Living Out Your Story of Redemption
About the Guest
Throughout history, men and women of God who have achieved notable accomplishments have shared a common characteristic: a steely resolve to put aside all pain, suffering, and setbacks in pursuit of what God has called them to. Jerry Sittser talks about the years he focused on raising his children as a single dad, and the turn of events that led him to consider courtship and eventually, re-marriage.
Jerry SittserGerald Sittser is professor of theology and a senior fellow in the Office of Church Engagement at Whitworth University, where he has served for 30 years. Over the past few years he has worked with many partner churches to engage the culture and equip disciples with the good news of Jesus. He has written nine books, among them A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss and A Grace Revealed, The Will of God as a Way of Life, Water From a Deep Well: Ch...more
Jerry Sittser talks about the years after the accident when he focused on raising his children as a single dad.
Living Out Your Story of Redemption
Bob: Who is the person that God uses in a powerful way for His purposes? Jerry Sittser says the answer may surprise you.
Jerry: It’s simply people who listen to God; and by virtue of life experiences and a sense of calling from God, they simply embrace some kind of great cause for the sake of the Kingdom. Who knows what it is? Could be lots of different things, but they have this steely sense that God is calling them to do this. They figure out how to make it happen by the grace of God.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, November 14th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Does God want to use your life in significant ways to advance His Kingdom? Isn’t that what you want? We’re going to talk about that today.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. There is a penetrating question in the book that we’ve been talking about this week, the book, A Grace Revealed. The middle of the book—here’s the question. It says, “What do you want to be known for? What kind of a person do you really want to become?”
I thought, “What your life is going to look like really comes out of how you’re going to wrestle with those two questions: What do you want to be known for? What kind of person do you want to become?”
Dennis: Well, let’s ask the guy—
Bob: —the author of those questions.
Dennis: Yes, let’s find out what he wants to be known for. Jerry Sittser joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Jerry is a good friend. Welcome back.
Jerry: Thank you.
Dennis: He is a professor at Whitworth University up in Spokane, Washington. He and his wife, Patricia, have five children. Jerry has three with his first wife, who was killed in a car wreck in 1991, and Patricia brought two of her own children into your marriage. So, you now have five grown children as a couple. Did you—well, before I get to the question of how you met Patricia, let’s ask the question. What do you want to be known for, Jerry?
Jerry: I want to be rich. I want to be famous—no. (Laughter) In fact, I do the opposite in the book.
I tell this story—and it was actually very significant for me. In the ‘90’s, I was speaking at a big convention on loss, and there were maybe 50 people lined up to have me sign one of my books and to talk to them. I looked on that line, and there was something about it that just seemed wrong to me. I’m not suggesting that people who sign books and speak at conventions are wrong. It was wrong for me because I sensed that I was starting to kind of almost market my own experience of loss.
Dennis: Could I stop you right there?
Dennis: I want to authenticate what he’s saying for our audience. Bob knows Jerry was one of the stiffest arm-wrestlers, strongest arm-wrestlers, in terms of getting him on FamilyLife Today the first time, of any guest in 20 years.
Bob: Well, you had read his book, A Grace Disguised, years ago. You found it very helpful. You said, “I want to talk to this author. I think he’ll help our listeners.” So, we contacted you. We said, “Would you come down?” You said, “No.” We said, “Please.” You said, “No.” We had to come two or three times; and finally, I’m not sure why you relented. Do you remember why you relented?
Jerry: The hundred thousand dollars that you paid me. (Laughter)
Dennis: Right. Right. Hold it. Hold it. Tonda—I think Tonda Nations had something to do with it.
Bob: Tonda, why did he relent? Do you remember?
Tonda: I guess I was a good salesman.
Bob: That’s what it was. It was Tonda’s salesmanship.
Jerry: It was Tonda. It certainly wasn’t the two of you, I’ll tell you that. (Laughter)
Dennis: I just wanted to say, though, he sent a message back to us in one of those notes: “Hey, look, guys, I didn’t want to become famous or be known because of a car wreck that took the life of my mother, wife, and daughter.”
Bob: Yet you’ve seen, as you’ve shared your story and as you’ve been open and transparent about your story with audiences through your books, through speaking, God’s used that redemptively in people’s lives, right?
Jerry: Yes, I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that God does that in lots of ways, but I still think that, for my own sake, my own protection—even more so for the protection of my children, my kids needed me to live an ordinary life, not become famous on the speaking circuit going here and there and everywhere telling the family story.
One reason why is because we tend to get fixated on that one event, and I was more interested in the story coming out of the event than the event itself.
So, anyway, here I am speaking. I decide at the end of that I’m not going to go on the speaking circuit anymore about this experience. Well, then, three years later, I’m teaching at a university in Africa. My kids are doing volunteer work at an orphanage, and they go there twice a week.
Well, I went with them only once to visit. I fell into a conversation with an African nun, and she described what her life was like. Basically, it was this: I get up, I pray, I eat some ordinary food, I care for the children, I pray, care for the children, eat, pray, care for the children, eat, put them into bed, pray, and go to bed.
Jerry: She gets off one month every seven years. Most of the time, they don’t have hot water. A lot of the time, they don’t have electricity. Then she looked at me, and with this serenity in her face—I will never forget—she said with a kind of beautiful smile, “This is my life.” And I thought, “That’s the life I want to live right there.”
Day in, day out, whether I’m teaching at a university, writing books, spending time with students, raising my children, putting food on the table, folding laundry, I want to have that same kind of quality of serenity in the ordinariness of life and learn to live every moment for God however ordinary it is. That’s dignity.
Bob: For 19 years you did that as a single parent.
Jerry: I did.
Bob: You pursued that as a single parent. Then, the last time you were here, we were having lunch and Dennis said, “What’s going on?” And you said, “Well, actually, I’ve met this woman.”
Jerry: I did meet a woman, yes. (Laughter)
Bob: So, tell us that story.
Jerry: Well, her name is Patricia. I’ve known her for many years. In fact, she knew my first wife. We attended the same church. Then I switched churches so my kids could attend a church that was closer to home. I revisited that church to do a book-signing and to meet some old friends and ran into her. I hadn’t seen her for many years. We began to chat. Eventually, we started to have coffee together and took some walks and so on and realized that it had potential of being serious.
I actually had an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman for a number of years, but the thing that kept me back, held me back, was my commitment to raise my kids. I just did not want to—well, I hate to sound so fancy about it but kind of break the narrative trajectory, the trajectory of redemption I felt like we were on. I wanted to protect that.
Dennis: Now, wait a second. Let’s stop here because we have a number of single-parent moms and dads who are in those woods right now—deep in the thicket. You said earlier before we came in to do radio—you said, “It’s hard. It’s incredibly hard work.” But you just said you wanted to continue that trajectory. What do you mean by that?
Jerry: First of all, I’m not saying that remarriage is wrong. I’ve remarried. I’m not saying remarriage is wrong even if you have younger children.
For my own story, once the ship got balanced again and we had a course set, I just didn’t want to mess—I mean it’s so conservative of me, but I’ll tell you I was conservative—conservative, in the true meaning of that word. I wanted to conserve this kind of new family unit we had become and this sense of identity we had developed as a family of four.
That was just the strong, intuitive sense I had, Dennis and Bob, that I was to maintain that course. So, when I met this wonderful woman years ago, I just could not break that course that I had set.
Well, anyway, I met Pat, or Patricia—Pat, I call her. There were some sparks, and we began to spend time together. I realized that this really did have potential. So I made this decision right away. I met with each of our kids, my three, her two, privately without her knowledge. She didn’t know anything about this. She thought we were on the five-year plan, if that. I mean I talked about my hesitancy to remarry. So, she knew that.
I met with each of them privately. I asked them if they would be willing to give their blessing to a courtship, and I made promises to them. I said, “I will always be good to Pat. I promise you that. You don’t have to worry about that. I will do my best to help Pat be the best mother she can be.” I said that to her two girls.
To my kids I said, “I will not make this relationship an idol. That is, it’s not going to sidetrack me from being the best dad I can be for you.” And I promised all of them that we would try to set a godly example of this relationship, and it would not come at their expense.
I mean it—we shared life together, and they were honest with me. So, it wasn’t this kind of syrupy experience. There were tears. We talked it over, and I got blessing from all five.
Bob: It sounds a little to me, like what you are saying is the relationship your mom has with you or the relationship I have with you, as your dad, will trump this new relationship going forward. Is that what you are saying?
Jerry: If not trump, then, certainly, not lose its centrality to our lives and to each of our family stories. That mattered a lot to me. I wanted to honor my children, basically, and I knew she wanted to honor her children.
So, when I finally proposed to her, by the way, I was sitting at the park where we had always gone on our walks together; and we talked and laughed and so on. Then, I read her a section on marriage from Gregory the Great, church father from the seventh century. I do that with her a lot. She didn’t know.
Then, I said, “Hey, I got to tell you about five conversations I’ve had.” And I recounted the conversation I had with each of the kids. By then, of course, she was crying. I looked at her; and I said, “I’ve one last person I need to talk to,” and it was her. And I proposed. We immediately gathered with our kids. It was a lovely, lovely experience.
When we married, we made promises to our children, before we made vows to each other. Our kids surrounded us in the wedding ceremony, and they gave their blessing to us as part of the liturgy.
Dennis: That’s cool.
Jerry: It’s beautiful.
Dennis: There was a—was it a dinner at the wedding that you had a barbeque?
Bob: Yes, the night before, wasn’t it?
Jerry: There was a barbeque the night before. Then, something else happened that was astonishing to me—and this was a surprise to me. At the end of this gathering of maybe 60 of our family and friends, we stood up; and we celebrated our children—lots of tears again. Thanked our friends for their support and so on. Then, I said, “I’d like to close in prayer.”
Then, Pat interrupted me and said, “No, I have one other thing I have to say. There is one other person I need to honor.” She said, “There is one person here that deserves more honor than anyone else,” and she mentioned my first wife. She began to tell stories, stories of her own recollections of her as a mother with young children, as a soprano soloist at our church, and other things like that.
Then, she shared some impressions of what it was like to see me go through the accident and raise those three kids, which she was able to see for many years. Then, at the end, she said, “I am marrying a man and inheriting three children who have been profoundly shaped by a good and godly woman; and I want to honor her publicly before everyone to say that.”
Now, what she did in that moment is she honored our past story. She said, “It’s sacred and holy. I’m not here to change it. I’m not here to compete with it. I’m here to honor it.” But she also drew attention to the richness of the present at the same time.
Bob: I have to ask you here because your former wife—she had a past story worthy of honor. There are a lot of people who are trying to put a new marriage, new family together; they look back on both of their past stories, and they don’t find much honorable.
Jerry: But it’s still their story, Bob. That’s the point.
Again, this is part of the mystery of redemption. It’s that story matters. Sometimes we’re going to have great sections. There are going to be beautiful chapters in that story. We’re going to want to retell those stories a lot and think about them a lot; but all of us at some time have dark chapters too, painful chapters, sometimes, shameful chapters. But we have to remember those too because they are all a part of the story; and God is in the business of taking—
Jerry: —the wreckage of our life, no matter how much bad there is, no matter how much bad we have done, and somehow, by His grace and discipline, I will say, work that out into a story that is redemptive and beautiful and healing and whole.
Dennis: Jerry, your first wife, Linda, was killed in that car wreck, and you wrote a book called A Grace Disguised. You talk about how in the midst of that tragedy there was bewilderment, confusion, how you were trying to make sense of life in the midst of these losses. Your daughter died, your mother died. To what extent is Patricia really behind the title of this new book, A Grace Revealed?
Jerry: Not much, as strange as that sounds, and here is why—and she would say this too about her own story—that God would work redemption, marriage, remarriage or not. He is amazingly flexible on one level because He’s not at all flexible on the other. Flexible with circumstances, He can take pretty much whatever we throw His way, and work it out, because He is incredibly inflexible in what His ultimate plan is—and that is to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ.
So, I could have stayed single the rest of my life. I don’t think it would have bothered God one bit. I think God would have continued to do His work; and Patricia could have remained single for the rest of her life, and the same thing would have happened. We chose instead to submit ourselves to a different set of circumstances—and that is holy marriage.
Holy marriage, as you know, is kind of a workshop. God works out our salvation in marriage like He does in singleness. In that workshop, I’m learning how to love another human being, and we’re learning how to join two stories and making them for this period of time—however long it lasts—into one story.
Bob: And your journey from here to the finish line, for you, may be a journey of simplicity and simple joy; or there could be another tragedy that comes your way.
Jerry: There could be. Pat and I have talked about this quite a bit, actually. I mean right now at this moment on this particular day life looks good to us. Our kids are doing well. They’re all good friends with each other. Four of them live in Seattle, and they call themselves “The Seattle Chapter” of the family. They have dinners together. They attend the same church. It’s rich.
We’re very happily married. We’ve got lots of friends. We’re invested in ministries. There are lots of things about this story, right now, that look good. There is no guarantee it’s going to continue that way; but thick or thin, in plenty or in want, in singleness and marriage, rich or poor, healthy or ill, in all of the various circumstances, one thing never changes: God and His redemptive purposes for our life.
Dennis: He is at work; and as you’ve talked here today, two things have just been echoing in my heart. Number one, He wants to work His redemptive story in broken people’s lives. We’re all broken—every one of us.
Jerry: I’m as broken now, Dennis, as I was 20 years ago right after the accident. There is no difference at all. I may feel better now, but I still need fixing. I still need redemption. It doesn’t matter what my circumstances are; doesn’t even matter how I feel.
Dennis: You know, Jerry, it was interesting; I asked you that question—I really felt like I tossed you a softball to really give Patricia some kudos here: Is she the “Grace Revealed?” I really liked your answer because you didn’t center it on a human being. You went back to who God is and what God’s doing and how He’s at work in our lives, working out His plan and purpose in a broken man’s life.
Jerry: Now, I will say, “She’s an amazing human being”—
Dennis: Of course.
Jerry: —“and there is not a day that I do not thank God for the gift that she is to me and to my children,” honestly. I have a friend who said, “Jerry, you’re one of the few people I know who married up twice in life.” (Laughter)
Dennis: I’m glad you clarified that because there will be some who will want to write and say, “Wait a second! Did I hear him say what he said?” I just wanted to make sure they didn’t miss the big story that he was talking about here.
Bob: Well, and I knew that Dennis got out his highlighter when in your book, you said, “No institution on earth forces you to learn the art of love quite like marriage. Biology might motivate you to love your children. Not so your spouse. What keeps a marriage going and growing is commitment, the daily discipline of love.”
Jerry: Am I learning that or what? (Laughter)
Dennis: There is a second thing that echoed in my heart as you were speaking; and that is that there is no life—no living person listening to this broadcast—whose life is beyond redemption.
Jerry: One of the people who I had read the manuscript is a friend of mine who is in prison. I wanted him to be able to read this manuscript and look me straight in the eye and say, “This book gave me hope. I, too, can lead a redeemed life.” There is no person on planet Earth, no matter who they are and no matter what their circumstances, whom God does not want to take as they are and make their life over the course of a lifetime—spilling into Heaven, of course—whole and complete once again.
Dennis: I just want to read this to remind our listeners of the God of whom we speak here. Romans, chapter five, verse six, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” He died to redeem people who were not like Him. He was perfect. We are not. And there is no one, no listener who is outside the reach of the redemption of God found in the person of Jesus Christ.
If you’ve not made that discovery of what Jerry’s talking about and what we’ve interacted about here on the broadcast today, I’d just encourage you, pull off to the side of the road, get down on your knees in your kitchen, get down on your knees before you go to bed tonight and surrender. Settle the issue of who owns your life, of who your master is, and who is the only one who can lift you out of your mess—because we are all messes and we all need redemption.
Jerry: If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. All things have become new.
Bob: On our website at FamilyLifeToday.com, there is a link we have there that helps you look at two ways to live—because there really are two ways to live. There is living with your own agenda, with your own direction, deciding what’s right in your own eyes. Then there is living the yielded, surrendered, obedient life that we’ve been talking about here. And they lead two different places.
I’d encourage our listeners, go to FamilyLifeToday.com, click on that link, “TWO WAYS TO LIVE,” and consider what we’ve talked about here. How are you living? Whose agenda are you following? Whose direction are you obeying? Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the link that says, “TWO WAYS TO LIVE.”
Then, look for information as well about the book we’ve been talking about that Jerry Sittser has written called A Grace Revealed. It’s a look at how God has worked in Jerry’s life—in your story—for redemptive purposes. It’s a little more clear 20 years after the tragedy that you experienced when your wife and your mother and one of your children were killed in a car wreck. To look at that from 20 years later, you see a different story.
Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on Jerry Sittser’s book, A Grace Revealed. Our website, again, is FamilyLifeToday.com. You can also request the book when you call us toll-free at 1-800-FL-TODAY. It’s 1-800-358-6329—1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”.
One of the things we all have to learn over a lifetime is how we cultivate contentment in the middle of hard times and how we cultivate gratitude. In fact, recently I was with a group of people, and we were reading together through the book of Colossians. The word that just kept jumping out at us was the word, “thanksgiving,” how many times we are called on to be thankful, to do everything with a spirit of thanksgiving.
Being grateful is not something that just happens naturally. It’s something that we have to develop. It’s a godly grace that we have to cultivate, and we had an extended conversation not long ago about this subject with Nancy Leigh DeMoss, who has written a book called Choosing Gratitude.
This week, we’d like to make available to you the CDs that feature more than two hours of conversation with Nancy on the subject of gratitude, as our way of saying how grateful we are for your support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today. If you are able to make a donation to help defray the costs of producing and syndicating this daily radio program, we will send you these CDs as our thank you gift.
Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com and click the button that says, “I CARE” to make an online donation; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY, make a donation over the phone. When you contact us, let us know that you’d like to receive the CD set on Choosing Gratitude, the CDs with Nancy Leigh DeMoss, and we’re happy to get those out to you. We hope you know that we are grateful for your support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We really do appreciate you.
We hope you can be back with us again tomorrow. Jerry Sittser is going to be here again, and we’ll have another guest joining us tomorrow. We’ll introduce him to you on tomorrow’s program. Hope you can be here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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