Sifted and Refined:
A Blog on Human Weakness, Frailty, and Brokenness, and How God Can Use It
(If we Let Him)
Blog No. 3: Marble
“What are the tributaries that led to this crisis?” Mike Mackenzie asked. His wife, Kari, seated to his left, gave the gathered an encouraging smile and waited.
We sat in a circle with other couples. But for us, they were all in pastoral ministry. Mike’s question was to no one in particular, being instead addressed to anyone who wished to get this, the first session, started. This was the beginning of 9 days of intense counseling at Marble Retreat Center in Marble, Colorado. Marble is nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, and on this cold January day, those mountains had more than a dusting of snow. A crackling fire provided warmth and contributed to an atmosphere of intimacy.
Mike and Kari are professional Christian counselors. Kari is a sensible, yet tenderhearted Indianan. Though younger than her husband, she has no less experience in the profession and is well-suited to it. Her lively, gregarious nature serves as a nice balance to the reserve of her husband whose personality is precisely what you would expect of a man from a fishing village on Canada’s windswept Prince Edward Island—serious, practical, and focused on the task at hand. With his flannel shirts, close-cropped hair, and square jaw, it wasn’t hard to picture him in an episode of Lobster Wars. Even at 49, he plays hockey in a local park and rec league.
Our presence here had come at the recommendation of a prominent evangelical pastor who had advised us in the early days of our own crisis. He had a high regard for MRC and the specialized work they do. “I do want to encourage you to prepare yourself to receive,” he wrote to me. “Ask God to give you the ability to surrender to the process that you experience at Marble… There could be some painful, humbling moments as you are encouraged toward self-disclosure. Take it all in. I say all this because you’ve spent your life acquiring and dispensing knowledge. Spend your time at Marble being a common, ordinary man who is pretty banged up … Some good things are going to happen.”
“Banged up” was putting my condition at the time mildly. It was like looking at the wreckage of the Titanic and saying it had “taken on some water.” If ministry produces casualties, and it does, this is the M.A.S.H. unit whose job it is to heal the wounded, inoculate them against similar injuries going forward, and return them to the front lines. They call themselves “pastors for pastors,” and that characterization fits. People in ministry are a unique group for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their inability to self-disclose for fear that it will lead to the demise of their ministries. They are expected to have spiritual answers, not spiritual needs. As such, they work to create a safe environment at Marble. Counselees stay together in this mountain lodge that is without television, Wi-Fi, or even a cellular signal. All of this is by design. The idea is to get couples to engage their spouses and each other, be it through conversation or a board game. Days are long, consisting of six hours of group, couple, and individual counseling. But their success rate speaks for itself: 90 percent of those who come to Marble return to productive ministry. Still, Lauri and I were the only one’s here on a voluntary basis. People are usually sent to Marble by their churches or organizations either because of a moral failing or as a preventive measure.
Mike’s question was a good one. How had we gotten here?
I later learned that Mike and Kari don’t expect especially thoughtful answers to this question. People arrive a bit shell-shocked and often answer—as I did to myself, if not to the room—with something like, “I don’t know.” This answer is not an attempt at deflection or pretending to not know one’s own sins. Lauri and I were past the stage of confession and forgiveness and were now processing and rebuilding. Over the course of our many sessions with this group of the similarly “banged-up,” I would come to recognize that these were all good people who had committed their lives to the service of God and man. They had stood against the very behavior they ended up engaging in. Perhaps they had, like Peter’s bold proclamation to Jesus, swore they would never do such a thing just before they did it. Understanding how this could happen was part of the painful process of healing and moving forward that I had been warned to expect.
They like to speak of “tributaries” at Marble. That is, the confluence of factors that, individually, are not necessarily combustible; but when combined with other ingredients, the mixture becomes incendiary. A composite sketch of the people who find themselves at Marble looks like this (I urge men in any walk of life to pay particularly close attention):
Steven and Addie have been married for 20 years or so. He’s been working non-stop since he finished college. Having started as a youth pastor, he is now the senior pastor and the responsibility weighs on him—leading his staff, sermon preparation, counseling others, and a capital campaign. Early in their marriage, Steven and Addie enjoyed romantic outings and adventures together. But these days, their conversations are about disgruntled church members, aging parents, the pressure of bills, and the children. Even the thought of doing something together, be it a weekend away or dinner out, feels selfish. Who will watch the kids? Besides, Junior needs braces and that will be expensive. Better to save that money. Steven comes home exhausted, collapses into his favorite chair, turns on ESPN, and wants nothing more than dinner, light conversation, and a cozy bed. She has been up to her eyes dealing with children, his parents or hers, and she wants him to engage with her. When she says, “We need to talk,” a feeling of dread grips him. What’s coming, he thinks, cannot be pleasant. He quickly goes through a mental list of things he might have done wrong.
Addie’s emotional life increasingly becomes about her children. Steven’s life is increasingly about his work. The marital drift begins, but neither seems to recognize it and they would both rate their marriage a 7 out of 10. Sure, they could improve on a few things, but compared to the more than 50 percent of marriages that end in divorce, they feel pretty good about themselves. But both partners have grievances toward the other, and when does that stuff come up? Yup, during an argument. That’s when worn-out phrases like, “There you go again!” or “You’re just like your mother!” get dragged out and hurled at one another like verbal darts. To bring these complaints up at any other time just looks like a provocation. Little by little, they each make subconscious emotional investments elsewhere, be it in the children, their work, or another person. When the latter, it may even begin harmlessly enough, but soon it starts to cross all sorts of boundaries, and that’s when the blowout comes.
Looking around the room, you will note—if you don’t, Mike and Kari will point it out to you—that most of the time this happens with men in their 40s. Because they specialize in counseling those who are in ministry, they are very familiar with the patterns these things usually follow. When, during one of my individual sessions, I (naively) told Kari that I was sure that my situation was unique for three reasons and then went on to list them, she replied:
“Not unique, not unique, not unique.”
Unsurprisingly, counseling sessions are heavy. These were all people who were not only dealing with the consequences of their own sin—or, as the case may be, the revelation of someone else’s—but also with those who would pile-on with malicious gossip, self-righteousness, indifference, or outright hate. The stories are painful to hear. A lot of tears are shed as people share their sorrows and failures, but all of it in the safe and confidential environment they have created at Marble. The spirit of these sessions follows the model presented by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:1-2: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” While sins are not ignored or dismissed at Marble, the point isn’t to beat anyone up. The goal, rather, is to seek healing and restoration and understand what happened. In other words, the goal is to truly bear one another’s burdens.
Mike and Kari don’t force these sessions in a particular direction. As people begin to talk, you discover remarkable similarities between their stories and yours. Indeed, sometimes it seems like they are telling your story instead of their own. This is one of the benefits of group counseling. I’ve said that Kari is tenderhearted, but I would be remiss to portray Mike differently. The compassion of this couple was evident throughout. I’ve come to understand that wives are the most neglected people in these things—first by their husbands and then by their churches, organizations, or the larger Christian community. This is part of the pattern they see at Marble.
“Lauri,” Mike began, emotion evident in his voice. “There will be people who are unkind to you because they haven’t forgiven Larry and they are angry that you have. They want him to suffer more. But while they think this is an indication of your weakness, it is an indication of your great strength of character and God’s work in and through you.” Those words were quite rightly meaningful to Lauri and richly deserved. At Marble they speak of something they call “grace with a price.” The grace that is initially given cheaply by those on the periphery of the crisis, but who then gradually withdraw it when they discover that it may cost them something. As we would learn in these sessions, this is also common.
The aforementioned prominent pastor who recommended we go to Marble in the first place had told us both that if we continued to submit to a biblical model for restoration, our marriage would be sweeter than ever. Had he been talking to us in person when he said this—he was on speakerphone—he would have seen a look of disbelief on my face. But Lauri and I now know that it is true.
In between counseling sessions at Marble, they encourage you to explore the area, to talk, to enjoy each other. Lauri and I did. We had pizza in nearby Aspen and coffee almost daily in Carbondale. We enjoyed the stories and good humor of Marble’s host couple, Bob and Lisa. We played games with other couples and listened to their spiritual journeys to this place. In short, we ministered to each other and, for the first time in almost two decades, we felt others ministering to us. So beneficial was the experience that Lauri and I decided to road-trip back to Marble a few months later for a follow-up visit and we are scheduled to do so again this autumn.
Lauri and I came away from Marble Retreat Center better for the experience and grateful for their remarkable ministry to us and so many others. I suspect many readers of this blog have (secret) need of their services. We highly recommend them. Visit their website. Contact them. You may do so and be assured of absolute confidentiality. It is often said that the Church is the only “army” that shoots its wounded. There is truth in this. Marble is the necessary—and biblical—corrective.
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Letters to Larry (and Lauri)
This blog is read by thousands of people around the world, and while most of our readers live in North America and self-identify as Christians, there are many other worldviews and nationalities represented. I don’t read or even get every email sent to the website and I couldn’t respond to them all even if I did. But I do try to respond to those where a response seems warranted and when my time allows for it. Below are a few. They are a fair representation of what we have received. The response has been, to our great joy, overwhelmingly positive. You will see my responses to some in bold. To those of you who have been kind and encouraging, we are grateful.
“I have often thought of you during the past year and have lamented the loss of your voice on the national scale of Christian witness. I hope you will soon resume your mission to the intellectuals where you can now more effectively reach the soul of our Christian understanding.” ~ Vernon
Going forward, Vernon, I hope it includes more than intellectuals.
“How truly remarkable, perfectly lovely, and truly Christian [author’s bold] this testament is! Thank you for your investment of Faith in your Father, your ‘no crap’ attitude toward Grace and what it really is, and thank you for a little glimpse of the heart of a Great God Who cares so intensely about His children. Lauri, I am married to a woman like you and, with your writing, I think I can actually get a glimpse of her heart of hearts. This reading has given me an expanded insight of what God meant by a ‘one flesh’ relationship.” ~ Bob
“You’re back! And with a velvet hammer!” ~ Lynne
“This is perhaps one of the best things that I’ve read. It’s honest and gets to the core of all of us if we are honest with ourselves. I hope you will continue with this blog as I am sure that it will touch the lives of many with the real underlying truth that Jesus saves and heals ‘sinners.’” ~ Paul
“I love your wife! She makes me wonder if I have ever truly forgiven some in my life.” ~ Cynthia
Lauri is God’s gift to me and, it seems, to you!
“I sense that God is changing you.” ~ Whitney
I hope so, Whitney.
“I am glad you are back. I know you may not totally agree with that statement, but I cannot wait to see what God has in store for your family.” ~ Andrew
“F—k you.” ~ Murray
Thank you, Murray. Lol.
“Larry it is really good to read your words again! I remember writing you to hopefully encourage you and let you know your mistake pales to my bad choices in this life. Oh how thankful I am for the grace of our LORD Jesus! I’m so glad you didn’t let Satan stop you from sharing your gift of using teaching words, be they spoken or written.” ~ Zeke
Thankfully, Zeke, His grace is sufficient for us both!
“What a delightful surprise to get this. I’ve been praying for you and your family.” ~ Bruce
“Good to see you coming up for air.” ~ Stephen
“What a blessing that the Lord is using your brokenness to give others the courage to share their brokenness.” ~ Nancy
“I wouldn’t wish what has been going on in your life on anyone, but the manner in which you’ve approached it has been nothing short of refreshing to read…. Any friend that can’t wrap their arms around you and love you during this journey is really no brother or sister at all…. I won’t miss the old Larry. But I could have a beer with this guy.” ~ Anthony
No, you couldn’t. I don’t drink. ;)
“I am not sure how to respond. Or, if I should respond. Or, if you are interested in responses. I am tempted just to unsubscribe, but I am curious as I don’t often get to see how to rehab an image once fallen.” ~ Jeff
You think we are doing this to “rehab an image”? I’m not sure how you could so comprehensively miss the point of this blog. For far too long, I cherished my reputation. The Lord has broken me of that. To image and reputation, I say good riddance. I am a Child of God. That is enough. And if you’re reading this just out of curiosity, I suggest you unsubscribe.
“I just want to know if you will recap your trip around the world trip. I want to hear that again or read your book about it. Are you writing a book about that? Where can I hear those reports on the world?” ~ Julie
I’m encouraged by your interest, Julie. Give me time. As for where you can read those articles, you can read them on LarryAlexTaunton.com.
“I just found these 2 blogs in my email yesterday and I thanked God upon reading them! Thank you both for writing this. As a broken, imperfect Christian, I and the rest of the Church need this reminder of God’s amazing grace and the Christian fellowship of real (not the smug country club type) people/pilgrims on this very difficult and treacherous path to the Lord. I look forward to your future blogs and whatever else He might have you do.” ~ Tracie
“How refreshing and honoring to our God and Savior—truth and vulnerability, forgiveness, and restoration. Our Redeemer lives!” ~ Emily
“Soul-stirring!” ~ Harrison
“This is fantastic.” ~ Edward
“I forgive you and am sorry that you and your family have had to endure this. But I never supported your work because I wanted you to be my priest anyway. I supported it because I wanted you to be my gladiator. Glad you’re back!” ~ Jordan
“How refreshing this is! Keep writing.” ~ Stuart
“I sense that God is starting something much bigger than you’ve ever done before. You’ve left the temple (the academic arena) and entered the ghetto. Both are important, but I think ministering to the heart rather than the mind is a higher calling. What was intended for evil, God is using for good.” ~ James
“Awesome. You’re a warrior, not a victim. Keep writing, keep going.” ~ Eric
“I hope you understand that this comes from a broken heart for the name and reputation of God our father, and our Lord Jesus Christ. I do not want to receive anything at all from you ever again…. I would never recommend anything you wrote or were associated with ever again.” ~ Mary
Ma’am, I am thankful that my God’s character—and my wife’s—is not reflected in yours. Reading an email like this, I finally understand why David, in 1 Chronicles 21:1-13, asked God to judge him rather than leaving him to the judgements of men: “I am in great distress. Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.” Given the criteria for what you read, I will assume that you don’t read The Five Books of Moses, The Psalms, or the Epistles of Peter. They, too, were broken, sinful men, and I am grateful that my God restored them. It gives me hope.
“Your ministry is largely responsible for my growth as a Christian. I am grateful you are back in the fight.” ~ Ken
Not sure that I’m “back in the fight” yet, Ken, but I thank you nonetheless. Right now, my focus is my family and my soul. In God’s timing.
“I have always liked your writing, but WHOA! This is taking it to a whole new level!” ~ Jeremy
“You led me to faith. You are my friend and always will be my friend.” ~ Alexander
“I liked the other Larry. But I love this Larry.” ~ Joel
“Larry, you have never met me, but like you I am a broken person…. I have many regrets for the life that I lived. But God! I am so thankful that just as the prodigal son came home to a loving dad, so can we! Our Heavenly Father knows us and sees us in all our filth, and yet, His arms are open wide for us when we come in all our brokenness! I am so glad that you and your wife have decided to share this pain and struggle in your life. The Christian life is hard and those of us who call Christ our Lord, are on this journey together. I will be praying for you and your family as your wounds are treated by our Lord. Keep your eyes fixed on Him and not on this world.” ~ Shelley
Thank you, Shelley, for your moving email, and thank you for the good advice.
“I love you now more than ever.” ~ M.M.
Ha. Well, I love you, too. I think.
“My brother, this matches and resonates perfectly well with my passion. This new dimension to your ministry will bring such an immeasurable wealth of blessings in healing, release, freedom, relevance, usefulness, hope, and salvation to many whose death would otherwise be hastened by the accumulated pressure, stress, and burden due to unconfessed sins. What I read this evening is such a tremendous blessing to my life. I was so hooked to it I couldn’t stop until I went through whole writeup. My brother, I am really, really thrilled and enthused by this new ministry gift and the insight that has come with it. I can’t wait to read the next blog. My heart leaps for joy.” ~ Jwan Zhumbes, Anglican Bishop of Bukuru, Nigeria
I love you, brother, and all of my brothers and sisters in Nigeria. Your faith and boldness in the face of violent persecution is a testimony to the world of our God’s greatness and the littleness of those who kill, steal, and destroy.