Chris Mitchell pinched the engagement ring between his thumb and pointer finger, thinking, yep, this is the one.
As a junior at Mount Vernon Nazarene University (MVNU) in Mount Vernon, Ohio, he knew he should propose to his childhood best friend, Shelli Miller. She was pretty. She was funny. And she always lit up a room when she entered.
Getting married was the next step.
It was fall 2008, and a few short weeks after purchasing the engagement ring, Chris would fly to Costa Rica to propose. Shelli studied Spanish in college and was in the middle of a four-month study abroad program in San José, the country’s capital. The distance proved difficult, sure, but it was nothing new for them. Fights, frustration, and fallout had plagued the last two years of their relationship.
Getting married might solve those problems.
As Shelli submerged herself in a culture thousands of miles away, Chris’s insecurities rose to the surface. He knew their relationship was disintegrating by the second, and he had everything to do with it. Two years earlier, he pressured Shelli to just kiss him. Shelli, however, aimed to be a person set on living out the Christian principles she grew up with. I guess kissing’s OK, she thought. But the problem grew much larger than just kissing. A depression set in for Shelli as her focus faded away from God and fell fully on Chris. But Chris, a human, naturally disappointed her, and Shelli’s faith in him slowly deteriorated.
Getting married was the last resort.
Chris held his last shot at saving the most important relationship in his life. The ring cost good money. The ticket to fly out to Costa Rica cost a lot, too.
But if proposing did not work, it would cost him his best friend. Anxiety waded in his chest as he held that ring.
“I know now that in the weeks after I bought that ring, God was preparing my heart for something big,” Chris says, years later.
Shelli knew about Chris’s visit. And, well, you could say she was excited. She, however, didn’t ever think there would be a ring. How could she? She was living a dream in Costa Rica. She built new friendships in her study abroad program. The locals all took to her. Confidence and joy made it impossible to not like her.
“I was the ‘cute’ white girl that spoke Spanish,” Shelli jokes. “I definitely got some attention.”
For the first time since entering college, she lived a life unburdened by an argumentative boyfriend.
She would wake up when the sun rose, jog with a friend, take a Spanish class later in the morning, eat a fresh lunch prepared by locals, maybe take an afternoon Spanish class, lounge until dinner with the host family, and finally venture out to meet some friends at a local’s house.
Life was good. Her biggest daily concern: hoping her flip-flops survived the four-month trip.
At night, after the laughs with her compadres faded out, she would walk home. But with unsafe streets, she always needed a friend to walk her home. An escort, of sorts. These walks became routine, and the local that guided her did, too.
In her heart, she loved Chris, but in her reality, the relationship had hit rock bottom. As Skype dates became sporadic and conversations dulled, Shelli gave up.
Her attention began drifting to the guy that strolled the starlit streets of San José with her.
Eventually, after a few months of these walks, the local couldn’t help himself. He asked for a kiss.
“From the time that they met, Chris and Shelli were best friends,” Debbie, Shelli’s mother, says. “It was so cute. He would call and they would just talk about stuff like, ‘Do you think the sky is naturally blue, or is it all just a reflection from the ocean? We always joke about how Chris is the male version of Shelli, and she is the female version of Chris.’”
They met in the trumpet section of the seventh grade orchestra, and an immediate bond forged. From that first meeting on, they would conspire to have the same classes each year. Shelli would rush to Chris with next year’s schedule, jam the paper into his hand and yelp, “Here, take these next semester!”
Chris eventually started going to youth group at Shelli’s church. Shelli grew up in a Christian home, while Chris accepted Jesus at the behest of the youth pastor. Shelli certainly influenced the decision. Her childlike faith in the Lord impacted Chris firsthand. And whereas his decision to accept Jesus was made individually, Shelli steered the ship early on when it came to faith and religion.
Considering the obvious connection between Chris and Shelli, their peers knew they were off-limits romantically. Chris and Shelli always stuck together. Holidays were spent at each other’s houses. Their moms became best friends.
best friends. Even at a young age, both Chris and Shelli had an innate understanding that they were meant for each other.
Chris, being a puberty-stricken teenager, attempted to advance their friendship to a dating relationship more than once. But Shelli always refused, and Chris wouldn’t push it further. They agreed that dating was pointless until after high school. Why not just be best friends, without any titles, and if it happens later on, it happens, they would say.
Shelli possessed wisdom beyond her years, and Chris’s nice-guy tendencies kept them from dating until after graduation.
“That was totally the grace of God,” they recognize together.
High school came and went as Shelli raw-rawed as a cheerleader and Chris flung curveballs for the baseball team. They grew up living a small-town-middle-America fairytale.
After graduating, they sealed the deal and officially dated, vowing to stay within the confines of what they believed as Christians. In September of 2006, they set off for school at MVNU, young and fully in love.
Two years later—after veering from the innocence of their past, pushing God out of the relationship, and allowing themselves to get completely consumed in each other—Shelli left for Costa Rica.
And Chris bought an engagement ring.
“When she left, I was so insecure,” Chris recalls. “Once we stopped relying on God, the relationship stopped growing and we fought all the time. I bought the ring completely out of fear. I felt like I had no other option.”
The fear of losing the person who talked to him nearly every day since seventh grade panicked Chris. Logically, the idea of marrying Shelli played out in his mind flawlessly. Considering their soulmate’esque past, marriage was a given.
“I prayed the week before I was supposed to leave for Costa Rica,” Chris remembers. “I said, ‘God, if I am not supposed to propose to Shelli, you gotta give me a very clear sign.”
That same week, Shelli Skyped with Chris.
“I did something wrong Chris,” Shelli muttered through a grainy connection. The call cut off. Suspense spiked in Chris’s heart. Moments later, because the video chat failed, Shelli typed out a message confessing that she had just kissed a local on the walk home.
With fists pounding on the desk, he broke up with her.
Everyday for the next two weeks, Chris awoke and wept softly, careful not to let his college roommates hear him. Daily, he asked himself the same question: Is this a dream? And God answered very clearly. “No.”
“God saw that we screwed up what He had brought together,” Chris says. “I felt Him stripping me of the past. Getting me to a place of complete seclusion with Him, so I could then see who I was as a person, without Shelli.”
As the pain of being betrayed by the most important person in his life came and went, God’s presence cascaded down unto Chris. He physically felt the presence of God for the first time after they broke up.
In addition, Tim, a college pastor at MVNU, reached out to Chris and offered his support. Tim guided Chris through this transition of shifting his focus from Shelli to building a foundation in his faith.
“I know for a fact that God placed Tim in my life,” Chris states. “Without him, I don’t know where I would be.”
him, I don’t know where I would be.”
A month after he ended the relationship with Shelli, he returned the engagement ring and used the cash for a digital camera and an acoustic guitar. Chris began to open up socially, no longer bound to a girlfriend. He connected to an entirely new group of friends, spending more time being a classic college guy. Video games and pizza with roommates became commonplace.
After ending that Skype call with Shelli, the fall semester of his junior year came to an end, and Chris felt free. And for the first time in his life, he knew who he was as a person.
Shelli ended the Skype call with Chris, tears painting her face.
She knew what she did was wrong. Not only to Chris, but to God. She should have never allowed herself to open up emotionally like that.
“But you know what? Maybe it was a defense mechanism or something, but I really did not like what I had back at home,” Shelli recollects. “So, I just enjoyed what was in front of me. It was selfish, absolutely, but I don’t know how else to put it.”
The wonderfully laid-back study abroad experience continued despite the breakup. Most of her emotions about what transpired back in Ohio stayed hidden from those around her. One friend, Brandi, knew everything and stayed by her side to support her, pray for her, and help keep Shelli from doing anything rash. Rather than being depressed, she encouraged Shelli to enjoy the time left in Costa Rica. So, she did.
“I pretty much swept it under the rug while I was there,” Shelli says. “I had such a short time before I had to come back. In the moment, I definitely felt short-term relief.”
But upon returning home, reality smeared itself on her heart. At her house, during an annual Christmas celebration with the whole family, she sat on the couch feeling alone. Her family did as all families do during these times—chat, laugh, eat and be merry—but for so many years prior, Chris sat by her side. And this year, for the first time in three years, Shelli sat alone and ashamed.
Yes, she made a mistake, but if she was being honest with herself, the breakup began long before Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, no one else knew that. They only saw the mistake. And even though no one said anything about it, Shelli felt condemnation from those around her. Over the next few weeks, waves of weakness and a desire to mend things with Chris struck simply out of the void she felt in her heart.
When she moved back to campus for the spring semester of her junior year, she felt alone. Brandi, her comforter in Costa Rica, stuck by her side. But not too many others did the same. A lot of her friends also knew Chris, and for fear of choosing sides, they simply distanced themselves altogether.
On one afternoon, while the campus buzzed with college kids, Shelli made her way to the cafeteria, walking alone. As she entered, she saw Chris with a large group of friends at another table. A girl sat unnervingly close to him. Shelli sank into despair.
“I didn’t want him back,” Shelli explains. “But seeing that girl with him, I understood a tiny bit of what I made him feel like when I was in Costa Rica.”
At the start of that semester, Shelli met isolation. But God revealed why.
He wanted her full attention. The God she had sought after for so many years, but briefly drifted away from, now beckoned her back fully. She felt God’s grace actively move in her life.
The four months after she returned from Costa Rica, communication with Chris was sparse. And anytime they talked, the conversations quickly soured. It was still too soon. God still had more to say to her. God wanted to romance her. He wanted the light of Jesus to shine brightly again. He desired for the childlike faith she once had to return.
“I got so excited to know the Lord again,” Shelli says. “Those times, to the outside world, may have seemed very lonely because I was always alone. But really, those times were so precious and so beautiful because I realized God loved me for me.”
She continued school, not guilt-ridden, not shame-filled, but worship-filled. She renewed a genuine relationship with Jesus. Yes, Shelli was alone, but alone with God. Uninhibited by another person or relationship.
In the spring of 2009, when both Chris and Shelli were selected to speak at an educational conference in Sandusky, Ohio, they were equally irritated. After successfully separating their once conjoined lives, now over a two-day conference, they would have to interact and work together. Not to mention, sleep in hotel rooms down the hall from each other. But considering they were selected out of the entire education department, neither Chris nor Shelli would give up this prestigious honor.
The first day of the conference came and went. And like people do at these functions, groups gathered in a hotel room to hang out at the end of the night. Chris showed up to a room, and Shelli showed up, too.
Sure, they had seen each other on campus. Sure, they attempted to explain things out. Sure, they still had a soft spot for their childhood best friend. But in the depths of their hearts, any prospect of a relationship was null and void.
Despite that understanding, however, on this night, something told them to chat again. So the two sat in the hallway, while the others played cards in the room. They talked for a short time about this and that. Few words were actually said, but volumes of clarity came. Chris and Shelli looked at each other with new eyes. Both still living out a season of growth in their lives, they saw the other person from a new perspective.
An attraction sparked once again, but it was nothing like the old attraction. Warmth and fuzzies from old were not there. Rather, a new appreciation for how God can transform a life.
Simply put, it was pure.
“Yeah, it was like meeting her for the first time again,” Chris remembers. “It was like I was learning who she was, and she was totally different. We shared about what the last few months had been like for her, and what it was like for me. “
Soon after that night in the hotel hallway, they had another conversation. Then another. And another. They started to share songs they had written. Prayed together. Smiled when they bumped into each other on campus. Even exchanged jokes during short conversations. And, eventually, began rebuilding a friendship.
The college pastor, Tim, who was now counseling Shelli as well as Chris, heard about the meetings and told them that he would be there to support them and work through whatever God was doing.
and work through whatever God was doing.
But hesitancy riddled the prospect of reuniting. God had never been so present in their lives as He was then. And here was the person that caused distance from Him initially, staring back with those warm familiar glances.
Chris and Shelli reached for the same wisdom that carried them through high school. We’ll wait, pray, and see what happens.
They took it slow. After finishing their junior year of school, getting through another summer of part-time jobs, they reconvened with Tim at the start of their senior year. This time, though, they met with him together.
“It was a lot of undoing of bad habits,” Chris says. “We just sat down, spoke out a lot of past hurts, and in those times, we experienced tons of healing. Even though I was a Christian, I was very deceived through the early years.”
They began to understand that God had to separate them completely to right those wrongs. He was restoring them. Throughout the first semester of that senior year, God mended what His two children had broken.
Then, on December 25, 2009, Chris proposed to his seventh grade orchestra seat partner. He looked into the eyes of his beloved, tuned the guitar, and sang these words:
Well ups and downs we’ve had And more to come for sure But still we keep on trusting In the faith that’s brought us here And will be forever near So we’ll keep on trusting
And will you marry me?
We can start a family
We can do this together
So will you marry me?
We can do this finally
We can do this together
“You can either run to God, run from God, or run with God,” Shelli says. “From the time that we broke up to the time that we got married, a lot of that was a time when I was running back to God...and now, I feel like I am running with God.”
In the summer of 2010, the two married and moved to Seoul, South Korea. The Mitchells now teach at Global Christian Foreign School, an all-English international school in central Seoul. Brian, a co-worker of the Mitchells and a leadership pastor at their church, New Philadelphia Church, met them when they stumbled into Sunday service over two years ago.
“Chris and Shelli are such a young couple age-wise, but they truly exhibit what a healthy family looks like,” Brian explains. “They are the model of a mature relationship. Considering all of their history, the maturity they approach their marriage with is extremely encouraging.”
They make marriage look easy. But inside, they know the journey it took to get them here.
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