Marriage Can Be Stormy: Check Your Anchors, Sails and Life Rafts

If life goes in waves, mine are rolling in faster and higher. In fact, I’m a bit seasick.

Weren’t we just children whom someone else worried about? Then college students, totally independent except for our parents’ money? Fast forward to marriage, careers, and kids of our own to worry about.

Weddings now fill the horizon as friends of our 20-something kids begin echoing “I do’s.”

My husband and I drove to Augusta this year to attend the wedding of the daughter of dear friends. It’s where we began life as newlyweds more than three decades ago. I couldn’t stop humming “Sunrise, sunset, swiftly flow the years.” He couldn’t stop rolling his eyes.

I flashed back to three young couples who met in Augusta: the parents of the bride, my husband and me, and one other couple. We connected as the rebels who didn’t follow the Young Marrieds Sunday School script. We played hooky from the potlucks, stayed up late playing “Nertz,” and dug deep into each other’s lives and struggles. Within three years, we all dispersed: the bride’s parents moved to Israel to run a youth hostel, the other couple transferred “up North” and began to populate the earth with boys, and we lived in Michigan and Montana before coming back to the South. Those two couples rooted back in Augusta, and we settled in Birmingham. But before our small group broke up, we left each other with a promise that turned out to be profound. We decided to simply pray for each others’ marriages. Looking back, there’s no better advice I could give these young wedding-bound women.

I was asked to speak to Elizabeth and her bridesmaids at their pre-wedding brunch. As I began, I saw the same look in these girls’ eyes that I had 30+ years earlier. A naïve determination that they’d be different, they’d get it right, because they’re more energetic, more creative, more in love.

Take notes, girls, and save it for later.

Just Give Me the Marital Navigation App

The thing that most about-to-marry girls want to hear is how to prevent the mistakes their parents and everyone else in the world have made. They want to download the GPS app to help navigate the hard times and ride the breakers back to calm waters. 

But unpredicted storms will come.

People abandon ship.

Boats sink—or get dry-docked.

So I asked these young women three questions:

  • What anchors will help you survive the storms that come to all marriages?
  • What sails will keep you on course into God’s deep, wild Kingdom and away from the shallows?
  • What’s in your life raft? Because, at some point, almost everyone lands in a dinghy bailing out doubt while trying not to drown in grief.

Anchors

The storms of suffering pulled hard at our anchors. Looking back to the times when we were tempted to cut free out of fear, we realize the line held not because of our “clinging” skill but because Christ held us. Deep relationships and prayer also anchored us.

Deep Relationships

We’ve latched onto a few decades-long friendships in our uprooted life. These are the couples with whom we made memories, laughed, prayed, wept, and stayed up really late (that last one while we were still young). We figure ways to stay in touch (beyond Christmas cards) and ask the good/hard questions no one else has permission to ask. We also had the gift of older “weathered” couples who shared honestly how they navigated their own marital waters.

Prayer

Hurricane-force winds of real life blew away any illusions of control we had. At those times, prayer—not rote repetition but gut-vulnerable pleading—anchored us to God’s grace, each other, and our praying friends. I often wonder how the “let’s just pray for each other’s marriages” prayers of these two other couples kept us from sinking.

Sails

The bridal bunch I spoke to are brave, world adventurers with sails set high. Most marriages start out like that, focused on the far horizon, but end up with a mortgage, 2.5 kids, three pets, soccer practices, and multiplying obligations. Couples stare at the stars and ask:

How did we get here? How did our children’s happiness become our biggest goal? When did our 401K begin to matter more than the Wild Kingdom? Will we have anything to dream (or even talk) about when the kids leave port?

It’s been a lifelong struggle for us to stay focused on the far shore. As my husband and I thought about what kept us steering out of the shallows, we thought of community, humility, and humor.

Community

We plugged into a healthy church. Christian community kept us out of the shallows of self-focused spiritual actualization, tied us to Scripture, and continually refocused us on our destiny and destination.

Humility

We learned to never, never, never say never. As soon as we rolled our eyes and judged others, we too ended up with a used minivan. We too got sucked into some get-rich-quick and get-out-slow scheme. We too made each go-sleep-on-the-sofa mad.

Humor

I’m thankful that we can laugh at ourselves (gently and together), the screwed-up world we live in, and at past painful situations which we chose to reinterpret with more lightness. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten so good at it we have been known to laugh uncontrollably in inappropriate places, like weddings and funerals.

Life Raft

At some point, most marriages land in a life boat (perhaps bankruptcy, betrayal, disease, death, infertility, mental illness, children stress, trauma, prison, etc.). We’ve been in that tiny raft before. The waves of grief, doubt, and shame loomed large.

There are no formulas, quick fixes, anchors, or sails in a life raft—just hanging on.

  • We tossed overboard all unnecessary ballast (including most of the advice I gave above).
  • We clung to the truth that God loves us (even though it didn’t feel that way).
  •  We focused on the resurrected Jesus Christ as our lifeline leading to Heaven.

We repeated the truth to each other that we will see the shoreline and arrive safely home, no matter if in this world or the next.

As I finished speaking, I looked over at my two friends nodding in agreement (especially the laughing at funerals part). These were the ones who had faithfully prayed for our marriage and a big part of why I was standing here spouting these truths. So, if there was one piece of advice I’d give Elizabeth? Find those kind of friends.

I left the girls with Sir Francis Drake’s prayer, which may be more suitable to us parents, but they can tuck it away for later—because in a few “waves” they’ll be there, too.

Disturb us, Lord, when

We are too well pleased with ourselves,

When our dreams have come true

Because we have dreamed too little,

When we arrived safely

Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when

With the abundance of things we possess

We have lost our thirst

For the waters of life;

Having fallen in love with life,

We have ceased to dream of eternity

And in our efforts to build a new earth,

We have allowed our vision

Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,

To venture on wider seas

Where storms will show your mastery;

Where losing sight of land,

We shall find the stars.

We ask You to push back

The horizons of our hopes;

And to push into the future

In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,

Who is Jesus Christ.

Sir Francis Drake, 1577

Photo by Bill Carroll

All photos by Bill Carroll

 

Nancy W. Carroll is a writer, speaker/teacher, and "soul-tender" from Birmingham, AL who blogs at Really Late Bloomer. She serves as president of InSpero, Inc., a 501c3 believing in the power of creative community to bring hope and healing to our city and churches. 

Refreshing the Refreshers

Welcome to my redesigned website and Really Late Bloomer blog, with gratitude to the amazing (and patient) Sara Beth Cobb of Nimblee Design. She challenged me to find the thread to tie together my diverse offerings.

refreshing the refreshers

It clicked when I couldn’t stop looking at my husband Bill’s photograph of a rushing Montana creek. I was drawn to its abstract beauty but it also took me back to one of our life-giving places. It reminds me of the biblical promise:

“Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” Proverbs 11:25

Do I have a part to play in fulfilling that promise?

Through my writing, relating, and InSpero, I long to encourage and sustain those on the front lines and behind the scenes. I want to give a cup of cold water to those weary in well doing.  To connect people to Christ through story, Scripture, and creative community. To encourage people who’ve put their dreams on the back burner that blooming late is better than not blooming at all.  

Who are the refreshers?

If you’re reading my blog, then there’s a good chance you’re a refresher.

They’re the ones pouring out their lives, fighting for the weak, listening to the lonely, serving where no one sees, leading even when few follow, loving in the hard places. They’re the sustainers, the builders, and rebuilders of people and places. The ones who see the world as it is and ache for it to be as it should be. They’re faithful in small things done over a long time that make a difference that they may never see. They’re weary and wonder if it’s worth it.

I passionately believe what they do is worth it and that they are worth being refreshed so they survive their vision.

There's a family who moved to an Indian reservation 13 years ago to bring life and hope to a place of inconceivable brokenness. What will sustain them in this dry and weary land?  I work with two front-lines organizations, one fighting for orphans and families in Uganda, and one working to reconnect disconnected communities in Birmingham through business, education, and beauty. I’m asking these visionaries and founders the hard questions about sustaining their souls as well as saving the world. 

What do they need?

Jesus gives a simple three-word invitation to the weary life-giver: Come to me.

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28-30 The Message

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” John 7:38

It starts with admitting you are tired and thirsty. That somewhere along the road to burnout you forgot “the unforced rhythms of grace” and can’t conceive of "living freely and lightly." God wants you to be kind to yourself, to receive his grace as well as give it. That kindness may start with finding space to come to Him.

Space and Place and Grace

Parker Palmer calls that kind of space sanctuary. “Sanctuary is wherever I find safe space to regain my bearings, reclaim my soul, heal my wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer. It’s not merely about finding shelter from the storm: it’s about spiritual survival.”

My prayer is that my writing (blogs, Bible studies, fiction), speaking/teaching, and soul care  will help people regain their bearings and return to their world strengthened. In the coming months, I’ll share more about a “safe space” Bill and I have found close to Birmingham which we hope will refresh the refreshers. We call it Whisper Woods Lake (even if it technically may be a pond). That name comes from I Kings 19, when the prophet Elijah crawled under a broom tree exhausted, weary, and a bit whiny, as he escaped from the evil Queen Jezebel. He felt alone and discouraged, and wanted to give up. He needed to hear from God. First things first. Eat, drink,  sleep. Repeat. Then he was ready to hear God’s voice. It wasn’t in the gale-force wind, the earthquake, or fire. It was in the gentle whisper (what in Hebrew can be described as a thin silence).  We hope we will be able to give rung-out refreshers a simple place of quiet beauty, rest, and soul care. To remember why they do what they do and to remember what it’s all for, who it's for, and what’s ahead.

Each person finds that "sanctuary" for their souls in different ways. I'd love your thoughts on what most restores your weary soul as we dream of a building a small respite "Broomtree" cottage on this property.

(One way to feed your soul with beauty is to go to A Beauty Refresher at the bottom of my home page for photos and artwork from some of my favorite artists.)

Nancy W. Carroll is a writer, speaker/teacher, and "soul-tender" from Birmingham, AL who blogs at Really Late Bloomer. She also serves as president of InSpero,Inc., a 501c3 believing in the power of creative community to bring hope and healing to our city and churches. 

Leaning In and Making Space

A Conversation with Sandra McCracken and Kenny Meeks

A small gathering of musicians, potters, painters, writers, and other artists captured a few quiet moments of food and conversation with singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken and musician Kenny Meeks in the home of Birmingham painter and InSpero founder, Gina Hurry.

In hopes you can be encouraged—and feel less alone—in your own creative process, here are some notes jotted by Nancy Carroll from the morning.

Where does the depth of your work and words come from?

S: I hold loosely the seasons of flourishing and feasting with those of disappointments and roadblocks. Some of my best creative work comes from leaning into my limitations and wrestling with God over the confusions and realities of life.

K: I’m currently providing guitar tracking for an album about a man’s journey in the loss of his young son to cancer. To feel and reflect back his pain is both a privilege and weight, but the takeaway is the honest emotional truth of the material, and how universal and confessional it is. It takes courage for him—and me—to embrace utter disappointment and still hang onto God.

sandra-mccracken-pictures-7.jpg

Many artists juggle multiple jobs and family responsibilities. What advice do you have to help us keep creating?

S: To be sustained creatively, I need to make space for God and people. Because I am a worship leader, Sunday is a work day so I carve out a Sabbath on Wednesdays. It’s tempting, especially as a mom, to fill it with my to-do lists, but I choose to be intentionally non-productive.  It helps remind me to rest in a God who provides.

Then I have to make space for relationships—people I know and know me.  That means giving myself to a local body, a church, as well as family and friends.  These are the people who love me when I fail and don’t care if I never succeed.

And there’s nothing like children to keep you humble and grounded. They really don’t pay much attention to your career or creative process. I’m learning to lean into life’s constant “interruptions” as a way to have my curiosity and wonder awakened.  In the way of interruptions, my kids give me good gifts.

We noticed a sense of freedom and spontaneity between you and your band members.  What role does creative collaboration play in your music and performances? 

S: I like to remember and remind our audience that the Spirit is already present and working and weaving together people’s stories. For me, a live performance feels like I’m on the edge of a wave, living on the edge, open to what may happen in the moment.  Like that Willie Nelson song feeding through the sound system and interrupting our first song of the set on Sunday night; though it came in as a startling interruption, it ended up being a great ice breaker for the evening.

K: Sandra encourages creative collaboration and freedom within live performances. That’s rare.  Musically, it feels like living in a jazz moment: less scripted, more energy, and room for the Spirit to move.

What feeds your soul?

S:  I can’t jump into my day too quickly. That means not grabbing my phone or answering emails first thing in the morning. This new album, Psalms, flowed out of allowing myself to sit in the quiet of the morning to sing back the Psalms to God.

What doesn’t feed your soul?

S: Production and marketing are harder for me.

K: There can be pressure to present yourself in a certain less-than-genuine way, or to follow the advice of others when it doesn’t feel honest, just to be what some might consider more marketable or more successful. So learning who you are and who you can trust is part of the process.

S: I try to remember that we are simply to be good stewards of the gifts God has given us. It takes a long time to find out who you are and what your gifts are and to recognize your own artistic ‘voice.’  When I can just be myself in any given situation, it helps me in the struggle to compromise vision or please people.

I love Henri Nouwen and how he explains in his book, Reaching Out, that we must first live in our Identity as someone who is loved by God, so if we fail or flourish, our identity holds, regardless of the changing circumstances of our lives and regardless of our performance.  Nouwen talks about true hospitality as making peace with our own loneliness, which then makes space for others to do the same. It’s a more generous way to love and receive.  And it’s actually, for me a pretty difficult thing to practice.

You mentioned Joni Mitchell’s turning to painting after producing an album, what she called “crop rotation.”  What is your form of crop rotation? 

S: I have to be intentional to give myself permission to play with my kids. When I can unplug from all the tasks at hand and enjoy the unstructured moments with them, it helps me return refreshed to my music.