Throughout the last 21 years that I’ve been a pastor’s wife, people have asked me how Mike and I met. It is a fairy-tale story that didn’t begin until I was thirty. And, like most fairy-tale stories, there are bad parts and good parts woven together, and my story is no different. Here’s how it all happened…
I was raised in southern California in a rather wealthy area not far from the beach. I am the youngest of five children and I lived in the same house from the time I was six until I moved out at nineteen. (My folks still live in the same house.) You repeat “same house” here. My father, who had been in WWII, was a mechanical engineer and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. She too had a college degree and had been a school teacher before they were married. She returned to substitute teaching when I was in junior high. We belonged to a very nice beach club growing up where we played the summers away body-surfing, sailing our catamaran, and playing beach sports. I have the most wonderful memories growing up at The Club with my family.
We were raised in the Catholic Church, but didn’t really participate in being Catholic except for going to confession on Fridays and attending the Catholic Mass on Sundays. I seem to recall that my mother periodically prayed for our dinners, but we never read the Bible or had any other ‘God-ness’ in our home. All five of us attended a Catholic elementary school, but I don’t remember ever really learning about God other than the stories of Creation, The Flood, Christmas and Easter.
Around the time my older siblings reached their teens, they had decided to stop attending the Catholic Church. Being quite a bit younger than them, I continued to go every Sunday with my folks. That only lasted until I was about fourteen or fifteen then I, too, stopped attending. I just didn’t see the point. There was nothing profitable in going to church or pretending to ‘be holy’. I didn’t consider it any of the priest’s business to hear my ‘sins’ at confession every Friday and, why should repeating the same prayer over and over fix me or my sins? I remember being dis-satisfied with the entire God-scene and so I left it.
I stayed away from God for the next fourteen or fifteen years.
Though raised at the beach, I fell in love with backpacking at the age of twelve. I have hiked all through the Sierras in California, the Wind River Range in Wyoming, the mountains in Northern California, and have wandered through the mountains in Colorado. Backpacking and the mountains were my new church. They were a place where the people were real, the scenery was magnificent, and it was up to you to keep going, step after step, until you made it to the end. (One trip was twenty-nine days long!)
Like most teenagers, I did some pretty stupid stuff – things that I am amazed I am still alive to remember. I was never caught by police for things I was doing or thrown into jail to pay the penalty. I attributed it all to luck or my wits.
I decided to go to college at the age of twenty-one. I attended Humboldt State University in northern California, by the Oregon border. It was the best school to get a degree in Wildlife Management – I wanted to be a park ranger. After my sophomore year, I changed my major to Physical Anthropology so I could study bones.
My junior year, I met a guy with whom I got along with pretty well. He played football for the University and worked as a firefighter for the California Department of Forestry when he wasn’t in school. While attending school, I worked part-time in a bank so I could afford backpack trips during my spare time. After I graduated, this guy and I were married. We were not married in the Catholic Church, since the Catholic God was useless, but for some reason we felt that our wedding should take place in a church. We picked a Presbyterian church in my hometown in Southern California and were married.
We had no honeymoon because it was fire season. I knew he would be gone and I was OK with that. I had my work and my fun things to do and he had his. We really didn’t have anything to bind us together, and so we lived independent lives. During this time, the Calif. Dept. of Forestry was beginning to hire women as fire fighters. However, the women couldn’t do the job like the men when it came to physical strain for hours, day after day, or even week after week. According to my husband, they made firefighting even more dangerous, and so many of the guys who had been firefighters for six or seven years like my husband, quit at the end of the season, vowing not to return.
He was able to find a job working as a deputy in the county jail. The man I had married vanished in that atmosphere. We drifted even farther apart. He became an angry man working in the jail, seeing what he called ‘the dregs of society’ every day. He began to look at everyone like they were just as law-less as the guys in the jail. He worked nights, I worked days. Now we saw each other even less than before, and when there was a day here or there, he usually went hunting with his new buddies from the jail. We really had nothing in common now. I was lonely, sad, and unhappy. I began to have wine every night instead for an occasion, and I had more than one glass. The more I had, the easier it was to fall asleep. I wanted to change jobs so he and I could be on the same schedule, but he said I should keep my job. I did change banks, thinking that a change of scenery might help, somehow. He also began to get physically scary. He had been a tall, big man but gentle-hearted. Now, he was a large man who slammed doors, yelled, and griped loudly about everybody and everything when he was home. He was miserable, too. We were both stuck.
I went away with some girl friends for a three-day ski trip to Ashland, OR. I spent the next few days out on the mountainside, cross-country skiing by myself and thinking. I knew something had to change. I was hung over at work a lot because of all the wine I was drinking at night, my husband was unhappy with me (who wouldn’t be with how I nagged him whenever he was around), and I was unhappy with him. On that trip I decided the only thing left was a divorce. It was time to get out.
I told him when I saw him next that I wanted a divorce. He needed to move out. He said if he left he would take all the furniture. I told him take it, take it all, just leave. My heart was hard, I was bitter. I just didn’t care anymore. I wanted to be free of this constant ache and sadness.
Two years and ten months after we said our vows, we were officially divorced. But, the sadness I thought would go away didn’t. I liked my new bank job and the people there, but they knew I was unhappy, though I worked hard at hiding it. My roommate and I got along well – things should have been better, I should have felt better, but I didn’t. I continually remembered all the stupid stuff I had done, how I had failed at various jobs, gotten a college degree I would never get to use, my relationship with my parents wasn’t great, I hadn’t kept in touch with my siblings very well, I drank too much, and now I was divorced. I couldn’t even be married right! I had messed up everything I had touched. I was terribly sad, deep down inside. My heart was broken beyond repair. I looked bad, lost weight, and had started smoking cigarettes again which I had given up in college.
One night was exceptionally bad – I’ll call it my Pit of Despair. I couldn’t shake all the feelings of how useless my life had been. I spent another night crying and crying and crying. I just couldn’t seem to stop nor could I think of what I should do next – which made me continue to cry. It is difficult to describe the utter despair I felt. Where do I go from here? What should I do? I’m divorced now. How awful is that? And somewhere, somehow, though the deepening sadness, I cried out, “God help me. What am I going to do?” Now, I’m pretty sure that my usage of God’s name during those fifteen years was not in any way good, so why I used it then, in the right context, I honestly don’t know. But, what I do know was that at that exact moment, a calm, or a peace, or a feeling of ‘it’ll be all right’ flooded through me. It started at my head and washed down through my whole entire body. I was able to stop crying, to breathe, to calm down instead of feeling frantic and confused. I was on the edge of the bed, breathing, and felt…OK. I realized wanted to lie down and as I crawled into bed, I thought, “I need to learn more about God.” And then I slept.
When I finally woke and remembered what happened, I came close to brushing aside the thoughts of wanting to know about God, but I didn’t. I needed to follow through. I called a friend of mine who I knew went to church – but not Catholic. Her name was Cheryl Jenkins. I asked her if I could go to church with her sometime, maybe in a few Sundays for Easter? She was sweet and kind and told me that’d be fine. She would swing by and pick me up on the way. We hung up. No big hoopla, no big deal – as least not on my end. On Cheryl’s end there was much rejoicing! Unbeknown to me, she had been praying for me for years. She told me later she called out to all of her children and to her husband that I was going to church with them. She danced around the kitchen with her family in joy. However, she was the sound of calmness over the phone.
True to her word, Cheryl picked me up and took me with her to her church. It was quite different from the Catholic Church, which was the only church experience I had had. People were waving their arms and their hands in the air, making funny sounds in a sing-song fashion. They were kind to me every week. The church group, small as it was, got together and bought me my first Bible (which I still use today). I went with Cheryl and her friends for a few months, but the church was closing since the pastors (man and wife) were moving back to the Midwest. We needed to find a new place to go.
Cheryl knew a lady who went to another church. This lady (Anita) said her pastor taught straight out of the Bible every week. Cheryl got the directions and we were on our way. That first Sunday, we couldn’t find the church the building. We drove around the area over and over, but we couldn’t see it. Cheryl, another friend and her sister, decided that Satan was keeping them from finding the church and they needed to pray. This was totally new to me, so as usual in these church-y matters, I was silent. Cheryl stopped the car and they began to pray. During their praying, I began to faintly hear singing! Sure enough, we were right by the church but there was another building between us and them. We had found it! We walked in late, and the only seats available were right in the front row. I never sat in the front row – ever! But, that morning I had to. The pastor was playing his guitar and leading the singing. (I grew up playing guitars with my mother and my two of my brothers and this pastor guy was pretty good.)
We all went back to that little church for a while, but soon Cheryl and her friend felt they weren’t right for this church. They were used to other things. (As this time, I didn’t know about the differences of churches.) All was good between us, but I continued on with this guitar-playing pastor who explained the Bible sentence by sentence. I used my new Bible and learned from it about God, about what love really is, and why it matters.
My heart began to understand why I was sad, why I was in despair. I was living my life wanting nothing to do with God and yet He’s the one who made me in the first place. All the rules I had made up for myself or by others (even the Catholic Church) had obviously failed! I had been using standards that were changeable so I would never be sure of doing ‘what was right’ But, they weren’t God rules. His were the only ones that would work because He doesn’t ever change and he created us to be happy when we live by His rules. I had had years of hurting people and being hurt by people, years of failures and drunkenness, years of wanting to do things MY way – me being the most important person, of course. It’s was all about me. My selfishness ran deep. As I studied my Bible, and learned from this guitar-playing pastor, it became more and more clear how wrong I had been, but now, I knew the answer! It was so freeing. I was not without hope of what to do. My life didn’t have to be sad and lonely, but I had live for a different reason other than my own pleasure.
And it all started with Jesus.
I never really understood the importance of Jesus in the Catholic Church, because he was never made to be important, as least as I recall. But, the Bible tells us that because we sin, or we disobey God (means the same thing), we deserve to die. But how do we make our sin go away? Does dying make it go away or just make me go away and somehow the sin remains? What must I do to be saved from this? Well, I don’t need to do anything but believe that Jesus, God’s Son, did it all for me. And, I can believe that His death does take the punishment for my sin because He rose from the dead to prove it all true. Do I believe this? Can His death on a cross, which the Romans devised to be as painful as possible, fulfills the obligation of death for my sin? How do I know the sin is gone and I don’t have to live like that anymore? Because, Jesus didn’t stay dead. He came back to life to live forever, not ever having to die a final death. His Resurrection proves that everything God says will come true. I don’t think I had ever heard that before. I never knew, I never understood, that my sin is what was making me so miserable. So, when I cried out to God the night of my Pit of Despair, I finally had nowhere to go, but to God, which is where I should have been all along.