Learning How to Love
About the Guest
Don and Sally Meredith, cofounders of FamilyLife, join their good friends Dennis and Barbara Rainey to reminisce about the good ol' days. The Merediths were opposites when they first married, but they both knew the Lord and were committed to working through their issues. As Don sought wisdom from the Scriptures about how to love Sally well, he began to share what he was learning with others. This eventually led to the ministry that is now called FamilyLife.
Don and Sally Meredith, cofounders of FamilyLife, join their good friends Dennis and Barbara Rainey to reminisce about the good ol’ days.
Learning How to Love
Bob: If you had met Don and Sally Meredith on the day they got married, you never would have said to yourself, “I bet this couple will one day help start a marriage and family ministry that will go worldwide.” One of the reasons for that, according to Sally Meredith, is because the two of them had very different priorities.
Sally: Don was a football fan. You get married on a Saturday; well, football is on a Saturday—and we were in September, and football was in September. I’m thinking about the wedding, and he’s thinking about football. When we were even saying our vows, he’s thinking, “We have to go find the Texas score.” We get out in the car, and he starts racing through the radio. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m trying to find the score,” and I said, “The score of what?!”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, December 21st. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.
So, how did Don and Sally Meredith go from a rocky beginning and some rocky early years of marriage to help start the ministry of FamilyLife®? They share with us their story today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. One of the highlights of the year for us was to get a chance to sit down and have an extended conversation with a couple who was here at the very beginning.
Dennis: That’s right; Barbara is closely connected with this couple. In fact, as you’re about to hear, Sally Meredith led Barbara to faith in Jesus Christ when Barbara was a college student at the University of Arkansas. Sally’s husband, Don, had a great impact in my life, as a college student, as well, as I was a junior at the University of Arkansas—and had a great deal to do with my development as a young leader.
And [Don] ultimately helped start FamilyLife and what has become a ministry that is in 103 countries around the world and heard all over the United States through this broadcast.
Bob: They were in town, not long ago. We sat down in the studio just to revisit the early days of FamilyLife. In fact, we started off our conversation with Don and Sally Meredith by playing a portion of an interview we did maybe 20 years ago, where Sally shared about knowing both of you as college students.
Dennis: Don and Sally Meredith are well-known for speaking about marriage and family. He is the founder and president of Christian Family Life and—well, let’s listen to that conversation we had.
Bob: Sally, do you remember leading Barbara to Christ?
Sally: I sure do—in my kitchen / very small little kitchen. Barbara was really ready to receive the Lord; so, yes, it was special.
Dennis: And it was a life-changing experience for her. Then, they did our pre-marriage counseling. Now, we really ought to go to that story.
Sally: That was major. [Laughter]
Dennis: Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma—Barbara and I had just been hanging out as friends, and I’ll never forget this musty hotel room. I think I was seated on the edge of the bed in that musty hotel room; Barbara was seated in a chair; and there was Don on the other bed, looking us both in the eye. He said, “You need to decide whether you’re going to get married or not.” And I go: “Married! We’ve just been friends!” He was right. He had the wisdom to really look at what God was doing in our lives and call us to a spiritual commitment called marriage.
Bob: Don, what did you see?
Don: Well, you know, I was just thinking—as we talk about marriage today, and I talk about a faith relationship, and how God sovereignly brings people together—and I really felt that about Barbara and Dennis. It’s just great now to look back and just see the confirmation of that.
Dennis: That’s one of Barbara’s favorite stories to tell, Sally/Don, because she says, as she was sitting in that chair, listening to you say, “I think you guys need to decide whether you’re going to get married or not,” she was absolutely—
Barbara: —like a deer in the headlights. I will never forget how shocked, taken aback, surprised, unprepared I was for that question. I didn’t want to breathe / I didn’t want to move; I sure didn’t want to look at him. [Laughter]
Bob: You’d had the thought; hadn’t you?
Barbara: No; I had not had the thought.
Dennis: Neither one of us had the thought.
Bob: Come on, you hadn’t even entertained for a second—
Barbara: No sir.
Barbara: Seriously! He was my best friend!
Bob: I get that.
Barbara: And I didn’t want to mess up the friendship by talking about dating and all that stuff—that was messy.
Bob: I thought girls have that thought with all of their best friends—
Barbara: Well, I had that thought with Dennis Rainey when I first met him—like three or four years prior—
Bob: —in college.
Barbara: —in college. I remember thinking: “I’d kind of like to go out with him. He would be kind of fun to date.” You know, mind runs down the road a little bit; but he would never ask me out, so I checked him off the list. That was the end of it! [Laughter]
Dennis: It took Don Meredith getting me in a musty hotel room, cornering me and saying, “You have to call for the question.”
Bob: You had never thought—
Dennis: Uh-uh; no.
Sally: Can I jump in here?
Bob: Yes; jump in!
Sally: My thought was well before any of them. I had put Barbara and Dennis together when Barbara was dating somebody else.
Barbara: Did you really?
Sally: Yes; and I kept saying to Don: “That’s the wrong guy,” and “I think that it’s Dennis Rainey and Barbara—that they would be a good couple.”
Barbara: I don’t think I ever knew that. Did you know that?
Dennis: Matchmaker. You’re the matchmaker.
Sally: But I thought about it many times when you were dating the other guy.
Dennis: Well, you guys are celebrating your 50th anniversary this year. I know we just took a hard turn from back to when you did the pre-marriage counseling for us. I just wanted to ask you both this question:
“If you had a couple, who were starting their marriage out, what would be the single best piece of advice you could give that couple from your 50 years of experience in marriage?”
Don: Your decision that you’re considering today—it’s a faith commitment, and it’s not a feelings commitment. You need to understand what a faith commitment is.
Sally: That’s a hard question; because when we got married, nobody ever asked us those kinds of questions. We just—you know, we were just in the process of dating and the next step is getting married—and then you find out who each other is—and it’s difficult. You usually either marry the opposite or you marry somebody that you think: “Whoa! What did I marry?”
Bob: You started off—it was rocky.
Sally: Oh, it was very rocky. We didn’t know each other, but we did know the Lord. I’ve often told people what saved our marriage was Jesus Christ Himself.
With that said, we were as opposite as they come—we don’t think alike; we don’t act alike; we don’t reason alike—there is nothing alike about us, except the Lord.
Bob: So the drift to isolation in your marriage wasn’t a drift, it was kind of a fast-moving current. [Laughter]
Sally: Within 12 hours, on the honeymoon, it was drifting badly at that point.
Bob: Was there a crisis point, where you really wondered if it would survive?
Sally: Yes; within 12 hours. [Laughter] No; I’m not kidding. Don was a football fan. You get marred on a Saturday; well, football is on Saturday—we were in September, and football is in September. I’m thinking about the wedding, and he’s thinking about football. When we were even saying our vows, he’s thinking, “We have to go find the Texas score.”
So we get out in the car, and he starts racing through the radio. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m trying to find the score,” and I said, “The score of what?!”
Bob: This is right after the wedding?
Sally: Oh yes.
Dennis: —as you’re driving away.
Sally: —as we’re driving away from the church. [Laughter]
Bob: Most guys are not thinking about how Texas is doing on their honeymoon night.
Don: I switched gears pretty quick—[Laughter]—but at that moment, I was just doing it quickly to find that.
Bob: Yes; I understand that.
Dennis: Sally, you’ve written a book called Overcoming Woundedness. In this book, you tell a story—or at least hint at a story—that your father struggled with anger issues. You, as a young lady, grew up in a home where a father was angry.
Sally: Yes; yes.
Dennis: That undoubtedly wounded you, as a young lady, who also started out her marriage—
Dennis: —you know?—
Dennis: —in the midst of that. What exactly would take place in your home, growing up?
Sally: Well, my dad was very critical and very negative. He wasn’t a believer, in any way, shape, or form. I grew up with every swear word that you can imagine. He was mistreated by his dad and was angry at that, so I kind of grew up with that. I never felt love from my dad. Mom was very calm—the only kind of person that could be married to him. I grew up feeling like, “I don’t ever want to become like my dad.”
And guess what? I did become like my dad. I realized that I had the same personality / I had the same tendency to anger, and frustration, and criticalness that my dad had; and Don married that. I was thinking: “Okay; I’m a Christian. I’ve conquered that.” Well, in marriage, that kind of stuff really comes out. Don got the brunt of my dad in me.
I talk about it in the book—about dysfunction. We bring our dysfunctions into our families. I didn’t think I was bringing it in, but I brought it in full-square. Don, being a very calm, easygoing guy, would look at me and think, “Why are you so angry?!”
I understood the Christian life, and I was really even understanding the ministry of the Holy Spirit; but what I’m saying is—I brought my baggage into my marriage. We all bring our baggage in—and we bring our dysfunction from our moms / we bring our dysfunction from our dads. If we don’t really teach our children that they’re bringing their dysfunction of us into their families, people are caught off guard by who we are and how we’ve grown up. We try to hide those things, and we can’t; because they finally just come out.
Bob: We all have bags; don’t we?
Sally: We have a lot of bags.
Bob: And some are prettier-looking bags than others, some are a little more nuanced, some are bulging at the seams.
Dennis: But when you unpack them—
Dennis: —it’s ugly.
Bob: There’s all kinds of toxicity that everybody brings into a relationship. The ability to recognize that and then to know what to with it is key to any marriage working out; isn’t it?
Sally: Right; yes; oh yes.
Bob: Don, the first time you realized you’d married an angry woman?
Don: Well, it was a shock. Frankly, I said, “God, if You designed marriage, can You make it work?” I mean, those first two or three weeks, you finally realize that it’s not going to be as easy as I thought. But then, I was enough mature that I really wanted to ask God, “God, how do you love an angry person?”
I remember opening the Scripture for the first time after I got married and, sure enough, in Genesis, Chapter 1, it lays out three purposes for God’s marriage. He wants you to reflect His image—to reproduce that image in your children and in your family. I began to say, “How am I going to do that?” I learned very quickly that I was going to have to approach her with softness, and I was going to have to provoke her to good things. I saw that I could affect her by how I responded, and it was a real learning experience.
Dennis: She had been used to an angry man responding to her, and you didn’t respond that way.
Don: Not most times. [Laughter] Believe me—I can remember a few responses.
Sally: A couple of times.
Don: But that’s not any fun.
As Christians, we’re expecting the best; so we really got busy talking about that at the time.
Sally: And I just remember when he came home to me one day and he said, “I’m really learning some stuff in Scripture that’s really changing my heart,”—and again, just going back to he loved the Lord and I loved the Lord—and this was—he couldn’t have said a better thing to me, that he was learning from Scripture what it was to be a husband and how to love a wife well.
And then I thought, “Wow, I guess I better start learning that there’s some stuff in Scripture that I need to be learning as well.” He responded to me with kindness instead of with rebuke, which is what we normally do—we do that with our kids / we do it with everybody—but he responded in kindness. I just backed up, because it took me by surprise—I just wept.
That was probably within the first/second year of our marriage. I was just thinking, “Well, you know, maybe we married the wrong one,” and he said: “No; that’s not an option—divorce is not an option. We’re going to find out what God wants us to do.” He really delved in the Scripture. Praise God for men who delve into Scripture! That really began to change his heart and, as a responsive wife, to change mine.
Bob: Well, I think it’s significant, too, that he came to you and said, “I’m seeing some things in Scripture that are really having an impact on me,” rather than, “I’m reading some things in Scripture that—[Laughter]
Barbara: —“that you need to learn.” [Laughter]
Dennis: —“that I would like to read to you!” [Laughter]
Bob: That’s our tendency; right?—is to read those things and to go, “Here, read this!” But he was shrewd enough to say: “You know what? I’m reading Scripture to say, ‘Lord, what do I need to do?’”
And I think that had to be powerful for you, as a wife, to know: “Oh, he’s growing. I’d better keep up with him.”
Sally: Yes; yes. That’s exactly right.
Don: When I read Ephesians 5, that changed my life forever about this issue; because it says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the church that He might sanctify and present her back holy and blameless, without spot or wrinkle.” That’s what caught me, because we really struggled quite a bit that first fall. I said: “God, I’m going to try You out. The next time she gets upset and raises her voice, I’m going to remember that and I’m going to find out: ‘Will that affect her?’”
Sally: “Will it work?”
Don: And boy, I mean, to this day—every time, it works. I don’t care how mad she gets—of course, that usually includes me asking forgiveness.
That’s what faith marriage is—it’s believing God instead of following your senses, uncontrollably. And—
Sally: And I think we put each other on performance: “He needs to perform the way I want him to,” / “I need to perform the way he wants me to,” rather than asking the Lord, “Give me insight into this gift You’ve given me.” So, that whole Genesis 2 passage is really accepting your spouse as a gift from God, completely.
So he needed to—and he did—accept me as a gift, with my baggage. How freeing is that, you know?—to be accepted with your baggage, not without it—or not, “When you change, I’ll accept you,” but accepting you, with your baggage, is so important. And vice versa—Don wasn’t completely perfect, so I needed to, as well, accept him with the baggage that he also brought into the marriage.
Bob: So where did the two of you meet?
Sally: On Campus Crusade staff.
Bob: You had both gone to college / you’d both been involved with Campus Crusade in college; you’d both joined staff, and that’s where you noticed each other.
Sally: A friend of mine had roomed with him and said, “I think I’d like to fit you up with Sally Hill”—at the time. He said, “Okay.” So, it was a blind date for me.
Bob: And how long from the blind date to the engagement?
Sally: A couple of months.
Dennis: How did you propose to her?
Don: Well, I—
Sally: —over the phone.
Bob: You proposed over the phone.
Bob and Barbara: Doesn’t that sound familiar? [Laughter]
Bob: You [Dennis] proposed over the phone as well.
Don: Did Dennis do that?
Barbara: He did.
Dennis: Oh, it was highly romantic—I called her at two a.m.
Barbara: —my time. It was midnight your time.
Dennis: Yes; yes. And this is not long after Don gave me the exhortation, “You guys need to decide whether you’re going to get married or not.”
I decided I wanted to marry her; so I called her on the phone. She said, “Yes,” and then I wired her flowers the next day to make sure she was awake when she said “Yes.” [Laughter]
I’m laughing at our stories here; but I’m also thinking of how God used—Sally, your woundedness, and Don’s pursuit of you and his pursuit of God to find out how to love somebody who’s wounded to overcome that woundedness. Out of that relationship came the study of Scripture to learn how to love—to know how to be a husband / to know how to be a wife—to know how to do this thing called marriage. If God did design marriage and family, then He knows how to make it work. And ultimately, that led you guys to start Christian Family Life and, then, help start FamilyLife, back in 1976.
Bob: Yes; in fact, we can really say that your study of Scripture to figure out how to do marriage has borne fruit in the lives of every couple that’s attended a Weekend to Remember® getaway over the last 40-plus years; because what you figured out and shared with others has been used by God in the lives of hundreds of thousands / millions of couples, at this point.
Dennis: —in over a hundred countries around the world.
And of course, you guys have had ministry in many countries, as well, just personally; but through your training of us—the free marriage counseling and then helping create the content that ultimately became the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway for couples—I mean, people don’t realize, when they show up at the Weekend to Remember, what a miracle it is that that conference has been around for 41 years! Now, we’ve changed it, obviously; but we haven’t changed the blueprints—
Dennis: —haven’t changed the Scripture.
Dennis: But it came out of your [Sally’s] woundedness/your brokenness—Don, your feelings of helplessness to know how to love an angry woman.
Bob: Well, and a couple that started their marriage, picking the hotel for the honeymoon based on the height of the antenna so we could find out if Texas won the game—the fact that we’re still here talking about it is pretty amazing; don’t you think? [Laughter]
Dennis: There is a God, and He is a part of redeeming us; is that not the case?
Sally: And He has a sense of humor.
Bob: That’s right.
Dennis: He has a great sense of humor.
Sally: You know, I want to say one thing about starting marriage ministry. When Don came to me and said, “Sally, I think we need to start a marriage ministry,”—nobody was doing it in those days / there was no help out there. I looked at him and I said, “You have to be kidding me!” And he said, “No; I’m not kidding.” And I said, “Why would we start a marriage ministry when we’ve been in such a deep rut ourselves and getting out of it?”
And he said, “Sally, if we’re in a deep rut, don’t you know that there are hundreds out there that are in a deep rut and they don’t know how to get out?”
That was so pivotal; because when we started Christian Family Life, and then FamilyLife, our marriage wasn’t perfect. We had a long ways still to go; but we knew that we had some answers, and the answers were in Scripture. They weren’t answers from us—we didn’t have them. But when God gives a blueprint, He wants us to follow it; because He knows that, if we do, we’re going to have a successful marriage.
So, 50 years later, we followed the blueprint, early on—praise the Lord. I think the neatest thing is we have never put ourselves on a pedestal. We’ve never said, “Hey, look at our marriage and follow it.” We can’t! We just say: “Look at Scripture. Look at God, and follow Him,” and that’s—I think that’s the crux of it.
Bob: Well, again, we’ve been listening to the first part of a conversation that we had earlier this year with the co-founders of FamilyLife, Don and Sally Meredith. You look back at where their marriage was when they got started, it’s hard to think that they would have had the impact that they’ve had in marriage ministry for more than five decades.
Dennis: And you know, Bob, that’s what Jesus Christ came to do—He came to transform broken, selfish, me-first sinners, who need to be redeemed from themselves, so that they can make two people become one and merge together in oneness.
That’s what we’re about, here, on FamilyLife Today every day. I just turn to you, as a listener, at this point, and if you liked that message of what we’re trying to do here—you like it that we’re grounded in Scripture / we’re focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ, introducing people to Him—this is a good time for you to step forward and make a generous gift to FamilyLife Today to keep us standing strong, here, at yearend and as we move into a new year.
Bob: Well, and in fact, our friend, Michelle Hill, has been with us all month long, keeping us up to date on the progress toward the matching-gift opportunity that we have available. She’s here again today. Hello, Michelle!
Michelle: Hi Bob, today is BIG PROGRESS day! …and I say big progress because thanks to the prayers of folks like Surfer Joe in California, we’ve crossed the million dollar mark. Because over five thousand of you have joined us, today we’re a quarter of the way to our goal! Of course, we still have a long way to go…but I know Surfer Joe’s going to be praying for us, and I hope you will too. So, keep praying, and keeping giving as God leads…Bob?
Bob: And let me just say—if you’re a regular listener, we’d love to have you join the mission of FamilyLife to help effectively develop godly marriages and families. You can make a yearend contribution and have your donation doubled when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com and donate, online, or when you call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate.
Or you can mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear more of our conversation with Don and Sally Meredith, talking about the early days of FamilyLife. We’ll hear how the Merediths and the Raineys first got to know one another, back in the late 1960s. That all comes up tomorrow. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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