Sunday, August 21, 2022

Unexpected Providence: a Love Story

A small silver photo album with a photo of bride and groom and the words "Allen and Christina" on the front. Beneath that some hardwood floor is showing around the edges, with a printed newsletter called "The Rose Garden Gazette" and scattered red rose petals

 Without regular excavation and remembrance, the miraculous origin story of a marriage can be buried like a time capsule at the heart of the snowball of days into weeks into months into decades that accumulate so quickly. Today, our anniversary, I take my spade of sentences in hand to dig through the accretion of mundane moments to remember where we started. 


The United States had soldiers in Vietnam. A new decade was learning to walk. The baby boom had subsided into a baby bust, but no one would know that from the first indignant cry of the second son and last child of Baptist missionaries in East Africa. He spent most of his childhood outside, barefoot, climbing avocado trees and running through tea plantations. He learned to sing and imagine, to improvise and hold plans loosely. Even though he had four older siblings, the demands of missionary life meant they were away at boarding school for most of his first decade. He had an imaginary friend and real friends at school, so he did not want for companionship. 


Nine months and two weeks after that boy’s first cry, on the other side of the world, the first daughter was born to an Irish Catholic mother and Italian Catholic father. She spent most of her childhood inside, in ballet slippers, practicing scales on the piano and making up dances to present to any adult she could convince to play the audience. She learned to sing and imagine, to read and snuggle into nests in corners and pillow forts and under the furniture. She had two sisters whose growing up was tightly intertwined with hers. She had a best friend at school and an imaginary friend named Pinky who once had a door slammed on her. The books on her shelves were teeming with fellowship as well, so she did not want for company. 


As the years passed, the boy confessed faith in Christ as his Savior and was baptized by his father. He had a beautiful voice that eventually opened doors to sing in public. He learned the Brahms Requiem for All-State Choir and made the cut. On the soccer pitch, he played goalie and earned state honors there as well. In adolescence he sensed the Lord calling him to music ministry, and his church affirmed that. He entered the renowned music school of a state university, intending to major in voice and become a church musician. 


As for the girl, she didn’t come to know Jesus as her Savior, Lord, and beloved Friend until high school. By this time her family had left the church of her infancy, but the instrument of her conversion was not her church but God’s Word, which she was reading in preparation for a choir solo. In adolescence she sensed the Lord calling her to music ministry, and her church affirmed that. She entered the sacred music program of a small, church-run liberal arts college, intending to complete that and a masters of sacred music to become a church musician. 


Neither path turned out as expected. 


The boy found he didn’t love practicing enough to sustain a music major at his school. He changed course and completed a degree that could incorporate his completed music classes and equip him with computer skills. And allow him to finish on time. While completing his degree, he discovered a Bible church nearby and immersed himself in its college ministry and short-term missions. His ministry dream shifted from music to missions, and he raised support, sold or gave away everything he owned, and prepared to move to Eastern Europe to share the gospel and make disciples. 


But that fell through, and he spent a year in ministry in Cambodia instead. 


Meanwhile, the girl faced heartbreak and disillusionment, discovering in her freshman year of college that her church didn’t believe what she thought it did. She tested its teachings against the Bible, which she was reading cover-to-cover for the first time. Try as she might, she could not make them reconcile. She changed course and left university. Bereft of church community and what she thought was God’s blueprint for her adult life, she couldn’t see a path forward in any other major. She did not finish on time. When the boy was in Cambodia, she was embarking on a new course of study in English  through the distance-learning programme of the University of London. While she studied, she worked in the public school system and dreamed of going to seminary and becoming a missionary. Through her sister, she discovered the same Bible church which had sent the boy overseas. She drove an hour each way on Sundays and at least once during the week to be as involved as she could be while working and studying for her degree. She never met the boy there, even after he returned from Cambodia and began seminary himself. 


Eight years after she graduated from high school, she earned the credential needed for acceptance to seminary. The same seminary where her pastor had studied. The same seminary, as it happens, that the boy attended. The summer before her classes began, she stayed with a friend near the church and was able to attend early-morning missions prayer one week. The boy was there too. After all, he worked for the missions office. He introduced himself and asked the usual questions. When he learned that she wanted to move to that town and didn’t yet have work, he picked up the phone and called his former employer to help her get an interview there. She was grateful but also unsettled. This seemed awfully friendly for a first encounter. She was not interested in a boy. Her heart belonged to Greek and Hebrew. 


By this time he was in his final year of a master's degree and eagerly anticipating life as one of the first missionaries sent out directly by their church after graduation. She was a new student, feeling like a deer caught in the open meadow during hunting season, desperately looking for one or two safe people to hide behind. In her first class on her first day, she discovered three other girls from her church were there too. Two of them knew her sister, so that gave instant connection. They shared the same second class too, so they all sat together again. Then came chapel, where the girls met up with some boy students from the same church and everyone sat together in a group. Then they all meandered as a unit to the cafeteria for lunch. The boy was part of that group, and sometimes they would end up next to each other in chapel. He held the hymnal and they harmonized. He had a beautiful voice. 


Even though the girl was not interested in dating, let alone anything more, ten years before, as a teenager reading Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity, she had determined that, if ever there was a boy for her, she wanted to follow the courting model and not the cultural norm of dating. She also, like Elisabeth, wrote out a list of qualities she considered important in her future mate, should such a one exist. 


As the weeks rolled by, lunchtime conversations—all in a group, mind you—ticked one item after another after another off that list. How unsettling. What could this mean? 


The boy was leading a book club for the church singles ministry. The first book planned was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She still wasn’t interested in the boy, but she was very much interested in discussing that beloved book. She joined the book club, but only for the literary cameraderie, you understand. 


The next semester, everyone in the lunch group had classes on different days. Everyone, that is, except the boy and the girl. Another friend of the girl, not from their church, joined them sometimes, but many times she could only stay for part of lunch. Other people popped in here and there, but often the boy and the girl found themselves at the group table alone together in the crowded cafeteria. 


Boys generally made the girl nervous, but this boy didn’t. That freed her to engage in conversation without wanting to hide behind something. They became friends, good friends. Through these hours of conversation, they learned that they both held to a courting ideal, both felt called to missions in Asia, both loved old hymns and singing, and both had similar missionary ideals around support-raising and interacting with the people they would serve. The VENN diagram of their reading and musical tastes seemed to overlap more than it differed, and their theological convictions matched completely. Still, the girl’s heart belonged to Biblical languages, and the boy’s heart, as it turns out, belonged to one of the girl’s friends. 


As spring began to bloom on the trees and in the gardens, the girl began to realize that she would be happy talking like that for a whole lifetime of meals. It didn’t matter, though, because the boy had made it clear he only wanted friendship. 


Until he didn’t. As he told it, he woke up one morning and it was like a lightbulb went on overhead. His affections changed that quickly. 


The day before his birthday, he wasn’t at the lunch table. The girl was eating with her friend. She was, however, supposed to give the boy a ride to book club later. He stopped by long enough to hand the girl a missions article. “It might be interesting to talk about on the drive.” 


That proved to be his final test of missiological compatibility before he asked a question that changed life for both of them in the most unexpected ways. His courage failed when they stopped for a quick supper, though. They continued to book club the same as always. Afterward, when she drove him to where he’d parked to catch his morning carpool, he suggested stopping for coffee or tea. Even though they’d just had book club at a coffee shop. (It’s a good thing that town abounded with them.) 


There he asked to court her. She said, “I couldn’t think of a nicer honor.” He said, “What?” (Coffee shops are loud, even on the porch outside.) She repeated herself. He said, “Well, I guess I need to talk to your parents now.” She handed him the brick of a mobile phone she used when she would be driving late at night. 


Their courtship was brief, not quite 5 months from that evening until their marriage. The boy was sure they would have adequate support to spend the new year in India, their designated home base, and they wanted as much time as possible to adjust to marriage before that. They planned a small wedding that was really a worship service, complete with congregational singing and a gospel presentation. That August Saturday was as hot and bright as expected in Texas, but no one minded, or if they did they didn’t complain. 


The missions pastor emeritus visited the bride before the service and commented on her lack of nervousness. She said, “Why should I be nervous when I’m in the center of God’s will?”  The pastor would then tell the assembled family that before his opening prayer. The girl would later learn how very painful the center of God’s will may be, but not that day. That day went almost entirely smoothly, and the couple’s first act as man and wife was to take the Lord’s Supper together. 


Being almost as poor as the proverbial church mice, they agreed to exchange wedding gifts that didn’t cost money. The girl force-fed herself coffee until she could tolerate it without gagging, and they both presented, with no prior arrangement, framed original poems with roses as accents to each other on their wedding eve. 


This unexpected marriage has continued to unfold in unexpected ways. Instead of India they moved to Thailand. Instead of moving overseas by the next January, they needed an additional year to build a support team. Life on the field involved many, many more medical appointments than anyone expected. By the end of that year, instead of homesick they were back home, the girl sick with what turned out to be autoimmune disease. 


The theme song of their friendship and courtship was “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” It seemed to appear in every worship gathering, formal and informal. In this unexpected twist of providence, it proved true again. The Lord provided a new job and career at the same company the boy had called to get the girl a job interview at their very first meeting. Instead of earning his living in gospel ministry and doing a little computer work on the side, he earned his living at the computer and taught Bible studies at church on the side. 


The Lord has been with him, as He was with Joseph and Daniel, and given him success in this field he never would have pursued on his own initiative. It has allowed him to keep his promise to provide for the girl and ease that one burden as much as he can. It has allowed him to bless others with career assistance they didn’t expect. 


Instead of training church leaders in Asia, they served together in adult Sunday school. When the unlikely opportunity arose to help disciple a small group of gifted and delightful high school students, they decided it wouldn’t hurt just to meet the youth, even though obviously youth ministry was not their calling. Three and a half years later, they celebrated the group’s graduation from high school. The boy even co-led the students on a mission trip to Guatemala. One of them is in vocational ministry today. They never would have chosen that for themselves, but God’s providence led in unexpected ways to the most joyful and fruitful shared ministry of their marriage. 


Instead of writing a missionary newsletter together, the girl now writes her blog alone. (It was the boy’s idea.) She still has far more medical appointments than she ever thought possible. She still loves God’s Word and missions and dusts off her Greek as needed. She gave up Hebrew for the boy. 


So much has changed in 23 years. They would not have believed the hairpin turns and dead ends on that first day, even if the prophet Samuel himself had told them. Some of them have been almost unbearably painful. Others have been almost unbearably sweet. But through all the unexpected providences, God’s faithfulness has been the starlight and shepherd’s crook guiding them. He has not left them or forsaken them, even in the darkest of storms, and He will not forsake you who belong to Him. 


Happiest of anniversaries to my one and only. You are still my favorite person to harmonize with. 

I love you. (You know.)