Continued from Part One…
“And while this plea was on the behalf of our entire church, my eyes were still on Kenneth and Virginia.
They had no children?
God, let us be their children.
They had no family?
God, let your Church be their family.”
Through these initial prayers, born out of frustration and sadness, God has crafted a beautiful story.
The getting there would be far too long and complicated to tell in a blog setting, but here I am today, 33 years old, married to a pastor, and the longest I have been away from Ken and Virginia and the church that I love so deeply is the year-and-a-half that I spent in Kentucky as my new husband was finishing up his seminary education.
In a merciful and sovereign turn of events following Mr. Gore’s graduation from the masters program, God sent us back to the church body where our hearts had remained, and for nearly seven wonderful years we have had the joy of worshipping and fellowshipping alongside them with my husband serving as pastor.
And what was once a dream and a prayer soon became a blessed ritual.
Every Sunday morning when the weather permitted and she was feeling well, I would stop in to talk to Virginia where she still volunteered in the library. She’d welcome my children as she used to welcome me and she’d tell us all the story again of how I used to check out my books as a little girl.
Then, meeting many other friends along the way, I would resolutely make my way to the other side of the church where Kenneth would be sitting in his regular seat near the entry, greeting every brother and sister who walked through the doors of the fellowship hall.
I would sit next to him and we’d spend a good ten or fifteen minutes discussing the week and the weather; I don’t know what he was feeling when we talked, but not a week went by when I didn’t melt a little on the inside to have this sweet time with him.
And the years sweetly rolled by.
Kenneth played kickball in that room with my son, Gideon, when he was a toddler.
When my daughter, Rebekah, was a baby, she’s toddle up and sift through his shirt pockets, playing with his comb and his pen and his glasses.
And how he laughed last year when, after pointing out that he had forgotten to shine the dust off of his dress shoes, our little Betsie-girl ran and retrieved a wet wipe and started cleaning them until they sparkled!
There have been special occasions, when our church has had the opportunity to step in as Kenneth and Virginia’s children to commemorate and honor their milestones. I’ll never forget their 65th wedding anniversary, when we hosted a special surprise dinner just for them and gave them a big love offering and flowers and a memory-book of photographs. Neither of them could stop thanking us for the gesture for months.
And then there was Kenneth’s birthday party last summer. Leading up to his 90th, I had big plans, but in the fog of pregnancy and the hectic nature of our life with little children, time got away from me.
Late one Saturday night, I remembered in a panic that his birthday was the next day and I had completely forgotten to plan anything. Jumping out of bed, I tore through our house to see if anything festive could be procured.
The end result was meager in my party-loving eyes: three rolls of leftover crepe paper, a few mismathed candles, a giant cinnamon roll cake that my mother-in-law just happened to have dropped off that morning, a handmade card, and a book I had on my shelf that I thought he would enjoy, “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw.
But it would just have to do.
The next morning, before anyone else had arrived for church, Rebekah and I raced to Kenneth’s Sunday School classroom and, stringing up the crepe paper and writing “Happy Birthday” on the dry erase board, threw together the most unplanned and unscripted party I think I’ve ever orchestrated.
My stomach was a twisted mess of excitement for his surprise, along with regret that I couldn’t have done more, but when he came in and clapped his hands in shock and delight, I felt pleased as punch.
As the church began to arrive for the day, we clustered around our beloved friend to sing to him, but there was someone missing. “Wait, wait, wait!” he interrupted us. “Where’s Virginia? We can’t sing before she gets here!”
We ushered her in from her class down the hall and, with her hand intertwined with his and her smile beaming in his direction, we sang “Happy Birthday, dear Kenneth” before cutting up the cake, pouring some coffee and returning to our classes.
Do you know what he told me later that day? 1. He couldn’t remember the last time he had blown out candles on a cake and, 2. That was the best birthday party he’d ever had.
He read the book I gave him that very week, and it warms my heart everytime I notice it propped up on their little shelf of knick-knacks when I go to their house.
But my most memorable moments with Ken and Virginia always seemed to take place on our breakfast trips to Cracker Barrel where I sat across from them and listened to their wonderful stories and gleaned as much precious advice as I could before the biscuits and gravy (Kenneth’s favorite) arrived.
It was there that I first heard the story of how they met, at a baseball game. Virginia, seeing Kenneth out on the field, determined that he was “the prettiest thing she ever saw”, and Kenneth, equally smitten with the petite redhead in the stands, was so flustered that he struck out three times. “We lost that game,” he told me, “but I won Virginia’s heart, and that’s all that really mattered.”
It was at Cracker Barrel that they first told me what they did on their honeymoon, going straight from their wedding ceremony to see a picture show. Fresh out of the military and low on funds, that was all the could afford, and though neither could remember what movie it was, they felt sure it was a western, most likely starring Gene Autry or Will Rogers.
It was there that they repeatedly told me the secret to their long and happy marriage: be friends and never go to bed mad.
And it was there that I decided for a fact that these two friends – who, by the way, had manned the guest table at my own wedding – were truly a city on a hill, and that I should pay very close attention to every word they spoke.
Early last year, however, I am so sad to report, our sweet and peaceful season together was met with an abrupt interruption: walking to her Sunday School class one church morning, Virginia fell and seriously injured herself.
I watched, eyes swimming with tears, as the church body that God had crafted for her in her final season gathered around to load her into a car, to hold her hand and to pray for her. And when an ambulance couldn’t arrive quickly enough to ease her pain, I watched my husband jump into the driver’s seat to race her and Kenneth to the hospital and I thought my heart would explode. He was my knight in shining armor that day, and I could not have been more proud or grateful.
Our church is so small now, and so very forgettable, but Virginia? She was seen that day. She was loved.
And I can’t help but think that God was honored.
Her health swiftly declined from there, and I watched in awe and heartache as Kenneth’s love for his “little lady” soared under severe testing and trials. He tended to her so faithfully, so tenderly and so tirelessly, bathing her, sitting up in a chair all night to sleep next to her in the living room, and spending every minute of every day seeing to her comfort and healing.
It was a truly difficult time for both of them, but their love continued to blossom through the storm.
Thus, when Virginia’s mind began to suffer and Alzheimer’s set in, I felt confused and hurt. “Why, God?” I asked. “Why, after all this time and all their faithfulness to you and to each other, does it have to be like this for them in their last days?!”
It made no sense to me, and I was plagued by the questions that often assail me as a woman of weak faith…
Is God good?
Is God even real?
And, as such, are we completely wasting our lives here in this tiny church in this tiny town?
One Sunday afternoon with Kenneth would change everything.
To be continued…
(Read Part Three here)