Christmas, part 1


Christmas this year has been a roller-coaster of a time, so I’m breaking it down into parts because, quite honestly, it’s the only way I can handle all that has happened.

On December 16 we received word that Nolan’s mom, Pauline, was in her final days. After a 50-year battle with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), her life on this earth was coming to an end.

Nolan had decided several days before that he wouldn’t make the trip to Kansas to try to see her again since we’d been there in August for her and Dad’s 60th anniversary. I called him that morning.

“Love, do you want to go?”
“Yeah, I really do.”
“Then you’d better get to the office and ask for time off.”
“I’m parked outside it now.”

Our son John, who works at the same company as Nolan, decided to go with him and the two of them left that day in hopes of making it there before she died.

They arrived on Sunday the 17th and saw Mom and Dad at the care home in Kingman where they were living. They were able to see and talk to Mom. Mom had been unable to really talk for several days, but the one thing she could still say was, “I love you.” When Nolan and John hugged her, she whispered it to them, too.

That evening at Terry’s they helped answer questions for the obituary and talked about funeral arrangements while they waited for another brother to arrive.

The next day the siblings who could be there were back at the care home. Nolan and John planned to leave the next day as Mom was expected to last a few days longer. While they were looking through some photo albums in the sitting room, Dad walked in and said, “Mom stopped breathing.”

That quickly, in those few moments while Dad was looking down reading something, the room had gone quiet and, looking up, he realized she wasn’t breathing. Quietly, peacefully, and without pain, she was gone.

Mom’s funeral was December 23rd with most of the family here for it. The family service Friday night and the funeral on Saturday were testimony to the love and dedication of Mom and Dad to one another for all of the 60+ years of their marriage. Dad’s loving care of Mom for all these years has been nothing short of heroic. As Mom would so often observe, many spouses of MS sufferers leave them, unable to cope with the growing disabilities of their mate. Such a thought never entered Dad’s mind. He and Mom were just as much in love on the last day as they had been on their wedding day.

At times like these it is appropriate that people express their sympathies at our loss and we certainly agree. Mom’s death has left a huge hole in our world. But our sorrow is tempered with relief that her pain is finally at an end. She is now free! Free from this world and its sorrows; free from the pain of MS; free from living with the effects of sin in the world. So, although we cry when we think of our memories that are never to be repeated, we rejoice at the thought of her finally with Jesus, her Savior and Lord.

And, so, the first part of Christmas 2017 was a reminder of why Jesus came–to conquer death. Mom is now living that reality.


After Daniel was born on September 11, 1994, we prepared to move to Rudyard, Montana, so Nolan could begin pastoring the Calvary Evangelical Church.  We packed up a moving truck, said good-bye to our friends at Pine Hills EMC and headed to Morton to see my folks.  After spending a few days with them, we drove to Langdon to see Nolan’s folks as well before heading off across North Dakota to Montana.

We crossed the line into Montana and drove through Wolf Point.  After awhile, we looked at each other and noted that we had not passed another vehicle for half an hour.  Having lived in the city for the past number of years, it was a very strange feeling indeed!  After that we started to pay more attention and see how long it was between seeing another vehicle. (I say “vehicle” most of the time because cars are not the most common form of transportation in this area–pick-ups and SUV’s are far more practical here.)  As we drove it became obvious that the farther west we went, the fewer vehicles there were.

After many hours of driving we finally arrived at a sign that said, “Rudyard–596 Real Nice People and 1 Old Sorehead!  Rip-snortin’ and Rarin’ for Business!”  We turned north and drove over the railroad tracks into a town that looked like something out of a 70’s western movie.  It had a Main Street with a couple of gas stations, movie theater, grocery store and a few other miscellaneous businesses.  It was October and it had been a dry year, so things were dusty and there were, of all things, tumbleweeds blowing around.  All we needed was the theme song from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” to play in the background!  (That’s an exaggeration; however, there is just something about a tumbleweed blowing across the road in front of me that makes that tune come to mind.)  We found the church and the house and it wasn’t long before a number of people showed up to welcome us and help unload the truck.

There was already a couch in the house, so I took baby Daniel and sat down to get my bearings after we’d done the walk through.  It was one of those times in my life when I all of sudden felt the wind go out of me.  The excitement of a new baby, a move and a new life had suddenly all come together and were now done.  The next phase of life was about to begin and I had a sense of let-down after an adrenaline high.  It took some effort to get up and get moving, deciding where to put things and how to unpack.  I’ve now moved enough times to know that this is my normal thing to do and, also, that arranging a house is not my favorite thing, especially one I’ve never seen before.  It felt like all the wind had gone out of my sails, so I sat for awhile and just tried to remember who everyone was and try not to panic.

Eventually everything was moved in, the truck returned and we started life in ministry.  Nolan and I started getting names, kids, locations, occupations, etc. figured out.  We found the usual mix of people there that you find anywhere.  In fact, I’ve now lived in enough places that I tend to get people confused with people from places we’ve lived before.  Although each person created by God is unique, we do have some similarities that make it hard to keep people straight sometimes!

We lived in Rudyard for seven and half years.  In that time I have to say that we were always treated very well by the folks there, whether they attended our church or not.  The Calvary people took good care of us and were patient as we learned the ropes of ministry.  They encouraged and supported us as we tried different things.  It was rare to have people complain even when we made mistakes.  They also prayed for us, especially through the losses we experienced by miscarriage.

As I think back to Rudyard, I remember it as being a good place.  The pain I feel associated with it was having to leave and knowing how deeply hurt they were by our leaving.  Nolan never intended to move from Rudyard, feeling strongly that rural communities needed long-term pastors.  His goal was to nail down the furniture, so to speak, and stay a lifetime.  I wanted to feel that way, but there have been too many changes in my life that came in “never-change” situations to know that there are no such situations.  But it hurt, nonetheless, when we had to leave.

However, that’s getting quite a ways ahead of the story!  We would not have left Rudyard after such a short time if it hadn’t been for a spiritual journey that began with me.  So, I guess I’d better finally get to that journey!

The Engagement, part 2

Well, there’s one last part of our engagement that I need to share:  telling my folks.

Remember that Mom and Pop were totally enamored with Nolan–he was the most wonderful guy I could have ever brought home!  When we started talking about getting married (after three months of dating), they were all for it.  Once when I talked with them on the phone from Langdon I mentioned that I should call Grace Church to see about available dates in June when my mom said, “Aren’t you getting married in Langdon?”

“Uh, no.  You usually get married in the bride’s church.”

“Have you asked Nolan about that?!”

Obviously I was a side-consideration in this decision.

After Nolan and I had told his folks we were engaged, we headed back to Illinois.

To say that my family is a “little different” from Nolan’s is an understatement.  Up until this trip to Langdon I had always thought I came from an affectionate family.  After meeting the Spenst family, the Moschel family looked downright standoffish!

Everyone hugs everyone else in the Spenst family.  There is no such thing as handshaking to say, “Hi.”  You are engulfed in hug after hug from relative after relative (and there are lots of them!).  One day at a cafe in town we met a man who Nolan introduced as his Uncle Earl.  After the now-expected hug, Uncle Earl informed me, “We Spenst’s aren’t fighters–we’re lovers!”

When relatives arrive at the Spenst farm, even in the middle of the night, most of the family (except the little kids) will get up and go greet–and hug–whoever has come.  Even if they’re only up for fifteen minutes to help you get settled into your space in the house, they get up.  Not at my house.  When we arrived at my folks’ place in the middle of the night, Nolan just about banged on the door and yelled, “We’re here!”  Fortunately I caught him in time and informed him that we should go quietly to our rooms and would greet my family in the morning.  With an utterly baffled look, Nolan went quietly to bed.

The next morning Mom and Pop greeted us with smiles, hugs from Mom for both and from Pop for me.  He was going to just nod at Nolan when Nolan, being a Spenst, hugged him!  Pop, again, looked pleased with my choice of man even if he was a little different.

Mom made us breakfast and we were just sitting down when Nolan stood up, walked behind my chair and said, “Bill, I have something I want to ask you.”

Pop looked at Nolan expectantly while Nolan asked, “Bill, may I have permission to marry your daughter?”

With a BIG grin, Pop said yes, Mom started smiling and crying while they hugged us and congratulated us (Pop hugged, too, this time!).

Just as we sat down again Pop said, “Well, I think this calls for a celebration!” pulled a pistol out of his belt and fired six blanks in the air!

Mom jumped up and down, “Oh!  Bill!  The bird!  The bird!” (The finch was going crazy in the cage from the noise.)

Pop got a big laugh out of that and later presented me with the six shells, which I still have.

Yep, the Moschel’s definitely show their affection just a little differently!

The Engagement

I grew up in central Illinois where winters were fairly mild.  Cold, some snow, but nothing really major.  We didn’t even have the pond behind the house freeze hard enough to skate on every year.  I have just a few memories of visiting northern Minnesota as a child and enjoying the occasional snowmobile ride.  For two winters I lived in Australia where the seasons are opposite to ours.  Christmas was spent at the beach and it was blazing hot.  Winter meant rain, not snow.  Therefore, being introduced to North Dakota in the wintertime was quite the experience!

Nolan and I arrived in Langdon the day before the local schools were to let out for Christmas break.  However, they never went to school that day because the governor canceled school state-wide due to the expected windchill.  That day dawn bright and beautiful–and -50 F with the windchill at -90 F!  (No, that is not a typo.  Yes, it really was that cold.  Let’s just say some things stick in your mind–especially when you didn’t realize they were possible!)

After breakfast I stood looking out the kitchen window at the beautiful scene and said, “Could we go snowmobiling today?”  Nolan looked at me a moment in stunned surprise.  “No, Tracy.  You don’t go snowmobiling in this kind of weather.  You just die faster.”  “Oh.”  (What else does one say?)

After a few days with his family, Nolan and I went to stay at a dairy farm northeast of town (his family lives straight west of Langdon) to take care of the cows for a week or so while the couple who owned it went to spend Christmas with their kids in California.  Their niece was there as well and, between the three of us, we milked and took care of the 32 cows.  As most rural folks know, cows have to be milked twice a day and at the same times so they continue giving the most milk.  Milk cows must also be fed, have their stalls cleaned and, in this case, the free-stall barn.  A free-stall barn is an open building where cows are free to roam about in the wintertime.  It’s a luxury a lot of dairy operations don’t have, but makes a lot of sense in North Dakota in the dead of winter (like those regular -20 days in January).  So, between milking times, feeding and cleaning barn, it was a lot of work in some of the coldest weather in the country!

Just to give some additional perspective to this scene, keep in mind I’m a town girl from Illinois.  Before this time I had kinda, sorta, once petted a cow at a 4-H fair–I think.  It’s a vague memory.  Ever stood next to a Holstein?  The few Jersey’s were kinda sweet and looked cuddly.  They were gentle too.  But the Holsteins and the one called “Roanie” were BIG.  Thankfully, at that time they didn’t keep a bull (except the one in the tank in the milk house, as Keith said).  So, from starting out clueless about cows to trying to figure out what to do with a cow (wash the udder & teats good, attach the milker to the pipe overhead, attach milker to cow, hope she doesn’t kick it off) to kicking the things when they refused to get up (“Git up, Boss!  C’mon!  Up!”), I rapidly became educated in cows (or at least enough to get them milked, fed and clean!).  We even had one calve while we were there and had to pull the calf!  What an experience!

Nolan had told me at one time that he’d written to each of his sisters and asked them their advice about finding the right girl to marry.  Each one wrote him back and said pretty much the same thing, Bonnie in about 15 pages and Paula in about 6!  Bonnie suggested that when he found the girl whom he thought was “right,” they should go on a missions trip or a group camping trip to see how she would react under stressful conditions.  One day as we were cleaning the barn, Nolan looked at me and said, “I can’t think of another girl at Summit Christian College who would come all the way to North Dakota with me to clean barn.”  High praise–and I certainly felt the joy of it!

After we were done with the dairy farm we spent another week or so at Nolan’s folks’ before we needed to head back toward school.  Nolan was taking a January term and I was going to spend the time at home.  We had been talking about getting married and thought probably June would be a good time.  The morning we were to leave we had breakfast with his folks and then went into the living room to take down his drum set.  As we walked into the room, he whirled around and said, “Tracy, do you mind if we leave my folks with a June 1st date?”

Startled I looked at him, “But, Nolan, you haven’t asked ME yet!”

An odd look crossed his face as that fact dawned on him.  “Oh, yeah.  Will you marry me?”

I laughed, “Yes!”  And he kissed me before we turned back to the kitchen to go tell his folks.

The Courtship

I thought perhaps I should have given the rest of the Nolan story before writing about having our first baby, but I think you all can keep the timeline straight!

From the very beginning Nolan and I were on the same wavelength–at least as much as a man and woman can be, considering differences in hormones, etc.!  He has always been like the other half of me that has made me whole.  It’s not that I was less of a person before meeting him, it’s just that with him I experienced a new completeness I’d never had before.

We spent most of our time together.  We ate together, studied together (and were on the Dean’s List to prove, yes, we WERE studying!), attended chapel together, etc.  We still had other friends and hung out with them as well, but more and more those ended up being mutual friends and we all stuck together.  Being together was the most natural thing in the world for us to do, yet we kept to our decision not to show physical affection in front of others.  Later on that led to a rather humorous incident because someone thought we were siblings!

In October, Nolan and I drove to West Lafayette, IN, for the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon, a public rendezvous held at Fort Ouiatenon Park.  It’s a great time of stepping back into the time of trappers, traders, soldiers, and settlers.  (BTW, it’ll be held Sept. 24-25 this year if you can possibly go–wish we could!)  It had become a tradition for my family to go for several years and we planned to meet my parents there so they could meet Nolan.

We got there early and sat in the hotel room waiting for Mom and Pop.  When they pulled up, Nolan was the first one out of the door to meet them.  He walked up and hugged my mom, then turned around and hugged Pop!  Their reaction?  Son!  They didn’t say it, but they might as well have!  From that time until this Nolan is a treasured son-in-law!  I jokingly tell people that if we’d ever broken up they would’ve kept Nolan and I’d had to have found a new family!  (Mom denies it, but is glad she was never tested!)  What is so funny about it is that Pop never was a huggy kind of person, and certainly not with other men.  So, he was really impressed with Nolan if being immediately hugged by him didn’t phase him a bit!

We had a great weekend with Mom and Pop.  Nolan really enjoyed the festival, especially all the guys walking around in animal pelts! (Nolan did some trapping in high school.)  When we all left they assumed he’d be coming home with me for Thanksgiving–and I think they were assuming more than that…By the time Christmas break came, we knew we didn’t want to spend 4-6 weeks apart.  So, Nolan invited me to come to North Dakota with him to meet his parents and see where he was from.

It had become important to Nolan that I see North Dakota because it was nothing like Indiana or Illinois.  After living in Fort Wayne for about a month he’d asked if we could drive out into the country just so he could see some open sky.  So, we drove out of town.  Bewildered, he asked, “Don’t you have any gravel roads around here?!”  I looked at him a little puzzled, “Um, no, they’re pretty much all paved.”  (I’m sure there were some, but I wouldn’t have had any idea where to find them.)  He came back to campus just as frustrated as when we left because he still hadn’t been able to see anything–the corn hadn’t been harvested and wide-open spaces just weren’t to be found.  I, of course, had no idea what he was wanting and that was why it became so important to him that I come to Langdon.

My parents were okay with me being away for Christmas, so we left for Langdon, hoping to make the trip in one shot.  Unfortunately, a major snowstorm moved in and the interstates were closed in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  We pulled off at a truck stop, hoping to find a place to rest until we could drive on.  Truck stops weren’t my favorites places as truckers always seemed just a little creepy (and probably because my brother and I were absolutely forbidden to go to the truck stop near our house as kids).  So, we walked over to a nearby hotel and found they had one room left, but the heat didn’t work in it since the last people who left had shut it off (obviously not Northern people!) and it had frozen up.  We assured them it would be fine; we could leave the door open to the hallway to let in heat.  At least we had a place to sleep and two–separate–beds.  When we called Nolan’s folks to let them know about our delay, they weren’t in the least bit fazed by it and felt it perfectly fine that we were staying together at a hotel.  However, they did chuckle and said it would probably be best that we not mention it to others!   I assured them I had no intention of letting anyone at school find out!

Finally, we were on our way again the next morning.  As we drove Nolan told me more stories about his growing up and young adult years.  He told me more about going to Winkler Bible Institute after high school and said that some Friday night we would go up to Winkler for pizza.  “You mean we’re just going to go up to Canada on a Friday night for pizza?  Just hop on up there?!”  He gave me a strange look.  “Yeah?”  I could tell he didn’t get it, so I just sat there in my own little world of amazement.  Awhile later he turned to me, “Canada is a foreign country, isn’t it?”  “YES!!!  Why do you think I think it’s so amazing we’re just going to go to Canada for pizza some night?  Where I come from, when people go to Canada you take off work for vacation time, pack up all your stuff, get someone to watch the dog and make a journey to Canada.  You don’t just pop up there for pizza!”  Yeah, Nolan is the other half of me, but sometimes it was an odd fit…

The Beginning of Ministry

It is somewhat hard to say exactly when we started “ministry” because Nolan and I had always been involved in our home churches.  We each taught Sunday School, helped with youth programs, church camps, etc.  For the first year or so at college we attended Fellowship Missionary Church in south Fort Wayne.  Pastor Dave DeSelm was the senior pastor there and was a powerful speaker who really brought the Scriptures right home to your heart.  (BTW, he is still the senior pastor there.)  That’s probably the only church we didn’t actually do anything in except attend.  However, Nolan was required to do a practicum in an area church and so we got involved with Pine Hills EMC (part of my church conference) which was on the north side of Ft. Wayne.

Pine Hills was pastored by Bryce Winteregg (since retired) and he was a wonderful mentor for Nolan.   Nolan had opportunities to preach and work side-by-side with Bryce to learn the ropes of pastoring and what he might anticipate in the future.  Bryce was very relaxed with Nolan and gave him a lot of freedom.  His vote of confidence in Nolan was very encouraging to us and Bryce, with his wife Karen, have a very special place in our hearts.

While at Pine Hills we taught Sunday School, AWANA, VBS, and helped in other ways.  We got to know lots of people there who loved the Lord and loved us.  One Christmas we received a bag of groceries from someone–and it included steak!  We hadn’t seen steak in a long time and hardly knew when to plan to eat it!  (Hamburger Helper was a staple for us in college which is why, consequently, I can’t stand the stuff now!)  Many people went through difficult circumstances–the battle of MS in two families, brittle bone disease in another, miscarriages, sudden death, heartaches of all kinds.  Two families were foster families and their example of loving the kids placed with them was inspiring.  When you walk with people in their pain and heartache, it draws you together as nothing else does.

Probably the experience that meant the most to us was teaching jr. high Sunday School.  The boys’ and girls’ classes were separated, so I got the easy girls while Nolan got some pretty challenging boys!  We really fell in love with my girls.  One time we took them camping while another time we had them for an overnight and major snowball fight at our apartment!  Those girls were a blast!

It was at Pine Hills that we also got to know some homeschool families up-close and personal.  The Johnston’s girls were both in my class and were just great girls.  We enjoyed their family a lot and also saw in them the example of ministry.  Linda was the church secretary and they were very involved in Pine Hills.  However, they were also involved in ministry in Russia and other places through homeschool affiliations.  They really taught their girls the importance of serving others and that lives on in Rachel and Katy even today.

We were loved by the Pine Hills church and we loved them.  When Nolan graduated and we left for Montana, it was the hardest good-bye we experienced.  It was like leaving our family and only the knowledge that we were called by God to go elsewhere pulled us away from Pine Hills and Fort Wayne.

Meeting Nolan

The story most people hear me tell about Summit is meeting Nolan on Day 1 (August 25, 1990).  As I said before, I went to Summit to get an education and to serve God, not find Mr. Right.  So, of course, once I set my mind in one direction, God does a switcheroo and sends me in another!

Nolan and I were on brother/sister floors.  That first evening our RA’s took us all out around Fort Wayne to see the “sites” (those of you who have been to Ft. Wayne can chuckle here!).  I don’t remember if they even drove us by the Fort itself, but we did got to Power’s, Coney Island and the Hill (which, it turns out, was in a bad part of town!).

When I first climbed into the van and introduced myself and asked who everyone was, Nolan was just a guy in the back who said, in a distinctive accent, “I’m Nolan Spenst from Nort Dakota and I’m a Pastoral Ministries major.”  (No, I didn’t misspell “North.”  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a North Dakotan say, “NorTH.”  It comes out as “Nort.”)  My response, “Oh.”  (He told me later he was not impressed with me either–just another face.)  However, by the time we’d reached Coney Island near the end of the evening, I was definitely interested but concerned about how old he was.  Y’see, my first boyfriend was 9.5 years older than me, so dating a younger guy just didn’t appeal to me.  Somehow I managed to get the conversation around to asking him how old he was.  “Twenty-three.”  YIPEEE!!!  I was a happy, happy camper!

We started hanging around together and immediately had people coming up and asking us if we were dating.  The answer, “No.”  Labor Day weekend I had to go home for a wedding, so I rented a car.  When I needed to return the car, I asked Nolan to give me a ride back to campus.  On the way back he said, “Y’know, you’re wondering about me and I’m wondering about you.”  “Yeah,” I replied, “And the whole campus is wondering about both of us!”  We both agreed we were not interested in playing dating games and would strive to be honest with one another.  We also decided we didn’t want other people feeling awkward around us as a couple, so we wouldn’t hold hands, etc. on campus and make others feel like third wheels.  By the time we got back to campus, we were officially a “couple.”