A Divine Mess

This may sound horribly unromantic, but I can’t even remember the first time I met my husband.  He’s just always kind of been there, like your parents.  I do however remember my first impression of him in general.  He was old…and grumpy.  Now, please understand, to an insecure and giggly 14 year old he was just one of those 19 year old guys who seemed to be there with the sole purpose of saying no to anything fun.  You see, I was a counselor in training at Miracle Mountain Ranch, and he was an apprentice.  Not only was he in a college program, but he was also in charge of us, and that, by default, made him a kill joy.

Between this first impression and getting to know him later lay many years of vague memories.  He was many people to me: my friend’s older friend, my cousin’s crush, and by now he was on staff, which made him even more distant.  But there was something about him that intrigued me.  By now I had become an apprentice in that same college program, and as staff, he served as an advisor to one of my fellow classmates.  My intimidation of him turned to admiration, not only as he lead us through work projects and horsemanship classes, but more so when he would share of his personal walk with the Lord Jesus Christ.  He was far from perfect. In fact, he’d done a good job making lots of mistakes.  But I think that is what softened my heart toward him when he would share his testimony.  It wasn’t a dictation of all that he was accomplishing and learning, but instead, a narrative of God’s immeasurable grace despite his fallibility and shortcomings.  

Then I began to notice it.  I was surrounded by girls who admired him, and it started to bother me.  Others were trying to play matchmaker for him and I began feeling sorry for his plight. Through many circumstances that year, including a devastating car wreck that my parents were in, we saw each other in a myriad of ways that we couldn’t have anticipated.  I saw a man willing to sacrifice and serve total strangers as he would bring students to my parent’s house to help with different projects.  He saw a young lady who had always wanted to be in the program prepare to give it all up to take care of her parents physical needs.  We saw each other sick, cold, frustrated, and discouraged.  We saw it all publicly, but took it all in privately.  

But here is where our story gets crazy.  Our parents saw the spouse that God wanted for us long before we did.  My dad admired Matt greatly, and would drive over an hour just for a “visit”.  His parents had worked with me in our Wilderness Camp program and began inquiring after me when he would talk with them.  

He called my house one night when I was home on Christmas break, and my heart leapt in a way that I had not anticipated.  I was starting to like him, and I didn’t want to.  I had given up this whole relationship thing.  I was burned too many times to try again so soon, and besides, he was staff, and I was sure I would be in so much trouble!  One day I worked up the nerve (and stupidity) to march up to his apartment, knock on the door, and tell him that I was struggling with feelings concerning him.  My imagined response from him was to be one of shock, embarrassment, and telling me that I needed to go talk to my advisor and work through my ill placed affections.  Instead, I was met by a look of surprise that immediately responded by reciprocating his admiration.  We were in so much trouble.  The distraction of relationships was frowned upon, but we soon found that God had paved the way for that as well.  I think the staff had seen our growing interest long before we had, and in the following months we began courting while I was still in the program.  

We had no real idea what a courtship was supposed to look like, so we made it up as we went, but because we were both at the Ranch we just spent a lot of time together.  Soon our hearts were turned toward marriage and the real struggle began.  Both of us had come out of many unhealthy relationships and had brought a lot of bad habits and experiences with us.  We found affirmation in our physical affection and sought times to be apart from the crowd.  Even though I screached into my wedding day with my virginity intact, we had compromised in so many ways and pushed so many lines that we were now shrouded in a robe of guilt and hypocrisy.  If I could have anticipated how hard this would have hit us in our ability to trust each other later, I may have had the fortitude to be stronger.  May have, but I doubt it.  We had done the very thing we wanted to avoid, hurting each other.  

Of course, this revelation did not occur to us until years into our wedded bliss, when I would question his love for me, or his ability to make wise choices.  I was so afraid of being “found out” for who we really were, flawed people.  We felt like hypocrites serving in a ministry, one that preached on purity.  But slowly, God began to heal our hearts.  Ironically, around year three we found ourselves attending a couples counseling group with the intention that we would be learning how to counsel others.  We were duped!  These workshops wanted us to talk about OUR issues!  This was not what we had bargained for!  

But God…

I love that phrase, especially where it is found in scripture.  We were a mess… but God.  We are undeserving… but God.  We will fall again… but God!  God began to show me that my issues were not with my inability to trust Matt, but in my refusal to trust Him!  What if Matt makes a foolish decision?  God is still God.  What if Matt doesn’t meet my needs?  Only God is truly capable of that.  My insecurity caused me to want to elevate Matt to the status of God, and then I flung onto him a myriad of needs that only God is truly able to fill.  I still wrestle with fear and insecurity, and I’m sure I will as long as I’m on this side of heaven, but I’m learning to let Matt off the hook.   

There was a time in recent years when I was feeling angry at what I felt I had a right to; a man who could look at me and see the needs of my heart, who knew my fatigue, fear, and anger. I longed to be longed for, pursued, sought after.  Matt is a wonderful man, but he is just a man.  I needed more affirmed that any human could fulfill and I found myself standing in a worship service staring at a cross in the corner that was all lit up for Christmas.  It was then that the Lord asked me, When did the cross stop being enough?  When did knowing that someone else had ALREADY died for me no longer matter?!?  He seeks me, pursues me, hears me, and knows the deepest aches of my heart.  He lets me ramble despite how irrational I may be at the time, and more than anything else, He DELIGHTS in me.  Me.  This hot mess.  He delights in me.  

If I had to pick one word to describe our marriage it would be “grace”.  When we walk in the gratefulness that we have been given more than we deserve, we are at peace.  Our marriage is far from perfect, and life is constantly bringing new stress and trials with it, but I am freer now more than ever to just enjoy my husband,  because I see his love as a gift I don’t deserve, not a right I’ve earned.  We laugh together, cry together, and fail together.  We are both messes, but he is mine and I am his, and I couldn’t ask for a better person to journey with than the beautiful soul that I’ve been entrusted with.  So here’s to many more years of exercising God’s grace.    


Cox Small

Matt and Jenni Cox have been on staff at Miracle Mountain Ranch Missions since 1992, where Matt now serves as the Executive Director.  They speak, teach, and act as advisors for summer camp, retreats, and the School of Discipleship.

How I Knew I Wanted to Marry You

I was working at an orphanage in Namibia, Africa when our story began. Ron Ward, the director of Camp Berea was looking for a food service manager, he was given my name by a previous employer, and he emailed offering me a job. I didn’t want to work in a kitchen again but I needed the money and the Camp was on a beautiful Lake. My first day at Berea I was given a tour by Luke Ward, and I took note of the fact that he was the boss’s son and not bad looking either! Luke was no longer working at Berea so it was a few months before we connected again when he came back to work.

I was the kitchen manager and he was hired as my assistant, but having grown up working at Berea every time I turned around he was telling me a better way to do something. It was both infuriating and admirable. We worked together all day and had fallen into spending most of our free time together too. One day as a practical joke on Luke’s Dad we devised a plan to pretend that we had eloped. It was payback for when Ron let me believe that I would be stuck running the Berea kitchen alone after my assistant left, purposely not telling me he had hired Luke.

Luke says, “I still remember the exact scene: you were cleaning out the tilt skillet and I was running through scenarios, you were all quiet. I knew we couldn’t really persuade my Dad that we had eloped; I had to convince you to date me first to give credibility to our story. I knew if I could get you to date me, I could convince you to marry me. And I did”.

When Luke asked me to date him I said yes and then I cried. I knew I had found a man that was godly, and good, one who would love me deeply; but that loving him back would take my life in a very different direction than I had dreamed of. I remained torn right up until the day we got married between my desire to go back to Africa and work with horses and kids, versus my growing love for Luke. In the midst of my indecision, I knew absolutely that we would always be friends if we got married, no matter where we went in life, or how little we had in common. I was uncertain about almost every aspect of our future together but I knew we could always be friends.

Luke says, “There were two definitive points during our time working together in Berea, when I knew I wanted to marry you, the first was when I heard about your work at the orphanage in Africa, I knew you’d be a really good mom. The second was while we were working together, before you went back to Africa, I remember you laughing at one of my stupid jokes, and I knew I wanted to marry you. I had written a list of the qualities I wanted in a woman and you pretty much summed it up. I didn’t want someone who was just a Christian; I wanted someone who was actively in a relationship with God. I was looking for a woman who was kind, generous, beautiful, adventuresome and funny. I remember when I wrote my list I was trying to list qualities that are important, not just important to me but important.”

Once we were dating Luke’s mom, a wonderful and godly woman, tried to persuade me not to marry him on numerous occasions, and my mom said the same things to us. “He doesn’t know what he wants to do in life yet, you two are very different, what about your plans to go to Africa again…..” We knew they were right, and we spent hours talking about ways to blend our interests and never got anywhere. We decided to take it slow and after working together at Berea for 6 months I went back to Namibia for the winter. We emailed back and forth sharing our everyday stories and discussing a future together. We talked once on the phone, I sat on the banks of the Zambezi River watching the sun go down, while Luke was frying 1,000 pancakes watching the sun come up over Newfound Lake. My heart sang to hear his voice, and broke at the thought of leaving this place.

When my work visa was up in April I came home, and by October we were sitting together in a hammock by the Lake talking about eloping. Luke asked me to marry him on top of Cardigan Mountain and we eloped the next day standing on a ledge on Newfound Lake.

We didn’t tell anyone we were married for 6 months, I moved to NH and no one even knew we lived together. When our families found out they were angry at being deceived, and heartbroken over missing our wedding. Luke and I honestly thought no one would really care, we are still wondering how we could have been so stupid! We were eventually forgiven and had a casual reception, thank God for loving families!

Over the years God has given me more purpose and joy raising a family with Luke, than I ever had pursuing my dreams alone. Luke has been a tangible illustration of my Heavenly Father’s love for me in a way I never imagined. Marriage has been the hardest, most incredible thing I have ever poured my heart into. I set aside my dream of returning to Africa and wasn’t even sure I still wanted to go, then one day not long ago Luke said, “I have held on to your dreams for you, even when you gave up on them. Let’s go to Africa.”  And one day we will, together.

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A Long & Winding Love Story

We met years before I ever remember him.  It seems like he gradually came into my life, and then suddenly he was there, integrated, and had been there for ages.  He was four years younger than I was, and so the husband-hunting section of my brain didn’t even register him as an option.

He attended the youth group that I had graduated from and was volunteering with as a leader.  Because he didn’t have a car, my family often picked him up and drove him home from church events.  He spent the night on our couch, and I would sit up late at night with him and my siblings, talking about God and life and anything else that came to mind.

I grew to appreciate his perspective.  I liked the way that his mind worked, and the conclusions he came to.  I enjoyed the easy banter we had.  I knew that I was excited to see what God ended up doing in his life.

And then, one day, we were watching a movie with the youth group.  There must have been at least 20 people stuffed into a small living room.  We ended up squished on the couch together.  And suddenly, I realized that he had muscles.  Like, manly manly musicles.  And they were very attractive.  This sudden flip shocked me.

Over the next months, I repremanded myself for being attracted to an 18 year old.  But I had had plenty of crushes in the past, and so I decided that this would pass like the others did.

It didn’t pass.

One night, he was staying on our couch, and my siblings had gone to bed.  He reached over and held my hand.  At 22, it was the first time in my life that someone had held my hand.  He told me that he liked me, and I admitted to liking him too.  Looking back, it seems like such a middle school scenario.

We decided that we wanted to date.  He was my first real boyfriend, my first real kiss.  He holds just about every milestone in my life as my first and only.

But our age difference created tension with my family.  My parents had concerns about our relationship, and I felt caught between respect for them and the excitement of this budding love with someone I truly wanted to be with.  I desperately wanted them to love him the way I did.  This underlying tension continued for years, and it has taken time and prayer to heal the rifts that it caused.

We found encouragement other places, with mentors at church and Christian friends who encouraged us in our faith.  We spent most of our time together volunteering at youth events.  A few years into our relationship, we both knew that we wanted to get married.  But though we were in a much better place with my family, they still felt that we weren’t in a good place for marriage yet.  It was starting to become obvious that we needed to get married or break up, the relationship felt stuck with no good resolution.  We decided that we needed to separate.

I felt that it was the right decision, even though it was incredibly painful at the time.  I decided to take my brother up on an offer to visit him in Guam, and a few months after our breakup, I was flying to the other side of the planet for 6 months.  We had decided that if either of us felt God’s leading with another person, that we were free to pursue it.

The entire time that I was in Guam, he kept in touch with me.  Even without the romantic aspect of our relationship, our hearts were interconnected as friends.  I spent a lot of time praying about other young men that I was meeting, but God seemed suspiciously silent on the issue.

When I finally came home from my travels, I had concluded that some decisions God leaves up to us.  I needed to be able to choose a path that my life would go down, and be confident in it.  I had spent too much time fearing that I would miss God’s perfect will for my life, and it was causing me to second guess everything that I did.

We slowly started spending time together again, going out in groups and seeing each other periodically.  We had decided that if we were going to be together again, we would be engaged and get married quickly.  So we really just needed to decide the time frame for that before we moved forward.

One Sunday afternoon, stopping by his apartment on my way home from a quick trip to New York, he proposed to me out of the blue, and I said yes.  We were married less than 3 months later on a hot July day amidst family and friends.

I still find myself wishing that our love story was prettier.  That we had made different choices, that it wasn’t so discouraging and painful in places.  I have seen other couples who progressed neatly from milestone to milestone, but for us it was a dark and twisty road to where we are now.  I have also struggled feeling that we don’t “fit” together well.  Our personalities, physical appearance, and upbringing are very different.  At one point we were told that we looked wrong together, and my mind fixates on that at times.  As a teen I remember visualizing my husband, and it is hard to tear down that hypothetical ideal and embrace the flesh and blood man that God gave me.

Regardless, God has always been faithful to us.  Every year that passes, I learn more about how to rely on God and how to love and respect my husband.  He is the man that I needed in so many ways, and I am so grateful to walk through this life at his side.

I think that my advice to young women would be to trust God enough to let go of what they want so desperately.  We know, deep in our hearts, what the right thing is to do.  But it is easy to convince your love-struck mind to ignore God’s prompting.  There may also be a time in your life when you just have to choose a path and move forward, and I would encourage you to do that confidently.  Know that God’s will for your life is to trust and obey him, but sometimes he leaves the choices of where and who we end up with to us.