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.

1 comment:

Chris O'Rear said...

Very nice reflections. Congratulations to your parents!