Learning & Laughing with Fred

Fred Norris passed away last week. Fred was one of my teachers at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. He was a really smart man; his PhD was from Yale. But the first thing a person would notice about Fred was not his learning, but his laugh. Fred had a large laugh – and he was very liberal with his laughter. He spread it everywhere, to everyone. You knew Fred Norris was coming down the hall, because his laugh preceded him. It exploded out of his lungs, with such force and feeling that it was obvious: he simply couldn’t hold it back.fred-norris

Fred knew a lot of stuff, but his specialty was history and world Christianity. And with 2000 years of church history, that’s a lot of material for a guy with Fred’s sense of humor. So Fred delighted to tell us about the time the reformer Martin Luther heard a sermon from a guy he didn’t care for. Luther’s response? I’ve heard a sow fart before.

Then there was the day Dr. Norris sat in on a class led by another professor. In the context of class discussion, a student asked a question, and the teacher had to admit he didn’t have an answer. I don’t know, he told the student. To which, Fred replied, Another dumb question! – as he burst out laughing.

As much as I enjoyed Fred’s laughter, I appreciated his insight and wisdom even more. He didn’t first love history; he first loved people. Once, he told us of “a wonderful spiritual woman” in a congregation he served in Oklahoma. She never once took communion, and he thinks that she probably went to her grave not having taken it. Why? Because she didn’t feel worthy – in part, because she had been left by her husband. Fred grieved over how difficult it was for this woman in his church to know and experience grace.

In a more serious moment, Fred said it this way: “Don’t let yourself get to a place in ministry where grace and mercy sit as an apostrophe somewhere.”

Fred Norris was perhaps the first person to introduce me to the phrase Credo ut intelligam – “I believe so that I might understand.” Inherent in this phrase is the idea that faith seeks understanding – not the other way around. Learning about faith helps, no doubt; but it’s living it that truly leads a person to understand what faith is all about.

Perhaps all that I learned from Dr. Norris can be summarized by a story he told in the early 1990s when I first had him as a professor. In class – one that no doubt focused on some point of theology or doctrine – I remember how he talked about some guys coming over to his house to work on his truck. They got talking (and laughing, no doubt), and learned that Fred was a minister/teacher. They asked: What kind of church do you go to? As in: You’re not like any ministers we’ve ever known. We want to see what kind of church someone like you must be in.

But as Dr. Norris told the story, he ached. And his jovial demeanor quickly turned sad, even tearful, as he reflected: They wouldn’t feel at home in my church. Fred’s congregation was a good, faithful church, but consisted of mostly educated folk. And these guys were decidedly blue collar. And so, Fred grieved at the distance between the beauty and power of what we believe, and the common man on the street who needs to experience it. And how hard it is to bring those 2 together.

Of all the things I learned from Fred Norris, that’s the most abiding lesson. The gospel is for everyone. Faith believed must be faith lived. And we should never stop finding ways to make our faith come alive with joy – in our churches, in academia, and out on the streets.

Thanks, Dr. Norris, for teaching me that unforgettable lesson. I look forward to seeing you again, where there will be no more tears – but, I am convinced, plenty of laughter. You’ll be in the middle of that, for sure. And, no doubt, I’ll hear you before I see you.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21.3-4, NIV)

Ten Commandments of Marriage, part 2

Last week, I gave the first part of what I called “Ten Commandments of Marriage.” If you missed them, find them here. Now that you have those first five down pat (piece ‘o cake, right?), here are the next five:

6. Laugh together. Life is funny. Sometimes it’s ha-ha funny, sometimes it’s LOL funny, and sometimes it’s are-you-kidding-me-right-now funny. A healthy couple learns to laugh at the funny stuff, as well as the stuff that’s often only funny after the fact. Laughter is a true bonding and uniting experience for two people who are facing all of life together. One marriage and family therapist has observed this truth: Unhappy people reserve laughter for everyone but their mate. Don’t let that be you. Don’t laugh apart; laugh together.

7. Pray together. Even when you don’t feel close to each other, praying together brings you together before the One who holds you together. Praying together is an act of faith, a commitment to unity, regardless of how you feel that particular day. Praying together says: We need God smack dab in the center of our relationship. Without God, we don’t have a prayer. Literally.

8. Never stop doing life together. To me, this is the reminder that we can’t let our marriages slide into a rut, where, for example, every Saturday is the same, or every evening is spent in front of the TV. Instead, marriage should be about going on the adventure of life together. As often happens, though, the adventure morphs into just going through the motions. Psychologist Arthur Aron tells us that doing adventurous things together draws couples closer. So, take the challenge. Don’t let the TV or the internet be the extent of your time together; when you go out together, don’t fall back on the predictable dinner-and-a-movie. Try something new, together. You’ll probably find that it helps you do #6 above. And, if it’s crazy enough, you might find it helps you do #7, too.

9. Learn to listen well. Even though this is #9 on my list of commandments, that’s not an indication of its importance. Listening well is vital. I remember reading someone say that half of ministry is listening. As a minister, that’s a helpful reminder for me. But I also need that prompt for my marriage, too. True listening (the put-down-the-phone-kind-of-listening) is what we need from each other, and what we need to offer to each other. And it needs to be non-judgmental, too. There are plenty of people at our jobs, or in our extended families, who are happy to listen in order to assess our weaknesses and mistakes. That’s not the kind of listening we need from our spouses. Healthy listening is the kind that helps your spouse give voice to her deepest feelings and needs. Often, I think you’ll find that when you truly listen, your spouse will find she is able to give voice to the challenge she faces, and to the way forward. Which means – you’ll look awfully smart, without hardly saying anything at all.

10. Guard your marriage by guarding your heart. I don’t believe any marriage makes it very long without the pull of other attractions. The couple that doesn’t think it can happen to them is the one that … invites it to happen to them. This means that healthy boundaries must be established. Unfettered internet access can be deadly; work relationships without proper boundaries can be devastating; an unguarded heart can lead to broken hearts. The wise couple recognizes: Yes, it CAN happen to us. And they act accordingly. John Leax writes: “As part of the marriage ceremony, a couple promises, before God and gathered witnesses, to be faithful to each other until separated by death. This promise is not demanded by sentiment; it is demanded because everyone present at the marriage knows the truth of human nature. Both bride and groom will change. Ambitions, new dreams, other bodies will attract them. Their only hope for success will be the reach of their vow.”

Their vow: the promise to live and love together til death “do us part.”

As Ephesians 5 points out, this amazing thing called marriage is actually a reflection of Christ & the Church. A picture of love and redemption. Of sacrifice and unity; and sacrifice for the sake of unity.

Easy? No way. Will it take a lot of effort? Absolutely. But in a world where faithfulness and commitment are in short supply, marriages that last are a glimpse of grace and growth. And also a place where Jesus is reflected.

Ten Commandments of Marriage, part 1

What is the most popular month to get married? April? May? June?

How about … October? It’s true. Couples are increasingly migrating away from spring and summer (and, apparently, the challenges of rain and heat) – and moving toward the fall. And we’re now told that the single most popular month to tie the knot is October.

We have 2 weddings in our church sanctuary next month – in a room where even one a month is a lot for us. So, if 2 is a trend, then the stats are right. Brides are increasingly telling their husbands to show up at the altar in October.

As I finished up premarital counseling with one of those 2 couples, I shared with them my “Ten Commandments of Marriage.” These ‘commandments’ aren’t written in stone, at least not in mosaic form. But they are a summary of what I have come to believe is vital for couples to pursue as they pursue life together. So, whether you are getting married in October, or you might someday get married, or you are currently navigating life with a spouse, here are my thoughts on what you need to know:

  1. Commit to a life time of growing together. Marriage is a decision to journey together no matter where the journey takes you. In a world that is increasingly hedging its bets when it comes to marriage, many believe that saying “I do” is similar to saying “Maybe.” But you can’t build a life on maybe. Marriage is not for the timid; it is for those ready to commit to facing life united with another person. Which leads to #2…
  1. Be ready for it to be hard. Is anything in life easy? I mean, anything that matters? Whether it’s Calculus or calculating how much you’ll need for retirement, whether it’s building a house or building a life, if you are going to accomplish something meaningful, it’s going to take some meaningful commitment. You simply will not get by in marriage on your feelings. You will not last in marriage if you expect the honeymoon to last. This isn’t to say that marriage is tedious or tiring – though it will be sometimes. It’s simply the recognition that the look of love in your eyes on your October wedding day will one day fade; and some days that look might be one of anger, or frustration, or “What the heck have I gotten myself into?” If you know that going in, you won’t be surprised when it happens. And your first thought won’t be: Well, this is hard, so maybe it’s not going to work out…. Instead, you can think: Wow, this is hard. Guess it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. I mean, short of winning the lottery, no one expects something as meaningless as money to come easily; so why would we expect something as meaningful as marriage to be easy?
  1. Love like Jesus, trust in Jesus, depend on him to guide you. You don’t have to be married to learn this, but marriage is certainly a great teacher: You can’t do life on your own. Each of us (married or single) was made by our Creator to be in relationship with Him. The sooner we learn that, the sooner we can choose to submit to His leadership – and the sooner we can become what He has made us to be. I mean, really – what better way to learn you are flawed then to get married? Nothing cures idolatry better than marriage, for we all live life, at some point, as our own little god. Sooner or later, you find out you’re not. Sooner is preferable. Marriage helps that sooner happen. And when it does, you can then come to realize that the way forward in life is to receive the love of Jesus, and let it teach you and flow through you. If you’re married, to your spouse. If you’re a parent, to your kids. Or if you just simply happen to be human, then Jesus’ love changes how you live and love among other humans. The way to be the husband/wife/parent/human you are called to be? Begin with the love of Jesus, and let it be your guide.
  1. Work for unity. I guess this flows naturally out of #2 & #3. If marriage is hard, then a married couple needs to realize that they will have to work for unity. And if they trust in Jesus, then they have what they need for that unity to happen. Their unity is not based on what they have in common, but on Who they have in common. A couple can be very different, even as they change over time, but if Jesus is the center of their life, He is then the author of their unity. And He doesn’t change. Again, it’ll take work. But it will not be because a husband and wife agree on a thousand different points, but that they agree on this one truth: Jesus brings us together, and teaches us how to live together.
  1. Find an older, mentor couple. Find a couple who has traveled the path of marriage longer than you have. Invite them to dinner. Watch how they do life. Learn from them. As the divorce rate increases, it’s going to be increasingly important for younger couples to find older examples. And, it’s going to be especially important that couples who have shared decades together take on the responsibility of encouraging and supporting younger couples. Whatever your age or the length of your marriage, don’t simply make friends with couples in the same situation as you are. Reach across generations to learn from, and share with, those who need to learn from, and teach, you.

Ok, that’s my first five. If God needed 2 tablets, surely I can take 2 blog posts for my Ten Commandments. So, come back next week for my second five.