationally known preacher; the other one had a brother who was a 16-year-old kid. One was at home as a native Texan; the other was a stranger in a strange land. One was nearly eight years older than the other.

Still, and despite these myriad differences, they shared critical things – faith in Jesus Christ; an experience in the church and parachurch groups like BSU that inexorably shaped their souls, minds, and hearts; dreams about family; a love of books and movies and history; a sense of calling.

When Gena and I married, we were very, very different people. We still are. There were those – and sometimes we ourselves were in this camp – who felt we were too different from each other to make a good marriage last. It was Gena who saw the fallacy in this line of thinking long before I did, but in retrospect, Gena’s understanding of how our differences would fit together and support each other made sense to me because of the model I had seen growing up. Gena and I, like Mom and Dad, share the critical things in common, and we are well into the twenty-second year of our marriage.

What all this tells me is that having the right things in common is far more important to marriage than having a bunch of random things in common. Being quote-unquote happy with your life or with each other every second is not really the right measure. Whether or not you both enjoy the Beatles or shellfish or taking walks in the rain or the other things that internet dating services ask about (so I’m told) pale in comparison to sharing the critical directions and convictions. Mom and Dad’s fifty years have taught me that.

2. Success is measured in terms that have little to do with what you will see on the news.

Every one of you knows Mom and Dad, and I know that you would all call them successes. My 46+ years of watching them has taught me a number of things about success:
a.First, we live in this world, and pursuing things that this world says are important – things like career and education and recognition - is not bad. It is how gifted people function in the world.
b.Second, when you pursue those goals honestly, you don’t always become rich and famous. Mom and Dad are comfortable, but they are by no means wealthy. They are, both individually and together, well known in a variety of spheres, but neither approaches celebrity status.
c.Third, pursuit of those goals – career, education, recognition – has to give way to more fundamental ideals. We could spend all night listing those ideals, but I am thinking about things like seeking and then following God’s call on your life; loving your family; loving those who are not your family; serving your church, even when your church is not serving you. I am talking about being available to coach your kid’s team and direct his play, developing yourself to know right answers so that you have right answers to give when the opportunity presents itself, going to visit car wreck victims who are friends of your son a thousand miles away but whose accidents happened in your home town (that happened twice, by the way), having the ability to write newspaper articles and poems and Sunday School lessons and military biographies and devotionals and sermons and letters and internet chat posts that actually mean something.

Mom and Dad are successes not because of the house in which they live or the numbers in their bank account. They are successes not because of the number of times their names have been in the paper. They are not even successes because fifty people showed up here from eighteen different cities as far away as California and Kentucky just to congratulate them on this occasion.

No. Mom and Dad are successes for entirely different reasons. I hope you think they are successes at parenting. They certainly are successes at grandparenting. They are successes at traveling. Far more importantly, they are successes at making and keeping freinds.
Mom and Dad are successes because they have heard the divine call on their lives – both individually and as a couple, a family – and have followed it. They are successes because they have both made themselves better and smarter than either had any right to expect to be. They are successes because everyone around them looks to them for modeling and advice. They are successes because they have loved people they did not know who still needed loving and loved when they did not feel like loving and loved when they did not even understand how to love. A Golden Wedding Anniversary is not just a lifetime achievement award. In this case, it is a clear mark of success. I have learned much about success from Mom and Dad.

3. A life spent in pursuit of and celebration of a relationship with Jesus Christ is a life well-lived.

This is not news to most of you, and I don’t intend for this to turn into a sermon. I want to make this last point instead to focus on how Mom and Dad have demonstrated the interrelation between their loving marriage and their lives as two disciples.

Mom and Dad do not agree on all religious topics. That is ok. Remember my first point – it is not necessary that they have everything in common. What they do agree on is the critical nature of their understanding of God’s will for their lives. What they do agree on is that their lives and our lives should revolve around a relationship with Jesus.

Mom says that I first asked her to explain the Trinity to me when I was three years old. That may say something about me, and it may say something about how God speaks to children, but it doubtless says something about the focus of our home life as I was growing up. It was the nature of things for us to discuss complex issues, and it was the nature of things for us to discuss issues of faith; so a complex issue of faith was, of course, second nature. To say that we had religious debates is really to misunderstand the nature of this family. It took Gena a while to understand that our intense discussions, often peppered with disagreement, were not heated disputes but rather were, and still are, thoughtful and penetrating examinations of concepts of passionate importance to us. As I grew up, the most important thing for us to discuss was the spiritual issue of the moment. This was never put on, artificial, or difficult – it was simply the way things were. It still is.

Please do not understand me to be putting Mom and Dad up on some sort of religious pedestal. That is not what I am doing. I don’t believe their intense focus on the things of God is anything different from what is demanded of all of us. Perhaps Mom and Dad are better read on these issues than many, and doubtless they can both articulate these concepts better than most; but I maintain that all Christian life is, or should be, centered on the faith, its questions and issues, and the discussions that naturally flow from it. Mom and Dad demonstrate the centrality of faith that should characterize all of us. That does not mean you have to be a stick in the mud who is unable to talk about baseball or popular music or politics or “The Andy Griffith Show;” I believe our family can go toe-to-toe with anybody on any of those things. It means that life starts and ends with our relationship with God and His call on us.

One of my best friends is a pastor in San Antonio. I listen to his sermons on the internet when I cannot hear him in person, which is most of the time. A month or so ago, he preached a sermon on First Corinthians 7, the passage where Paul instructs husbands and wives how to give themselves to each other. In his sermon, Bryan talked about God’s intention for marriage: how it is good and right for us to be married to someone who is radically different from us, as men and women inherently are and as Mom and Dad – and Gena and I – are. My friend’s sermon discussed marriage as a kind of workshop for being God’s people in the world. As we learn to live with and love and forgive and make allowances for someone so different under our own roof, we practice the love of God; we then are more ready to display the love that is just as necessary with others outside our living room who are also quite different from us. My own pastor preached just last Sunday on the connection between love of God and love of neighbor, reminding us that we often best experience the former by practicing the latter.

Mom and Dad’s married life has in turn been a workshop for me. I have seen two people who approach faith very differently, who think of church differently, who teach Sunday School differently, who pray differently, who love God’s children differently. But despite those differences, they have taught me the importance of approaching faith, thinking of church, teaching the scripture, prayer, and the love of God. None of you who knows them has any doubt of their faith and their relationship with Jesus Christ.

A marriage of fifty years deserves a party, a round of applause, and some time to reflect on what those years really mean.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Bear in Aggieland

To the editor of The Battalion (the Texas A&M school newspaper):

I am an alumus of Baylor, the father of a current Baylor student, a member of the Baylor Alumni Council, and an adjunct professor at the Baylor Law School.

I bought a ticket for Saturday’s “Battle of the Brazos” football game. Before leaving home, I put this note on my Facebook page: “On the road to College Station for the last foreseeable Baylor-A&M game. While I thoroughly enjoy rooting against the Aggies, we have to have a healthy respect for their good team, their rabid fans, and the awesome Kyle Field experience. Sic 'em.” I had been to games at Kyle Field before, so I knew what an incredible atmosphere the Aggies create for the games. Despite the unease between the two campus communities arising both out of the conference alignment situation and our natural rivalry, I was really looking forward to sharing in what may well be the last Baylor football game in College Station.

Having bought my ticket on eBay, I assumed I was getting it from some rich Aggie season ticket holder who could not make it to the game. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself in the middle of the A&M student section. Yes, I was the guy in green and gold about ten rows directly behind the Aggie Band. I am not ashamed to say that I was a little uncomfortable. For a Baylor fan, this could have been a scary place from which to watch the game.

It is the nature of competitive football for fans to support their own team and deride the other. Collectively, the Aggie fans were appropriately disdainful of the Bears, and there were one or two cheers (and one particular gesture – you know which one I mean) led by the Yell Leaders that crossed the line of offensiveness.

But I write to tell you how impressed I was with the individual A&M students who surrounded me. Not a single person was rude or even anything less than a perfect lady or gentleman. The people directly around me introduced themselves and talked with me. The young man in front of me, when I jokingly remarked that I hoped these new friends of mine would protect me if my Baylor shirt and cap attracted some mischief, said, “We Aggies are generally self-correcting. If anything happens, you let me know, and I will take care of it.” Chris, the Aggie sitting next to me, kept up a running conversation with me about the game throughout out the afternoon. As I turned to leave, the same young man in front of me (whose name I did not get) made a point to catch up with me and shake my hand, thank me for coming, and wish me safe travels going home.

We live in an increasingly uncivil world. I bleed green and gold, and I guess I was surprised that the middle of the A&M student section, during a rivalry football game surrounded by the disagreements and hurt feelings of the past weeks, would be a place where I would find such friendliness, sportsmanship, and genuine acceptance. I congratulate your students and your university. You showed me hospitality and some real hope for how we can all get along in the coming days.

While I did not Whoop, and I sat down to try to stay out of the way when everyone else locked arms and started swaying, I can say that I truly enjoyed my three and half hours in Aggieland. I even found myself enjoying the War Hymn – after all, any song that makes fun of Bevo and that school in Austin cannot be all bad!

Gig ‘em, and sic ‘em.

Lyn Robbins

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Blinded

The story of the Damascus Road, of Saul’s becoming Paul, is known well. It is the original “Blinded By the Light.”

Do you ever wonder what went through Paul’s mind immediately after blindness struck, while he was still on the road toward Damascus? He had not yet met Ananias. What he would later describe as “scales” had not yet fallen from his eyes. He was just blind.

Put yourself there for a moment. Saul/Paul knows what he saw… whom he saw. He knows the voice he heard. He knows that he is different, but what now? What difference will it make that he saw that light?

The truth is that there are many stories of blindness throughout scripture, and even beyond scripture, that teach us much.

Samson had it all. He was a judge, which was about as important as he could be. He had fame, a sexy girlfriend, and power. He could do whatever he wanted, and he knew he was destined to deliver the people of Israel from the horrid Philistines. But it was not enough for him. He got lazy, and he forgot who gave him his power. He lost it all. And then, he was blinded. Not by a light, not in the same way as Paul. No, Samson was blinded by the bad guys. But he was blinded just the same. And Samson learned. He began to understand what he had thrown away. He knew that he could never get back what he had lost. And yet, he felt power return, and he knew that God had not forgotten him. Even at the end of his life, he fulfilled God’s destiny.

Jonah could tell Paul, and us, that sometimes the dark is the best place to learn. Jonah spent three days in the dark. Not because his eyes did not work, but because the sun does not shine inside the belly of a big fish. Whether or not the Jonah story is a metaphor is not the point. The point is that Jonah was so far onto the wrong track that God had to stop him cold to get his attention.

Think back further, to a ninety-year-old woman. It was not per se blindness with her. It was something different, and perhaps more personal, than that: pregnancy at the age of ninety. Nine months of bloating, swollen ankles, and kicks on top of osteoporosis and hearing loss! God got Sarah’s attention. So she laughed. Wouldn’t you? Can you think of anything funnier than turning up your hearing aid to find out that you are going to be pregnant, when you have been childless for ninety years? That’s a riot. It took Sarah a long time to get to the point where she thought the birth of Isaac was a great thing. She had to go through months of something she had never experienced before, and she had to do it with a dried up, elderly body that had no business going through it, and a husband who was ten years older than she was. It was no more natural for her than blindness was for Paul.

Then there is John, who was exiled. Not just away, but alone. Just John on a very small island, with nothing to do but write letters. It wasn’t long until he started seeing things.

Maybe this happens more than we think. Maybe there are times that God has to make sure there are no distractions, when He has to get our complete attention.

For Job, it happened when he lost it all.

For Philemon, it happened when he lost something (or should I say someone). It was devastating to him. He had to review his whole life – what did he really believe? What did he value?

Helen Keller could not remember losing her sight, because she lost it when she was less than two years old. She got sick as a small child, and the disease left her without sight and hearing: Blind and deaf and unable to talk in the back woods of Alabama. She was never in the belly of a fish or on a desert island, but I can’t really believe that anybody has ever been more alone than she was.

For Martin Luther, it was betrayal. A man of God and a preacher of the gospel, he was called a heretic. Talk about being blinded… for him, it was being blindsided.

For Corrie Ten Boom, it was a prison camp, a concentration camp built for Jewish people. She was not Jewish, but she was imprisoned among them. And only because she had tried to help.

And of course, there is Jesus. He knows about being alone and being betrayed. For Him, it was not three days in a fish or on a desert island. It was in a tomb. There is no darkness darker than that.

It would not be hard to decide that God is smiting us with blindness, but that conclusion is inconsistent with what we know about God. God did not smite Paul. In fact, God saved Paul. Remember your Exodus? “While my glory passes by, I will hide you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand as I pass. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen. For no man can look upon my face and live.”

Yes, when Paul met the risen Jesus on the road, blindness was a gift. God protected him so that he would not be overcome by seeing all there is of God. Paul was not then ready, not then able. One day, Paul would be ready, and he would understand. He would write that the gift of the Holy Spirit means that we can become able to see the full glory of God. But on the road, Paul was not yet ready.

When Samson was blind, he saw that he was not self-sufficient. We are not the source of our own strength. We owe everything to God.

In the darkness, Jonah learned that God never takes His eyes off of us. His plan for us endures even the weirdest circumstances and the widest detours we can take. When Jonah’s soul fainted within him, he could remember the Lord. Jonah’s prayer went up to His holy temple, and he cried out to God, and God answered.

Sarah learned to see that there is nothing that God cannot do, even when we have given up all hope. He showed her, in what she thought were her most useless days, that He could use her for His purposes. It was a vision from which ninety years of life had blinded her.

John learned that when there is nothing to see, God sends vision. He learned that Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, that He is worthy to receive glory and honor and wisdom and blessing and riches and power. He learned how extravagant the love of the Father is, that we should be called children of God!

Job never learned the answers to all his questions, but he came to know that it is OK that we don’t understand it all, for we are only human. Where were we when God laid the foundations of the earth? Do we know what it sounded like when all the morning stars and the angels sang together for joy? No. We know that the redeemer lives and that He will stand at the last day. That is enough.

Philemon learned that we must love and forgive, just as God loves and forgives. He learned that what he had lost was really useless until it was touched by God.

Helen Keller learned the name for God. She had always known Him. He came to her in her silent darkness. But now she knew His name.

Martin Luther learned that our God is a mighty fortress.

Corrie Ten Boom learned that there is no place, no matter how dark, where God cannot find us.

What if we are suddenly alone? What if we are betrayed, abandoned, rejected? What if we lose those we love? What if we cannot see what Christ is setting before us? What if everything we understand is suddenly taken away? What if we are asked to do something that all common sense tells us we cannot do, because we are too old or too young or too weak or too … whatever? What if we are blinded by a light?

Or what if we simply lose focus?

We are often blind. We cannot see what is there before us. We lose our focus. I was in a bookstore the other day, and some of the Christian bestsellers illustrated the point so clearly. One was all about how we can simply decide to be happy. Another proclaimed that the single most important issue before us is how the United States chooses to treat the current political nation of Israel.

The number of Christian books that were focused on Jesus was way too small.

We can lose our focus. Our blindness can be self-inflicted. There is nothing wrong with the power of positive thinking. Many Christians hold pro-Israeli political views. I am not disparaging either. But neither is the point of what we are about.

Like Paul, we are blind. Like Saul, perhaps we need to be blinded from the things that have captured our focus.

There is so much that we need to learn, to see. And the only way we will see some of it is if we don’t see anything else. We need to see Jesus. We need to learn about Him. We need to know what it means when He calls. We need to understand to see people and to love people the way that God loves them.

When a storm tosses a child of God into the sea, God sometimes send a fish, but that is to save, not to harm.

Paul learned much that he could only learn first as a blind man: God is the king who is immortal and invisible. Even after he got sight back, Paul would not be able to see God, to understand God, to take God in. Whether we have eyesight or not, God is invisible to us: not because He is transparent but because we have limited vision. At best, we see through a glass darkly. One day, we shall see Him face to face. Now, we are beginning to know in part, but we are still so blind. One day, we shall see God and know Him fully.