Remembering Ruth Ferguson

I got to know Ruth in the very early stages of her journey through Alzheimers’, at a point when she was still the consummate hostess, an active church musician, and a supportive, loyal wife. She was one of the loveliest women I have ever known and she inspired me in ways I remember daily.

Her husband was my organ teacher in college and before I’d ever met Ruth I’d heard her praises sung by the man who adored her like no one else on earth. There was no doubt that she meant the world to him. I was lucky enough to spend time in their home occasionally in my first few years in Minnesota, and then after I graduated and was staying around for awhile, John asked me if I’d stay with her as a companion now and then. So I took her grocery shopping every week, helped her bake Christmas cookies for the last Cantorei party she hosted, walked with her at the St. Olaf gym when it was too cold to be outside, and sat at her kitchen table drinking in – well – drinking in everything, really. On those quiet afternoons we talked about everything, but especially about our sons: hers newly a father, mine about to be born.

What I have foremost in my mind are a few impressions and a few anecdotes, and while no one will ever adequately capture Ruth in words, these little pieces of my memory inspire me daily to be a better person and live a better life.

Today as I drove through the rolling hills of Kentucky at the height of spring’s unfurling I thought of her for the hundredth time since she entered endless spring. For all the deep greens and luxurious days of Minnesota summer, it was spring that Ruth loved best. There was something about the colors of the greens – almost yellows – that was utmost beauty to Ruth and Ferg. Spring will always make me think of her.

I think of her almost every day, actually, and I have for several years. Ruth was good at living life. I aspire to be as stable and predictable as she was. I caught a fever from her: the fever of a daily walk – a once basic human activity that everyone seems too busy for these days. It’s true; to say I walk every day would be a gross exaggeration. To say that it’s one of the first things that comes to mind when I imagine the “good life” is for sure. Every day that I succeed in making a walk a priority for myself or for my kids, I think of Ruth. She wouldn’t miss a day. When it was too cold to be outside she would get a ride to the college gym. In less than half a lap, that petite little lady would outpace my waddly, pregnant self and leave me huffing and puffing. What I remember most is her attitude toward that daily ritual. It was nothing short of affection. She was dedicated to it and it seemed to be a big part of her happy personality, and even as her memory failed her, she would never forget her walk. Someday while we walk I will tell my kids about Ruth and how she lived this way.

I want to tell my kids about her carrots and celery, too, and her ubiquitous side salads at dinner, and how so much of her life flowed beautifully because of how ordinary and constant it was. In the fridge were always two plastic tubs, filled with carrot and celery sticks standing on their ends in just a little water. Whenever the veggies ran low we would cut more and whenever Ruth wanted a snack she had it ready. They were a staple of her lunch, alongside her Swedish rye crisps and her natural crunchy peanut butter. The fact that lunch was always the same seemed to be a pleasure to her, and it stood in sharp contrast to the smorgasbord I’d come to expect as a modern kid on a college campus known for its endless buffet fare.

I was a student when Ruth quit her church job and when she gave up driving. The day came when she couldn’t keep track of what verse of a hymn the congregation was singing. And one day she had a car accident. But unlike so many people in the world, it wasn’t her colleagues or her husband who made these hard decisions for her. She knew when it was time and she accepted it with dignity and humility and always a sense of humor. She couldn’t bear the thought of being a danger to someone else on the road so she announced it was time to turn in her keys.

And then there she was, home all the time except for her daily walks and her occasional outings with friends. She kept her home lovely and she was never too attached to what she was busy with to stop and dote on The MagnifiCat, “Maggie.” Maggie loved to sip water out of the bathtub spout, so Ruth and Maggie were always disappearing up the stairs for another drink.

Perhaps my favorite of all Ruth’s predictable ways was her little speech about chocolate. Every time I was with her she would dip into her stash in the cupboard for a couple chocolate chips. Ruth was diabetic and had to stay away from sugar, especially to keep her Alzheimer’s symptoms managed. But, she would explain to me every day, as fresh and new as the sun each morning, the doctor warned her that it was better to have just a little every once in awhile than to deprive yourself so much that eventually you’d stop resisting and binge one day. I’m pretty sure she thought she was eating chocolate once in a blue moon, but I don’t think she’d have cared if she ever realized the truth.

The truth was, Ruth had an unflappable sense of humor. I have never seen anyone so down to earth about something as personal as Alzheimer’s. She didn’t think twice about explaining, “Oh, you know, I have a disease in my brain so I can’t remember things.” She was never embarrassed about it, either, no matter how many times she’d have to ask me what she was planning to make for dinner.

I loved Ruth’s kindness and humility, her hospitality and generosity and good humor, her loyalty to her husband and his work, her own work, and her son and his family. I loved her home and the place of beauty and peace it was – the artistic outlet it was for her and her husband. The little idiosyncrasies I was privileged enough to be a witness to in the time we spent together will stay with me forever. They were the sorts of mundane things that made Ruth Ruth on a very fundamental level and I find myself aspiring to be like her not only in her daily constitutional and her veggies (and her chocolate), but in her humility and humor. Never did a person grow old and come to the end of her days on earth with such untarnished dignity and grace.

Worship, Together

What I felt one summer night in 2008 was panic and despair. I’d spent two tumultuous years discovering who I was as a worshiper – who I was as a Christian, I might say. It was at least another two years before I realized that’s what I’d been doing all that time, but a few things were starting to feel stable – truthful – to this quintessentially Reformed young lady awash and alone in the land of ecumenically-minded Lutherans. I think all I mean by that is that there were finally moments of worship now and then when I knew I was both fully engaged and maintaining my own personal integrity.

I had just that week stumbled unexpectant into a mountaintop experience, serving alongside a dozen colleagues at a conference hosting Christian worship leaders of every stripe. The happiest moments of my life have been in Boe Memorial Chapel. Of that I am certain. And of all those moments, perhaps only my own wedding rivaled the joy of that week of behind-the-scenes facilitation of five hundred people who it seemed (God have mercy on us all!) were worshiping five hundred different ways.

There was a boy, and he was on the mountaintop, too. What I realized in the moment before the panic and despair was that if there were five hundred of us worshiping that week, it was actually only happening in 499 different ways. Because for all this boy’s faults, he knew me, and I knew him, and together we knew what we were meaning as we gathered with everyone in that sweltering church twice a day.

Then there was panic and despair, washing over me the instant I realized about the worship. We were not meant to be together, and if you had asked me I could’ve given you ten reasons in a moment. I can’t put words to the loneliness I felt over the next three months as I operated under that assumption. And I can’t put words to just why I never moved past the panic to wish or hope or even just daydream. It didn’t occur to me to do so, and it’s not that it was easy to live in the despair. It was the kind of work that you have to set yourself to every couple minutes around the clock.

But what I kept coming back to, besides the panic and the despair, was this plain fact: “He is the only person in the entire world who understands me as a worshiper and I have no idea how I will go on living without him when our roads diverge.” I even said as much to a few friends now and then. There was no doubt about it: the happiest moments of my life had been in Boe, and with very few exceptions they had been standing side by side with him. How I would go on from that cloistered campus two years hence to worship without him by my side I just couldn’t fathom. But I would. I knew I would. I knew I would muddle through on my own.


Two weeks ago, breakfast ended, I sat at my dining room table leaning on the arm of that same boy. (But he’s no boy anymore.) Across from us were our two tiny children. A candle was lit and we were singing the Te Deum, halfway through our weekly practice of Saturday Morning Prayer, a ritual we began at the new year, hearkening back to Friday Morning Prayer together in Boe.


In an instant I realized three things: that we were worshiping side by side again, that I was the Boe Chapel kind of happy again, and that this was the road stretching decades ahead of us. I’d been wrong, beautifully wrong. I had not been set the task of learning to muddle through without him. But I’d been right, too. The panic and despair were right – the gut instinct that to be a worshiper without him was an absurdity, an impossibility.


It took me four years to realize this probably because life has crowded into the space between us. We’re rarely the laymen anymore these days, we’re the leaders. Consequently, we’re rarely in arm’s reach of each other at a moment of worship. Even when we are in arm’s reach of each other, our arms are full with our children. But it wasn’t this absence of shared worship that inspired our new tradition of morning and evening prayer on Saturdays, because it wasn’t an absence I was even aware of. It was just an ongoing exploration of what it looks like for us and for our children to flourish as worshipers.


And then there we were, engaged in our noblest work side by side again, and there was the happiness just where I should have expected it. In the days since that Saturday moment, as our wedding anniversary has approached, I’ve been thinking about this lovely prospect, and the feeling has been the perfect opposite of that summer agony. Of all the people in the world, we understand each other as worshipers – as Christians – and God has placed us side by side to worship and to lead others to worship. Four years in, I can hardly imagine how happy the next forty will be. Happy anniversary, my love. This marriage we have is literally beyond my wildest dreams.


A Road Called Marriage

My parents are celebrating a remarkable milestone this week. Thirty years ago, Tuesday, they were married. He was a young intellectual. She was a successful artist. They met in the unlikeliest of ways. Neither of them was looking for love. Russell Kirk, one of the giants of conservative thought in the second half of the twentieth century, knew both of them. He and his wife prodded this young man who’d come to learn from them to write to this young lady they’d come to love. She’d studied under them, babysat for them, and painted their daughter’s portraits. In their minds, it was a perfect match: they were both tall, both Protestant, both conservative intellectuals, and both near thirty.

And so before the days of email and social media, my father sat down to his typewriter and wrote to my mother. At the outset, they were both disinterested at best, but it took less than two months to spill ink over eighty pages and, before the days of GPS and text messages, they met face-to-face on the street outside her parents’ home, Dad driving into her neighborhood one evening after the 250-mile journey from Mecosta to Oakbrook (I looked it up on Google Maps).

Less than a year later they were married, and I couldn’t guess which one of them was the more surprised to be single no longer. The winding road of life takes you to strange places. Dad’s road took him through Southern California, where he went to community college and Calvary chapel, surfed and drove trucks. It wound through rural Arkansas where his journalist parents had bought a little newspaper. It took him deep into the life of the mind until he found himself publishing his undergraduate thesis on the doctrine of the trinity and pursuing an unusual master’s degree under the private tutelage of Dr. Kirk. Mom’s road took her to Hillsdale College to meet said Dr. Kirk, to New York City to study under a famous portrait artist, and back again to her Chicago roots where she was living the life of a single professional woman, painting portraits and working for a publishing house. And then the loveliest thing happened: their roads merged.

I’m not sure what they saw as they imagined what lay ahead on this new road, but if four years of marriage has taught me anything, it’s that the road – it winds, and it has a life of its own so far beyond your imaginings, and only a sovereign and mysterious God sees beyond the next bend. The loveliness of it, though, is that there are no longer two roads. These two became one, and in the oneness there was happiness and satisfaction all along the winding way. And wind it did. Perhaps when they moved to Colorado Springs they thought it would be forever. They lived in a darling yellow bungalow, Dad worked for Discipleship Journal, Mom painted, and Ernest David Ivan was born. There were cats, too. But with a baby not even a year old the road took them to Arkansas to help with the newspaper and Dad’s ailing father. So they set up shop in the tiniest farm house, rented from the owner of a small cattle ranch, set in the rolling hills just spitting distance from Missouri.

Then came the succession of babies, the sold newspaper, and the hand-to-mouth work of free-lance writing. The oil paints got put away, too, as the babies learned to be curious. Susan Elisabeth Ball, born after the world’s hottest summer, Kilby Marilee Anna, named for the subject of the last complete portrait, Rebekah Jean Louise, born at home while the red tulips bloomed, and Elbridge Peter Melvin, the best birthday present I ever had. By this time I’d guess they’d stopped contemplating the road for the energy it took to walk it each day. The kids were bunked into a shared bedroom, everyone shared the tiny bathroom, and my parents learned to pray for food. Mom took lovely photographs of her living portraits and Dad wrote book after book and in the together moments we walked the fields around our little house or drove across the hot summer prairie to magical adventures at the foot of Pikes Peak.

Then Covenant College asked Dad to come for a visit. But at the very moment they were leaving town to reject the job offer for lack of affordable housing, they stumbled upon a wreck of a house in a wreck of a neighborhood. They bought it for barely $40,000 – 2700 square feet of crumbling Victorian charm on half an acre at the foot of Lookout Mountain. It wasn’t much, this new road and with it all the questions of a new home, but I bet the prospect of a salary (no matter how small) and their own house (no matter how decayed) felt like luxury. A vista, this; the beginning of the rest of their life. We loaded up the Mayflower semi truck, kissed Nonnie goodbye, and made the trip to Chattanooga. We met Berta, indispensable friend in those early days. We tore out the orange shag carpet, rebuilt the fire escape, and, finally, moved in. It felt like a palace. A room for the girls, a room for the boys. French doors and tall ceilings and two bathrooms. The neighborhood became home and the house grew ever more lovely at the hand of contractors-become-friends or friends-become-contractors. Our hearts were knitted to a little church on the mountain and Dad learned the ropes at the college.

I am beginning to understand the fatigue of these days in my parents’ lives as I come into them myself. I know now why we went for neighborhood walks in the evenings: It was something to occupy the kids before bedtime so they could steal a few moments together, hand in hand. They couldn’t have felt glamorous amidst all the dust and debris of the house as they kept the renovation going at a pace that protected us from each new threat of a falling ceiling or sinking floor. Arthur John Calvin came along just as their roots began to dig deep into this new place, and then the next adventure began. To say you spent a year living in Scotland as a child while your father pursued his Ph.D. in a historic university town on the North Sea sounds picturesque. To imagine the finances, the suitcases, the sacrifices, the creative thinking, the loneliness involved in carting six children across the Atlantic to live with no car and no friends is staggering. And in the middle of her preparations, she found herself pregnant again. So there in St. Andrews, Grace Andrea Bronwyn broke the tie between girls and boys and by the mercy of her father’s insomnia she had a passport to gain entry into the United States not a day to soon.

They say when you have young kids the days are long and the years are short. The years accrued, barely noticed. There were little hearts to teach: everything from gospel and obedience to folding laundry and riding bikes. There was an endless mountain of homeschooling. There was a church to love and pray for through good times and bad. There were dozens of birthday cakes, hundreds of music lessons and caving adventures and trips to the swimming pool. There were the Happy Hollisters, the Hobbit and the Chronicles of Narnia, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. There was Rocky & Bullwinkle and anchovies on pizza with Uncle Paul. There was Mong Rong Tong Song and there was a new van and and a bunny named Laurie. There was an endless march of college students around our dinner table and in our hearts. Once in a blue moon Dad and Mom would escape together leaving a babysitter behind, but usually that was to do their duty at a college function. I don’t think they got to enjoy each other nearly enough.

Those years were crazy, and they must have been hard. But they were good, and they were over fast. Tennessee turned into Florida and college students were exchanged for aspiring pastors and their families. For four years they cared for Mom’s dad as his health declined and his mind slipped away. Meanwhile Dad’s mom lived in our house, too. We were eleven each night at dinner, unless we were more. David brought the number to ten when he left for Bryan College, and so it began. Soon we laid Mom’s dad to rest. The next year I went to seek my fortune in Minnesota and Kilby was living in Mississippi as a nanny only months later. Dad’s mom moved to be with her daughter in California, and then like a whirlwind there was a career change for Dad and there was Mike Powell, Paul Austin, and the lovely Leigh. Peter spent a year in Africa and settled in Minnesota upon his return, Rebekah took Kilby’s place in Arizona, and there they were, the average American family: two teenagers and a big house in the suburbs.

But for this average American family there is more than meets the eye, because in Colorado their oldest son and his wife are involved in a retreat center for a Christian organization, and Ethan Nathaniel and Elijah Declin are carrying on the family name. In Indiana their oldest daughter and her husband are knee-deep in church music, graduate study, and the affairs of Jacob Elliot and Meredith Renée. In Chicago, their poet-philosopher daughter and her abundantly-degreed husband are preparing for a life of pastoral ministry in England, and raising Hilary Adele, the loveliest little British child you ever met. Rebekah has made them proud this year, graduating from culinary school that she paid cash for, landing a job at a four-star restaurant, and moving into her own apartment. Peter has become a strong young man, kind and disciplined, tirelessly working, and pursuing Alyssa, a woman beautiful inside and out.

And thus far has their road wound. They worship to the sound of guitars and drums among people who speak more Spanish than English. Ten thousand books line the walls of their home and bunk beds have been replaced with queen-sized guest beds for visiting children. She paints again, looking out the windows of their tiled dining room at palm trees, stucco, her grape vine, and a few lovely roses. Theology has given way to environmental, ethical, scientific, and political concerns and once again he writes, but now he speaks and travels endlessly, too. The two children of that “average American family” have become adults, too. AJ lives at home, plays his guitar, and works hard. His road is just beginning and he is proving himself a man – faithful and diligent, wise, content, kind. Grace flew the nest this summer and landed in Memphis. She, too, is proving herself, emerging from childhood lovely, courageous, wise, and strong.

Thirty years has led them to a pleasant place and now usually when they sit down to a meal it is at a table for two. Their appearance has changed since their first table for two, but they still recognize each other because they were together all along the way. Thirty years ago they wouldn’t have recognized the crumbling Victorian or the suburban stucco, and they wouldn’t have recognized the seven children, the three in-laws, and the five little ones they love now. But in hindsight they recognize it all, and in it, they see each other, and when they look at each other, it is all this they are seeing.

As I have been trying to remember what I saw of my parents’ love as a child, I have been surprised. I don’t remember seeing them within reach of each other very often. When the sun was up, the closest they got on a regular basis was sitting on either end of the long dining room table. I don’t know if there was anything they particularly liked to do for fun in a rare moment unencumbered by kids or other duties. I don’t think this is so much a reflection of a child’s limited perspective as it is a reflection of the way their days and years actually passed. When your lives fill as full as theirs did, there is not much room left for you to be together. But somehow that doesn’t matter, because all the winding of a merged road is winding for both of the travelers. For all the sights and sounds along the way, the two on the one road never diverged and never will.

What I remember of my parents’ love are these: I remember their devotion to each other. My mom was invested in my dad, and my dad was invested in my mom. They were for each other, and all the work they did, they did for the other’s sake; the endless duties that kept them barely within each other’s reach were only proof of their devotion. I remember their confidence in each other. Their love allowed no room for either to doubt the other’s abilities, skills, strength, wisdom, or virtue. They believed in each other completely and they depended on each other entirely. I remember their loyalty to each other. There was never a question of it. He would do anything for her. She would do anything for him. Nothing could change the way they felt about each other and there was never even a hint of betrayal in even the most casual moments. They spoke only well of each other and never had fun at the other’s expense. Nor did anyone else dare speak ill of one of them in the presence of the other. Dad trusted himself to Mom’s safe-keeping, and Mom trusted herself to Dad’s.

This love, with its devotion, its confidence, and its loyalty, more than made up for the endless barrage of life’s petty demands that kept them passing so often like ships in the night. By a long, silent, and un-self-conscious example they showed all their children and all the world what marriage means, and we are the richer, the stronger, and the happier for it.

And now the better part of their life’s work is lining the road behind them like so much beautiful architecture and landscape. And while they are the kind of people for whom retirement seems like an absurdity, their life is a slower, simpler one than it has been in all these thirty years. As I see it, the time has come for reflection and celebration. They have earned it by their long, humble faithfulness to each other, to their children, and to each community they’ve loved and served. Their faithfulness has begun to bear fruit, and the time has come to enjoy it.

Mom and Dad, a toast to you. May your next thirty years see your love stronger than ever, and your lives finally affording you time to pause along the road to notice each other a dozen times a day. And in those moments, may you find that after thirty years there is only more delight in what you see than when you first saw it and set out. May you grow together in new ways—lovely and leisurely ones, enjoying the good things of the creation you are part of. May you sip many a glass of good wine under your grape vine and read many a good book together in the comfort of a quiet home. May your meals be slow and savory with more steak and less stew. May you find many new things to enjoy, and may you enjoy them with abandon. May you acquire four more children to marry the ones you already love, and many more grand-children. And finally, on that good, sad, glorious day when one of you crosses the finish line to be with Christ before the other, may you hold each other, and relinquish each other, satisfied in the road you’ve discovered – the road you’ve made. It has been a beautiful one, already.

To Wait

When you make a promise there is a latent energy in all that is to come – the time that will unfold in the season when your promise is in effect. In the moment of your promise, feeling noble and hopeful, you imagine many things, like a bride hand-in-hand with her groom, saying those words about sickness and health, plenty and want, better and worse. It’s not possible for her to know what that will look like but she promises anyway.

Maybe later she is sitting by an injured man in a hospital bed, awaiting the outcome of tests and surgeries. Will it give them their life back – the one in their vision when they said “We can do this”? Will she spend the rest of her life as a caretaker of a paralytic? The future gapes at her, gawks at her, throws her promise in her face. She feels naive, stupid perhaps, for those words she spoke when she had no idea how ambitious they were.

We were so young, we had no fear
We were so young, we had no idea

(Souvenirs, by Switchfoot)

Her stomach turns and she tells herself that she never should have said those words because she doubts she has it in her. She is no hero, and now this love is nothing if not heroic. If she’d been able to see this view from the mountaintop where she stood as she imagined how everything would be, she would have not boasted such confidence. She certainly would never have let her husband get in the car that morning.

Maybe it will all be flames and ashes. Maybe it won’t all be OK. Maybe she’ll be a widow and lose the new house to hospital bills. These things do happen. It’s only a matter of time and all she has the power to do is wait for the other shoe to drop.

There are moments – and they are not glamorous ones – when to love is to wait. There is nothing you can do. The whole system is broken. Everything’s in pieces around you like so many limbs after a bombs’ blast but you are no medic. In the early moments you speak from a posture of faith, hope, and love: “God is strong. He will do all things well. I will be here with you until we see the clouds break.” But then you see the size of those clouds and you realize they are going to get darker before they begin to dissipate. Perhaps, actually, they will fall right out of the sky and smother the lot of you.

But on this particular day they haven’t fallen out of the sky yet, and the forecast is that it’s all going to unfold quite slowly. So right now you are waiting, and waiting is hard. If only you could do something. Then at least you could make some progress. But this is not the time for progress. God suspends us in time and then suspends time. So you have a moment to sit back and take in your surroundings and that’s when you see those clouds. You see how angry they’re looking compared to when you first noticed them and made big claims that everything would be OK. What a silly thing to think. Pure folly. You realize the trajectory of those clouds and you can’t even think faith, hope, and love anymore for the tornado in your minds’ eye. All you have in view is fear.

In the quiet of that hospital room the devastated bride begins to stand up for herself. She had every reason to make those vows. She was naive, so what? It was the right thing to do, and she knew it then. The thing about vows is that they bind you to your ideals so when you finally get a glimpse of what those ideals will call from you in future days and future years it’s too late to weigh your options again.

The only thing left for her is courage. The beauty of courage is its simplicity and its immediacy. Courage doesn’t ask her to know the answers or pass judgments or turn the clock back or fix anything broken. It asks her to sit there, scared and sad, and wait. She doesn’t feel like a hero, but she hasn’t walked away, and that is courage. Neither does courage ask her to know the future or process its fear and pain. It asks her to sit there, humbly aware that the future has potential for wave upon wave of scared and sad, and wait. She can’t face tomorrow’s pain yet, but she knows it’s enough to refuse to think about it, and she knows that when tomorrow becomes today she will not stop sitting there, and that is courage. Courage, like every other virtue, won’t be stock-piled.

There’s love, too, and love and courage look the same today. Her shell of a husband is lying beside her, and if he could speak, if he could tell her how to love him, he would ask her to stay with him – to sit beside him and wait. He wouldn’t expect her to know the future, change the past, venture a treatment plan or even a diagnosis, or have an opinion. He would only want her there beside him for better or for worse. Either one. It wouldn’t matter.

We were so young, we had no fear
We were so young, we had no idea
That nothing lasts forever
That nothing lasts forever
Nothing lasts, nothing lasts
You and me together
Were always now or never

I wouldn’t trade it for anything
(Souvenirs, by Switchfoot)

(Disclaimer! Nobody is dying and my husband and I are enjoying good health and a delightful and peaceful marriage. This is a piece of creative writing, an exploration of concepts that have been bouncing around in my crazy head – another dimension of what Wednesday Grace is. Please no “Are you OK!?” emails, thanks.)

On Not Being the Soloist

I had the opportunity to poke my head into a dress rehearsal Mike was singing in yesterday. The professional-level choir of three dozen, accompanied by a chamber orchestra of half as many, is preparing three of J.S. Bach’s motets. The director stopped them in the thick of one intricate moment with a complaint: “It seems like when you don’t have the solo you’re not very interested in the piece.” With his observation in mind the choir’s sound improved, as each part took more pride in the rich backdrop they were creating upon which the solo could shine through. The solo needed that context for its full glory.

In church this morning my pastor made another interesting observation as he preached on what it means to serve the Lord with all of our lives. He was illustrating his point by calling attention to mothers who of all people find everything about what they do to be distinctly not about themselves. “When we focus on what we’re having to give up and the sacrifices we’re making, it can get pretty depressing.”

I felt a strange satisfaction yesterday as I sat watching my husband realizing my life dream – to make that kind of music with that level of expertise. The music was coursing through my veins, too, as I listened. I knew as I sat there what Mike knows, too: I’m just as qualified to be up on those risers and I’d probably get an even bigger kick out of it than he does. (Choral music and Bach are much more my thing than his.) But to have the life we want to have, to love the kids we love to love, to share one set of goals as we are intent on doing through our marriage, only one of us gets to do it. I’m pretty happy with it being Mike because no matter how well qualified musically I am for what he’s doing, he’s got more strength and will power and focus to get it done and he’s less easily deterred from making it happen by setback, disappointment, or drama than I’ve shown myself to be in the past. If one of us is going to be a fantastic professional musician, it’s going to be Mike. Besides, I’m thriving and loving what I’m doing with our sweet little half-formed people (the ones that can’t speak English yet!) day in and day out and we both know that Mike would go crazy if he did this ’round the clock – even crazier than I’d be if I tried to shoulder everything he’s shouldering as a church music director, instructor, and student in a highly competitive atmosphere without getting bitter or burned out.

I could be focusing on what I’m not doing. I’m not singing Bach and I’m not playing hymns and rehearsing a choir each week and I’m not studying with a world class teacher. I would get depressed if that’s all I thought about. But I’m pretty sure I am enjoying Mike’s success as much as I’d enjoy my own if I were the one in his shoes. Someone said that behind every great man is a woman. That came to mind yesterday as I listened to his director urge the ensemble to do their part even when they weren’t the soloist. In the concerto that is our life, I am all that busy, intricate, tireless accompaniment that showcases what people hear on the surface. My days are full of laundry and diapers, bills and groceries. I stay busy with the life we are living together, making it all possible. The reality is that over the decades I will probably be known to most of the people we engage with as “Mike’s wife.” Mike might be the one performing in the spotlight but I am right there with him and no less a part of the music, and I am loving every minute of it and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Christian Ministry Takes Risks

What follows is a short response paper I wrote in college for Church Music Practicum. I thought of it the other day in speaking with someone about the risks involved in being vulnerable to the fellowship of believers where God’s placed you, and so I dug it up this morning in the quiet since Jacob and I are too sick to go to church. For what it’s worth….

A discussion near the middle of Practicum this semester bothered me so much that I left class so no one would see my tears. The issue was the risks involved in ministry. The predominant opinion was that you should carefully weigh decisions about where and how and whether to ministry, and especially about how much to involve your family in your ministry, based on the liability for pain.

I could not disagree more. And yet I understand the motivation behind such concern undoubtedly better than most twenty-two-year-olds ever could.

When I was eleven my dad was an elder at a small church. The church virtually split because of a divisive, complaining spirit on the part of many of the parishioners, who were uncomfortable with the pastor’s commitment to applying God’s Word to our lives, calling us to faithfulness. “It’s too hard.” The quarrelling and back-biting that went on until the church almost closed her doors was brutal. The finished product after the war had subsided, though a smaller congregation (that has since grown to far larger than it ever was, under the same ministry), was beautiful and full of rich fellowship and much joy. I saw my dad and my pastor and two other elders (all our families were very close) get roasted alive and come out stronger.

We moved to Florida and joined a church of almost twice the first church’s size and I latched on like only a lonely fourteen-year-old could. That church was my life. There was literally not a person of about four hundred whom I didn’t know by name and probably know plenty about as well. But I lay in bed at night sleepless, afraid I’d lose them the same way I’d lost those I loved before. Faces from my first church were in my mind as I saw a growing rift between my family and this new church. For three years I watched what started beautifully go terribly wrong.

The circumstances are inconsequential. My point here is simply that I extended myself, knowing the pain I was opening up for, and got hurt again – so deeply that it still choked me up in practicum discussion seven years later. But God used it not only to strengthen my faith in Him but to give me tools from which to minister to others. I can’t count how many people I’ve been able to come alongside already, in my short life, encouraging them of God’s faithfulness in the midst of pain.

Then last fall my dad lost his job because of a political and theological struggle in a church and seminary we were associated with. I can’t think about the details of this year-long scandal, still messy and unresolved to this day, without feeling simultaneously furious, sad, and nauseated.

All three of these situations I was indirectly involved in. My dad’s ministry carried his whole family with him and we learned and grew together. I do not regret that. Watching the ins and outs for him taught me a lot. Going through pain together made my family close to each other. Rather, I think his leaving us detached from his ministry would have failed to see, first, that we could learn from watching God work through and in him; and second, that we could be there for him when he needed a comforter or a cheerleader.

And now I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve begun to minister on my own to people God puts in my path and I’ve committed my life to that vocation until the day I die, whatever that looks like. Scary as it is to pour myself into someone knowing I may get hurt, I cannot believe I should do any less if I want to follow the pattern set forth in Scripture.

First, we have the pattern of Christ, who literally died to culminate his ministry, not to mention all the times and ways He poured Himself out. Second, we have the pattern of Paul, who seemed to take no consideration to his personal well-being in choosing whether to follow God’s call into any particular ministry opportunity (2 Cor 11). And third, we have the very nature of the gospel we are called to minister: A gospel of supernatural, transforming grace that can turn the most desperate situation on its head. We minister as advocates for a God who “works all things together for good.” We should minister not of our own strength, but giving of an infinite wealth of grace which can turn five loaves and two fishes into a meal for thousands. If we see ourselves as only vessels, or channels, through which that infinite store is poured, I think it’s not necessary for us to measure the risk factor involved in any ministry opportunity.

No doubt only a fool casts all caution to the wind. We must take care to “husband our resources” lest we have no strength to minister when we are met with a need. But I think this caution could look like two different things.

First, it could look like humbly depending on God day by day to give us the strength for what He sets before us, ministering with every minute we have but at the end of the day not worrying about what didn’t get done, who didn’t get served, trusting that when we don’t have what it takes, He will use another means. This is what I think it should look like.

Second, it could look like careful prediction of all the possible outcomes of any situation, followed by cost-benefit analysis to decide whether it’s a risk we can afford based on the resources we think we have. This is what I think it should never look like, and here are my reasons: First, we underestimate the resources we have: we serve not from our own strength but from infinite grace. Second, we are not truly able to predict all the possible outcomes of any situation when God is in control and capable of doing “exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or imagine.” Third, we fail to trust God to minister to us as we minister to others if we ask “Can I afford to get hurt?” God clothes the lilies and “knows that we have need of all these things.” We should let God minister to us while He pours us out in ministry. Further, we serve a God who “never wastes a single hurt that we endure.” Or to quote Sara Groves once again,

I can’t remember a trial or pain
He did not recycle to bring me gain.
I can’t remember one single regret
In serving God only and trusting His hand.
All I have needed His hand will provide.
He’s always been faithful to me.

So let’s stop obsessing and just serve and leave the outcome to our supernaturally powerful, wisely loving God. Anything less does an injustice to how good He is and how transformational is the resurrection-worldview we espouse as Christians. Christ is risen and says “Behold, I am making all things new.”