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Jammin'

Tough times forced Mary Beth and Steven Curtis Chapman to learn the art of improvisation

At first glance, you'd think Steven Curtis Chapman was still a teenager—or at most a college student. But the popular recording artist, husband and father of three has accomplished more in 34 years than his boyish looks reveal.

Hundreds of thousands of fans have attended Chapman's sold-out concerts. He has sold millions of albums and won two dozen Gospel Music Association Dove Awards and three Grammy Awards. And the love song "I Will Be Here," which he wrote for his wife, Mary Beth, has become a mainstay in the wedding soloist's repertoire.

However, Chapman's life outside the limelight hasn't gone nearly as smoothly. In typically candid fashion, Steven will tell you that he and Mary Beth spent the first few years of their marriage making a number of painful discoveries about themselves.

Chapman, Meet Chapman

Their story begins back in the early 1980s at Anderson College in Anderson, Indiana. Since Steven and Mary Beth already shared the same last name, they were assigned the same mailbox. So it was only a matter of time before they met.

Actually, Mary Beth had already observed her mailbox mate without realizing it. In fact, she had enjoyed a good laugh at his expense.

"My roommate and I attended a freshman orientation event where a band was playing," she recalls. "The guitar player was wearing cowboy boots and had a green guitar! We couldn't stop giggling at this hillbilly."

A good laugh never hurt anybody, and Steven and Mary Beth became fast friends once they actually met each other. However, they never intended for it to evolve into a serious relationship.

"But every time I looked into the future," Steven says, "I saw us [together]." By the end of his junior year—and Mary Beth's freshman year—they were engaged.

Steven spent the summer traveling with a college singing group, and Mary Beth headed home to plan their wedding. Just prior to their fall 1984 wedding, Steven was hired as a staff songwriter with Benson Music in Nashville. So they came up with a plan: Steven would write songs and complete his degree at Belmont University while Mary Beth would work in the Benson office. With all their hopes and dreams ahead of them and $50 in their pocket, 21-year-old Steven and 19-year-old Mary Beth were ready to take on the world.

Pass the Hamburger Helper

"We drove away from our wedding in a green Pinto with a sign on it that said, 'Just married. Please don't hit us in the back!'" Steven says with a laugh. "We went to the Cincinnati Zoo for our honeymoon. We had just enough time to visit the zoo, spend the night and then drive back to Nashville."

"I had to get back to work," Mary Beth says, "and he had to go to school. All the way home from our honeymoon we cried."

"It wasn't regret," Steven explains. "It was more like the 'day after Christmas' feeling. So much emotion had gone into our wedding, and now we were driving back to reality—an apartment with two boxes of Hamburger Helper in the cupboard! In those first years, we learned a lot about trust and faith."

Like many newly married couples, the Chapmans struggled with finances. It wasn't unusual for them to kneel down in prayer with a stack of bills, asking God for a miracle.

"I remember checks coming in just days after we would pray," Steven says. "They were just enough to cover our bills with a little left over."

Then came a miracle neither of them expected. Just four months shy of their first anniversary, Mary Beth learned she was pregnant. Fortunately, Steven's songwriting career was beginning to take off, allowing them to save some money for a downpayment on a house. Shortly after Emily was born, the Chapmans headed out for a day of house-hunting. They couldn't have predicted that the day would end as it did.

"I can still remember coming home, rounding the bend and seeing all the fire trucks," recalls Mary Beth. "We didn't say a word. But as we got closer, Steven yelled out, 'Those fire trucks are at our apartment!'"

Shock turned to panic as they realized their apartment had been destroyed by fire. They didn't have renter's insurance, and what wasn't burned in the fire was severely smoke-damaged. Bewildered by the loss, they salvaged what they could and moved in with friends.

The hardships caused by the fire were partially offset with the good news that Steven's songwriting talents were being noticed by artists such as the Imperials, Glen Campbell and Sandi Patty. But that wasn't all. Steven's down-home personality and undeniable vocal talent caught the attention of Sparrow Records. He signed a recording contract and released his first album, First Hand, in 1987.

The Silent Treatment

Within the first few years of their marriage, Mary Beth and Steven learned that life's catastrophes were easier to deal with than life's daily routine. They differed significantly in their definition of "normal family life," and heated arguments over their conflicting expectations continually cropped up.

Growing up as the daughter of a factory worker, Mary Beth's family life was disciplined and followed a set routine.

"Her father would walk in the door at the same time every day, and dinner would be ready," explains Steven. At the opposite extreme, Steven was accustomed to the laidback approach set by his father, who ran a music store.

"Steven was allowed to make a lot of his own decisions as a kid," Mary Beth says. "He went to bed when he was tired. He had a lot of freedom."

Mary Beth found stability in structure. But being married to a musician, whose work often took him away from home for days on end, was the farthest thing from the security she sought. And to make matters worse, the Chapmans started running into a brick wall whenever they tried to deal with the growing conflict in their marriage.

Mary Beth had grown up in a family that shut down communication whenever things got tense. Steven's approach was just the opposite. He had adopted his parents' literal adherence to the verse that commands: "Don't let the sun go down upon your wrath."

"He came from a family that talked and talked," Mary Beth says. "So he'd say to me, 'talk! ' And I'd say, 'I can't!' I often fell asleep during our late-night discussions. Boy, was that the wrong thing to do. The sun had gone down! The next day he'd still be angry, and I'd feel fine.

"He would say to me, 'I don't understand. We didn't resolve anything.' And I'd say, 'But it's a new day!'"

Their seemingly endless arguing continued until the Chapmans received the ultimate wake-up call.

Love and Learn

Three years into their marriage, Steven's parents called with the devastating news that they were divorcing. When the Chapmans saw 28 years of what was once a successful marriage fall apart, they feared they might be walking blindly down the same path.

"We had looked to my parents' marriage as the kind we wanted to have," recalls Steven. "My folks seemed so committed to one another, to us and to the Lord."

As he explored the reasons behind his parents' breakup, he came to some sobering realizations. "While my parents had done many things right, there were also some unhealthy patterns that I had already started repeating in my marriage. I had some wrong ideas about what being the 'head of the household' really meant, and basically began to see how much I had to learn."

The Chapmans were determined to search out ways to strengthen their marriage and to deal with their conflicts and differences in a healthy way. They went to their pastor for counseling and have remained under his watchful eye ever since. They also began to develop an important network of friends—couples who aren't afraid to step in and mediate when discussions get heated and the Chapmans reach a stand-off.

"Over the years, we've learned to find middle ground on our differences, and we've started to bend when we would actually prefer to be selfish and in control instead," says Mary Beth. "In fact, we've almost flip-flopped on how we discipline the children. For example, I have loosened up on bedtimes and things like that, and Steven is becoming more of a disciplinarian."

Keeping It Together

As his popularity increases, Steven spends more and more time on the road. He does as many as 90 concert dates a year, which makes for a sometimes disjointed family life. Although Mary Beth and their children, Emily (10), Caleb (6) and Will Franklin (5), occasionally join Steven on the road, school and extracurricular activities usually keep them close to home. Mary Beth says that when Steven is away, things at home often go awry—things like one of the kids getting sick or needing to go to the emergency room. But even when he is home, life isn't what you'd call "normal."

"When Steven is recording an album, every note has to be perfect," she says. "It's almost like he's in a fog for four months straight. In fact, while recording his last album, he went without sleep for three nights in a row."

Mary Beth admits she isn't always gracious about her husband's periods of putting work before family, but she's making progress. Described by Steven as the "queen of nesters," Mary Beth puts tremendous energy into her home and family. And after 12 years of marriage, she still struggles with an "it's not fair" attitude.

"As good as it may be to write songs that encourage others in their faith, the creative process has the potential to consume me," admits Steven. "People see me from a distance and admire what I do, but my definition of success is to have the love and respect of those closest to me."

The balance Steven needs comes from having Mary Beth in his life. "I'm blessed to have her. She reminds me that I can sing about all the great things I want, but what is most important is being there for my family."

Redemptive Struggles

The Chapmans' divergent temperaments—her administrative nature and his artistic perspective—are the forces that both draw them together and make the sparks fly. Though they agree their life has been blessed, they are quick to point out that marriage is no easier for them because of Steven's success. Maintaining a marriage—often over long-distance phone lines—the Chapmans know the value of a quick and grace-filled reconciliation.

"Sometimes, when Steven's on the road, we'll get into an argument about how to deal with something one of the kids has done," Mary Beth says. "I'll hang up mad, and then he'll call me back and we'll try again. Sometimes we just have to say, 'You're there. I'm here. Let's just get this thing resolved.' We find a decision we both can live with, and that's that. Sometimes one of us has to say 'you're right,' and that's pretty hard for each of us to do."

The Chapmans find perspective in a phrase their pastor has used to describe their life and marriage. It's the idea of "struggling redemptively."

"We are not just beating the air, wrestling for the sake of wrestling," Steven says of their marriage. "We are fighting for a cause, for a relationship that is second only to our relationship with God.

"For those who think marriage is too hard, that they can't handle it, we are here to say, 'God is faithful.' Those aren't just words for us. God has sustained Mary Beth and me through some deep valleys—as well as taken us to some incredible mountaintops—and he'll continue to do so."

Joan Brasher is a freelance writer living in the Nashville area.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Expectations; Marriage; Relationships
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 1997
Posted September 12, 2008

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