Tanja and I love to pray. We believe prayer is powerful and effective. We've been blessed with so many stories of prayer being answered in undeniably supernatural ways. That, of course, leads us to believe in prayer even more.
We have also discovered over the years that prayer is not a one-way conversation. It has taken a while and a lot of practice but we have learned it is just as important to be quiet and listen in prayer as it is to talk to God.
One particular subject of conversation in prayer has been, of course, our children. We probably pray for them more than anything else. We talk to God about every aspect of our children's lives, their health, their friendships, their hopes and dreams and especially their relationship with God. As they have grown up, we have often prayed for their future spouses as well.
About 4 or 5 years ago, we met a family in the church we were leading in Albania. From the very beginning, I sensed something special about the Biçaku family. There was just a special presence of God's peace covering over them. The husband and wife clearly loved each other and loved their children - four girls and a boy. The children, all of them, were very respectful of their parents and very well behaved which is sometimes a rarity in Albania as it is in many places around the world.
When I first met their daughter Hengrida, I felt God speaking to my heart that this was the girl I had been praying for - for my son Robbie. At the time, she was 13 or 14 years old and he was just a couple of years older so I simply tucked that word from the Lord away for continued prayer. As I continued the ministry in Albania, though, I took special note of her family and of her. Hengrida always had a beautiful smile on her face. She was always looking for ways to serve and loved helping out with the children at church. She just had the light of Jesus' love flowing out of her.
I shared with Tanja what I felt God had said to me and she joined me in prayer and also in observing Hengrida and her family. ...and we continued to pray.
In the fall of last year, I noticed on Facebook that Hengrida's older sister, Qendresa, was betrothed. In Albania, it is still quite normal to do arranged marriages. Early this year, as I was praying, I felt God leading me to go ahead and talk to Robbie about Hengrida. Robbie and I sat down in my office one morning before he was to leave to return home to Kansas City. I said, "This is going to sound strange and quite counter-cultural." He was probably thinking, "What's new?" [We're a pretty counter-cultural family in case you didn’t know that already.] I continued, "I am only going to share this with you once and ask you to pray about it. I will trust that you can hear from God about this one way or the other." I shared with him about Hengrida and her family and said that I felt that God wanted me to arrange a marriage for you with her. In Albania, unmarried single guys and girls don't do much with each other, especially if they are from conservative families, and the Biçaku's are pretty conservative - in a good way. So even though Robbie and Hengrida went to the same church for over a year, they had not really talked much. Robbie knew her and her family and they, of course, knew us but that was about it.
Robbie agreed to pray about it. He actually fasted and prayed for a few weeks. He told his mom and I over the phone that, yes, he believes that this is what God wants for his future. Having lived in Albania, he understood quite clearly the serious nature of this arrangement. This is not something you do lightly and it is absolutely not something you propose and then back out of.
We proceeded to communicate with Maksut and Mirjeta, Hengrida's parents, through mutual friends, Nick Wakely and his wife Sarah. The Biçakus were understandably quite surprised by this news from far away America. We asked if they would pray about it and, if they were in agreement, share this with Hengrida. We also asked, even though this is not culturally expected, that Hengrida have a say in the matter. We really wanted to make sure she had time to pray and hear from God on this as well. After several weeks of prayer, they communicated back to us and said that they also agreed that this was an arrangement made, literally, in heaven. Robbie and Hengrida began communicating via video chat and messaging. They have spent the past couple of months enjoying getting to know each other and falling in love.
Yesterday, my son and I arrived in Albania and, in the evening, we met with the family to do the official betrothal. Though jet-lagged and tired, Robbie was very excited and also quite nervous! I asked Maksut for his daughter to join our family through marriage to my son and he said, "Yes! Of course!" We ate and drank together. Robbie also asked for his blessing to marry his daughter. Maksut stood up, walked over to Robbie and Hengrida, laid his hands on their heads and prayed a beautiful prayer of blessing. As the sun was setting, we looked out of their apartment balcony and noticed a beautiful double rainbow in the sky. This felt like a little kiss from God and a beautiful promise of a blessed life together.
As I write this, I am sitting in a cafe in Elbasan, Albania. I just dropped Robbie and Hengrida off at the top of a small mountain overlooking the city. Even though we have gone the traditional route of arranging this marriage and doing the betrothal with the family, Hengrida also wanted the "western-style proposal." Maybe, at this very moment, Robbie is on his knee, holding out his arm with a diamond ring in hand and a very important question on his tongue. Though the answer to that question has been prayerfully pre-arranged by God and family and the parties involved, it carries no less weight. In fact, I believe it carries even more meaning than the romantic surprise questions being popped and put on Facebook for the world to see. I can't describe in words how much this entire thing has been saturated with the wonderful Holy Spirit of God.
Do they know all they could know about each other before making this commitment to marriage? No, no engaged couple does. Will they continue to get to know each other more and more after they are married? Yes, every marriage is a journey of greater and greater knowledge of one's partner. Will there be days in their marriage that are hard and forgiveness is needed as well as a decision to keep on loving even if the feeling isn't there? Yes, every marriage will have those days and that is why every married couple needs God and His grace. Every couple in covenant relationship must understand that love is a daily decision and only the Spirit of Christ gives us the strength to do this. Do they need our prayers? I certainly hope so, who doesn't? Is an arranged marriage between an American boy and a European girl in the 21st century strange? Yes, of course, but maybe it should not be so. I can say that this particular arranged marriage sure feels good and right and purposeful and blessed and filled to the brim with that special unconditional love whose source is found in Christ alone.
GALLERY OF THEIR ENGAGEMENT PICTURES:
GALLERY OF THE ENGAGEMENT PARTY:
VIDEO OF HENGRIDA'S BAPTISM A FEW DAYS AFTER THEIR ENGAGEMENT: