wherever these vows may take us

The older I get, the more my perspective on weddings changes. Don’t get me wrong. The girly girl in me loves a beautiful wedding. I still tear up, I’m still a sucker for the moment the minister declares, “You may kiss your bride.” The amateur photographer in me loves a decked-out venue with creative décor. I still love the flowers and up-dos and fun bowties and slick getaway cars announcing “Just Married”. I adore all of it.

But when it comes time for the vows, I’m less romantic. I think a lot more. I wonder if they hear themselves, what they are saying, what they are promising. I wonder if I heard myself not a few years ago when I proclaimed, “For better or for worse.”

The first wedding I attended this year happened just a month after the bride’s mom passed away after many, many years of health problems compounded by more health problems. The bride’s mom and dad remained fiercely in love through it all, as she was sick through the majority of their marriage, and he poured out his life to care for her, even as they raised their children and he pastored two churches. The bride and groom had scrambled to help plan her memorial service, so that they could then finish their wedding preparations. When they stood in front of their friends and family and vowed, “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, til death do us part,” there was not a dry eye in that place. They knew, from a very delicate and realistic place, what they were committing to.

About a month ago, I received an email from one of the missionaries in Thailand whom I was able to financially support through my anti-human trafficking photo fundraiser project. She wrote of how her husband has recently been involved in some exciting but dangerous operations to help apprehend some of the perpetrators. This is a couple who met and married in the States, originally working as CPAs. Stable and successful in every worldly sense, they undoubtedly never dreamt on their wedding day that they would end up raising their two young children in Thailand, sacrificing the comforts of the life they knew, sacrificing time with one another and putting the husband in harm’s way to fight global human trafficking. “For richer or for poorer.”

Also within recent months, a beloved coworker was diagnosed, through the most divinely providential set of unforeseeable circumstances, with a malignant brain tumor. He and his wife, both exceptional athletes, undoubtedly fell in love in part due to their mutual passion for the outdoors and for their respective sports. We are all optimistic for his recovery, and I love that he has already, in faith, signed up for future races. But surely they never saw this curve ball coming at this stage in life.  “In sickness and in health.”

When two people find each other, fall in love, and persevere through the ups and downs of courtship to even make it to their wedding day, it is a gift, it is hard work, it is a miracle. When two people hold fast to their vows from that day, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, in light of every curve ball and adaptation and sacrifice,

it is, at the risk of sounding cliché and cheesy,

true love.

I wasn’t lying then, but I am more honest now

Do you and your husband interact differently now than when you first got married?

I can’t stop thinking about this question posed to me and the husband by a soon-to-be-married couple, and my brief response at the time:

I think we’re a lot more honest with each other now.

Much of this is because we know ourselves a lot better, we know each other a lot better, and we’re more familiar with ourselves in light of one another. We know ourselves in ways that can only be revealed through shared life under one roof for an extended period of time. It wasn’t so much that we were being dishonest during the period of courtship. There were just so many things that had yet to be more fully revealed; hence there was only so much we could intentionally disclose to each other, much less ourselves, when we were still just dating. Learning to see oneself and one’s spouse truthfully in the context of many different life circumstances inherently takes time, effort, and experience. Surviving the occasional shock of these lessons requires honesty, humility, and the openness to being shaped and reshaped by another person – again, and again, and again. I thought I knew myself so well when we got married. I thought I wouldn’t really change all that much with time. Wrong on both counts. But a good kind of wrong, I would say. Deeper self-awareness and growth are from God. This marriage has been both the context and the tool.

Much of this is also about growing in trust and commitment. Unlike in dating or engagement, the entire relationship is no longer on the line if I say too many things that displease or unsettle him, and vice versa. (Obviously I am not applying this to more extreme cases like abuse.) We’re committed to walking together for life now, so we might as well be more honest about those issues that make the road rougher, and learn to truly smooth them out rather than romantically gloss over them. After all, if I’m not really planning to stick around, or he’s thinking of calling it quits, then I can lie and say it doesn’t really bother me that much that he roots obnoxiously for the Trojans. But since I must live with this major character flaw of his, then I might as well tell him how I really feel about it and then figure out some sort of compromise. No honey, we can’t paint the whole house cardinal and gold, but you can buy that ugly jacket. Just don’t wear it out on our date nights. Our love for one another is not perfect, obviously. (How could anyone love a Trojan fan perfectly?) But we can move from places of being stuck in our shortcomings, forgive one another because Christ has already forgiven us, and work hard at moving forward for good because this is how God in His forbearance loves us.

We’re coming up on eight years of marriage. I had someone say to me the other day, “After fourteen years for me and my spouse, it’s now more about tolerance than it is about love.” I found that to be incredibly sad. Less newlywed romance, perhaps. But mere tolerance and only wistful remnants of love? I don’t think it has to be that way. I think with each day, month, year together, we’re building something that is ultimately helping us to say an even more honest “I love you” now than what we uttered on our very wedding day.

I’m (not) sexy and I (don’t) know it

I heard the word used in a couple of different contexts today and I couldn’t help but feel curious. Sexy. What is that? Someone’s original topic for a book proposal was initially rejected because it wasn’t sexy enough. And of course, the more common context. Girl, you are sexy. (Please note, not said to me. I’m not sexy and I know it.)

It’s a curious word. Let’s take the context of getting a book published, in this case, non-fiction. The topic has got to be beyond interesting. It’s got to be beyond important. Even really important. It’s got to be sexy. I’m disappointed to say that the first comparison that comes to mind is Super Bowl Sunday when everyone is scrutinizing the commercials to pick out the most memorable. Meh, we’ve seen the typical Toyota commercial showing a spotless new car gliding along the shoreline, a happy family laughing, a dog grinning in the back, and 0% interest for 12 months. But it’s the commercial where the car door opens and out emerges the very long-legged woman in very high heels in a very tight dress that causes even the most ambivalent football fan to stop mid-conversation to gaze at the screen for a few extra moments. This, I suppose, is the desired effect with book topics among publishers. Sexy. The bookworm will be perusing the bookstand in the “newly released” section. We really do judge a book by its cover. Some, you look at and you just don’t take seriously at all, ever. But there are those books, with just the right play on words in the title and subtitle, just the right delivery of visual interest in the cover design, that lure you. They make promises and you want to know if they will deliver. They draw you in on a deeply personal level, in ways that you have not been drawn in, or drawn out, before. Sexy.

And of course there’s the more common context for the word sexy: people, usually female.  I am not sexy. I don’t know how to be. I’m way too practical for high heels and I shave on the minimal end of minimal. I look at magazine covers and they confuse me. Who makes those kinds of facial expressions in everyday life? The ‘come hither’ look. Am I supposed to learn how to make that kind of facial expression with my husband? I think he’d just laugh. I’d laugh. Who are you and what have you done with my wife? I like that he thinks I’m pretty when I wear a nice dress, do my hair a bit, add a touch of blush and light perfume. But I like that he loves me when my matted hair tells him that I’ve clearly slept on my left side all night, when I don’t feel like getting myself out of my pajamas and bedhead until 10AM on my days off, and when I’ve come in from an evening run with hair pinned back, my face red and dripping with sweat. Truth be told, I like being demure. A lot. I love that my husband wanted to get to know me for demure me. I know he’s not immune to visual temptation but I love that he makes a concerted effort to turn his eyes away when those commercials come on, looks at me and tells me I am beautiful. Who knows, maybe I am sexy. If being demure means that I can draw my husband in on a deeply personal level, like a sexy book where all you want is to spend time getting to know more of what is going on in this amazing life that a well-written book takes on, then maybe I do want to be sexy, maybe I am sexy and I just don’t know it.

a messy answer to a loaded question

It is an incredibly hard question to answer. You’d think that I would have some kind of ready response, given that I think about it every day, but there simply is no neatly packaged answer that seems to do any meaningful justice to the question,

What is it like to be a pastor’s wife?

First, I need to explain why it is so hard to answer this question in the first place. Complexity. This is not just one question. It is at least two. What is it like to be the wife of a pastor? And what is it like to be in the separate but related role of “a pastor’s wife”?

So now, part one of that question: What is it like to be in a marriage relationship with someone who is a pastor?

Well, relationship is fundamentally molded by time shared. And for the pastor, there are demands on his time that do not exist for any other profession, coupled with expectations that he can or should find a way to meet many, if not most, if not all of those demands. This makes for an irregular schedule for your home life. His meetings with people are generally scheduled around the 9-5 work schedule that the majority of people abide by, which means that others’ free time is his work time, i.e. evenings and weekends. The spouse, then, either comes with him or stays home without him, both options having their challenges if the spouse works full-time herself. And it’s not just demands on his time. It’s demands on his emotional, mental, intellectual and spiritual self. He is constantly asked to give, and give well, on all these levels. He needs to find time to recharge, through our marriage but also apart from me. He needs his man-cave time too. It takes a lot of intentional effort on both his and my part to help make sure that happens.

If you are married to the pastor, you don’t hear the sermon the same way as everyone else in the congregation. At least I don’t. I am thinking about the sermon, but I’m also thinking about how he feels about his sermon and what kind of feedback he will want and need from me afterwards. I listen to sermon podcasts from other pastors so that I can listen to a sermon just for the sake of my own learning and growth, and for nothing else. I also have learned how to better negotiate with my pastor-husband just how much he uses me and our relationship as analogies or examples for the things he is preaching about. While I consider myself to be fairly honest and open about my life, I am nonetheless uncomfortable being the center of attention, especially in a larger group. I don’t always want to be worked into the sermon. Our dog has been a nice substitute.

If God gives you children, you are going to raise the pastor’s children. You want them to be just your children, but the fact remains, they are also the pastor’s children.  No pressure.

You know the pastor in ways that no one else does. You know his dreams, his hopes, his fears, his frailties. And you are to be his main support and encourager through it all. It is wonderful and amazing. It can also be heartbreaking.

Now, part two of the question: What is it like to be in the role of “the pastor’s wife”?

The expected “role” of “the pastor’s wife” is largely defined by your denomination, and more specifically, the personalities in your church congregation. They determine a lot of the underlying definitions and expectations of that “role.” Even if you have a supportive congregation and a fairly healthy sense of self, you still feel yourself constantly negotiating those tensions between what you want and need and what you feel others want and need. What is more, the tensions are not completely static. They will change as your congregation changes, and they will change as your own personal life changes. As a result, you are constantly re-negotiating them to some degree. You’re evaluating your personality type, your social preferences, your boundaries with time, the needs of the church, and your own needs. And you’ve stepped into this role, regardless of any other roles you already play in your own career, family, and other circles of influence.

There are other miscellaneous dynamics that are somewhat unique to the role of the pastor’s wife.

Your financial situation is different from everyone else’s. I’m not talking so much about salary and tax laws, though those can certainly be sticky topics. I’m talking about perception and expectations related to finances. What you buy, what you wear, what you drive, where you live, where you go on vacation. You feel the presence of perceptions and expectations related to all these things more than the spouse of any other profession, I would argue. I know of one pastor’s wife whose husband won a contest from a local sports radio station, which landed a huge HDTV in their living room. I know of another pastor’s wife whose wealthy mother-in-law passed on a used Mercedes to her and her husband. These would be much more normal and acceptable in any other context, but because the husband’s occupation is that of a pastor, they receive, at times, questioning looks about these nicer things in their possession, and they feel a need to explain.

Your relationships are just different. It’s hard to articulate the dynamics in this arena. But I remember going to a family’s home for New Year’s Eve, and they had two energetic, playful dogs who proceeded to do what dogs sometimes do – they humped. Mortified, the teenage son pulled one dog off of the other with this specific scolding: “Not in front of the pastor’s wife!” I was mostly amused but also a little sad. He didn’t feel like he could let his dog just be a dog, simply because I was there, and I was the “pastor’s wife”? I never forgot that, maybe because it reflected a bit of this underlying threat to honest and real relationships that I wish with all my might didn’t exist, but does. Adam McHugh describes this well in his blog post, Why I Sometimes Lie About My Profession.

There are spiritual aspects around this question that I have for now intentionally left out of this post. Not because they aren’t important, and not because life is really that compartmentalized. God knows that without the spiritual aspects for me and my husband, none of this would ever be possible or worth it. But I left them out because usually when people ask me the initial question presented at the beginning of this post, they are asking about the day-to-day, nitty gritty stuff, which is what I’ve tried my best to describe here in hopefully some measure of succinctness.

I also do not intend this blog post to come across as a litany of complaints. I’m just trying to describe the experience of at least this one pastor’s wife as honestly and as straightforward as I can. These are the challenges and tensions that I am constantly working through. Can it be hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

How introversion suits my pastor’s wife. And oh, that’s me.

Back in my college years, I remember dreaming about becoming a pastor’s wife. Oh silly, naive me. I certainly found a shepherd’s heart to be wonderfully attractive. I thought it would be neat to be an encourager, the main encourager, to a person in that role. I thought it would be neat for my own self to have more doors open for me to care for others.Then, I married a pastor, and I cried.  I can’t do this. I can’t. do. this.

Please don’t get me wrong. Our church community is as genuinely supportive as it gets in their care towards us and their respect of our boundaries around our personal lives. They are actually quite amazing in how supportive they are. But even still, the roles of pastor and pastor’s wife are just inherently hard. Boundaries between the professional and the personal and incredibly blurry. Our personal life, in so many ways, is completely intertwined with my husband’s professional life. That’s a lot of pressure when you’re having a bad day. When my Sunday mornings come on the heels of a busy stretch of shifts at work in the hospital, I can tell that my ability to engage in meaningful conversation at church is not so stellar, and it’s in those moments that I hope people can understand that this introvert can’t always keep up so well with the roles of nurse and pastor’s wife without a bit of social faltering here and there. I hope they can remember that I’m primarily Stephen’s wife, not ‘the pastor’s wife’. Well, beyond that, I hope they can remember that I’m just me.

After reading Adam McHugh‘s lifechanging book, Introverts in the Church, followed by Susan Cain‘s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, I have become significantly more comfortable with my personality type and have learned how to recognize, treasure, and make the most out of the strengths that introversion has to offer. I’ve learned how to pull myself out of overstimulating crowds and engage in smaller, quieter conversations with just one or two people. I’ve learned how to communicate my needs for periods of solitude to my husband so that he can plan his meetings and dinners at our home accordingly. I’ve learned that I do not need to feel guilty when I keep my open days open, and use much of that free time to read, write, and take long walks to pray. I’ve learned that this is what makes me a better listener and a better talker in the long run. And I have to admit, I still relish the shock on peoples’ faces when they find that I have a very sarcastic, pranksterish side that I love to keep quietly hidden until just the right time.

But really, as I have gained a much better understanding of who I am and what my introverted rhythms are in terms of a social versus private balance, I honestly feel that this has helped my husband and I guard our own time together in a much healthier way. While he is an introvert as well, he has much more social stamina and he does not have as strong of a need for structure in his days. My counselor suggested that I help build in structure, not only for my own alone time, but for the two of us, in order to help ensure that we both have sufficient space to breathe, rest, and receive.

Some may say that pastors and pastors’ wives would do better if they were all extroverts. I would say that I love being an introvert married to an introverted pastor, and I would say that our personality type is a good, good thing for us.

out of my way

The husband and I just returned from a most fantastic vacation to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. And the one thing I quickly realized about both of us is that we will go out of our way to find really good food, really good coffee, and good photo opps.

Sterling Coffee Roasters in Portland most definitely met the coffee and photo opp categories. This awesome little vintage-style stand with the. world’s. best. mocha. EVER. Think dark chocolate. Top notch espresso. Perfectly creamy steamed milk.

I think I need to book another plane ticket. Soon.

a house divided

It was the first time I ever caught him lying to me. I wanted to scream but had no one to scream at. I was home alone when I realized it, and I couldn’t even think of what I might say or do when he got home. How did he manage to keep such a poker face for so long? I thought I could read him so well, but obviously, I was wrong. I didn’t know what else he had told me that I had to start second-guessing.

He taught me to whistle one of the USC fight songs, and told me it was UCLA’s fight song. So he, being the die-hard Trojan fan that he was, would walk around the house whistling one of USC’s songs, and the naive, ever-so-trusting wife that I was, would whistle my supposed UCLA fight song in retaliation. He let it go on for months. Until that evening when he was out, and I was home alone watching a USC football game. USC scored their first touchdown, their band started playing, and suddenly my ears perked up. That song. The song I’ve been whistling all these months. That’s not the UCLA fight song!

Ok, so I realize that it’s a bit pathetic that I had been such a terrible Bruin fan (a two-time Bruin, for that matter) that I didn’t even know my own school’s fight song. And it’s even more pathetic because UCLA is so huge with its sports life, as opposed to my first alma mater, UCSD, which had absolutely zero sports life to boast of. I suppose I have some responsibility to account for here. But even still! He lied to me. He lived that lie for months. And he loves to rub it in my face that I fell for it.  

We are without a doubt a house divided. A UCLA blanket lies next to a USC blanket. A UCLA baseball cap next to a USC cap. Mugs, plates, t-shirts, it all testifies of the animosity that pervades our otherwise happy home. Football season has started and I always re-realize just how obnoxious my otherwise kind-hearted husband becomes at this time of the year. I see the same Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde phenomenon in my Trojan friends whom I otherwise love and get along with wonderfully. The trash talk flies unabashedly and they take tremendous joy in waving those two ridiculous fingers in my face. One family of six in particular, the majority being Trojan alumni, even made arrangements to have the USC marching band come to play at their son’s wedding reception, big ridicuolous feathery helmets, sunglasses, brass and all. The Bruins there were outnumbered and we had to endure a good 30 minutes of Trojan cacophany, including the majority of the crowd yelling “UCLA sucks!” at the top of their lungs when it came time for the band to play “Tusk.” You can be sure my husband was eating it up.

For better or for worse is what I signed up for. And now that football season is here, it’s definitely for worse.

say yes to the dolphin

We first met at the Mount Hermon Career / Young Adult conference. You were a workshop speaker, and I was there from a small local seminary to network with pastors and other leaders. When we started talking on that last day of the conference, it was purely business on my end. I did, however, remember hearing a lot of people make unsolicited remarks throughout the week about how much you had impacted their lives for the better, and that made an impression on me. When we started dating, my boss laughingly said, “I didn’t send you there to find a husband!” I shrugged and said, hey, I networked.

We had similar temperaments and similar life goals. I felt incredibly safe with you. I remember saying to you early in our dating life that I just didn’t think there were guys like you out there anymore. I remember when you invited friends over for a sushi feast after a spectacular tuna fishing trip. For hours, I just watched people walk in and out of your house as if it was their own home. Your heart was and is so big. The sink got clogged with fish remnants and fishy water at one point in the evening and flooded the entire kitchen floor with fish-gut water. As calm as could be, you went about cleaning the floor as if it was just a small spill. I marveled.

You endured all the wariness that came from my lovingly protective parents, and weathered their grilling the night you asked for my hand. You recruited a dolphin to help with your proposal in Oahu, Hawaii. How could I say no to a dolphin? I kid. That was so creative, so outside-the-box, so you.

In our first months of marriage, I was so amazed that you were my husband. So I would constantly just address you, in awe, as “husband.” You would respond, “wife.” I find it hilarious that we still call each other as such, but with a different, more comfortable, and well, less romantic tone, and people who hear us find it amusing and almost insulting. But we know how it started.

Outside of your crazy sushi skills, I love that you went from having all of three items in your refrigerator – an old ketchup bottle, a small foil-wrapped packet of soy sauce, and a half-empty bag of baby carrots when we first met – to becoming one of the most elaborate cooks I know. Your repertoire now includes pulled pork tostadas, mango mochi, and sweet tamales. Oh how I have domesticated you!

People say that once you get married, you discover all the weaknesses of the other person. But I constantly think about how I have been so blessed to have seen your strengths and your integrity shine through more than anything. Of course we’ve had our differences and our issues that we have needed to work out, as any two individuals would when they try to bring their lifestyles and habits and preferences together under one roof. But you have consistently treated me with love and respect. You look away from scantily-clad women on the television and fix your gaze on me. When I have spoken with grumpy, sharp words, I see you pause and make a choice time and time again to only respond with gentleness and kindness. You have always made it clear that I am not a “pastor’s wife,” but I am your wife. You live an incredibly generous life. At times I struggle to keep up, but you are always patient, always gracious, and always inspiring. You have always sought to protect me, from things outside of me as well as the voices in my own head that can sometimes be too harsh. You have been a safe place for my heart. You show me through your life who God is, and who I am as His beloved.

I have no doubt I take you for granted more often than not. But as our 7-year anniversary approaches, I want you to know that there is no one else in the world that I would have rather spent the past 7 years of marriage with, and there is no one else I could imagine going forward in life with, in all its joys, storms, twists and turns.

I love you, husband.

– wife

He called this place home

It was without doubt a defining moment in our relationship. We were dating seriously by that point, but I was still unpacking all the fears that were surfacing about letting someone get so close to me. I didn’t expect to feel so vulnerable, or so terrified by my vulnerability. He really had no idea what he could do to my heart if he wanted to change his mind about everything.

So there we were at his house after spending the day together. He was on one sofa watching television, and I was on the other sofa, fast asleep.  And then I woke with a start after hearing a moderate-volume rumbling that seemed to originate from very, very close by. Dazed, I looked over at him and his lips were pressed together in a suppressed half-smile of amusement.

And then it dawned on me.

So I asked in some disbelief, “Did I…just… fart?”

He nodded, and broke into a grin.

And then we hi-fived.

And that was when I knew that I had a safe place in this relationship that my heart could call home.

*cue wedding music*

Ok, so love isn’t really that easy. But the story does illustrate how we open ourselves up to be discovered, for better or for worse, when we enter into close(r) relationships with one another. What adds to the complexity is the fact that it is not only another person discovering who we are, but we are discovering ourselves as well. I was already acutely aware of some of the less lovely parts in me that I preferred to keep hidden for as long as possible. But I didn’t realize there were so many more that would emerge once I began sharing life more intimately with another person. Where did these come from? And so there was my selfishness. My impatience. My dysfunction. My way of doing things (and my very strong preference for it). Laid out for us to see.  There wasn’t enough time for me to sweep out the cobwebs, tidy the clutter, put the dirty laundry away, or pull out the air freshener. And yet he still somehow called this place home, and said it could be my home too.

I am constantly humbled by this love. I am comforted by how it points me again and again to the home that my heart ultimately has in the unfailing, unchanging, eternal love of God.

When we first adopted our sweet dog JJ from our dear friends, the poor little guy was clearly traumatized. He hung his head low on that first unfamiliar car ride to our house despite our quiet attempts at reassuring him, his eyes forlorn, confused, and resigned. At first he refused to walk with us, ambivalent about our trustworthiness and unaccustomed to our role in his life. Some weeks passed, and we worked on the relationship. We got to know his quirks, and he got to know ours. His anxiety visibly lessened, and his affection slowly grew. He began to follow us from room to room, wanting more and more to simply be where we were. One afternoon we were out for a couple of hours, only to find that he had discovered a hole in the fence that was big enough for him to squeeze through. We had no idea how long it had been since he got out of the back yard. But there he was, sitting patiently at the front door, waiting for us to return.

He wasn’t going anywhere. We had taken him in, and he in turn had let us in.

He was home.