It is said that behind every great man is a greater woman. Though I claim no greatness, by my side for 32 years now has been this woman, named Gwen. Our relationship began when Gwen announced at a Christmas party that she had just broken an engagement. That was my clue to stand up; pursue the woman and right then and there on that frosty Christmas night, I knew I would indeed marry her. I did two years later. For me, it was love at first sight. For her, it took two years for love to spring forth. That's life, they say. Gwen has been my true companion for 32 years. Together, we have pastored four churches, planted two and founded an international ministry called, Potter’s Inn. No church I served; no church I planted; no book I ever wrote and no souls I ever healed could have happened without this woman. I truly owe all to her. Her beginning in this life was from the dark clay of Ethiopia, born to missionary parents who raised this blue eyed, blond girl in the rough terrain of a primitive country. There, she stood on crates and watched men and women being operated on and in that dungy surgical suite, she came to the early conclusion at five years of age, that she would become a nurse. She did and served several years in foreign countries and in major medical centers in the US. Her parents, somehow sent, Gwen to a missionary boarding school—a decision we process now, years after the fact. Was it right? Was it wrong? In those long years without a mother to hold her and a daddy to comfort her, she resolved some things in that boarding school and made some promises that we now unpack with great care, tenderness and mercy. Those years left scars in the heart and gaps in the mind to comprehend being left on the front steps of a boarding school so your parents could go work for God. Unfortunately, she would re-live this chapter with me, as I have written about in my books. But scars—they do breed passion and that scar of being left would be a vow she would make to always be present for her four men children that she bore. Her passion to this day is about her men children. In my dark days of obsessing about my work and the call of God on my own life, Gwen remained true to pastor these boys into men with hearts of gold and spines of steel. I often confess when speaking to leaders around the world, “I gave the best of my life to the church and the left-overs to my wife and kids.” It’s something I am not proud of today and help people to not make the mistake I made. Thankfully, God has mercy and that mercy has sealed gaps in my absence but mostly because Gwen stood in the gaps I created. She is that kind of woman. I married this woman on October 18, 1980 at 11am. Tomorrow, October 18 is our anniversary! The organ played joyfully, “When morning guilds the skies, my heart awakening cries, may Jesus Christ be praised.” She processed and I broke. When she walked down the aisle, I broke down and cried like a baby. I was ravished by such a sight of splendor and beauty and I still am today. These days, I often stare at her without anyone looking, including Gwen. Her hair in the sunlight. Her smile in the morning reaching for coffee. Her laughs in the bed and her giggles when we are in private. No one gets her like I get her. She has lived that vow out and I am the better for it. Her faithfulness is a blanket of comfort. I told her several years ago when my travel was picking up and I confessed how much I didn’t like travelling by myself-- that I felt I was being set up for failure by these trips and that there was no joy in being a talking head for God or for anyone. She said she would start going with me. So we tried that and both experienced the sober reality of what too much travel does to ones rhythm—to our couple rhythm. So now, we are turning the tables again to vow to travel less and live the life we want to live—together. Years ago, Gwen went to seminary to study to become what she has become today, a spiritual director and a lover of souls. Somehow, she intuitively knows when enough is enough and the joy of an afternoon cup of coffee and a bite of very dark chocolate. Any one she is a director for benefits only in part of what I benefit from every day of the year. We know have three daughters, for three of our four men children have chosen wives. I study in amazement Gwen’s great, great care and respect for these three chosen daughters for us. When I would press and blow the doors off in a conversation that perhaps, they weren’t ready to have---Gwen somehow knows the great value of silence and just loves them without words, correction and with grace and I see it. I wish I could love like she does. Her greatest joy these days is with our new grandson, Caleb. One of the benefits of technology is being sent videos of Caleb. While I’ll watch them once, I’ll notice Gwen repeating and repeating viewing them…squealing with utter joy at Caleb’s smile on screen or now his cute chuckles. How she delights in him and through this one relationship, I now understand the parental heart of God so much better when we are told that God delighted in Jesus at his baptism and again shortly before he died. It’s like living in a painting to watch her watch the videos. I know now that all of our grandchildren to come are so very fortunate to have her as the new “Nina”. They—our future grandchildren will find comfort in her arms and against her heart as I have for these many years. It is my great joy to watch Gwen age. We laugh a lot about it. She is going to be a radiant old woman. She will be that kind of woman who wears her hair in a bun and her face will wrinkle with wisdom lines that she already possesses. Those she loves will eagerly sit at her feet on by her side sipping tea from Blue Danube cups and with every cup, a piece of dark chocolate. I am the better man for having this woman say yes to me, many years ago. I am the most fortunate of all. So I tell you now in public what I tell you in secret, “You have outdone every woman I know and you are the desire of my heart and the delight of my soul. Your beauty is not in your doing but in your essence. Your soul is exquisite and your heart huge!" I wish for you that I could have been more tender; had more of a soft hand than a firm one. I wish for you that I could re-live all the years I gave to meaningless deacon’s meetings and Team Meetings. They robbed us of the greatest commodity of our lives…time. I hope in what years I have left to give you the best and not the left overs. I wish for you the time to be the grandmother, your heart is calling you to be and I will give you that time. It will be a way we can both pay back our mistakes in investing in organizations that honor the organs of the heart and soul. I wish for you great health with long walks on the hills of our retreat. I wish for you Aspen Gold to match your hair and clefts to sit in to ponder and to pray. Thank you that you pray for me. That you alone pastor me. That you alone direct me to move in the ways I want to move. Thank you that you know Jesus and that you value your relationship with him so much. Thank you that you are a lover of solitude and that you have mentored me so well here in this much needed school. I look forward to aging with you. Soon we will cross over to the downhill side and it will be a much too quick journey for us. If I should die before you, I will want you to carry on---to try to fulfill our shared dream here at Potter’s Inn. But if it is too much and too lonely for you, then I release you from this burden to live the life you so want to live. Buy you an RV and roam from son to son and shore to shore with Laz or your Petunia, (the fantasized old English bull dog that you covet). And if I will carry you to your grave first, then I will dress you in white—the white of your wedding dress and say, “You were pure and kind to me all the days of your life and I will always honor you and love you for loving me so well. Because, I am the weaker one, I hope I will pass first because we both know, you are far, far stronger than me. I will not fair well. But that is not for us to choose. In the days ahead, let us lift high the chalice of our lives and drink to the goodness of God. For He has been good and he has been faithful. Happy Anniversary! Do not kill me for sharing such public things about our love and your beauty. We all will call you "Blessed!"
We are about ready to lead 85 couples into the greatest mystery of life and that is the relationship between a man and woman in marriage. Marriage is a sacred tool used by God to revolutionize the human heart--the heart of two people who join together in marriage. There are issues for the single person to work through, but the issues of marriage brings to single souls together and in the mystery of the journey, the two become one.Tonight, we will give a talk focusing on this theme: Closing the Gap. In every marriage gaps form which widen and separate the two thirsty souls and there are no exceptions. I'm going to outline five forces which seem determined to push couples apart rather than bring them together. The five I will explore are:
- The busyness of life and the residual affect on marriages.
- The unresolved issues of the past. Every person in the marriage brings dirty laundry to the marriage and when the baggage is big, the problems are bigger!
- A common but profound mis-understanding about what authentic intimacy is and looks like. True intimacy is defined this way: INTO-ME-See. And because of our fear of letting this happen. We live isolated, disconnected and alone in the marriage.
- The fact that most couples live out their marriage only with a horizontal understanding of each other and void of a vertical one. Marriage is sacred and their is no secular space within any marriage.
- Our tendency in marriage is to forget that the human heart has four chambers and all four chambers need to be opened in marriage. The fourth chamber is where the secrets of the past, the lies of the present and the longings of the future reside. As my mentor poet, Mary Oliver has told us, "The Heart has many dungeons. Bring the light. Bring the light!" How we need the light of Jesus to help a marriage really function the way that God intended.
We'd appreciate the prayers of our all of our readers and friends as we lead these 85 couples into the great mystery of their relationships and as we descend into the fourth chamber of the husband's heart and the wife's soul.It's an noble task we're about to undertake and it's not an easy assignment at all!We are in Baltimore, MD at Central Presbyterian Church.
I'm up at our retreat, Potter's Inn at Aspen Ridge. We are doing a soul care intensive, a five day private retreat, this week with a couple who told us today, "This is a last-ditch attempt to save our marriage." They are over in their cabin tonight. They are sitting with what happened in our first day together. I'm sitting here in my cabin wondering what tomorrow will bring.This morning, I read words from Henri Nouwen which seemed appropriate. He said that sometimes we need to tie a rope around our ankles when we go into the black holes of other people's desperation--and ask our community to hold the rope for us so that we, ourselves, don't slip into the darkness we are trying to help people escape from. It's a beautiful image---thinking that some people would actually care enough to hold the rope tied to my own ankles so that we can do our work; fulfill our calling and help rescue souls in danger.I'll not spend much time wondering who in this world would care enough to hold my rope for me but I do know there are a few who truly do care. That assurance gives me the courage to keep trying to help people; keep trying to find the light for people to navigate their way out of the darkness.I am reminded of a line in Mary Oliver's poem---one of my favorite of hers when she simply says, "The heart has many dungeons. Bring the light. Bring the light."Each morning, we'll do our soul work together--this couple and us. Each morning, I'll imagine this rope--this sense that we are not alone in doing this work.A last ditch effort to save a marriage is a high calling--don't you think? Much is at stake. Much!Hold the rope, would you? When you hold the rope, we are truly partnered together.Stephen W. Smith