A Tampa Bay Boardwalk Moment

We shared this story recently in a letter to a number of folks who partner with us in ministry. But it was too good not to share with a broader audience.

Tampa Picture J&J

I walked out of the Weekend to Remember in Tampa to get a quick breather. Though we were in the sunshine state, I’d yet to experience the coast and the southern sun. The teaching schedule had kept us too busy up to that point – but now we had a break between sessions. The boardwalk outside the doors snaked through a soggy shoreline before opening to a view of the bay. Just as the canopy peeled back and the sun started to thaw my frozen ballroom body, a couple stopped me.

“Hey my wife served me divorce papers last month” (she was standing right behind him looking sheepish). “Can you believe she did that?” (Her face said, “Yep, I did that.”) Not a good start to a conversation. Then he shared the rest of the story.

He was at home when he heard the knock and just knew it was someone serving papers. The last thing he wanted was to have that happen “in my castle.” So he did what any real man would do to protect his domain – he ran. He dove out the bedroom window, scrambled through a swampy brambled mess that made up his backyard, and called his co-worker to pick him up, barefoot and muddy. They headed for his office to find refuge and arrived just in time find the same court official waiting for him. Oops. But hey – at least it didn’t happen at home.

She confessed, “I know it was wrong – but I didn’t know what else to do to get his attention. And hey, it got us here… and wow this has made a huge difference.”

He said, “That story you shared about marriage being a covenant. Man, that was what we needed to hear. We now know that we’re going to fight to make this work, but we’re worried about the kids. They are pretty torn up about the divorce papers. What do we do?”

He was referring to a story I shared during the conference: I came home one day and pulled Julie into the bedroom to tell her about a frustrating experience from earlier in the day. She was upset by the situation – and if you know Julie, you know she can get a little animated – and I was too, but neither of us was upset with the other. The two youngest kids were outside the bedroom with their ears glued to the bottom of the door. When we finally came out, one asked, “Are you splitting up? If so, we voted to keep mom.” (Smart kids. Keep the one who can cook.)

I knelt down and said, “Guys, we love you both so much. Mom and I were just talking about a bad experience I had today. But even if we were arguing, we’re not going anywhere.” And then I carried them down the steps and pointed to the picture frame on the wall and said, “What’s this?” They see it every morning, and they knew right away what I meant because of all the times we’d pointed it out before. They answered, “It’s your marriage covenant.” “And what does it mean?” “That you will never split up.” “That’s right – and don’t ever forget that.”

Not our actual covenant – but same idea.

Back to this couple in Tampa. They asked “How do we get one of those marriage covenants?” Good news: we hand them out at the end of every conference. I said, “Here’s what you need to do. Get your covenant. Take it home. Gather your children and tell them about this weekend. Tell them what this covenant means and that you learned things about marriage you never understood before. Tell them you are now putting Christ at the center of your marriage and that you are committed to staying together. Then have a signing ceremony. Sign it in front of them. Then have them sign it. Have some friends over to sign it as well. Then BURN those divorce papers. Let the kids light the match.” You could see the wheels spinning and their eyes lighting up. He looked me in the eye, gave a firm handshake, and said, “We’ll do it.”

I came away from this conversation reminded of something we talk about at the conference – how important it is to avoid the “D” word (divorce) in marriage. Don’t ever threaten your spouse with divorce. Take that word off the table. It always derails the conversations and undermines your commitment to one another.

But we also say to go a step beyond that. Don’t just avoid the D word – but move toward the positive. Seek out opportunities to re-affirm your commitment to one another – especially when your marriage is under strain. For us it might look like this: Say we’re having a disagreement about something. We don’t seem to be making headway. The tension is elevating. That’s a good time for one of us to say, “Figuring this out is harder than I thought. But I want you to know I’m committed to you – to us – to figuring this out, even if it is hard and even if we disagree for a while. I’m not going anywhere.”

There’s tremendous power in affirming the positive rather than just avoiding the negative. Look for opportunities to do that this week with your spouse, and if possible, in front of your kids.

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