Ours is not the story of a successful, loving, thriving marriage. It's not the story of gaining techniques to parent a child with autism. It's not the story of how to forgive a spouse for being unfaithful. It's not the story of how you can find a beautiful life after becoming paralyzed from the middle of the chest down. It is not even the story of eventually finding joy for life after the death of a child.
This is the story of how pain, pride, failure, grief, and chaos were winning. Then God showed up and kicked butt… he began to give us techniques, forgiveness, life past paralysis, and joy after death. But the story of how He got there is not a simple one.
As Shelly and I discussed how to write our story, we both felt best with me writing it. So much of Shelly's thought is out there in type in her blog. But so few of my thoughts on all the tragedies and victories of our lives are. So this is Josh typing.
We met in the summer of 1995 while registering for classes at Indiana Wesleyan University. Shelly was a hot blonde with runners legs, and I was a 6’4” redhead who was probably a little too full of himself. I saw Shelly and really wanted to meet her, so I took off my watch and went up and asked her for the time. After she blew me off twice, I figured it was time to tuck tail and shuffle away. Luckily, things began looking up after school started. By October of 1995 we were dating and by December it was obvious that something monumental was going on.
We decided early on that we were not going to have sex until we got married. But we also knew we weren't going to get married until after we graduated because of scholarships and parent's money that depended on us being single. After about two years, our relationship began to stall. We broke up and got back together multiple times. There were many reasons, not least of which was my fear to commit.
By the time we graduated, Shelly wrote me a definitive farewell card that said," thank you so much for four phenomenal years. I love you and care about you so much. But from here on out, please don't talk to me anymore. Don't call. Don't e-mail. Don't write. I have to get over you. Goodbye."
I was stunned. But it was the wake up call that I needed. After six months of no contact, I showed up at her door with a diamond ring.
The Family and Careers Begin
In the summer of 2000 we were married. Shortly after, I took a position in Richmond, Indiana as a youth pastor. From there we moved to Skyline Wesleyan in San Diego. It was here that we got pregnant with our first child, Noah. He was born in June of 2002. It was soon apparent that there is something wrong. All of his milestones, sitting up, rolling over, talking, walking were quite behind. We visited many doctors, but no one could tell us what was going on. It was only years later, 2010 in fact, that we learned that a small deletion on his eighth chromosome had left Noah with ADHD, an executive functioning disorder, a mild cognitive dysfunction, and characteristics that put him on the autism spectrum.
Two months after Noah's birth, we were pregnant with our second child, Zoe. After moving to San Diego with two incomes and no kids, one income and two kids is not very doable. Put on top of that that our parents and support system are back in Michigan and Indiana, and you've got a pretty good reason to move.
From there I took the position as a worship leader/ youth pastor at Kalamazoo Wesleyan (now Lighthouse Wesleyan). Our family was growing and even though Noah was quite challenging, we were very happy. We decided to continue having kids, and in late 2004 we became pregnant with our third child, Ava.
Also while in Kalamazoo, my brother-in-law, Jason Grate, and I began plans to start a new church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Our goal was to start a church that specifically targeted young adults who grew up in church and then either left for one reason or another, or who just felt distance from most established churches. We were consumed with the passion for this new vision. We targeted a small bohemian enclave of Grand Rapids called Eastown.
In May 2005, Ava was born. She was the perfect addition to our family, and we felt complete. The summer flew by as Jason and I both moved our families to downtown Grand Rapids. We were both wrapping up jobs at other churches and our official first office day was August 1.
The day that changed everything
That day came and I had several morning meetings. In the afternoon I was in Ionia, Michigan. I received a phone call from my father-in-law,
”Josh, there's been an accident with a fan. It's Ava. We don't know if she's going to make it."
How can there be a response to that? A parent is not supposed to hear that about their child. Physical and mental terror ripped through my body. I got in my car and started driving back home as fast as I could. There was construction and I was weaving around the barrels. I started calling every church in my contacts asking them to start their prayer chains. I called 911 tell them about my reckless driving and to tell them not to pull me over. God!!!! Help!!! NO!!! Terror and fear and grief on this scale are so physical. It was all I could do to keep from throwing up. I smashed my fist on the steering wheel over and over and over and over. God!!! Then my phone rang again. It was my mother-in-law.
"Josh, I don't know what to say. She's gone."
I pulled off of the road. I wasn't peaceful, but I was still. And quiet. The Matt Redman song "Blessed be the Name" came into my head.
"You give-and-take away. You give-and-take away. My heart will choose to say Blessed be your name."
I didn't mean those words… not even close. But I sang them. So many tears. I lifted my hands and sang those stupid words. I didn't feel any different. The pain was fierce. Beyond crushing. In my panic I wanted those lyrics to change something. Eventually they would. I pulled back on the road and drove home.
Three months previous, I had put a fan in the window. We didn't have central air and we wanted to keep her bedroom cool. Somehow, the fan had vibrated loose. It fell in her crib, landed on top of her, and made it so she couldn't breathe. Shelly was downstairs doing laundry, and came upstairs to check on her. When she got upstairs, Ava was gone. The terrifying things that Shelly saw that day… some of them she has only told me.
They let us hold her one last time. We were downstairs on our couch, sitting together holding her. At some point my buddy Micah got there. I don't remember when. Then they took her away.
I have vague memories of the next three days, but pretty much it was pain. Pain was so thick it was like a suffocating cocoon of haze. I couldn't really see out of it.
Somehow we made it out of that haze… one day at a time.
Over the course of the next year, somehow Shelly and I began to heal. It wasn't fast, and it wasn't complete. But it was something. And it was enough that we decided we wanted to try for another child. Within two months we were pregnant with our fourth, Ephram.
As the pregnancy progressed we decided we wanted to go on one last vacation while we could. In January 2007 we went to Cancun with another couple from our church.
After we landed, we took a shuttle right to our hotel. We took all of our luggage in, but they weren't ready to check us in yet. They let us change into our beach clothes, and we made a beeline for the water.
The first thing I did was swim about 75 yards out into the waves. I had been training for a triathlon, so I was in good shape. I was also very used to the water. I could scuba dive, surf a little (a grom for sure), wake board, and sail a 25 foot sailboat. When I started swimming back and I can tell that the waves were pretty rough. I got back up to the beach, talked to my wife for a second, then walked with my buddy up the beach. When we were ready to head back to the hotel I jogged back down into the water to rinse the sand out of my board shorts. As I dove into the first wave, I was smashed into the bottom by the force of the crash. My head was smashed into the bottom. I was knocked unconscious for a few seconds, and when I came to, I was faced with the horrific realization that I couldn't move my arms or legs. I was floating face first in the water without the ability to get my head up and take a breath of air. I could move my neck though, so I was thrashing it around trying to get my mouth above water. As I neared blacking out, the last thing I remember seeing was a hand out of the corner of my eye. It wasn't moving so I thought it was someone getting ready to pull me out. Then I realized it was my hand. I passed out.
If it wasn't for the lifeguard pulling me out I would've died that day. I regained consciousness lying on my back just barely out of the water. I knew something was very wrong. I was in and out of consciousness for the next 25 minutes, waiting for the ambulance, and finally arriving at the hospital. That was my last memory until after I had already been flown back to the United States and had my operation to fix my vertebrae.
There was one conversation that I had with Shelly three or four weekends into rehab. My emotions were still reeling. The very definition of who I was in multiple different roles had to be redefined.
"What does it mean to be a dad? I can't pick Zoe up when she scrapes her knee. I won't be able to dance with her at her wedding. I can't throw a baseball with Noah."
"What does it mean to be a husband? I can't do your honey do list anymore. Sex will be different. I can't cook pancakes on Saturday morning anymore. I can't mow the lawn or fix the cars."
"What does it mean to be a man? I am 4’6”. I can't play basketball anymore. I can't mow the lawn or fix the cars. I can't physically protect my family." That was my state of mind.
Shelly's reality was this. She was at rehab with me all day 7 AM till 3 PM. Then she would hurry home for the kids as they got home from school. Then she would work on the mountains of paperwork that I needed filled out for me. Then she would keep a smile on her face, a Christian witness on her lips and a positive tone of voice as the paper interviewed her about how hard it must be to lose a daughter then have your husband become paralyzed. So at that place and time this was her response to my Life redefining questions:
"I'm sorry honey. I just have nothing to give you emotionally right now."
I was crushed. The person who was supposed to have my back in sickness and in health wouldn't (couldn't) do exactly what I needed her to do.
The reality of the situation was that I had no way of putting myself in her shoes. I can now see exactly what she meant. She was stretched to her breaking point. The emotional reserve that it would take to enter into my world and fully support me emotionally literally did not exist. But at that time, with my own loss being so fresh, I was devastated. I had no idea how I would go on.
A family friend (the wife of one of my good friends-one of my wife's best friends) unknowing of my life redefining questions or of Shelly's inability to give me emotional support was visiting me at the rehab hospital the next day. She said to me,
"There's not a lot I can do to help you right now, but I really want to be here to support you emotionally." Here was my liferaft. I threw myself in.
Over the course of the next year and a half we went from inappropriately close friends, to having a full-blown physical relationship as well. It was the answer to my need for deep emotional support, and it made me feel like a man. I somehow convinced myself that is long as we didn't have sex it wasn't really too bad.
Saying that this was damaging to my relationship with my wife is an understatement. As the months dragged on, not only did she have to deal with learning how to live life without a husband that could help in all the ways that he used to, she also had to deal with a emotionally dysfunctional and sinning husband as well. This not only took it's toll on her emotionally, but it was debilitating physically as well.
Eventually, Shelly began picking up on cues that there was something going on. Then, in November 2008, she overheard part of a conversation that I was having with the other woman. She began quizzing me and I responded with feigned astonishment and half-truths. Undeterred, she demanded to know everything. I told her everything. Everything was wrecked.
She demanded that I move out immediately, and two days later a couple of my buddies helped me move into a hotel. Not only was it immensely difficult not living at my house, there was the added complication of the fact that I have a nurse aide get me out of bed in the morning. These aides now had to come to my hotel room. There was one morning when the aide didn't show up.
There I lay, physically broken, emotionally broken, spiritually broken… at the bottom. It's a place we never imagine we'll be, but so many of us find ourselves, and often at our own hands. The church plant was devastated. My friends were speechless. The people that I worked with felt betrayed. There was a wake of devastation behind me because of my failure to go to the only One that could've truly put me back together emotionally after my accident.
I knew I had to seek Godly counsel. There was a man who had counseled Jason and me during the formation of greenhouse. His name was Ralph Baynum. He had spent years as the senior pastor of Spring Lake Wesleyan Church. He came to my hotel room, and I begin to share with him my sins... Every single one that I could think of… all the way back to elementary school. He sat there, carefully listening to every story I recited. When I got to the end, he nodded and then began to read his Bible aloud to me. But I couldn't listen. There was a question welling up inside of me. It was burning in my chest. I was going to explode.
"Does Jesus forgive me!?"
I blurted out. I sobbed. My shoulders heaved. I already knew the answer. I knew for a fact that God's grace could cover anything I had done. But that was the problem. It was a head knowledge. I needed to feel God's grace. And Ralph was my man! He began quoting Scripture and praying over me with passion and authority that I will never forget. A weight lifted off of my shoulders like I had heard others share about, but I had never experienced myself.
Even though I wanted to be back with Shelly more than I wanted anything else on this earth, I knew that if I was going to be the man that she actually needed me to be, I had to want God and his Kingdom and it's victory here on earth more than I wanted her.
And I did. I knew that even if she didn't want to be back with me (and she had every right not to), that I would strive to never be at a place where I had secrets like I did before. I had to continually seek God to break the pride in my life. In some sort of twisted way, when I was living in the affair, I felt like I deserved it. How did I get there?
After Ava died I immediately went into question everything mode. This isn't some full apologetic. It's just a brief description of my spiritual mindset at that point. And that mindset was this… maybe there was no God. As I began to search my heart and search my mind (as much as you can do when living in such intense pain), the reality of Yahweh God was inescapable. What limited knowledge I have of Science and our physical world was so beautiful, so intricate, so designed that the idea that it was all Yahweh God was not a stretch for me. Then as I began to dwell on Christ and the people throughout my life that I had seen drastically changed by living for Him and His kingdom, my life up until that point seemed to make more sense than any other life I could've live. The things that I valued and even the fact that I had gone into ministry all still felt validated.
What had changed was this…" If I have lived the very best life that I have known how, and if I have strived everyday to do what Christ wanted me to do, and if I've chosen a vocation that tried to spread Christ's Kingdom, how did this terrible thing happened to us? It was the classic how do bad things happen to good people. At that moment I imagined a vast disconnect between my actions and what God "did" to me. I still believed in God and in his salvation. I would still honestly say that I wanted to be on Team God. But if my actions didn't affect his actions towards me, I would just begin to do a little bit more of what I wanted. Then after my accident, this attitude went into full swing.
But not now. The freedom and lightness and joy of living a life free of secrets,and the immense desire to see others be able to experience the same had to drive the rest of my life. Even if Shelly wouldn't take me back, even if we succumbed to the sad statistics of broken marriages that I had viewed as such an impossibility for us, even if I had to live the rest of my life in a nursing home (which is a very real possibility for someone in my position), pursuing God's glory as the utmost value in my life was my only chance at having lasting victory… and the only chance of winning my wife back.
As the weeks dragged on in that dreary hotel room, Shelly saw a difference in me. I wasn't the same frantic person that I was the first weeks after our separation. I had more of a sense of peace (read shalom) about me. She could sense that it was God's Spirit orchestrating our putting the pieces of our marriage back together, not my desperate scrambling for things just to be normal again. There was something slightly different about my life's desire. And by Christmas, I had moved back home.
That certainly wasn't the end of a process. It was a leap in understanding of how difficult it is to die to ourselves every day. A lack of striving to die to self is pride, and pride (and the sin that gives rise from pride) can separate us from God, and our mate more fully and more quickly than anything else.
Shelly certainly didn’t put her trust back in me all at once. The following months, and the following years saw me take over as much of my care as possible. Coordinating my own doctors appointments, keeping my many medication prescriptions in order, scheduling my morning help, coordinating the funding for my morning help, taking care of medicaid/Medicare, taking care of DHS, and having aides come into our house from 9 to 11 at night to put me into bed were all things that I was having Shelly do that I now started to learn to do myself. I also began to take over our finances, take on many more parenting duties, house maintenance duties, and any other part of managing our house that I possibly could. This all happened slowly, but I'd like to think I'm pretty decent at all of it now.
About a year and a half after our reconciliation, I began to really yearn for ministry again. But we didn't think it was quite time. We did start something called Realtime Church, Which really was not a religious organization, but a way to find people in need(anywhere in America) and match them up with people who wanted to help(anywhere in America).
This went well enough that six months later our staff at the church we were attending, Crossroads Bible Church in Grand Rapids, knowing every last bit of our history, asked us to come on staff and do for our church what we were doing for Realtime Church. How humbling to be invited back into ministry after screwing up so bad.
As Shelly's trust in me grew, and as our affection for each other was more and more rekindled, we began to see how truly truly blessed we are. We began to see Christ's victory in our marriage. We began to see the truth about how truly amazing she was to me and I was to her. As our time on staff became more fruitful, we began to feel a need and an excitement for Christ to use our story to encourage others. And so in the spring of 2013 we began to develop Realtime Initiatives, which is the parent organization for Josh and Shelly Buck Family Ministries. We begin to do more speaking, and out in December 2013 we are starting this site!
Our marriage since 2008 has been full of counseling sessions, knockdown drag out fights (not literally), late night talks, early morning coffee, wonderful family memories, bed-and-breakfast stays, and an increasingly ferocious push to become exactly who God wants us to be, and who we need each other to be.
Thanks for stopping by our crazy website! Praise God that it's here!