I was only 12 years old when we met, in 1985. Tracey June Perry had just moved into my school district from the city and was now part of my Junior High honors classes. Those were awkward years for me, as they are for almost everyone. I spent my days trying to find myself and figure out who I was. Thus, it was hard to notice the cute, smart, new girl who had jumped into my school.
I had just encountered Jesus over the summer. I was a boy from a non-Christian family, but they let me go to a Christian summer camp for the first time with my best friend and next-door neighbor. Though it was August 1985, I can remember those powerful moments with Jesus as if they were yesterday. I remember kneeling in the middle of the sanctuary to get saved. I remember the weight of my friend’s hands on my back as they all gathered around to pray for me. I remember weeping uncontrollably for hours, as the conviction of sin and power of freedom seemed to take turns with my little heart.
When I walked through the doors of my Junior High School a few weeks later, my mind was alive with curiosity about God. I wondered how I would act and relate with my friends. I wondered how I would share my experiences with them. I couldn’t find my footing, and so I kept quiet. It was easier and more rewarding in the short-term to keep being the quick-witted class clown that many in the class had always known me to be. Though I appeared to be outgoing, boisterous, and bold, I was nothing of the sort. I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and it made me very self-conscious. Also, I was really a quiet, book-loving introvert who preferred to stay inside alone with my imagination.
That’s why Tracey captured my attention that year.
It was the Junior High dance, which meant that the music was too loud for me to capture attention with my humor and there was no chance that I would actually dance. Junior High boys do not dance. It was 1985, so a few of my friends could break-dance. So, at various times, we would circle around them and watch them spin on their heads and do the crazy leg shuffle arm plant thing. Bored, I was dying a slow, introverted death.
The talent competition started, and that broke up the monotony. My friends each performed different lip-synch dance routines that were various degrees of mediocre. Then, the cool / pretty girls performed “I’ve Got a Crush on You” by the Jets. It was the best one of the night so far. I was mildly impressed. They announced the very next act: it was Tracey and two of her friends. The song they were doing? “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, by the Jets. My heart sank for them. Tracey was new to the school, and her two friends couldn’t hope to compete with the three most popular girls in school who had just nailed their performance mere minutes earlier.
I was right. Her two friends were clearly feeling the awkwardness of the moment, and sank into a half-hearted shuffle snap that screamed, “I want to go home.” My heart sank even further. At first, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the two girls who seemed to be on the verge of a future counseling moment. However, something surprising happened.
Tracey killed it.
She commanded the room. She nailed every word. She gave herself to her dance like she knew that she was better than the three girls from before.
I was in awe. Also, I was in like with her. As the song continued, things shifted from “like” to “crush” to “serious infatuation” to “awestruck wonder” to “I can’t believe how out my league this girl is now”. She didn’t win, but she didn’t seem to care. I know that I didn’t: she had no idea, but she won me over that night.
The next four years found Tracey June Perry drifting in and out of my life as she moved in and out of my classes. We both ran for student council our freshman year, and we both lost. She found me in the hall and gave me the biggest hug of compassion. As a now-thirteen-year-old boy, it was almost more than I could handle in the moment. The amazing girl from the year before was hugging me! My heart raced as I tried to play it cool. She had no idea what was happening in my heart and my head. I had encountered the Lord again over the summer at camp, and again I felt like a failure in importing that encounter into my school and friendships. Yet here was that bright-eyed, outgoing smart girl, and she seemed to like me.
I thought about that hug for weeks.
As the years passed, however, I grew out of my awkward phase and became much more confident. I ran with the cool kids, the athletes, and the “good guys” that everyone liked and felt comfortable around. Girls started really noticing me, and so I began dating different ones, enjoying the thrill of the reputation boost I received from each pretty girlfriend. Life was working. I forgot about Tracey. We were in band together for a year. She played the flute and I played the drums, but I was there because I had to be and was far too cool for it. She picked that up immediately and rolled her eyes continually at my arrogance. I didn’t care at all.
Then, my senior year, something amazing happened.
The Tracey from the Junior High dance made a stunning comeback, again. Just as she had done years earlier, she played the role of the underdog. She was nominated for Senior Homecoming Queen against the most beautiful, popular girls in our school. She accepted. My heart sank when I heard: why would she do that? I didn’t say a word to anyone about what I was thinking. I respected her too much to get caught up into a conversation about her chances. I watched things unfold, having no idea how the vote was going to go. Incredibly, she won the popular vote. It wasn’t even close. The pretty / popular girls were shocked. We all were. We all were also ecstatic. Deep down, none of us liked those girls.
I remember, vividly, sitting in the stands during homecoming, my heart swelling with admiration towards a girl who had captured my heart again. They flew her in on a helicopter. Her dad escorted her across the field. I couldn’t have been happier for her, more proud of her. I was in awe of this girl’s ability to rise to the top, to shine while being herself, uncompromisingly. It’s what I longed for in my life. She was my hero, and she didn’t even know it. My heart still swells with pride, more than two decades later. She’s still my hero.
I had no idea that we would end up in the same university after high school. I’m not sure that I knew at first that she was there. I had a deep crush on a girl that I had met at the orientation, and so I scheduled a few classes to be with her and get to know her better. Tracey June Perry happened to be in those classes as well.
Something amazing had taken place in my heart and life over the summer. For five summers I had attended the same Christian youth camp. For five summers I had encountered the Lord there, but was unable to fully express my growing love for Jesus in my school. My parents didn’t attend church, of course, and there was no mentor or discipleship mechanism in my life. I was trying my best to find my way on my own. Now, I had matured, I could drive, and attend church on my own. This time, when I encountered Jesus at camp, I had the necessary components in place to follow through on that encounter. I could really live it out for the first time.
I loved it. I would drive myself to school in the morning, and then drive to a nearby lake in the afternoon. I would read my bible, pray, and cry as the Lord touched my heart. I spent many, many hours alone in prayer during my first year of college. I was alive in Christ for what felt like the first time. I was serving in my church, both on the worship team and in the children’s ministry. I was preaching, teaching, prophesying, and loving Jesus. That was a fun year for me.
As all of this was unfolding, Tracey June Perry needed a ride home from college to be with her family, get some home-cooked meals, and do laundry. She approached me in class and asked. I had known for years that she was a Christian, and I eagerly said yes. I didn’t have any romantic ideas – I was interested in the other girl still – but I so respected this girl from our high school years that I jumped at the chance to really get to know her. She climbed into my beat-up Mercury Lynx – the one that would stall when it stopped – and saw my bible and Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness over my pile of textbooks. She was intrigued.
We enjoyed the best conversation during our forty-five-minute drive to her house. We talked about Jesus and kingdom life. I talked her ear off about life in the Holy Spirit, not realizing that she was a Presbyterian girl who had very little context to relate to what I was saying. I found out later that she didn’t mind. She was completely shocked that Dave Sliker – the Dave Sliker that she had been secretly praying for (for years) – was a Christian. A fiery, spirit-filled, crazy Charismatic Christian. It was the start of a real, deep, beautiful friendship.
I went to the lake less to pray, and went to her dorm room between classes more. I was enjoying – deeply – this newfound friendship. In Tracey June Perry I had found something that no other friendship had ever given me: the opportunity and the freedom to talk about Jesus as much as I wanted to. Still the introvert, I thrived with a friend with whom I could have long conversations about the deep things in my heart no one had ever cared to hear before. The longings in my heart for Jesus, the life I longed to live with Him, and the hopes I had for more of His Spirit and power filled our conversations.
She became, over those four years, my best friend.
I didn’t know it at the time, but our “roles” had shifted. She had been, in High School, my hero. She represented to me what I wanted to be and what it looked like to succeed at being myself. Now, in college, she was struggling a bit. The overachieving, smart, successful High School Homecoming Queen was now struggling to find herself. She was trying to decide who she really wanted to be and what that looked like while wrestling through real brokenness and pain. Unbeknownst to me, that struggle was real, and difficult. Also unbeknownst to me, I became her hero. Now I was the one who represented what success at being you in a hostile environment looked like. My fire and passion for Jesus was provoking to her. It served her, helped her, and encouraged her in ways I didn’t know at the time.
I ended up leaving school to work, save, and attend Bible School. The Lord had made it clear to me that ministry and missions was my future, and the university I loved no longer fit the plan for my destiny. It was twenty minutes away from Tracey June Perry, however, and so we were able to stay close friends. We dated other people. Tracey dated a few good guys, nice guys, and one odd guy. I always found it odd that she never referred to them as her boyfriends around me. They were always, “her friends”. I had one serious girl during college, and was headed towards marriage. My dad, not a Christian, did not like this Christian girl at all. He liked the other Christian girl in my life, the cute, spunky girl with the sparkling personality, the ponytail and the killer smile.
Deep down in my heart, I did too. Other Girl’s days were numbered.
Over the years, Tracey June Perry had confided in me several times about how much she hated when guy friends would pull her aside to have, “The Talk”. “The Talk” had ruined a number of her friendships, or at the very least introduced an unwelcome awkwardness into the relationship. I had determined, after confession number eight, that I would never, ever have “The Talk” with Tracey June Perry.
We were discovering without the other knowing, however, that our hearts were growing into something more than friendship. I had helped her out with a favor during her family vacation and she stopped by work to thank me. She gave me the biggest, longest hug. It seemed to go on forever. In a moment, I was escorted to my freshman year of high school. My Junior High hero was hugging me again. I could hardly breathe. This time, it was my best friend. I didn’t know what to do, or what to think. My mind was racing. I really enjoyed that hug. I thought about it for a long, long time.
On her end, I had made a commitment to come to a play she was performing in that I didn’t keep. It hurt her deeply. The pain in her heart was surprising to her. She cared for me more than she realized. I was her best friend, too, and my irresponsibly broke her heart. Interestingly, it was the depth of her pain that awakened her to the realization that I may have been more than a friend to her. Four years of deep, platonic, pure friendship was now blossoming into something surprising.
Both of us were circling around a conversation we weren’t sure that we wanted to have. We both treasured our friendship so much. She was preparing to graduate college and pursue a career in television and radio production. I was finishing up my junior year of Bible School and was preparing to go to the mission field. It seemed like we were headed for two very different lives. It made the risk of having The Talk even greater. What if we sacrificed an incredible friendship for a relationship that could never work? I agonized in secret, warring between pragmatic wisdom and the possibility of the missed opportunity of a lifetime.
Finally, I couldn’t bear it anymore. I had to have The Talk. I told her to come see me at my school at a certain time. I purposefully planned the time to coincide with my pickup basketball dominance. My friends had heard about this Mystery Girl for weeks as I deliberated talking or not talking to her about romance. The suspense was killing them. The moment was bearing down on me. Basketball provided a welcome distraction from the pressure and possibility of failure. Plus, I got to look awesome to the girl I liked.
The gym was packed. There wasn’t a seat empty in the place. My team was destroying every team that played us. I was on fire. Everything was clicking, and I was enjoying one of the most satisfying nights of scoring and defense of my whole life. Then she walked in.
It was as if everything stopped and the world turned to look. She seemed to be standing in the center of the gym with a spotlight on her. The Homecoming Queen, the Mystery Girl, the It Girl of the Hour had just walked into the gym, and all was right with the world. My friends looked at her, and then looked at me, and the amount of white space in their eyes told me everything I needed to know.
She was beautiful. The arguments and debates I had enjoyed with my friends in the weeks leading up to this moment – tell her how you feel, don’t tell her how you feel – all of them came to an abrupt end right there. The look in their eyes said it all: tell her how you really feel, or we will kill you.
I subbed myself out, confident, sweaty, and feeling athletic. The gym still seemed unusually quiet. I walked out proudly with the most beautiful girl on campus.
My confidence melted away, however, when we sat across from one another at the coffee shop. I couldn’t find a single word that seemed to fit the occasion. Fumbling stuttering replaced any swagger I walked in with. Outside the window, my basketball friends were purposefully walking by, jumping comically to look into the window to see Mystery Girl again. As I continued to fumble about, they walked loudly into the coffee shop, trying to look inconspicuous. Mystery Girl was wryly entertained by their efforts. They have no idea how much their goofiness helped dial me down and get me back into the game.
As their momentary distraction snapped me back into focus, The Talk was given brand-new life. I took a breath, and the words began to flow.
I just want you to know…my family likes you so much.
She looked at me with the funniest polite half-smile. The smile was very, very clear: I’m not going to make this easy for you. She was not going to give me a thing. I was going to have to earn this.
And, uh…my dad. Wow. He thinks the world of you. He talks about you all the time. How cool you are, how fun and interesting you are. I can’t believe how much my dad likes you.
It went on like this. Me finding the courage to shift to the next gear, Tracey June Perry looking at me with that cruel, polite, half-smile, wondering if I would find my courage. Finally, mercifully, she helped me out.
“How do you feel about me?” She asked politely. That dazzling half-smile. “What do you think about me?”
I was taken aback. My heart skipped a beat. The Talk. I couldn’t avoid it any more. Nine years of build-up and now I had arrived, unprepared, at the second biggest moment of my life. No one had ever told me how to say what came next. I had to risk, to dive in and see where the current would take me. My adrenaline surged and the words began to spill out of me.
How do I feel? What do I think of you? Well, to be honest, I think you’re amazing. I, uh, I have for a long time, actually. I mean, you’ve always been incredible: bold, outgoing, fun. That dance you did in Junior High, I mean, wow…I mean, you were the Homecoming Queen….and then, leading worship at your Intervarsity large group meetings, you would own that room. I’ve always been so amazed by you.
But what did it for me – what I’m really amazed by – is how you’ve loved the Lord. You are one of the most sincere, deep Christians I have ever known. Our friendship – the times we’ve talked about the word, cried together, prayed together – it’s meant so much to me. I have cherished our friendship for so long…that’s why this is hard for me, you know? This is hard, because I respect you so much and am so glad to be your friend, that I would hate to ever lose this friendship.
But I have to be honest. I’ve really grown to like you over the past year. I mean, my heart has changed, and I think that there’s something more going on here. And I think that you know it too. I mean, that big hug you gave me a few weeks ago, and the way you talk to me, and the way that you’ve talked about your boyfriends in the past – haven’t you always wondered if there’s something more for us? I’ve been wondering. So I asked you to come tonight, to have The Talk that I’ve been dreading….
She laughed at this point. “Dreading?” She asked, curiously. The polite half-smile had melted into something warmer, more welcoming and inviting. I knew that I was safe to process my heart with her, and that she wanted to hear what I had to say. Both of us were excited, but more at ease, all at once. I laughed at her question, and began to recount the several times her guy friends wanted to have The Talk. I told her about my comical inner vow. That opened the door for her to talk. Suddenly, I was on the other side of it hearing how she felt about me. I can’t write any of it down because I don’t remember a thing. I was dizzy. I was relieved. I was in love.
It was one of the sweetest moments of my life.
Three years later, after struggling through the practical dynamics of how our two destinies could become one (how could a television producer marry a poor missionary?) Tracey June Perry and I were married on June 6th, 1997. The outgoing, bold, life of the room had become my bride.
Tracey Perry Sliker has been my bride now for seventeen years. We’ve had four kids together, three of whom are now teenagers. That story is a story for another day, and it’s one with as many surprises as this one. Aren’t they all? Love and romance and marriage are gloriously messy things, the thrill of which can rarely be appreciated until later. The joy of it all is the prize of this amazing, interesting, incredible person that you get to watch begin beautiful, then mature into someone even more incredible, even more interesting and amazing. It seems impossible – how can your hero become an even greater, more awe-inspiring figure in your life when you really get to know them so thoroughly, so seemingly completely?
The amazing thing about love and grace and the power of the Holy Spirit is that the adventure of love begins and never seems to end. Weakness and brokenness become occasions for inspiration to begin anew, and for old mysteries and joys to be reborn, re-contextualized and re-experienced. The girl I fell into like with in 1985, who became my hero in 1990, and my friend in 1991 is now my most cherished friend. She’s my cute bride. She’s more fun, more alive, sharper, and more interesting than she was on that fateful night in March of 1994 when she walked into that gym. She’s more amazing, more bright, and more in love with Jesus than she was on that incredible day on June 6th, 1997.
She’s the greatest gift the Lord has ever given me, and I will never be able to thank Him enough.