Wait, what?

These were the looks on our faces 20 years ago, about an hour after we’d made our marriage vows in Montreat Chapel. We were both 21 years old and this snapshot is a decent representation of at least a part of what we were feeling that day: Wait, we’re actually married? OK… and now what?

Actually, all these years later, this is probably still a good visual of my experience of marriage much of the time. Wait, what?!

What I mean is that there’s nothing static about marriage. I’m not the same person as the guy in that photo who’s wearing those J.C. Penney pleated slacks and trying to act like he knows what’s going on. Thankfully I’m not. Neither is Maggie.

In hindsight, it’s a strange thing to think of all of the build-up and planning for our wedding, though I don’t regret any of it. It highlighted the significance and permanence of our vows. It’s as though the occasion itself was an answer to the reasonable questions, Really? Till death do you part? Are you sure?

The thing we didn’t know, not really, and which was maybe foreshadowed in our deer-in-the-headlights expressions, was how regularly we’d need to answer those same questions again. In some ways marriage is simply one year after another of making the same vows – as a different person than the one you were the year before, to a person who’s a little – or a lot – different than the one you made promises to in previous years.

People sometimes laugh when they see our wedding pictures. How old were you, 16? But here’s the gift of having been married for half our lives: I’ve had the chance to grow to love the many stages of the same woman. That’s the impossible and wonderful thing that we could only barely imagine on that warm North Carolina night 20 years ago.

I can imagine a tradition in which each anniversary the same people gathered, along with new ones picked up along the way, to witness the same two people make the same vows. The vows would remain the same; the wife and her husband, now differently constituted and configured, would be the changed parts of the annual ceremony. In this alternative universe we’d all recognize that no person should remain the same, that change is evidence of life even when the changes are frightening and surprising. We’d affirm the grace that holds together this couple who, on any given anniversary, is becoming acquainted with the person they’ve each become.

If I could whisper anything to those two as we prepared to cut the cake it’d be something like this: Relax. You don’t have to know what you’re doing. Enjoy each other today for who you are. And hold each other loosely so that you’ll be ready for who you’ll each become.

Happy anniversary Maggie. I can’t wait to see who we’ll be in the next 20 years.

What should married people know about the experience of singleness?

If you have an answer to this question please leave it on the blog. I’m away from social media during Lent so any comments left there will be sadly unread. Thanks! 

During Lent we are preaching through a series called Undivided in which we’re looking at some of the things that separate Christians. As an intentionally multi-ethnic church we spend plenty of time exploring how the gospel addresses divisions brought about by race, ethnicity, culture and the like. But it’s good for us to remember that there are more subtle sources of division that we experience, whether or not we even notice them most of the time.

Image by Esther Gallentine for New Community.
Image by Esther Gallentine for New Community.

Last week I preached about the ways single people and married people can experience divisions between these two hard-to-summarize relational statuses. This coming Sunday our church will hear from a panel of married and single people who will share their experiences as it relates to divisions and unity in this area.

As I told our church last Sunday, because Maggie and I were married relatively young, I don’t have any real memory of singleness, especially as experienced by many in our church. So, what should I know? Or better: If you, as a single person, were sitting on this panel on Sunday, what question would you hope to be asked? (I’m interested too in questions married people would like to be asked, it’s just that I feel slightly less ignorant about that experience.)

Marriage Limits Us

IMG_0024Maggie and I were married fifteen years ago today. After the ceremony in the beautiful stone chapel on our college campus, we receded down the aisle and into the muggy night air. The Blue Ridge Mountains – so beautiful  in that western corner of North Carolina – guided our pick up truck and twenty-one year old bodies away from the friends and family who’d gathered to bear witness. We drove into the dark night, toward something new.

All these years later it’s hard to remember what we thought we were moving toward, but I’m sure we imagined more. Somewhere wrapped within our expectations and desires was the sense that marriage opened doors and expanded horizons. And in so many ways it has. On Monday evening I tossed fresh asparagus in  olive oil and reminded Maggie that she’s responsible for my much expanded palate. Too trivial? Well then, you must not understand the sacramental goodness of springtime vegetables- but I’ll indulge your skepticism nonetheless. How about this? I care more about people than I did before marriage. My wife delights in people. If you take photos on your vacation, she will be genuinely interested in seeing the pictures and hearing your stories. You get the idea. And over these fifteen years her interest in friends and neighbors has begun to capture my own, more introverted affections.

But what we couldn’t have expected, not with any imaginative clarity at least, was how we’d each be limited by marriage. Such a grating word to our American ears, limited. But there it is, and there it’s been- a real part of our marriage. Simply, there are things she and I have not done and do not do because we are married to the other. This is partly practical. Take Maggie’s social nature for example. Though I’ve come a long way in enjoying the act of  hospitality, I’m still tired by it. And so we host less than Maggie would on her own. She knows fewer of our neighbors than she would had she remained single or married an extrovert.

But the limitations of marriage are more than practical. For us, and I suspect many others, marriage is a place of weakness. I imagine it must be similar to those who accept a monastic vocation in which they are bound in covenant to others. Such covenant relationship is sure to expose my weaknesses because I cannot walk away. I cannot leave. How much of what we perceive to be strength is just avoiding the people who bring out our worst? This isn’t possible for two people committed to moving into the deeper waters of trust and faithfulness. We remain with each other in our weakness and so we cannot deny that such weaknesses are a part of us. As the years pile up the vows we made in the chapel in front of the congregation begin to make more sense: an anchor is needed if we are to remain present and vulnerable despite the wounding potential of our weaknesses.

In all of this has been a gift that I wouldn’t trade for any American dream of a life without limits. Because, in the end, that dream is a delusion. To be human is to be limited, weak even. There’s no need to pile up examples of this- we bump into these parts of our humanity as often as we’re actually paying attention. But more than simply accepting reality, the limiting nature of marriage has shown me the flourishing that limits can nurture. Living within limits opens up possibilities of faithfulness and longevity. Remaining cognizant of my weaknesses gives the Christian practices of repentance and forgiveness an immediacy that slowly redeems.

Is such flourishing only available to the married? It’s a question that deserves a thoughtful answer but briefly, no. Like the married person, the single person will benefit from relationships that aren’t subject to transience. But unlike the married person – and I’m thinking here of Christians – the single person is free to pursue a vocation with a single-mindedness that will bring about its own encounters with limitations and weakness.

I’ve reached the concluding portion of this short essay where I should say sweet things about these fifteen years of marriage, but if you were paying attention earlier you’ll remember that I’m an introvert and so am not given to saying personal things publicly. But they have been and will again be said to the woman who stays with me and loves me in my weaknesses and despite my limits.

“…we revered heterosexual nuclear families…”

The casualties of this lack of imagination have been those people who don’t fit well into a network comprised of heterosexual nuclear families.  This includes those sexual minorities who choose not to commit to mixed-orientation marriages, but it also includes people who don’t marry or can’t marry, people who don’t have children or can’t have children, and anyone else who does not follow a five-ten-fifteen year pattern of date-marry-procreate.  The problem is not that we’ve catered our programming to the majority—that’s unavoidable for institutions—but that we’ve ceased to perceive anything outside of that majority as desirable or even viable.  We didn’t err when we told our teenagers to wait for marriage before becoming physically intimate; we erred when we implied our teenagers were all necessarily waiting for marriage and that the only legitimate expression of their God-given sexuality was physical intimacy.  We withheld other options in part, I suspect, because we revered heterosexual nuclear families and desired that outcome for our children, but we didn’t anticipate how isolated they’d feel when that didn’t happen for them or how readily they’d discover alternate options outside of the church.

– odd man out on family.