The Ballad of Michelle and Carlan
It all started with an arpeggio, the piano equivalent of distractedly strumming a guitar. A nascent song had been growing in Michelle’s heart for several weeks but on this day it was ready to be delivered to the hands and to the page. The score and the text came in that peculiar union of perspiration and inspiration known by composers and artists throughout all time. She knew it was good, maybe great, and her bandmates agreed. But how could Michelle know then this one composition would change her life forever?
For Carlan, it was a required rest, a retreat for missionaries intended to give them time to share stories and insights, encouragements and defeats with others who had lived longer or shorter in the world of cross-cultural service, of infectious diseases and unstable regimes, of new languages, foods and problems. It was to be a brief sojourn back in California. In typical fashion he had scheduled dozens of meetings with friends and supporters, planned some recreation and already booked his return travel. But one day, one moment can radically change the course of a furlough and a life.
Michelle had been playing piano all week long, twice a day, with her band as an act of service to the missionaries who were back for the conference. Having grown up with several of the band members, Carlan was happy to see them again after years spread across continents. He noticed Michelle. She noticed him. Impressed as he was at her playing, he failed to pursue conversation with her initially, preferring rather to wait until after the conference to start anything.
But let’s hear how this love story unfolded from their own perspective.
With joy and eager anticipation I prepared with the band “No Less Days’’ for the 2014 Missionary Conference. The thought of meeting missionaries from around the world excited me greatly.
My first memory of seeing Carlan was the during the first morning session of the week. I was up on stage with the rest of the band as we prepared for the morning set. As I scanned the audience I saw Carlan and thought to myself, “That man sure looks happy and excited to be here!”
Friday afternoon, as we rehearsed for the second to last music set, the band asked me if I wanted to sing a song as a special number. Singing in public is not one of my strengths, so initially I was very skeptical. But they convinced me that it would bless the missionaries, and be a great opportunity to stretch my abilities, so I agreed. The song I decided to sing was one I had written a year before called “He Alone,” written during a difficult season but based on some truths that God had taught me through that particular trial. Rehearsal went well, but the actual performance was weajer. After the session was over I gathered up my books and was about to leave when Carlan turned around from where he had been sitting in front of me and introduced himself. We chatted about music and he got my number to share a music site with me (so smooth!). But I didn’t think much of it, writing it off that he was just trying to be kind.
They call Los Angeles the creative capital of the world and it is not entirely unusual to meet a technically proficient musician in the course of life in Southern California. I have yet to meet or truly know a more talented pianist than Michelle, but in complete honesty, it was the fact that she had written and arranged the song she sang at the conference that piqued my interest. Hearing her play I thought, “I’d like to talk to that girl sometime soon.” Then later in the week, hearing her play and sing a song of her own composition, with the theological and emotional depth that it had, I knew, “I HAVE to talk to this girl TONIGHT.”
By the providence of God she happened to sit right behind me during the rest of the event, affording me the perfect opportunity to strike up a conversation after the close of service. “Thank you for your song. It was beautiful.” As they say, one thing led to another and I was somehow introducing a musical genius to a website where aspiring artists offer their music for free on a charity basis. The irony was not lost to us, nor was the opportunity to text her the name of the couple of bands that had impacted my life as a missionary in Burundi. Number acquired, I was free to pursue, though not immediately as I was headed up to Sonoma County and then backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas.
About a week later I got a text from Carlan asking if I had been able to visit the site he recommended. We chatted a bit, but again, I wrote it off that he was just being kind. That Friday I showed up to Bible study and lo and behold the guest speaker was none other than Carlan Wendler. I remember being very impressed with his energy, passion for missions and the lost, and sense of humor. Afterwards he walked up to me and handed me one of his prayer cards, which I put in my Bible.
Then next morning I was leaving for a backpacking trip to the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. On the drive up to the mountains I noticed that I had a message from Carlan. He was asking me to coffee. I smiled to myself. We chatted about backpacking and confirmed the time and location for the following week. Then I was out of cell phone range.
First dates are often a bit tricky – the guy wants to make a good impression and show some creative gumption but overly adventurous ideas can, and have, backfired. I didn’t know too much about Michelle – she loved music, she was excited about missions and she had told me how much she enjoyed trying new restaurants and seeing new places. There aren’t too many ways that you can get overly creative with coffee – but armed with Yelp, I recommended a new cafe between her house and mine. Gratefully, I showed up 15 min early just to scope out this place that had gotten great reviews yet it was definitely NOT a first date kind of place. So we called an audible and opted for a Cuban bakery/cafe in downtown Burbank.
Our first date was to Porto’s in Burbank. We met in the evening as the sun was setting. I remember standing in line and noticing how blue his eyes looked in the golden light of the sun. We found a seat and started chatting. It seemed like 5 minutes had passed when all of a sudden the waiter was standing next to our table letting us know that the restaurant was closing. Looking around the room I noticed that the crowds of people that had been there when we arrived had gone and, other than one other family in the corner, we were the only ones left. How did that happen?….I thought to myself, and smiled.
The remaining few weeks of Carlan’s furlough were filled with joyful and fun dates: paddle boarding, hiking (including one of my favorite hikes up Mission Peak), sunsets on the beach, box seats at the Hollywood Bowl (thank you Larry and Lauren Brown!), and prayer times under the night sky. The evening before Carlan left for Africa, we hiked up the hill near his house in Burbank. The night was quiet and still, but dramatic shooting stars streaked overhead as we talked about the future and prayed.. Then we heard a scuffling in the bushes beside us. Out stepped a baby fawn. “Thank you Jesus” Carlan said. Everything seems like magic around this man, I thought to myself, and smiled.
Time together was short before leaving at the end of September for Burundi. I have known many a male who torpedoed a relationship at the outset by being overly aggressive and pushing — almost as many as have sabotaged their chances of a successful courtship by failing to commit themselves at any substantial level to weathering the storms of relationship. That being said, I wanted to know where Michelle stood on the long-term missions question. Would she want to live and serve in rural Burundi? Would she even consider it?
You who know me know that I can be a very direct communicator — so we sat down for breakfast one Saturday morning at a Mimi’s Cafe, ordered our French toast and talked about what the future might look like if we proceeded down this trail of relationship together. As I recall, there was a 3×5” card that I had already written out describing a kind of timeline for how things would go if Michelle decided to pursue dating me. I had also written out a 3×5” card listing those things that I thought would be the hardest for her to live without in Burundi. It was not, as the French say, très romantique, but it was a blessing in the long-run because it made us deliberate and committed from the early days of the relationship.
After Carlan left for Africa, our relationship continued to progress but was logistically more challenging over the long distance. Yet even though this had its difficulties, like when the electrical power was down in Africa and I didn’t hear from him for days at a time, it allowed me to grow in my trust in the sovereignty of God. And because Carlan wisely knew that a committed relationship would need to wait until after my trip to Africa to see the work and the dynamics of life there, this was a good time as it forced us to connect on a more spiritual and intellectual level. After each email I would receive from Carlan, I would think to myself, “How in the world did I become the lucky girl to be dating this modern day version of Jim Elliot?” My respect and love for him continued to grow.
In January 2015 I flew to Burundi with my brother Nate, and spent 3 weeks living in the community where Carlan worked. I quickly and easily fell in love with the country, the people, the team, and most importantly, Carlan. Each day I would wake up to the chorus of African birds in the trees surrounding my room. Dressed in a long skirt I would walk down the red dirt path to the local African school where I helped teach the local village children English. I was greeted with a chorus of joyful “Good mornings!” After class the children would crowd around wanting to shake my hand or say hello. Then, I would often walk up to the hospital and watch Carlan work. This was a highlight of the trip for me. I was impressed by his kindness and skill as he worked with the patients and students. “This is a man who I can follow” I thought to myself. The most difficult day was the day I left to return home. My heart was no longer in California.
Michelle and Nate’s visit to Burundi had been an unalloyed success. She was so filled with joy in teaching English to the Burundian kids, and music to those kids who already spoke English. She integrated wonderfully with the team, so much so that there were tears shed by young Anna Fader when it was time to leave Kibuye. It was never a question of whether she COULD manage life in the developing world; it was if she was CREATED and CALLED for a life like that to which I offered. But I needed permission and blessing from her heavenly Father and earthly father before I could move forward.
After returning home, Carlan wanted me to think, pray, and process my experiences for about a month before making a decision. We both sought the Lord, and fasted and prayed on Valentine’s Day. The following Monday Carlan called me. One of the first things he told me was “I love you!” My heart soared. (I knew what my decision would be… “Yes, a thousand times yes”), but I was praying that Carlan would have the same confirmation from the Lord. “I love you too!” I responded. We then discussed what to do next. It would only be about a month or two, but Carlan said that he would be returning home to ask my dad for permission, in person. He wanted to surprise me though. So I was left in the dark on the exact date.
Eager anticipation followed. Each day I would wake up and think….”Is today the day?” I was determined to figure him out, and he was determined to surprise me.
Having received the “go-ahead” from her Dad, I flew back to California, arriving on a Wednesday, and met with Fred and Judy. They surprised me at LAX to pick me up and we talked about life and ministry and marriage. They accorded me their permission and blessing to propose to Michelle and I slept the sleep of jet-lagged but ecstatic suitor. The next morning I awoke and drove to Michelle’s house at the time her roommate, Liz Curry, and I had arranged. My phone stopped working right after we made contact, so I staked a claim behind the bushes and waited for Michelle to come to her car to drive to her first piano lesson of the day.
Unbeknownst to me, Michelle already knew that lesson had been cancelled and so was busy with chores at home. Liz gave me a folding chair outside, and a bottle of water, and signed me onto their home WiFi so I could “get some work done” as if my mind were free to do such things. Eventually Michelle got ready for the day and Liz and I coordinated so that I could ring the doorbell and Michelle would answer it. The look on her face when she opened the door and found me there with roses in hand was worth all the travel and all the trouble. Priceless. We then revealed that Liz had surreptitiously cancelled all of Michelle’s other lessons for the day, so Michelle and I took off instead for another memory hike up Mission Peak where the proposal took place.