It was my freshman year of college, and I was feeling insecure at my church’s college retreat. I had joined the church about three months before the retreat, and I hadn’t quite found my place. But little did I know that I would have a life-changing conversation that weekend.
A young, married woman named Beth Cunningham was at the retreat while her husband Shon was on a mission trip in India. Shon and Beth were only in their mid-twenties, but they seemed so mature to me, so cool and winsome. They owned a house with a pool, they were attractive, they loved Jesus, and it seemed like everybody wanted to be their friend.
After one of the worship services, Beth came up to me, took my face in her hands, and said, “Joshua, Shon and I really like you, and we want you to be part of our lives. When he gets back from India, would you like to start coming over sometimes?”
I was baffled, slightly embarrassed, and totally honored. I stuttered out a yes.
What Love Looked Like
Soon thereafter, I began spending time with the Cunninghams on a regular basis. Hangouts turned into deep friendship, which turned into vulnerability like I had never experienced with anyone else. This was especially true of my friendship with Shon, who was unfazed every time I revealed another layer of brokenness. And just as important as my friendship with Shon was the chance to closely observe his and Beth’s marriage.
Something I noticed about the Cunninghams was how much they liked each other. They wanted to be with each other; they easily laughed together; and they verbally affirmed one another. They disagreed with each other without being disrespectful; they negotiated without bickering; and they faced conflict without spitefully hurting one another. Not only that, it was clear that they were attracted to each other.
I remember one afternoon when Shon and I came back to his house all filthy and sweaty after several hours of clearing land in the hot Mississippi sun. When I walked in the back door feeling parched, I went straight for the kitchen sink, turned on the water, and began guzzling from the tap. Shon came in the door behind me; and in the corner of my eye, I saw Beth walk up to him and plant a passionate, extended kiss on his lips. It was intense, and I felt like a kid who catches his parents kissing each other – a little grossed out but secretly blessed by it.
When I pulled away from the sink, Shon and Beth acted like nothing had happened. But something had happened: in that moment, I believed in love just a little bit more. And I needed to believe in it again.
Helping My Unbelief
Although my parents had a good relationship in fits and starts, life and Satan dropped a few too many atomic bombs in their laps; and as a result, I grew up surrounded by a lot of marital carnage. So by the time I was 18 and met Shon and Beth, I had not only kissed dating goodbye – I claimed I had the spiritual gift of celibacy, which was really just a symptom of my fear of intimacy.
Even after I started dating at 25 and decided I wanted to be married, I couldn’t shake the sense of inadequacy for the task, the feeling that happy marriages weren’t really possible. But my thoughts of Shon and Beth wouldn’t let that stand. I couldn’t shake the countless memories of their joy in simply being together. I couldn’t forget the way they looked at each other or the way they talked about each other (like the time Shon said, “I would rather have my intestines cut out and choked by them than cheat on Beth”).
Over the years, Shon and Beth’s quiet, unselfconscious example slowly helped fan into flame the romantic dreamer in me. The real thing in them helped me let go of the brokenness in my family of origin; and it helped me give up on the unrealistic, cheap substitutes offered by Hollywood. The Cunninghams showed me that love is real, that marriage is good, and all things are possible with God. It took me a long time to see it for myself, but I don’t think I would’ve been able to without them. And seven happy years into marriage, I’m still grateful for their example.