Retreats are glorious. On retreat, so much happens with God and one another to strengthen our relationship with God and those we journey with in this life. Nowhere else do these miracles of life happen in the same way.
Weddings are a type of retreat; a holy ritual or sacrament followed by a retreat for two called a honeymoon. I did and still do a lot of weddings. Over time, I've learned how much couples need to retreat.
I created a couples retreat 15 years ago out of necessity, when my pre-marital counseling load with individual couples was getting too great. Invariably, in the retreat I would hear from people who were divorced and marrying again, "Marriage is hard work."
Those who were marrying for the first time appeared unpersuaded for good reason, given their blissful state. I would smile, nod, and say, "That's true." Honestly though, my marriage to Lisa had been very easy, until year 13, the seventh year of leading this retreat. I didn't really know what they meant till then.
One of my favorite memories in ministry was being asked by a Roman Catholic priest in California to present a married couples retreat for his congregation. We had 55 couples attend. They called the retreat by a lofty name that stuck, "For Better . . . Forever" which I still do twice a year or more through Lakeside Center.
We had a great time, from newlyweds to a golden anniversary couple, once married to second and third marriages. The best memory was the attending, never married, Catholic priest who beamed throughout the sessions as he watched us. Then this man who committed himself to the single life beamed even more when he said mass, prayers and blessings for all the married couples gathered. All were blessed.
Some are single, some married, some divorced in God's family. All are blessed. Contrary to popular belief among those not divorced, the majority don't divorce too easily. They married with the best of intentions, but couldn't make it work for many and varied reasons. I admire divorced people who keep coming to church. They face judgment in society, and fear it in our churches, but hear God's gracious word for them. New life, new hope is what these persons need.
Those who are married also need great support, spiritually and communally. We have greater resources than ever before. Our churches have been better at marriage preparation than at helping the already married with marriage enrichment or marriage support. As one pastor expressed recently, "We're just not doing well in ministering to our married couples in our church."
Still, we as Christian couples need to reach out more too, rather than suffer alone. Research shows when couples don't reach out, divorce in these cases becomes more likely. Pastors and psychologists who specialize in marriage counseling are ready to help when our knowledge and strength isn't enough.
My wife Lisa and I have our many supporters in Christ's family. During Year 13 we decided to go through marriage counseling of our own. This fact surprises people who hear that. Even though I had expertise in the area of marriage and relationships, we both felt we needed support too. I think a psychologist and pastor who does not seek the counsel of his/her own profession is like a doctor who does not seek treatment for his own illness or injury - unwise indeed.
One year later we were a little bit better. Eventually, we were as good as ever and later, better than ever. We certainly were wiser and better equipped to handle the rest of life through what we learned.
We are really happy now, Lisa wants you to know! And now when couples say, "Marriage is hard work", we get what they're saying.
All we knew during the most difficult time was we were supposed to tough this out, though we too were tempted to give up. Marriage is supposed to endure. When it at all possibly can, it is good to try very hard. We knew that we were both good-hearted people, but we were going through some difficult changes. By grace, we made it. One thing I know after 22 years married to Lisa, it is by God's grace and not my merits, that we have come this far and now are this happy. I can't boast at all. Married life is much more about grace than works.
It is important for us as disciples of Christ to proclaim to married couples, it is normal for "good marriages" to go through stages. Some of the years in marriage can be very difficult and very unhappy, but these can be healed, redeemed, and transformed by God into an even greater union.
In one extensive study of married couples, the percent of "miserable couples" who stayed together and felt "happier" 5 years later was 86 percent. The number grew to 80 percent who said they were "very happy" 10 years later. It is good to have science on the marital scene!
In our Christian faith, we proclaim the way of the cross, yet something in us still expects life and marriage should be easy. It is by grace that we can endure suffering and come out on the other side with new life. It takes a lot of help from God and from others. Jesus Christ is both the greatest model and guide to take suffering and make great good out of it. His cross is our symbol for the greatest suffering and the greatest good.
Most importantly we are wise if we have been led to make God, our first love before all others. Then all our other loves are graced, whether they are joyous and new, or whether we are suffering and longing for new life.
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