Dear Pastor Bob,
We will miss you and your family, and your dog. You are the best pastor I have ever had, and the best one I will ever have in my life.
My husband was inundated with notes like this one when, in June 1994, we left the church he had pastored in Honduras for four years. Bob and I wanted to settle stateside for the high school years of our three sons. The pain of that season of goodbyes ("See you in heaven!") was intense.
At the same time, the future was uncertain. When the American Airlines 757 lifted us away from those green-velvet mountains, we had no forwarding address, no income, no idea where we would lay our heads one week to the next. Our church paid our airfare back to Cleveland, where my husband's parents met us with our sole possession: a Dodge Caravan they purchased for us with money we'd left in a stateside account.
For months we meandered up and down the eastern U.S.—the three boys and our 100-pound retriever sharing space in the back seats and our worldly possessions squeezed into the car-top carrier. Loving friends and family took us in (dog and all).
That was the easy part.
After the initial four-month sojourn, we settled temporarily in Bob's hometown in Ohio to seek permanent jobs. I was uncertain what my dreams of working in Christian journalism would come to, but soon several congregations were interested in Bob. We wondered at God's orchestration: months of rootless wandering, and suddenly—a choice!
We narrowed the field to a church in New Jersey and arranged the candidating weekend. Our lives seemed to be on a steady course when, out of nowhere, we were suddenly pitched into a whirlwind.
Change of Course
I had seen an ad in Christianity Today magazine soliciting resumes for the position of associate editor. My journalistic experience had included newspaper articles and a column for the English-language newspaper in Honduras. I also worked for a national magazine that had me chasing down things like unsavory details about human rights abuses and child prostitution (and kept me looking over my shoulder a lot). The thought of working for a Christian publication was a dream to me. So when I read that the magazine wanted someone with both journalism experience and a theological degree, I joked to my husband, "What they're looking for has my name on it!"
"Send 'em a resume," was his casual reply.
Two weeks later, on a Tuesday, Bob and I sat at our kitchen table, stunned. I had a job offer in the Chicago area, and he was scheduled to preach as a candidate at the church in New Jersey. I choked back the tears that Sunday morning as my husband preached the sermon of his life. Every pew was filled, the congregation was spiritually alive, and they wanted my husband as their pastor. I privately started dismantling my dream.
Back in Ohio, we were completely confounded. Bob couldn't bring himself to snuff out the dream of my lifetime, while I couldn't ask him to pass up this church. To the west, where my aspirations lay, there were no assurances for anyone but me: no job for my husband, no home to walk into, insufficient income (until my husband could find work), no network of friends, no church waiting to welcome us. Our family had everything to gain by going east—a ready-made home, community, income, and church family.
Bob and I fell silent, mentally coexisting in the separate worlds that wooed us. He mulled over strategies for networking small groups; I fantasized about conversations with my contemporary Christian heroes.
But even those fantasies couldn't justify, in my mind, putting my family through the turmoil that would attend my dream. Four days into that painful week, Bob and I lay on our bed, elbows propped. With tears welling up, I broke the silence: "I'll call them and tell them I'm not coming."
He answered: "Don't call them yet."
Nearly a week of indecision passed. Both would-be employers were waiting to hear from us. "Flip a coin!" our parents were saying.
Then, out of nowhere, my husband walked up and put his arms around me. "I think we should move west," he said, "because it requires more faith."
We packed up the Caravan in the dead of winter, kids and dog in their usual places, and moved west. I started my new job, sitting with editors and designers, conceiving titles and cover concepts. Bob sat with the Welcome Wagon lady as she showered him with free samples from Mary Kay.
My husband came to know the Lord through the book The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky. The godly, searching nature of the lead character, Alyosha, convinced him of the authenticity of Christian faith, even in the face of suffering. Father Zossima, a pious monk, taught Alyosha about the nature of love: "A true act of love, unlike imaginary love, is hard and forbidding. Imaginary love yearns for an immediate heroic act that is achieved quickly and seen by everyone . . . A true act of love, on the other hand, requires hard work and patience, and, for some, it is a whole way of life." I suppose that's what Paul meant when he told husbands to love their wives "as Christ loved the church"—a love that, at times, can be "forbidding."
We held out hope that Bob would quickly receive a pastoral call. And almost instantly, he secured an interim position. But the long commute and the part-time status of that position led him to look for a full-time pastorate closer to home. The weeks stretched into months, and then years, of wondering why nothing emerged. Loving me "as Christ loved the church" meant, in my husband's case, finding sales at the grocery store on Tuesdays and throwing the wash in on Wednesdays.
I found it incomprehensible that God would have perfectly orchestrated the realization of my dream without so much as giving a nod to my husband's. There have been times when following the path that required "more faith" has tendered so little light that we could only grope along wondering where God could be in all this.
Two years passed before Bob secured a permanent pastoral position. During that time we learned to stop measuring our life in terms of dreams realized or lost. Jim Elliot, the martyred missionary, wrote: "Is it not for all its sting a wonderful way to live . . . to dream and want and pray almost savagely; then to commit and wait and see him quietly pile all dreams aside and replace them with what we could not dream—the realized will?"
In our groping, Bob and I stumbled into the territory of God's "realized will." We found a wholeness not defined by our categories or upheld by earthly props. We began to understand that God's purposes aren't always defined in terms of career advancement and that his plan is bigger than the sum total of our dreams. We learned that we cannot "manage" God, and that freed us to pray simply, "You are my portion, O Lord" (Psalm 119:57).
A few months ago, we were sitting in our family room for family devotions. My husband asked our boys, "Are you happy in the Lord?"
I wondered what he meant.
"Yes," our 13-year-old said.
"Why are you happy?" Bob asked.
"Because I'm in cross country and it's fun," he said.
"Could you be happy if you weren't in cross country?" Bob asked.
"Yes. Because I have lots of friends," he said.
"Could you be happy if you didn't have lots of friends?"
Our son didn't answer.
Being "happy" in the Lord, Bob and I came to see, is not getting everything we want when we want it. It is an elusive and indescribable sense that all is well, regardless of our circumstances. Sometimes it takes being backed against a wall before that kind of well-being can be born in our hearts.
When the 72 disciples Jesus had sent out on a ministry tour returned elated with their results, he told them: "Do not rejoice that spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20). It was as if Jesus had asked them, "Could you be 'happy' serving me if the demons hadn't submitted to you?"
It was as if he were asking my husband, "Could you be happy doing my will for a season if you didn't have a pastorate?"
We ended our devotions by thanking God that our names are written in heaven and that his love does not change and cannot be taken away. Bob fixed himself on the couch, looked at me and said, "I'm happy in the Lord."
Wendy Murray Zoba is an award-winning author, publisher of Ecco Qua Press, and a former associate editor of Christianity Today .
Copyright © 1997 by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.