Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Story of Our Engagement

Disclaimer: This isn’t the short version.

Those who know me know that I am rarely woman of few words, especially when telling stories that are precious to me.  This blog might seem to meander, but I assure you it’s all thoughtfully put together.


Russell and I had marriage in mind from the very beginning of our dating relationship.  The Sunday night – of March 2, 2014 – that he came over and dissolved our platonic friendship into a new frontier, he was up front that he didn’t want to date pointlessly (neither did I!) and that he wouldn’t have broached this topic if he hadn’t seen long term potential between the two of us.

A few months into our dating relationship, although I didn’t know when Russell would propose, we both knew we didn’t want to wait long to be married and we weren’t excited about a long engagement. 

Months before Russell actually proposed, we had a date in mind for the wedding (ha, that’s how sure we were about each other – a luxurious feeling): March 1, 2015 (a Sunday).  That way, the first morning of our honeymoon would be the exact 12-month marker.  We loved the idea.

It was based on this idea that Russell chose September 1, 2014 to propose to me.  We’ve since had to change the wedding date, but neither of us knew that the night we got engaged.  Russell planned it so that his proposal would be exactly six months from our wedding day and the day before our six-month dating anniversary. 

Although our current, booked-with-PMC-wedding-date is FEBRUARY 22, 2015, I’ll always remember Russell’s thoughtfulness in how he planned the date of the proposal.

The whole time I’ve known Russell, I’ve known a man with both an amazing attention to detail and a deep reservoir of gentleness.  And it’s only gotten better with time.  Thanks to him, I’ve been blessed to know the privilege of what it’s like when the one you’re in love with becomes a student of knowing your intricacies, determined to grow in loving you and committed to defending your autonomy. 

I didn’t think a man like Russell could exist.  It’s actually strengthened my faith-in and helped heal my relationship-with God to meet, befriend, fall in love with and be loved by Russell Murnighan.  I’ve told him and now I’m telling you that his heart is made of the stuff of my wildest dreams.  I’m positive that is not a statement of “idealistic distortion” (hello, Prepare & Enrich!).  I fell for enough guys earlier on and observed even more since I was 12 years old to know what I wanted and to get a pretty decent grasp of what’s out there.  Russell is the closest summation of the list I’d never have shown anyone because they’d have said I wanted too much.  I almost thought I did too…!  He checks off an unbelievable number of my secret desires as well as fulfilling needs in my life I hadn’t even articulated yet.  But I realized they were needs as his involvement in my life gave me increasing relief and safety about some burdens I never contemplated I’d be capable of putting down.

Don’t worry, I know he’s not perfect.

No, we’re not “puppy love.”

Yes, we’ve had fights & disagreements…from early on!  And we average – in his words – about 1 significant fight per month or so at this point. 

But I’m sure that our fights don’t look like typical fights.  They are still marked by misunderstandings and alienating conflict and triggers that make walls go back up and mistakes and words we wish we could have taken back…

…but because these fights have happened and will happen between two people who love each other and genuinely want to understand each other and want to get better at being each other’s safe person, the conflicts are fewer and farther between than at first, and each new one becomes quieter and more articulate.  We have become more comfortable with conflict.  We know it’s not the enemy, but an opportunity.  Sometimes that makes the discomfort more acute early on, but it’s the equivalent of cannon-balling into cold water and getting used to its frigidity as soon as possible, rather than flirting with its temperature by wading in, then back out, then in, then back out and then who-knows-what-next.

Conflict is simply symptomatic of us both being human beings with sinful natures, wanting perfection but prone to imperfection. 

Conflict is normal in the human experience.  You will do your stress level a cooling favor if you accept conflict is not going to go away and guard your heart from being leveled every time you encounter an obstacle.

Describing Russell in the glowing tones I did earlier is not disqualified by imperfections and difficulties in our relationship, nor should it be accounted for by our love being in its early stages.  The more I get to know Russell, the more I’ve come to love and enjoy him while knowing everything about him.  I’m incredulous that the more he’s gotten to know me, he’s not gotten tired of me or used to me.  He loves and enjoys me more, even, than at first.  We take turns feeling awed that such a special relationship was spun for us in God’s mind and gifted to us in actuality.

One of the reasons, I’m sure, why being with Russell has sweetened over time is that God has used him to warm cold parts of me and ease certain pains that I’ve privately borne for years.  Pains I sometimes forgot I was carrying.  Russell’s love has aided and abetted me in reconnecting with Jesus, my First Love. 

A merciless season of loss in 2011 left me with C-PTSD and an extremely battered relationship with God.  The emotional trauma, chest pain and debilitating grief were disorienting to me in a way I will never forget.  It was a painful corner turned of irrevocable loss and a completely obliterated understanding of what I had control over.  My suffering genuinely frightened me because it literally made me feel like I wasn’t myself anymore; that I’d become someone I didn’t recognize.  It changed everything.  Books couldn’t help me fix myself, playlists of songs were bandaids covering the bullet wound, and for a while I stopped prayer journaling for a reason I couldn’t explain back then.  It felt too hard to approach God.  Too painful, overwhelming and maybe even dangerous (?) to unearth how I felt on pages. 

I quit school for a year to get my bearings before returning to finish my degree.  When I wasn’t working as a caregiver for Private Duty Home Healthcare (I didn’t know ahead of time but read later that helping others is recommended therapy for loss!), I was discovering that before suffering can deepen you, it reveals (*cough* Refiner’s Fire) how shallow you naturally are underneath the religious convictions you thought you had. 

I’m more thankful for my caregiving job than ever, because it made sure part of me, part of the time was being unselfish because out of my grief emerged subtle agreements stemming from “being kind to myself,” which became license to be as negative and self-focused as I had it in me to be.  At first, not being in school and not being accountable felt like freedom.  But then it gradually became like being stuck at a carnival, visiting the same amusements on a cycle of forced repeat.    

I didn’t feel free anymore, and what made me long to actually (!) have back the initially overwhelming grief was feeling that I’d gone dead inside; that moments of transparency were becoming brief and terribly rare, that I could only give heartfelt communication when being negative or anxious, that I got excited for the latest episodes of darkly callous TV shows (the way I once got excited about going to evening worship services and church on Sabbath mornings) as if they had life to pump into me. 

I let myself go in almost every way. 

Because of how I felt (where was my so-called faith?), I didn’t try to fight against what I knew was unhealthy in my life.  But I did try to have my cake and eat it too.  I didn’t cut God out, but I didn’t make Him first at all; I feebly tried to keep Him around with everything else I was doing. 

In His great faithfulness and endless grace, He worked defiantly salvaging creativity into the mistakes I made that year (which are the ones I regret the most), in a way that stopped my old blind life in its tracks (how He did that for me is a story for another blog).  All the changes in me that people have commented on these last few months didn’t happen all at once.  But last October 13, 2013, I finally chose to start trusting God despite my feelings, despite the initial cost and I let Him plant real submission in my heart.  The morning after I made that decision was the 2-year anniversary of when my beloved Dean Esperanza Muniz was killed in a car accident.  That has always been a dark day for me.  But in 2013, while it did involve tears, I was also revisited by genuine, quiet peace for the first time in nearly 4 years.

It was the best decision I ever made.  Although it involved breaking up with the only boyfriend I’d yet had (after a string of several messy emotional entanglements, from which I learned volumes), that decision was about so much more than an ex-boyfriend.  It was the beginning of really seeing my own sin, my own responsibility in my pain – all of it undeniable – and then working hard to change my life.  Time has given me perspective on that previous relationship and I can be grateful for it now as an experience of “the weeds growing up with the wheat and being separated at harvest time” to spiritualize it.  I don’t harbor any hard feelings or grudges toward the person I broke up with.  I am deeply thankful and liberated for what I learned, even though the experience was expensive.

The breakup reopened the old grief that had never healed right.  Fall semester 2013 was vividly painful yet bearable in that a small part of me was exhilarated to have peace, despite the storm the rest of my heart was experiencing as my regrets began to seriously hound me, irrespective of all the homework and studying I had to do.

The breakup wasn’t even a week old when Russell and I had our first memorable conversation.

(I’ll bet you were wondering when I’d get back to him & the proposal story!)

Our first real conversation – October 19, 2013 - happened in the same room where we first met (April 2013), months before the previous boyfriend & I’d begun dating.  And before even that, the first time Russell ever saw me was in January 2013 when I sang backup for Alison Brook Segura at a basement concert. 

When my future husband first saw me, I had no idea he was in the room and I didn’t feel worth pursuing by anyone. 

I was overweight with an awkward haircut and there were a few other people in the room I felt uncomfortable having to interact with.  I loved singing with Alison (you should buy her new album “The Heart of the Matter” on iTunes!), but it felt like a victory when I’d got home, having survived the challenges of that social scene.

When I first briefly interacted with my future husband, it was because he spoke to me.  I had taken one look at him and written him off as a soon-to-be-a-seminarian religion department nerd who might be girl crazy.  I had turned my back actually hoping he wouldn’t talk to me.  But while I never could figure out the day in April we met, I never forgot the event because the kindness of Russell’s first words to me took me by surprise: “Do you have an album too?” 

The night I sang backup, everyone on stage had an album, so Russell thought I might have had one too, bless him.  It took me awhile to figure out where he was coming from; once I did, I felt touched he’d remembered me 3-3.5 months later and had apparently enjoyed my singing (it turns out he thought I might logically have an album as well since everyone from the basement concert had one).  It wasn’t the beginning of a crush; just a brief & sweet moment that left me feeling appreciated when I hadn’t expected it. 

After a year of being a workaholic in the realm of healthcare that involved catheters, colostomy bags, stomach tubes, changing adult briefs (often getting gas in the face), wiping bottoms, phlegm, administering pills, Alzheimer’s, strong-attitudes-I-had-to-adapt-to, complex-routines-I-had-to-learn, cooking & cleaning and after all those dark TV shows I’d been hooked on where nobody says anything nice or simple or honest to one another, Russell’s first words to me were the nicest thing I’d heard in a long time; rain on dry ground. 

And then I went on my way and didn’t think about it too much. 

(P.S. Don’t get the idea that I hate my job; I actually love it!  It just has its moments…)

And then came October 19, 2013: our first true conversation. 

David Asscherick had come to Andrews University to do a series called “This Is My Church” and it was a strong dose of pure gospel.  

It was just what I needed after a painful decision of faith. 
It was so reassuring.   Healing.  Strengthening.

But the Saturday night before he got going, he gave a talk for the religion department (and then some) on marriage, relationships & holiness as part of a second wedding reception for a former classmate who’d gotten married in Italy – we were meeting his new bride for the first time. 

I look back and I love the irony.  How God must have been smiling that after all the wrong guys and at the one time I was finally so worn out that I wasn’t looking for a guy at all, At An Evening Talk On Marriage And Relationships, I’d begin a friendship with my future husband.  A fresh interest was the last thing on my mind (and Russell wasn’t interested in me either). 

I was too sore to think about someone new. 

Being sore is actually what started our friendship.  At that same reception was an older, motherly friend of the previous boyfriend who hadn’t seen me since before the breakup.  She was sweet and meant well but the conversation stirred my tears, and I did not want to have to pull myself together for the second time that night (David Asscherick’s wonderful wife Violeta had kindly listened to me earlier and prayed with me; I’d been blubbing then already).  So I politely excused myself, spied an empty chair a ways away and plunked myself across from Russell (since he looked like someone I assessed that I didn’t know well) and pretty bluntly said, “Hey you, talk to me, tell me about yourself, distract me.” 

And he did…!

Later that night a bunch of us went out to eat and Russell rode in my car; just the two of us.  We talked more.  I can remember what I wore that night; the dark teal t-shirt, cozy duster, loose light blue jeans, pink knitted hat and glasses.  I don’t regularly wear hats, but when I don’t want to do my hair because I’m tired or sad, I wear hats.  It makes life simpler.

I just wasn’t at my feminine best, nor was I in great shape at all.  It was just a Saturday night I was surviving…with my future husband.

How God must have been smiling,   


Russell proposed to me in that exact spot; in those same two chairs: in the room where we first met, where our friendship began.  In the same place where I’d once been barely holding in my sadness and pain, Russell later gave me cause to barely be able to hold in my surprise and joy as he shared the words with me he’d been planning, and then knelt down to ask me to be his wife.


For me, the day I got engaged began with a baby migraine at 2:00a while I was on a night shift.  The previous week, I’d returned from visiting my parents in California and was jet-lagged when I plunged right into a new schedule of 4 night shifts per week plus a weekend a few hours away with friends.  We’d come back from the weekend and I was off to a night shift.  All the disruption in my sleep (jet lag + travel + night shifts + normal sleep + night shifts again) was doubtless the reason for the migraine.  Luckily it didn’t fully bloom and I nuked it when I got home with ibuprofen, St. John’s Wort and a nap. 

Somehow I hadn’t registered that it was a holiday (Labor Day, hello) and so it surprised me that Russell came over “before his lunch hour.”  But I never complain at getting to see more of him because of our work schedules, etc.  He went with me to take an elderly friend to lunch, then we watched a movie together, talked about it afterward and were beginning to make plans for dinner…or so I thought.  I mean, we went grocery shopping but then Russell started exhibiting a mix between squirrely, spontaneous and sentimental.  I thought he was acting funny but wasn’t suspicious just yet.  Even when I got “suspicious” later at home, Russell had gotten me so convinced that the proposal wouldn’t be for awhile yet that I was telling myself, “No… it can’t be THAT…can it?!  No…”

Russell had Rahel Schafer (professor at AU religion department) text me to ask if I could come to her office in an hour and that it was important.  Unfortunately for Russell, I hadn’t seen the text when it was sent.  Of all the times I’d left the house and forgotten my phone (very rare occurrence), it had happened when we went grocery shopping.  So by the time I read the text, there wasn’t much time left…! 

Russell had redirected our supper from cooking at home (which had apparently been my misunderstanding) to supposedly eating out, because “It’s been such a nice day with you,” which I liked the sound of but I could not shake that he was behaving SO differently!  He says now with a smile that he’s so glad his proposal plan was the last secret he’d have to keep from me.  Normally we enjoy the luxury of being transparent with each other.  I guess that’s why, when either one of us is hiding something, there are tells all over the place and we just KNOW something is up.  J

Russell then said he’d run a fast errand to a friend’s house and then meet me at the religion department.  I arrived there and all the lights in the department were off as I approached that section of Buller Hall.  I saw the silhouette of a man who looked an awful lot like Russell doing things in the religion department.  Outside Rahel’s office window, I could see that there were no lights on. 

At this point I was more and more sure that this was…what I thought it was.  (Yet how can a girl assume she knows she’s about to get proposed to??)  I texted Rahel and got no response (she was texting Russell and wondering what she should say to me in reply, haha).  So then I stayed outside to give Russell more time to prepare (if my suspicions were correct) and called him, letting him know Rahel wasn’t answering & that her office light was off.  The poor guy (so stressed!), he suggested that I call her vs. text. 

So I did. 

Still nothing.

So I called him again & relayed my lack of success.  At this point he was genuinely sounding hurried and basically said, “I think you should just go inside.”

That was all I needed & I was up & into the religion department to let the chips fall where they might.

Russell met me at the door in a fresh change of clothes, playing a song that had become a favorite since the beginning of our relationships – “We Shall Always Be With the Lord” by Ellie Holcomb.  It’s actually a Scripture song about death & heaven, but its music sounds like a mix between a lullaby and fairy tale.  It has always communicated comfort and hope and sweetness to me.  I loved how it sounded before I knew the words & first heard it the day before Russell asked me to be his girlfriend.  I’d been listening to it on repeat right up until he came over to my house to have “the conversation” (I thought he’d just come to pick up a book he’d loaned me).  And when you recall that the last few years of my life had had so much loss – actual death & emotional death & spiritual death, broken relationships, loss of hope, etc. – then you can probably understand why I LOVE(D) that song so much.  It was the perfect song he could have chosen for that moment, in my opinion.  It was a song he’d introduced me to, a song that had been present for the beginning of our romantic relationship, a song of hope and of a promise that would be fulfilled, a song of being drawn together…  It was perfect for the night when my old life changed and I was significantly pulled once more into a newer and better life.

I had told Russell I wanted him to propose in private and that I wanted “lots of words.” J  Words of affirmation is my 2nd love language; the 1st is physical touch.  The song finished before he’d gotten halfway into his proposal and I actually put him on pause to turn it back on…!  What are moments like these without background music, you know?  J

During the proposal, he sat in the chair across from me like the night of our first conversation and held my hands.  When he actually knelt down in front of me it was so much to absorb (in the best kind of nervously joyful way) that hid my face in my hands.  He took my hands away, held them, looked up into my eyes (with an eye contact that had never wavered since he began) and said, “Will you marry me?”

I nodded first and said yes, quietly because my heart was so full I couldn’t yet start squealing or talking fast like I’m known to when I’m excited. 

The room had been entirely dark and around my chair, Russell had draped a string of lights and on the table next to my chair was a beautiful purple orchid he’d bought for me that morning (orchids are my favorite flower), and my engagement watch inside the book he’d “come to pick up” when he first asked me to be his girlfriend back in March (a commentary on the book of Romans), inside the chapter dealing with Romans 6 where my favorite Bible verse is located (6:14).

We’d been kissing for awhile when Dr. Munoz and his wife came in and the lights came on.  He said, “Guys, what are you doing here in the dark?” and Russell said, “Well, it’s because I was just proposing to Chloe!” and the most hilarious & kinda complex look of shock swept Dr. Munoz’ face and he said, “Well brother did you finish??!”  Oh such laughter and joy that night J J J  The pictures of the two of us from that night are courtesy of Dr. Munoz happening to walk in on our special moment J

We changed our Facebook statuses, posted pictures and went out to IHOP for supper in Benton Harbor.  We’d gone there for free pancakes the night we made our dating relationship Facebook official back in March, but this time I had onion rings & salad, though he still ate breakfast food.  It was such a wonderful night.

I love Russell so much.  And remembering this story and its context rejuvenates my gratitude to God for His faithfulness, grace, redemption and defiant creativity.

Now that it’s February I get to say, “I’m getting married this month!”

I mentioned earlier on how our original desire for a wedding date was March 1st, but now I’m incredibly glad it’s February 22nd.  First of all, we get to wait one week less J and second, February 22 was the Sabbath in 2014 when I gave my full testimony for the first time.  And on that day, the friend zone got broken!  Russell had not been interested in me or attracted to me though we’d become friends.  He’ll also tell you I did a good job of not letting him know I was attracted to him (I was trying to be more emotionally prudent for a change).  While I was giving my testimony (which is not pretty about me though it’s beautiful about God), it began to dawn on him that someone was already in his life.  Later that night we had supper together – at his initiation – and his roommate Bill was elsewhere (usually it was the three of us).  When he arrived, he saw me cooking through a window and (I love this part so much!) in his own words, “I thought, ‘Oh!  She’s beautiful!  I wasn’t expecting this,’ and I had to pray for composure before going in.” 

(I didn’t know any of that last bit that night when he came over; everything felt the same to me.)

God is so good.  Seriously.  I really hope that in reading this story you get a strong sense of that and maybe get some encouragement yourself.  I’ve gotten so burned out on only doing what I felt like and excluding faith when I didn’t like what it’d mean.  But God’s grace rescued me and gave me beauty for ashes.  His heart is good.  He wants a relationship with you and He wants to bless you.  But we can never be open to God’s blessings (let alone fully appreciate them) until we’re submitted to Him on faith first.  If you can FEEL surrendered AND do surrender, I’m so happy for you!  But if you can only do surrender and are upset or worried that the feeling of surrender isn’t there, that’s no reason to be discouraged or doubtful.

Spiritual growth and real love grow slowly like plants.  You have to be patient.  You really have to be.  Patience is a mental choice, not a feeling, which creates ripple effects in your external choices if you’re committed.  When you get to see the bloom or taste the fruit, though, it is so worth it.  SO worth it – like all that time you spent waiting just fades into nothing. 

Take heart.

Great is His faithfulness.