He spoke reverently, lowering his ten-year-old voice to suggest maturity. The words of his message started off quietly, growing in intensity as he struggled to explain the main point to his captive audience. He knew the criticism would come sharply if he did not finish his sermon on cue.
A hot summer breeze rustled the pages of the song leader's book as he patiently waited his turn to dominate the pulpit area. Bringing the convicting message to completion, the novice preacher hopped down from the step stool. Wiping his brow and feeling quite satisfied he took his seat. He had delivered another fine speech to his juvenile congregation. The service ended with a carefully chosen hymn from the preacher's brother, followed by a bored sigh from a restless little sister. Her brother had coerced her into another "church service" during the long summer vacation of 1968.
Feeling a message burning within him, Ron knew it was time to again gather his siblings on the back porch to participate in a public worship service. Whether the sensation was the Lord's conviction or from too much macaroni and cheese the night before was of little consequence. When the call came, he needed to respond.
Ron's passion to speak God's truth continued as he entered into his teen-age years. He eventually led his peers at church in Bible studies and developed an interest in church leadership. A few years out of high school, Ron sensed God leading him to enter Bible College. His minor was pastoral studies, and he assumed he would one day pastor a church. God had taken the amusement of a little boy and directed it toward an ability usable by Him.
When I met Ron, he was already in his junior year of college. My attraction to him was heightened because of his love for the Lord and his intense commitment to the Bible's teachings. He, like myself, had an interest in missions. I was in nursing school at the time and had every intention of using my medical skills in an under-privileged country following graduation. As our relationship grew, we considered the possibility that God was calling us together to do mission work outside the United States.
After his college graduation, Ron began working as the youth minister at his home church, Paradise Mennonite. A year later, following my graduation from nursing school, we were married. Along with our full-time employment, Ron and I continued to serve as youth leaders for another two years. We loved the challenge of encouraging young people to a deeper relationship with Jesus, and assisting them in the change this brought to their lives. Despite this rewarding opportunity, our dream for full-time ministry continued to be a strong desire for both of us.
Two years into our marriage, various circumstances brought us in contact with an organization called Rural Home Missionary Association (RHMA). RHMA's purpose is to start new churches and to strengthen already existing churches in small-town America. It seemed as if this ministry would satisfy the combination of interests that Ron had in Bible College. Church planting would be a way to achieve the goal of being directly involved in mission work as well as having the opportunity to use his pastoral training. God was fitting together the pieces of our lives and the picture pleased us.
The summer before Kari was born, we had worked through the application process of joining RHMA. As a result, six weeks after her birth, we scheduled a week of candidate school in Illinois with this mission organization. This would give us an opportunity to closely evaluate the mission and for the board of RHMA to interview us. At the end of the week, the personnel committee of RHMA would determine if we were approved to join their mission.
The other piece we had been exploring, in anticipation of being accepted by the mission, was the "where" question of ministry. For various reasons, we both had a strong desire to live and serve in New England. Ron bought a photo tour book of New England. We spent hours pouring over it, dreaming of life in that historic and rustic part of the country.
Three months before we were parents, we took a weeklong trip to New England. On Sunday morning, we stopped in a typical eastern Connecticut town, complete with white steepled churches, rural wooded acreage and friendly folks. We worshiped at a church that RHMA had suggested as a place of possible internship for Ron. Our vacation was everything we had hoped for and more. Again it was clear that God was guiding us.
We were looking forward to many things – anticipating all the joys of raising our daughter, and seeing our dreams for ministry unfolding. Living in New England might soon be a reality for us! Filled with hope, we eagerly entered this new stage in our lives.
Our tiny city apartment fit with our ministry plans. Our choice of housing was by design. Because we had no idea where God might lead us. We wanted to stay as movable as possible. As a result, while our friends were moving into new homes and getting established in Lancaster County, we lived in a rundown, old, smelly apartment in the city. They were driving new cars to work as we contented ourselves with our seven-year-old, brown Ford Granada. It often sat for days at a time as I walked the short distance to the hospital and Ron rode his bike five blocks to the downtown retail store. Having been satisfied for two years in our city home and part-time ministry, we were now anticipating the exciting changes that the birth of our daughter and ministry plans brought.
Kari, at only six weeks old, already grabbed the attention of others. With her dark hair and eyes, peaches-and-cream complexion, slightly upturned nose and puckered lips, she received more than her usual share of compliments. Even men, who I assumed never noticed newborns, would comment on how unusually cute she was. Of course it delighted us, but with each week that passed, our beautiful baby grew increasingly irritable. The attention lessened.
Kari did not nurse well. Of course, being a first time mother, I was quick to blame myself. All the advice I received only confirmed that I was not doing something right. "You need to relax more," the lady from the Le Leche League implored me. My hospital friends encouraged me to "Have a little wine each day to calm you and Kari." I patiently listened to each suggestion, applied what I could, but continued to experience one-and-a-half hour feedings as I struggled to nourish my daughter.
She was so irritable and was unable to relax even when I cradled her tightly to my breast. The doctor assured me that Kari was gaining weight normally. "Mrs. Denlinger, you just have one fussy baby!" So I continued spending hours each day feeding her, walking her and swinging her. No matter how productive I was at keeping her quiet during the day, Kari would begin her ear-piercing screams at 4:00 PM each evening. Nothing we tried could satisfy her.
Ron arrived home from work each night to a frazzled, uptight, frantic wife. I nearly threw our baby daughter in his arms as I headed out the door for a half-hour walk. As I enjoyed the sights and sounds of the city, my anxiety subsided but guilt settled in. "How could a mother get so frustrated with her baby?" Like a puppy with her tail between her legs, I went back home. Nearing the apartment I heard Kari's cry, and compassion washed over me. "Oh Kari, how could I desert you? I know you need me." I opened the door and rescued the screaming child from Ron about the time when he too was ready to storm out the door in utter frustration. Our emotions were becoming less and less synchronized.
Every evening we went about our routine: Cook dinner, perform other housework, process the mail, and watch the local news. If we had any remaining time, we played a game together. Being avid game players before Kari was born, we determined to keep this common interest. Through it all, Kari screamed. By 11:00 she exhausted herself and would fall into a temporary sleep. Quickly we jumped into bed to get the now usual two hours of sleep before her next round of feeding and screaming began. So it continued through the night – two hours of sleep, two hours of screaming.
After six weeks of this stressful schedule, I was uneasy about our sixteen-hour trek to Illinois for our candidate school. How could I ever handle caring for this baby while attempting to impress this mission organization, let alone survive the trip? I was sure that my fussy baby and my nervousness as a mom would keep us from ever being accepted.
Driving to Illinois seemed impossible because of the amount of time it would take to stop and nurse Kari. We would need at least three days to get there! With our apartment only three blocks from the Lancaster Amtrak station, we opted to take a train. We boarded our sleeper coach early one evening and by morning the next day we had arrived in Chicago. Kari had slept the whole way and so did we! "God, you are simply amazing!" I exclaimed as we exited the train. Ron was ready to purchase an unlimited pass aboard Amtrak – if such a thing was available. The constant swaying motion of the train was just the thing to settle our daughter.
With the trip completed, we still had a full week to conquer. I knew there would be classes to attend, people to meet, interviews to fulfill, and Kari to care for through it all. Still nervous at how we could make this happen, we entered the door of RHMA headquarters. The brightly lit outer office was furnished with a few well-worn chairs.
From behind a counter off to the side, the secretary, Jean Miller, greeted us with a smile and a friendly welcome. Then she noticed Kari. Without delay, she came out from behind the counter and enthusiastically threw her arms around us. Snatching Kari from my arms she exclaimed, "Oh how I love newborns! May I keep her for the week?" I was sure she was an angel from heaven. Except for feeding time and nighttime, we didn't see much of Kari that week.
Before leaving for home, we received our invitation. "Congratulations, Ron & Joan, you have been approved to join RHMA" – Kari included.
There couldn't have been two happier people returning to the Chicago train terminal that day. On the way we learned a song on the radio titled, "It's Amazing What Praising Can Do!" It was a catchy little tune that we picked up right away and sang at the top of our lungs. We had much to celebrate. Our praise to God came naturally from our hearts.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Early in our dating days, Joan and I realized that we had a common interest in missions. That came to light one day as we sat together in the lounge of the Lancaster General Hospital School of Nursing. I had purchased two copies of "My Utmost for His Highest" so that we could share in devotional times together. The reading for that day led us to the topic of missionary service. It was then that I learned the reason Joan had begun to study nursing. Through the example and influence of a godly woman in her life when she was eight years old, she became convinced God wanted her to be a missionary nurse. She was now in school preparing to fulfill that call.
A few months prior to that conversation, I had attended Urbana '81, a mission conference for students. Through that event God seemed to be tugging at my heart to consider overseas ministry.
In the end, God had us join a mission organization, but closer to home and one that would involve more of the skills of the pastorate for which I had been preparing. As for Joan, she seemed to be quite content with the fact that it was a mission organization we were joining. Now that she was a mom, she was happy enough to put her nursing career on hold.
We were indeed thrilled to begin our new venture as career missionaries. God had taken the dreams of my childhood, mixed them with the dreams of my life partner, and allowed those dreams to be fulfilled in ways satisfying to both of us. Little did we know how much each of our preparations would be needed for God's greater work through us. Though ultimately it is God who directs our paths, we firmly believe that, as part of the process, it is important to consider that:
A successful family merges the dreams and abilities
of each member into a unified vision.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Ron and Joan Denlinger