Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10 NIV)

I've been married 15 years today — okay, it was on the day I first wrote this. I don't take any credit for that; it's probably due more to my wife's patience than to my being a particularly good husband. Fifteen years is certainly not much compared to my parents, who have been married for 42 years, or to couples who have made their fiftieth or sixtieth anniversaries, or even more. Still, I guess 15 is a milestone a lot of couples don't seem to make. I don't think it qualifies me to give a lot of advice, and every couple is so unique that giving marriage advice is probably difficult, at best. However, maybe you'll indulge me anyway as I reflect on what is maybe the most important lesson I've learned about marriage in fifteen years.

Like most of what I've learned about marriage, this lesson came due to my failures, not my successes. I asked my wife a night or two ago to tell me the one thing she most wished I'd do differently in our relationship. I know, that's just asking for trouble — but I did only ask for one thing. Maybe in another fifteen years she'll get to tell me one more.

Anyway, I thought she might consider it, have to really think it over. I even had the secret hope that she might tell me that there's nothing, that I'm the perfect husband just the way I am. (I don't know why I ever imagined that!) She did, in fact, have something in mind. She didn't even have to think it over. It leapt from her lips without a second thought. She said it as if she'd been waiting for me to ask. What's more, it was nothing like what I imagined it might be.

"Oh," she sighed, "I wish you would take the garbage out without me asking you."

In a lot of ways, I guess that was a relief. I mean, I've certainly done worse things in our marriage — things that were more hurtful, more inconsiderate, than forgetting to take out the trash. In the grand scheme of things, taking out the garbage more consistently really requires a very small change on my part, a relatively trivial concession for the health of our relationship. In another way, though, it's actually kind of a big deal. She didn't ask me to do something more special for her birthday each year. She didn't ask me to play less golf in the summer or to spend less money on books. What she asked for, while small, is something that I have to do every day. It's a little thing that she would like me to do faithfully.

That's a little tougher. But, it fits with this one lesson that I've learned about marriage; good marriages are really about little things done faithfully. I mean, it's great to spring romantic surprises once in a while. It's good to bring home gifts and have special times together and all that stuff, but all that is icing. The cake, the stuff that will really make or break a relationship, are the little things ... done faithfully ... without having to be asked!

You know exactly what I mean by that, I bet. I'm talking about the octogenarian who lays out his Alzheimer-afflicted wife's clothes each day, carefully brushes her hair, and cuts her food for her. I'm thinking of the young wife who does her husband's laundry for him, despite the demands of her job. I'm thinking of the husband who knows when to just listen sympathetically when his wife is down, and when to tell her a joke or act silly and make her laugh. I'm talking about the couple who never parts without a kiss, who always have a smile for each other, and who hold hands when they walk. Nothing that moves the earth. Just little things, done faithfully ... like taking out the trash each day.

Come to think of it, doing little things faithfully is an important skill in any relationship, whether you're married or not. Witness the mom who, every morning for umpteen years, packs her kid's lunch with the crusts cut off the bread, that one brand of juice box, and the special note. Witness that friend who always seems to call just when you need her most. That minister who's always there with a prayer and a word of faith in life's darkest moments. The teacher who took extra time and made an extra effort to make sure you didn't fall behind. The neighbor who's always willing to watch your house, pick up your paper when you're gone, and every now and then to clear some snow off your sidewalk or edge over onto your property when he mows his lawn.

"Let no debt remain outstanding," wrote Paul, "except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law" (Romans 13:8). Little things, done faithfully, are more often than not the currency by which we pay our debts to love each other. Love isn't in the claiming to love, nor is it necessarily in the occasionally extravagant gestures of love. It's in taking responsibility to consistently do the small things that really matter to someone else.

Fifteen years ago — well, honestly, last week, too — I would have said that taking out the garbage has nothing to do with how much I love my wife. Truth be told, I've been known to sometimes get a little put-out at her insistence that I make the stroll to the trash bins exactly when she felt that it was time. But after the way she answered my question, I think I get it. To her, it's more than just emptying trash. It's evidence that she's important to me and that what she wants matters to me. Whatever else I might do, unless I do that, she won't be convinced at a heart level that I love her.

You have the chance to be a bearer of God's grace.
In taking out the garbage, in some way or another I give her a little taste of the grace of God who has consistently and faithfully loved me. Yes, he has also extravagantly loved me, but now I know that extravagance is built upon a myriad of little faithful acts I may not even notice ... unless they are not there.

You have the opportunity in every relationship in your life to consistently show your love. You have the chance to be a bearer of God's grace by doing little things, faithfully.

Listen. Find out what matters to the people who play the most important roles in your life. In their heart of hearts, what do they want from you? It probably won't be extravagant or impossible for you to deliver. Most likely, it will be some little thing, done faithfully — some consistent evidence that you are present and invested in that person's happiness.

When you find out what it is, commit yourself to doing it. We know and serve a God who is, above all, faithful. And as those who have experienced God's faithfulness, we are especially responsible for being faithful to others. Most often, by doing little things ... daily ... faithfully.

It occurs to me that I vowed something similar to my wife fifteen years ago. We usually think of faithfulness in sexual terms, but that's really only a part of it. When you promise to be faithful, you're saying that you'll be someone upon whom your spouse can depend. Someone who will be there, especially when the garbage needs to be emptied.

Little things, done faithfully. They allow the fresh air of renewal and joy to blow through any relationship. Things also tend to get a little smelly without them.