Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Some Thoughts on Marriage

Last weekend, I had the privilege of officiating at the wedding of two of my former students, Zach Heyveld and Lindsey Row, in Iowa City. Below are a few of the thoughts I shared with them and the congregation in a portion of the wedding homily:

You will both have your lives apart, as well as your lives together, and you will each have your separate ways to find along the pathway of life. But, as Frederick Buechner reminds us, “a marriage made in Heaven is one where a man and a woman become more richly themselves together than the chances are either of them could ever have managed to become alone.” How that all happens, we can’t really explain. But I would venture to guess that if you asked a few of the gray hairs here this afternoon to tell you the story of their marriage, you would discover a common thread: marriage teaches us to become more fully alive to one another and to the world. And for many of us, marriage saves us from ourselves.

How did we get here? The very same way you will today—by saying words so improbable that the angels are probably laughing and by taking vows that your parents took and their parents before them. These are time-honored words; not words thrown together overnight for some fly-by-night ritual. No, these words have weathered the test of time and though they may sound archaic they are like the rings you will share with one another, hard and beautiful and able to weather all kinds of change. So, when you say these words today, though they may sound old and antique, learn to trust them because they have carried many of us through the seas of marital difficulty and provided safe harbor. And what these simple words reveal stands in stark contrast to what the culture suggests about the nature of love. For, today, you promise to love, honor, and cherish, not just when you feel like it, not just when the emotional intensity burns hot, but till death finally separates you. Today you have the audacity to claim love, not as some fleeting emotion, but as an act of the will, something which you choose to do—come what may. And, like Ruth in the biblical story, it is that very abandon to another and to the God who stands waiting in the wings that will sustain you in the days that lie ahead.

In fact, I would like to suggest to you that if you will hang on to these words and hang on to one another, that your marriage holds the possibility of being salvific—that it can and will save you from your very self. For, in the days to come, you will have numerous choices to make about how to respond to one another as you learn to negotiate this new and rather awkward relationship. You will be tempted, at times, to draw back and to draw in upon yourself in selfish and egocentric ways. Do not, I repeat, do not, yield to that siren song. Remember the words that you speak here today and give in to the challenge to rise above yourself. Remember the God who had the audacity to not remain in the wings forever but who, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness,” who, “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross,” (Philippians 2:7-8). It is to that downward way that I invite you this afternoon as it is portrayed in an essay by the surgeon, Richard Selzer, as he walked late one night into the hospital room of a patient who was in his surgery just hours before:

“I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry-mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, so greedily? The young woman speaks. ‘Will my mouth always be like this?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it will. It is because the nerve was cut.’ She nods, and is silent. But the young man smiles. ‘I like it,’ he says. ‘It is kind of cute.’ All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works,” (Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, 45-46).

Now, I doubt, this afternoon, that you will have much trouble kissing one another. You are still young and passionate and the day is fair. But in the days and weeks and months to come, you will need to learn to accommodate yourself to one another. And, that may take more than a little effort. In those rather difficult times, may the vows that you make here today and the memory of all of us who surround you, sustain you. But most of all, may the God who waits in the wings, who gives you the strength to undertake these most improbable vows, and who promises to bear you safely together to the other side, go with you both. And may his faithfulness towards us and his ultimate act of accommodation in Christ Jesus bear fruit in your common life together and to any children who may grace your home. For it is in his name we pray it. Amen.