As Much As I Love Her

Now THAT’S love. Or brain damage. Of course, some might argue they’re one and the same…

This is a picture of my wife and I kissing.

Yeah, underneath all of that flour and chocolate syrup and whatever flying insects managed to get trapped in the goo are myself and my bride, Rachel. We volunteered to be human sundaes if the kids at our VBS could raise $1800 for a mission project. It was a boys vs. girls competition; if the boys won, Rachel would get gunked. If the girls won, I was to go under the drizzle of death.

They raised $2000. $1000 per team. Dead even.

So everybody won. Our mission team got money to do some good work in the Dominican Republic, our VBS workers and kids got to have fun getting the two of us messy, and we got to do something outrageously fun together.

Of course, it’s only natural for us to do this. Saturday marks our 11th wedding anniversary and I believe that we have celebrated our anniversary by doing VBS every single year. Without fail. We’ve never taken a trip, never gone out to dinner, never really done much of anything because we’ve been doing VBS. And loving every minute of it.

As a minister, this is my role. My purpose. To serve the church and its people, to sacrifice myself for the greater good. I’m happy to do it because I believe in the God I proclaim, and feel like it’s the best way to spend my life.

But I also know that I am incredibly blessed to have a wife who’ll not only tolerate my job, not merely support me, but will stand toe to toe with me in ministry. I’ve known plenty of men who sacrificed their marriage on the altar of ministry; some because they let the ministry become more important than their marriage, others because their spouse just couldn’t stay. I’m not judging any of those who’ve gone through that – I’m just saying that I am eternally grateful for a wife who works beside me.

And that’s the point of a marriage, isn’t it? To be in a relationship with that one person you can’t live without, to celebrate the joys and share the sorrows of life with someone who knows you in the most intimate ways possible?

While you may not go in for what the Bible has to say about marriage, the point of the institution is lay bare the human heart – to teach us how to be open and vulnerable with someone else. To be an illustration of what a relationship with God is meant to be: for better or worse, for rich or poor, in sickness and health.

Marriage is, in essence, a life of faith.

I know for me, I could not have put my faith in someone else besides Rachel. I don’t claim to know everything, but I’m pretty darn certain that no one else could have ever been better suited to be my partner for the rest of our lives. And over the past eleven years, that truth has be affirmed and reaffirmed so much that I can’t picture myself ever loving someone as much as I love her.

I mean, we can’t even sleep if the other one isn’t nearby.

I remember something I read about the late John Wooden, legendary coach of the UCLA Bruins, and his wife, Nellie. After her death, Coach Wooden would write her a letter every month and add it to a stack on her side of their bed. At the time the article was written, the stack was over three feet high. Coach Wooden slept in the bed he shared with his wife, but only on his side, and only beneath the cover – never between the sheets.

His reason? He wanted what he shared with his beloved wife to remain theirs.

Some people call that kind of devotion antiquated, impractical, unrealistic. I call it true love.

And I’m grateful that’s what Rachel and I have. Happy anniversary, Rachel, if a few days early.

I’m glad we’re together, forever, for better or worse, rich or poor, chocolate syrup or flour.

Dream Woman

Rachel and Ella. Yes, the woman on the right hand side married me.

Wednesday, some of the students I work with at the Grayson High School Christian Learning Center asked what was my most embarrassing moment. As a life-long goober, that’s like asking Michelle Duggard to pick her favorite kid: there’s just too many to choose from.

However, one of my church students called out, “Tell them about your first date with Rachel.”

And immediately, I knew she was right. There couldn’t be a more embarrassing story in my past, with the exception of the time I threw up in the planters outside the Georgia Theater. But that is another story for another time.

So I began to regale the kids with the story: how I, nervous and shy, worked up the courage to email Rachel for a date, and how she, intelligent and beautiful, agreed to go. We went to dinner at the Old Norcross Train Depot, and I talked the entire time.

Literally.

I just couldn’t shut up. I was young and intimidated, and I wanted so desperately to impress her that my mouth just uncoupled from my brain and the the most inane, banal, flat-out ridiculous stuff poured out of my mouth. And it wouldn’t stop. It just kept coming, like a bad magician’s handkerchief.

So there I was with verbal diarrhea, and she with a case of the zips: she wasn’t saying a word, just suffering in silence. I tried to wow her with deep thoughts, bad thoughts, empty thoughts; she just looked at me as if I were a blank wall. Sure, she tried to be kind to me (as she pointed out later, I had this annoying, lost puppy quality) and made small talk when she could, but after a while she reached her threshhold and just shut down.

It was the footrace that was the last straw.

We had left dinner and gone to Stone Mountain to just walk around and talk (okay, she walked, I talked), and in a rare moment of lucidity, I asked her what she liked to do for fun.

“I run,” she said.

What happened next has been permanently scrambled in my brain. I remember it like a Monet painting: deep impressions but scant detail.

I challenged her to a race. An honest-to-God forty yard dash. And for some reason, she accepted.

And if that weren’t bad enough, I beat her. Badly. And then poked fun at her.

“I thought you said you were fast?”

I’ll skip to the end: the rest of the date, all 45 minutes of it, were completely silent. Rachel didn’t say a word. I could tell things had gone south, but was utterly at a loss for how to fix it. So I drove her home. The entire car ride was silent.

When we pulled into her driveway, she simply got out of the car, shut the door and walked inside without so much as a glance back. I didn’t even have time to get my door open.

I had done her the ultimate disservice: I had acted like a macho jerk. I tried to impress her instead of get to know her. I had, for lack of a better term, been everything that she despised about men.

Until the phone call.

See, we went out on a Saturday night, so the next morning as I was sitting in my church choir, I felt a strong conviction that I needed to call Rachel and apologize. I didn’t hear one word of the sermon, the thought was so strong in my heart. And when service was over, I walked into my office and picked up the phone and dialed her number.

She answered. “Hello?”

“Hi Rachel, it’s Jason.”

Silence.

“I just wanted to call and apologize for last night.” And apologize I did. Sincerely. I told her that I was wrong to talk as much as I did, that I was trying too hard to come across as cool and impressive, and that by doing so I betrayed her faith in agreeing to the date. I told her that, while a second date was obviously out of the question, I wanted to remain friends because she was an intelligent, Godly woman and I appreciated her insight.

More silence. Then…

“Thank you.”

It turns out God was telling her to be gentle with me because I was different. She listened, and now, 13 years after that date, we’re getting ready to celebrate 11 years of marriage.

Which is why I KNOW there is a God.

But I told this story to the kids in the CLC class and they laughed at my stupidity, awwwwwed at the way things turned out and in general seemed to appreciate the humor of the story. One of the guys even leaned forward and said, “You just gave me a buttload of hope.”

That’s when my student yelled out, “Oh – and she’s hot. Really hot.”

At which point I smiled and said, “Yes she is.”

I went on to tell them that before I ever met Rachel, way back in the day when I was just a dorky kid with no romantic prospects whatsoever, I sat down and wrote out a list of what I wanted my wife to be like. It had all of the normal shallow boy stuff (pretty, athletic, thin, cheerleader, blonde) and some of my personal quirks (smart, funny, kind, Southern) as well as some bizarre specifics too embarrassing to list. I didn’t keep the paper that the list was on, but as I grew up I kept the list in my head, adding and subtracting as time and maturity dictated.

When I met Rachel, every single item on the list was checked off. Every one.

In short, I married my dream woman. And have never regretted it.

My heart still beats fast when we have a date (and I try really hard not to talk too much). I still wake up amazed that she’s next to me. I look at our beautiful children and thank God she had the dominant genes.

And with Mother’s Day being this weekend, I am happy to be able to celebrate her, because she is an amazing mom, forgiving friend, and the best wife in the world.

You want proof?

For her celebration, we’re going out to eat and then seeing The Avengers.

A smokin’ hot ex-cheerleader with advanced degrees, a beautiful soul, and a small nerd streak she likes to exercise every once in a while?

Dream woman indeed.

The Most Excellent Way

No, the title isn’t in reference to Bill and Ted, or their Excellent Adventure. It’s from a very famous writing. But more on that in a moment.

It’s Valentine’s Day. Somewhere between the cheesy pick-up lines (“Is there a ninja in your pants? ‘Cuz your booty’s kickin’!”) and the warmed-over schmaltz (“No, I love you more!”) there’s actually an upside to singling out a day that recognizes Love in all its splendor: if you really love somone, you get to spend the day meditating on that.

You get to think about how it feels for tiny little fingers to wrap around yours out of simple curiosity.

You get to think about how it feels to pull the covers up to your chin, turn to your best friend in the whole world, and say, “I love you, you know that?”

You get to think about the hugs that will come your way when you walk through the door and announce, “I’m home!”

You get to think about the endless kisses, laughs, stories and memories you make on a daily basis.

As a minister, I’ve done numerous weddings, and without question the most popular passage of Scripture for reading is 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a. In case you’ve not heard that passage, here it is from the NIV:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

Think about those words for a moment, even if you’re not particularly predisposed to like much of anything the Bible has to say. Take away the Christian context and you’re still left with a powerful description of love; a description that so enthralls that religious and non-religious alike have it read aloud on the day their love is joined in marriage.

Patient. Kind. Not envious. Not boastful. Not prideful. Not rude. Not selfish. Not hot-headed. Not vindictive.

Can you say those things about the way you love your spouse? Your kids? Your significant other?

Today is the day to think about these things; to revel in them if they are present in our lives and loves, or to make changes to bring them about if they’re not. Don’t let the candy/flower/massage oil people steal the focus away from what matters.

Celebrate what the writer of 1 Corinthians called, “the most excellent way.”

Love. Love deeply.

And share it with those whom you love most.

Please: I’m Wearing A Ring

Just so you know: this means something.

I took my son to the local Barnes & Nobles today so he could play with their Thomas the Tank Engine railroad set and I could have five minutes of peace (turned out to be forty-five…let’s hear it for the germ-infested petri dish that is the communal play area!).

Jon’s a great player – he’s quiet, focuses in on his toys, and unless another kid comes up and tries to take something from him, he’s content to be content playing with borrowed trains. Should another kid enter the room, however, you can almost hear the Marlin Perkins over-dub:

The young cub senses another intruding into his territory. Right away you notice that his eyes go black and full, and the hairs on his neck begin to rise in an unspoken show of dominance. Let’s see what happens when the intruder tries to take away some of the young cub’s spoils…OH! THE HUMANITY! The intruder limps away, missing several teeth, his Toy Story sippy cup, and in desperate need of a fresh change of training pants. Meanwhile, the young cub seems to be sporting the thinnest of smiles as he returns to the land he calls his own.

Sorry. Don’t know where that came from. Where was I?

Oh yeah – Barnes & Noble, kid section. Jon’s playing, and I’m just sitting in the dad chairs – you know, the ones that are just sort of pulled up to the side of any childrens’ play area or women’s dressing room? – minding my own business. A lady comes walking over and starts looking at the books nearby. She’s not unattractive by any means; she’s not within an international long distance call of my wife, but she’s a pretty lady. And so she’s looking for books, and I’m just doing the dad thing, watching Jon.

Suddenly, she’s looking for books very close to me. Very close. Like, too close. I-can-smell-the-dog-hair-on-her-jacket too close. I turn, since my bubble has been invaded and give her a tired dad smile.

She smiles and turns her head away, then cuts her eyes back to look at me.

And I’m thinking: Get real, lady.

Heli-shopper won’t go away though, and she’s now just kind of moving in a weird half-circle around me, bouncing from shelf to shelf, revisiting shelves she’s already looked at. Finally, she just stops and says, “Hi.”

“Hello.”

She points at Jon. “Is that your little boy?”

“Yes.”

“He’s a cutie.”

“Thanks.”

“Like his dad.”

Now, time out here: I am going to say something that is an absolute betrayal of the brotherhood of men, but it needs to be said. If a man uses a line that lame on you, ladies, please feel free to hit him with the nearest blunt object. I mean, for shame.

I just sat there, incredulous at the fact that this lady just dropped something so pathetic on me. Part of me wanted to laugh. Part of me wanted to be really mean – and to be honest, I started writing this blog as a way of getting that snark out. But now that I’m typing, all sorts of other thoughts are coming to mind.

Maybe she’s recently divorced and trying to find her way. Maybe she’s always been a wallflower is trying to force herself to get out there more, take more chances and live life to the full. Could be she’d recently lost weight, or overcome a terrible struggle, and she just wanted to see if someone else would acknowledge her newfound strength. I don’t know. I wish I could say I had all these thoughts at the time.

But I didn’t.

I just smiled and nodded. Not meanly, mind you. But I didn’t say anything back to her. In fact, I didn’t even look at her, because I didn’t want to encourage the dialog to go any father. I smiled, nodded, and made sure to stretch my hands above my head and play with my wedding ring.

She didn’t burst into tears or anything; she merely picked up a copy of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss and went quietly on her way. It was such a non-event that Jon never took his eyes off of the badly chewed Percy train he was leading around the track.

I’ll be honest. Nobody ever hits on me. Nobody. I think I give off the “Nice-guy-taken-sort-of-a-dork-not-worth-your-time-anyway” vibe that women just don’t seem to respond to. And I’m great with that. I don’t need people hitting on me. I have a beautiful wife who married me and stays with me everyday to validate me and my attractiveness (sorry; that sounds egotistical). So part of my awkwardness was the fact that it just doesn’t happen to me.

But the larger part of it comes from the fact that I wear a wedding band. I seldom go without it. Now, perhaps she didn’t see the band; that’s a stretch, given how many times she circled me like a buzzard, but it’s possible. If so, then okay – weird, but nothing of immediate crisis. But I’m almost positive she saw the band and still felt compelled to try engage me in conversation. If so, that means the band, to her, didn’t mean a dang thing.

Now, back to my thoughts above – maybe she’d just come out of a marriage that taught her that ring might not mean anything. Maybe she grew up hearing that you just never know. Maybe she was just desperately in need of some kind of interaction. I don’t know.

But the band means something. It means, as I say in all of my wedding ceremonies, that I’m half of a sacred whole. It’s me and Rachel, together, period.

I hope that lady finds someone who’ll respect her and treat her well and make her feel like the most beloved person on the planet. I hope she finds her soul mate and they live happily ever after. I hope nothing but good things for her.

But as for me, please: I’m wearing a ring, and it means something more than just jewelry.

He’ll Be Cheering Her On

I’m really tired, but I thought I would share this anyway. It won’t be long.

I went to visit MawMaw this morning. She and my dad were sitting at the kitchen table, going over the visitor’s book from the funeral home. Page after page was filled with names. MawMaw was looking at each one and commenting on how she knew them.

The funeral director estimated some 600 people had come through in the five hours we held visitation Tuesday night. Six hundred people in five hours, and MawMaw stood and greeted everyone of them. Now, she was reliving the faces that probably had morphed into one long flesh-colored blur.

“He loved your daddy,” she said, pointing at a name. “They always laughed whenever they were together.”

She pointed to the next name. “Pop used to tease her about her hair. He was always aggravating someone.”

Another name, another association. They went on like this for another fifteen minutes, and I just sat there, listening, looking around the house. It was weird. A house that had been so full of people, so full of emotion, was now empty. And not just quiet; there was a lack of presence, a void where Pop had been. Even in his illness, even over the last few weeks of his life, he was an undeniable presence that filled up their little house.

MawMaw felt what I was thinking.

“I only woke up once last night,” she said. “I thought I heard Pop coughing, struggling to breathe, so I got up and came looking for him.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “But he weren’t there.”

It is amazing just how much a person adds to the world around us, how even the simplest parts of their existence can become rich detail for our lives. I think of how much Rachel fills up my life – her little quirks and habits that seem insignificant but in fact add up to something bigger than just who I think she is. To lose such a huge part of your own world is devastating, and you feel it not only in your heart but in the empty room where he used to sit; the empty bed where she used to sleep; the missing toothbrush from beside the sink or the smaller loads of laundry you’re suddenly washing.

MawMaw is as strong a person as I’ve ever known. A fierce spirit who has never let life leave a curveball hanging over the plate. She’s always risen to the challenge before her, as testified by the fact that for the last seven years she so faithfully took care of her husband in order make certain that his last days were filled with dignity and love.

But even the strongest of people can be laid low by grief; even the strongest among us are weakened when a significant person (and in her case the most significant person) is gone. For the next few weeks her own house will betray her, as will her memory and her subconscious mind. She will struggle with memories, with what ifs, with a thousand different things that used to be so insignificant as to be non-existence, but which will now be magnified by Pop’s absence.

But she will come through it. She will persevere. I know, because I could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice when she spoke of how hard it would be to go to church without Pop; even as she conceded that the task would be difficult, she spoke with a resolution that the task would be done. There was no question if she would return; she would, it would just be challenging.

Pop wouldn’t expect anything less. And somewhere in heaven, I’m sure he’s looking down at her, praying for her, and whenever she takes those first steps into her new life, I’d bet that he’ll be watching.

And cheering her on.