God doesn’t have a Plan B, but it’s not easy to get behind Plan A, either. The One who came to earth in less than ideal circumstances understands your struggles.
Dial up to the internet and order some Starbucks: it’s You’ve Got Mail Week at All Things New. The classic rom-com starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan turns 20 on December 18. To celebrate, we’ll be reflecting on what the late 90s can teach us about love, community (both the online and offline varieties), identity, and trusting God’s plan for our lives.
During my junior year of college, I took a marriage and family class. I remember two things from it. One was the day the professor had to give an entire lecture about sex (she wore a red dress to go with the very red face she’d have from blushing the entire class period). The other was the assignment where we had to describe our ideal spouse.
I wrote down a lot of items, but here are the ones I remember most: He should be tall enough to make me feel small; he should enjoy reading and talking about books; tt would be lovely if he were musical and we could sing together.
Of course I wrote down other things about his character, having a heart for Jesus and all that good stuff. But those three things were what stuck in my mind because the assignment was to describe our ideal spouse, and those were some of my most cherished ideals.
Flash forward seven years. I’m living in Fort Collins, spending two years working on my master’s degree before I leave town to get my doctorate elsewhere. Except that, like Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail, I met my very own Joe Fox while I was here. And for both of us, that changed everything.
At the start of You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly seems to be with the perfect guy. She loves books and runs a bookstore; he has an obsession with typewriters and writes for a living. They are word people, book people, idea people. Like Goldilocks and Baby Bear’s porridge, they seem just right. Except, they aren’t.
I met my Joe Fox within weeks of moving to town. Mark led the small group I ended up on. He was the big brother to everybody on the group; the one you’d call up if you needed help with your car or some heavy furniture moved or financial advice. But he didn’t exactly meet up to those ideals I held so dear.
Yes, he was tall enough to make me feel small.
But…he didn’t read. When I referenced Pride and Prejudice, Mark, like Joe Fox, had no idea what I was talking about. I could see inside his head: “Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy…who are these people she keeps talking about?”
He liked music and liked to sing, but we were never going to be on worship team together. Just wasn’t his thing.
And he kind of irritated me. Ask him about the conversation we had in a Subway parking lot on Elizabeth Street when I very clearly articulated all the reasons I didn’t want to co-lead a small group with him. It wasn’t quite as bad as organizing a protest in the street against him like Kathleen did with Joe and Fox Books. But nonetheless, it wasn’t exactly hope-giving to a guy who was pretty sure this girl was the one for him.
Despite my reservations, we did end up leading a small group together. He didn’t hold that conversation against me, but he did change some things because of it. I found myself appreciating his strong character and steady wisdom. And leading and working together was surprisingly easy and comfortable.
And then came Christmas. To make a long story short, before Christmas break, Mark sat me down and asked me to date him. This wasn’t a, “Let’s go on a few dates and see what happens” kind of a question. It was an, “I’m pretty sure I want to marry you and what are your thoughts on that?” kind of a question.
I was still thinking of him as a lovable, helpful and occasionally irritating older brother at this point. So I was pretty much rendered speechless by his question. He said I didn’t have to give him an answer right away. Which was good for me, not so much for him. He asked me right before Christmas break, and I got an airplane, flew across the country and didn’t have any contact with him for the next two-and-a-half weeks. Before I could even wrestle with the dating question I had to wrestle with changing the whole way I viewed him.
Kind of like Joe and Kathleen.
Once I was finally able to get my head around moving Mark from the older brother category to potential future spouse category, I spent the rest of that break wrestling between reality and my ideal, and all my what ifs…
What if I gave up my sure thing (grad school) for something I was less than sure about? What if it didn’t work out? Should I hold out for my ideals? I was so attached to them. But how important were they, really? Didn’t character trump that?
Kathleen Kelly was holding out for the guy with “152 insights” into her soul. So much so that she walked away from the guy who enjoyed her, even when he didn’t fully understand her. The guy who made her laugh, who appreciated her quirks, and who saw their differences as invigorating. Thankfully, for her, they ended up being the same guy. Cue the kiss and the happy music and pan the camera to the sky.
For me, you can cue the camera to a house filled with the noise of two kids and two dogs and all the clutter you collect over 16 years of marriage. I said “yes” to dating Mark when I came back from that Christmas break. I said “yes” to the guy who appreciated me for who I was, quirks and all. And eight months later I said “yes” when he asked me to marry him.
Now I teach our two kids instead of teaching in a college classroom. Instead of writing papers I write blog posts. Instead of creating curriculum, I create book club kits. Mark and I have found things we love doing together—gardening, puzzles, neighborhood small group, marriage ministry, raising a family. And I don’t regret a moment that has come into my life because I let go of my ideals and said yes to who God gave me instead.
We all face moments when we have to let go of ideals. It might be in who we marry. It might be in not getting married. Perhaps it’s the dream job we never find. Or the dream job we lose. Maybe it’s an unplanned pregnancy. Or not being able to get pregnant. It could be having to move, or saying goodbye to a family member too soon, or any number of unplanned for things.
When those moments come do we fight them or embrace them? Do we trust God with what seems so much less than ideal? The One who came to earth in less than ideal circumstances surely understands our struggles. He let go of heaven and all its glory, and exchanged it for a bed of straw.
Let the stable still astonish:
Straw – dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: “Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
be born here, in this place?
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
and says, “Yes, let the God
of Heaven and Earth be born here–
in this place.”
— “Let the Stable Still Astonish” by Leslie Leyland Fields
God let go of perfection to be born in a stable. God let go of glory to be born in the “darker, fouler rooms of our hearts.” To put it in 20th century terms, God didn’t come to be in a picture-perfect Hallmark movie. He came to enter enter our sin-stained lives. He came to be the light in our darkness (John 1:4-5), to be our counselor (Isaiah 9:6), to save the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). He came to grant us the hope of an ending that is far more than just happy. Rather, this ending, the one he invites us into, is more than we can ever imagine.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
— Isaiah 25:7-9