You Must Marry Her

You Must Marry Her

It started when I was in third grade. I fell madly in love with “X.” I don’t pretend to be able to differentiate so-called “puppy love” (a term I believe is condescending) from “infatuation” from “crush” from whatever. All I know is that I thought about her day and night.

And that lasted nearly through my senior year in high school in Dallas, since we continued to have classes together. (For what it’s worth: this unrequited infatuation with X appears to have been imprinted on my soul. Even during my 49 years of marriage until the death of my lovely wife, with whom I was deeply in love, I would dream about X a couple of times a year. And it continues to this day. It’s unrelenting. Alas—I am SO broken!) During this time I also fell in love with a few other girls.

But it was all from a distance. My feelings were not returned. I was at least a standard deviation below what anyone would have considered popular. As a kid who was always the youngest in my class, I was intellectually precocious but emotionally retarded—probably with an emotional maturity at least two or three years below my age level.

I mention this childhood experience in order to reveal my inordinately powerful drive toward romance and love—a characteristic that directly affects this narrative.

I fell in love with a wonderful girl toward the end of my senior year in high school, and we dated, and she liked me very much, and I experienced my first kiss not long before I graduated. But I drove her away because of my neediness, my clinginess, my self-centeredness, etc. I was an emotional moron. I don’t understand what she saw in me for those two or three months we were together—I was a mess.

After I started college at Rice University in Houston, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with another young woman. She was beautiful, smart, talented, highly moral, etc., etc., but far beyond my reach. There were a number of complicated twists during my first three years of college, especially relating to this young woman, but they would require a couple of long narratives—and while interesting, they would add nothing to this story. Suffice it to say that in the interim I fell in love a couple of other times (I was quite capable of being in love with several women simultaneously), each time ending with a broken heart. So, pressing on. . .

In autumn of my junior year, I discovered that Jesus was alive and willing to have a direct, personal relationship with me. He totally, radically changed my life. In autumn of my senior year, I found myself (hallelujah!) without a broken heart because of unrequited love! It was the first time since third grade that I hadn’t been in love. I am incapable of describing to you the extent to which that state liberated and strengthened me. I was free! I was happy!

So I made a deal with God: “You know how susceptible I am to falling in love. And I’m so tired of having my heart broken! I’ve lived with that pain for most of my life. Let’s make a deal: I won’t fall in love again until it’s the one I will marry!”

Since coming to know Jesus, I had been part of a group who met at Harold and Veranne Graham’s house on Saturday nights to worship God, share our lives, study scripture, and pray. Powerful, life-changing things happened constantly. The Grahams had originally lived in Nashville, and they spent Thanksgiving during my senior year with their families in Nashville, attending worship services the following Sunday at Otter Creek Church of Christ, where they had been members during their stay in Nashville when Harold had been working on his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt. During those years, Veranne had taught a class on Sunday nights for high school girls. Attending that class were sisters J and E.

J and E also had come home to Nashville for Thanksgiving, and were happy to reconnect with Veranne and Harold. The Grahams told J and E that God was acting powerfully within the group of young people who met at their house, and that there would be a retreat over the New Year holiday, and that they should join us.

They did.

I drove down from Dallas to Houston for the retreat, which began a couple of days before the end of the year.

Even this short part of the story could be an interesting and complex narrative in its own right; but I will summarize simply by saying that, within a couple of days, I was totally in love with E. She was beautiful, talented, kind, humble, brilliant, in love with Jesus.

I remembered the “deal” I had made with God. It occurred to me, however, that that deal had been 100% on my side. I had offered the deal. He hadn’t signed onto it. There had been only silence. I realized that there was in fact no guarantee that, because I had fallen in love again, this would be “The One” that I would marry. I very likely could be setting myself up for yet another broken heart! And this would be worse than anything I had ever experienced, because E was more lovely than any creature I had ever met.

I was so distraught, I told the group that I desperately needed prayer. I couldn’t tell them why, because E was sitting right there. My desperation was caused by fear that, once again, I would be heart-broken, my love unrequited, etc., and I was so tired of being rejected and miserable and lonely!

I told the group only that I was in deep pain but I couldn’t share the cause of my pain. I just needed a touch from God. They gathered around me, laid hands on me, and prayed. And after a couple of minutes a prophetic message came through one of the people to the effect that whatever it was I was desiring, I had to give it up, etc. I don’t recall the specific words—but it was so explicit that I feared everyone in the room (I don’t recall—perhaps thirty people?) would be able to figure out, based on this prophetic word, that I was in love with E and that God was telling me No. It was that clear to me. But when I spoke with people later, I learned that no one had heard anything that suggested the specific nature of my problem! Go figure. Yet the message had been unambiguous to me: “Give her up!”

While people were still praying for me, I stood up suddenly, ran back to a bedroom, fell on my knees, and bawled. I just didn’t understand. I realized that the “deal” I had made with God had been completely one-sided, but I had hoped against hope that he would honor it anyway. I was his kid! Why wouldn’t he let me experience love?!

And as I knelt and wept, the Father spoke to me. He asked me who, out of all the men who had ever lived, had had the greatest capacity to love, to fall in love? It was his son Jesus, of course. He said that Jesus, with his endless capacity to love, to see into people’s hearts, had fallen in love many, many times; how could he not? But every time that happened, the Father had said, “No, not this one. She’s lovely, but I have someone else for you—a bride without blemish, bright, pure, who through her faithfulness has clothed herself with garments that will shine like the sun. But to know that bride, you must give up what you desire at this moment—and you will earn your bride’s love through immeasurable pain. Your marital joy comes via a cross!”

The Father asked me directly, “Whom do you love more? Me? Or E?”

I knew I could not prevaricate or play games. I could give only an honest answer. And it took me nearly a half hour of weeping and searching my heart and simultaneously begging God to give me his heart.

At the end of that time I finally was able to say, through tears, collapsing into a heap onto the carpet, “It’s you. I love you more. I choose you.”

I walked out of that bedroom slowly, brokenhearted, but confident in the love of my Lord. I had no idea what was going on, what had just happened, but I wanted him more than anything, even more than E—though my heart ached and my spirit was pained beyond measure and I was as sad as I had ever been.

The retreat ended a day or two later.

The people from out of town—there had been a few others besides J and E—were so excited by what they had experienced during those few days that they begged Harold and Veranne to hold another mini-retreat between semesters (in those days, many if not most colleges had similar schedules that included first-semester final exams toward the end of January, with the second semester beginning close to the beginning of February). And it was so planned.

A few weeks later, the weekend of the mini-retreat had arrived. The out-of-towners—including J and E, this time accompanied by their mother as well as friends from E’s college—were due to arrive in less than an hour. I was in my off-campus bedroom, excited about seeing everyone again, but also dreading it (for obvious reasons). I sat on my bed and prayed that the Holy Spirit would move powerfully during the entire weekend, touching people’s lives, providing healing, deliverance from emotional chains, etc.


And as I was praying, the Holy Spirit spoke to me: “Go meet your bride.”

I was taken aback, confused, fearful. “What?

Go meet your bride. You are to marry E. In fact, you must marry her. It is vitally important to my kingdom that you marry E.

But. . . but. . . you said I couldn’t marry her!

“No,” he said, and I felt profound tenderness and kindness as well as more than a tiny bit of mirth. “I said you needed to give her up. I didn’t say you couldn’t marry her. It was my gift to you. I knew that you loved me more than you loved her. But you didn’t know that. I forced you to search your own feelings in order to understand that I am indeed first in your heart. Had you not experienced that challenge, you would have wondered for the rest of your life whether E was an idol—whether you might love her more than you love me. Because you went through that time of pain, you know without doubt that you love me more than you love her. And that will arm you and strengthen you through a multitude of difficult times during your marriage. You will marry E. You must marry E, no matter what happens.”


I could write another entire narrative about the following three days, but they would be only marginally informative. In sum: before E and her family and friends left for their respective colleges (she was at Harding College in Arkansas), she and I were engaged. But it was a rather weird engagement. She did indeed love me, but she wasn’t in love with me. She had simply agreed that, yes, she was willing to marry me. . .

We corresponded all that semester. Those were days when long-distance phone calls were very expensive, so all our communication was via letters. I wrote her every few days. She wrote me occasionally. But everything was cordial and loving. I drove to northeastern Arkansas for her senior recital, for which she played (among other pieces) the Bruch G-minor violin concerto. She was incredible! She was off-the-charts lovely in spirit, soul, and body.

That summer, E needed to continue her one-on-one violin instruction. She enrolled in both summer sessions at what is now the University of North Texas in Denton, for classes in violin performance. Because my mother and grandmother lived in Denton, E lived with them. I had a job at a laboratory in Dallas. I drove up to get her every Friday evening, and she spent the weekends at a friend’s house in Dallas. We were together nearly every minute of every weekend, except when we were sleeping (me at my father’s house, she at our friends’ house).

The day after the second summer semester ended, E’s parents arrived, towing a travel trailer/tent. With them were E’s sister J along with her then-boyfriend, R. This was R’s first time in Dallas. As E and J and their parents headed out for their camping trip in Colorado that afternoon, R would head for the bus station and go back to Houston.

Because we had a few hours before the family needed to head west, we all drove to North Park shopping center in Dallas—a pleasant place where we could walk around and remain cool and away from the intense Texas summer heat. We strolled through the shopping center, enjoying the fountains and the greenery, occasionally stopping for an enjoyable but overpriced snack. E and I trailed behind the others. Finally, not long before we were about to head for some friends’ house where we would briefly visit the friends and then divide up according to our itineraries, E worked up the courage to say the words every guy dreads:

“B, I really like you, and you’re a wonderful person, and I love you very much as a brother, but. . .”

You know what came after that.

The engagement was off. She cared deeply for me, but couldn’t see herself marrying me. We needed to be just friends. And so on.

I was devastated.

We drove to the friends’ house from which we had planned to disperse. R took one look and me and said, quietly, “B, you don’t look so good. Let’s talk.” He led me to one of the small bedrooms in this modest duplex. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “You look terrible.”

I told him. And I began to weep uncontrollably. He held me in his arms, my tears soaking his shirt.

After awhile, R disengaged from me and looked at me intensely. “B, I have just one question for you. Ignoring what E said to you today—are you convinced that you can make her happier than any other man in the world?

I didn’t hesitate. “Yes!,” I replied. “I have no doubt that no one else on this planet is as good for her, as appropriate for her, as I am. But she doesn’t want me!”

“That’s beside the point,” R said. “If you believe that you are the best man for her out of all other possibilities, then it is your moral obligation to pursue her. She must not marry anyone else. She needs to marry you. If what you said is true, then that’s obvious. You have to pursue her! It’s your duty!”

I couldn’t argue with that.

So I dried my tears as well as I could and began to face a very fuzzy future.

A couple of weeks later, I found myself at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where I had enrolled in a three-year program leading to a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree. I had zero desire to pastor a church; but I loved biblical studies and theology and church history, etc., and I had applied to APTS because I knew that, with my poor grades, I probably wouldn’t be accepted anywhere else (they weren’t particularly choosy). I continued to correspond with E via letter, but only as a friend, not alluding in any way to love, romance, marriage, etc. And she responded (occasionally) in kind.

A month after the semester began, the Holy Spirit spoke to me: “You need to apply to Harvard Divinity School for next year. You will be accepted. And you must go there.”

My response was to laugh: “Ummmm, I guess you know that my undergraduate average was a C, that I failed two advanced courses, that I engaged in zero extracurricular activities, and that I was so disengaged that my picture didn’t appear in the yearbook even once?”

God’s response was pretty straightforward: “You are to apply to Harvard Divinity School. You will be accepted. And you are to go there.”

What the heck?

It made no sense. There was no way a guy with a C average in college (helped along by Fs in two separate courses), and with no extracurricular activities of any kind, would be accepted to Harvard. But I dutifully sent in my application, and embarrassed myself by asking various people to write letters of recommendation.

Fast forward to the second semester. Keep in mind: given that there were only about thirty people in each class, everyone took the same courses at the seminary. Miss or fail a course, and it wouldn’t be offered again for another three years.

One of the required courses was in the Department of the Church, scheduled to meet once a week for three hours. During the first class, the professor told us our homework was to create a paper collage, using images cut from magazines, representing what we thought Christianity was all about. Then he dismissed us. I was furious. I had come from four years of rigorously academic classes; and now I was tasked with something that might be assigned in a sixth-grade classroom. In no way did I want to participate in this mindless exercise. But I had to, because each course was required and each course was offered only every three years, so without this course’s credit on my transcript I wouldn’t be able to graduate in three years.

As I walked out of that class, the Holy spirit spoke to me: “You are right. That course is a farce. I want you to drop it. You have better things to do with your time.”

“But,” I reminded the Sovereign of the Universe, “If I do that I won’t be able to graduate with my class, since it won’t be offered again till the year after my class graduates!”

And the Sovereign of the Universe replied, “True, but that’s irrelevant. You’ll be at Harvard next year.”

And my unspoken response was something like, “Give me a break! That’s ridiculous and you know it!”

“Ahhh! Can you show me how much you trust me?”

Good little Christian that I was, I walked directly to the registrar’s office and dropped the course. Which meant that, if I wasn’t admitted to Harvard, I would not be able to graduate from the seminary. God had shown me that this was a leap of faith. So I leapt.

In the meantime, I had been corresponding with E. The Holy Spirit had made it unambiguously clear: I must marry her. But I had to win her heart—he wouldn’t do it for me, he couldn’t do it for me, because he held human decisions to be inviolable. That didn’t seem fair to me. I mean, if he was so all-fired invested in my marrying her, why wouldn’t/couldn’t he zap her brain somehow and make her fall desperately in love with me? But he insisted that was not in his job description. What could I do?

She was one year behind me in her studies, so my first year in graduate school coincided with her senior year in college. She was majoring in violin performance, and had applied to violin programs in Rochester, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York, and one or two other places that I don’t remember. The Holy Spirit spoke to me: “You must marry E. But you must win her heart. And in order to do that, you must go where she goes. You must be where she is. No pressure of any kind. Just be there for her, letting her know that you love her and if she decides to love you back, that’s great, but if not, then you’re still there for her. You must be where she is next year!”

I reminded God, “Ummm, do you remember that a few months ago you told me to apply to Harvard and that I would be accepted and that I should go there?”

The response: total silence.

Fast forward a few months: I got a letter in the mail from Harvard. It was fat rather than thin, which was a good sign. And when I opened it, it said, “Congratulations!. . .”

Of course, I couldn’t say anything about that to E. God had told me that I should offer zero inducements for her to go to any particular city for graduate school. She mustn’t know that I had been accepted at Harvard. In fact, I hadn’t even told her that I had applied. So I waited.

And eventually I got a letter from E explaining that she had been accepted to several (possibly all? I’m not sure) of the graduate programs to which she had applied. But after praying about it and thinking about it, she had decided to go to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston (of which Cambridge is a suburb).


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Because I had a car, E drove with me up to Boston/Cambridge. We stayed with friends along the way. I had been assigned a room in Divinity Hall. In order for us to remain close to each other, E found a tiny room in a house on Sacramento Street in Cambridge, about six blocks from me. She was on the third floor in a room with sloping ceilings, sharing a bathroom with an old, very friendly Russian man who spoke no English. Our eventual routine was that she prepared dinner for the two of us every night, using her two-burner electric hot plate and a toaster oven. We washed dishes in the bathroom sink, rinsed them in the tub using the shower spray.

Even though I did not emphasize the fact, I had made it clear to E that I loved her with all my heart, and that I wanted to marry her and be with her always. I also made it clear that, if she never loved me and never chose to be my wife, I nevertheless would continue to love her and be there for her and make myself available to her for her happiness and welfare. But, as I said, I didn’t dwell on those things. For the most part, I simply befriended her.

We went our separate ways over the Christmas holidays, E to Nashville and me to Texas. At some point in January, back in Cambridge, E said to me, “I think I love you. I’d like to marry you.”

And I said something the likes of which I never imagined would come out of my mouth. I adored this woman, and I had wanted to marry her for a very long time. In my heart I was doing jumping jacks and running around whooping and screaming with joy. But what I found myself calmly and deliberately saying, instead of “Whoooppieee! Yaaaay!,” etc., was this: “Great. But we need to be certain that’s what you really want. Why don’t you hold that thought, think about it, pray about it, and in a couple of weeks see if you still feel that way. I don’t want you to jump into something that you’ll later regret.” I couldn’t believe the words I heard coming out of my mouth! “WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?” I thought, “Don’t give her an out!” But that’s what happened, that’s what I said, and later I wondered at God’s ability to quiet our spirits when it’s really important.

And after a couple of weeks of our not discussing the matter (thanks only to God’s sovereign intervention—I wanted to bring it up every three minutes!), E volunteered, “I really do want to marry you!”

And so we were married the following June, in Nashville. She flew down a week or so before the wedding. I caught a ride with friends as far as Knoxville and hitchhiked the rest of the way to Nashville.

God is gracious. And, I have to say, he is the ultimate romantic.