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Professional engineer Jeff Morrish can’t engineer the weather—no matter what fellow members of his Susanville, Calif., church say. But after several drought years, in 2015 he started a group praying for rain, even though others said prayer would do no good at all.
Rain or shine, Morrish and others in the Pray for Rain group at Susanville Church of the Nazarene, known as SuzNaz, kept meeting on Monday evenings. Sometimes a few attended, sometimes as many as 25.
On the evening I visited in February, attendees sat with heads bowed and eyes closed in chairs along the sides of four long white plastic tables pushed together to form a square in the middle of the room. Along one wall sat a desk and computer and printer, and on another hung a whiteboard with a half-erased Sunday school Bible verse. Morrish began by praying for the knowledge of Christ to permeate the souls of people as the rain saturates the soil: “Just like the rain and the snow, it refreshes and brings life. Your presence brings life as well. … Help men and women to see Christ in all that’s happening. Help them to see You in all circumstances.” Around the table, group members responded with petitions for healing the land and “restoring this nation to one that loves You.”
A soft voice asked God to open hearts in mourning and grief and bring comfort. “Thank You,” a strong, deep voice intoned, “that young people are coming to call on You.” Another prayer begged God to send people to their knees to ask for help, to make the group members bold to share His answers to prayer and bold to go out in expectation looking for what He will do. Retired teacher Sue Sommerville referenced James 5:17-18: Elijah, a man with a nature like ours, prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
What were the physical results? California had average rainfall in 2015 and 2016, then record rain in 2017. Some areas of Southern California in 2018, though, received less than half their average annual precipitation. This year California had one of its driest Februaries on record, followed by a wet March. Meteorologist Mike Alger, of KTVN Channel 2, in Reno, Nev., the closest population center to Susanville, said those fluctuations are no surprise. Others say California boasts one of the most capricious climates in the United States.
But one member of Pray for Rain, Mary Dillion, plans to keep praying until water fills Eagle Lake, a 24,000-acre natural basin 16 miles north of Susanville. Another, Bob Bengard, says he wants to launch a sailboat at the north end of the lake before he and his wife, Gail, die. When Gail says the water is nowhere near deep enough, Bob answers, “We only need 2 more feet.”
Eight people showed up at Pray for Rain on March 16, and six on March 23: Morrish planned to continue meeting within coronavirus under-10 requirements. They prayed for neighbors’ health, for hope and peace, for God to stop this plague—and for rain.
—Shayla Ashmore is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course￼
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13th in a series on long marriages
Frustrated, Pastor Robert Hall walked into the hospital. He’d come to visit a dying church member but hadn’t been able to get the day off from his landscaping job. When he finally made it to the hospital, the man’s room was empty: He had already died.
“Something snapped in me,” Hall recalls. He told God, “I’m not doing what You’ve called me to do well. This is ridiculous.”
The pastor’s bivocational life was taking an enormous toll. Hall was working 50 hours a week, pastoring a small church, and raising three kids with his wife, Juanita. He had never been to seminary. He’d helped another man plant the church, but after a year, that pastor left. With around 40 people and a desire to do God’s will, Robert became the church’s pastor in 1987, working to support himself and his family.
But he was doing too much, and his anger threatened to blow up his marriage: Pride prevented his asking for help or receiving Juanita’s correction.
One night Robert reprimanded his son for speaking disrespectfully to his mother, and the boy responded, “Why not? You do.” Another time, the couple had a heated argument in a room at the church building. A parishioner heard raised voices and opened the door. Robert told him to get out, and the couple continued arguing. By then, Robert says, he felt for the first time like Juanita was not on his side.
“Until the man involved is willing to admit, ‘I’m wrong—I’m in sin—this is me that’s the problem’ ... it’s very difficult to find healing,” he says.
In 1993, a “self-confrontation” class from the Biblical Counseling Foundation opened Robert’s eyes: At one point, he started crying and said, “I’m an angry man. I am a terribly angry man.” He began memorizing Scripture to address his anger and asking forgiveness for the times he blew up at others.
Meanwhile, Juanita was rethinking what it meant to be Robert’s helper. She considered why she corrected her children: She loved them and didn’t want any to “grow up to be a bratty little kid that no one likes.” She realized she was not loving her husband well if she did not honestly correct his sin. She began graciously confronting him, beginning with, “Honey, you know that I love you. …”
Robert began pausing to pray and disconnect from work before he came home each evening. Once, he forgot and started complaining when he entered the house. Juanita asked if he’d prayed, and he said no and walked back outside. After praying, he came in and she greeted him as if he’d just arrived. “The kids are looking at us like we’re crazy,” he recalls. “But it worked.” He says his wife’s support and teamwork made a difference.
In 1995 the elders of his church, Calvary Rio Rancho, told Robert to choose between landscaping and pastoring. So Robert sold his part of the business, and in five years the church grew from 140 to 900 people. Today Robert, 73, serves as pastor emeritus. He leads the church’s Trail Life USA and American Heritage Girls programs and its school, Rio Rancho Elementary. He and Juanita, 70, are celebrating 50 years of marriage.
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Standing in front of a wall-sized mirror, Taylor Shelnutt looks every part the cake-topper bride. Her blonde locks fall past her shoulders in waves over a lacy white gown. But even though at her dress fitting she appears ready for her mid-April wedding day, she doesn’t feel it.
“Really just it’s heartbreaking that we would be at this point, three-and-a-half weeks out from our wedding, and not be hopeful for it, and not be filled with joy or excitement,” Shelnutt said. “We’re excited to get married, but at this point, kind of the, the happiness from the season is stolen.”
Shelnutt and her fiancé, Cole Mund, had planned their Dallas wedding for Easter weekend. The symbolism was intentional.
“I wanted it to be a representation of the gospel. That’s what marriage is, and I really wanted that proclaimed loud and clear right before Easter,” Shelnutt said.
But as their wedding date drew nearer, the alarm bells of a pandemic began to drown out the sound of wedding bells. Out-of-town relatives—most of Shelnutt’s family—expressed concerns about traveling during the COVID-19 outbreak. Her elderly grandparents broke the news that they wouldn’t be able to attend.
Then, the federal government began discouraging gatherings of people—first 500, then 50, then anything over 10. Every day brings new information at breakneck speed. Cole said just a few days ago, postponing their wedding wasn’t even on their radar.
“We didn’t even think in this short span of three, four days that that would even be a possibility that this wedding couldn’t happen,” Mund said.
Of course, weddings are interactive by their very nature. Hugs, kisses, handshakes, dancing, and finger-foods make them a strong vector for contagious disease. Plenty of Shelnutt and Mund’s friends insist they’ll attend, no matter what. But Taylor and Cole don’t want to gamble with their guests’ health.
“My sister in law is pregnant, and my cousins have tiny babies. My grandmas are older, and Cole has a lot of older people in his family,” Shelnutt said. “It’s a lot of responsibility to be making this decision on behalf of 200 people who could be there. It’s a lot of pressure.”
The couple considered alternatives: keeping the April 11 date and decreasing the number of guests; elopement before a justice of the peace; or postponement until summer or beyond. But even those ideas rub Shelnutt and Mund the wrong way.
“It’s hard for me thinking through the backup options because you lose the specialness. Even if we were to do a small ceremony now and have the actual big wedding later, I would be kind of faking it at that point,” Shelnutt said.
If they cancel, they’ll face a long to-do list: Notify guests, negotiate with vendors for refunds, cancel hotel blocks, and so on. Wedding industry professionals feel the effects of these cancellations already. Many vendors, like florists and caterers, already operate on razor-thin margins. Others, like photographers and makeup artists, may not be paid until a wedding is rescheduled, and that could be months from now.
Caroline Fair is a high-end wedding planner in Dallas. She has been talking to colleagues and vendors, sharing best practices for moving forward in this largely unprecedented era within the industry. Overall, she and her regular vendors have agreed not to charge postponement fees, though contractually they could. And they’re encouraging clients to reschedule rather than cancel outright.
Ultimately, this is a force majeure, and how vendors conduct themselves now may reap dividends in the future. After all, Fair said, you don’t want a scorned bride taking to social media with her frustrations.
“There was another point of view that you need to charge those fees because of the additional time and effort that’s going to go into postponement because you’re essentially planning the event over again,” Fair said. “But it’s your business reputation. My personal thoughts on that are that we should show people compassion and grace in this uncertain time.”
For now, Shelnutt and Mund are loosening their grip on April 11. They secured their marriage license in the event Dallas courts close. The unknown is hard, but they’re hanging on to hope.
“In all the uncertainty and all the unknowns, we have to keep telling ourselves the things we do know,” Shelnutt said. “We know that the Lord is our guide. We know He is sovereign. We know He’s in control, and we know He’s not surprised by this.”