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FIRST-PERSON: When God calls to break stride

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–It was lying on the beach, right in our path. A shiny, small tree branch. Without hesitation we went around it, unwilling to let such a little thing cause us to break our stride.

But in a moment of merriness and fullness of love, I wrenched my gloved hand from my husband’s to grab the stick and begin writing in the sand. First I drew a wide heart, as tall as either of us. Then, with barely a moment’s hesitation, I penned the words, “Joni Loves John.” Completing the sandy message, I drew a cupid’s arrow through the middle.

Yes, he captured my heart 22 years ago and I don’t hesitate for a moment to let him know. It was my heart he sought after and my heart he won — and I couldn’t stop telling people that day.

First, the girls at work. One of them, who works with youth, kind of laughed and said, “Well, see there, I can tell kids it’s still possible.” Then there is the bachelor who lives in the apartment across from ours — “Happy Holidays,” he said as we passed his hot grill on our way out the door.

“Twenty-two years, we’ve been married 22 years,” I gleefully told him.

“What are you doing to celebrate?” he asked, eyeing us carefully. We were dressed in sneakers, jeans and sweatshirts.

“We are going to relax,” I smiled. “We’re going to eat at a sports restaurant and then walk on the beach.”

I have to admit, this was like no other anniversary we’ve had. Usually it’s dressing up, finding a restaurant and exchanging Christmas plans for an hour or so every year. Then, dropping into bed exhausted.

But with no babysitters to corral and living only 10 minutes from the beach, I thought it would be fun do so something we both enjoy. Can you guess who likes what?

So there we sat at a virtual sport fans paradise. There were no less than six big screens showing various events, and we were served by girls and guys wearing cheerleading costumes. His kind of place, although when he pointed to a high school basketball game on one of the smaller screens, I have to admit I found some comfort in that.

It was there the parade began between nachos and iced tea. Our parade of memories. It had occurred to me that night to take a year-by-year walk down memory lane, beginning with our memory of our first meal together. He said it was Zentner’s Daughter, a landmark in Texas where the steak is larger than the plate it’s served on. I had to remind him that our FIRST meal was a late one at Denny’s, near Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo. And I honestly don’t remember actually going to the “Z” place, just hearing about it. That got us started.

Some of the memories that came quick and fast were:

— 1981 — John driving through the snow to get me to the Bethesda Naval Hospital to deliver our daughter, Belinda, on Dec. 28. They did have room at the inn.

— 1983 — John plying me with one single glass of medicinal wine to speed my labor of my son along, doctor’s orders! We had to get our closest friends who were not teetotalers to open up their liquor cabinet.

— 1986 — The kids and I leaving Germany to come back to the United States after three years. When it dawned on Belinda that John would not be coming with us that day, she stood on the other side of customs bawling quietly, “Daddy, I want my daddy.” Our friends Oma and Opa stood and cried with John while I tried to comfort her and move us along without being blinded by my own tears.

— 1989 — John’s Grandma Mae and Uncle Dave standing with him after his college graduation at Hannibal-LaGrange in Missouri. That same year a full contingent of church members showed up at FBC LaBelle to help us unload the U-Haul and move into our first parsonage.

— 1992 — I planted a victory garden outside the front of our duplex in Hannibal after my college graduation. The kids both pitched in to give me horticultural advice and it became a family project. We left for ministry in Indiana just a few months later and took most of the plants with us.

— 1998 — When John III was the preacher in Platte County High’s production of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” his sophomore year, while John was in seminary in Kansas City. Our daughter’s car threw a rod as they were driving back from the play and our son was still in his nightshirt. The kids at school had hidden his pants. A kind patrolman left a message at the house for us to go and rescue them off the highway. We bought a cell phone shortly thereafter.

— 2000 — We both received our master’s degrees. John took a church in Georgia, while our son and I stayed to finish his senior year in Kansas City. The eight-month separation was tough, but through it all, God was gracious and if possible, we all drew closer.

— 2001 — The longest summer ever, after John resigned the church in Georgia.

Looking down at the heart in the sand, it occurred to me that we never finished our trip of memories. Maybe that’s because this has been a painful year in many ways. In the future, we will be able to laugh and celebrate this time in our lives. But for now, the big heart with the genuine words will suffice.

God put the stick in my path for a reason. I had to break my stride to go back and pick it up, but after I did, the inconvenience turned into a blessing that made us both smile.

Standing on the beach, arms wrapped around each other, cold rain falling into the frothy waves — we were able to marvel in that small, but poignant truth, “Joni loves John.”

Only God knows the answers to what we sometimes think are the big questions to life. He knows the condition of our hearts and he knows of John’s need for work. Our stride has been broken in this season of our lives. But for now, we will rest on his promises that he will provide according to his riches. As of now, it’s a slight detour on a beach of opportunity. He is good.
Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness.

    About the Author

  • Joni B. Hannigan