Over the years God has constantly revealed Himself as wise in His leading, and faithful to supply His strength in my weakness. He had taken me from a woman who imagined a purpose to one who was living and fulfilling her purpose. Though the process had been challenging, and at times His instruction didn’t make sense for the moment I was in, He continued to faithfully prepare me for each new ministry opportunity He intended to send my way.
That is perhaps one of the most amazing truths about God: given the opportunity, He will restore completely so that we may walk in absolute wholeness and abundance. My restoration was meant for preparation. He purposed that the demonstration of His grace and mercy through each growth experience, was meant to effectively equip me with compassion and understanding for the doors He intended to open.
May I pause here to declare once again, that God’s mercy—His unmerited favor toward us, and His grace—His willingness to understand and forgive, is simply amazing. It doesn’t matter how many pieces a life has disintegrated into, or how long we have held those pieces, He is faithful to mend and restore. He will lovingly fulfill His promise to bring beauty from ashes, and I will never cease to celebrate that truth.
Recognizing the strength, I had gained in my heart and spirit, I became hopeful, but not desperate, I continued to pray for God’s direction in every detail of my life. Then one day in January 2011, I received an unexpected Facebook message. Joe, the man I had met in college, contacted me after I posted a picture of myself on a trip in Brazil. I had always liked Joe’s personality and enjoyed our interactions. We had been Facebook friends since 2006, so occasionally we spoke via the page, but nothing specific or terribly personal. But after a few messages back and forth about my experiences in the ministry, Joe asked if it would be possible to talk and catch up.
Wait. What? You’re married, dude! was my immediate thought. But continuing to read, Joe shared that much had happened over the years, including an unanticipated divorce, and a renewed consecration to God’s authority and direction in his life. I was intrigued, and anxious to understand why, out of all the women he had met in his travels, I was the one with whom he was trying to reconnect. It was a touching story, and perhaps one best told by Joe himself:
“I self admittedly have an aversion to social media. Just ask Michelle and she’ll confirm this. I don’t think it’s all bad, I just have a hard time totally wrapping my brain around the whole thing. If it weren’t for the Facebook community that Mark Zuckerburg created, I wouldn’t be able to share my part of this amazing journey you are getting ready to read about.
Michelle and I first met at college in Edwardsville, IL in 2000. I had no idea at the time that this cute, funny, bubbly girl had been through the tempest of an upbringing that she had endured. I also had no idea that this same girl, that lived two doors down from me and was a teammate of mine on the track and field team, would someday become my beautiful wife and the amazing mother of our two children.
I wish I could say that there was instant chemistry when we met all those years ago, but unfortunately, I can’t. Over the course of college, we were just friends. Although I did have a flash in the pan crush on her for a small time, it was never something I pursued (or even told her about). Honestly, at that time in my life, I wasn’t the man that I should have been. Over the next ten years, my baggage went from carried on and stored in the overhead bin to checking multiple bags. So I believe that God was protecting and preparing both of us (heart, soul, and mind) for the journey we would someday take together. His timing and plan is always better than ours! And He has already paid for all of our baggage fees!
Thankfully, we both made it through the college haze, for the most part unscathed. After this we moved onto what we thought was next in our lives. I tried my hand with a group of some of my closest friends and brothers to make an impact on the music world, and Michelle was moving into her career as well.
We really didn’t keep in touch for several years. Around 2006, we became friends on MySpace and later Facebook. Over the years we stayed in touch with an email or check-in every so often, mostly to say I hope things are going well for you. As I said earlier, I have an aversion to social media, but what I didn’t realize at that time is that it actually helped water the seeds that I didn’t even know God was planting in my heart for the woman that would someday stand next to me as my bride.
After the dreams that I had of becoming a music superstar faded with the spotlight, I felt God directing me back to my passion for learning. Without telling anyone, I began to search out graduate school programs. This led me to the next 6 ½ years of my life, which I spent between Murray and Lexington, Kentucky. This period was both a time of tremendous growth for me and a time of testing. I’ve heard it said that strength is never gained unless you’re faced with resistance. I definitely learned this the hard way, but am grateful that God’s grace is stronger than our greatest weakness. I’ve never felt such a God-sized bear hug as what I did following my time in Kentucky.
So how did an Illinois born-and-bred guy living in the Bluegrass state end up marrying a California transplant who grew up less than 50 miles from my hometown? If you ask Michelle to tell this part of the story, she will tell you that I was stalking her on Facebook (she’s entitled to her opinion). In all honesty, I really don’t know. After seeing a picture she had posted, I commented that she looked beautiful. Looking back now I think that it was God’s way of slapping me upside the head and telling me to buckle up. After all, we were separated by the 2,300 miles between Sacramento, California and Lexington, Kentucky.
In January of 2011, we reconnected and the first phone conversation lasted more than three hours! It was spent catching up, laughing, and talking about how life had taken us on very different paths. Over the next few months, we kept in touch and talked more often. During many late nights, and even one all night phone call, we grew increasingly close. This would be the first time we had seen each other in person in almost ten years. I was so nervous that I stepped on her foot when we saw each other! Casanova and Fred Astaire would not have been proud.
Luckily the rest of the day went better. We did it all; breakfast, card games, sushi, and a St. Louis Cardinals game, all in one day. I kept asking myself, “Am I really falling for this girl?”
After our St. Louis adventure, we still weren’t certain of our future. We decided to pray about it and see where God led us. Michelle hopped an early flight back to Sacramento the next morning, and I’m pretty sure I sang old Bon Jovi tunes all the way back to Lexington, with a smile on my face wider than the Gateway Arch.
It wasn’t until after Michelle’s visit to Kentucky in August of that year we knew that God had truly brought us together. We knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.
So in October of 2011, I put “Going to California” by Led Zepplin on repeat in my headphones and boarded a plane to see Michelle and ask a question that would be the next step, as God was getting ready to add the two colors of paint that had been our lives separately into one beautiful masterpiece that only He can take the credit for painting.
After spending a Friday in San Francisco, and on the next to last day of the trip, we decided to have a relaxing day together. After lunch and a day on the town, we went back to the house to relax and watch a movie. After the movie was over, Michelle went to freshen up and I sat in the living room to “read”.
Michelle hollered from the back, asking if I had taken her Bible from her room. When she came into the living room I asked her to sit beside me on the fireplace. I told her that I wanted to share a few things that I had been reading a lot lately that had been stirring my heart. I read a passage in Ephesians 5, and a few thing I had been journaling about. I also read a mission statement that I had written about the type of husband I wanted to be for her.
Tears began to flow down both our faces (they are flowing down mine again as I’m typing this). I was staring at the woman that I was going to spend the rest of my life with. The woman that I was going to start and raise a family with. The woman I was going to share my heart and soul with.
Michelle had several different last names growing up and struggled heavily with her identity and not knowing her real last name. I told her that one thing I felt God wanted me to give her was the gift of a last name, and to be a part of a family and heritage founded on faith and love. He wanted her to be able to pass that along to our future children as their inheritance. And even though I couldn’t do that immediately, I could give her the first step toward that. Then on October 29, 2011, I asked her to marry me.”
As Joe shared, from January through May, we communicated daily, sharing our deepest thoughts and desires for God’s blessing in our lives. I shared much about my past, concerned at first that the woman he had been intrigued with on Facebook, would be less desirable when seen in a new light. But the truth of my past and brokenness did nothing to intimidate or deter him, so I began to wonder if this was the man God had selected and prepared to be my life-mate and partner.
In June 2011 we met in St. Louis, and then in August of that year I traveled to Illinois to meet Joe’s family. I immediately fell in love with his parents, their acceptance and approval of me was something I’d never experienced before. It was overwhelming and terrifying and wonderful all at the same time. And the more time I spent with them on subsequent visits, the more I knew I wanted to join this kind and generous Christian family, and raise my children surrounded by this kind of love.
Interestingly, before I met Joe’s family, his mother had a dream about him. She dreamt their family was in a large church she didn’t recognize, but it was apparent they were at Joe’s wedding and a blonde girl was standing next to him. After meeting and getting acquainted with me, she shared the dream with Joe and confidently confided, “That’s my new daughter.”
October 2011 found Joe on bended knee, asking me to be his wife and share a future together. To be honest, the possibility found my heart and mind in a bit of a tug-of-war, wondering if I was worthy enough of the blessing. It was something I wanted, for sure, but in the back of my mind I had continued to equate the degree of God’s blessings with my worth. At the time it seemed a bit easier to believe that for others than it did for myself. But having been in prayer about the relationship for months, and receiving wise counsel regarding the Father’s desire to bless my life, I accepted Joe’s proposal. So in April 2012, Joe moved to Sacramento, established his new career, and we began planning for a July wedding.
There were just a few months to prepare for the festivities, and while most brides-to-be might have been stressed by the time constraints, the day couldn’t come soon enough for me. It was a dream come true to plan every detail, and just as my life had been beyond the norm, I was determined my wedding day would be the same. Tradition would certainly play a significant role, but I also wanted the occasion to reflect me and the meaningful elements that had shaped my life over the past years in Sacramento.
It was July 20, 2012 at 6:00 p.m. The auditorium of our church, Capital Christian Center, was simply yet elegantly decorated. The four stairs leading to the platform, as well as the four-tier choir stage at the back of the platform, were lined with candles of all different shapes and sizes. The golden glow made the spot where Joe and I would exchange our vows inviting and warm. Behind the choir stage there were three white linen cloths draped from ceiling to floor. Piano music was playing in the background, setting a magical tone for the evening.
Moments before my entrance, the Pastor stepped to the center of the platform and informed the guests of my preferred reception. I wanted everyone to remain seated, so as I passed each row, I could look at the faces of those who had so lovingly supported me. From the students to my church family, from the Rands who sat on the front pew as my surrogate parents to my future family, I wanted to honor each person who had expressed God’s love and goodness to me throughout the many phases of my life.
As the auditorium’s double doors opened, revealing my dream-come-true, our senior pastor, Rick Cole, linked his arm through mine. As we walked slowly down the aisle, I took special note of the faces, smiles, and tears that approved and celebrated each step. Then I looked forward, and there was Joe standing in a gray suit, smiling from ear-to-ear. It was all I could do at that point not to forsake the bride’s traditional saunter and run to meet the love of my life.
When our final step brought the pastor and I to the front of the church, a song began. I remember the lyrics perfectly matched my and Joe’s desire for life together: “Guide us with your grace, give us faith so we’ll be safe.” I looked at Joe, he was wiping tears from his eyes, which brought tears to mine. Midway through the song the lyrics faded and the Pastor stepped again to center stage. He smiled at me, confirming he knew exactly how long the road had been, and how awesomely God had blessed. Then, as if acknowledging all my determination and hard work, he beamed and said, “This is your moment.” With those words, chills of thankfulness and gratitude covered me.
Pastor Rick advised Joe and I that we were a gift, each one to the other. Then we stepped onto the platform to light the unity candle, signifying our desire and commitment to join our hearts and lives together. Once the unity candle was lit, a video was shown depicting our journey from friendship to marriage. A friend had taken us both to a beautiful vineyard, and filmed us separately sharing our hearts about the other. It was then edited to create a beautiful story that we would both see for the first time at the wedding. The alternating video clips went like this:
The ceremony continued with Joe and I sharing a beautiful communion officiated by Joe’s father. Then with the exchanging of vows and rings, and a blessing over our future, we were pronounced husband and wife. As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, my wedding was meant to reflect me, as evidenced by the victory dance I broke into upon the proclamation of marriage. When the pastor instructed Joe to kiss his bride, I motioned for my man to come and get it. There was laughter and applause, and it was the most wonderful compliment to the most beautiful day of my life. And after the introduction of Mr. and Mrs. Joe Raby, my new husband and I gleefully exited the auditorium to the song “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder.
The reception was magical. The tables were decorated with candles, and a dessert buffet was elegantly prepared. For part of the evening, Joe and I were found in the center of the room dancing with the Oak Ridge children. We had an amazing time. The joy on the children’s faces was one of the best gifts of the evening. Several times after Joe left us to go visit with guests, I would attempt to break away, telling the kids I needed to spend some time with my husband, too. And when I would look around to spot him, I would find Joe watching me and the children, smiling from ear to ear. It was in those moments I realized God had outdone Himself for me once again. He had given me a man who fully understood how important ministry would be in my life, and he was willing and prepared to whole-heartedly support me in my calling.
Following a wonderful honeymoon, Joe and I settled into daily life, with God constantly affirming His blessing on our union. Looking at life through the eyes of a partnership was a completely new experience for me. For so long I had been self-reliant, and now God had gifted me with an amazing support system. No longer would I have to dream alone, or shoulder challenges, or experience triumphs on my own. Instead, God had given me a partner who would bring balance and harmony to a life-story that had started out quite differently. With God’s heart melded with Joe’s, it was as if the King Himself had sent the prince to deeply love the girl who had experienced such hardship and distress. And there was no one who could have supported and loved me more unconditionally, more completely, than God and Joe.
In Joe’s care over the months that followed, my heart began to open to all the value God had placed in me. The unconditional support and constant words of affirmation were instrumental in developing my strength and confidence, allowing me to approach new opportunities with assurance and enthusiasm. The deep desire to write my life story perhaps the most telling of the continued healing that was occurring in my heart each day. While years ago, I may have assumed that the restoration of hearts has a beginning and an end, I now believe that moments of healing and growth are meant to be ongoing, allowing us daily to see God in new and incredible ways.
Once again, I recognized the significance of my past to my present. Of all the places my life could have journeyed to, His grace and mercy had brought me to this moment, allowing me to create a future of promise from a redeemed past. And the solid foundation my family would enjoy, despite the rockiness of my own, was one of the most amazing gifts I could have ever imagined.
My prayer is that from our story you can see the proof once again that God, when given an opportunity and your permission, He will exceed your expectations and transcend the realm of probabilities and divine possibilities.