Approaching the Firsts

DSCN4389Jon and I loved to spoil each other. We were lavish in our celebration of holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Well, I guess we had a tendency toward lavish all the time! We both loved surprises and loved planning meaningful ways to communicate love. And people would look us in amazement. We heard things like, “I have never seen someone so sappy, and in love with her husband…”  “Wait till you’ve been married 20 years…”  “You’ll never be able to keep it up. How can you top it next year if you start this big?”  “If you keep writing mushy posts, I think I’m going to throw up.”—Thank you Pastor Jamie for that last one! You didn’t fool us though. We had your number.

But anyway, I find that I just want to talk and talk and talk about Jon, as if the words will permanently etch the memories on my heart, so that they may not be erased or grow dim in clarity.  And yes, it is a blessing to think of all the cherished times.  I don’t need to get over Jon. The cherished times remind me of just how much God has given… yes, still present tense, has given. They remind me of a love exponentially more lavish than Jon’s! So, here’s a glimpse at our lavish love, a window into some of my precious memories.

Special Days

We had decided we weren’t going to tell each other “I love you,” until we knew we were going to marry.  Believe me, I wanted to sometimes, but I wanted him to be first! One night we were on the phone around midnight, and I’m not sure what came over me, but I said, “I’m going to marry you.”  We still had not said those three important words.  On the other end he exclaimed, “What? Hold on! I’ll be right there!” Then he hung up. Ten minutes later Jon screeched into my driveway, burst out of his car, grabbed me and exclaimed, “I love you! I love you so much I can’t breathe!”  And of course, I told him I loved him too.

On Jon’s first birthday we spent together I told him to take the day off, but I didn’t tell him anything else. I surprised him with a trip to the Georgia Aquarium, Coke Factory, a picnic in Olympic Park, and a Cubs game… all in one day!  We were moving after we got married, so who knew when we’d make it back to Georgia. We had to get our money’s worth, as it were. Day trips continued to be some of our most fun and favorite quality time together. We spent days in cute little towns like Hendersonville, Pumpkintown, and Galena. We did Washington D.C. and Williamsburg when we were visiting my parents. And of course, when we moved to Illinois, Chicago was one of our favorites.  We loved riding the train and Jon thoroughly enjoyed taking me to new parts of the city I hadn’t seen before.  I got to go to Sears Tower (I guess it’s actually the Willis Tower now, but seriously who calls it that?), Navy Pier, Michigan Avenue, Shedd Aquarium, Museum of Science and Industry, where Jon had to take 537 pictures of a model train set (maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but only slightly), Wrigley where I had my first Chicago dog… We enjoyed life together.

In our first year of marriage we were pretty tight financially so we had to get creative. But it’s ok, lavish love doesn’t have to be expensive. For Valentine’s Day we literally scraped up the spare change from the console in our car and bought cake mix and pink frosting.  We also made a deal that we each had to make home-made Valentines. It’s one of my favorite memories. On Jon’s birthday that year I made his favorite meal, pork and sauerkraut with mashed potatoes, set an elegant table, and put a couple hundred sticky notes all around our apartment telling him things I loved about him.  Another birthday I wrapped up “round the clock gifts,” and even made him take them to work so he could continue to open one every hour.

The week before our first anniversary, Jon was in Chicago for job training. Boy did we look forward to our reunion! I “recreated” our honeymoon suite. I even hung a sign on the outside of our door with “Carolinian,” the name of the suite, written in delicate letters. Then I made a little scavenger hunt complete with hidden clues. Our apartment wasn’t very big, so he knew where I was hiding pretty quickly.  But I made him figure out each riddle and follow each clue! And when he figured it out, the prize was, well… Moving on.

And of course, there were so many ways Jon lavished love on me too.  Before our first Christmas Jon searched the internet for weeks to find an original boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia—not in chronological order, but in publication order, of course, because he knew my silly soapbox that they must be read the way C.S. Lewis wrote them… Yes. I proudly stand on that one. He was so excited to give me that gift. For our 2nd anniversary Jon planned a weekend trip to Lake Geneva, and he even called my principal at school to arrange for me to have “surprise days off.” On my 30th birthday Jon told me to take a half-day off of school. I received an email that morning that said, “Dear Mrs. Atkins. Your driver will be waiting outside promptly at 11:15. He will be holding a sign. Sincerely, J. Atkins Cab Co.” And so the adventure began.

Even in the Mundane

I could keep going, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you the lavish love on normal, mundane days. This was the extravagance that took the form of sacrificial giving and service. And  Jon won hands down! He gave and gave and gave to me. On cold mornings he always went out and started my car and scraped away the ice. He usually made me eat the last m&m. Because he knew my love affair with popcorn, he’d always spend the extra money and buy it when we went to see a movie.  We inherited an old vacuum from his parents that needed a lot of “umph” to actually get the floor clean. And every week he would vacuum because he said he didn’t want me to have to get all sweaty gross. It could have also just been his neat freak tendencies, but nonetheless he wanted to do it. Because I’m so NOT a morning person, he was my alarm clock. And even though he never was one to push “snooze,” he graciously gave me “five more minutes” (at least twice..hehe) every day.

I’m notorious for losing bobby pins. They show up everywhere, in the washing machine, in the car, in baskets,  under the couch,  on the end table, lurking in a corner… And at first this used to really bother my slightly ocd husband. I really tried hard to put them where they belong, but it was a losing battle. One day Jon picked up a bobby pin, and said “I suppose lovee that I’ve come to adore seeing your bobby pins. I think it would make me really sad if I stopped finding them everywhere.”

Jon was an end of the toothpaste squeezer married to a middle squeezer.  A potential point of contention, of course, more so for him than me.  But I think he just lovingly reset the toothpaste tube after I used it.  These mundane things were extravagant in their own way. This was him loving his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. (Ephesians 5)

Button pushing was another form of Jon’s lavish love, for each new way he devised to “torture” me was evidence of playfulness and affection.  Remember those little boys who tried to pull ponytails in kindergarten?  Yep. You got it- Jonathan Andrew.  And if he got the desired reaction, he would clap his hands and grin in a silly child-like manner. And I would take his chin in my hand and say, “Andrew, you are such a five year old boy.”  With a smirk, the response was always, “No, I’m at least five and a half.”

His lavish love was also holding me and letting me cry sometimes. It was confronting my sin with truth. It was letting me hug him and not let go until I counted out loud to 30 (a totally arbitrary number). It was driving at night because he knew how much I hated it.  It was stroking my hair as I laid my head in his lap. It was unconditional forgiveness. It was not holding a grudge. It was pointing me to Christ when I doubted or was discouraged. It was reminding me of the gospel frequently.

Without Jon?

Among my precious memories, though is the realization that first holidays without him are quickly approaching,  Easter, Jon’s birthday, and our anniversary.  Small tangent, Valentine’s Day was actually the first holiday since Jon’s death, but the pain was still so blinding and raw at that point that every day was the same. But as these firsts draw near, I’ve already started feeling the depths that may be associated with them.  So here are my thoughts. I suppose folks may have still considered us newlyweds with only 2 1/2 years under our belt.  Perhaps we wouldn’t have stayed so lavish with one another over 50 years, who knows.— Call me a fool, but I’m not sure I really believe that! Life, children, responsibilities, whatever, could have subdued the romance at times in the future, but that is not the sole or always present mark of lavish love.  And I recognize and understand that the enduring foundation of marriage is not romance. It was not our foundation. We loved loving one another, but our bedrock was Christ and the gospel. Marriage is a covenant that is a picture of Christ’s covenant with the church. It’s a covenant based on promises not performance, just like my relationship with God! Though romance would have had its ebbs and flows, I sure hope we would have remained lavish forever!!

Let me explain, our lavishness didn’t have to be expensive, and often it was not. But as I think of the love Christ has for His church, I’m overwhelmed by His extravagance!  If our bedrock was Christ and the gospel, then our marriage was built on the most extravagant display of sacrificial love in all of eternity.

So let me unpack that one message again in a slightly different manner. Christ, fully God and fully man, was never created. He dwelt forever with the Father, and Holy Spirit. Don’t ask me to explain the Trinity! I can’t. But, three in one, God spoke the world into existence. Christ made all things, the stars, the planets, the universe… And before time He was exalted with all majesty, splendor and authority, and power.  Yet He was personal. He walked in the garden in perfect fellowship with His creation. But man in the greatest betrayal chose to heed Satan’s lies, casting himself and all creation under the weight of sin.  So marred and fractured by sin, man’s relationship to God was broken. The penalty for sin was costly–death, a fate that God never intended His beloved creation to experience.  So mankind was utterly hopeless. He could not fulfill the perfect demands of God’s righteousness. But God in His mercy clothed Adam and Eve and covered their nakedness with a sacrifice, a substitute.  And even there He foreshadowed that a perfect sacrifice would come. So God became man. Christ exalted and clothed in splendor, God Himself, humbled Himself and took upon the form of a servant (Philippians 2). On the cross, He was the perfect sacrifice. The once and complete atonement.  He paid the high cost–death, so that we might live! He rose again, ever lives, and will come again. This is the true redemption story. And one day, even all creation will be restored.  Creation. Fall. Redemption. Restoration. Does this not stir your heart? Isn’t this lavish? Isn’t this overflowing, abundant love that cannot be comprehended?

Jon and I desired our marriage to reflect Christ, and our lavishness toward another was one manifestation of that reflection.  Our feeble attempts were but a glimpse of our Savior’s love. You see, lavishness doesn’t merely refer to romance. True lavish, extravagant love is sacrificial. It is meeting the needs of the one loved. It is seeking his best.  Christ gave us that example.  The power of the gospel was transforming us to be what He already said we were—like Him.  So I will not feel guilty for lavish love. Our love was lavish because our God is lavish.

So here’s what I’m NOT saying. “Wow, look at us! We had a fantastic marriage! Don’t you wish your husband adored you this way?”  Far from it!! We’re not the example. Don’t view my precious memories as the epitome. We did not have all our stuff together. And of course, we had our junk.  We did not have it all figured out.  We failed a lot.

But here’s the truth.  Like the woman who broke her box of valuable ointment to anoint the feet of Jesus washing them with her hair, I want to love much because I have been loved much. I have been loved far more than I can comprehend.  (Luke 7:36-50)

Chicago at Night
Chicago at Night
Sears Tower
Sears Tower
Round the clock gifts
Round the clock gifts
2nd Anniversary, Mailboat Tour in Lake Geneva
2nd Anniversary, Mailboat Tour in Lake Geneva

Epilogue

I wept a lot on Easter.  But it was the reality of Christ’s conquering sin and death that gripped me in a way I’d never seen before.  Because Jesus lives, so shall I. And so does Jon.  Jesus “trampled death by death.”  Can there be anything more extravagant than that?

I am abundantly blessed to have been loved so by a man. But I am infinitely more blessed to be loved this way by my Savior.

As the holidays approach,  He’ll meet me each time and carry me with grace anew. This is lavish love.

 

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Love Stories and Weddings

atkins-109 My mind is filled with weddings and love stories this morning, prompted by the upcoming wedding of some great friends. I’ll be honest, over the last couple days I’ve thought, “Maybe I won’t go. I just don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I can do this without Jon.” But God’s gracious gift to me today was reminding me of our love story, and then of the greatest love story…

Love Stories

Our story is the stuff that movies are made of. I’ll never forget the first time I actually met Jon. We were with our church singles group at a blue grass “ho-down” in Pumpkintown, South Carolina. Yeah, pretty awesome, huh. Jon was wearing the most hideous, peachy-orange Hawaiian shirt possible.  I was dating someone else at the time. Jon walked up to me, and said “So, are you with him?” When, I said yes, he shook his head in dismay and walked away without another word! As I watched him interact with others that night, I remember thinking how obnoxious he seemed.

So fast forward through many details- I got engaged to that other guy. That other guy broke my heart.  (I’m so thankful he did!!). Jon also understood a broken engagement, so our friendship was cemented. But then he asked me out merely two months after the break up! My heart was still healing. Of course, I see pain a lot differently now. At the time, the loss was deep, but it really is nothing compared to death of my husband!  By the way, here’s a little tangent, this loss is different. People keep saying I will heal. But I don’t get that. My heart is not broken! I’ve been there, done that, and this loss is different. My Jonathan loved me and would have done anything to stay with me. It is not the same as a broken heart. I can’t quantify it, but losing your husband is a depth of sorrow I didn’t even realize existed.  So I know that God is carrying me, and will continue to carry me, but I don’t know if “healing” is the right word. Perhaps it’s not healing, but happiness. Perhaps God will someday restore happiness and delight. I have joy now, but maybe life will be a delight again some time. I mean, I think someday He’ll take me again out of the valley. But I’m ok being here as long as He wants me to be.

But of course, I digress.  Anyway, I told him I would go.  And at the end of our first date, Jon said, “So, where do you see this headed?”  And as kindly as I could, I told him nowhere! “No, Jon, I just need you to be my friend. We’re not going to date.”

I could fill chapters will all the details of following months. And they’re beautiful details that I’ll always treasure and love to talk about!  But the gist is that God slowly began to change my heart. At first I didn’t even realize it. And Jon did not give up pursuing me. When my eyes finally opened to the wonderful man before me, it was his pursuit that won me. He came after me, and wasn’t going to quit till he got me. And then when he got me, he still didn’t quit.  It reminds me of an even greater Pursuer.

About four months after our first date I went to a wedding in Arizona with my best friend. I had still given Jon no indication that there would ever be a future for the two of us. Jon had volunteered to take us to the airport two hours away, at 3:00am, however. And his ulterior motive was obvious. He and I had tremendous conversation all the way there while Yesenia was asleep in the back seat (well pretending to be- Ahem.) When we arrived at the airport, Jon parked and carried in our bags. As I watched him walk away, I had the strongest compulsion to hug him. “What!” I thought, startled, “Where did that come from? No way, I don’t want it!”  But whether I wanted it or not, he was on my mind, and I couldn’t shake it. And finally, as dense as I was, I realized I had more than just friendship thoughts toward him.

I spent so much time on that trip in prayer evaluating my heart and motives. Was it just infatuation? Was it just the desire to have someone because Yesenia did?  I told her, “I know all I would have to do is say the word.” But I was still nervous, so I kept praying. The wedding was on the day that would have been my wedding day to that other guy. But he was not on my mind at all! Jon was. There was no sorrow. Only joy. It was never the day the Lord intended for me. As I watched the bride walk down the aisle there was a series of extremely vivid images in my mind… me walking down the aisle to Jon, us serving in ministry… And they caught me so off guard that I gasped. So I prayed, “God I desperately need your wisdom.” The more I prayed the more God just seemed to say, “Ami I just want you to be willing.” So, by the time I got home from that week in Arizona I was willing.

Jon picked us up from the airport, and for some reason, we dropped Yesenia off, but not me (she and I were roommates). So here we are conveniently alone in the car. Of course, Jon asked about the trip and specifically about the wedding, for he had known that it had the potential to be a difficult day. I was so excited to say that God had officially closed that last chapter. I told him that I spent a lot of time in prayer. And as soon as I said it, I knew he was going to ask, “About what?” And he did. And here I faced a dilemma. “Do I tell him? Or do I figure out a way to weasel out of it?’  But what came rushing out of my mouth was, “You.”  And then his jaw just about dropped to the ground! “What? You can’t be serious!”  So I went on to tell him all that God had been doing, and that I was willing to see what where God “would take this.” We hashed out a lot that night, but there was one question I really had to ask. “Jon there’s one more thing I need to know. Why do you want this? Why are you interested in me?”

And the hugest grin spread across his face. “Where do I even begin? First of all, you are absolutely beautiful!” Then he launched into a specific, obviously well thought out paragraph about my character. “Ami I see your compassion for others, your servant’s heart, your desire to live the gospel, you have a heart for ministry, your life radiates Christ. The more I know you, the more I think ‘she’s godly’ and I want that…”

I was floored. He had been watching me for months. And he thought that highly of me? He knew why he pursued me, and was able and willing to tell me so. I was stunned. And so as they say, the rest is history.  Sometime I’ll tell you our engagement story. Now that’s the stuff forthe  romantics!

When we first started dating, there were folks who thought Jon wasn’t good enough for me. There were folks who slandered him and brought up elements of his past to others, and told me I was a fool. They were flat out wrong. I was the one who didn’t deserve him.  Jesus was transforming him, and already had transformed him. Most people however, could see what we saw, God’s hand orchestrating and guiding events to bring us together.

So as I sat here this morning reflecting on the almost 5 years we’ve known each other, 4 years together, 3 years since engagement, and 2 ½ years married, God reminded me that they were the most delightful and joy filled years of my life. I would rather have had 5 beautiful years with Jon, than to not have had him at all! I’d rather be going through the deepest valley of loss than to never have experienced what it is to love and be loved so thoroughly by another. Our story was masterfully designed and woven by God.  It was His goodness and grace that brought us together and formed two into one.  But our story reminds me that Jon and his love for me pales in comparison to God’s unfathomable love.  And now it is His grace that says it is good to take Jon away. That it is good for me to be a widow. It is part of that masterful design. He has not forsaken me. He has engraved me on the palm of His hands. He has not forgotten me. (Isaiah 49:15-16)

Weddings

Jon loved weddings. I mean, you don’t understand. He absolutely adored weddings! He loved going to them. He loved dancing at them. He loved rejoicing with the new couple. He loved everything about the most “special of days.” In fact, I’ve never seen a man who was more genuinely excited about going to weddings than Jon. One of our dear friends commented that she thought Jon was more excited about her wedding than she was! I think it’s true. And with our own wedding, Jon was intricately involved in every facet of planning. He wanted to help pick out the colors, the cake, the venue… He and I spent hours meticulously planning the program and music in order that our wedding would overflow with the gospel and Jesus. We sat on the floor tying hundreds of tags on party favors that said “I love you 1,000 red m&ms” or “I love you 1,000 blue m&ms”— You guessed it. The favor was red and blue m&ms. I know, all of this may seem really weird… So, before you start thinking my husband was a pansy, he also loved trains and airplanes. And the Bears, Cubs, Bulls, and Blackhawks. Let me explain.  I think the reason Jon loved weddings so much is that he really got the symbol. He recognized that for believers, earthly weddings are a miniscule foreshadowing of the Great wedding between Christ and His bride, the church.  He recognized that one day Christ will come for His bride wrapped in splendor and majesty. And that this destitute, dumb, lame, filthy, enslaved, scoundrel of a bride will be gloriously remade into what He has already declared her to be: spotless, clean, purified, redeemed, chosen, beautiful…  (Ephesians 5)

It was more than just weddings. Jon loved marriage. One of his primary passions was teaching men to love their wives and sacrifice for them. He desperately wanted our own marriage to reflect Christ. But, just to clarify, he didn’t worship marriage. He very clearly saw that marriage is but a picture of the gospel. It is not the end all in itself. But rather, Christ, the Heir, the One who is God, made Himself low.  He pursued a bride who hated Him. With His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, He gave his life for her, purchased her, ransomed her, lavished His love on her…And this is the greatest of love stories!  And I get to be a part of it. Of course, we know that God does all things first and foremost for His own glory! His primary reason for sending His Son was not His love for me, yet His righteous desire for His own glory.  Yet, there was unfathomable love there as well. So as I contemplate the abundant gift God gave me in Jon, I stand in awe at the even greater gift he gave me in Jesus.

Epilogue

So I went to the wedding. It was beautiful, gospel-filled, and much harder than I thought. As with the wedding that started it all, I had vivid pictures of me walking down the aisle to Jon. Thoughts of our own beautiful day, and beautiful life flooded my mind. Though this time there was immense sorrow, I found it still possible to rejoice with others.  I shed lots of tears, but it’s ok that my church family saw the grief  and the ugliness of loss. I made it through most of the evening. I consider that a victory.

“Lord I realize that It was not wrong for me to love Jon so– to still love him so. It was not wrong to take great pleasure and joy in Him. For he constantly led me back to supreme love for you. He was your gracious gift. Thank you for the most joy- filled delightful years of my life. Through the difficult challenges of being newlyweds, you were faithful. Thank you God for the joy of loving and being loved.  Thank you for the intimacy, the silliness, the tears, the laughter, the arguments, the reconciliation, the sacrificial love… Oh God you dealt with me abundantly! And still you deal with me abundantly.

atkins-458 atkins-370 atkins-460

You have chosen me to be a part of the greatest story. Of your story. You gave your own Son. You will withhold no good thing from me. This I know. ‘Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand and marked off the heavens with a span… who has measured the Spirit of the Lord or what man shows Him counsel?’ Lord who am I to argue with you? Or to think that I know what is good? You are the One who knows all things. You are the One who gives life and being, and now somehow widowhood is your gracious gift to me. Somehow this is what will teach me to know you and love you more. I stand in awe that you would give me such a gift as Jon in the first place, but the comparison to Christ is overwhelming! That you would give me Jesus!”

There’s a song that sums this up I think….

Behold Our God -Sovereign Grace Music