Margaret Ann Henderson and I were wed on a Friday night in April of 1962. A few short weeks later, here we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of that event.
Time does fly.
This Friday night, April 13, at the exact half-century mark, we will be dining in one of our favorite New Orleans restaurants with our two sons and our daughter, our sons' wives, and all eight of our grandchildren, who are flying in from various locations around the country for the weekend. Our pastor and wife, Mike and Terri Miller, will join us for the occasion, as will one other special couple, Beverly and Gerald Nugent.
Son Neil and his wife Julie have put together a notebook of photos which will be on display that night. (It feels not entirely unlike the kind of display funeral homes show for memorial services.) Margaret asked me to draw some kind of something for its cover. I've sketched in a few things, and decided on the heading at the top: The First 50 Years are the Hardest!
That's tongue-in-check, of course. But not much.
Has it been hard? Yes. Has it been wonderful? Sure. Has it been everything we expected when we walked down that aisle at Birmingham's West End Baptist Church so long ago? We had no idea what to expect, so that one's hard to answer.
Would we do it all over again? If we were smart, we would. And if we were truly smart, we'd do it better this time.
We made enough mistakes the first time through for several marriages.
The popular thing to write on one's 50th anniversary is a glowing tribute to one's spouse in admiration for her patience and perseverance and in praise for the Lord's triumph. I feel a lot of that. But I know also that few would benefit from reading that.
What interests people and benefits other marriages is learning from our mistakes. And we made plenty of those.
Here are our top 10 mistakes. (Well, the ones we want to talk about. Smiley-face goes here.)
1. We received zero marital preparation. None.
Now, if pastors were dispensing premarital advice in 1962, I've not heard. No church we knew held such classes or offered such conferences.
On our scheduled visit to the pastor's office to discuss wedding plans, to our great disappointment, this wonderful pastor whom we adored and still treasure, spent the entire hour telling us about a book on Elijah he was trying to write.
I think he felt since we were active in church and headed for the ministry, he had nothing to offer us.
He could have helped us big time.
A word to pastors: It's not necessary for your marriage to be ideal to help newlyweds. If you've been married a year, you have much to tell them.
2. We took unrealistic expectations into marriage.
Margaret will tell you she thought Joe was the Prince Charming who was going to take her away from the conflicts at home and fulfill all her fondest dreams. He would always understand and always be there for her.
Joe thought Margaret would keep the home fires burning while he went out to save the world. She would do what Joe's mother had done, devote herself to raising the family while the husband showed up from time to time.
We were both disappointed quickly. Disillusionment moved in soon after what should have been a honeymoon.
A word to pastors: Get to know this lady you are married to. Hear her heart. Keep yourself close to the Lord. He alone will meet both your needs.
3. We kept our conflicts to ourselves.
Early on, we began to have conflicts. And we dealt with them the way we had been taught at home: Margaret raised her voice and yelled; I bottled them up inside and went for long walks.
We needed a counselor. But we did not know one, did not know what happened during counseling, did not know how we could pay for a counselor, and did not do anything except dig a deeper hole for ourselves.
A note to pastors: There was a time when some people attached a stigma to ministers going for counseling. Only the most ignorant do that any more. Do not sacrifice your marriage to the false and unrealistic expectations of the weakest members of your flock. Take your wife to a godly and mature counselor if you have conflicts that will not go away. And do not sneak around to do it!
4. We did not schedule enough time-to-ourselves after the wedding.
In biblical days, a Hebrew man was exempt from military service for a solid year after his wedding. God's people were so dedicated to the concept of home that a new husband's duties took precedence over his responsibilities to the nation. Not a bad idea.
In our case, we were wed on a Friday night, we were in church on Sunday morning, and back at work on Monday. A few days later, I began my very first revival. This required me to leave home in the mornings for the high school where I was teaching around 7 am, get home around 4 pm, leave home by 5:30 and drive the one hour to the church. I returned home by 10 pm or later.
Not real smart. But I wanted so badly to preach that when that invitation came to lead a revival, I could no more have turned it down than cease to breathe.
This young husband needed a father to sit him down and talk to him about his priorities.
Note to pastors: Your relationship with your wife is far more important than with any member or members of your flock. Giving it priority is God's will for your life and ministry, and not a gift to your wife. Do the right thing.
5. We suffered in silence.
What should we have done when the pain we were both experiencing was so strong and we found no relief? The first thing we should have done, the single action which should have presented itself to us before anything else, was: Prayer.
We should have confided in a few godly and mature (and thus veteran) believers who would have understood, sympathized, and lifted us to the Father.
As it was, we tried to bear up under it alone.
Note to pastors: Don't let your false pride destroy your marriage. A sure sign of true humility is a willingness to ask for help.
6. We postponed getting help until it was almost too late.
Twice Margaret urged me to go with her for counseling: once when we had been married five years and again ten years later. The first time, I stubbornly (and immaturely) refused. "You don't understand," I told her. "I'm the counselor, not the counselee." (I should have been taken out to the woodshed and whipped for that.)
After some 15 years of marriage with few things changing, Margaret gave me an ultimatum: either I go with her for marriage counseling or she was leaving.
When I saw she was serious, I responded.
For twelve months, every two weeks we drove 90 miles to the Baptist associational office in Meridian, Mississippi, to sit with Dr. Jack Follis, our counselor. (Jack was a Th.D. graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a chaplain at East Mississippi State Hospital in Meridian, and a great friend.)
Counseling was awful, counseling was wonderful. Sometimes we dug into ancient hurts and slights, sometimes we fussed, sometimes we cried.
Often, we hugged and forgave each other out of sheer desperation from knowing, as Peter said of the Lord in John 6:68, "To whom (else) shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."
Note to pastors: The longer you wait to go for help, the more drastic the measures required. Nip those conflicts in the bud and your marriage--and your ministry--will be blessed.
7. The "D" word was used in our home, more than a few times.
One of my sons used to say that he and his wife determined the "D-word" would never be uttered inside the walls of their home. I was so obtuse I had to ask what word is that. "Divorce."
We used it. At first, in those early years, it was Margaret who would threaten to divorce me. This was a frightening thought, I will admit, since--particularly in the 1960s and 1970s--a divorced Baptist preacher was out of the ministry altogether.
At one point, and one point only, I threatened divorce. And an interesting thing happened.
I honestly had thought that since Margaret had often mentioned divorce as a possibility, when I suggested it that she would jump for it. Instead, the opposite happened. I can remember her words to me as though she said them last night:
"Marrying me was the best thing you ever did, mister. And divorcing me would be the worst. I am somebody. If you walk away, I promise that you will look back and regret it the rest of your life."
She will tell you that was God speaking through her, that she hardly remembers saying that. It was the last thing I expected, but precisely what I needed to hear.
Note to pastors: Whether you use the 'D' word or note, be realistic. Your marriage is not immune to anything just because you are called of God. If anything, it is subject to more temptation, more stress, and more problems.
8. We did not tell the next church about our marital struggles.
When we moved to the next church (from the 12-year-pastorate where we had had the near meltdown and gone through the year of counseling), we were glad to close the door on that difficult and painful period and go forward.
The problem is, Satan wanted to use this against us.
In the next assignment--a well-known and historic congregation which we mistakenly expected to be the church of our dreams--we came up against a few people who were determined to undermine us, find all the skeletons in our closet, and use them to uproot us from that ministry. (Looking back, I still find this amazing that so-called Christian people would do such.)
Now, the Southern Baptist Convention's Office of Communication had interviewed us for their "marriage and family" issue of Facts and Trends magazine (May, 1981), and had told the story of our marital problems, the subsequent counseling, and the way God had restored our home. We received the interviewer into our home for two full days and willingly cooperated in every way for the article.
But now, five years later in another church in a different state, a self-appointed sleuth found out about that article. Unable to get his hands on a copy and unwilling to ask me about it, he decided that someone had done a National Enquirer type piece on us, had found some kind of scandal, and so spread that word. We became the target of a campaign of gossip.
We ended up staying at that church only 3 years before coming to Kenner (metro New Orleans) for the last 22 years. As we were leaving that church, I asked a friend, "Had you heard the rumor about Margaret and me being divorced?" He had. I said, "Did it ever occur to you to ask us? After all, she was 19 and I was 22 when we married. How could we be divorced?" He dropped his head and said, "I was afraid of what I would learn."
We could have spared ourselves much of this pain by telling the church up front.
Note to pastors: If there is something in your background that could be used of the devil against you, as much as possible, be transparent up front about it.
9. We did not help others as much as we could have.
There is a perfectionism rampant in the ministry. Unless I'm everything I ought to be in the pulpit, in the study, in my walk with the Lord, in my prayer life, and in my home, I should not speak to certain issues.
Bad, bad wrong.
We should have known on that Monday in March of 1981. The previous night, Margaret and I had taken the full hour of the evening service to share our story about what we called "The Home God Healed." Then, the next morning, the church phone rang off the wall with people scheduled appointments to get help for their marriage. (Columbus, Mississippi had no marriage counselors to speak of then, so it was go-to-the-preacher or nobody.)
They knew we would understand since we had been where they were. And we did understand.
What we seem not to have understood, looking back, is that in order to have an ongoing ministry to troubled (and normally difficult) marriages in the community, it was not necessary for our marriage to be perfect.
I think we felt that people now looked upon us as the shining example of what marriage should be. And it was never that. The struggle for us was constant.
I should have preached on the home more. Margaret and I should have worked up presentations to help marriages, parents, and homes more than we did. We had more to offer than we knew.
Note to pastors: Do not fall into the perfectionism trap. If God required helpers to be perfect, you would not be allowed to preach Sunday.
10. We were not as honest with ourselves and others as we should have been.
(I called Margaret at home and read the first 9 "mistakes" to her. She agreed with each one. I asked, "What's the tenth?" She said, "We should have been more honest and transparent with ourselves and with others." She agrees that we felt because our marriage was far less than perfect, we were unqualified to give others the help they needed. She added, "I think we were ashamed."
Ashamed. I remember that.
In fact, after the "Facts and Trends" article on our marriage appeared in May 1981, a number of state Baptist papers and a few secular dailies ran it. Even the Houston Chronicle ran a feature. Somewhere in a file in this office are the forty or more letters we received in response. A couple of them said our story had saved their marriage. But not all.
One person told us a preacher (whom he did not name) said, "Joe and Margaret should not have gone public with that story. This sort of thing reflects poorly on the gospel."
If you know anything about the frailties of the human heart, you will agree that that one negative comment weighed more heavily on us than the forty positive letters. Such is the condition of the insecure and selfish heart.
I wish we had been bolder, stronger, more courageous.
Note to pastors: If you admit to the congregation that your wife and you have to struggle to get along, you will offend two people. But another hundred will appreciate knowing their pastor is human, will benefit from seeing the transparency, and will be able to pray for you more effectively.
(Continue on to the 10 Things We Got Right in 50 Years of Marriage)