Ecclesiastes 4:12–“A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Recently, my husband and I were asked to speak on the subject of Christian marriage at a retreat. We took turns relating our story. Here it is, verbatim.
When I was about six years old, my mother said to me, “You know, the person you are going to marry is a little boy now, too, growing up just like you are. You should pray for him.” This was an amazingly romantic thought for a dreamy, imaginative child and I began to pray regularly for this mystery boy who was out there somewhere, experiencing a life which would inevitably bring him into mine. I read a great deal as I grew older, and I began to imagine what this nebulous person was like. In my dreams, he was tall, dark-haired, grey-eyed and adventurous—much older than myself and wise beyond his years, chivalrous and majestic. Looking back, I realize now that he was basically Aragorn from “Lord of the Rings”—the books, not the movies!
I never dated anyone in high school, perhaps because none of the boys in McNairy County, TN, met this job description but more likely because I was not popular or greatly liked—too shy and introverted to be noticed. I began to wonder if I was only fooling myself. God didn’t really have anyone meant for me. Perhaps I was destined to be as Paul was and serve God as a single person. I went to college planning, not to get my MRS degree as my girlfriends were doing, but to get a degree in English and learn to make my own way in the world as a lonely, lonely author writing in a garret with fifteen cats.
My first evening as freshman at Bryan College was life-changing! The school had planned a movie night for us in the auditorium and I found myself sitting near the front with a new friend, engrossed in “The Absentminded Professor”. Then someone came in late and sat at the end of my row. It was dark and I couldn’t see this latecomer, but I could hear him laughing. And as I heard his laughter, I also heard God’s voice distinctly saying, “This is the one you’ve been praying for all your life.”
Needless to say, I can’t tell you how the movie ended, because I could no longer pay it any attention! I was on tenterhooks for what seemed like hours. After the movie was finally over, I turned eagerly to see my future husband for the first time. Fortunately, the friend who sat between me and Rich knew both of us and introduced us right away, and we started to chat. Rich and I went to the student center and talked for hours. It was the first time in my life that I ever felt completely comfortable chatting with a perfect stranger. It was amazing, magical. This would be where fairy stories end, wouldn’t it? But, of course, it was just the beginning of our great adventure.
I soon discovered that Rich had not, as I had, been praying for a spouse! Neither was he intent on finding a vocation. His idea of college life was to date as many people as he could and have fun. We became good friends and spent a lot of time together, but he had a “type” he was attracted to, (or so it seemed to me) and I wasn’t it. I couldn’t really feel badly about this, because I had a “type”, too. If God had not specifically told me that Richard Ross was to be “the one”, I would have still been looking for Aragorn. What God had in mind for me was not at all what I, a naive 18-year-old dreamy romantic, had expected. Far from the maturity and wisdom of an 87-year-old Dunadain, Rich was a young man with a chequered past and all the maturity and wisdom one would expect from nineteen-year-old recovering drug addict. I admit that I often cried over him and prayed that God would just make him go away! But I also only wanted God’s will for my life, and God responded by giving me an intensely passionate love for Rich that has only grown deeper over the years. The fact is, God knew what was best for us. He knew we would, together, grow and mature in our faith and become a great team.
It’s hard to live without any expectations. We make plans and expect them to come to pass. We hope and dream for the future and expect our plans will come to fruition. I’m thankful that God gave me specific and unmistakable instructions so that I did not miss His will for my life. It would have been easy for me in those early days, watching Rich date my friends and never thinking to ask me out, to have clung to my own expectations and looked elsewhere, to have insisted on finding an Aragorn that didn’t exist. And Rich finally saw me, not because I’m so great, but because he also really wanted God’s will more than anything and he allowed God to lead him. Pursuing God, not our own desires, and keeping our eyes only on Him and not on ourselves allowed us to hear His voice guiding us in the way we should go.
Proverbs 3:5-7 says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and HE will direct your paths.” Here, acknowledging Him means more than just saying, “Yeah, I know God. I’m a Christian.” It means deferring to Him in everything, every decision—especially the biggest, most important ones.
Our lives are not our own. We belong to each other, yes, but more than that, we belong to Christ. He has the right to direct our every decision and He does a much better job than we do ourselves! But although we submitted to Him in our relationship completely, Rich and I did not learn to submit the rest of our lives to Him very easily at first.
Some of you have heard this story before, but it’s a defining one. Our dream was to own our own used book store. We envisioned it with shelves full of good books, some comfortable armchairs, maybe a fireplace or woodstove, rag rugs on the floor, a coffee maker—and patrons coming by regularly to spend their spare hours searching the shelves and sitting around chatting about literature. It seems a simple and harmless dream, doesn’t it? We didn’t think to ask God if that’s what He wanted because obviously He did or He wouldn’t have created us to be the type of people who would want to own a book store, right? After all, Psalm 37 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust also in Him, and He will do it.”
We thought this meant that whatever desire we have must be from Him, and He would give it to us just as we pictured it to be! We forgot about the rest of the Psalm, which goes on to say:
“Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him”
We carried this dream with us from New York, hiked down the Appalachian Trail and ended up in Knoxville with just enough money to buy a cheap car. We grabbed up the first jobs we could find—a telemarketing company that sold tickets to country music benefit shows to raise money for local charities. Sounds like a noble job, raising money for charity, doesn’t it? I was hired as a secretary, but Rich rose through the ranks quickly, from salesman to manager to running his own benefit show within a few months. Then he was sent to run a show in Elizabethton and I was sent to be his secretary. Life seemed grand! We were making a lot of money and we got to work together. Sadly, all our travelling back and forth meant we couldn’t plug into a church, so we were accountable to no one, and we got too busy to read God’s Word: but after all, we reasoned, this was only temporary until we could save enough money to start our book store. Then everything else would fall back into place, right? It all happened so gradually and naturally that we never noticed that we were no longer pursuing God—we were pursuing our dream.
We slowly started to realize that the partners who owned the business were skimming money. We were young and naïve and it took us far too long to understand that we were working for con men. This shocked us—stealing from the charities they were raising money to benefit! But—after all, we were running OUR shows honestly. If we were to quit, our bosses would take over and would be ripping off Elizabethton, too! We reasoned that by continuing to work for criminals, we were actually doing good. And anyway, we had found the perfect building in downtown Knoxville for our store—an ideal location for a good price. We just needed to raise the money and our dream would be ours. Maybe you’ve never resorted to crime to achieve your dreams or goals, but whenever you stop pursuing God and start pursuing your own ideas, anything is feasible.
We’d been working for crooks for about 10 months when we were offered the opportunity of a new show in Chattanooga. We would be paid 40,000 dollars at the end of the three month job. This was an unimaginable amount of money in the 1980’s! With one last job, we could start our dream book store! Rich and I looked at each other. One of us said, “Should we pray about it?” And then we said in unison, “Nah.” We had moved from neglecting God in our lives to rejecting Him altogether. We were so invested in our own pursuits that we were no longer even pretending to pursue God.
I don’t have to tell you that this plan did not work out well. Crooks are crooks and can’t be trusted to keep their word. We ended up living in Chester Frost Park in a borrowed tent—homeless for several months, chastened and forced to depend entirely on God once more. Eventually some friends in Nashville offered to let us live with them until we could find new jobs and start our life all over again.
Rich learned his lesson—he began to pursue God immediately with a whole heart. I did not. I was ashamed and angry with myself, and that shame and anger made me turn from God and from Rich. I lashed out at everyone, especially my poor husband. But he never lost patience with me and never stopped praying for me; and God never stopped pursuing me until I finally understood His love for me and chose to join Rich in pursuing Him again.
Well, after reading my wife’s account, she told me I needed to write my rebuttal… There isn’t much to rebut. I can’t claim that I was ever Aragorn, although I did have some idea of college besides dating and having fun… although my grades may not reflect that.
My wife’s childhood prayers are precious to me, and I believe God honored them. I was in desperate need of prayer as I struggled through my childhood. But, a year before I showed up at Bryan College, the Lord had radically changed the direction of my life, and I faced the future with a new sense of hope and purpose. Before my senior year of high school, any thought of planning for the future seemed like a cruel joke; my only expectation was to lose myself in travel and to burn out early in a haze of drugs. As I faced the challenge of planning a life, I didn’t really have the idea of God having a particular path prepared for me; I was just glad to be free of the negative things I’ve been pursuing. I figured as long as I wasn’t doing those, that the details of my life were too insignificant to bother God with. So I did not pray for my future wife. Although that was an important goal in the future, I was wary of the idea of a “soulmate”. I figured on pursuing my own dreams first, and then settling down to marriage in my middle or late twenties.
When I arrived at Bryan, I determined to make friends and be open. I remember my first conversation with MariLynn. We became good friends immediately; of course I didn’t know the rest of the story until after we married! However, I did not consider dating her, not because she wasn’t my type, but because I realized she was very innocent and that any move in that direction would be interpreted very seriously. The lack of any expectation of dating on my part meant that our friendship was free to grow without so much posturing and trying to impress her with an image of myself. The idea of dating a good friend was foreign to me. So, when I finally got around to asking her out (not counting the time we ended up in the ER), I was shaking with fear. I told my roommate, if I start dating her, I’m going to end up marrying her! And I wasn’t planning on getting married yet.
I did ask the Lord about this, and admitted that when I was ready, she was the kind of girl I’d like to marry. It was then that I heard a gentle whisper, “How many girls have you ever met like her?” It was a shock to consider that my future might not be up to me to form. As much as I loved MariLynn, it was a powerful act of faith to trust that still Small Voice and step into marriage.
I’ve been grateful every day since that I listened to His voice, instead of chasing after my own plans. I acknowledged that He knows what’s best for me for my good and His glory. Lesson learned… That time… I still didn’t really get that God had a plan for us, and that He wanted us to find our Delight in Him.
Our dream of having a book shop seemed like a perfect fit. It also seemed obvious to me that God intended us to have a bookshop. But I never actually asked Him about it and we were soon justifying our involvement in what amounted to a criminal enterprise. My innocent wife was reduced to jumping out her office window to evade Telephone Company Detectives. By the time our schemes came unraveled we were homeless, living in a borrowed tent. I remember feeling crushed from all sides, and considering what desperate options I had. And as I walked alongside the lake in Chester Frost Park, I cried out to the Lord and told Him, “I Surrender.” I was out of plans, and I was ready to lay my dreams at His feet. I was suddenly, unexpectedly aware of Him walking beside me and I felt a tremendous sense of peace and joy, despite the fact that I still didn’t know how we were going to make a new start.
When we arrived in Nashville, we felt like refugees. We slowly got back on our feet financially, and I struggled to get back on track spiritually. It wasn’t easy. I tried to read scripture and pray. But the Bible had become dry to me. I would open it up looking for something new, but realized at this point, I had read it all. Did God have nothing more to say to me? I continued to push in and wrestled with God. I have come to appreciate that God names his people “Israel”, meaning the one who wrestles with God. I felt like Peter when Jesus had failed to live up to everyone’s expectations. When Jesus turns to the 12 and asks if they want to leave also, Peter doesn’t claim to understand what Jesus has been talking about. He just says, “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” I have come back to this on numerous occasions. I don’t know what God’s doing now, but He has revealed Himself through His word in the past. I have set my course with him. I believe that I participate in His eternal life.
As we adjusted to life in Nashville I grabbed hold of that hope, even though we’d slipped so far off track. When I would try to share something I felt the Lord was showing me, MariLynn would snarl and give me a cold response. In her mind, we had willfully left the path God had for us, and we could never get back. We could spiritually limp along, but we would never live the life He had meant for us. She did not want to approach God, and her shame made her feel like He was keeping His distance because of His disappointment and disgust with us.
We visited numerous churches but most seemed like they were putting on a show. There wasn’t that sense of community we were longing for. For a year-and-a-half we struggled through some of the hardest times of our marriage. Until God called MariLynn on the phone. I’ll let you ask her about that whole story, but God used one faithful Anonymous servant to remind her of how much she was loved. As she crumbled beneath that revelation of mercy and love, the very next day, Easter, we were welcomed into the church family we would worship with for the next 17 years.
We soon were preparing to be parents. One of the elders was the chief of police at the airport. He encouraged me to apply, and my life took an unexpected turn as I took on a role I never envisioned for myself, but God used those 30 years to form things in me that would never have developed otherwise, and which he is using in our work now. We are still learning to pursue him in our day-to-day situations. It’s still too easy for us to go running off without asking for His direction, and there can be painful consequences. But, He has taught us that we can turn around and ask forgiveness and He will gently restore us.
God has used Rich to shape me and encourage me into becoming what God intended all along; and God has used me to shape and encourage Rich into the man he has become. Because marriage isn’t about romance or living happily ever after or not being alone—it isn’t about us at all. It’s about revealing God’s glory to an unbelieving world through our story. People ought to be able to look at our relationship and see God in us. They ought to be able to look at us and see God’s desire for His church reflected in our life together. The church is not called the Bride of Christ for nothing. Our marriage is to be a parable—a picture of Jesus and His body.
I’m not gonna lie—we don’t do this perfectly! But remembering that we are living to glorify God, not ourselves, helps us to keep things in perspective when the disagreements and annoyances that are a natural part of living with another human being come along. And listening to God’s voice keeps us going in the right direction.
Isaiah 30:21. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
I have seen Him move when we trust Him and act on what He has said. I think Hebrews 11:6 is the bottom line in seeking to please the Lord. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards who earnestly seek Him.” I know that He rewards and responds when we earnestly seek Him. At the same time, I must acknowledge that when I pursue Him, I find that He is pursuing me, waiting for me to respond to the love He desires to manifest through us.
I John 4:9 through 10 says, “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” His pursuit of our hearts led him to the Cross so that we might live through Him.
We are instructed to “glorify God and enjoy him forever”. To glorify means to show what He is like, to acknowledge with our lives that His name is worthy of our full devotion and His ways are better than ours. Our old nature resists this, but it is what we are made for, and it is the true source of real Joy. I Chronicles 16:10 says,” Glory in His holy name. Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.” And verse 11 was given to me by MariLynn many years ago to put on my Bible to remind me: “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his face continually.” Our marriage is about doing this, pursuing God, together.