During a recent Christmas event at church, our pastor asked for volunteers to share warm Christmas memories. Several others had stories to share, so I saved mine for this page.
What I would have told my brothers and sisters is that my most memorable Christmas of all, as well as the warmest, was the year I discovered that Joni was the woman I was meant to marry. That was December 2005.
That month was my fourth December living in the West Midlands of England. I had joined Operation Mobilization in August 2002, and they sent me to be a journalist at their missionary training base in Halesowen, about eight miles west of Birmingham (generally pronounced “Birmingum” and sometimes “Brum”). By 2005, I had moved from journalism to evangelism, and I led the youth work at a little church in the area.
Joni’s mom Sylvia and sister Amy were regulars at church, but Joni was not… yet. That summer, Joni had what might be considered a “Road to Damascus” sort of experience, in that she had been very alone in her car en route from Leeds to her home in Stourbridge when God made His Gospel very real to her. In all of my evangelism work across the pond, I never saw such a dramatic change as I saw in Joni before and after she became a Christian.
Prior to her coming to faith, Joni had earned a sociology degree from Leeds University. And by “sociology”, they mean “Marxism”. That’s a prevailing philosophy in Europe, and Joni was caught right in the middle of it. Politics aside, Marxism is based on the premise that there is no God, and mankind must do this and that to perfect society.
After Joni surrendered to the Gospel, she was quite literally a different person. Not only had she embraced Scripture, but she also wanted to follow it. Soon she became a volunteer in our church youth work, and she was a great addition to the team.
Just as Joni was starting the first chapter in her Christian life, I was wrapping up another chapter in mine. I had been in England three years, and we were planning my furlough back in the States, which would begin at Christmas that year. The idea was that I would go back home to Georgia and raise the funds needed to move forward with certain long-term ministry projects. So when I left England at the end of 2005, it was going to be for several months, and I was busy wrapping up projects and packing away my things. I had no idea what was coming next.
Some time that autumn I began praying earnestly about whether or not I was supposed to get married. I would be 32 soon, and while being single had some advantages in ministry, it was also limiting in other ways. So marriage was something I needed to consider seriously. What I didn’t expect was for Joni to enter my thoughts when I prayed. Eventually, I couldn’t not think about her.
It didn’t make sense, though, on many levels. We are from different cultures. We were born in different decades. We… umm… well… I ran out of reasons why it wouldn’t work. On the positive side of the page, the list grew longer and longer of reasons Joni could be just the one. But did she know that?
Our next-to-last church youth club meeting for the year was the last with me in attendance. I was scheduled to fly back to Atlanta a few days later. As I didn’t have a car at that time, Joni dropped by my flat to pick me up. Waiting for her, I felt nervous. If she knew I was praying about us being married, I was sure she would leave me at the curb (or kerb, in English).
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but it was only a five-minute trip from the flat to the church, and by the time we were at the church we knew we wanted to get married. We talked for two or three more minutes in the church parking lot, then we agreed to talk more after the youth club party. I must confess I don’t remember anything about that party except feeling lighter than air, which, if you’ve ever met me, is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
Taking advantage of a flexible ticket, I postponed my flight by a week. The whirlwind of emotions that followed that Friday night literally made me sick, especially when thinking about leaving so soon after knowing in my heart I wanted to marry Joni.
After a few days, the “ether”, as they say, wore off, and so did the physical sickness, but our resolve to serve God’s purposes in this world together grew stronger and stronger.
You might guess we didn’t wait long to get married. I proposed a few weeks later in Chattanooga, Tennessee (Joni had flown over for a visit), and we were married in early July, with a blessing ceremony held in England in mid-June.
Quite frankly, I think Christmas 2005 was Dad’s most memorable Christmas, too, or at least one of them. He is the one who picked me up from the airport that late Sunday afternoon and drove me to our family church here in Fayette County. There was a Christmas dinner that night at church, and we would arrive just in time.
I think our conversation in the car went something like this: “So, how was the flight?”
“Great, Dad. I was moved up to Business Class. And I’ve met the woman I’m going to marry.”
In the week leading up to that moment, I had failed to mention any of these details to my parents. Fortunately, Dad managed to keep the car out of the ditch.