Sing it with me. You know you want to.
“That’s why I’m easy. I’m easy like Sunday morning.”
Dancing through my mind the morning I left Bro. JD & Maria’s house, those words seemed to embody everything their marriage is.
Then, because that’s the only part of the song I knew, I looked up the rest of the lyrics and did a quick
They simply reminded me of the chorus, which is fitting given their ministry, but reminded me of nothing else in the song at all.
Every question I asked had an answer similar to, “It just worked that way” or “That’s just how it is/was.” Neither of them seem to be the type of person who wants to make things difficult or engage in such a way that causes situations to be difficult. As a result, their nearly 41 years of marriage may have had rough spots, but according to them, their “rough spots were probably pretty smooth compared to others’.”
Sitting back and listening to them, I would say that “easier” journey was due to their faith and how it permeated their lives from early on.
Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.
This verse is one that gives Christians hope, sometimes false hope actually. They see that phrase “give you the desires of your heart” and think that God makes the life of a Christian so much easier and that they’ll have everything they’ve ever wanted. However, the beginning of this verse is what makes all the difference. If people truly delight themselves in the Lord, their desires will then be more in alignment with the desires of God. That is when you will really see that He gives you the desires of your heart – when the desires of your heart are also the desires of His heart. So, for Bro. JD and Maria, their lives and their marriage have not been the easiest of smooth seas, but they can delight in the journey because they desire what God desires for them.
Maria and Bro. JD both attended the same church in Campbellsville, KY when they were younger. They knew OF each other, but she actually knew his brothers more by name than she knew him since she was in a Sunday School class with them. The first wedding Maria remembers going to is when “the pastor was marrying a lady in the choir.” In fact, this was when JD’s widowed mother married their pastor when JD was 10. At that point, his church attendance improved. After all, when Mom is married to the preacher, that tends to happen 😉 Before long, given his step-father’s calling, his family moved to Elizabethtown, KY.
It was JD’s senior year in high school when he and Maria reconnected. JD came to Maria’s church a week before the Lay Witness Missions to tell her youth group why they should go on the witness missions. She said all the girls were just like, “Oh, wow! Look at this guy!” They were completely enamored with young JD Shipp. One of her friends was supposed to go on the mission trip with them, and Maria just knew that those two would end up together. However, at the last minute her friend canceled and didn’t go, leaving the trip to just JD and Maria. Sitting at her kitchen table, I could see the giddy joy in Maria as she clasped her hands together, rocked back in her chair just a little, and giggled as she said, “So, I didn’t have to compete.”
JD’s mustache, on the other hand, turned up slightly as he raised his eyebrows and said, “I don’t remember any of that.” More giggles ensued.
It was in Bardstown on a Friday afternoon when the team came through, and JD and Maria met up again starting off their relationship. It was easier than Maria imagined it would be, and it all started with a mutual dedication to their God, which just sweetens the story. They were busy doing God’s work. The desires of their heart were in alignment with God’s as they were being obedient to Him. As a result, God sent them each on a mission trip to further His glory, and in the process, he also set in motion a relationship that would bring them the joy He and they desired.
“And Mizpah, for he said, “The Lord watches between you and me when we are out of one another’s sight.”
I wasn’t going to use this scripture because, well, you’ll see in a moment. However, just like the song from the introduction, this scripture is another example of how my humanity does not divine on its own what should be said. Instead, I pray the words in these blogs come through inspiration from God. You see, I simply did a Google search to see what scripture says about long distance relationships. This is from one of those lists, and, on the surface, it seems great. In my mind, I was seeing how God would watch each person while they were apart until they could meet again. However, having read through Genesis as part of my reading recently, something about this verse didn’t feel quite right. I needed the context because I couldn’t recall it exactly. Frustrated with the writer’s block and writing process, I just closed my computer, went to bed, and went to church the next day.
Lo and behold, from where did Bro. JD preach on Sunday? Genesis. Specifically THIS story in Genesis.
That’s a God thing, y’all!
See, this scripture comes from the time during which Jacob had run away from his father-in-law, Laban, who had taken advantage of him for years. Laban gave Jacob the wrong sister to wed. Declared more years of work for the sister Jacob loved and more. So, Jacob had secretly left in the night with his wives and children who were also Laban’s daughters and grandchildren. Laban was not a happy camper to say the least. He ended by finding Jacob and searching Jacob’s camp for his own household idols, which were hidden by Rachel, his own daughter. Bro. JD’s sermon pointed out how Jacob and Laban set up a mound of stones and named it because it would remind them of their distance, their separation, Laban’s choosing of false gods, and Jacob’s choosing to follow the Lord.
There’s NO WAY that scripture applies to Bro. JD and Maria’s relationship, not in its original context anyway. While I wholeheartedly believe God watched them each in their distance from one another, it was not for the same reasons. Instead, JD and Maria were both like Jacob in choosing to follow God. Instead of their distance reminding them of all the negative things that happened between them and keeping them apart, their distance actually brought them closer together.
Since Maria lived in Campbellsville and JD lived in E-town, he woo-ed her from a far. This long distance dating lasted for a full year. They wrote letters to one another. You know. Actual letters. Not text messages. Not emails. Real letters with pen and paper. This is important because their distance wasn’t quite like today’s. In today’s time, our world feels smaller. Distances seem shorter. The effort required to cross a distance is almost nil. You can send a text message to say “I’m thinking of you” or “Guess what happened today” in less time than Maria could probably have found pen or paper during their courtship. Today, if you’re missing a person who is miles away, you can Facetime them or initiate a Google Hangout to see that face you’re missing. The effort required to stay close across a distance was different for them. Writing a letter took thought. It took time. It required a bit of sacrifice on one person’s part to carry through with writing the letter. What better way to show you care? In fact, Maria kept the letters. She told me with a giggle that a few years ago she reread them and thinned out a few. JD added in a wry and perhaps only half-joking voice that when she dies, he plans to burn the rest.
For Maria, I’d imagine, writing the letters was a wonderful outlet. She seems a bit like me the more I’ve talked with her. She probably had all sorts of events to recap for JD, thoughts to share, and so much more. This is probably why they divulged her letters tended to be a bit longer than JD’s. I would hazard a guess that JD sacrificed just a bit by sitting down to pen letters to Maria, and more than likely enjoyed it nonetheless.
However, Maria sacrificed as well. Not only did their courtship include handwritten letters, but it also included telephone calls. Again, these phone calls weren’t on their cells where they could continue with their daily activities while they spoke. These calls were on phones tied to the wall with cords of limited length. Moreover, those phones were not in the most private of places. I remember when Wade and I started dating, I would talk to him on the phone in our laundry room by my bedroom to get privacy. Phone access for JD and Maria, however, had phones in common, shared spaces in their houses. Not only was privacy a luxury difficult to come by, but the phone calls to JD were also long distance for Maria. Maria didn’t want her mom to know exactly how much time she was spending talking to JD on the phone. So, Maria would save up coins and walk to the nearest phone booth to talk to JD. Talk about sacrifice and commitment!
When I asked why they were willing to do all of this for each other, their answer, as in everything, was so simple. It was something along the lines of “It’s just what we did.” Perhaps it’s a nod to the times in which they were living where work for something you wanted was revered. Perhaps it’s a nod to their quiet and subtle way of loving one another. Perhaps it’s a nod to their laid back and “go with the flow” personalities. Perhaps, however, all of those are correct. And, perhaps, each of those nods are an ultimate nod to the work God had done in them and planned to continue doing through them. Without knowing faith in God, without knowing how to wait on God, without knowing how to trust in God’s goodness and grace, without knowing God, I’d imagine their ability to date and court one another from a distance, waiting and trusting each other, would have been much more difficult. These two knew how to delight themselves in the Lord, and he gave them one another.
However, that didn’t happen overnight.
Their first actual date was to JD’s Junior-Senior dance. He already had a date to the prom, so Maria did not get that invite. However, he drove the Buick Electra to her home in Campbellsville where he was told not to worry about her dad because he was just watching John Wayne on tv. JD found Maria’s dad in his recliner with his rifle in his lap. Can you imagine? It brings a whole new meaning to that Rodney Atkins song “Cleaning This Gun”, right?
JD took Maria to the dance that night on the Belle of Louisville. While the others their age were dancing and having a good time, JD pulled Maria out on the deck and informed her he didn’t dance. So, instead, they just walked around the deck and he bought her souvenirs. Since the dance was so far away and so late, Maria wasn’t driven home. However, due to good character, Maria didn’t stay at JD’s house that night either. Do you know where he procured a place for her to stay for the night?
His ex-girlfriend’s house!!!!
Now, when Maria told me this story, she said it ever so nonchalantly, “He arranged for me to stay at his ex-girlfriend’s house for the night.” It truly seemed like no big deal to her.
Staying at JD’s ex’s house, she said she learned all about his good points and bad points. Even his ex had good things to say about him and was willing to allow his new girlfriend to stay at her house. This says multitudes to me about the type of person JD was for an ex to be willing to go through with this, the type of people with which JD associated himself that he could trust she wouldn’t send Maria running for the hills, and the type of person Maria was to go along with this because, let’s be honest, it would have intimidated the heck out of me.
The next morning, he picked Maria up….on his motorcycle. Yep! You read that right. Now, like many moms out there, Maria’s mom had warned her never to get on a motorcycle with a boy. She didn’t listen here. Nor did they reveal their mode of transportation to his tennis match in the storm and rain that felt like bullets with her borrowed formal dress rolled up and sitting in between them on his motorcycle when she came home. Fast forward a few years, and he still has a motorcycle.
Now, I’m not sure about most of you out there, but I couldn’t help but grin when I heard this whole story of their first date. From what I know about Maria, I’ve always felt she was a kindred spirit. Someone who is quiet in spirit, does not like to ruffle feathers, and is a rule follower. I wouldn’t have imagined her as someone who would stay the night with her boyfriend’s ex and hop on a motorcycle. Hearing this story widened my smile and gave me a new appreciation for Maria’s trust in JD. It all would have made me a little anxious. Staying at this guy’s ex-girlfriend’s house and getting on his motorcycle. In fact, if I were JD, it all would have made me a little anxious to be him, too. Having my new girl stay at my ex’s house and meeting her rifle wielding dad. However, they aren’t me. Instead, even in this instance, I have a lot to learn from them.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.”
“And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?”
These verses, along with countless others who have the same theme, are truly what I was searching for in the opening of this post. These verses are the songs of the hearts of Bro. JD and Maria, whether they always realize it or not. There are a few instances in which these verses played out in their lives more than others.
To begin with, JD and Maria wed while they were in college. They had initially decided to “cool it,” but over time, while they continued dating, they realized they were just right for each other. Then, while on the soccer field one night, they just kind of mutually decided to get married. JD said it may have just gone something like this, “Wanna just go ahead and get married?”
See what I mean about go with the flow? It was easy and simple. When Maria called home, her mom was supportive of her decision. She said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of him” when Maria’s dad responded with three words, “No. No. No.” Their engagement lasted for a year. They were married in August of ’77, a week before going to school in a simple ceremony that focused on just the two of them.
They had no qualms or misgivings about getting married while in school. Their trust was in God and they did not worry.
They moved into the married housing while Maria worked through summer school trying to just get school done. Their comment was that “It’s just what we had to do, so we did.”
This attitude of just working and being committed continued throughout the early stages of their marriage – and to the present day actually. Understanding this part of their relationship, my eye was drawn immediately to Maria’s copy of Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When God Speaks, a Bible Study by Priscilla Shirer. It is a Bible Study a small group of women at church just finished. I couldn’t help but think of Week Five with Priscilla as I thought of JD and Maria’s obedience and commitment to the task at hand. Priscilla wrote
“If He hasn’t said more to you yet, it’s because you don’t need to know more yet. Trust Him in this. Commit to doing what’s right in front of you now with faithful simplicity, confident that this is the pace of God’s will for your life today.” (p. 150)
JD and Maria committed themselves to dating long-distance because that’s what was right in front of them. Then, they chose the logical next step to allow dating other people while they went away to college, but they remained close. Then, when the time felt right – when God’s timing was right – they decided to get married. They acted in faithful simplicity and were utterly confident of their choice to marry in college. Maria planned ahead and took summer classes to speed along her schooling. Hearing them discuss this period of their life, you can feel that it was all just a next, logical step in God’s timing that made complete sense. They did what they had to do to make it work, period. It was a simple concept to them.
That faithful simplicity – I really don’t think there are any better words to describe their course or mindset – carried on into the birth of their first child. The winter of ’78 brought along with it a big blizzard. Maria said there were shirts made for all the little babies that said “I’m a Blizzard Baby.” That’s what their Aaron was. After the winter of ’78, they found themselves with a Blizzard Baby of their own the following November while Maria was still in classes. Speaking from experience, having a baby while you’re in school is no easy task. When speaking about it, however, Maria made it sound like everything else. They handled it in stride without worry, just thankful for the little blizzard baby they had with them. Whatever was needed in that time, they did it.
Maria finished her 8 week fall classes before Aaron was born. Then, she had Aaron that November and, excepting one class, had off until Christmas. She recalled typing a paper for that one class with a newborn laying across her lap. Hearing her recounting of that time reminded me of laying Jadyn across my lap as I flipped through Biology flashcards to study for a test I had a mere two weeks after having Jadyn. Maria, no doubt, handled it with much more grace and dignity than I could muster now let alone then. Meanwhile, JD, who had already graduated, also worked faithfully during this time doing exactly what God wanted him to do. He worked as a custodian and as an interim youth pastor at their church while he waited for Maria to finish school. With help from a professor who gave them a swing and a sister who would babysit while Maria did student teaching, they faithfully made it to the next chapter of their lives.
Many couples want everything perfect and in place before they take a next step. They have in their own minds how everything should be. First, we will go off to school, graduate, and begin our careers. Then, we will get married and stay that way while we enjoy just the two of us for a set period of time. Finally, when the time is right, we have the right house, and our finances are perfect, we will begin our family. That plan sounds nice. That plan sounds easy. That plan may be exactly what God has planned for some people. However, it was not what God had planned for JD and Maria, and they were committed to being obedient right where he placed them when he placed them there without grumbling. Maria worked the timing of her classes and graduation so that they fell nicely around Aaron’s birth while JD was content to stay in Murray and find work until Maria graduated. The simple give and take for one another shows a love so many of us could only hope for.
God had prepared them for one another, too. Their personalities were crafted in a way that complements one another. Their careers are even suited to each other. Maria wanted to work with the deaf, but the closest major she could find was a speech therapist. This career choice, one that is almost always in demand, made the journey upon which she and JD were about to embark work seamlessly.
That journey is the next place in which you see their quiet resolve to not worry and instead rely on God come into play.
Once Maria graduated, it was time for JD to start seminary and then begin his calling as a preacher. Here’s the thing, though. They didn’t know where they were going to live OR exactly where his calling would lead him.
They didn’t have a plan already paved out in front of them. Seems crazy to some, but sounds like faith to Christians. JD knew he felt a calling, and he was being obedient to that calling without worry. Instead, they relied upon God.
“The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”
When I say they didn’t have a plan, that is not exactly right. They had a plan, but it wasn’t finalized yet. JD had planned on going to seminary in Louisville, and Maria planned on getting a job in Jefferson County. However, Jefferson County teachers had gone on strike, so this wasn’t panning out quite as they had planned. Did they worry? Perhaps. Did they worry enough that the worry stood out in their recollection of their history? No. That, my dear friends, is a God thing. So are His provisions. God gave them JD’s parents.
They moved to Elizabethtown with his parents, for a planned two weeks, while they figured things out. However, they couldn’t find housing. The Stephen Foster Story (you should really go see this!) was in season. The cast of the production had claimed most of the rental property. Therefore, two weeks turned into 5 months that they lived with his parents. After 5 months, however, they found housing in Bardstown, and their journey was back underway. JD commuted to school in Louisville while Maria began teaching in Nelson County. During this time, JD wasn’t quite sure of his calling. He wasn’t sure if it was to chaplaincy, preaching, or teaching.
JD followed his calling to be a pastor, and thus began their life of jumping around as the call demands. He worked at New Salem Baptist Church, the first church to hire him on faith as a new pastor even though they were looking for someone with experience. He served in Independence, KY; Union City, TN; Kuttawa, KY; E-town, KY, E-town, KY (yes, I typed that twice on purpose); and now here he is in Upton, KY.
Their willingness to follow God’s plan continued throughout all those moves, and God continued to provide for them. They would go where the work was as they were called giving their worries to God and relying upon Him. When God called for Maria to be home and unemployed, she was, and they made it work. However, when He wanted her to work outside of the home, she did. Because Maria was a speech therapist who is often needed everywhere, JD said she’d often have a job before him. God also provided for another calling He placed on JD’s heart.
He did follow the call to chaplaincy…eventually. The call to that role “kept raising its head” as Maria said. Initially, JD wanted to answer that call to be a chaplain in the Navy, but with a family, he was concerned about being an absent father. However, the desire was still there. So, in a note, Maria finally wrote “Would you just do this?” See? God knew the type of wife JD would need. Not many wives would be willing to encourage their husband who already has them moving around to take on a role that would take him away from home for short stretches a few times a year. Nevertheless, that is exactly the type of wife God encouraged Maria to be. So, when he was in his mid 30’s, JD accepted his commission into the Army. He obeyed his calling, and then God worked out the details. Just after accepting his commission, he was called to an associate pastor role, a change from his senior pastor role. God provided a supportive church enabling JD to answer the call to chaplaincy.
As their lives continued, they continued to give their worries over to God and allow Him to guide their steps and choices. God guided them through raising two godly children. He gave JD a “family first” mentality which meant you could often find him at the ballpark or on the football field. He led them through the throes of the middle school “Is it me who chose God or my parents who chose Him for me? And what about my friends whose parents teach them other faiths?” They allowed his work in their personalities to lead them peaceably through any disagreement they may have, though they were few and far between. JD said “You can’t fight with a person who won’t fight,” and he won’t fight. Where God gave JD a spirit that did not want to engage in disagreements, He gave Maria a spirit of discernment to know when to push JD, as she did with regards to him becoming a Chaplain, and when to give JD room.
Maria said JD needs a bigger space than she does, so she gives it to him. This means that she allows JD to find his own way at times and figure things out in his time, or in His time. Once, there was a time when JD contemplated letting go of that calling to serve in church. So, Maria worked her own way through a Bible study with a group of ladies while she waited on JD. Eventually, he rediscovered his love for church.
Maria’s words in that regard are just right. She said, “Couples need to help each other grow individually as well as in relationship.” God knew JD would need someone like her and that she would need someone like JD. They really do complement one another and push each other to grow.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Before I can explain the last place in which I see how Maria and JD choose not to worry but instead rely on God, we have to explore how they got to that point. In essence, they surround themselves with people who will build them up in Christ. Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us to think about how we can push one another to show love and do good works by meeting together and encouraging one another. With whom we choose to associate ourselves and how they “spur us on toward love and good deeds” matters, as does how we reciprocate.
Let’s reverse just a moment and return to JD and Maria’s college days. This is the point at which they chose to convert from being Methodist to being Baptist based on the church they attended. They came from an evangelical Methodist background, so the transition to being Baptist was not an ordeal. The people with whom they associated, however, were an ordeal. Not in a magnanimous way, per se. However, they provided a support system to a pair of young college kids. JD said they were just good people, “Upton-type of folks” were his exact words, which just made me smile. If you’re from around here, you know exactly what that means. It’s something akin to “Mayberry-type of folks.”
They said that being involved in the local church community for them was a great choice. The pastor and his wife were good mentors. Then, the young adult class at church also provided them with mentors and a support system. Even though JD and Maria were younger than most of the others there, it was among people with a common mind and heart set they found their tribe, so to speak. When they got out in the work field, it was commonalities that bound them with others. The couples did things together. Having like-minded people who encourage you in Christ strengthens your Christian resolve. It better equips you to raise Christian children, to make more Christian friends, to lead others to Christ, and to handle troubles when they do arise. To be certain, troubles will arise, even for Christians.
This fact is part of the reason some of their advice to married people is to get involved in a good church because church makes a difference. Being involved means showing up to church whenever the doors are open. This is something I’m working on myself because Sunday-only attendance doesn’t actually count as involvement. Being involved also means participating in the process of church by going and doing whatever the church does. If they have a baseball game, go play or watch. If they have a potluck, bring a meal and enjoy the fellowship. If they have an ice cream social, load up on the homemade sweetness and pour on the sprinkles. If they have a business meeting, come see what is going on. If they throw a 40th anniversary celebration for your pastor and his wife, show up and enjoy the fun (see below). They say you can also be involved by finding others of the same age in the church as your support group. Participate with them in Bible Studies, in Sunday School, in using the resources the church has to offer, and in “outside of church” fellowship. Make them your tribe. Finally, and this is actually the end goal or trophy as JD called it, being involved in church helps you grow spiritually.
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That spiritual growth and that support system that reminds us to lean on God are what helps a Christian through trials.
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Joshua is a book in which we see the strength God provides us when we lean upon Him and take Him before us wherever we go. This verse in the first book reminds us of just that.
When asked for a favorite scripture of JD and Maria, this is one that was given, and it could not be more appropriate. I mentioned much earlier that there were a few instances in JD and Maria’s lives where I saw that they did not worry but instead prayed and gave everything over to God. They did this when they first got married and started their family while they were still in college. Their reliance upon God was demonstrated throughout their marriage as they moved around answering JDs call to ministry. The also demonstrated this choice not to worry and instead to rely on God most recently.
Their then sixteen-year-old granddaughter was driving her other grandmother when they were involved in an accident. Their granddaughter was severely injured breaking multiple bones that impeded her ability to walk, suffering from a head injury that impeded her ability to communicate effectively, and so much more. In the days following her accident, you might expect a distraught family. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for them to be grief stricken as they sat and wondered if their granddaughter would survive her injuries. However, that picture you may have in your head is not what others encountered. No. This family, strengthened by their faith in God, by their many years of relying upon him to survive, and by the prayers of the many Christians friends they had made in their years of ministry, this family prayed prayers of hope. They displayed faith in God’s provision and protection of their loved one in their words, in their countenance, and in their every interaction. They could be found praying and ministering to other families in the hospital. Back at church, it was no different. As they stood in the front of the church, even with tears in eyes, they were so sure of what God would do for their family that you couldn’t help but feel your own hope soar just as theirs did. It was truly a display of Christian faith at its peak. Inspiring. Humbling. Uplifting.
Without their years of faithful dedication and obedience, I’m not convinced they could have had such a countenance of faith and hope. And, true to His faithfulness, God saw their granddaughter through. Though her struggles are not completely over, she has come such a long way since the early days after her wreck, and they all – JD, Maria, their children, their entire family – do nothing but give God the glory for her progress.
That, dear friends, is exactly what a model of a Christian marriage and life look like. Bro. JD and Maria provide a wonderful example of how to live life together with one another and with God.
Advice From the Shipp Family
Be involved in a good church. Really and truly involved. It just works (and if you know Bro. JD, you can hear his voice exactly as places emphasis on the word “just” and says it all so matter-of-fact).
Use the resources provided to you. Participate in Bible studies. Read books. In short, I think Maria says to seek God.
Prove them all wrong! When the world says marriages won’t last and yours definitely won’t, prove them wrong!