Jennifer’s journey and mine first intersect in Nashville in the spring of 1994. Neither of us lived there at the time. Jennifer had visited Nashville quite a bit when she was a teenager. Her Mom and her and a few friends would drive the six hours from their home south of St Louis about once a year to visit the city and go to concerts. This time Jennifer had come to town to visit the campus of Belmont University where she was considering enrolling to study music business. Her older sister, Jannell, was along just for fun.
I’d come to Nashville from Pennsylvania that same week and was staying with a friend in Franklin just south of the city. There was a music convention in town and a friend of mine at home had told me I needed to go down to Nashville and attend it. I’d recently dropped out of college and didn’t have a lot going on at home so I decide to take his advice. I’d graduated high school two years before and enrolled in at a State University near Philadelphia to be a music teacher. It took me about a month to figure out I didn’t want to teach music, I wanted to play music. Halfway through that first semester I came down with a kidney stone and had to go home for a couple of days to get it sorted out. I considered it a good excuse to quit school. I did return later that fall for a couple of weeks to take my finals but ended up playing a lot of video games instead and came out of the whole thing with about four credits.
Jennifer has a similar dropout story. After graduating from Home School she enrolled at university as well. She used a long weekend at home to have her wisdom teeth removed as her excuse to quit. After taking a year off from school altogether and working jobs at home she decided to drive to Nashville to check out Belmont. That’s how the two of us meet, at a Rich Mullins concert at a club downtown called the Cannery. Some guys in a band that we’d each met earlier that week introduced Jennifer and me to each other. We talked for a minute and later, when she wanted to get closer to the stage, she asked me to hold her purse. (It was a good line, and I’ve been holding it ever since)
That night and the following three days I spent most of my time with Jennifer and Jannell. It took all of one evening for me figure out that Jennifer was unlike anyone I’d ever met. (To this day I remember every outfit she wore that week and almost everything we talked about. I remember how my heart stopped when the wind caught her skirt while we were walking together downtown and I recall where I was when I told her that she could never make me angry.) Later in the week, when Jannell and I were together in a ticket line for another concert, I asked her if Jennifer was seeing anyone. It really didn’t make a difference, but it was good information to have. That night Jennifer and I walked around the Opryland Hotel gardens and talked. She held my hand first and about an hour later she kissed me and we danced by the elevators while “Georgia” was playing on the speakers in the background. I left town the next morning wondering if I would ever see her again.
Two weeks later I flew out to St Louis to spend a couple of days with Jennifer. I wanted to come sooner but she had another guy visiting her that weekend so I had to wait. We had a great time and two weeks later she flew to Pennsylvania to visit me. On that trip I told her that I loved her and she told me that we would probably get married. The more time I spent with Jennifer that summer the more infatuated I became. Jennifer was unlike any girl I’d ever known. She was earthy, rode horses, and played country music and liked to drive. (It was actually Jennifer who taught me to play guitar) That October I asked her Dad for permission to marry her and a few months later I asked him for a loan to buy her a ring. On November 24th 1995 we were married, I was twenty-one, Jennifer was twenty-three.
Our first year of marriage was a blur. We struggled financially and emotionally and spiritually. Neither of us had ever lived on our own and neither of us was prepared to be married. Plus, our hurts and handicaps from our childhoods made things even worse. Our apartment was south of Nashville in what, at first, seemed like a fairly nice complex. The bright yellow siding and nice landscaping proved to be deceiving. Above us lived a tenant who let his dog pee on his deck, which trickled down onto ours along with his marijuana ashes. Below us was Carl, a recovering heroin addict who eventually got in some sort of trouble and ran away with his fiancé to Maine. He was a strange guy but made the most amazing hot wings. One night, while we were falling asleep on our couch someone shot a bottle rocket through the side of our apartment. It lodged itself in the siding and exploded all over our kitchen. Fortunately we weren’t in the kitchen at the time. We were rarely in the kitchen in that apartment. Jennifer and I both had a weakness for breakfast cereal and dominoes pizza, the two of which ended up becoming our main source of sustenance.
To make a real go at it with FFH we were required to travel a lot and it was anything but glamorous. In 1996 Jennifer and I traded in my Isuzu Trooper for a 1978 RV so the two of us and the three other guys in our band could get from concert to concert. The RV had no heat, no ac, and no working plumbing, so whatever you did in the bathroom went directly onto the highway. Plus, after a few months it began to let us sit and only started when ether was sprayed directly into the carburetor. We’d moved out of our apartment and put what little we owned into storage and opted to live without out a home from August through December that year, spending most of our time in the RV, which we nickname the “Shack”.
By 1997 the popularity of FFH was paying the bills, but just barely. We again rented an apartment in Nashville and tried to put down some roots but they didn’t really take. We traded in the old Shack for a newer Shack but it still wasn’t glamorous. I was working all the time. When we weren’t on the road I was on the phone booking concerts and sorting out travel. Jennifer started referring to the phone as my girlfriend. In late 1997 we began working with Scott Williamson on a record called “One of These Days.” (Scott would go on to produce five of our next six albums) “One of These Days” caught the attention of Essential Records president Robert Beeson and in 1998 he offered us a recording contract. That fall “One of These Days” was released nationwide under the new title of “I Want to Be Like You” and FFH became the number one selling new artist of 1999. I Want To Be Like You went on to sell almost 500,000 copies.
For the next six years Jennifer and I traveled the country playing music, meeting audiences, and riding the wave of seven number one radio singles. We were on a tour bus more than we are at home but it was the life we thought we always wanted. During that time (2003) Hutch was born and we moved into a big new house that we thought we needed. Over time we became less and less satisfied with public life, and by January of 2006, ten years into our marriage, we were miserable and feeling like the walls were closing in around us. It was a dark time in our marriage. Jennifer and I finally began to realize that we weren’t the same people that we thought we were and we wanted different things that we thought we wanted. Going down the path of separate lives was never even a discussion for us, but continuing to go numb wasn’t acceptable either. We began counseling, both together and separately, in an attempt to build on the delicate hope that was still remaining in our marriage.
Around that same time my friend Dennis invited me to go with him and a team of musicians to South Africa for a worship and music conference in Cape Town. I’d been invited on the same trip the year before but didn’t feel like going. I didn’t consider myself a mission trip kind of guy. When he asked me again the next year I said, ”I’ll pray about it.” Jennifer and I couldn’t find a reason for me not to go so I accepted his invitation and that March I was on a plane to Africa. I would not return the same.
It would not have been nearly as sweet or impactful if I had seen it coming. I don’t know why a trip around the world seemed to me as an afterthought but I honestly didn’t give it much consideration during the months leading up to my departure. Jennifer and I were in a lot of counseling at his point, trying to figure out how to continue to travel and raise a family and not loose any more of our souls in the process. Plus, hurts from our pasts started resurfacing after Hutch was born and we were now walking through a forest of disappointment and unmet expectations. Most of the blame lies with me. I’d been so headstrong and focused on surviving and making a living and living the dream that Jennifer and her needs had been overlooked for a long time. With help we began to learn how to be honest with each other and ourselves. From that honesty, along with a willingness to admit that we’d really messed things up, came some delicate shoots of new hope. Jennifer and I were now both fully aware that things must change but neither of us knew how it was going to happen. Then I leave the country.
The flight to Cape Town from Atlanta, when done in one leg, is the longest non-stop flight in the world. Our trip took place during a time of year when planes have to fly a pattern that requires them to stop on an island to refuel, making the flight even longer. I think all of that time in the air must have prepared my heart for what was about to happen.
Our purpose for being in Cape Town was to lead a worship and music conference at a small church in the southern suburb of Fish Hoek. I was the worship leader during most of the event and was also asked to participate in a few seminars on songwriting. Looking back I’m a bit embarrassed to even have been teaching on worship. That week the African people taught me more about worship then I could begin to teach them. During those sweet times of worship and teaching I began to build a connection with several of the people from the community. Within a couple of days I was spending more time with them then with our team, and by the last few days I was spending every free minute with my new South African friends. Ideas and conversations started to pop up about me coming back for a longer visit with my family. At one point my new Zimbabwean friend Tim invited me to his home for dinner where he suggested we come back to Africa for a month.
The night before we left Africa the pastor of the church that hosted the conference came to the guesthouse to see us one last time. He thanked us for coming and for the progress that was made in bringing the local worshiping community together. Then he paused and asked, “Which one of you is going to come back here for six months and continue what you started at our church?” Everyone in the room looked at me. I felt the very foundation of my life shifting underneath me but I pretend to stay calm. That night Dennis’s wife Karla stopped by my room to check on me. I came unglued. It’s seems silly now but at the time this new reality seemed enormous. I remember how Jennifer told God when she was a kid that she would go anywhere for Him except Africa. Karla told me to go slow. She suggested I wait to tell Jennifer of the invitation until after I am home and settled and rested. I agree. The next day we board our flight home and eighteen hours later we arrive in Nashville. Jennifer and Hutch were at the airport to welcome me and we drive to lunch to talk and catch-up. Before the waiter brings our food Jennifer asks me point blank if I’d been invited to return to Africa. Somehow she knows.
Two days after my return our family flew to Pennsylvania to take part in my brother Derik’s wedding. All three of us were in the ceremony and it was hectic so we didn’t have much time to really talk. I was different though, and Jennifer could tell. That week I told her that God is showing me things about myself and our marriage and our lives that I didn’t expect. I explained how, up till now, everything seemed to be about me, or dependant on me, in some way or another. Africa had showed me a new way of living, living small. Jennifer told me later that hearing those words made her sinuses clear. She is with me all the way.
Before the flight back from Derik’s wedding I called the other guys in the band and ask them to meet us at our counselors office the next day. We still hadn’t made any decisions about the future but I sensed a meeting was important. I hoped that God was moving in the guys as much as He was with us. During our meeting together our counselor, Al, asked how we would feel about a sabbatical of some sort. We all agreed that we’d be relieved to step away from FFH for a while. We didn’t leave that meeting with a specific plan but there was a certain understanding of what was coming. A few weeks later I told the guys that I was ready to step away for a while. We had concert dates on the calendar through September so we commited to honor those contracts and begin our open-ended sabbatical in October. A break is coming and hope is stirring in our hearts.
Cape Town is an anomaly; a city like none other. Locals describe it as a first-world city in a third-world country. Our arrival there took place at sunrise on a weekday in October. We’d flown through the night from Frankfurt, Germany sitting in the middle three seats in a row of five. Hutch slept almost the entire flight. Jennifer and I didn’t. We arrived tired and grumpy and longing to get settled. Pastor John and my friend Tim are there to fetch us and take us to pick up the car we’ve purchased sight unseen. As we depart the airport we wind around the streets of the city and onto the highway. We pass a small game reserve with a lone Zebra behind a chain link fence. The drive takes us past the famous Table Mountain that climbs straight out of the sea and 3000 feet about the towns and harbors below. Most days the clouds hover just below its uppermost rim giving the illusion that the mountain climbs through the sky and into heaven. We continue out of town driving south towards the Cape of Good Hope. About halfway to the tip of the peninsula are the towns of Fishhoek and Nordoek. Nordhoek is a farm community on the Atlantic side of the peninsula where whales and sharks can be seen from the shore. Fishhoek is four miles to the west on False Bay where the warm waters of the Indian Ocean combine with the Atlantic tides making spectacular waves. Situated directly between the two towns and the two oceans is Sun Valley, home of King of Kings Baptist Church, where we would be serving for the next six months.
Our first few days in Cape Town are a mess. There are things to sort out that we haven’t planned for. Our cottage is filled with sand when we arrive and we can’t get comfortable until it is completely cleaned. Jennifer has a migraine though, the kind that won’t let up until she’s thrown up and taken a handful of pills to knock her out, so the cleaning has to wait. I decide to let her rest and Hutch and I go out to get some dinner. My mind is weak and I’m already having doubts about our decision to come. Over the next couple of days we adjust to the time change and begin to establish a routine. The church welcomes us the next Sunday and right after the worship service I have my first meeting with the leadership about their hopes for my stay there. It’s overwhelming. There’s more to be done that I’d expected and I’m feeling like I may have bitten off more than I can chew.
Our first few weeks in South Africa can be summed up in one word – lonely. We had left the States needing to get some space, a change of scenery; to forget about normal life for a while. We didn’t expect to be so homesick so quickly. Our cottage has running water and electric but no heat, no air conditioning, and no land-line phone. We get some local TV reception but only a few shows are in English. (On Saturday night they air WWE Wrestling and on Sunday afternoons we get reruns of the West Wing) The rest of the programming is in one of South Africa’s seven recognized national languages. We have no Internet access at the cottage but we are able to pirate the signal from the guesthouse next door. Reception is spotty but we are able to get some email messages in and out. We do our best to stay connected but message inevitably become fewer and farther between. Eventually even our parents stop checking in. We left the States to forget; we hadn’t considered how it would feel to be forgotten.
During our first couple days in the cottage I felt like there were a few Bible verses that were important for us to remember while we were in Africa so I wrote them down on 3 by 5 cards and taped them up in different rooms of the house. I even put a few up in the bathroom. That’s where I am when it hits me; this realization that the tables have turned and life at home has continued just fine without me. Reports from home confirm that the music business is getting along quite well in my absence. Records are still being made and songs continue to be played on the radio. It’s at that moment that I glance up at the bathroom mirror and notice a card taped to the bathroom tiles with the verse from Luke written on it. It’s the one where Jesus says, “Whoever wants to save his life will loose it, but whoever looses his life for me will find it.” In an instant I realize that my life as I know it is crumbling and being replaced by something I can’t yet see. I am both comforted and afraid.
Over the next few weeks the Lord continues to chip away at the false foundations I have build up over the past decade. All of the hollow assurances surrounding my abilities and the shallowness in my heart crumble. The process is traumatic. Some days I feel like I’m going to come unwrapped. I’m reading a book called “And the Shofar Blew” during this time that seems to be based on my life. So much of my error is revealed in the story that one afternoon I have a panic attack. I drive to dinner alone and try to collect my thoughts and relax with a glass of wine. It only makes things worse and I come back to the cottage sick to my stomach and go right to bed. Looking back, I would point to this night as rock bottom, the point at which I am completely bankrupt of any identity or direction whatsoever.
Our cottage in Nordhoek is walking distance from one of the most rugged and untouched beaches on the Cape and in the weeks that follow I walk the beach almost everyday trying to sort out my spirit. The waves are loud as the frigid Atlantic waters break over the giant rocks that line the shore. Some days I’m quiet. Other days I stand on the rocks and yell at God. During those months I come undone. And very slowly the Lord begins something new in me.
The South African culture is peculiar. It takes a while for an American to get accustomed to it. Boundaries are less important to South Africans and relationships are everything. Jennifer and I begin to realize this about a week into our stay when people from the church begin showing up to our cottage unannounced, in the middle of the day, for tea. They come without warning, these people that we barely know, and they expect to come in, whether we are in our underwear or not. I’d be hanging out with Hutch or napping with Jennifer and we’d hear someone yelling greetings over the gate. We’d let them in and they’d stay for several hours. It’s a bit weird at first, this invasion of space. But after a few weeks we begin to get used to it. Then, somewhere in the middle of our stay we start to fall in-step. I don’t remember exactly when we settled in but by Christmas we find ourselves thriving in it. We learn how to stop moving forward and begin to live day to day.
The week before Christmas Jennifer and Hutch are walking the beach when Jennifer finds a piece of driftwood shaped like a Christmas tree and they bring it into the house. A few days later we collect shells from the sand and paint ornaments to decorate the tree. We put it up in the corner of our den and put the few gifts we bought for Hutch and each other underneath it. Emails from home report snow and Jennifer and I slip back into a homesick melancholy. Christmas isn’t the same when it’s 80 degrees outside and people are planning Christmas braiis. But Christmas came, and in true South African style everyone was together. What the day lacked in American Tradition was replaced with friendship and fellowship and roasted lamb.
The next three months were some of the best in our marriage. We still longed dearly to be home but we were seeing what God was doing in us while we were away and times got sweeter as the days went on. I’d come to Africa both emotionally spent but also physically wrecked. I’d been experiencing some unexplainable neurological symptoms along with, at times, deep depression for the past nine months and with some help from friends and a good doctor I was finally getting relief. Jennifer was coming alive too. She’d always wanted to attend acting school and Cape Town is knows for great arts classes. That January she started acting school in the city and had a blast learning new methods of acting for the camera. She had to rehearse quite a bit alone so I needed to take Hutch away for lots of morning and afternoon dates. We spend a lot of time at the farm village play ground and the Fishhoek beach. Most importantly we came together as a family and started to really cleave to one another. It’s just what we needed and it couldn’t have happened any other way.
In 2007 we came home. Home to a new life and a new Hope. Jennifer was pregnant when we got back and our sweet daughter, Hope Sadie-Claire Deibler, was born that November, exactly nine months after her brother started praying for a sister. Turns out all of those weird neurological symptoms I was having were the onset of a disease called Multiple Sclerosis. My diagnosis in the fall of 2007 led to another year-long waiting period where Jennifer and I prayed about the best treatment option for me. We elected for a clinical trial for a new chemo-based drug and I underwent my first treatment in 2008. That summer, our Church (Fellowship Bible Church) asked us to become artists-in-residence Worship Leaders, and once again we we’re back on stage playing and leading music for people. Later that year we felt the nudge to go back out as FFH, and in 2009 we released WIDE OPEN SPACES and began an official touring schedule. Since then we’ve been busy making records, leading worship, playing concerts, and trying to raise a family in this strange but wonderful career of music. It’s still FFH but it’s different in so many ways. It’s messy now, but it’s our mess and there’s no other way we can do it. Hutch is eight and Sadie is four and Jennifer lives in the constant tension of having the job of musician/performer and being a full-time home school mom. It’s a crazy life, but it’s ours, and most days we love what God has given us, even if it came via a road that we’d have never expected to walk and probably would’ve never agreed to had we been given the option.
*More detailed and current info regarding FFH’s latest releases, tours, and career related happenings can be found in their official bio in the BAND page or at their facebook site.