The Jennings Family

Husband, Dad, Papa, and Pastor Dennis Jennings

Our Story

(The following story was written in 2004 in response to a request for a book that was to be published. It has been included in Help for Hurting Families by Russ Fox and Widow’s Might by  Keith Blake)

In 1978, I entered Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, for my freshman year. I knew that God wanted me in the ministry, and I was very serious about getting into the ministry as soon as I could. I had dated a number of girls through high school, but things were different when I got to Bible college. Preparing for ministry gave me a whole new perspective on dating.

One night during devotions in our dorm, a speaker made a statement that I have never forgotten, though I don’t remember who he was or the topic he was sharing. “When looking for a wife,” he said, “look for the young lady that is already preparing herself to be the best she can be for Christ. That’s the kind of girl that will make the best wife for a life together in ministry.”

That statement brought to my mind a girl I had met on the first day of classes. Melanie Evans was from Texas, and though it seemed that all the freshmen were a little anxious about the whole college thing, I noticed that she was different. She was meeting people, putting them at ease with her smile and pleasant Texas accent. Then I saw her at the church I was visiting, again doing the same thing, making people welcome, even though she was new to the church as well.

Twenty-one months later, we were married, and on our way to what was intended to be a summer job at my home church in Titusville, Florida. The summer job turned into a full time position, and we loved it! A year and half later, in February of 1982, our son, Benjamin, was born. Mel had some back pain during the pregnancy, and after delivery we began taking her to a chiropractor, but the pain didn’t subside. On our vacation that summer, we went back to her hometown, where she visited her family doctor and then a specialist, who gave us the dreaded news – cancer -a rare form, a tumor inside of her spinal cord.

Surgery was quickly arranged, followed by chemo and radiation. Melanie and the baby stayed in Texas for those follow up treatments while I returned to Florida. When she came home, she was walking with a cane, the result of a loss of feeling in her leg and foot from the surgery, which did irreparable damage to the spinal cord.

Two years later, we had moved to her hometown where I was serving as youth pastor in Mel’s home church. Melanie gave birth to our second son, Shadrach, who was born with a heart defect known as a VSD.  Six weeks after Shad was born, Melanie’s neurosurgeon gave us the news that the tumor was back in her spinal cord. He made arrangements for her to go to New York City, where Melanie stayed for four and a half months. The surgery had caused her to lose the use of both her legs, and Melanie was to face life in a wheelchair.

It was during this time that Melanie sat me down for the first time to tell me about a specific meeting she had had with the Lord. She was not asking what I thought, or asking me to pray about something, but telling me what she and her Friend had come to an agreement about.  “I have asked the Lord to let me live long enough to see Ben and Shad be able to take care of themselves.  They need to be able to dress and feed themselves, and even take care of some of things to help you around the house. The Lord has let me know that He will let me live long enough to see that happen.”

I did not want to hear about that conversation. Nothing like that had even entered my mind, and I scolded her for letting it enter hers. Boy was that the wrong thing to do!

I must stop the narrative here to say that during that time, Melanie’s outlook was amazing through both surgeries. Her confidence was completely in the Lord. We didn’t cry about her condition. Where I should have been comforting her, her walk with the Lord and her simple trust in the One who gives us our very breath gave me comfort. Looking back on it now, that was probably the first time in my life that I experienced the “peace that passes all understanding” because of the supernatural grace of God. It was all new ground in our walk with the Lord. As twenty-four year olds, we didn’t have much experience with the kinds of realities we had been facing. But our God was experienced in helping His children, and His love and care for us never diminished.

One incident of God’s care for us stands out in my mind from the Christmas after Melanie came home from the NY hospital in September. Obviously things had been tight financially that year. New baby with a heart problem, trips to New York City for Melanie and a couple of times for me, all the things Melanie needed now for a life in a wheelchair – all had taken their toll our youth pastor’s salary.  We had agreed that Christmas presents would be very modest, and mostly things for Ben and Shad.  Late one Wednesday evening after church, a bearded man knocked on our door and introduced himself as the pastor of a small, rural church from a town nearby that I had never even heard of. He then handed me a check and told me that someone in his church had heard about us, and that the Lord impressed upon his church that evening to bring us an offering. I understand that God’s care for us is far greater than our finances, but God couldn’t have proven in any greater way His care for us that night if he had sent an angel with a bucketful of gold!

Shad had open heart surgery in June of 1985, when he was sixteen months old. Melanie and I knew that he was in the Lord’s hands, and His grace sustained us. Shad’s surgery was a success, and that little baby is now 19, played basketball and football in high school, and is healthy as a horse!

We moved to Winter Haven, Florida, and life was great! Our ministry was flourishing. Melanie was so comfortable with her life in the chair that, while she didn’t drive, she could roll down the sidewalks in our neighborhood, and send her little preschool boys to knock on the doors to welcome folks to the neighborhood, delivering homemade cookies and inviting folks to church. A number of families were touched by her efforts, and came to our church, and eventually trusted Christ as their Savior.

We were experiencing the grace of God every day. Melanie had lost control of her bladder early on, and while we were in Winter Haven, we changed a lot of adult diapers and bed sheets as well. She was so independent, that she cried from time to time when I had to help her with those things. God taught me some lessons through those days.  One of the biggest was that it was a privilege for me to do those things for her. I never thought of it as “me taking care of her.” It was “we are taking care of each other.”

In August of 1990, we discovered a lump in Melanie’s side. We went to the doctor, who cut it out in his office, pronounced that it was nothing, but he would send it out for pathology reports anyway. It came back as another tumor, and we were sent to the Tampa for further examination. During this time I was called as pastor of a small church, Park Street Baptist, in Saint Petersburg, FL. After the church called us to come, but before we moved to St. Pete, we got devastating news: Melanie had numerous tumors in both lungs, and the tumor in her spinal cord was back, but growing upwards toward the brain stem rather than downward, as it had the two times before. Melanie was going to die. The doctor’s gave her a year.

I will never forget the hour’s drive back from Tampa. I couldn’t talk. Tears flowed all the way home.

I called the men of Park Street and gave them the news, and told them that we would understand if they wanted to call another pastor. They still wanted us to come. As we prayed about what to do, Melanie said, “God knew about this when He led us to the church.” That was it. We moved to Saint Pete.

Melanie only got to attend one service at the church after we moved there during the last week of December, 1990. She was either in the Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa, or at home in a hospital bed for the next five months. She quickly lost the use of her hands and began to lose other functions as well. The seizures were the most difficult for all of us to endure. Her mom and mine alternated staying with us for a month at a time. God was preparing us all.

Melanie and I began our own grief process during this time. She talked about dying and I didn’t want to hear it. God was still able to heal her. She knew that wasn’t His plan, and I guess deep down, while I didn’t admit it, I knew it, too.  She talked about us, the boys, and her dreams for them. She even made a video for Ben and Shad, telling them about when they were born, and how much she loved them, and that she wanted their lives to count for the Lord. Those last few weeks, Melanie began to tell me I would need to get married again, that Ben and Shad would need a mom. I resisted this talk completely, but she kept telling me anyway. Looking back, it was an amazing act of grace for her to release me in that way.

The Saturday before Mother’s Day, 1991, Melanie’s mom and dad took the boys, who were now 9 and 7 years old, to see their mom in the hospital. They took her things that that had made for her for Mother’s Day. It was a sweet time for them, and they came back home with Melanie’s mom, while her dad stayed the night with her.

Mother’s Day started for me with a phone call just before 7 a.m. Melanie had gone home to be with the Lord.  I cried when I got then news.  I didn’t know how I would tell Ben and Shad, so I said a little prayer, then woke them up to sit with me on my bed. All I can say is that God’s grace once again was sufficient. “Today is Mother’s Day,” I told them. “Mom has gotten the best Mother’s Day present ever. She got to go to heaven.” I can still see their faces, at first puzzled, then understanding. We cried a little together, and I answered their questions the best I could. They seemed satisfied with my answers.

I preached Melanie’s funeral two days later. Again, the grace of God was manifested in both my private times with him and through the love of family and friends. An evangelist who had also lost his wife took me aside one day and gave me some worthwhile advice. It was a divine appointment. He told me some things to do to help with my grief and with the boy’s grief as well.

“Go to all the places that were special to you both, and tell the boys all about it.” We did exactly that and it was so bittersweet. We laughed on that trip and we cried a little, too.

The other thing he warned me was that there would come a time when the Lord would take the hurt away and loneliness would set in like a cloud. He said that when it did, I should wait through the next set of holidays (Thanksgiving through New Year’s) before I did anything about it, because that is prime time to find out if there are any “ghosts” left to deal with.

My friend was right, and God took the hurt away. And loneliness did take a powerful grip on me. But, once again the Lord proved in my life the truth of His word:

2 Cor. 12:9-10 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. [10] Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

The holidays came and went and it was obvious that Ben and Shad were adjusting amazingly well. God’s grace had been wonderfully realized in their lives as we as mine. I waited for the right time, and we sat down, my 8 and 10 year old boys and I, and had a conversation that went something like this. Holding my breath, I asked, “Boys, what would you think if started looking for you guys a new mom?”

“Of course, Dad, we knew you were going to do that.” “How’d you know that?”

“Mom told us you would.” This was unbelievable to me, and it took me totally by surprise. Ben said it as if I should have known that this was what I was expected to do, just as they expected me to take them to school each morning, or prepare dinner each evening. So I asked them to explain.

“Remember the times when mom was at home in the hospital bed and you’d go to work, and it would just be the three of us? As soon as you left she would call us to climb up onto her bed, and she would tell us that God had chosen her to be our first mom, to give birth to us and to teach us some very important things.  And she told us that, after she went to heaven, that you would find our second mom, that God had made her special for us, too, and that she would be just as much God’ s choice to be our mom as mom was, and we are supposed to love her and take care of her just the way we had taken care of mom.”

I had no idea these conversations had ever taken place. What wonderful grace the Lord had extended to Melanie during those last days! What might be an even greater miracle is that my young boys understood what she had taught them and took it to heart, so much so that living it was as natural as breathing to them.

Here’s what I mean. A friend told me about a single young lady school teacher who was serving the Lord faithfully in her dad’s church. Being a pastor, I thought that a pastor’s daughter might understand the ministry and be able to adapt to life as a mother and a pastor’s wife. Being a teacher, I reasoned, she probably is good with kids as well.

I called Jana Adams on the 25th of March, and the Lord knit our hearts in such an awesome way that when we met face to face (she was living 1200 miles from where I was) just a few weeks later, we had talked so much on the phone that it was like meeting an old friend. Oh, she was nervous, and so was I, but it was obvious that the Lord was doing a great thing in our hearts. We talked and walked and prayed together. I spent the next couple of days telling her about all the bad things I had ever done so she wouldn’t ever have any surprises. After Jana had met my boys and my folks, I asked her to marry me on the porch swing. Even though we had only been in each other’s physical presence for just a couple of days, we knew what the Lord was doing. After getting the approval of both of our parents and the blessing of Melanie’s mom and dad (without any of their approval, we would have waited), Jana and I were married on May 22nd.

Immediately, the boys began calling Jana “Mom.” We never told them to do so. It just seemed that the Lord had answered Melanie’s prayer. Jana is amazing!   She took those boys and has loved them so. As of this writing, Ben and Shad are 21 and 19 respectively, and they have never called her their “step mom.”  We had our times of difficulty, just as any family does, but there was never a time when “You’re not my mother” or “Dennis, do something with your boys” or any variation of that theme was ever spoken in our home.

Jana’s godly influence is evident in all three of our lives. She has taught us to pray about everything, things like lost keys and broken hearts. She continued to teach the boys to fall in love with Christ, to read His word, and to serve Him faithfully.  And both boys still would rather talk to mom rather than dad about matters of the heart.

When I think back to where God has led me and what he has done in my life, I am amazed.  Jana is an exciting, beautiful, wonderful mate!  We didn’t see God’s plan unfolding all at once in our lives, but God has been faithful to make His will the best place for us to live.

God has given me a down payment on a truth that will be fully realized when I join Him in eternity:

Romans 8:18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

Over the years, Jana and I have come to realize what the Lord meant when He said:

Psalm 37:4-5 Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. [5] Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.

Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. [6] In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

19 Comments

  1. There are no words to describe how this piece made me feel.

  2. Dennis – thank you for writing this. I had enjoyed knowing Melanie in school, and seeing her in a wheelchair later on (during a Fellowship week) I had wondered about what had happened (she briefly told me, but I didn’t grasp the whole situation)… and now you and your boys have Jana… Thank you for the two of you taking Carol into your hearts when she was gone from us a while… and now for pastoring – “shepherding” (that is what pastor means in Spanish!) Mom and Dad at Cherry Street…
    God does help heal pain and sorrow, doesn’t He?

  3. Dennis, I’m not very good at expressing my feelings in words but if you could see the tears rolling down my cheeks right now, you would know how much this touched me. Thank you for sharing this with us and I know it will be an encouragement to many others as it was to me.

    May God continue to bless you and your family!

  4. Dennis, that is beautiful. What a gift it is for us to have to give to our daughters, Melanies nieces. Thanks for writing is and for sharing it.

    Love you and Jana,

    Kim

  5. Hey Uncle Dennis-I just read your page and even though I knew the majority of the facts, seeing it this way was like hearing it for the first time. God obviously had very special plans for all of you and it’s amazing when we listen and follow how it all fits perfectly together. Love you and miss you!

    Melanie

  6. Pastor Jennings,
    Well you know my story of being widowed also. I have never been able to write about it like you did and what you two had was a beautiful thing but it was also a God thing 🙂 The thing that has also kept me going after Wayne died was the song “God Makes No MIstakes” I had this sung at his funeral and that’s the song that came to mind while I read your story. Thank you for sharing it. Happy Anniversary!!!!

  7. Priscilla Varnadore

    May 22, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Dennis,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. We were so blessed for the short time we served with and got to be a part of your life. Ya’ll were some of the best friends we ever had. Your love for God was always shinning. Every mothers day I still think about Melanie. She was the one who led Tiffany to Christ which made her even more special. I knew God would bless you with a new wife and although I don’t know Love and miss you so much.
    Priscilla

  8. Janet Kisiah Armstrong

    May 22, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Dennis . . . as I read this today, I was overcome with emotion. You were both students at BBC when I attended and Melanie lived on my floor in Bethany Dorm. Everything you’ve said about her was true . . . she was one of the sweetest, most giving people I had ever met. What a blessing she was to the girls on that floor – always caring, always friendly, the “nice girl” amongst us all. I heard in the 90’s that she had passed away, but had never heard your story until reading it now. All I can say is . . . WOW. If this isn’t a demonstration of God’s love, comfort, leadership and mercy, then I’ve never heard one. What suffering you and the boys have endured!! And Jana coming into your lives may be looked upon outsiders as a miracle, but to we who have a relationship with the Lord, we know it was His Plan all along, and Melanie knew about it long before it even happened. God had prepared all of you in such a special way and this is a divine testament to God’s grace. Thank you so much for sharing this story and may God continue to bless you and Jana as you continue to be an inspiration to us all.

  9. Robin Ecker Draper

    May 22, 2010 at 10:14 am

    A friend of mine posted this on FB and I’m so glad I read it!!! An AMAZING story of Christ’s love for his children.

  10. Dennis: This story is so amazing and it would be so great for the whole world to read and comprehend.
    As you know, I knew Melanie from an early age in her life. I had the privilege of having her in my youth grooup in her home church, and seeing her grow and mature in the Lord. As you already said, she was a wonderful experience to see her witness for the Lord and be a great example of true child of God. I am so glad for you and the boys that she had the forethought to discuss this with you, and th boys. I am also so happy for you that the Lord led you to Jana. I have never met her, but from your story a person can tellk that it was the Lord’s will.

    God bless you and Jana and the boys for many more years, and don’t ever stop sharing such a great story to any one because we need more stories like this to help us understand the true blessing of God.

    In Christian Love,

    Grady L. Boyd

  11. Even through the most difficult times in life, you stayed faithful to the Lord and He has rewarded you with a wonderful family and great ministry. I thank God for you and your testimony!

  12. Dennis, after suffering with Reuhmatoid Arthritis and extreme high blood pressure for years, our daughter Becky Lou went home to be with her Lord. When she passed away I told her “now that you are in heaven, find Melodie Jennigs and run, run, run. I remembered that from the bulletin at church from Melodie’s funeral. You were so special at church, a “bus kid” who learned to love the Lord so much, and brought your wonderful Mom to us. I worked with Judy in teaching the 1st grade for 8 years. Bill and I are so happy for you, and the life you’ve lived….always centered on God. Your life’s story is so moving and touching, and I was to thank you for sharing it with us.

  13. Hey Dennis!!!!

    I never knew this story til now. What an amazing story of God’s love!! I could so identify with it losing my mom. SO glad you were able to find someone special as my dad did too. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Tina ( Konnerup) Dutton

  14. I have just read this……because the url was with your facebook note. I could not stop the tears from rolling down my face. I love you and Jana all the more. I am so very proud and thankful to call you “my pastor and wife. “. You are both very loved.
    Mary Nevius

  15. priscilla varnadore

    May 22, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Dennis,
    Thanks so much for sharing your story. It brought back so many memories. Ya’ll were some of the best friends we have ever known. I think of melanie every mothers day. She was so special. She led Tiffany to the Lord. Heaven will be a wonderful place. We love ya’ll very much.
    Love In Christ
    Priscilla

  16. Wow! I am overwhelmed at the response today! You have all encouraged us so much. God has been faithful to us above all that we could ask or think! He has used you today to be a blessing to Jana and me. What a great (albeit unusual) way to celebrate our anniversary. Thanks again!

  17. Heather (Persinger) Tanner

    May 22, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    I knew Jana many, many years ago. She was there for me when I needed a role model and a Godly influence in my life. It’s true what you said about her having a love of children, because I became her shadow at every available opportunity. If it wasn’t for Jana, her parents and of course God working through them, I’m not really sure where I would be today. Instead, Jana, I want you to know that know I am serving alongside my wonderful husband in the ministry. And Dennis, you may remember me. I’m the one that begged you, with eyes full of tears to please take care of her on your wedding day–I’m so very glad that you did. God is good!!

  18. Dear Dennis and Jana,
    Happy Anniversary (a day late) Although I have known much of your story in bits and pieces over the years, it was special for me to read it all together and to remember our years at PSBC. The things you learned that you shared with me during my grieving period were a great help to me and I have, in turn, been able to share them with others. I never met Melanie, but Jana, your friendship and example have always been a great encouragement and blessing to me over the years. Love you miss you both so much.
    Jeanne Allen

  19. Tami Scott Edgar

    December 14, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Dennis,
    I just today got on this site and read your story for the first time. I had to stop reading and finish it after school. After all this time, I love and miss you so much. You and Melanie were such a wonderful influence in my life (you even trusted me with your babies), and although I’ve only met Jana, but not gotten to know her well, I can still see how amazing Ben and Shad’s second mom is. I’ve thought about you and your family so much and maybe I’ve never told you, but I’ve always wanted to – “Thank you for giving to the Lord. I AM A LIFE THAT WAS CHANGED.”
    Love,
    Tami

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