'Fireproof Your Marriage' conference builds on movie's theme, offers marital advice
Modeled after a similar event at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., where Catt is pastor, the goal of the conference at First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., March 27-28 was for couples to find hope, conference leader Ted Cunningham said.
Pastor of Woodland Hills Community Church in Branson, Mo., and coauthor of "The Language of Sex" with Gary Smalley, Cunningham said some people came to the conference thinking "the grass is greener on the other side" or actively contemplating separation or divorce.
"Where the grass is greener, there is a septic leak," Cunningham said. On the other hand, marriage can be a beautiful picture of what God meant it to be, and it takes only one person to turn a marriage around, he said.
"You begin to ask God to work on you and change your heart and allow Him to be the source," Cunningham said.
Joining Catt from Sherwood Baptist were Alex Kendrick, director and co-writer of Fireproof; Stephen Kendrick, producer and co-writer of Fireproof; and Mark Willard, the senior associate pastor of music.
Asking couples to participate in role playing and drawing names for giveaways as well as lively speeches with bright illustrations on two large jumbotrons kept the audience's attention.
And, of course, it wouldn't be Fireproof without showing selected scenes of the movie in several of the conference's six sessions.
GUARDING YOUR HEART
One of the country's best-known authors on family relationships, Smalley, 68, who has been married 43 years, shared about life-changing experiences in a four-year period in which he had a serious heart attack and a kidney transplant.
Opening his clenched fist to show a heart drawn with a red marker, Smalley said education, quality of life and material goods cannot measure up to an individual's heart.
"All that stuff means nothing compared to guarding your own heart," Smalley said. Equating fear, frustration and hurt feelings to anger, he said "you can never bury anger dead; you always bury it alive."
Telling a story about accidentally running over the family cat, Puff, Smalley described the aftermath in his family's home involving apologies to his children, a burial in the backyard and encountering his wife behind a closed bedroom door.
"I know you didn't mean to murder Puff," she told him. He told her he felt horrible. Their conversation illustrated the elements of anger -- the things he used to say about the cat that were not so nice came to mind -- but his remorse was genuine, he said.
"Frustration is anger," Smalley said, noting that stress is synonymous with the word anger. Ultimately, even in relationships like his and his wife's where they respond to things differently, he is responsible for his own level of anger.
"She is one of the key people in my life that frustrates me, that hurts my feelings," Smalley said.
"If you are married to an irritating person, you are greatly blessed," Smalley said, citing Matthew 7. "When you are irritated, it is simply an expression of the logs in our own eyes."
When an individual offends his or her mate, it is important they take it seriously, Smalley said. But each person is responsible, ultimately, for their own heart's condition and not that of their spouse.
"Everyday I guard my heart and I don't let anger take root," he said. "Allowing anger to take any kind of root in our heart closes our heart off immediately."
Several years ago, Smalley said he felt compelled to begin sharing with his wife some things he felt she needed to correct, especially the need for exercise. His son invited him outside and reminded his father it would create an unsafe place and he needed instead to work on himself.
As a result, Smalley said he told his wife he realized he had been sinning against her for 38 years and trying to change her.
"I have been trying to work on you and making you better," Smalley told her. "Would you forgive me all these years for working on you and not me?"
Four years later, Smalley's wife asked him to walk with her. She had been walking every day, he said, in spite of severe arthritis in her knees.
"She's dragging her leg down the road," he said to laughter. "I stopped nagging her about the things that's between her and God and not me. The responsibility is my own heart."
Showing a clip from Fireproof where the characters take the first step toward reconciling their marriage, Smalley said there are five essential things which illustrate steps necessary for a person seeking forgiveness:
Recognition of a person's high value, listening to and understanding why a person is angry, admission of error, asking for a response/forgiveness, reaching out to touch in a positive way.
"If we are angry, we open the door to the enemy," Smalley said. "Don't plan on your mate loving you very well if they stay angry."
LEADING YOUR HEART
Alex Kendrick, coauthor of "The Love Dare" (B&H Publishing), which plays a role in the movie's central plot, said he knows of one man who completed the book three times before his wife finally responded. They are now back together and have renewed their vows.
"Marriage takes work," Kendrick said.
Showing a clip where the characters discuss faith, Kendrick said a woman can tell when a man is genuine. Quoting partially from Matthew 12:34, he said "as a man thinks in his heart, so is he."
Discounting the world's advice to follow your heart, Kendrick said that goes against Proverbs and is the source of countless divorces.
"Our hearts are basically selfish and sinful," he said, unless God is the one leading a person's heart.
"You can direct your heart," Kendrick said. "Let your heart be devoted to the Lord."
CROSSING THE FINISH LINE
In the final session, Michael Catt showed a clip of an Andy Griffith show in which a couple is forced -- nearly at gunpoint -- to exchange a simple "good morning" greeting.
"I'm not the marriage expert," Catt said, but in writing a book on how to "Fireproof Your Life," he has tried to answer the question of what to do when you go through a fire, knowing everyone goes through fires.
Catt told the story of a traveling salesman who killed himself because he was caught in an affair. His distraught widow sat sobbing after finding a stash of receipts for flowers he bought for women all around the country in a box underneath the bed they slept in.
"Self-indulgence is costly," he said.
Catt, a Mississippi native, said he and his wife Terri; daughter Erin, who costars in Fireproof, 26; and daughter Hayley, 23, together are two Georgia peaches, a Texas rose and Mississippi mud.
"I am within the bounds of Jesus Christ, and I have everything I need to live in the bounds of Jesus Christ," Catt said. "I have all I need to be sufficient with Him personally as a parent and as a husband and as a man."
Holding a thick file folder of letters he pulled from a collection of four boxes, Catt said they were copies of correspondence between his adoptive mother and father written every day in a four-year period of time during World War II.
Catt said his father, who was in the Army National Guard in Jacksonville, Fla., when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, wrote the letters while serving with the Army Air Corps.
In the first letter from November 1942, his father wrote, "How's my pretty little wife?"
"He kept every letter she sent him, and she kept every letter he sent her," Catt said. "Every day they reminded themselves, 'I have given my heart to another.'"
Catt remembered that his father said he had always been faithful to his wife of 54 years, and after she died he continued reading her letters. At one point, Catt said his dad told him, "You know, some of those letters are sexy."
Holding the letters and a Bible, Catt lowered his voice nearly to a whisper.
"It was a love that continued, didn't wane. And by the way, this is God's love letter to you. If you want to know how love responds, read this book. There's some sexy stuff in here," Catt said of the Bible.
"But there's some great truth in here about how you can love somebody with the love that only God can give you, how you can care for somebody, how you can walk through the valley of the shadow of death or you can walk through illness or whatever it is, whatever comes your way....
"This book right here will get you through it because ... God says 'I love you with an unconditional love, I forgive you,' and you can love your spouse the way that God loves you," Catt said.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (www.floridabaptistwitness.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention. Resources related to Fireproof, including the DVD of the movie, are available at LifeWay Christian Stores and online at www.lifeway.com.