That's the short version of our story. It's a love story, for sure. But it's not a conventional one, to say the least. : ) In fact, in my wedding album (yes, we eventually had a wedding), my grandmother wrote, "There's the old fashioned way; and then there's Rachel's way." : ) But then I've never liked to think that God works the same way every time, part of the fun is experiencing His faithful love as He creatively navigates us through all sorts of twists and turns in life.
The story begins when I was 13. I met Joe in youth group. Well, I met him AT youth group, he wasn't IN youth group. : ) He was one of our leaders. He was 25 at the time, in college full time, working full time, and in the middle of earning his commission with the Marine Corps. He volunteered with the youth in our church, and we all immediately loved him. He obviously loved the Lord, was a great teacher, was gregarious and loud and fun, and he quickly became a favorite amongst the guys and girls alike.
He spent more and more time with all of us kids since he was one of the few adults who didn't have the demands of a family at home. Joe worked with my dad at the church, and they became fast friends as well. He ended up in more and more of my family's social circles, and we saw each other often.
My dad had been diagnosed with cancer about a year before I met Joe, and as I started high school, he got sicker and was in and out of the hospital. My mom was working full time, and Joe became a helper to my mom, driving my brother and me back and forth to the hospital and wherever else we needed to be. Joe was a wonderful friend to me, but also to the rest of my family, and we all loved him. But there was something special between us, nothing we really ever talked about, but something. I thought he was awesome, but never really let me mind go anywhere further than that. But he was quickly becoming my closest friend.
In the spring of my freshman year, my dad passed away. Many friends came to our home and stayed with us. That night, my first though was that I wanted Joe to be there with us--and he was. It was a moment of clarity for me, how much I wanted him near when I was hurting.
In May of that year, Joe graduated from college and left Houston for Quantico, VA. He had a 4 year commitment in the Marine Corps. I was so sad for him to leave. But before he left, he told me to enjoy high school, have a blast and live it up--- but in three years, he'd be back for me.
I was floored and excited and speechless and shocked-- I knew he loved me, but it had never occurred to me that "we" were ever a possibility. Joe had dated quite a few different girls since I had known him, and unbeknownst to me, each one eventually always asked him, "What's the deal with Rachel?" And he would tell them, "Oh yeah, Rachel. She's awesome. I'm going to wait for her." (Needless to say none of those relationships lasted very long. : ))
Well, he left, and we wrote. This was before cell phones and email. We picked up pen and paper and wrote and wrote and wrote. And more and more, I realized how much I loved him. Any romance we ever had was long distance, developed through letters and phone calls across the miles, and I can see the sovereign wisdom of the Lord in that. It was weird enough, with 12 years between us, and the distance helped keep some sense of privacy to our relationship and some normalcy to our lives in the meantime. (I still have every. single. one. of those letters.)
Joe went from Virginia, to Hawaii, to Japan, and back to Hawaii. He'd come visit me when he could, and I went to visit him as well. There were many wonderful airport reunions and many horrible airport goodbyes. By the beginning of my senior year of high school, I knew I wanted to marry him. It was just a matter of timing. We would talk and dream about the when and the how and long for the day that we didn't have to say goodbye anymore.
So when he was home for the weekend in February of 1993, and we were sitting around with my mom and my brother eating chinese food, and he slipped me a secret handwritten fortune in my fortune cookie--"Wanna get married tomorrow?"….well, I knew my answer. And I smiled silently at him across the table. Since we knew nothing about what to do to get married quickly, we pulled out the yellow pages. The first add we saw said we'd get a free limo ride with our wedding service, and so we were sold! Apparently a man named Mr. Kipperman owned a pawn shop, and he was also ordained and did weddings in a small chapel in the back of his pawn shop. Once we called, he was thrilled to marry this soldier and his girl before said soldier was whisked back off to defend our country and freedom! : )
So then next day, rings in hand, we made our way to Kipperman's pawn shop, and with the background sound of a cheesy cassette playing "here comes the bride", we held back laughter as we took our vows. To our chagrin, the limo wasn't available--but we did get a free tshirt that said "I got married at Kipperman's pawn shop"--I know, just as good right? : )
We managed to avoid being on the news, who were there doing a story on Valentine's day elopements, when we explained we were trying to be discreet.
Joe flew out early the next morning. He of course told the military immediately (spouse=more money) and a few friends. I kept my secret for a few weeks and then finally told my two closest friends. But that was it. I was planning a trip to spend 6 weeks with him in Hawaii after graduation, before he had to leave for Japan for the next 6 months, and my mom was having a hard time with that. But she let me go, and shortly after I got there, called and said, "Did you all get married?" She figured we'd do so as soon as I got there--- she didn't know we already had several months before. So the story spilled out and we told her everything. In her gracious, loving way, she congratulated us and the next day sent champagne and flowers. Later when we were face to face and had a chance to make amends for the way we somewhat skirted her parental authority, she just smiled and said she loved us and always knew the Lord had brought us together.
Since Joe had to go to Japan for 6 months, I decided to go to Texas A&M for the fall semester. He flew directly from Japan to Houston for Christmas, and when I picked him up from the airport that Christmas eve, I knew--I would never have to say goodbye again. On January 8th, 1994 we had a wedding with all of our family and friends present--who all knew by then that we were already married. It was a wonderful celebration. And then we headed off to Hawaii for Joe's last 8 months in the Corps.
In the years since then, we moved to Dallas for seminary, had a set of twin boys, moved to Nebraska for our first couple of churches, had a couple of girls there, and then moved to New Jersey, where Joe pastored and we lived for almost 6 years. Five years ago we moved to Florida, and the years have been full of church planting and adopting and kids growing and seasons of life shifting. It has been a wonderful ride and it's still an adventure!
I was 18 when I got married. I was young but I knew what I wanted. I knew I was head over heels in love with Joe. I knew he would lead me well and love me well. I knew there was no other man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. And I knew I was ready to start life together as soon as possible and not waste one more second apart.
I look back and still can't believe the basic truth that altered my life so many years ago--that he chose me. He chose to love me.
And he still makes that choice every day. Because now he has seen all there is to see of me, and it is not always pretty. But he has loved me well for 20 years, and that kind of love has taught me much about tenderness, communication, patience, spontaneity, forgiveness, and sacrifice. He has loved with words and with actions, accepted me as I am, and has always encouraged me to discover God's purposes for my life and pursue them with abandon.
We've made our share of mistakes, and there have been very tough seasons in our marriage. We are broken and human and prone to be insensitive and selfish by our natures. But God's grace has covered a multitude of wrongs, and He has seen fit to take these 20 years and deepen our love for each other. Just today Joe said to me, "Wow. 20 years. Hasn't God been gracious to us?" Yes, indeed.