Thursday, March 5, 2015

Our Courtship Story: Talking to Myself


This installment has been the most difficult to think about and wrap words around. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." I've always felt that something special was taken, or withheld, from me during what should have been the most beautiful part of my life so far. When Chris read this blog post, there were parts of the story that were new even to him. Now he knows why I like butterflies.

Continued from Staying Strong


January 2001


Nasuli hummed with activity the week after Christmas. Many missionary families came from other parts of the archipelago to vacation in the natural beauty of our rural campus: the chilly spring-fed pond, the warm river, fresh fruit, flowering trees, mountains and jungle waterfalls. My work load was lighter, which left me with more time to think.

I had decided I wanted to communicate with Chris. Why did I want to email him? Did I love him?

Dad had told me he was proud of me for being on the mission field. He had said he believed God would reward my trust. When I confided some of my story to Ted*, he told me he admired me for submitting to my dad. I didn't admire me, though. Was it truly God who was demanding so much?

"Two Christian adults ought not to be forbidden to communicate," I wrote in my journal, "Oh, what shall I do?"

One day I took a walk alone along the grass runway bounded by sugarcane fields. I talked aloud to myself, and to my God, who claimed to be Love. I was lonely, and though we hadn't chatted since July or heard one another's voice since May, I was aware by now that Chris loved me. Why else put himself through this excruciating experience? He had to have been rather certain about choosing me to contact my dad in the first place. Such courage and tenacity made me want to love Chris back.

But did I?

"I really like Chris," I spoke the words into the humidity pressing against my skin. "I care about him as a friend. He's the closest male friend I ever had. I respect him, enjoy his company, and think he'd make a great husband."

But now we were right back where we'd been in May!

"I have had crushes on other guys, but I've never had a crush on Chris. I miss him and crave his company, but my physical desires are quiet. It wouldn't be fair to marry a man I didn't fantasize about sexually--no matter how wonderful he might be! Oh, whatever shall I do?"

Dad had not been impressed with my simple interest in corresponding with Chris. The time had come for more drastic commitment. All or nothing. I had always imagined being wooed with flowers, cards, and sweet words. But I was ready for closure, with or without the trappings of romance. With or without my suitor. I needed to nail this down for good. Did I want to marry Chris?

While singleness was more appealing than being unhappily married, I was ready to marry. In our sub-culture, marriage was the portal to adult privileges and responsibilities, not to mention sex. (Because sex was unmentionable, like undergarments--shhh!) And there was no one I would trust more with my future happiness than Chris.

The missing piece was what I scarcely had vocabulary for. I didn't know that use of the word "chemistry". I didn't know about "libido", or being "horny". I'd even been told from the pulpit that it was wrong to have crushes. I only knew that I felt butterflies in my stomach around certain guys and not around others. That there was a kind of almost painful charge in the air when they were in the room. And I had always felt completely comfortable with Chris, whether we were sharing lunch, riding in the car, listening together to office conference calls, reading Dickens, or visiting churches. He was a wonderful pal. Could he be more? How would that happen?

I was extremely naive about sexuality in general, but I knew sex was very important to husbands. In my fantasies, I was an eager and responsive lover. It would be grossly unfair to marry any man in the absence of physical desire!

"I'm willing to marry Chris," I was sure God could hear me, as I followed the trail worn through the grass, "But, God, you're going to have to give me sexual feelings for him. You take care of that, and I'm in. I pledge myself to support Chris and seek his fulfillment and happiness in every way I can."

It wasn't how I'd imagined falling in love or choosing a spouse, alone beside a sugarcane field. But that's how it happened. Calmer, I followed the loop back to the SIL guest house and wrote in my journal.

The next morning, when I came down to join Bob and Pearl in the dining room, I felt... different. Walking outdoors after breakfast, I realized that I had the sensation of butterflies in my stomach. I felt...giddy. Wow! God must have answered my prayer! Chris was his choice for me, too, and here was his gift. From then on, I never doubted that Chris was the "right one", or that my love for him could be starved or the supply run dry. I was certain that it flowed through me from God himself. (Yes, this interpretation of events posed some trouble as I transitioned to atheism and was one of the last "proofs" I clung to of God's existence.)

So, if God had given me love--erotic love?--for Chris, did that still mean I had to wait for Scott's permission before sharing that love? I was tormented by the biographies of Christian "heroes" who had not waited for parental approval before sealing their commitment to their chosen spouse. A veteran missionary had been teaching a Sunday School class on the book of Ruth and I was frustrated nearly to tears comparing my mousy self with the daring Moabitess who asserted her legal and cultural rights by going after the eligible farmer Boaz.

The Bible teacher was promoting rights for women in a way that both attracted and repelled me. I wanted to believe that I had rights as a woman, but I needed more encouragement. At twenty-five years old, I still didn't feel like a full-fledged adult. But if I was intended to take responsibility for my own choices and future decisions, I wanted to know it! That very afternoon I went to visit this older missionary and his wife and seek their wisdom.

Over calamansi meringue pie, I bared my soul to this kind couple. I told them about Chris, and my dad, and "courtship", and about the "covenant" I had signed a decade earlier. "What should I do?" I asked them. "Is it right for me to abide by my father's rules, or do I have the right to decide God's will for myself, and correspond with my suitor against my parents' wishes?"

Dick saw the analogy with Ruth's situation and supported my right to act independently. But his wife, Betty, countered his counsel. "But she made a promise to her dad," she cautioned. Betty didn't think it would be right for me to break the pledges I'd made when I was fifteen.

A split vote was insufficient guidance for me to risk my soul. I needed unanimity if I was to invite the attacks of Satan by stepping out from under the "umbrella of authority". I left their home disappointed, but resigned. If Chris could wait this long, surely I could

The next day was the New Year and a group of Australian missionaries invited me to join them on a holiday outing. We drove to the edge of the jungle and hiked across a rope bridge and through the trees until the trail brought us to a cool pool at the base of a stunning waterfall. While some played in the pristine water, I stood in the shade and observed. The cooling mist attracted dozens, perhaps hundreds of butterflies in exotic hues. The tree-canopied spot at the base of the waterfall was like a natural butterfly house and they landed on our hair, our shoulders, our shoes. I stood transfixed, gazing at the beautiful wings resting on me and feeling it was a metaphor for the excited "butterflies" in my stomach when I thought now of my future with Chris.

"Falling in love" did not have a place in the courtship model promoted by ATI/IBLP. A girl was supposed to "guard her heart" until the suitor pre-approved by her father made an attempt to "win her heart". All without physical contact, mind you.

Even approaching courtship from that angle, however, I never imagined that "falling in love" would feel so cerebral, or so...lonely. As euphoric as it was, it was a wholly interior experience. Something that happened inside my head. Something I couldn't speak of to anyone, even as my entire life changed direction.

Instead of remembering sharing a kiss, a song, or a romantic date, I recall talking to myself in a field, and then standing alone among the butterflies watching families play together under a jungle waterfall.

The setting seems picture-perfect, but...it wasn't shared.

It was just me. 





To be continued...



Sunday, February 8, 2015

Losing the Umbrella


While I was typing up the latest segment of our courtship story, my twelve-year-old asked what I was working on. I shared some of the highlights with her and she responded with a look of incredulity.

"How did your parents make you so afraid?" she asked.

She meant afraid of "getting out from under the umbrella of authority". It was a good question. 

And then my brain gave me an instant flashback.  

I can see Dad doing a demonstration for us on the coffee table. He has a baking pan, Mom's big plastic ladle, a water pitcher, and two of our Fisher-Price people. The oldest sibling by two years, I am no more than ten years old. We all watch Dad's little drama with curiosity.

The obedient figure is protected by the ladle held over his head as the water rains down, falling around his feet in the baking pan. But the disobedient figure will not stay under the ladle. He rebelliously stands where he wants to, exposed to the direct torrent from the pitcher. 

"But, how did that scare you so much?" my daughter wanted to know. I saw her point. It was merely tap water and plastic toys, after all.

"What the water represented was left to our imaginations," I said. "Anything we were scared of, any bad thing that happened to us after that, must be Satan making it rain on us because we'd done something wrong." 

Granny Weatherwax, the witch in Terry Pratchett's Equal Rites, describes the same phenomenon when she explains magic to her protégé:
"...if you want it to for sure then you let their mind make it work for them. Tell 'em it's moonbeams bottled in fairy wine or something. Mumble over it a bit. It's the same with cursing.
"...Make it loud, make it complicated, make it long, and make it up if you have to, but it'll work all right. Next day, when they hit their thumb or they fall off a ladder or their dog drops dead they'll remember you. They'll behave better next time."

from Bill Gothard's textbook
The umbrella-of-authority was a kind of curse placed on me as a child. And the teaching was still potent, fifteen years later and an ocean away, because the virus lived on my own fear. 

My parents were my umbrella; my dad was my mom's umbrella. Dad had to center himself under the "umbrellas" of God, his employer, and the government. My brothers would one day constitute "umbrellas" for their own families, but as a woman, I was destined to move from under my dad's "umbrella" to that of my new husband. Women and children had to be protected by men, after all.

Shit. It's no wonder I still get terrified of messing up.

I'm glad my daughter looks at me like I have three heads when I describe how I, even as an adult, let my parents control my dating. I'm glad she thinks the umbrella concept is ridiculous, because she is not likely to let an authority figure think for her or dictate her feelings! And our little conversation helped to uproot yet another of the cult beliefs that have lain burrowed in my subconscious for decades.

I don't care about umbrellas anymore. I don't need to feel guilty every time I feel uncomfortable. My fears are only that, my fears. And my husband is not some mystical buffer that protects me from them. We are allies, experiencing life's storms and life's sunshine together. 



Saturday, February 7, 2015

Not a Good Girl


"Continue to act as a good girl, and you will satisfy us." 
Jane Eyre


After years of almost compulsive writing, I have had fewer words to share lately. My family has been a priority over the last few months as we celebrated holidays, passed sickness around (and around), and got back into the school routine. I spent much of January fighting bronchitis and its complications, watching Netflix, and getting acquainted with the Honda that recently replaced my little old Subaru.

And while resting quietly, I've given a lot of thought to how I want to spend 2015.

Two years ago, I gave myself Permission to be Outrageous.
A few months later, I wrote about always having been A Good Girl.
Last year, I tried to imagine what it would be like to "let it go" like Elsa, and embrace Who and What I want to be.

What I want.

What do I want? Working through therapy exercises over the last year, that question consistently made me uncomfortable.

I was afraid of what I wanted. I was afraid that if I acknowledged my own desires, others might not approve me. I might not approve of myself. If I let my real deep-down self out into the open, I might judge or hate her instead of loving and embracing her. And heaven knows that little girl has been judged and punished enough.

So I've been cautious about letting myself want--not venturing far from sensible things, not taking risks.



But, slowly, I am listening to my desires, and leaning into them. Taking baby steps, of course. Clumsy, tentative, frightening steps. Some have worked out better than others.

Dancing is an adventure I'd always wanted to have, so when my counselor prescribed it, I finally gathered my courage and went to my first swing dance. It was utterly terrifying, but at the same time fun enough that I have kept practicing. Chris has even been brave enough to join me several times.

I also signed up for a class in improv acting, something else I'd been wanting to try for quite a while. That one didn't go so well. Several weeks I came home and spent the rest of the day on the couch, recovering from the anxiety. One session was going well until the instructor directed us to come up with comedy lines on the subject of "Dating".

Dating? What did I know about dating? As the titillating jokes fell from the lips of the handsome man next to me, I felt my insides curl into a self-protective ball. My brain stalled. I suspected I had more sexual experience than my younger classmate, yet my tongue was frozen, my brain stalled. After a few more afternoons feeling panicky, tongue-tied, and out of my depth, I dropped out of the class.

By this time we were shopping to replace my car. Car lots and car salesmen intimidate me, and most of my life cars have simply been provided for me. But having attempted both dancing and improv, my confidence was growing. After a few excursions with my husband, I went to another dealership and test-drove a car by myself--then brought Chris back to try it, too. My selection turned out to be the model we settled on!



Next I joined a women's trauma therapy group. Many of my favorite authors have extolled the benefits of group therapy, so I was excited when this opportunity turned up. The common theme of systemic misogyny that ran through all our stories made me angry. We all came from different backgrounds and had suffered abuse in a variety of ways, but we all had first-hand experience with patriarchy. I joined the group in hopes of having my emotions "fixed". Instead, it made me grateful for how far I've come and for every opportunity I've taken to speak in defense of women's equality.

I felt different from the other women in my group, in that I had never experienced abuse at the hands of my partner. Trauma, yes, I knew plenty of that, but these women's stories broke my heart. In the end, I dropped out of the group early, feeling a little stronger, more independent, and a lot better about myself and about my parenting.

I've ventured into new emotional territory, exploring unfamiliar ways of relating to myself and the world around me. I watch my daughters and their refusal to be pushed into the molds that society has made for them and I'm proud. When I grow up, I want to be like them!

Many of you are following the narrative of our courtship. When I share bits of the story with our 12-year-old, she looks at me like I have three heads. How any adults could submit their marital destiny to the whims of their parents is beyond her. "How did they make you so afraid, Mom?"

The answer to that is another post, but seeing my past through my daughter's eyes is helping me recover my own autonomy. For the first time in my life, I recognize that I belong not to my parents or to my husband, but to myself.

So this year, I've decided I'm through being the "good girl"--the woman our society approves of because she can be predicted, and controlled. The rules I absorbed as a child have not helped me, so I am writing new ones. I'll be a good mom, a good friend, a good lover--but I'll be damned if I'll accept the part of the well-behaved lady any longer.

My friends and role models are women who have taken outrageous risks and press forward no matter what. They are who and what I want to be. They don't apologize for wanting the things they want, and they refuse to be paralyzed by someone else's disapproval.

So this year I'm choosing my own path, making up rules consistent with my values, and making my own "mistakes" along the way. I'll keep being brave and trying new things not because they are good but because they interest and challenge me.

I've taken author Neil Gaiman's words as my present motto:
"...if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something."
What adventures that may lead me on this year I have no idea, and I'm used to mapping my way to a destination.   

But after all these years of coloring inside other people's lines...

...it feels good. 




Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Our Courtship Story: Staying Strong


Continued from Heart to Heart


October-December 2000


After two weeks of orientation in Manila, I flew south to Cagayan de Oro, a provincial city on the coast of Mindanao, where palms lined the windy airstrip and I was the only white girl in the muggy three-walled terminal. On exiting the concrete building with my bags, I was met by Ted* and Janice*, the missionary couple who had come to drive me back to Nasuli, the SIL-Wycliffe community in the center of the island. Their friendly faces set me ease immediately and I savored the breathtaking views as soft-spoken Ted guided the truck down winding mountain roads and we munched on slices of fresh pineapple. Janice pointed out mango orchards, rubber plantations, farmers following their carabao, and when Ted stopped at a roadside fruit market, she showed me how to eat sticky but luscious lanzones.

It was the rainy season and the downpours began just before we reached Nasuli. Ted dropped me off in front of the Nasuli guest house, where I was warmly welcomed by Bob and Pearl, the retired Canadian couple who managed the home. Thinking of Bob and Pearl gives me warm tingles even now. They knew it was my birthday, and had cake and ice cream with mango puree waiting for me. The kindness of these strangers...well, tears are spilling down my face as I type. They welcomed me into their home and into their hearts and I will be forever grateful to them.

Pearl put me in the best bedroom and I began unpacking right away. I had arranged a few framed photos on the little table by the door when I had a guest. Tina* was the only other Wycliffe member my age. She divided her time between Nasuli and a village where she helped with linguistics projects. Tina's fiance was doing linguistics fieldwork in another Asian country. Her observant eye settled on the photographs. Andraste in a blue sweater. A family portrait.

"Who's this?" she asked, pointing out the snapshot of Chris.

"He's... a friend," I said, lamely, but feeling a growing pride. "He lives in Kansas and he's interested in me."

I don't remember if she asked for more details. She couldn't stay long, was leaving for the village the next day, in fact. But it was a significant moment for me. Who was Chris to me? What did I want him to be? And just why did I have his photograph in a prominent place by my door?

As I stretched out under the quilt on my full-size bed that first night in my new room, I felt a strange urge inside. It was familiar, yet strange. I had not masturbated in ten years--not since my commitment to follow Gothard's principles of God's will for my life. Certainly not since confessing the sinful habit to my parents and receiving their forgiveness. My dad had asked me about it once a few years later, when I was 19 or 20 and the two of us were driving alone across a desolate part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula on a frigid winter night. I had assured him I no longer yielded to such temptations.

What wile of Satan was this? I had been told that demons controlled specific geographic areas. It must be that the demon over this part of Mindanao was more interested in orgasms than the demons I'd dealt with in Michigan. I tried to ignore the nagging suggestion. It sure sounded nice, though...

* * * * *

Lush, laid-back, carved out of the rainforest next to a spring-fed pond, Nasuli was an enchanted place. The SIL missionaries had their foibles and conflicts, to be sure, but they were kind, open-minded people with good hearts. After my experience with IBLP, the love and cooperation I felt in Nasuli was a healing balm. I found my place in the group in no time, helping Ted in the computer office during the day, playing the piano, singing at services, tutoring children, using my cooking and entertaining skills to make people smile.

I took squash pies to Ted and Janice's house for Thanksgiving dinner. The next day, Jerry, the center's manager, made me an offer. A staff member was returning to the States unexpectedly. Even after some fancy job-juggling, there would be a gap in the duty roster. Would I consider taking the position of radio operator, keeping contact with the pilots and checking in regularly with the translators in the villages? I would continue to work with Ted in the afternoons, but working with the pilots would be my primary task. The hitch? They needed me to commit to stay until mid-summer.

My return ticket had been booked for February (Valentine's Day, remember?). I had been invited back to Grand Forks as a teaching assistant in the summer. And all my plans were hanging on the unanswered question of Chris. Was he in negotiations with my dad? I had been away for six weeks now, but Dad had not breathed a word to me. Was I about to start courting? Had he decided Chris lacked the necessary qualifications? I remembered, again, why I had been determined not to stay home and watch the agonizing approval process from the sidelines. I felt like I might go insane as it was!

Before I could give Jerry my final decision, I needed to talk to Dad. Grateful for the Internet, I used AOL Instant Messenger to contact Dan* (our co-worker from CharacterLink days), who in turn asked Dad to get in touch with me. When we talked, Dad's report was far from reassuring. He was in communication with Chris, but any permission seemed uncertainly far away. Dad did tease me, which was strange, and made my hopes rise a little.

Resigned to keep waiting, I told Jerry I would accept the job and wrote dramatically in my journal, no doubt comparing myself to the late Jim Elliot:
I know Chris loves me. And I am ready to love and be loved. But God is saying, 'Not yet.' So I am proving my loyalty to my first love [God]...  
Yesterday, I so wanted to talk to someone from home, and would gladly have poured out my heart to Chris. Nobody else was online, so we could have easily pulled it off, and enjoyed it. But God guarded us, kept us in the temptation.
Ah, yes, that temptation to reach out to another human being and, you know, converse. Exchange thoughts and feelings. But we resisted. Because we were strong. And good. And not a little scared.

I cried a lot that month. It was my first Christmas away from my family. Away from snow. (I didn't miss that part very much.) I loved my new friends and all the new adventures. But I was the youngest adult in Nasuli by a long shot. Some of the translators had spent fifty years on the mission field. One woman in her seventies had just married for the first time. They were the oddest newlyweds I'd ever seen! Some of the women missionaries had always been single. Another married a Filipino. One adopted a Filipino son; another was raising two "granddaughters".

Alone in the air-conditioned room in the hilltop radio tower, I had plenty of time to think while I watched the clouds over the mountain pass and logged the pilots' progress.


I studied the couples in our community. Most of these marriages seemed stronger than any I'd seen before. They were partners and teammates; they took care of each other. Ted and Janice took weekend getaway trips. Bob and Pearl were adorable together. They made jokes about sex that made me blush. Even the couples that were known to argue depended heavily on one another. I talked to my friends from New Zealand about their experience as translators. "The mission field is solitary enough", they warned. "Get married first."

Easier said than done, I thought. But there was Chris. If only we could talk about things. I emailed my dad, begging his permission for Chris and I to at least converse by email. It was what I wanted for Christmas. Pleeease? Dad declined my request.

Bob and Pearl made Christmas morning special for me. The single ladies invited me to share their traditional Christmas dinner. When evening fell, I sang "O Holy Night" for the Nasuli Christmas service, as a gift to my new friends. Though I felt like crying instead.


To be continued...


*Names are pseudonyms.



Thursday, January 15, 2015

Library Shelf: Who Shall Ascend


"...Because anyone who comes to him must believe...
that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." 
Hebrews 11:6

When we merged our bookshelves after our wedding, I was surprised to find one of my favorite authors in Chris's library. I thought I'd read most of Elisabeth Elliot's books, but Who Shall Ascend: The Life of R. Kenneth Strachan of Costa Rica was a title I had not even heard of. And Chris not only owned it, he'd actually read it! "You should read it," he said. And eventually, while our babies were napping, I did.

* * *

Many years earlier, church friends had given my husband-to-be this missionary biography as a goodbye gift. Chris was eighteen, a homeschool senior more interested in computer upgrades than in history or foreign missions. When Chris moved to Indianapolis to work with Bill Gothard's Institute two years later, he took the still unread book along.

The book was ignored in Chris's room for two more years as he studied, did chores, learned about computers, and mentored juvenile delinquents. Shortly before Chris's scheduled departure from the center, he was assigned to monitor a teen who had been placed in IBLP's "care". Chris's duties required him to remain in a suite with the young man most of the week. Few diversions being permitted, Chris pulled out his book. The story was not what he expected.

Kenneth Strachan grew up in Costa Rica, the son of Protestant missionaries. While studying at Wheaton Bible College to prepare for his own evangelistic career, Ken was plagued by depression, anxiety, hypochondria, and feelings of failure or worthlessness. He would commit his life to Christ, only to believe he was backsliding again when he went dancing with a pretty girl. Despite his doubts "as to whether Christianity is a huge hoax", he chose to continue studying theology.

Ken was torn between his own enjoyment of small pleasures like movies and cigarettes, and the the nagging guilt that these might be "sin". Though he admitted that strict Christianity did not always seem attractive, "worldly" Christians disgusted Ken and he was cynical about testimonies, observing that the majority were "not consistent with the life behind" them.

When his younger, more easygoing brother died suddenly, Ken's faith was sent reeling. Eventually, however, with the strong encouragement of his parents, he found his way back to college. Elliot writes, "His understanding of the will of God was nearly indistinguishable...from the will of his parents." And this was certainly true of the way he joined his parents' mission in Costa Rica. His one move toward independence was his decision to move into the dormitories rather than live with his parents.

Even as a minister of the Gospel, Ken worried about his shyness, and his temper, his relationship with his mother, and the ease with which he could still slip into apostasy (dancing and smoking).

When a drawn-out correspondence turned to talk of marriage, Ken tried to impress the girlfriend he hardly knew with his low character, while making it clear that he expected the highest level of unconditional and even sacrificial devotion of her. Through months of letter-writing, the couple negotiated and explained and planned the sort of life they would lead together.

The son that arrived shortly after Ken's marriage to Elizabeth was named Harry, after Ken's late brother. Five more children followed over the next decade, though evangelism and fundraising frequently took Ken away from home. The homesickness, the anxiety, and the thought of a more comfortable material existence sometimes made him question his calling as a missionary. When things got tough, he blamed himself.

And the years did not settle Ken's misgivings about Christian conduct. What did God expect? Was it okay to go swimming on Sunday, for example? What of the freedom of individual conscience? When was it better to stifle one's liberty to preserve peace among the brethren?

When his father died, Ken felt the added responsibility to operate the mission alongside his mother. And he felt inadequate. On a trip to the States, he felt that God answered his prayer for the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet the joyful frame of mind didn't last. Before long he was again wishing for a "more or less permanent state of 'peace and joy in believing'." Was he still missing something? Holiness? Faith? "O for a meeting with the Lord which would permanently settle the matter!"

At a camp meeting the next year, Ken went forward to receive "sanctification" and,even after totaling the car on his way home, believed he had experienced the real thing. Still, there were prayers that went unanswered. Ken was moody as ever, continually wanting to be "in God's will", but ever uncertain what that meant. He struggled with his many responsibilities, and suffered from a variety of stress-induced health problems.

In the midst of an ambitious evangelism project, Ken Strachan had a physical and mental breakdown. An examination at the Mayo Clinic turned up no physical cause for Ken's symptoms. For a while, he tried to cut back his schedule. But before long he was back in the thick of the work, teaching in the U.S. and involved in evangelistic campaigns in Central America.

And then Ken was stricken with lymphoma.

At first he was feared being told once again that his symptoms were imaginary, but this time the disease was real, and it was dreadful. A missionary woman was certain that it was God's will to heal Ken, but watching her husband's suffering, Elizabeth Strachan complained to God on his behalf: "The meanest man in [the city] would put a stop to this if he could!"

The disease relented enough for Ken to go home. Billy Graham called and shared his assurance that God was going to heal. Ken improved slightly and began talking about another visit to Costa Rica. But a few days before the trip, he was hospitalized again.

Christians of various traditions came to pray over him, anoint him with oil, lay hands on his body, and do spiritual battle with Satan. Ken endured it all, wondering whether God meant him to resist the suffering or accept it with patience. In the end, he fell, choking, into a coma. Elizabeth was with him when the choking started again, and Ken died.

This was hardly the inspirational memoir we had come to expect. Here was no triumphal climax of a "good and faithful servant" being warmly welcomed into heaven. Every time one expected the story to take a positive turn, it disappeared around another dark corner, only to wind up exhausted and beaten at the end. The final chapter left the reader with emotional whiplash.

It left Chris wondering, too. Would God allow one of his followers to spend an entire lifetime knocking on a door that never opened?

What of the promise, "Seek, and you shall find"?
Or Jesus' words to the woman at the well, "Whoever drinks of the water I shall give him shall never thirst..."?
Or the hopeful Beatitude, "...those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...will be filled"?

IBLP held out the continual offer of "more"--more victory over temptation, more fulfilling relationships, clearer life purpose, improved health, freedom from debt. The key was simply to follow all of the "principles" Gothard pulled out of the Bible. Chris was already becoming disillusioned with this formula, and now he had even more questions. Was a life of squelching one's own desires what God had in mind?

Was there a secret to this "Christian life"? A key belief, practice, or mystical experience?
If there was, could we expect to figure it out?
What did faith mean, anyway?



Postscript:

Harry Strachan sat with his father's casket before the burial in Costa Rica, and later spoke eloquently for the family at Ken's funeral. He wove together soothing Bible passages and lines from familiar hymns. But his own faith had been on the rocks since he went away to college. And his father's death was catastrophic.

When the mission asked Harry to write his father's biography, he realized he could not write the book they wanted. As he later explained in his own memoir, Finding a Path, "I turned over the files, interview notes and tapes to my mother, and the mission asked Elisabeth Elliot to do the job."


And do the job she did, calling it as she saw it and highlighting Kenneth Strachan's humanity and foibles as much as his genuine concern for the people of Central America. Perhaps her forthrightness is one reason the biography was soon out of print. 

Harry Strachan--now a gentle agnostic--taught at Harvard Business School, helped create Bain Capital, and eventually returned to the land of his childhood to create the Strachan Foundation, continuing his family's legacy by promoting education and entrepreneurship throughout Central America.



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Our Courtship Story: Heart to Heart


Continued from Holding Pattern


October 2000,  Manila


My experiences with IBLP had taught me to carry memories with me--I had a small photo album to remind me of my home, my family and friends, Michigan landscapes. I placed a photo of Chris in the front of the album and made sure Dad noticed it while I was packing. I stuck another photo in a desk frame: Chris and his parents standing stiffly in Miss Julie's office at IBLP Headquarters. A small snapshot, but a portal to innumerable shared experiences.

I arrived in Manila late on a Thursday and began my orientation the next day, bracing for culture shock and the tropical climate. Students at Faith Academy were performing "Pride and Prejudice" Friday night and I tagged along with my new friends. I had only been introduced to the story months before. What was it with missionaries and Jane Austen?

The play was tremendous, but jet lag--and maybe the storyline--hit me hard. My head felt like bricks and my eyes kept falling shut. When I collapsed back in my tiny guest room, waves of sobs overwhelmed me. A kind gray-haired woman reassured me that this was a completely normal reaction and I would feel better soon.

In a few days, I was getting the hang of the strange new world I had entered. My mentors gave me some computer assignments to work on in the office and showed me how to access the Internet. Unaccustomed to so much time alone, I was terribly lonely and pouring out my feelings at the piano in the guest house common room only helped so much.

Chris, in front of the webcam
I hadn't been long in Manila when I visited Chris's personal website, heart pounding, wondering if I was being rebellious in some way.

Chatting and email having been forbidden, Chris had started a weblog as a way to let me know what he was up to. And he kept his webcam pointed at his desk chair. Every day I would keep his website open on my computer and feel connected.

Had he written to my dad again? Would we soon be granted permission to "court"? What would that even mean? I had no way of knowing the answers. For now, I was glad to be far, far away with exciting new work to distract me.

The famous yellow notepad
Geek that he was (and is), it didn't take Chris long to recognize web traffic from an IP address in the Philippines. He knew I was silently stalking him. And I knew that he knew, though his face never smiled.

Since we were on opposite sides of the globe, he would eventually have to head off to sleep. Before he left, he scribbled a note and held it in front of the camera. Thousands of miles away, I was touched by his caring, and his daring. Later I wrote in my journal, "it made me feel warm and happy inside".

Without technically breaking a rule, was he jeopardizing my father's good opinion of him? I hoped not. I carried the image with me the rest of the day, the first time I had seen my name in his writing. Without speaking or typing a word, our hearts were silently communicating across continents.

I confided to my journal another night, "I wonder what would happen if I would see him--in person--again?"


Continued at Staying Strong

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Holding Pattern


Continued from Silenced

August-September 2000


As our final week of SIL came to a close, it was time to say goodbyes. My memories of pitiable handshakes with Chris helped me follow my gut. I knew I'd regret repeating that scenario. When Paul *took off for the long drive home, I gave him a hug. It was brief, it was public, it was probably a side-hug, but it was a hug. And it felt right.

As I was getting ready to leave for the airport on Saturday morning, I was aware of Jed* stalking me. He followed me to the car and told me, "I know that you're not the woman I'm going to marry."

"I know it, too," I replied with a nod. He closed my car door and off I went.

I don't remember the flights home. I'm sure I thought about Chris. As I explained to my journal, "I never expected to be pursued by someone I had not already marked as a "possibility"." He had taken me by surprise in April, and I had not handled the shock well. Maybe now we could start all over. I hoped to leave for Manila in mid-September and be gone for a few months. Surely that would be long enough for Dad and Chris to complete "negotiations".

Back in Michigan, I braced for culture shock, which I managed mostly by getting busy. I put away the new jeans, the shorts, the swimsuit. I stacked my linguistics textbooks on the shelf.

On Monday morning we went to the lake, and I wore my homemade split-skirt jumpsuit in the water. The next day I did the family ironing, gave haircuts, and taught piano to three of the younger children. I baked bread, made meals, played hymns on the piano for church, and returned to my part-time job in town. I also made what serious preparations I could for my trip to the Philippines: paying my health insurance premiums, getting a perm, renewing my driver's license early, and shopping for items that might not be available in Asia.

While Chris had wanted to sponsor my overseas trip, Dad had decided it didn't make sense considering that I had rejected him as a suitor. Chris sent a generous check to my dad anyway. When it arrived, Dad called Chris's dad. Together they decided that Dad should tear it up. Dad told Chris he had torn up his check. Thanks, but no thanks. 

Chris was indignant and mailed another check. Dad sent it back. Chris insisted that he wanted to pay for my trip, whether I wanted to court him or not. (He had asked to be anonymous from the beginning, but Dad had blown his cover before I left for North Dakota.)

Dad finally told Chris he could send the money to my dad's pastor. That way the gift would be going through the "authority" of the church. By now, Chris was annoyed. "Only if I can ask your pastor's permission to court your daughter," he said.

So there I was back in Michigan, trying to earn enough money to buy my ticket and pay for my stay. I was close, but I would need to postpone my trip by a few weeks. The SIL-Wycliffe office in Manila inquired about my plans, and I explained the situation. I would not be able to come in September, but I would arrive just as soon as I could. Privately, I determined not to celebrate my 25th birthday at home. I would be in Asia before that date.

In the meantime, I was moody and depressed. I made a list of all the ways I had "rebelled" against fundamentalism over the summer--making it sound more dramatic than reality warranted. Dad became aware of it--I think I left the list out when I was working in his office--and looked sober.

"I would not have recommended that," he said, when I told him I had worn pants and watched a Star Wars film.

Strangely, I did not feel guilty.

Within weeks of my return, I received an email from Jed. I lost no time forwarding it to Dad. If he wanted to be my protector, he could get rid of that guy!

I babysat the six or seven kids at home while my parents went away for their anniversary. I cried at church. The trees were pulling out their autumn colors, but I was distracted. I gave more music lessons. I worked, and watched my brothers chat with Chris over AOL Instant Messenger.

I got sick. I could scarcely pray. I couldn't sleep.

Andraste* got sick, too. She spent two days in ICU while I cared for sick kids at home, exchanged emails with the Manila SIL office, and thought about Chris in Colorado at a WILDS retreat.

That week, I tried to articulate to Dad how my feelings toward Chris had changed. Afterward, I wrote in my journal:
...I may be falling in love with Chris, but there is no need to find out yet.... The waiting is tedious when I want to be gone. And it is sometimes very hard not be angry with Dad...
...It is a very good thing that Dad does not 'have' my heart, for I feel he is unequal to such a trust. If I did not believe that the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, or shadow of turning, is supreme over all, I should lose all hope of things ever being untangled.

And then, an anonymous gift, channeled through my parents' church.

The check, though less than Chris had offered, was more than enough to supply what I was lacking. I could leave two weeks before my birthday, and I could stay in the Philippines for four months. When I bought my round-trip tickets, I was feeling optimistic.

In an Anne-of-Green-Gables moment of melodrama, I booked my return flight for Valentine's Day. If things went well, I imagined Chris meeting my plane to welcome me back to the U.S., snow on his boots and arms full of roses.


Continued at Heart to Heart

*Names are pseudonyms.