I intended to publish this on September 10, 2015, but I didn’t get it quite finished. Life interrupted. As it turns out, we got a few more details even this morning, and it’s September 11th, a day of some considerable sorrow in the United States, and we could use a smile on this day, so it is as it was supposed to be…
My Great Life Vow
For a lot of reasons–some of them very public; some very private–my great life vow from boyhood was to have a successful marriage. “Successful” is not the best term, but it is less romantic and purely emotional than what “happy” connotes. I knew from boyhood that marriage could not always be “happy,” that it would be difficult; then, in my early twenties, I came to know who I really was, “chief of sinners,” to use the Apostle Paul’s language in 1 Timothy 1:15-16. Up to that point I placed a lot of hope in how my will to have a successful marriage would, with discipline, make it come to pass. Early in my twenties I came to understand what a bastard is.
When I saw that bastard for who he was, it was then that I really began to understand grace. Again, St. Paul:
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15–16, ESV)
Or, as Christ Himself said:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31–32, ESV)
He came to save the unrighteous. Oh, boy, is that me!
This is a very public forum, and I say this with full conviction to the world: I HAVE A BLESSED, SUCCESSFUL MARRIAGE!
And it has nothing to do with me.
Christ did it. His grace and forgiveness did it. The Spirit of Christ, which is mine in Baptism, did it and does it. The marriage I have, whatever good I have, is God’s work…
So, on this Tenth Eleventh Day of September, in the Year of Our Lord, 2015, I want to tell a fun and happy story.
Receiving True Wisdom
In May 1995, just a couple years back into life as a Christian after my disastrous rebellion, I was “on fire” in Christ. I had a sense of calling to be a Lutheran pastor (which would be confirmed over the next five years and find its fruition with a congregational call to parish ministry in 2002), but I had just had my application to the seminary rejected: I hadn’t been back in the faith that long; I needed to get my finances in order; I needed to learn how to have a true Christian friendship with a woman. That last one–the “true Christian friendship with a woman” thing–that’s hard to describe to people other than me how true-to-the-bones true it was. When I was told those things by a seminary interview committee I did not take them hard. I knew they were right. Knew it in my soul.
And it changed my life forever.
Those men that rejected my seminary application had given me true Biblical wisdom. They had told me exactly what I needed to hear, so I headed back to my life with a God-given mission. They hadn’t said, “No.” Rather, they had given me pre-seminary preparation.
The journey to understanding Biblical, Christian stewardship of God’s resources had already begun, as had–in truth–more Biblically healthy relationships with women, but there were still some serious compromises. So, I was eager, under the grace of Christ, to do better.
No Chance Encounter
And, a couple weeks after the admissions committee at Concordia Theological Seminary had given me my marching orders–get your finances in order; learn how to have a true friendship with a woman–I met Carrie Allen, whose father was a Christian financial counselor.
We met in May and began a friendship. I took it upon myself just to get to know this woman that God had placed in my path and who had many, many similar interests. I didn’t try to find surreptitious ways to unclothe her. With that “off the table” an amazing friendship began to blossom in bright, marvelous array. By July I knew–we both knew–that this was going to happen. We were both shocked. Carrie had just sworn off dating for a while. I had a “mission from God,” which I figured would take a while. As it turned out, it didn’t take long at all.
But there was one big thing: I was going to be a Lutheran pastor. I was a Confessional Lutheran. There was no getting around that: original sin, justification by grace, baptismal regeneration, real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, male only pastors, Biblical marriage, highest view of the Scriptures, etc.
And Carrie wasn’t Lutheran… at least not yet, by public confession of the faith.
I had fallen fully conscious, full throated in love with this woman… but I couldn’t marry her unless we were in full faith agreement… and I couldn’t tell her that, at least in that way. I believed that she needed to be a Lutheran of her own conviction. When we met Carrie was searching, as I had been not long before, and she “just happened” to meet someone (Me!) who invited her to explore the Lutheran confession of the Christian faith. She started to take classes in the fall, and on Sunday, September 10, 1995, she was publicly confirmed a Lutheran.
Again, I knew–knew in my bones–almost right away. This immediate and deep friendship that quickly became a full-blown Biblical courtship also coincided with intra-net communications. Yes, we had access to the Internet at work, but at this time dial-up Internet access was really expensive and a lot of us didn’t have home computers that could access our work email at home. But there was quick back-and-forth at the work email (we both worked for the same institution) and as this romance blossomed there was a flurry of email between the two of us. Much of it became, as one might imagine, a lot of sticky-sweet, sappy stuff. Some was work. A lot of it was in-between.
What Carrie didn’t know is that I kept all of this stuff. All of it. Didn’t delete anything (This, again, was in the day where everything didn’t necessarily reside on a server forever.). As the day of her confirmation approached I made a plan.
I went into the office and printed every one of these emails since our courtship began. I then placed them in plastic sleeves and put them in a leather-covered, two inch three-ring binder. Early in the morning of September 10, 1995 (so it would have that date) I went into the office and typed up a very special email.
I then printed it, put it in a sleeve, and placed it as the final page in the binder. The front page read, “The Email Romance” by Lance Armstrong O’Donnell and Catherine Marie Allen.
Not Quite the Way I Planned
So, it’s the morning of September 10, 1995. Carrie is confirmed at the morning service. After her confirmation at the early service we would head over to the seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where our former work colleagues, Dave and Becky Dodge, were living. Becky had been the secretary in the office where I worked, and she was the one who invited me to their Lutheran church a couple years earlier. Becky’s husband, Dave, was a second-career student at the seminary by the time of Carrie’s confirmation. My plan–what I expected–was to have Carrie read The Email Romance slowly, out-loud, over the 1.5 hour drive to Ft. Wayne. It was all planned out in my mind: she would read slowly; we’d reminisce over the past few months along the way; she’d get to the last page as we got onto the seminary grounds; I’d pull over to the side on the beautiful campus as she read the last email, give her the ring, and there would be weeping and rejoicing…
So… well… it didn’t happen that way…
What I didn’t know is that Carrie had been stung by a bee that morning, her ankle was swollen, and she felt “frumpy” for her confirmation day. She, of course, had no–or very little–idea of what would happen that day. She didn’t know about the book, how it should be read, what was at the end, and that I planned to have lunch in Ft. Wayne after the proposal. So (And, oh, is this a metaphor for married life!) we get in the car (after a lovely service, by the way) and I was–of course!–giddy. She, however, was not. Her ankle hurt (Again, I didn’t know this.), and she was hungry. We head down the road. I’m driving and have the ring in my left pocket. I hand her the confirmation present (The Email Romance) and ask her to start from the beginning, reading out loud. Quickly she’s grumpy, “Why do I have to do this?” But, for my sake, she complies. Then she tries to skip ahead–flip, flip–and already my plans are falling apart. “No, don’t skip!” I say. “Why not?” she asks, grumpily. Then her voice is hoarse, and she skips pages. Then she’s hungry, yet for reasons she cannot understand, I don’t want to stop. Grump, grump, grump. I’m beginning to think (just a little bit), “This may not happen today.” I say I’ll pull over for some gas station food, and she says, “NO,” but she’s thinking “Yuk! That’s not very nice. Gas station food?” Eventually, in between reading and complaining and me beginning to bemoan my existence we pull over and get some little to-go meal that is mildly acceptable to her.
Back in the car, I convince her to keep reading (Remember, the book is two inches thick of emails in plastic sheets.), which she does here and there, skipping things, glancing over things.
We are not going to make it to Ft. Wayne before she’s done.
Well, this is my friend, right? So, I adapt, wondering all the while why she’s grumpy, but I adapt. Thus, somewhere along southbound Interstate 69 in northern Indiana she gets to the last page. I convince her to read it out loud:
From: LANCE O’DONNELL
Subject: The Race . . .
She’s thinking (as she tells it now): “Hey, I haven’t seen this email. How did this get in here?” and then continues:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1,2
That’s her Confirmation Verse. She’s a little confused, pausing….
Carrie, my love. Before Almighty God and in the presence of his son, Jesus Christ, I ask:
This is one of those moments where minutes, hours, even days of time can pass by in a moment in your mind. Carrie is realizing something very, very significant is going on, that this is part of a very well thought-out plan… and that SHE HAS BEEN A TOTAL @#$CH FOR THE LAST HOUR!
Will you run the race with me?
From here through eternity…
Will you be my wife?
She’s thrilled, amazed…ashamed, all in a moment. She turns to me and asks the stunned question, “Really?” (And it was a question asked with a tone implying, “I can’t believe I’ve been such a $%@!ch for the last hour while you’re trying to propose to me.”)
As she’s getting that question out from her brain to her mouth and preparing to start crying I’m fishing–while driving, mind you–in my left front pocket for the ring. This was not part of the plan, but the deed was going down, right there on southbound I-69. I said, “Yes,” and–honestly–it was all a blur, but somehow I pulled over along the highway, get the ring out, get it on her finger, she said “Yes,” and then we embraced and wept and rejoiced together–somehow–while stretching across the manual shift of my 1992 Chevy Beretta.
Again, not part of the plan–but, hey!–that’s marriage.
Last night she told me, “I’d still say, ‘Yes’.”
And after twenty years, I’d still ask, we’d still botch the plan–that’s us!–and I wouldn’t have it any other way.