Sam, above in the middle, is one of my favorite youth of all time. He got married today (Crap, I’m old), and his Dad, who’s one of my favorite lay people of all time, asked if I could write a note to Sam for the occasion.
Congratulations on your wedding day! Your Dad asked me to write a note to you for the occasion. Likely your Dad meant to throw me a bone since I apparently didn’t rate to officiate the service; nevertheless, I’m honored to oblige and to participate in any capacity.
It’s been a few years since you all moved away but, before you did, I knew you well enough to write in your college reference letter that I hoped my own boys would grow up to be like you one day. As a UVA fan I take a dark view of the University of Kansas, yet even I can’t imagine UK has had such a corrosive effect on your character as to amend my previous appraisal of you. Your bride-to-be is fortunate to have found you and, because I trust the sort of woman you would choose to marry, I imagine you should be grateful to have found yourself discovered by her.
It’s been a while since we’ve talked, Sam, but before anyone in a monkey suit says ‘Dearly Beloved’ and before either of you say ‘I do,’ I’ve got a damn good question for you, a question I ask just about everyone I marry:
What are you thinking?
How can you two be ready? No matter your age or your experience in life, how can you, or anyone, possibly be ready to make such promises? Have you read the fine print we with Christian-speak call ‘vows?’
Except, it’s not really forever in a happily ever after way either, is it? Because you’re also vowing to help each other die one day too. I mean it in every possible sense: that’s some holy shit. No matter how many times we have sat in pews or plastic chairs and listened to people like me announce “Dearly Beloved,” those are daunting promises to make to one another.
Indeed, I believe, if God has not raised Jesus from the dead those promises are unintelligible and may also be irresponsible.
No wonder your Dad wanted to write to you!
In the same way parents often want to have their pastor strike up a relationship with their youth as a way of keeping their youth from having sex too early, I bet your Dad wanted me to write you a letter to inoculate your marriage against the unintended wounds and petty havoc that humans in love do to each other. In other words, I’ll wager your Dad wanted me to dispense some wisdom by which your marriage will flourish and bear fruit or, at the very least, your Dad was hoping I might have some pointers that’ll keep you and your beloved (for now?) from killing each other.
It’s an understandable wish on your Dad’s part, Sam. These are enormous, outrageous promises to make. Like all aspects of Christianity, marriage is a high-risk adventure, for a life lived together can expose the worst in people, all the intricate flaws and foibles that come with human nature. When you and your bride say ‘I do’ to each other in no small part you’re saying ‘I do’ to the risk the other now brings into your life and your future.
With your ‘I do’ you’re accepting the risk that your spouse will have within their power the ability to do tremendous and even irreparable harm to you.
No, you’re not accepting the risk; you’re placing it like a weapon in each other’s hands. Like in Isaiah’s vision, the potential weapon- your trust, your true self, your vulnerability- is also, potentially, a tool, the means by which you two can harvest fruit greater than what the two of you bring individually to your relationship. Or, as the Church likes to say, the two shall (shall always sounds more like a hope than a guarantee, doesn’t it?) become one flesh.
Marriage is risky business, Sam. Your ‘I do’ not only bestows to your bride the power to wound you one day, it also acknowledges that the person to whom you say ‘I do’ is not only the person standing next to you; it’s whomever that person will become, something that is unknown and unseen to the both of you.
Because you’re saying ‘I do’ to a future stranger, Sam, it’s always good for Christians to remember that Christians are required to love one another. Even if they are married. Indeed you’ll find soon enough the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary skill to love your spouse.
You’ll find them an enemy from time to time precisely because the person you marry will not be the same person 15, 30, 45 years hence. That’s one of the risks you take, but as far as the church is concerned it’s a beautiful risk. It’s an act of- no, it’s a leap of- faith.
Of course the rub that comes with this risk is that neither will you 15, 30, 45 years hence be the same person who says ‘I do’ today.
Today, with vows and rings, you give yourself over to be transformed by the perceptions of the other.
Today you covenant to let the love and perceptions of your bride shape you anew. Trust me, ignore all of the above. This is the biggest risk you accept with your ‘I do.’ It’s scary as hell.
If you read my book (if not, read it on your honeymoon) you know I like to tell couples ‘You never know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.’ What I seldom tell them but will tell you just because I love you more than most of them is that this rule has an even more frightening corollary:
You are never as fully seen and known as you are seen and known by the person to whom you’re married.
Marriage isn’t just a process in which you discover who the stranger is that you’ve married; marriage is a process in which you discover who the stranger is that you call ‘you.’
If the fullness of what it means to love is to know the other with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, then to be loved means that our heart and mind and soul and strength are fully exposed and seen and known by another.
And God, that’s scary.
It’s not often that our heart or mind or soul or strength measure up to our own estimation of them. When we’re in love, before we’re married, not only do we have an incomplete understanding of the other person. We have an incomplete understanding of our self. We bring in to marriage a self-image that’s been formed by the judgments and praise of people who don’t know us as well our spouse eventually will know us. And so, as we live our lives with someone else, we discover that we’re not the same person we thought we were.
In a marriage, there’s not a lot of room to hide and you’ll find yourself naked to her in more places than the bedroom. Your heart and mind and soul and strength- all of it gets exposed on a daily basis.
The relationship advice books will tell you that there’s no secrets in marriage, but what’s so difficult about being married is that there aren’t nearly as many secrets as we’d like. It’s not just the other person’s flaws and imperfections that are revealed in marriage. It’s your own.
It’s scary as hell, Sam.
But, without that kind of ‘nakedness’ before the other, there’s really no other reason for marriage.
Marriage, for Christians at least, isn’t about progeny or pleasure. It’s about perfection.
Marriage, we believe, is one of the means in which and by which we’re perfected in our love. Such perfection, as Christians mean it, is for the sake of preparation. Our life lived with another we call beloved is meant to make us ready to live with the Father who through the Spirit calls the Son ‘Beloved.’ Marriage, then, fits us for heaven. It incorporates us into the life of the Trinity, the invisible relationship of which your relationship with your spouse is meant to be a visible sign.
The way St Paul says it, each of us is being transformed. We’re moving, Paul says, from one degree of glory to the next and from there to the next degree of glory. We’re being ‘unveiled’ of all our sin and pretenses until- so that, we can- we meet God face-to-face. And that unveiling only happens through the love that is truth that we call, perhaps somewhat euphemistically, grace.
Perfection of the other, moving the other from one degree to the next degree of glory and them moving you- that’s the purpose of marriage.
That’s why, Sam, even though a few years ago I thought you were so perfect I wanted my boys to grow up to be like you, my prayer for you on your wedding day is that someday you and your wife can say to each other ‘I’m not the person you married.’