Intrigue at graduation

AUDIO VERSION

 

In the fall of 1979, Priscilla moved back to her parents’ home in Sherbrooke.  She’d found it too lonely living on her own.  She’d read in Psalm 68 that “God sets the lonely in families” and said to herself, “God has given me a family, I can go live with them.”

But what she really wanted was to get married.  She and her mother started praying together each night that God would send her a husband.  They prayed specifically that God would send her “someone like Chris.”  “It doesn’t have to be Chris,” they would add, “but somebody like him.”

I’ve explained in an earlier post that I believe prayer is an interactive process.  When we first learn that someone is sick, for example, we generally pray for their healing, knowing that by doing so, we are reflecting the heart of God: Jesus had compassion on the sick and healed them.  But as we continue to pray, we also listen and try to discern how God wants us to pray in this particular case.  If we come to believe that it may be a “sickness unto death,” then while we always leave open the possibility of healing, we also pray that the person would have grace and courage to face death, and that they’d be able to say meaningful goodbyes and leave a legacy.

In the same way, I don’t believe that Priscilla and her mother thought that if they just prayed long enough and hard enough, God would send her a husband.  I know they were open to hearing from God that it wasn’t His purpose for Priscilla to get married then, or even at all, because she later told me what she planned to do if she discovered that God had called her to serve Him with the advantages of singleness.  She would have gone back to school to get her teaching certificate and worked with children in art and music.  In the meantime, she went to work as a secretary for the same doctor who’d brought her into the world 25 years before.

But she and her mother seemed to receive encouragement to continue praying along the lines on which they’d begun.  A young man who was learning French at Bethel in preparation for missionary service in Africa became interested in Priscilla.  He would be at the school for just that year and then go onto the mission field.  So if there was to be any relationship at all, it had to be serious from the start.  Knowing his plans, Priscilla agreed to pursue a relationship with him.  He began praying for God’s guidance about whether to ask her to accompany him to Africa as his wife.

In February 1980, Priscilla wrote to ask whether she could attend my Harvard graduation.  Bethel had been such an important part of my life, she observed, that it really should have a representative at such an auspicious occasion. I wrote back to say that I’d be delighted to have her come.

But there was one wrinkle.  I’d been seeing somebody myself.  (I’ll call her “Anne.”)  I’d even brought this girl home for Thanksgiving to meet my family, and I’d already invited her to be my guest at the graduation.  So in my letter I asked Priscilla, who’d always been my most reliable source of relational advice, “She may wonder who this belle fille is who came for the ceremonies from Quebec—will she feel uncomfortable?”

Priscilla replied that there would be no reason for Anne to feel uncomfortable, because after all, we were just friends.  So not only did I get Priscilla tickets for the graduation events, I arranged for her to stay with Anne when she came.

And then there arose a couple of a further wrinkles.  In April, Priscilla’s boyfriend felt he’d received a definite “no” from God about asking her to become his wife.  He gently ended the relationship. Priscilla struggled with this greatly, finding it hard to understand.  Hadn’t God been hearing and answering her prayers?

Then, near the end of the school year, a friend and classmate came and told me very respectfully that he was interested in Anne.  They’d actually gone out a few times, and he wanted her to attend the graduation as his guest and meet his family.

This was all perfectly “legit,” because by then Anne and I were “on hold.”  My impending graduation had raised the question of whether we should make our future plans for work or study around one another.  We hadn’t been able to answer the question with a definite yes, so we’d agreed to release one another to make whatever plans seemed best to each of us.  We were no longer officially dating, though we’d left the future of the relationship open.

I thanked my friend sincerely for his courtesy.  We left it up to Anne to decide for herself what to do about graduation.  She chose to attend the first day’s events with me and my family, and the next day’s events with my friend and his family.

Priscilla was not able to arrive until the evening of the first day, after my family had left to spend the night at my grandparents’ home about an hour away. So when they came back the next day, they found me with a different girl.

They were all delighted to see Priscilla, but everyone wanted to know, “WHERE’S ANNE?”  “Oh, she’s spending the day with her other boyfriend” didn’t seem like quite the right answer.  I told them she had some other commitments.  The auspicious occasion continued without any other questions being asked out loud.

Priscilla was scheduled to fly out of Boston the following day to be a bridesmaid in her cousin’s wedding.  So rather than ride home with my family that evening, I stayed in town a little longer.  She and I had dinner together and the next morning—after she’d spent a second night at Anne’s place—I made sure she got to the airport, then I took the bus home.

We knew we’d see one another again in only a few weeks, because contrary to all of my earlier expectations, I’d decided that I should help out at Camp de Béthel for one more summer.  Some interesting things had begun to happen to me when Priscilla and her mother started praying for a husband for her.  Somebody “like Chris.”  I’d be studying at my desk at college and suddenly a scene from the Bethel camp would appear vividly in my mind.  Or I’d dream in French, which I’d never done before.  “I think God wants me go back there one more summer,” I finally concluded.

I wrote to ask about this only weeks before the camp was to begin.  There was still a slot open for a boys’ counselor.

Priscilla with me at my graduation, when we were "just friends." Really.
Priscilla with me at my graduation, when we were “just friends.” Really.

A flagrant violation of camp rules

AUDIO VERSION

 

At Priscilla’s cousin’s wedding, where she was a bridesmaid, one young man took an immediate interest in her.  He pursued every opportunity to get to know her that weekend, and when she left he told her that he’d like to see her again.

When I got to Bethel camp later that month, I learned that she’d received a letter from him inviting her to come visit him in the state where he lived.  As I was also a trusted source of relationship advice for her, she asked me what I thought she should do.  “I think it would be best if he came here first,” I suggested.  Since he was the one taking the initiative, it shouldn’t be up to Priscilla to make the first exploratory trip.  So she wrote back and invited him to come to Quebec, and he accepted.

At the start of the last week I’d be at Camp de Béthel that summer, Priscilla came to me with a further relational problem.  “What if there’s somebody I like better?” she asked.  There was a twinkle in her eyes and the beginnings of a smile around the corners of her mouth.  I looked over my right shoulder, then over my left shoulder, didn’t see anybody else, and realized she was talking about me.  “I’ll answer your question very soon,” I promised.

Prayer, as I’ve mentioned, is an interactive process.  I knew it would only be right to pray about such a potential change in this friendship that had meant so much to both of us over the years. I was fully expecting to get a mild scolding for even bringing up the possibility of a romantic relationship with Priscilla.  “Don’t you dare lead her on!” I thought God would say.  “You know you’re getting on a bus back to the U.S. at the end of the week, and that you have no plans to see her again.  So be a gentleman and step gracefully out of the way.”

Instead, I received some of the clearest and most unmistakable divine guidance I’ve ever gotten in my life.  It was as if God was actually speaking the words to me, “This is the woman I want you to marry.”  Oh, I said to myself, then I’d better stay another week.

Sometimes when we believe we’ve discerned what God wants us to do, we then struggle to obey.  That wasn’t the case in this instance.  Up to this point, the difference in our ages and life situations had kept me from considering a romantic relationship with Priscilla as even a possibility.  But now we were both “in our twenties,” finished with college, and making future plans.  It appeared that God wanted me to make my plans around her.  The rightness of this washed over me. I could almost feel all the different areas of my brain lighting up at the same time.

We’d first met as fellow workers in a shared enterprise, an outreach to children in the name of Christ.  I knew she was fully committed to His cause.  I was planning to enter the Christian ministry, and she would be an invaluable fellow worker.  Though I would only later discover her talents for things such as entertaining, interior decorating, floral design, landscaping, and so forth, I had had the chance to witness her remarkable gifts for reaching out to others.  Here’s a story from this last summer at Camp de Béthel that I also shared in my eulogy at her memorial service.

I was doing double duty as a counselor and as a lifeguard/swimming instructor.  The doctor Priscilla had been working for had reluctantly concluded that she didn’t have an adequate medical vocabulary in French to transcribe his reports accurately, so he’d had to let her go.  This left her free to help at the camp, and since she was also a trained lifeguard, she worked with me at the pool.

At the start of one week, the middle school campers came bursting through the gate of the pool enclosure for their first lesson, running, shouting, and splashing into the water.  Behind them a girl stepped shyly just inside the gate and stood against the fence with her head down, both hands grasping the towel around her neck.  “Can you handle the rest of the class?” Priscilla asked me.  “I think so,” I said.  While I tried to carry on some semblance of a swimming lesson with all the others, she walked over to the girl and started talking quietly with her.  Soon she got her to take her hand and walk over to the edge of the pool.  Before the class was over, she had her in the shallow end and was pulling her though the water with both hands.  The girl was smiling.  I remember saying to myself at the time that it was like watching magic.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized what a wonderful and effective life partner and ministry partner Priscilla would make.  It seemed clear that we could make a greater contribution to the kingdom of God together than we could separately.  Beyond this, we’d always enjoyed any time we’d been able to spend together.  And she was beautiful.  And maybe we already were in love.  Maybe we had been long before either one of us realized it.

But now was the time to do something about it.  Someone else was interested in Priscilla, so I needed to make my move without delay.

One afternoon a little later that week we were sitting together on a poolside bench, waiting for the first recreational swimmers to arrive, when she asked me where I planned to hide for the “staff hunt” the campers would go on that evening.  “Over there,” I indicated, pointing over her shoulder.  She turned to look, opening a clear path to one cheek, on which I quickly planted a friendly kiss.

As boys and girls were supposed to maintain an 18-inch “air gap” between themselves, this was a flagrant violation of camp rules.  But since the first swimmers came into the pool enclosure a moment later, Priscilla wasn’t free to ask out loud, “Why did you just kiss me?”  However, after a two-hour recreational swim for the campers, throughout which electricity crackled between the lifeguards, she came over and stood quietly and expectantly beside me as I was closing up the pool.

“I guess you’d like to know what that meant,” I began.  I reported how I’d prayed and the answer I’d received, and told her, “If I were in a position to ask you to marry me, I would, but I don’t feel that I am.”  I explained that I’d always planned to finish three years of seminary and become established as a minister before I got married.

“I’ll wait,” she said.

Priscilla's bronze medallion, which she earned to qualify to work as a lifeguard in Canada.
Priscilla’s bronze medallion, which qualified her to work as a lifeguard in Canada.

A double rainbow

AUDIO VERSION

 

In the end, Priscilla didn’t have to wait long.  We started making plans for her to live and work in the Boston area so she could be near me while I was in seminary.  I quickly realized that I wanted her to have the security of my promise to marry her if she were going to move to a different country for my sake, and not just have her come as my girlfriend.

So even though it was different from what I’d expected to do, we began to pursue an engagement right away, with a view towards getting married while I was in seminary.  We felt strongly that we should have the blessing of both sets of our parents.  I’d talk to my parents first when I got home, and if they approved, I’d ask Priscilla’s parents for their blessing.

In the meantime we had someone else we could consult.  The gracious older woman who’d answered the phone when I’d called the camp at the start of my first summer was named Mrs. Bard.  She was the widow of one of Bethel’s former directors and still lived on the school’s campus.  She was known for her sensitivity to God’s leading and had become like a spiritual grandmother to Priscilla. “If it’s okay with Mrs. Bard,” we said, only half jokingly, “it’s probably okay with God.”  (The reverse was actually closer to the truth.)

So we sought her out one day and explained our situation.  “I thought something like that was going on,” she said, “because whenever I looked out my window” (she was housebound at this point), “I either saw you together, or one of you looking for the other.”  “Now I’m not saying I’ve heard anything about this from the Lord yet,” she continued, “but . . .”  And then she held up a hand in the air, her fingers making the “OK” sign.

Around this same time, we went with some of the other camp staff on an excursion to check out a possible day hike for the campers.  The route led partway up a small mountain.  On the way back down, we came to a clearing and had an unobstructed view of the entire valley spreading out below us.  At that very moment, the sun broke from behind us through the rain clouds that had hovered low in the sky all day.  As a result, a gorgeous double rainbow formed in the valley.  We could see the entire arc.  It filled our field of vision.  And then a large flock of white birds flew across the bow from one side to the other, their wings glistening golden in the sunlight.  It hardly seemed as if we were still in the real world.  It was more like being transported into the movie Yellow Submarine.

I noticed something very interesting about the double rainbow.  The colors in the top half were in the reverse order of those in the bottom half.  Suddenly something “clicked” for me.  I realized that if the top rainbow had simply duplicated the bottom one, that would be more of a good thing.  But since it complemented it, together they formed an even better thing.

I explained earlier that I’d been looking for someone “just like me” as a wife.  Now I realized what a bad idea that had been.  We would have needlessly duplicated our strengths, without being able to cover one another’s weaknesses.  I no longer saw Priscilla and myself as different or opposite.  I understood that we were complementary.  This resolved the last remaining question—not hesitation, but question—I’d had about marrying her.

Since we were now officially dating, during my extra week in Canada we went on what turned out to be our one and only date as boyfriend and girlfriend.  We drove into Montreal and toured the grounds of the Olympic stadium and the adjoining botanical gardens.  We had supper together before driving back to Sherbrooke.  Fittingly, this was at a McDonald’s.

When I returned to Connecticut, my parents picked me up at the bus station.  I blurted out my news on the way home.  “I wondered whether something like this was happening when you stayed longer,” my mother said.  She and my father immediately and happily gave their blessing.

Once we got home, I shared the news with my siblings as well.  When I told one of my brothers, he responded, “I thought you were going out with Anne.”  But then he very encouragingly shared something that had happened on the second day of the graduation.  Our grandfather had taken him aside and asked, “Are Chris and Priscilla dating?”  “No,” he’d replied, “they’re just  friends.”  “That’s too bad,” my grandfather said, “because she seems like a very fine young lady.”

Priscilla’s family was by now camping at Sacandaga and I couldn’t reach her parents by phone, as I would have tried to do otherwise. So I wrote them a letter and waited for their answer.

That Sunday, during the sharing time at our church, I related the developments in our lives and asked for prayer for guidance and direction.  My father said how happy he was for us and how much he was looking forward to welcoming Priscilla into the family.  After the service, a longtime friend told me that when she first saw me walk into the church that morning, she said to herself, “He’s getting married,” though she knew nothing of what had transpired during my weeks away.

On August 13, 1980, I received a letter from Priscilla’s father in which he wrote, “I would be happy and proud to have you as a son-in-law.”  That evening I phoned Priscilla.  (She had stayed in Sherbrooke so we could remain in communication.)  “I have something to ask you,” I told her.  “I’m sitting down,” she said.  “Should I kneel?” I asked.  “Of course!” she replied.  And so it was that, after dating for nine days, we got engaged.

So far as I know, this is the only picture in existence of Priscilla and me as girlfriend and boyfriend.
So far as I know, this is the only picture in existence of Priscilla and me as girlfriend and boyfriend. (The opportunity to take them didn’t last very long!)

The best seat in the house

AUDIO VERSION

 

Those who’ve followed my story to this point will recognize that Priscilla and I had some unfinished business with some people.  I’d left things open with my other graduation guest, and the young man Priscilla had met at her cousin’s wedding was still supposed to come see her in Quebec.

So I wrote to Anne.  (You know, that awkward moment when you need to tell the girl you were dating that in the few weeks since you last saw her, you got engaged to someone else.)

My letter to her crossed in the mail with a letter from her to me, reporting that she’d just gotten engaged.  She, too, had spent the summer serving in another country, where there was a different language and culture, and there she and another young man had received guidance as remarkable as my own that God was calling them into a lifetime partnership.

Anne actually hadn’t been that surprised to receive my letter.  She later told me that the moment she first laid eyes on Priscilla, she said to herself, “This is the person Chris is supposed to marry.  Let’s see how long it takes him to figure that out.”

For her part, Priscilla wrote to the guy she’d met at the wedding and explained the recent whirlwind of events.  Understandably he had questions, but the two of them worked things out in a phone conversation, and at the end he very chivalrously wished us every happiness.

This would be the place to mention that Priscilla had actually gotten engaged once before, a few years earlier, to someone from her church.  But her parents had not felt he was right for her, and her friends were similarly concerned.  The two of them had real difficulty communicating and making decisions together.  She eventually realized that she’d made a mistake in agreeing to marry him.  She went to a woman who was a trusted advisor, one of those friends-of-parents that children call “aunt” or “uncle.”

“What should I ever do?” she asked.  “You can just give him back the ring,” the woman explained, “and tell him that you’re very sorry, but you no longer feel it would be the right thing to do to marry him.”  So that’s what she did.  This man later found a very compatible wife, and after Priscilla and I were married, the two of them even had us over for a no-hard-feelings dinner.  As I think back over these stories, I’m amazed by, and very grateful for, all these people who approached delicate matters of the heart with such generosity and grace.

Priscilla’s family moved her down to the North Shore of Boston, where she’d accepted a secretarial job at Gordon College.  This was only a short distance from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I was scheduled to start in the fall.  Her family took a vacation by the ocean and then they all came to visit my family.  There was feasting and celebrating, but I could only take part in a limited way, because I’d broken my jaw and it had to be wired shut for five weeks.  Ultimately this led me to postpone seminary first for a semester, then for a full year, as we arranged for our wedding to take place a few months before I started seminary.

In the end, I would get married when I was still only 22 years old.  But in retrospect, I’m very grateful for the circumstances—Priscilla’s move, and even my broken jaw—that combined to bring this about.  They ensured that she and I would have many wonderful years together as husband and wife, more than I had anticipated, before she went home to be with the Lord.

I got temporary office work in Boston.  I also found housing a few blocks north of Harvard Square in exchange for working as a tutor and governor for the son of a German countess.  She was dividing her time between America and Europe and didn’t want to take her son with her when she traveled because she didn’t want him to miss school.

On weekends I’d take the train an hour north to see Priscilla, or she’d take it down to visit me.  A great group for young couples had formed in the church I’d attended as a student—some couples newly married, some engaged like us, others dating—and together we worked through many of the issues that came with this stage in life.

As we sent out our wedding invitations, I told God that I wanted to invite Him to the wedding, too.  I explained that I couldn’t get an actual invitation to Him in the mail, but promised that we’d save Him “the best seat in the house”:  bride’s side, front row, on the center aisle.  We would instruct our ushers not to let anybody sit there; that seat would be reserved for God.

I felt as if God responded that He’d be delighted to attend, and that he was going to send us a wedding present in advance.  A couple of days later, one of Priscilla’s co-workers said to her, “I hear the two of you are looking for furniture for your future apartment.  A friend of mine has a queen size bed that he wants to give away.”  We gratefully accepted it.

Priscilla and I were married in a bilingual ceremony on May 23, 1981, at her family’s home church in Sherbrooke.  My father and her pastor performed the ceremony.  Her sister and mine were bridesmaids.  One of my brothers was our reader and the other two were groomsmen, along with the friend I’d driven home just before my two-car accident.

While it’s customary for the best man and maid of honor to serve as the witnesses to a marriage, Priscilla and I asked our fathers to be our witnesses.  Since they’d thought of each of us as a good match for their child the first time they met us, this seemed only appropriate.

And our ring bearer was the toddler son of Priscilla’s brother and his wife, who was the same young woman who’d sat with us on the hillside that evening years before as we watched the moon rise.

 

Wedding sunset