The Surprising Secret to a Lasting and Beautiful Marriage
By ERIC LUDY
Many years ago, Leslie and I were deeply moved by the story of Corrie and Betsie ten Boom in the book The Hiding Place. In one of the darkest places on earth — a German concentration camp called Ravensbrück — they found the beauty of Heaven through the incredible struggle and difficulty they faced there. The name of their quarters was “Barracks 28,” and it was known in the camp as “the crazy barracks where they still have hope.”
In the midst of filth, lice, fleas, sickness, overcrowding, and even death, Barracks 28 had one thing that the others did not — the presence of Jesus Christ. Corrie had been able to smuggle a Bible into the camp, and every night after their work duties were over, she and Betsie gathered women around to read God’s Word and worship Him. The result was light in the midst of a terrible darkness and hope in the midst of horrible despair. That is why this barracks was known as “the crazy place where they still have hope.”
Hearing this story stirred Leslie and I on a personal level. It is not that we can personally relate to the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. But we can relate to finding Heaven’s beauty in the midst of extreme difficulty.
Leslie and I have had more difficulty in 20 years than most marriages would probably have in 20 lifetimes. And, as a result, we are possibly the happiest couple on earth.
You see, difficulty is not the damper to beauty, but the catalyst to it — like the torrential winds that make the oak tree strong or the heat and pressure that make the diamond shine. We have discovered that difficulty is a great gift to a Christ-centered marriage. Its fragrance is not of the Bath and Body Works variety. And though it is an acquired taste, it is the most supremely fragrant odor to the soul, especially when that soul chooses to welcome it instead of run from it.
That is why a few years ago on our 20th anniversary, I officially named our marriage “Barracks 28” and declared us to be “the couple crazy enough to still have hope.”
For many, a great love story would be described as a peaceful cottage hidden in the vale of ease and comfort and wholly untouched by the struggles and battles of this life. And whereas I agree that such a love story would be outwardly appealing, it would be missing something. It would be missing the one necessary ingredient that makes love stories grand. And that one ingredient, though it is often deemed the enemy of romance, is in fact the great advocate of it.
Leslie and I do not live in a peaceful cottage. But that isn’t to say our life isn’t marked by an extraordinary peace.
We don’t live hidden in the vale of ease and comfort. But that isn’t to say that our life isn’t marked by the most divine heavenly comfort.
No, we do not have a marriage untouched by the struggles and battles of this life. And yet, I wouldn’t trade places with another man in all of world history. I don’t want a cozy romantic hideaway. I want Barracks 28.
In the midst of a generation where the heavenly beauty of married love is nearly lost, Leslie and I desire to be known as “that couple crazy enough to still hope.” As a 20th anniversary gift, I wrote down memories for Leslie — memories of our most challenging experiences as a couple and the extraordinary spiritual gold that we gained through those experiences. I would like to share some excerpts with you now.
This is a tribute to the one who has shared this beautiful, battle-worn barracks alongside me. I wrote this for Leslie — my love, my bride, my companion, my dearest friend, my confidant, my constant encourager, my girl. Corrie ten Boom was not alone in Barracks 28. God gave her Betsie. Leslie, you have been my Betsie.
difficulty one: the fleas
When Corrie and Betsie first arrived in Barracks 28, they found that it was infested with fleas. Not only was it the famed death camp, but it was the famed death camp with millions of fleas flourishing in their very barracks.
Betsie took Corrie by the hand and softly asked Corrie to thank God with her for Barracks 28. Corrie balked at first. To thank God in such circumstances seemed impossible. But they began to thank God for everything that He had done.
They had each other.
They had miraculously been able to smuggle in Corrie’s Bible.
They had a bunk together.
They were still alive.
Then Betsie thanked God for the fleas. But Corrie could not join that prayer. She refused to thank God for fleas.
But Betsie pleaded with her to remember how God can take everything and use it in our lives for His good. Finally, after a bit of pondering, Corrie complied and thanked God for the fleas.
Leslie and I were married three weeks when the same test came our way.
We had each other.
We had the Word of God.
We had a bunk together.
And we were very much alive.
But what were we to do with these fleas?
I had spied out an amazing house on a gorgeous lake in Michigan. It was used as a bed and breakfast during the summer months, and so, during its off-season, a young couple like ourselves could actually rent it out. It was a great situation.
But there was one problem. It wasn’t really winterized.
We arrived in early January of 1995 straight from our honeymoon. We were flying high and very much in love.
And right around our arrival date at the lakeside lodge, someone else moved in. I guess they didn’t realize that a newly married couple typically prefers a bit of privacy. There were seven bedrooms in the place, but they didn’t take one of the bedrooms. They moved into the fireplace.
It was a family of raccoons. And come to find out, 98% of all fleas that survive through the winter, survive by living symbiotically with raccoons. Whether that is true or not, it sure did explain our flea infestation. If you walked across the wood floor of the vast living room in white socks, at any given time you could count 17 fleas on your right sock alone.
We had fleas, thousands upon thousands of them. We had raccoons beating against the piece of plywood that covered the fireplace. We had negative temperatures for weeks on end.
And we had … fun.
Now, I need to admit that we approached the fleas at first more like Corrie than like Betsie. It took us a bit to thank God for the gift of those fleas.
Corrie and Betsie found that it was because of the fleas that the German officers left Barracks 28 alone, which allowed them to hold nightly Bible studies without threat of danger. It was the fleas that protected this sacred time of fellowship every night.
And it was the fleas that supplied Leslie and I with our very first trial. Even now, after 20 years, that first trial is still very precious to us. It taught us how to work together through difficulty. It taught us how to thank God in all circumstances … and it taught us how to laugh together.
Leslie, our love was so innocent back then. We didn’t know what challenges lay around the corner. And it was a good thing. For we didn’t care about what was to come. We knew we had each other, and we had Jesus.
And, Leslie, I will never forget discovering your spunk in that time. You are a fighter. Through all our adventures, you have never stopped swinging your sword. And, oh, how I cherish your resolve to see Jesus come out on top in each and every circumstance.
Dear Lord, thank You for those fleas.
difficulty TWO: the LACK
In that first year of marriage, Barracks 28 was not yet named Barracks 28. Technically, we didn’t have a name for it, but if we had, we certainly would have referred to it with nomenclature much more innocent and sweet.
I was 25; Leslie was 20. We were young, naive in many areas, and struggling to understand things like insurance premiums and personal tax returns.
We had been searching high and low for another place to live. But the $300 a month rent we were paying for our flea-infested lodge by the lake was hard to beat.
I had a job. It didn’t pay a lot, but we had something. But a fixed income is exactly that. Fixed.
Our original budget included enough to rent this $300 place by the lake. We had maybe a $200 buffer each month, but those of you who are married know how likely a buffer is to still exist come the end of the month.
Everything we looked at in the newspaper was out of our price range. The closest thing to our $300 current rent price was $550. So we went and checked the place out. It was situated next door to a known drug dealer in the area and, let’s just say, there was a reason why it was the cheapest place for rent in all of Kalamazoo, Michigan. There was no way I was going to leave my wife there every day while I was at work.
The next best option came in around $700. It was small, but it was clean. So we snagged it up.
We didn’t technically have the money for it. But, as a new husband, I had to do something to move us into a more viable living place. After all, a house full of raccoons and fleas is certainly “fun” but not ideal for the long haul.
This move to West Main Street was amazing for the two of us. Leslie fixed up the place the way Betsie fixed up Barracks 28. She made it … Heaven. Without a dime to spend, she somehow made it beautiful. It was ours. And it was without fleas.
But this move to West Main Street also came with some new challenges. We had absolutely zippo in the bank, in our pockets, or in our catch-all drawer in the kitchen. We used everything we had to make it through each day.
Corrie ten Boom used to tell the story of her vitamin bottle. While in the concentration camp, Corrie somehow had a Bible and a vitamin bottle. These were her daily sustenance. And neither emptied throughout her entire time in the concentration camp. As strange as it may sound, her vitamin bottle never emptied. Like the widow’s oil, it never ran dry.
20 years of marriage has shown me something very similar. In Barracks 28, I can testify that neither the truth of God’s Word nor the vitamin bottle have ever run out.
But to say it was easy to have nothing in the bank nearly every day for our first year of marriage wouldn’t be honest. It was extremely difficult. As a man, I yearned to supply richly for my new bride, to adorn her in jewels, and to ensure that she was clothed in the most posh clothing. But, I simply couldn’t do it. I was a romantic with a limp. I had big dreams, but God was giving me something precious. He was teaching me how to give my wife something even better than earthly substance.
I’ll never forget the great test of 1995.
Our friends were coming in from Colorado for a visit. It was the first time any of our friends from Colorado had come for a visit since we got married back in December. It was a big deal.
Somehow we paid for the gas to and from Chicago to pick them up from the airport. We arrived back at our little condo and were filled with such excitement. They toured the place, and we showed them the makeshift guest room. They asked for an ironing board to spruce up their clothes. We obliged. Everyone was smiling. Then it happened. Leslie grabbed the hot iron to put it away, but it was still on. She burned her hand.
It wasn’t really a terrible burn, but it needed some ointment.
We had eight dollars to our name. This was the money that we knew needed to carry us through the entire week with our guests. Our guests had no idea that we didn’t have any way of feeding them.
Without hesitation, I hopped into the car with my friend Ryan, and we headed off to the drugstore to pick up some burn medication. All eight dollars were spent on a single bottle of ointment.
Gulping, I hopped back into my red Camry and began the drive back to our snug little condo on West Main.
On the trip home, a policeman noticed that my right front headlight was out and pulled me over. He gave me a ticket and said that I wouldn’t need to pay the $100 fine if I got the headlight fixed in this next week and had a policeman sign off that the work was done.
Gulping again, I started up the car and drove home.
Leslie and I clung to each other that night and prayed. It was a desperate form of praying.
The fleas were a test. But this constant niggling ache of having nothing was an entirely different sort of trial for our marriage. But, like the fleas, it brought us together.
Corrie and Betsie used to share the same pillow in their Barracks 28 bunk. They didn’t do this because it was more pleasant; they did it out of necessity — so tight were the women packed inside that building. Corrie and Betsie’s noses would often be touching throughout the night, and they shared each other’s breath.
This is our marriage. In many ways, you could call our marriage a shared pillow and a shared breath. During nights like this, Leslie and I learned to breathe our prayers in unison … and often in tears.
It was the following day that I picked up the mail. In the mailbox was a letter from Leslie’s Aunt Pat. A financial surplus had come into her life, and she wanted to share a bit of it with us. There was a check for $100 inside that envelope. Startled and bewildered by the timing of this strange gift, I held back tears, walked through the living room, passed my house guests, and found Leslie in the kitchen.
I tapped her on the shoulder and silently pointed to the letter. I unfolded it for her to see the check. And together, in the sacred silence of that moment, we shared the joys that only those who share a common pillow and a common breath can fully appreciate. Tears streamed down both our faces.
That same day the Staples, our dear friends, had invited us over for a barbecue. They wanted to meet our Colorado friends, and so, with joy we drove to their house in our red Camry.
Doug Staples, the father, overheard some kerfuffle about Eric being pulled over the night before by a policeman. He silently slipped out the door into his driveway and looked at my car. The next day he went into town and bought the parts and then called me up on the phone.
“Eric,” Doug said, “it appears that I have the parts to fix your Camry here at my house. Why don’t you four come over for dinner again tonight, and I’ll get things fixed for you?”
Only God can turn empty pockets and an impossible situation into such a picture of His faithfulness.
Leslie, we have shared a common pillow and a common breath for 20 years now. And all I can say is thank you for allowing me so close. Thank you for breathing the breath of Heaven alongside me.
And thank you for being willing to live a life of dependence. I’m not a rich man in a material sense, but I have found that material riches are not the secret to lasting love and marital bliss. The secret is simply having Jesus.
difficulty THREE: the STAND
It may sound strange to say that while I was struggling with anxiety, Leslie and I were traveling the world speaking boldly about Jesus Christ. But it’s true. I have always been a work in progress, and I’m fairly certain I always will be. The fact that God uses unfinished business like us is one of the most startling aspects to the Christian life.
All this “traveling the world” started with a book. In fact, our first book was written during the flea infestation next to the lake. In three weeks, while raccoons pawed and fleas hopped about on our white socks, Leslie and I wrote down our love story.
People everywhere — all over the world — wanted to hear our story, and, to be quite frank, we weren’t actually that interested in talking about it. Not because we didn’t think our love story was special, but because it was such an intimate and sacred thing to us that we didn’t want it to ever lose its specialness.
So, we wrote it down. And we decided that the next time someone asked us to share, we would stick a little book under their nose and say, “You can read this!”
It worked … for a while. And then … it backfired.
A publisher got hold of that little book and gave us a call. I’ll never forget that phone call.
“I think this message needs to go around the world!” he stated. “Would you consider allowing me to publish this amazing story?”
Many times since, we have wondered if we made the right decision in saying yes. For that single yes has been the source of 90% of the difficulties we have faced over the years.
However, that one singular yes has also supplied us 90% of the kindling needed to stoke the fires of our precious marriage.
Corrie ten Boom’s sufferings in Barracks 28 gave her a message to share with the world of Christ’s great love even in the darkest places. Writing down our love story has given us the ability to know what Corrie learned in Barracks 28 and to recognize Christ’s great love.
It was around September of our first year of marriage that the invitations began to come in. They started with a trickle, and then that trickle turned into a flood.
We had absolutely no interest in traveling around and talking about love and relationships.
But our personal feelings on the matter didn’t seem to carry much weight. God had His hand pressing against the small of our backs. And so, we began to speak.
Our first international tour happened in the summer months of 1996. We headed to Australia. The interest there was big. A 20-stop tour was quickly put together by a Christian leader who had heard us speak at a family conference in Colorado.
The fleas and the empty-pocket scenarios were small trials next to the size of the test we faced on this trip to Australia.
Australia itself was beautiful, and the people were lovely. The trial came in a new form to us. It was a spiritual battle unbeknownst to us before.
Truth seemed lost inside the Church. At every stop along the tour there seemed to be a spiritual void. There was talk of revival everywhere we went. But it was not the sort of revival that Leslie and I prayed for daily — you know, the kind where humble understanding of our sinful condition leads to repentance, and repentance leads to the seeking of forgiveness and restoration. This particular revival sweeping through Australia in the summer of 1996 was called a “laughing revival.” In this bizarre revival people would laugh, bark like dogs, roar like lions, and even slither like snakes.
I was utterly bewildered. Don’t get me wrong, I love to laugh. But this was strange and bizarre. And we had nearly 20 stops in which this behavior was a very real thing.
I was 26 years old. Leslie was 21. And we were about to face the greatest test of our young lives.
As a 44-year-old pastor, standing strong for the truth is not as much of a surprise. But when you are 26 in a foreign culture — to stand strong for the truth against a prevailing system is nearly impossible.
But we had no choice.
On one of our first stops on the tour we ran into this strange phenomenon.
The pastor sat us down and informed us of the mighty movement sweeping through his church. He was ecstatic. He assumed I would be equally delighted.
I truly wanted to be. But I was at odds inwardly.
I grew up with the simple reasoning that the Bible is the only way to determine right from wrong, light from dark, true from false, and spirit from flesh. And, no matter how much I wanted to just agree with this “laughing revival,” in my young conscience, I couldn’t.
Leslie and I found ourselves bracing for a storm. She looked at me. I looked at her. We both knew that Jesus comes first. Financially speaking, we desperately needed to sell all the boxes of books we had shipped down to Australia. If we chose to speak on something other than relationships, then we certainly would not sell any books on the theme of relationships.
The pastor had said to me earlier that day that the last 28 times someone had spoken in this pulpit, revival had broken out. He was such a sincere man. I ached within as I listened to him. I just wanted to be quiet. I just wanted to be the guy that all the Australians loved.
Leslie and I decided together that we needed to speak. The knot in my stomach made me feel like I had swallowed a porcupine whole.
I got up to speak that day in Brisbane. I was the 29th orator to address this expectant crowd. The 28 before me had all stimulated a great response. A response so big, mind you, that this church was being covered in the national news. The pressure on me was enough to nearly crush me.
My knees were knocking, my palms were sweaty, and I had a gigantic lump in my throat.
I spoke on true revival.
No one appreciated the irony. And ironically, no one laughed. In fact, no one said anything. Everyone just sat there stone silent.
I saw Leslie out there as I spoke, that one cherished island of support nearly lost in the vast sea of stone-faced humanity.
I gave my all. I spoke with love, with fervor, with concern. But there were no “amens” and no “hallelujahs.” No one moved. No one did anything.
I don’t know what caused me to do what I did next, but I told the silent audience that I was done, but God was not done. There were those in the crowd that needed to make things right with the Body. There was sin in that church, and I told them I was going to set down the microphone on the top step of the stage and invite them to come forward and confess their sin one unto another.
Even as I was doing it, I couldn’t believe I was doing it.
I set down the microphone and walked past the stoic crowd and sat down in the very back of the church.
What followed was the longest ten minutes of my life. I had a demon hovering overhead screaming at me about how stupid I was. The demon kept shouting, “No one is laughing! You have ruined what God was doing here in this church!”
I sat there and sweated as it were great drops of blood. Not really. But at least I took one step forward in understanding Gethsemane.
After ten minutes of complete silence, a girl arose from her seat and came forward. She grabbed the microphone and then immediately began to sob. She cried and sought forgiveness from her father, who was there in the crowd, for showing public disrespect towards him. The father came forward and hugged his daughter, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the entire room.
Suddenly the floodgates opened, and a line began to form around the church, with men and women yearning to confess, to make things right, and to establish truth in their inner life.
Over two hours later, the line was still long, and a woman arrived at the front and said that she had actually left when I first set down the microphone. But she told God that if this was still going in two hours, then she would speak. It was still going, and she spoke.
Leslie and I witnessed this power of truth reverberate through Australia. Everywhere we went, we followed the “laughing revival” and time and time again, God would move me to stand for truth in the midst of a misled church.
Leslie died a thousand deaths in that 20-stop tour. The amount of embarrassment for being married to me would have sunk most women. Leslie realized in that tour that she is married to a strange sort of character.
But you know one of my favorite things about Leslie? She doesn’t want me to be normal. And so, technically, when I get up onto a stage and say something that might not be politically or religiously correct, it’s not Eric all by his lonesome saying something kooky. It’s actually Eric and Leslie saying something kooky together.
Remember, we share the same pillow, the same breath.
Leslie, I am the man I am, and I am bold to speak the things I speak because I have you behind me pushing so hard. Thank you for putting your shoulder into it. And thank you for standing with me and not running away when I receive my public floggings.
. . .
These are just a few glimpses of some of the challenges we faced in our early years together. Far more extreme difficulty has come our way since then. But after 26 years, six children, and a demanding ministry, we still have an extraordinary marriage, not in spite of difficulty, but because of it. We are the happiest family on earth, not because we tell knock-knock jokes at the dinner table, but because we pray as a family, wrestle for God’s purposes as a family, love Jesus Christ as a family, cherish His extraordinary Gospel of Grace as a family, and heartily rejoice at all the bomb blasts that rock Barracks 28 … as a family.