Carrying One Another’s Burdens

Imagine a man walking a dusty road carrying a very heavy load. He can barely manage it. Without help, he knows he might not make it. He prays for God to help him. Someone comes along and offers to help. The man refuses the help, and says, “The Lord will help me with my load.” After he’s walked a little longer, another person offers similar help. “That’s ok,” the man says, “The Lord will help me with my load.” Eventually the man collapses on the side of the road under the weight of his burden. Discouraged, he cries out to God, “Lord, why did you not help me with my heavy load?” The Lord replies, “I offered you help with your load twice, but you refused.”

In Galatians 6:2 the apostle Paul says: Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

The first and obvious thing to point out is that we all have burdens. Some of us have them right now. Some are emotional. Some are physical. Some are financial. Some are relational. Scripture assumes at some point we will all find ourselves carrying burdens—that we’ll find ourselves in situations and dealing with struggles that weigh us down.

Put simply: living the Christian life does not mean having a trouble-free life.

Not only that: But all of them are spiritual. Let’s be honest, depression can affect us spiritually. A chronic illness can affect us spiritually. The breaking up of a close relationship can affect us spiritually. Losing a job can affect us spiritually. Finding it hard to make ends meet can affect us spiritually.

Our burdens affect how we relate to God. They can make it harder to pray and trust God. Sometimes the burdens of life make us want to stay home from church. Or make it impossible to go. And because God is interested in our entire lives, he wants us to learn to deal with our burdens in the right way.

At the very least, we need to be honest about the fact that we all have burdens.

The second thing is this: Carrying one another’s burdens means knowing one another’s burdens. It means knowing one another. Does anyone else know when you feel overwhelmed by guilt? Are you ever aware if someone you know is feeling weighed down by sorrow?

Bearing one another’s burdens—including letting someone into our lives to help us bear ours—is really hard because it means becoming that much more honest with ourselves and vulnerable before others. Are we strong enough to admit weakness? Are we ready to admit that to someone else?

The church is many things. Among them, it is also a family. We’re called brothers and sisters. We are called to care for one another. And that doesn’t always happen in ways that fit into our comfort zones.

The question is: are we prepared to step into someone else’s life when it’s going to be messy and uncomfortable? Sometimes I wonder if we’re more interested in having neat and tidy lives than in actually being in real and honest relationships with other people in the church.

I know it’s a risk, and it’s not one we should take with everyone around us. But each of us needs to have at least one or two other believers in our life that we can open up around. I honestly believe in those moments of vulnerability that God meets us. We all need someone we can be open with about our deepest cares and struggles.

The third thing is this: Bearing one another’s burdens is how we love like Jesus. Just like Jesus entered our situation, our lives, in order to bear the burden of our sin and our brokenness to bring forgiveness and healing, so we are called to enter into one another’s lives to offer love and the presence of Jesus.

Jesus touched people. Literally and otherwise. He drew near to the hurting. He spoke words of comfort and healing. He didn’t avoid the awkward moment but stepped into it.Consider Psalm 34:18: The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit. Psalm 147:3 says He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.

Notice how both verses include the brokenhearted. We often talk about physical healing. We talk about people having sins forgiven. But what about those who are suffering from heartbreak because their kids won’t speak to them? Or are still living out of past trauma? Or are hanging on to grief? The Lord promises to be near to them also.

One way—one important, fundamental way—he does that is through his people. Not because there are those among us who haven’t had struggles, but sometimes precisely because we’ve had similar struggles.

In 2 Corinthians 1:3—4 it says: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

We can’t solve the problems of others. We can’t eliminate their burdens. And we can’t take on all of their burdens ourselves. Paul also says that each person will have to carry their own load. Our burdens are still ours. But we can share the load.

Ultimately carrying one another’s burdens means carrying one another to Jesus. It means letting someone cry on your shoulder. It means being willing to listen without jumping in with easy answers. It means praying for and with one another. It means sharing how God brought you through your own tough time.

At the end of The Return of the King Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee are on the slopes of Mount Doom. Their journey has been long and perilous. Frodo’s mission to bring the ring to Mount Doom and destroy it is near the end. But he’s spent. He can barely bring himself to go on. And Sam, his ever-faithful friend, says to him, “Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.” What a wonderful picture of Paul’s words in Galatians!

Are you willing to open up to others about your burdens? Are you willing to have others open up to you? Do you trust Jesus to meet you in the midst of your burdens? And do you believe that he can meet you through your brothers and sisters in Christ?

Conflict, Forgiveness, and Speaking the Truth in Love

Sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m right.

And sometimes I want others to know that I think I am right.

And sometimes it doesn’t matter whether I am wrong or right.

Because when it comes to a disagreement or conflict, there’s more at stake than whether one is wrong or right. There is also the relationship between the people who disagree. There is the effect their disagreement has on others. Conflict between two parties can often have a powerful gravitational pull that draws others into its orbit.

That, and conflicts consist of a great deal more than reasons and arguments and opinions. Being the whole creatures that we are, emotions play a huge role in disagreements too. While someone once said, and I think it’s true, that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” the opposite is also true in personal conflict. Feelings also don’t care about your facts. It’s not always what we say but how we say it. And even whether we choose to say it now or later or at all. Maybe some things don’t need to be said.

But even when something has to be said, we need to take much more into consideration than our reasons for believing we’re right and the other person is wrong. How will our words land when we say them? Are we saying them just to prove a point? And if we’re all worked up over the issue, are we speaking simply to vent and express our emotions?

Ephesians 4:15 tells us that followers of Jesus ought to be people who practice speaking the truth in love. Practice, indeed. Because I can do neither of these things perfectly. I don’t have exclusive rights to the truth. Others have their perspective on the issue causing conflict. Nor am I capable of speaking anything true in a 100% loving way. Pride and self-centredness infiltrate every word I try to speak in love.

Paul’s words, though, at the very least make one thing clear. Always avoiding conflict to preserve relationships and to keep the peace isn’t the answer either. I grew up with that idea, however. I know what it’s like to be in an environment where people swept hard feelings under the living room rug. It could make for an uncomfortable situation where I was made to feel like I was in the wrong simply for disagreeing or being critical. I learned to avoid conflict, to push emotions away, and even as an adult I can find it very hard to have difficult conversations. Confrontations are not my favourite thing. On the flight or fight spectrum, I am on the far end of the flight side. That’s not always a good thing.

Yet I also understand. I get why people don’t want to face conflict. Words can wound. Even when that’s not our intention. We don’t always mean to say hurtful things. Funny that as kids we were taught to say “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, let’s call that what it is: a lie.

Even Scripture knows this is a lie. In James 3:5–6 it says How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. Later in verses 9–10 it says this of the tongue: With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. James is speaking to Christians here, not non-Christians. Believers do this sometimes.

Conflicts and disagreements are not centrally about issues but about people. And people–you and me–are messy. Sometimes we want our way. Sometimes we argue out of spite or out of a sense of self-righteousness. We want to be right, believe ourselves to be right, and we want the other person to accept that we’re right. And sometimes when someone speaks hard words to us–even if we know those words are true–we don’t want to admit it. We dig in our heels. Our defenses go up. Maybe we say things we regret. In the worst of conflicts, bridges are burned and relationships rent asunder. When this happens, who cares if we’re right? Not if we end up hurting and being hurt. Not if homes end up broken and churches end up split. No one wins when this happens.

What answers do I have? Can I pass on 3 easy steps to prevent disagreements and confrontations? You know, to make sure we never get ourselves into such a mess?

Unfortunately, no. I think we will often get these things at least a little wrong. Indeed, sometimes we handle them very poorly.

And when this happens, as it inevitably will, what will we do? Paul, in Colossians 3:13 says that disciples of Jesus ought to make a habit of forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. True, we could spend hours talking about forgiveness, what it means, and how to practice it in the church and in our lives.

But in the context of conflict, I think it can mean that even if we’re right, we might have to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness for how we handled a conversation. Forgiveness for the way we tried to get our point across. Forgiveness for ignoring how someone else feels.

We all need to give and receive forgiveness for how we use our words and for how we misunderstand the words of others.

If we’re Christians, we don’t really have a choice. We forgive because we’ve been forgiven–not just by other sinful people, but by God himself. To live into the forgiveness we have received through our Lord, we need to become forgiving people.

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12), Jesus teaches us to pray these words:

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Is Jesus making our forgiveness conditional on our forgiving others? Perhaps see it this way. If we refuse to forgive, do we really understand what it means that Jesus forgives us of our sins? If we have received forgiveness from Jesus, won’t we become the sort of people who are willing to extend forgiveness to others who hurt us? Didn’t we hurt Jesus with our sin profoundly more than anyone has ever hurt us?

How good is Jesus to give us such words to pray? Don’t we all need them as a regular reminder?

Sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m right. But whichever is the case, a conflict is not primarily about winning the argument but winning the relationship. When we speak the truth, we ought to do so in love. And when we or someone else fails to do one or the other, forgiveness ought to follow close behind.

Lord, have mercy.

Having a Christian Witness in a COVID World

I rarely get sick. And thankfully, if I were to catch a common cold, it’s unlikely to become a divisive political matter. No one would contest the reality of the symptoms. Nor would anyone argue vehemently with me over the efficacy of Kleenex, rest, and over the counter cold medications. There would be no one telling me I shouldn’t cover my mouth when I cough. Instead, most people would accept and support my efforts to get better and to keep others from catching the cold from me.

Then there’s COVID. And all of a sudden, taking precautionary measures leads to polarized arguments on social media, debates about government power and overreach, protests against masks, and, worst of all, division in churches. In churches.

Now, let me be clear. When I say division, I do not mean differences of opinion on all things COVID. Nor do I mean people who opt not to attend church because of their particular convictions or concerns. Instead, I mean the breakdown of communication and relationships. I mean one group of people in a church being unhappy, angry with, or resentful of another group of people in a church. I mean the kinds of situations that tie pastors in knots, because there is no helpful solution that smoothes over everyone’s concerns and makes all parties happy. Worse, I mean people who confess Christ as Saviour and Lord but whose handling of COVID restrictions puts them in the position of acting unbiblically towards their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let me explain.

In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addresses an issue we will never specifically face in our day: whether or not believers should eat food that has been offered to idols in pagan temples. Many Christians in Corinth were converts from paganism. Some of them couldn’t in good conscience eat such meat because of its association with pagan worship. The passage is worth quoting at length here:

About eating food sacrificed to idols, then, we know that “an idol is nothing in the world,” and that “there is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth—as there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father. All things are from him, and we exist for him. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. All things are through him, and we exist through him.

However, not everyone has this knowledge. Some have been so used to idolatry up until now that when they eat food sacrificed to an idol, their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not bring us close to God. We are not worse off if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat. But be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, the one who has knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, won’t his weak conscience be encouraged to eat food offered to idols? So the weak person, the brother or sister for whom Christ died, is ruined by your knowledge. Now when you sin like this against brothers and sisters and wound their weak conscience, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.

1 Corinthians 8:4-13

Notice how Paul clearly says that Christians are free to eat such meat. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. There’s nothing special about this meat. And, besides, idols are simply idols. They are not divine beings of any sort. At the same time, though believers are free to consume this meat, Paul also tells them to be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. Going further, he says that if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.

So Paul’s concern is that our actions as believers do not cause others to stumble in their faith. To this end, he says we ought to be willing to put our freedom aside in order to prevent others from stumbling. In other words, it is not Christlike to assert our rights when the well-being of the body of Christ is at stake. Indeed, following Jesus involves sacrifice, putting others’ needs ahead of our own, and loving our neighbour even when it costs us.

Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul explicitly talks about not making use of his rights as an apostle. Speaking of his rights as an apostle, he says of himself and his co-workers that we have not made use of this right; instead, we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ.

Once again, the emphasis here is on not asserting one’s rights. And this is for the sake of the gospel. Note again: asserting our rights as Christians can, at times, be a hindrance to the gospel and not an expression of it.

And with all due respect to believers who feel strongly about COVID restrictions, remember that it is not a gospel issue. What we believe or don’t believe about COVID isn’t a matter of Christian orthodoxy, theological correctness, or biblical faithfulness. It’s not a salvation issue. Even if someone truly thinks that these government-mandated guidelines are the beginning of a slippery slope to even more government overreach and abuse of power, being asked to socially distance and wear masks doesn’t even come close to being asked to deny your faith in Jesus. It simply doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t qualify as persecution. Asserting otherwise is an insult to the many around the world in other nations who suffer and die daily for confessing faith in Christ.

And when we talk about setting aside our rights for the sake of the gospel, I think we can unpack this in a few ways.

First, of all Christian unity and peace in the body of Christ is a gospel issue. The relationships between people in churches is a gospel issue. It actually matters whether or not we are willing to put others’ needs ahead of ours. It actually matters whether or not we prioritize our relationships with other believers over our convictions on secondary or even tertiary issues. It actually matters whether or not we find spiritually healthy ways to deal with tension and conflict in our churches. Consider more words from the apostle Paul:

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

Notice how Paul explicitly connects unity and peace in the body of Christ with the work of the Spirit, with our baptismal confession, and with very nature of our trinitarian God. The way in which we handle these sorts of matters relationally in the body of Christ matters because it is part of our witness to our larger communities. Our relationships with one another ought to reflect our deeper, primary convictions about the nature of God. We do this through humility, gentleness, patience, and love.

Frankly, how you get along with fellow believers and how you are growing into a spiritually mature and emotionally healthy follower of Jesus is significantly more important than your view of masks and social distancing.

Not only that, our unity as believers is so important and so intimately connected with the witness of the church in the world that Jesus–to whom we confess our allegiance–prayed for it.

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

Why does Jesus pray for unity among his followers? He prays for this so that, as he says, the world may know you have sent me. Others coming to faith in Jesus, knowing he was sent into the world by God the Father, depends in some measure on the unity of the church. It’s a matter of Christian witness.

So, secondly, our witness is also a gospel issue. Our relationships in the church demonstrate what we believe about God and the good news of Jesus. When there is discord in the body of Christ over secondary issues, it’s a stain on the witness of the church to the wider world.

All of this is to say, if you are a follower of Jesus, are you thinking through the way in which you express and live out your convictions on secondary or tertiary issues? Are you thinking through how you are affecting your brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the witness of the church in your neighbourhood? What does your manner of living out these particular convictions say about God, the good news, and the church?

For example, if you are on Facebook or other social media platforms, do you think (and even pray?) before you type and post? I really think that the kind of disembodied communication that takes place on social media, absent of personal presence and actual relational accountability, gives many permission to say things they wouldn’t dare say in person. Not only that, I think many use technology as a way of actually avoiding real human interaction that they would find uncomfortable or awkward or that would potentially challenge their assumptions. Rather than another, healthy way of engaging others and ideas, instead it’s a way of sidestepping the more difficult, but essential work of relationships. Often there is no conversation per se. Instead, people talk past one another without ever stopping long enough to listen.

It goes without saying that those who confess to believe in and follow the Lord Jesus should model another way. We should be voices of humility, peace, and calm. We need to be aware of the degree to which we can mistakenly allow the medium of social media dictate how we express our beliefs and interact with others. We ought to demonstrate what it means to have unity even when we disagree on secondary or tertiary matters. We should show through our relationships that the gospel of Jesus is our priority.

After all this, I should also make clear that I am not asking anyone to violate their conscience. If a Christian believer has a particular conviction with respect to COVID restrictions, and it’s a matter of conscience, my suggestion is that they follow their conscience. Hopefully, what I’ve said above makes clear that it’s the manner of following one’s convictions on this matter that is crucial. How are you relating to others who view matters differently? Are you seeking to encourage fellow Christians, even if you disagree?

As it happens, how we do this is also a part of our witness and therefore a gospel issue. And whatever else we make of COVID and all the restrictions that our governing authorities are currently requiring us to follow, those of us who know and trust the Lord Jesus need to prioritize the witness of the gospel, of which our relationships with one another in the church are a fundamental part.

The ABCs of Church

There are a lot of churches in our world struggling to survive. Not only have many of us have heard the stats about the decline of attendance in churches, we’ve experienced it. We’re going through it. For a lot of churches and church members the situation is discouraging.

But what if it doesn’t have to be?

I heard someone say once that too many congregations focus on the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. And when a congregation is finding it especially difficult to envision a future for the church, it’s natural to put our attention on these ABCs. They’re what we see. We can measure them. We can wrap our minds around them. We can–ahem–complain about them. We can blame someone else for them. Maybe we can even control them to some degree.

Except let’s think about it for a minute. And maybe in this way. Here’s the process: Getting more people in the church will hopefully lead to more money in the offering, thereby enabling us to manage the upkeep for our building.

What’s wrong with this picture? Here are a few things.

  1. The focus on ABCs can often be a focus on institutional survival. We want to continue to have what we’ve had. In many ways, this perspective focuses on the past. How things have been done. How things have always been. The value of being able to appreciate a long history of ministry gets reduced to a refusal to move a pew or redo a room because of a bronze plaque with someone’s name. It can also be a posture of fear. Fear of losing what we’ve had and a fear of change and what we really need to do in order to move into the future.
  2. Having the wrong focus leads to the wrong solutions. If attendance in our church is down, we strategize ways to increase it. We hold special events, services, dinners, fundraisers, etc. We boil it down to getting more people in the building when we’re doing stuff. And maybe if we invite people to do stuff they like doing anyway, like eating and listening to music, maybe they’ll think about coming on Sunday mornings too. My first church, for example, put on a great breakfast one Saturday a month for years. It was always very well attended. Our church attendance, however, never, ever went up because someone liked their bacon and eggs.
  3. The focus on ABCs and the solutions we come up with to deal with them can too easily leave God out. This is really the most significant point. Because a focus on the ABCs is often anxiety and/or control driven, prayer is not a big part of the process. We effectively de-spiritualize church life. We compartmentalize what happens in congregational life as much as we compartmentalize our own lives. Attendance, buildings, and cash are not seen as spiritual matters and so we think human solutions will do. Or, worse, we know they are spiritual matters, but dealing with them at a deeper, spiritual level is too uncomfortable and difficult. We’re afraid of what is in that particular box, so we insist on keeping it closed.

So what do we do? Well, I’d be lying if I claimed to have perfect answers. But I do have some thoughts.

  1. Not focusing on the ABCs doesn’t mean ignoring them. I need to make sure that’s clear. If a church roof caves in or the toilet is overflowing, we need to deal with it. Obviously. If attendance is consistently going down, it is wise to ask why. Because there are underlying issues that likely need addressing. So on and so forth. But paying attention to them means doing so within the larger framework of the identity and mission of your church. You call someone who hasn’t come for a couple of weeks not because of the empty seat in your sanctuary but out of concern for the person who has been absent. The state of our ABCs can tell us something about the spiritual condition of our church, the quality of the relationships among the members, and therefore point us to larger, more significant issues in need of attention.
  2. Real solutions are usually personal and relational. If your church has a monthly breakfast for your community, like my first church did, make sure there are people from your church whose job it is to connect with those who come. Say hello. Smile. Work the room. Also, don’t make everything about how to get people in your church. Instead, think of ways to get church people out into the community. What are the needs in your community? How can your church bless your neighbours? On the other hand, how close are the people in your church? Maybe it’s time to give some thoughtful attention to building those relationships. Have someone out for coffee or over for dinner or dessert. Whose story in your church are you unfamiliar with? Change that. Don’t underestimate how such personal attention will bless your church over time.
  3. Remember that it’s all about Jesus and the good news. If our desire for larger attendance numbers stems from a desire to keep what we’ve always had (institutional survival), then the odds are good we will miss Jesus. We will miss out on participating in his kingdom work. We will inoculate ourselves to the good news. The good news is the reason we are here. It’s the reason your church exists. How do you need to refocus so that Jesus is at the centre of your church once again?

I readily acknowledge that there are plenty of factors in church decline that are out of our control. But that’s kind of the point! We can’t control Sunday morning attendance or who gives how much or magically solve all of our facility issues. So the attention we give to the ABCs should have a Christ-centred, kingdom-driven, Spirit-led focus. All big words, I know. But I think it’s really about a shift in perspective more than anything else. When we say the church needs to change, such change begins with us, with our hearts and attitudes.

This is particularly true if underlying the issues with the ABCs is stuff that is personal and relational. Churches sometimes (often?) have a history of unresolved conflict. Church decline might in part be due to unhealthy relational patterns. People get hurt and leave, and the church tries to move on without actually addressing the problem. It’s hard to live out the good news of Jesus together when people in the church have a history of not loving one another well.

As a pastor, I want the people in my congregation (including myself!) to grow closer to God, to become more Christlike, to be more consistently led by the Spirit, and more driven by God’s desire and will for us. Focusing on the ABCs will not get us there. So let’s instead focus on what will. Maybe then the ABCs will take care of themselves. Or if not, perhaps we will be less discouraged and anxious about them.

My Story Part 16: Meeting My (Eventual) Wife

(Note: My wife interjects occasionally in this post to offer her perspective. Her words are italicized.)

I don’t know how many times it happened while I was in university, but I would meet a girl I liked and very soon thereafter would find out she was already seeing somebody. Or perhaps, sensing interest on my part, the girl in question only said she was seeing somebody. Cue awkward silence. Attempt graceful exit, from both the conversation and the room.

To be honest, it was frustrating.

Let’s just say that by the time I met the woman who would become my wife, I had what you could call a brief to non-existent history of dating.

And it was something I felt quite self-conscious about. No surprise, since my usual train of thought at the time would consistently find almost any reason to confirm what my insecurities were enthusaistically telling me.

[Speaking of insecurities, the “future wife” is of the opinion that one of two things may have been actually happening. 1) Girls may have been interested, but such interest was misinterpreted because of said insecurities. Or 2) Because of the shy, insecure guy my husband was at the time, those traits that made him an incredible catch were kept hidden. Then again, maybe those women were just clueless. Regardless, they lost out and I won the jackpot!]

So it’s not that I wanted to be single, but the combination of my own shyness and the apparent lack of opportunities meant that by my late 20s I felt like a confirmed bachelor. A little early for such a conclusion, I suppose. I did, after all, have single friends within the same age bracket.

I think of a couple of girls who were actually possibilities. One wasn’t a Christian. She was a fellow grad student in the same department at the university I was attending. We got along and hung out a few times. Went to a couple of movies. But the truth is, I wanted someone who would share my faith, especially if it was going to be a serious relationship.

The other was a single mom of a little girl who was separated from her husband. Again, we hung out a number of times. Went to movies. We really got along. She even bought me a bookcase as a birthday gift. I met her through the church I was attending. I think if she had been legally divorced (you know, not still married), I might have pursued the relationship. I’m pretty positive my interest would have been reciprocated. But I couldn’t reconcile trying to move the relationship further while she was still married. And we never got close enough for this to be an actual conversation.

I kept hearing that oh-so familiar voice in my head: “Hey Derek, welcome back to the Friend Zone. I’d show you around, but you know the place pretty well.”

Add to all this: fear. One of the reasons I found attempts at moving beyond friendship so difficult and nerve-wracking at the time was the insecurity I had over my lack of relationship experience. Sad, I know. I didn’t want anyone–especially girls I was interested in–to know how much I didn’t know. Or to know how much I thought I didn’t know. I don’t know. Know what I mean?

As it happens, there was the internet. And there were chat rooms, places where people could meet based on interests–interests which most often consisted of wanting to meet people. All of this was quite new and intriguing at the time. It was social media before there was social media. Facebook didn’t yet exist. The iPhone was still a dream in Steve Jobs’ brain. That’s where I found myself.

I’ve mentioned more than once how my time in Ontario was not the most positive period of my life. One reason was that I was really, really lonely. I felt emotionally isolated. I was vulnerable. With the availability of chat rooms and nascent social media programs like ICQ, I’m ashamed to say I allowed myself to go in directions that were not especially honouring to God.

However, sometimes God acts to redeem such a situation not only when you least expect it, but when you don’t expect it at all. And that’s what happened next. That’s when I met the woman I would eventually marry.

So, yes, my wife and I met online in a chat room. She was living in Vancouver at the time and I was in Hamilton. After initially meeting in the chat room, we graduated to email. Then to phone calls. We heard one another’s voices! That’s when it began to be something significant.

[Looking back, I am still astounded that of all the thousands of chat rooms out there, and considering that the chat room we met in was neither a Christian chat room, nor a Canadian chat room, the odds of us finding one another were astronomical. I am still amazed, twenty years later.]

Turned out, both our families were in New Brunswick, and not very far from one another. She was also a Christian and was currently working on a degree at Regent College. She was smart, funny, and, you know, beautiful. I was, shall we say, enamoured. I couldn’t believe my luck.

[I couldn’t believe my luck either. Smart, check. Sense of humour, check. Serious about his faith, check. Able and willing to grow a nice, full beard, check. Didn’t seem weirded out by the fact that I liked fine dining on fine china and crystal, classical music, and intellectual discussions, as well as hunting, camping (real, rough camping, none of this RV park, running water, or electricity nonsense) and hiking through places that most sensible city-bred people find deeply objectionable, check! Furthermore, he was not at all intimidated by the fact that I was a strong-minded, opinionated woman, nor did he shy away from sharing his own contrary opinions, when they existed. He evidenced the fruit of the Spirit in all that he said and did. Oh, and he had a great and very contageous laugh. I have often wondered how every other woman who ever knew him missed all of this!]

But of course in the end I believe it was a God thing, that he was at work behind the scenes. We each even had friends who were brother and sister. They did some mutual reconnaissance on our behalf. I guess we both checked out.

[I often point this out to any young woman who has heard our story: before we met in real life, we had references!]

Having met on February 24 of 2001 (yes, we recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of this occasion!), we made arrangements to meet in person in the summer when I would be in NB on vacation.

Our first date was a picnic she had prepared and going to see the movie Shrek. As a Christmas gift that year, I had our movie tickets matted and framed.

[We went to a matiné and I truly believe we were the only adults there who were not parents.]

It was going well. So well, in fact, that I was planning to propose on New Year’s Eve of 2001. Except instead I spontaneously proposed on the phone before the Christmas holidays. I guess I couldn’t wait! When I asked if she would marry me, she said, “Absolutely.”

[Here’s a riddle: He asked me to marry him on December 10th. I answered him, “Absolutely!” on December 9th. And yet I answered him after he asked. How is this possible?]

That, obviously, is only the start of our story. There was much more to come. Wonderful as it was (and absolutely continues to be), it hasn’t always been easy. You don’t always know what life will bring. We’ve had plenty of adventures and misadventures. And yet 20 years later I am profoundly grateful that my Lord, seeing my aching, lonely heart all those years ago, brought her into that chat room and into my life.

[Answer to the Riddle: We were living in different time zones. He asked me after midnight in Ontario, and I enthusiastically responded in British Columbia, before midnight.]