A Life-Changing Love

I had this funny feeling that something big was about to happen.

Posted in , Jan 24, 2011

Senior couple

As I approached my fourth year of being a widow, my son Jon said to me one day, "Mom, you should attend singles meetings. Go somewhere. How will you ever meet anyone?"

I sat at the old oak kitchen table with Jon as he devoured a sandwich. "I can't, Jon. I just can't take a casserole and go to a singles meeting. I didn't like boy/girl parties when I was thirteen. I still don't like them. God's going to have to send someone to me."

"That's crazy, Mom. Do you really think you can just sit here day after day and someone will knock on your door and say, 'Hello. I'm your Christian husband-to-be, sent by God.'"

I brightened. Sounded good to me. "Yes, Jon! That's exactly what I'll do."

"Aw, Mom, be reasonable. You have to date."

I'd dated some. I didn't even like the word for someone my age who'd been married for 25 years. Jon left for work and I sat alone, thinking. "Lord," I said, "I do not want to date. I just want to be a wife again. And I don't want to get married simply for companionship. I want a real romance. You select him. You know me better than I know myself." About the middle of last March I added a list of some qualifications for the husband I wanted:

1. God must be first in his life. I want to be second.
2. He's well-read and loves books.
3. Further along than I am spiritually.
4. I'd like to be a minister's wife, but I'll leave that up to You.
5. He has a deep sense of humor so that we can laugh a lot.
6. He's able to communicate and have long conversations.
7. Cares about people, especially people who are hurting.
8. He will allow me to write and speak as long as You want me to.
9. He needs me.
10. There must be romance. Sparks!

In the weeks that followed, thoughts that I believed were from God eased into my mind. I'm going to answer your prayer for a husband. The answer will come very quickly—so fast it will scare you if you don't trust Me completely. The answer will come through a phone call from a Guideposts reader in response to an article.

"When will I know for certain, Lord?" I asked.

By your birthday.

So by July 8 I should know something.

In April Guideposts published my article on depression. That article evoked responses from quite a few men going through the pain of losing their wives. Phone calls and letters became fairly common—from the Atlanta, Georgia, area, as well as other states.

On April 8 I received a telephone call from a professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. He lived on a small farm with some cattle, a grown son and a red dog. He was also a minister. Our conversations quickly became a regular thing, three or four times a week. I was corresponding with several other men too as a result of the article and had gone out with several from the Atlanta area. But pretty soon the professor/minister/farmer and I were writing almost every day. Our letters weren't love letters exactly, but there always seemed to be something between the lines, and I easily understood the unwritten messages.

Sometimes Gene Acuff enclosed a blank sheet of paper without explanation. "What's the blank paper?" I finally wrote.

His answer was immediate: "Things I want to say to you that you aren't yet ready to hear."

Gene planned to come to Atlanta to see me. He says that I invited him, but I didn't. "What do you want to see?" I asked. "Where do you want to go?"

"I just want to see you. No parties, no big plans. I want to walk with you, talk and laugh. I want to sit in a porch swing with you and I'd like to go somewhere under a tin roof and listen to the rain with you." I was smiling as I held the phone. I smiled a lot when we talked. We were talking six to eight hours weekly. My mother said I had a certain light back in my eyes again.

Of course, I carefully told myself this wasn't serious. We didn't really know each other. We'd just get acquainted, have some good conversation and good food, and relate our experiences of grief and loss. Gene's wife of 25 years had died in February 1987 of an 11-day brain-related illness. His loss was much too recent for us to be serious. I had no way of knowing then that when Gene read my article on depression in the April Guideposts, God spoke to him: Check your wife's Bible. If she has the same Scriptures underlined that Marion used in the article, phone her right away. She did and he did. Although neither of us understands it or can explain it, he says God told him then, She will be your new wife.

On my 51st birthday I went to get the mail as soon as I saw the mailman put it in the box. I knew a letter from Gene would arrive. He'd already sent me a dozen red roses. There had been some mention of photographs. So far, all I had was a very small family portrait taken several years ago. I wanted some new pictures but wouldn't ask for them.

There were two letters, one so thick I knew it was the promised pictures. I was late for an appointment and it was terribly hot, so I sat in my car with the air conditioning going full blast and read the letters. Just as I opened the pictures, God seemed to say, Put the tape lying on the seat in the tape deck. I glanced on the seat. Yes, there lay a tape. Several days earlier all my Christian tapes had been stolen. The police returned them a few days later and by mistake included a country-and-western tape, which I'd meant to give back. I'm definitely not a country-and-western music fan. But I knew Gene was, and I had this funny feeling that something big was about to happen. Playing this tape seemed absolutely crazy, but this whole adventure with Gene Acuff was crazy, so I put the tape in.

Jim Reeves began to sing incredibly sweet songs about love, including an old favorite I hadn't even thought about since I was 16: "Evening shadows make me blue, when each weary day is through...how I long to be with you...my happiness."

Tears blurred my vision, and I whispered aloud over my pounding heart, "God, you can't possibly be speaking to me through a stolen country-and-western tape!" I had the photographs in my hand. I looked intently at Gene's smiling face and then at his dog. The dog was smiling too! His expression clearly said, He's pretty wonderful. Gene wrote, "If I could take you out on your birthday, I'd pick you up in my old '41 Chevy, and we'd go to a 1950s movie and eat popcorn and drink Cokes from the little bottles, and of course we'd eat Milk Duds at the movies."

"Milk Duds," I screamed over the music, my heart melting like hot butter. No one knew of my passion for Milk Duds. How could Gene Acuff know? Jim Reeves was singing "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" I was humming along and trying not to cry on the photograph—as I drove to my appointment an hour late.

That night Gene phoned, and as we were about to hang up he said for the first time, "I love you, Marion."

"Thank you, 'bye," I answered curtly and hung up. He said the same thing two nights later and I said the same thing. Only this time I hid under my pillow after hanging up and said, "Oh, God, I don't know how to handle this."

The third time he told me he loved me, there was a long silence. Then Gene asked, "Are you going to say what I want you to say?" I took a deep breath. I knew I loved him. It was as though I were a child about to jump off a high dive that I'd tried to jump from many times during the summer. "I love you, Professor Acuff. I really do love you." I had often wondered what his response would be if I ever said those words. His response wasn't to me at all: "Thank You, Lord. Oh, thank You. Praise You, Lord Jesus."

July 27, the date of Gene's planned arrival, finally came. The waiting had been almost unbearable. I had lost 12 pounds and was hardly sleeping. The phone rang at noon, right on schedule, and a voice I knew so well said, "Hello."

"Where are you?" I asked.

"Stone Mountain Inn."

"I'll be there in ten minutes." Driving to the inn, I could hardly believe it was finally happening. We were actually going to meet. Stone Mountain Inn is a resort just 10 minutes from my house. I pulled in the driveway. Someone honked at me. Looking in the rearview mirror, I recognized Gene. I thought about sitting in the car and letting him come over. But just like in the movies, we moved very fast toward each other. I left my car running in the middle of a driveway, the door open. My sunglasses dropped on the pavement. Just as we embraced, I remembered some strict advice I'd given my girls when they were growing up: "No public display of affection, ever." But right then in the middle of the parking lot in broad daylight with people all around us, we kissed. I lost count of the times.

I had planned a picnic for just the two of us the next day at my cousin's 150-year-old renovated farmhouse located on 600 acres in northeast Georgia. It is sort of a getaway for them and furnished in antiques. I thought Gene would feel at home there. There were even cattle and three swings and a tin roof. Sitting on a quaint loveseat in front of a stone fireplace, Gene started to ask if I would marry him in December.

I suddenly experienced a full-fledged ulcer attack. The stress had been unbearable. We were deeply in love and knew God had brought us together. But he had to return to Oklahoma to teach, and I didn't see how I could just pull up stakes and go with him. My two boys, almost 20, lived with me. I was paranoid about leaving them alone for even a night, certain they would break some of my rules. Also, my two married daughters and two granddaughters lived nearby. Jennifer, the younger daughter, was expecting her first child. My widowed mother lived less than an hour and a half away. All my dearest friends, my world, was in Georgia. I'd always lived there. And I was booked to speak for the next six months.

Gene had to move to the far end of the loveseat. Every time he came close my stomach pains intensified. He held onto my foot and asked me to marry him. I found I could tolerate foot-holding pretty well. I said yes. We talked about maintaining two separate residences and commuting often. Two days later, in exactly two minutes, we selected an engagement ring.

Then it was Sunday. Our week was over. Gene left crying, and I went to my room, crying, and fell across my bed begging God to "do something." He somehow knocked me out. Totally. Meanwhile Gene, en route back to Oklahoma, phoned, but my boys couldn't wake me up. When I did wake up four hours later and they told me he'd called, I somehow knew I must clear my calendar. I started phoning people, asking to be relieved of speaking engagements. In 11 years of speaking, I'd never done such a thing, except when my husband, Jerry, had brain surgery.

Later Gene called again from Tennessee and asked, "Could you marry me Wednesday?" I checked my calendar and said yes and wrote "Marry Gene" on August 12.

As it turned out, the date was moved to August 14 at seven in the evening. A small ceremony was planned. Gene never asked me to leave my boys. He was content to have a marriage in which we commuted for a while. But God told me clearly, Quit hovering over your boys. You are trying to be their god. Let Me be God to them.

Gene and I honeymooned at my cousin's old restored farmhouse. We sort of identified with it. The farmhouse never expected to be whole and alive again with meaning and purpose. Gene and I understood something about restoration. We thought the farmhouse might like us too. Together we were almost 107 years old. The night before we left the farm, God sent the rain we'd so often talked about on the phone and written about. It was our first time to see rain together. As we listened to it on the tin roof, Gene said quietly, "Your formula works, Marion."

"What formula?"

"The restoration formula from your book, The Nevertheless Principle."

Oh, yes! Yes, it did work. I could remember the formula almost word for word. When I was slowly watching my husband die from a brain tumor, I carefully examined my restoration formula: "No matter what is taken away from you, if you keep your eyes on Jesus and praise Him, He will restore it to you. You will be joyful to the exact same degree you have hurt. What you have lost will be replaced...joy for mourning...beauty for ashes....God I don't see how it could possibly work now. I don't see how You will ever come to me again in any shape or form. But I won't limit You, so I'm going to remember this moment for the rest of my life. And if and when You restore the years that the locusts have eaten, I will tell people about it and write about it. I am committing to You to remember this agony, and if You can come up with some kind of joy to the equivalent that I hurt, You are truly a God of miracles."

On August 22, 1987, Gene and I headed for the Atlanta airport and a new life together. I'd often said after Jerry was gone that if God ever asked me to simply walk out on everything, I would. But I had assumed that it would be for missions—Africa, not Stillwater, Oklahoma! But God had recently given me an old familiar Scripture with a marvelous life-changing message: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want....He leadeth me beside the Stillwaters. He restoreth my soul...."

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