The day I turned two months old a blonde baby boy was born nearly 900 miles away. Only God knew that our father’s jobs would move us both to Alexandria, Virginia years later and that we would meet at Groveton High School. We shared 1st period choir — he needed a good grade to pull up his GPA and I was the choir secretary. My first memory of him is the day he handed me an note from his “mom” for being absent the day before. Dumb move. I recognized the handwriting of a mutual friend who sat next to me in history. (He should have chosen an imposter who didn’t use little bubbles to dot her i’s.) I wasn’t surprised. Those long-haired guys with tie-dyed jeans who were always late to class were known to be trouble makers. But I had to admit that this one was cute.
Our love story is one for another time but, needless to say, his cuteness won me over. By God’s grace, a revival was happening in our school and Benny soon became a Christian. (He tried to convince me and others that he already was…smile.) Before long he was leading a Bible study in our school and his gift of leadership emerged. We talked of marriage and wanting to serve God together. Nearly forty years ago, on March 3, 1973 two 18-year-olds got married. And one of them was on probation…
Yesterday was his birthday. The man I’ve loved for over forty years is now approaching age sixty. What do I say about him? How do I describe a man who has repeatedly captured my heart and sometimes driven me crazy for over four decades? And what does our story have to do with you?
Two words come immediately to mind in describing Benny: devotion and sacrifice.
The day Benny got off the bus after his conversation experience I knew something was different. His passion for God was immediately evident. Sharing the gospel became the joy of his life. I wasn’t surprised when he came home from a church meeting some months later saying he thought God was calling him to be a pastor…but his old friends certainly were. They thought him becoming a “Jesus freak” was just because he was dating a church girl. After all, they had robbed houses, partied and skipped school with this guy. I knew what they didn’t: God was changing Benny from the inside out. (He learned years later that the mom of a boy he beat up one day at school didn’t allow her son to become embittered, but led her son in prayer that God would save that mean-spirited kid. I’m indebted to a godly mother I have never met.)
Benny’s devotion to God led us on a journey to Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama where we served our first church together in youth ministry, then back to northern Virginia. Benny started a youth ministry in 1974 called Saturday Night Alive and we were privileged to see many young people come to know Jesus Christ. His desire to to devote himself to the church we began in 1979 resulted in ending SNA early in 1983. This decision was the first of several sacrifices I watched my husband make to insure that the local church was his ministry priority.
His devotion also included our growing family. Benny didn’t grow up around kids, so his idea of the perfect family was two kids: a boy and a girl. When God surprised us with a son and a daughter in a 16-month period, Benny was happy and done. There may have been nothing wrong with us deciding at that point that our family was complete. However, God began to work on Benny’s heart. He gained a vision for family that included leaving a legacy for generations to come. I remember conversations between him and two fellow dads of young chidren where they dreamed of having numerous children, lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would all gather when they were dying to be exhorted and blessed. Benny even joked about having to rent a large community room to accommodate his end-of-life blessing to a crowd of descendants.
One by one the Lord miraculously grew our family. When I was expecting our third, my two-kids-is-enough husband came home one day to tell me he believed God wanted us to adopt trans-racially. He had become involved in both racial reconciliation and pro-life ministries in the Washington, DC area and felt the Lord wanted us to be willing to do and not just speak about these important issues.
Over ten years later God brought a beautiful baby girl into our lives. On the day she was dedicated to the Lord his prayer was full of gratitude and humility. Our family was now complete with five more children than a younger Benny had anticipated. One by one, our kids have benefited from him loving, coaching, teaching, correcting and praying for them. He hasn’t been a perfect dad. No one is. He has forgotten things. Thrown out things that later required an apology to them. Gotten angry, impatient and harsh at times. Yet one thing they always knew: Dad would ask forgiveness every time.
His devotion to me will wait for another time. There’s just not enough time to talk about him coaching me through six labors — (well, except for the time I was in transition with Janelle and warned him to either stop laughing at the Cosby Show or I would punch him in the face.) Never raising his voice at me. Imparting to me his love for the gospel and helping me to believe I could understand hard books. Encouraging me to speak and write and disciple other women. Convincing me I could home school our kids…and then re-convincing me when I wanted to give up. And in almost every conflict he’s been the first to ask forgiveness for his part in our argument. Sometimes it’s been irritating because I wasn’t done bickering yet!
The second thing that came to mind first about Benny is his sacrifice. He didn’t grow up in a close family. Holidays were meaningful but quiet. His football and baseball games were regularly unattended by Dad or Mom. Vacations were fun but few. His parents were kind and loving but busy. When our kids came along, I had it in my head that we should celebrate every holiday. (“Seriously, Sheree? Flag day???”) Imagine the guy whose idea of Christmas was a quiet day eating out and watching football marrying someone who wanted to celebrate Christmas in July on a family vacation? My husband has taken our family on vacations nearly every year; cheered at over a thousand basketball games (and coached his share as well); sat through piano recitals; strung Christmas lights; and happily attended 4th of July and Christmas parades…all because he loves me.
He still loves solitude. I sometimes discover he has stolen away to our room for a few minutes of quiet during our loud and large family gatherings. It use to bother me. But now I smile. When I think of how he far he has willfully come to “my” way of doing life and family I certainly can’t complain. He cleans the guts out of turkeys, sets up tables, allows me to buy a few more decorations he surely doesn’t think we need for holidays — and this year he even did “Red Light, Green Light” and “Mother May I?” with the little people at Granma’s Annual Valentines Party.
I was sixteen when I fell in love with a cute blonde. Over the years that love has been tested. We have disagreed; fought; hurt and disappointed one another; lied to, complained at and frustrated one another. One time he made me so mad I said something really ugly just before I slammed the door on him and drove away to a friend’s house. But God has been faithful. Since we started dating in early 1971 I have fallen in love with him time and again. I fell in love with him when I saw the love in his eyes for our firstborn…and then when I saw it again and again as he held each of our babies for the first time. I fell in love with him when he told Mom we wanted to put an extension on our home so she could live with us. I fell in love with him he returned from trying to pray with Josh during a spiritually hard time in his life, even though once again it didn’t seem to be making any difference (by God’s grace, it later did!). I fell in love with him when he tearfully told me it would be his joy to care for me should a misdiagnosed illness require him to do so. And I fell in love with him when he put our family first during a season when our needs meant he needed to step aside from being the Senior Pastor of the church we started and loved.
Sometimes when I look at him I get a little scared. His hands are looking a lot like his dad’s did. His laugh lines are deepening and that gorgeous blonde hair has become increasingly thinner. The kids and I get a kick out of him when he doesn’t hear things correctly or promises he didn’t throw away something that suddenly disappeared. I get scared because I know more of our lives is behind us than before us. Unless we live to be 100 we’re well over halfway through married life together, and neither of us thinks living to 100 is necessary a desirable thing. Smile.
But being scared comes and goes. What stays is an ever deepening awareness of how much I love him. When my parents pulled me kicking and screaming from Maryland to Virginia when I was sixteen I had no idea that he was there. He would marry me; give me his name; father my children; show me the gospel in how he treated them and me; teach me by his example how to say, “I was wrong; will you please forgive me?”.
What this means for you is this: relationships are hard work but perseverance pays off. This post isn’t just about honoring my husband of forty years on his birthday. It’s about the sustaining grace of God. God has kept two flawed, broken, sinful and weak people together for four decades. This starry eyed bride soon learned why people give up on marriage. The fact is marriage is just about the hardest relationship you’ll ever experience. But because God is more committed to marriage than you are, He will give you the power and grace to endure the hardships because His glory is more at stake than your happiness.
I remember writing my name followed by his over and over when we were dating. I dreamed of being Sheree Phillips. I wanted to be his. To raise a family with him. To grow old with him. To walk hand in hand for decades and to be like the cute little old Grandma’s and Grandpa’s who helped each other along at the mall.
I’ve been his. Raised a family with him. And am growing old with him. And before long we’ll be that old couple at the mall.
And he will likely have to rent the community room to house the generations who will be the recipient of his love and legacy.