This coming Sunday, May 12, 2013, my wife and I will celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary. If you were to ask me to identify the single most significant evidence of God’s unfailing care and concern for me as a Christ-follower and a minister of the gospel over the past four decades, I would answer, without hesitation: “Three words—Shirley Lorraine Clairmont.”
That may not be the most romantic paragraph with which I could have begun a post in which I reflect on forty years of marriage, but it gets to the heart of the matter as pointedly as I know how. I have devoted my life to the service of Christ and His Kingdom. Forty years ago, Shirley joined me in that endeavor. It has been a team effort since then. She has been my greatest asset in all these years of ministry, and I am grateful to God for His faithfulness in bringing her into my life.
On a shelf not far from my desk sits a pair of picture frames, attached with hinges so that they open like a book. In the frame on the left is a picture of Shirley taken shortly before we were married. In the frame on the right is a picture of her taken just a year or so ago. When I look at the picture on the left, I remember thinking, back in 1973, that I could not possibly love her more than I did on the day we were married. Then I look at the picture on the right, and I know how wrong I was.
In material terms, and by American standards, we have not accumulated very many of the trappings of “success.” We live in a small apartment, we drive a small, economical compact car, and we have never owned a home. None of this makes any difference to Shirley.
In forty years of marriage, I have never heard her complain about her circumstances. In 2008, she was diagnosed with breast cancer just two weeks after I lost my job. She had to continue working full-time during all of her treatment in order to maintain health insurance coverage. She never complained, not even when the side effects of chemotherapy left her exhausted and nauseated for days on end.
Over the course of my life, many things have turned out differently from what I might have expected, and by “differently” I mean less than expected. My marriage, however, has exceeded my expectations in every way, thanks mainly to the grace, forbearance, and loving character of the woman it was my good fortune to marry back in 1973.
She is the most tirelessly selfless and self-giving person I have ever met. I have never heard her speak ill of another person, and her capacity for compassion and empathy knows no bounds. She is consistently kind and generous to everyone she meets and constitutionally incapable of holding a grudge.
I have been in vocational ministry all of our married life, except for the years I was a full-time student and a few brief periods between ministries when I took a “secular” job to help tide us over. In that regard, Shirley knew what she was getting into when she married me. We never expected to be generously compensated for our ministry, but then again, we didn’t choose this line of work for the money.
In fact, we didn’t choose this line of work at all. God called us into it, both of us together, and Shirley has never uttered even one syllable of dissatisfaction or regret—she has never lamented over “what might have been.” In fact, when our circumstances have been particularly grim, and I have been tempted to change fields and pursue some other occupation, it is Shirley who has consistently reminded me, “Remember your calling.”
We are right now in the middle of a period of “waiting on God.” We have been here for several years. It is very, very difficult—more difficult than similar experiences in the past. Without Shirley, I would not make it. I am too old, too tired, too cynical. I don’t suffer fools gladly. I have little patience with those who waste my time, and I constantly chafe under the perception that my current situation is mainly “treading water” until God opens a door for active ministry once again.
In all of this, Shirley has been, and remains, a rock to lean on, the one sure and unchanging human presence in my life. This is the woman that God, in His great mercy and grace, gave to me. And to my dying day, words will be inadequate to express my gratitude to Him and my love and respect and appreciation for her.
Some couples will jet off to some exotic locale on the “trip of a lifetime” to mark a milestone as significant as a fortieth wedding anniversary. We won’t be able to do that. It won’t matter to Shirley. On Sunday morning, just like every morning for the past forty years, she will call out a cheery greeting and flash her infectious smile. And I, just like every morning for the past forty years, will breathe a little prayer of thanks to God for this inestimable gift of love.