Monday, January 23, 2012

Chapter 18

18.  Fast Forward
My break at home that 1997 autumn was uneventful and I just couldn’t wait to get back to California and my newfound romance.  Mario and I spoke on the phone every night and, boy oh boy, were those phone bills high!  I didn’t share a lot about Mario with my family while I was home and the break was very quick.  Soon I was back in California and Mario picked me up at the airport.  He took me to dinner at his house and I met his family.

Mario has five sisters and at the time, two of them lived at home with his mother.  His 5-year-old niece also lived there since his older sister was a single mom, working hard to make a home for herself and her daughter.  I have to admit when he told me about all those women in his family I was more than a little intimidated.  It’s hard enough to meet the mother of an only son, but to meet 5 sisters and a niece too?  That was nerve-wracking to say the least.  The visit, however, was mostly pleasant and I only shook in my boots twice.  The first time was when I met his 2 oldest sisters, who had driven up to us in the ministry's parking lot. Rolling down the passenger window, both sisters allowed Mario to introduce us. Then the oldest one, who was driving, leaned over and menacingly warned me, "if you break his heart, we'll kick your a**." All of us girls laugh about it now but at the time I thought they might actually be gangsters.

The second time was when his mom took me aside privately to, well, basically ask me what my intentions were regarding her son.  I'd never had a mother of an only son approach me like that. It was kind of scary. But apparently I satisfied her curiosity because after that I was welcomed with open arms and received no further threats from the sisters.

During my break at home I had received a call from the main ministry office asking if I would be interested in attending the directors’ camp as a nanny just before the teams reconvened for the fall tours.  The camp was arranged for a few days up in the mountains designed to prepare all the leadership and directors for the upcoming ministry.  I had met most of them by then and had become friends with one of the couples.  Their little girl was a bilingual toddler, speaking both French and English.  I loved babysitting her while they had meetings and really developed a great bond with her.  While at the camp, my director asked me about my relationship with Mario and I filled him in on our growing feelings toward each other.  I knew that the leadership generally split non-married couples up to join different teams in order to protect team unity and lower the distraction level for ministry purposes. So I expected that would be the decision the leaders had made for Mario and I once we arrived at the general team rehearsal camp in a few days.

When we arrived at the regular rehearsal camp, I was shocked to discover that Mario and I were to remain on the same team.  Confused but happy, I rehearsed with my orchestra teammates and tried to act like Mario and I were not dating [per the ministry rules].  Talk about a tough assignment!  Well, I really had no idea how hard it would actually become. It turned out that it was a whole lot more difficult to act like we were unattached while we toured that fall to places like Hawaii and Colombia.  But even through the hard times, like jealousies and disagreements [we had plenty of those], our director made sure to pray with us as individuals and as a couple throughout the next few months.  During our team’s ministry in Hawaii, it was most difficult to maintain any sort of distance from each other.  I mean, for heavens’ sake it is one of the most romantic places on earth!  Though it was unpleasant at times and decidedly annoying at others, we succeeded in honoring our director, each other and the Lord through the few weeks in Hawaii and later during our tour in Colombia.

From September to mid-December, we played in churches, parks, malls, schools throughout the southern United States, Hawaii and Colombia.  In mid-December all the teams met back in Visalia, California for one last concert together.  By now I had transferred out of the little orchestra, no longer playing the keyboards but singing as an alto in the vocal lineup.  Through the years of ministry with the group I had high aspirations of being a vocalist, learning their warm-ups, the harmonies and lyrics while playing my part in the band.  I thought, “I could give glory to God so much better from up there than down here”.   Good grief, what a stupid way to spend my brain cells!  

Once I was up there in the vocal lineup, I realized that being in the orchestra was actually the enviable position.  In the orchestra, I could play but also watch the audience and pray for them.  I could pick and choose what parts I would play.  I knew that people would watch me but that not everyone would.  As a vocalist, I had to sing my part and my part only, time my vibrato and breathing "just so" to match the others and sing when I might not necessarily feel like it (which was quite often actually).  Everyone was looking at me, all the time and I had to have my “game face” on every night.  That was much more difficult than I had imagined.  Yet it taught me so much about pride & humility, about losing myself in worship and about putting others before me.  Much of what I learned there has helped me in ministry at home and showed me more about God’s forgiveness, grace and mercy than I ever would have learned while behind my keyboards.

Mario and I looked forward to the final concert with trepidation.  We had grown closer through handwritten notes and diaries that we shared but had had very little alone time since September.  Did the Lord want us to continue on with the ministry for the next two-year cycle?  Or did He have a different path for us?  Were we meant to be together forever, as Mario believed? Or were we just there for each other for a season, as I nervously wondered? Separately we prayed about what God would have us do as individuals and as a couple.  

I'll never forget one morning when Mario came to the bus. He seemed like he was floating, and for a 300-pound, 6'3" guy that's really saying something. He couldn't wait to share something with me but we had to wait for all the preliminary preparations to be completed before the bus started moving and we could sit near each other. He whispered, "I had a dream last night. A vision actually, I think." Moved with curiosity, I waited. Still talking in a low tone but no longer whispering he began to share...

"I was driving in a pick-up truck with Robert*, headed up the mountain into the Sequoia National Park. We stopped on a hillside and looked out over Woodlake where all those orchards are," he paused to see if I knew the area he meant. I nodded.

"Well, we were looking out and we could see nothing but trees for quite a ways. And Robert said, 'Mario, see those trees there? That's how many people your grandmother has reached for the Lord.' 'Wow', I replied, 'that's a lot.' Then we got back in the truck and drove further up the mountain. Getting back out, Robert pointed to the west and all we could in the setting sun were trees, stretching to the horizon. Robert told me, 'Mario, that's how many people your mother will reach for the Lord.' Amazed, I said nothing. Getting back in the truck, I pondered all those lives represented by the trees. Suddenly we were at the top of the mountain and Robert pointed to the view surrounding the entire mountain. There were trees all along the sides of the mountains, spilling into the valleys, over the hills, past the bounds of our vision, past the horizon." Mario paused for a moment. By now, I was picturing the scene with him. Once again whispering, he said, "Robert turned to me and sweeping his arm across the view, he told me 'Mario, this is how many people you and Angel will touch for the Lord together."  

It was like the air had been sucked out of the bus, teammates gone and only Mario and I were left. My heart pounded and my imagination whirled. Though he spoke softly, his words hit my spirit like a flood. It locked something into place for me and I saw what Mario had seen. I believed in my heart that we could be a very strong couple for forever, just as Mario had said. It remained to be seen, however, if these feelings would diminish over time as we were about to be separated from each other for who knew how long. We prayed together that day, that God would direct us very clearly and that we would know our next steps.
After the ministry Christmas party and the last concert of the year (which was powerful and amazing), Mario drove me to Los Angeles to catch a flight home.  We stayed with his friends in the city for a day and talked about our future.  We continued to pray together about it and ultimately came to the decision that our time with this particular ministry had come to an end. We would head to our respective homes to see what other paths the Lord had for us.  I was wary about our relationship, even after hearing about Mario's vision, thinking it might have been great while on the road but it wouldn’t stand up to the strains of distance and time.  I knew that oftentimes what we feel so strongly during the "high moments" of ministry times, fades with the onset of "regular life". I thought to myself, “well then, if he's serious and if he really wants me, he will come and get me.”  And giving him one last kiss, I boarded my plane back home to Detroit.

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