By Mark Ellis
They met in a prayer group at the University of Redlands. As they listened to each other talk to God, the beginnings of a passionate love affair began to stir.
“You can learn a lot about a person’s heart just by listening to them talk to God,” says Anne Ortlund, the popular Christian author and speaker. “The first few weeks we talked to the Lord more than we talked to each other,” she says, referring to the young Navy man, Ray Ortlund, who joined the prayer group with 22 other sailors waiting for their deployment in World War II.
Two weeks after joining the group, Ray asked Anne out on their first date – a moonlit horseback ride in San Bernardino, California. With their horses sauntering along the trail on a balmy night, and moonbeams lighting up the rocks and bending boughs of shadowy trees, Ray began to sing an old hymn:
“Far away in the depths of my spirit tonight,
rolls a melody sweeter than psalm;
In celestial strains it unceasingly falls
O’er my soul like an infinite calm.
Peace, peace, wonderful peace,
Coming down from the Father above!
Sweep over my spirit forever, I pray
In fathomless billows of love!”
Anne joined Ray in song, and the resulting harmony surprised them both. “I didn’t know he could sing and he didn’t know I could sing,” she notes. “While we were singing that song together we fell in love. We both knew we were made for each other.”
Ray went home that night and wrote to his parents, telling them he found the girl he would marry.
They dated every weekend for the next few months. Then shortly before Christmas 1944, as war raged in far-flung corners of the world, Ray proposed. He dropped to his knee, pulled a pocket New Testament and Psalms from the breast pocket of his Navy uniform, and recited Psalm 34:3: “Come magnify the Lord with me and let us exalt his name together.”
After Anne gushed her acceptance, Ray faced the somewhat intimidating prospect of approaching her father, U.S. Army Brigadier General Joseph B. Sweet. “Ray had never seen a general before, much less ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage,” Anne recalls.
While General Sweet was home from the war for a few days, Ray took a walk with him around the block near their home. After Ray summoned the courage to state his intentions, he found that God had already prepared the heart of a praying general.
“Yes, I’m sure this is God’s will,” General Sweet told Ray. “Just one thing – make my Anne happy.”
With Ray’s meager Navy salary, he couldn’t afford an expensive ring for Anne. So he went to a jewelry store and offered a $5 down payment on a humbly adorned band.
As he plunked the bill down on the counter, the jeweler stared at it for a moment and said, “That’s not much.”
“It may not be much for you but it’s a lot for me,” Ray replied. Feeling compassion for the young sailor, he let Ray walk out with the ring.
Anne received the ring for Christmas, but then Ray left for service overseas. He would be gone for the next 18 months. The separation was difficult for the engaged couple, but today Anne has a more mature outlook.
“That was God’s blessing because we were so in love it would have been dangerous if we’d been together,” she says.
After the war ended and Ray was honorably discharged, they married at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., then left for their honeymoon in the Shenandoah Valley. It was late April and the dogwood trees and azaleas were in full bloom – a glorious sight for the pair.
“Praise God we’re not separated anymore!” they exclaimed to each other again and again.
During their honeymoon, Ray let down his guard and shared some of his deepest insecurities with Anne. He told her about growing up with dyslexia, in an era when it was seldom diagnosed properly. “He always had bad grades in school and thought he was stupid.”
Within his own family, he felt like an outsider. The youngest of five, he was a “surprise” baby and there was no room for him to sleep in the family home. “When evening came, he went next door to his aunt’s house,” Anne says.
While he adored his two older brothers and attempted to follow them around, they often rejected his companionship. “They would say, ‘Get away from us, dumb little Ray.”
As Ray opened up his heart, Anne poured grace on his insecurities and anxieties. Surprised that she loved him anyway, he later referred to their honeymoon as one of the great turning points of his life. “He went from thinking he was a nobody to thinking God could use a nobody.”
Their romance extended from the very beginning to Ray’s last breath. “Do you know what elevators are for?” she asks.
“They are for kissing – if nobody else is in the elevator.” It was one of the reasons they chose a high-rise condo for their final years. “Sometimes we would get on and kiss and kiss and then realize nobody had punched the button.”
They usually emerged from empty elevators with large grins on their faces.
In public, if one of them left to use the restroom, Ray would always say to Anne, “I’ll miss you,” as she walked away.In their fifties, the Ortlunds were eating in a restaurant when Ray suddenly put his fork down, stared at Anne for a few seconds, then began to cry.
“Ray, what’s the matter,” Anne asked.
“You’re just so beautiful,” he told her.
Often when Ray preached, he would lean over from the pulpit and say to Anne, “Do you have any idea how much I love you?”
Anne says their best years were the 23 years at the end of Ray’s life. After Ray retired from active church ministry and the Ortlunds started Renewal Ministries together, they found more time for each other. “In ministry, the church is a rival to the wife,” Anne notes.
“From age 58 on, we were never separated,” she says. “We always spoke side-by-side. He always wanted me beside him.”
Ray constantly advised other married couples, “The closer you get to Christ, the closer you get to each other and the less there will be between you.”
From 1970 until Ray’s passing, the Ortlunds read through the entire Bible once a year, following a daily schedule. “We were on the same page every day and could talk about what we read,” she notes, which helped to build greater unity and purpose in their marriage.
Before they went to sleep each night, they prayed together. In Anne’s eyes, Ray grew “happier and happier, wiser and wiser, sexier and sexier.”
Five years have passed since Ray’s graduation to heaven, but Anne still feels very close to him. “I’m still his soulmate,” she says. “I talk out loud to him because I miss him.”
She acknowledges they won’t be married in heaven, but prays they will be dearest friends. “The exciting marriage is between Christ and the church,” she observes. “That wedding will be off the charts.”
Before Ray’s passing, he wrote several love notes to Anne and hid them around their house for her to find later. One note she found within the last few months. “How can I thank you for all you mean to me?”
Another note said, “I was born to love you.”
“That’s a good Presbyterian for you,” she laughs.
“He always had me on his mind,” Anne says. “He was so happy because he lived in the presence of God, but he was conscious of me too.”