Weirdest engagement ever?
I know my parents did not have the weirdest engagement ever. But it seemed like that to me when I was growing up.
For one thing, my dad was exactly ten years older than my mom. We used to laugh at our parents that our dad could have babysat our mom.
But the weirdest part was how they met and decided to get married.
The story they told us is that one day my dad’s friend, the only other unmarried seminarian in his class, suggested my dad get a date for the upcoming wives and girlfriends tea at the seminary. My dad’s friend had a girlfriend he wanted to bring, and he wanted my dad to keep him company.
My dad gave the obvious objection: he wasn’t dating anyone at the moment.
His friend had an easy answer, “Ask Mary LaGrand. She’s great. She’ll be up for it.” My mom was a student in a college class he was teaching, and he thought she would be the perfect person for my dad to ask.
Dad was game. As it turned out, Mom was too.
She told us later, “They never let women inside the seminary. I had always wondered what it was like. So I jumped at the opportunity. It sounded fun. And I knew Frank and thought he was fun.”
For some reason we kids never found out, Frank and his girlfriend never showed up that afternoon.
And the event really wasn’t called “The Wives and Girlfriends Tea”–it was “The Seminary Wives Tea.”
As could have been predicted, the other seminarians and their wives saw my dad’s entrance with my mom as an announcement. They teased him about “holding out on us.” I met one retired pastor decades later who still refused to believe that was my parents’ first date.
That day as they were leaving the tea, my mom said to my dad, “You owe me. Big time.”
He laughingly agreed: “What do I owe you?”
That dinner with its four hours of conversation changed my parents’ lives.
My mom’s version of it: “He knew where he was going and what God was doing with his life. I wanted to go too.”
They evidently had quite a few more dates in the next two weeks before deciding to get married. But they chose to marry in six months, despite the fact that my mom had just finished her junior year of college and my dad was heading overseas to study at the Free University in Amsterdam.
Over the years I asked to hear that story many times, amazed that my rich-girl mom chose to marry my farmer-turned-student dad because of how impressed she was with the calling he was answering from God. She saw the reality of Jesus Christ in his life.
Her other suitors had sought to impress her with their own merits. My dad had pursued God. That had captivated Mom. This “weirdest engagement ever” led to a long-distance relationship and Mom’s following Dad across the ocean to marry him—far from friends and family.
Though they experienced some predictable difficulties of such a marriage choice, we children always saw our parents united in their desire to answer God’s call on their lives: during almost sixty years of marriage and ministry. Praise God!
Are we broken reflections of God’s character?
When our children were little, my husband and I tried to teach them well. We tried to teach them to love Jesus, to behave well, to be nice to each other. Many times that worked well. But what we did not realize until years into this parenting gig is that children do not automatically accept our values. We know that’s true of teenagers. We brace ourselves for that during those years.
But I did not expect it so early. I did not think of the possibility that my five-year-old would not accept the values of honesty and respect of others’ property.
The fact that lying and stealing are wrong does not necessarily matter to a five-year-old. And every carefully thought-out punishment cannot change that. Believe me–we tried everything.
Then I read Josh McDowell’s Right From Wrong–a book based on extensive surveys of churched and unchurched teenagers. Wow! He was right. I too had been trying to teach my daughters right from wrong through turning biblical principles into behavior.
I had been missing the why. The perfectly righteous character of our God is the reason we need to act justly in love and truth. As his children we need to reflect his character to those around us.
But too often we are broken reflections of God’s character.
As are our children. But when we focus on their behavior, as McDowell’s book demonstrates, we reinforce for our children their desire not to get caught rather than their desire to be truly good.
I’m grateful my parents never worried to me about what others would think if my sisters or I misbehaved. But even so, I internalized too much of a focus on good behavior, rather than on the reason for the good behavior.
What I needed to realize is that my experience of living as God’s child should make me want to reflect his perfectly righteous and loving character. We seek to do good not to earn God’s love but to reflect the goodness of the God who loves us.
Reflecting God’s character also needed to be the motivation for my children.
I will never forget the night I sat down with a seemingly incorrigible young daughter–and talked about reflecting God’s character.
This evening after a series of misbehaviors, I asked her, among other things, if she was a child of God. “Yes,” she answered grudgingly. I asked her if God ever lied. “No,” with eye rolling. Did God ever steal? “No,” in an even more exasperated voice.
Then I asked her if children usually look like their parents. Then if she, as a child of God, wanted to look like God. All her answers were easy until the last one. The question that changed her was “What would it look like if you as a child of God were to look like God?”
She probably took two solid minutes to think that over before answering in a bewildered voice: “Not lie. Not steal.”
After she told me she wanted to look like God, we prayed together that God would give her his power to change. God answered that prayer powerfully. The family could hardly believe the change in her behavior. And that it lasted.
But God changed me through that exchange as well. I realized how important it is to strive to minimize broken reflections of God’s character by focusing on him more than on behavior.
My high school years became a time of basking in God’s love. Primarily because of my Dad’s equipping me for ministry.
During my time of being bullied, Dad had encouraged me that God was growing me through my difficulties. He was right. But it was NOT fun. I had obeyed him but had not been basking in God’s love.
Dad told me so many stories of Bible characters and other Christians growing through persecution that I started to wonder if that was the main way God worked. I remember asking Dad if trials were the only times God grew his children quickly.
His answer stuck with me–Christians grow most dramatically in their relationship with Jesus Christ both 1) during great difficulties and 2) during times of intense ministry.
In junior high I experienced the first kind of growth. During high school I experienced the second. The principle is the same.
Both kinds of spiritual growth require unprecedented reliance on Jesus.
I needed to talk to Jesus regularly–telling him how needy I was–in order to grow closer to him.
Feeling persecuted or panicky inspires most of us to pray. The same panic can come from jumping into a new ministry we do not feel prepared for. It can spur us to pray moment by moment.
The ministry my dad showed me God was calling me to in my high school was simple:
Tell people about Jesus. Consistently.
Attending a public high school was a huge bonus for me in learning the practice of talking about Jesus to those who didn’t know him. Modular scheduling–which allowed students huge amounts of unscheduled “study time”–was another huge bonus in the opportunities it allowed me.
But developing that practice took time and was scary–always.
Eventually, after consistently talking to people about my faith and seeing so many new friends come to know Jesus, I began to see time alone at a table with a new acquaintance as a divine appointment. It was a time to talk to her about Jesus.
But it was still scary. Always. So I developed the habit of prayer.
Melanie Redd puts it so well: “Praying boldly boots me out of that stale place of religious habit into authentic connection with You.” She is so right. When we are in a scary situation and hoping that we choose the right words, prayer can be the only life preserver we see.
And praying for help in daily situations allows us to see that God’s love for us transcends boundaries of place and time. God answers those prayers and affirms our relationship with him. He allows us to bask in his love. I’m convinced this is the principle that allows Paul to tell us “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11).
Feeling completely loved and affirmed by God can make us feel as though we are floating on a lake in the sunshine on an unsinkable inner-tube.
The crazy thing is that we are always completely loved and affirmed by God. We just often don’t feel it.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8: 38-39 NIV]
God grew my trust muscles during a time of terrifying limited vision for my immediate future.
To me as an adult now, that sounds like an extremely overdramatic depiction of my situation then. But to me as a thirteen-year-old, entering a huge new high school–with no friends–was scary.
I was leaving a tiny Christian school with an eighth-grade graduating class of thirteen. I had known each student for years. Becoming a part of a public school of sixteen hundred unknown students was daunting.
It didn’t help that the only person I knew who was also going to my new school was a girl who had been the primary instigator of my seventh-grade bullying. Knowing she had spread lies about me for years did not give me confidence that she would not do the same in the new school. I longed for a good experience meeting people and making friends in a new environment.
My limited vision made me feel lonely and afraid.
Knowing God was with me was not the same as feeling confident. Hearing from parents that I would be fine did not take away the knot in my stomach.
Joshua 1: 8–“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” was a verse I claimed–though I certainly had no physical enemies to slay.
My parents prayed with me and for me in my fear.
I’m sure it helped that they believed I would be fine. But it also helped that they validated my fear by praying for me in it.
I have a vague memory that my mom also told me that I didn’t need to make friends with everyone on that day. And she encouraged me that many other people would be feeling much the same way I was.
She told me to try to find one person I could connect with. Then after school that day she asked me if I could tell her about one person I thought I might be able to be friends with. I could–I excitedly told her about many possibilities.
When God told Joshua to be strong and courageous, he wasn’t telling him he had to do all the work alone. God rarely tells us we need to do our work completely in solitude. He calls us to community.
Sometimes the work he calls us to is finding our community. At other times it’s finding other people who need the community that comes from walking with Jesus Christ together.
In that way God blessed me with two very different parents who each helped me see different parts of what God was calling me to.
My mom helped me in figuring out how to be open to people who were possibly feeling as alone and in need of a friend as I was. She helped me see them as potential friends rather than as threats.
My dad helped me see each new friend or even acquaintance as someone who might be yearning to know who Jesus Christ was. The great thing is that God doesn’t have limited vision. We can trust his vision.