Article Jul 15, 2016

In sickness and health: A picture of Christ-centered marriage

My wife and I became friends with Matt and Carey Murphy in 2010 when we joined the small group that Matt taught at our church in Louisville, Ky.

On paper, Matt and I have very little in common. Where I would be considered bookish and without any actual practical skills the world would find useful, Matt is the type of guy we all know and want to be—the guy who can accomplish anything with his hands. A former toughman fighter who is now in his mid 40s, he could still take down just about anyone. A devoted deacon and churchman, he’s a broad-shouldered Kentuckian with the rough-and-tumble accent that gets stuff done and has no time for entitlement or laziness.

Professionally, he’s a technology teacher at a nearby middle school. And though he’s a roughneck, Matt is also one of the most tender-hearted servants I’ve ever known. He’s the first to the rescue. When your power is out, “Murphy” (as I call him), is there with a generator. When an Iraqi refugee and his family were granted asylum in the United States a few years ago, Matt befriended this Muslim family to the point of helping remodel their house and helping them assimilate to American culture. They also attend church at the invitation of Matt.

Similar to Matt, Carey is a middle school teacher for kids with disabilities. They work at the same school together. With short-cropped hair and a funny candor, Carey is a nurturer who loves life. She’s the woman all young moms need in their lives; the woman who will help a young mom in distress at the restaurant table—the one who our daughter threw up on enough times that the drycleaner thought she must belong to Carey.

I’ve never seen a couple so devoted to one another’s routines, whether together or apart. Their lives are synchronized. Fitness addicts, you can often find Matt and Carey doing cross-fit in their driveway on summer mornings. Perhaps their most devoted routine, though, is having coffee, together. Coffee is a sacred commodity in the Murphy household. Whether at home, on the road or at their summer destination by the beach, coffee is a fixture of the Murphy identity (Matt would haul massive amounts of coffee to church every Sunday so that his class didn’t lack for good coffee). It isn’t uncommon for Matt and Carey to escape away at a moment’s notice for a quick trip to Panera or Starbucks just to sit and have coffee together.

A marriage to learn from

My wife and I became fast friends with the Murphys. Without there being any formal arrangement between the four of us, they became mentors to us. At the time, my wife and I had only been married a little over three years, and Matt and Carey clearly exhibited the type of marriage we know we wanted for ourselves. They weren’t theological superstars. But they are disciples.

They came to know Christ in their late teens. Matt never went to seminary. He’s not an avid reader (he’d rather listen to podcasts). Carey doesn’t attempt to be the Beth Moore of her church. Until Matt stepped down from teaching his Sunday School class in early 2016, she was there at his side every Sunday helping support him. They are faithful people devoted to their local church. That may sound simple and unnoteworthy, but in an age where upward mobility easily separates people from life in a local church, or where “weekending” takes on its own verb form with countless trips and other so-called “priorities,” or where the convenience of moving to a church offers you something that “better fits your taste,” the Murphys are an example of stability, devotion and faithfulness to their local church.

They became (and still are) some of our best friends. While we lived in Louisville, we were inseparable. Church events. Men’s events. Women’s events. Dinners. Swapping stories. If it were 5:30 on a Saturday night and my wife and I didn’t have any plans, we’d call the Murphys to see if they’d want to come over for brownies and coffee, and just talk. The organic relationship that developed between the four of us is something that, to this day, is inexplicable.

Matt would also help me with various projects around my house. That meant, typically, I would get out of Matt’s way and let him demonstrate how useless I was. He was the first person I ever went to a gun range with.

Matt and Carey are like family to my wife and I. When I took a job in Washington, D.C., the first call I made was to Matt, because it was the hardest. On the phone, I tearfully told him that we would be moving. The standard encourager that he is, Matt had nothing but words of celebration for me. I still remember the moment I told him goodbye. I knew it wouldn’t be our last and that our friendship would continue with many miles between us, but departing his house that day, I was gripped by memorable sadness.

A lasting legacy

The Murphys both grew up in homes where their parents had divorced. Matt grew up in a household without much money. Carey grew up “with just enough,” as she recounts it, meaning that she had the bare essentials—thanks to family members—but not much else beside that. Both testify to the role that extended family had to play in order to make sure that they had their basic needs met growing up.

When Matt has talked about his past, he talked about how all the people around him, in order for him to him succeed, had to “fill in the gaps.” I’ve always been struck by that phrase, because it so viscerally captures what is at the heart of so many of America’s structural challenges. When marriages break downs, there are relational gaps that can easily become financial and material gaps. Matt lived this reality.

Because Matt and Carey aren’t immune to the challenges that follow from family breakdown, they have determined not to allow their two daughters to experience an adolescence like the one they both had, marked by family instability, indifference toward church, poverty and sexual brokenness.

So, Matt talks a lot about passing on a “legacy” to his children. He’s not trying to store up riches for his daughters. Something bigger is at stake than just financial inheritance. On numerous occasions, I’ve heard him say, with his Kentucky accent, “Listen, all this life is about is passing on a gospel legacy to your children and your children’s children.” That’s the measure of success they want to live up to. They hope their children have boring testimonies and are spared a adolescence of rebellion.

I’ve never seen someone who has this idea as seared into this brain as Matt does. Matt and Carey parent with an eye toward the future and an intentionality in the type of life they’re patterning for their daughters. In routine conversations that happen as opportunities arise, they are being taught what biblical manhood and womanhood look like and what to look for in an eventual spouse. Matt’s hope is that his daughters won’t have to guessingly find a boyfriend that their father will like. His desire is that a lifetime of teaching his daughters about what to expect in a man will naturally lead them to a man that resembles the quality of their father.

If you get to know Matt and Carey, any depth to the conversation will soon make you realize that teaching their daughters about marriage and life is an active, rather than passive, act. Because marriage and family health, like discipleship, is intentional. Good marriages and devoted followers of Christ don’t happen on autopilot. In fact, a square note card is taped to the mirror in their bathroom to remind them of their calling as parents. It states, “My goal is to raise competent, godly, intelligent, well-educated women, and then marry them to men who are up to the task.”

The Murphys have themselves become a picture of what marriage and flourishing look like. Having married while Carey was still in college, Matt worked a number of jobs before landing a machinist job that he thought he’d work at the rest of his life. Eventually, he was let go, and they found themselves with very limited resources. Through resourcefulness and hard work, Carey graduated and became a teacher. Matt, slowly but gradually, worked his way through college to become a teacher as well.

But throughout their entire early marriage, they always relied on one another. They knew that their marriage was about building a future. Today, Matt and Carey are the picture of stability. And their children are reaping the results of a marriage well lived. Their children have never known poverty and likely never will. They are raising their children in the spirit of hard work, integrity, responsibility and deep connection to the local church.

A vow kept

Their marriage is also joyfully absorbing what could bring other marriages to the brink of collapse: suffering.

In late 2013, Cary began experiencing some health issues. Something wasn’t right. In February 2014, her health problems resulted in a diagnosis of Amyloidosis. Like cancer, Amyloidosis is a genetic disease that attacks the body’s blood and organs. Like cancer, as well, it can lead to death. And like cancer, it is treated with chemotherapy, which Carey underwent from April through August 2014. She experienced all the horrors associated with chemotherapy as it ravaged her small frame with illness, exhaustion and unspeakable nausea. If that wasn’t enough, Carey lost all of her hair and was bedridden, looking emaciated.

Matt recalls, in tears, the conversation that he and Carey had to have with their pre-teen daughters when it was uncertain whether their mom would live. Carey told Matt that if she didn’t survive, he should marry again. These are not conversations that couples anticipate having on their wedding days. But they are the conversations that found Matt and Carey.

Through Facebook updates, they would update their friends on the current challenges, needs and prayer requests. Their suffering, and the joy they refused to abandon, became a gripping saga of marriage’s “in sickness and in health” and confidence in God’s sovereignty.

But all through their trials, all through their tears and pain, all through the unchosen monotony of waiting rooms and the baited anticipation of whatever test results were next, Matt and Carey radiated an infectious, contagious joy. I recall talking with Matt on the phone during this time a lot. I remember reading in tears about their struggles. Though there was uncertainty about their future, there was never indignation toward their God. Only joy.

And they battled on.

Matt told me the verse they’ve gained strength from is James 1:2-3: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” It’s a verse they would come to rely on time after time.

After chemotherapy came a stem-cell transplant that required Carey to be in a Louisville hospital for 30 days in October 2014. Doctors literally reset her immune system, requiring her to be quarantined for fear of catching germs that her decrepit body couldn’t ward off. The anguish at which Matt and Carey retell and relive that experience need not be retold here.

Today, on kidney dialysis every other day, Carey has her Amyloidosis under control. But her kidneys still function at an extremely low level, which suggested that at some point, Carey would need a kidney transplant.

Beloved by friends, the announcement in 2016 that Carey would finally be eligible for a kidney transplant resulted in scores of friends volunteering to get tested to see if they could be a match for Carey. My wife went through the screening process, as well, only to be told about midway through her evaluation that a donor had been found.

And who was the donor? In what seems like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel, the ideal donor found for Carey was none other than her husband, Matt. They had been told by their doctors that the chances of a spouse being a match was statistically rare. Very rare, in fact.

True to nature, Matt is enthusiastic at the prospect of being his wife’s kidney donor. I like to joke with him that if we were given the opportunity, he’d find a knife from his workshop and do the procedure himself if it meant Carey getting better sooner.

So next Tuesday, Matt and Carey will enter separate operating rooms, but the whole experience will somehow unite them. It isn’t every day that a husband gets to literally bleed for his wife, let alone offer a vital organ.

There’s a weeks-long recovery ahead. And the kidney transplant may not resolve all future problems, depending on whether the amyloid, like cancer, decides to wreak havoc yet again. But whether Carey’s future is one of recovery or, God forbid, the amyloid returns, they’ll rest peacefully knowing that something deeper and more secure than their own marriage vows holds them together. For they are sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord.

A story of Christ’s power

So many things can be learned from the Murphy’s story. Good parenting. An intact marriage—something America needs more examples of every day. An example of an American success story, they overcame what could have been a cycle of poverty. But their “success” can’t be measured monetarily; nor can the strength of their love be measured by romanticism.

While important, to leave the story of their marriage in economic or sentimental terms would only cheapen the depth of what lies at the heart of their marriage. At the center of their marriage stands Jesus Christ and their unwavering devotion to him. The world would be better off if more marriages in this world looked like Matt and Carey’s. But they would tell you that the world would be better off if the world looked more like Jesus Christ than just mimicking their marriage.

What’s the central theme of this story? Whether it’s devotion to their marriage, their devotion to raising godly children, the desire to break a cycle of poverty, passing on a legacy to their children, the trials brought on by suffering or the unknown future, the central theme is that Christ has brought all this to bear. And in him, they rejoice. Jesus changes hearts. He changes people. Transformation is possible.

Matt and Carey aren’t perfect. They are sinners like anyone of us. But their marriage captures what happens when hearts are redeemed and made new in Christ. Marriages prosper. Children are cared for. Children are given a model for what adulthood and future marriage ought to look like. They see sacrifice tangibly displayed.

I pray that Matt and Carey’s transplant story restores Carey to better health. I pray they have decades more together as a married couple. I pray that they deepen their love for one another as they deepen their love of Jesus Christ. And I pray they get many more years of coffee, together.