At our staff meeting yesterday I’m making small talk with the guy next to me. You see, those of us doing administrative stuff never make it to the meetings on time at 3:00. Well, the meeting hasn’t started yet even after I’ve been there a couple minutes. So I say to the guy something like, “these things really don’t start at 3:00, do they?” And he says to me, “you don’t know black people.”
But that’s not the culture shock I’m going for. I found out this week that another of my closest high school friends is getting married. It’s very exciting; it’s like they’re all grown up. I say they because I have enmeshed myself in a completely different cultural environment for the last five years. One attraction of Wash U for me was that it is very focused and ambitious, a stepping stone to other things, but those pursuits are largely individual. People’s concerns are where their next job is going to be or what grad school program they should go to. Sure, there are some serious relationships, but very few people are actively exploring marriage. The only two people from Wash U I can think of are Melanie, a friend of mine from high school who is now married, and Adrian, my old roommate—and he met his [ex] fiancée Lauren in high school, not college. We don’t have some fountain or statue or park bench somewhere on campus where all the guys take their girlfriends to propose. Graham chapel is beautiful, but few things look more out of place on campus than the tuxedos and dresses from the rare wedding that takes place there. And frankly, most of us rather much enjoy the single life :)
But this spring I have been bitten by the wedding bug. Just so long as it’s somebody else’s wedding, ‘tis all. That’s what being in two of them will do to you, which, by the way, is about as many weddings as I had attended in my entire life. So in honor of one of my closest male friends from high school, one of my closest female friends from high school, my first serious girlfriend, my college roommate, and others, I thought I would write a serious post about what the sanctity of marriage means to me. I freely acknowledge that marriage isn’t solely a religious affair, but I think it says something that many people for whom issues of spirituality matter little still decide to make some sort of union more formal than simply living together making babies.
I employ the phrase sanctity of marriage because I believe it really is sacred. There is something special, unique, different that is difficult to articulate but easy, I think, to recognize. We celebrate the self, our individuality, but at the same time there is something incomplete about being alone. Or as Genesis chapter 2 puts it, “it is not good that man should be alone…therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife; and they become one flesh.” Yet the story in chapter 2 clearly allows time for both the individual and the partnership, and I read that as meaning that at any given moment in time, it’s not accurate to say that it is better to be married than not. In fact, if anything, Paul’s letters glorify a life of celibacy above all.
Marriage supercedes other human relationships; more than any other, it is formed under the sovereignty of God. In the wedding ceremony, the father/parents of the bride don’t lend her to the groom; there’s no sunset provision or conditional offer. She is given away. I’m not saying that the groom assumes all parental responsibilities; I’m saying the parents lose them. I think this is what most people understood about the rather unfortunate story we know as the Terri Schiavo case. Regardless of whether a spouse renders a “good” or “bad” decision, the entire institution of marriage would suffer if parents could intervene when their wishes conflict with those of the spouse (or the child, for that matter).
Marriage is love. You can call me a romantic. You can call me hopelessly naïve. You can point out the obvious fact that all sorts of reasons have led to marriage. No matter. At the end of the day, it has to be that almost clichéd description in 1st Corinthians. Chapter 13 verses 1 to 8 read:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Marriage is permanent. To me, this more than any other rests as the central, fundamental commitment that is marriage. Once two individuals decide that they should join together, they are signing an unbreakable agreement to resolve differences within the framework of the institution of marriage. There’s a reason we make that commitment official before God in front of friends and family. Even the most secular marriage requires witnesses. Are there hardships? Absolutely; hence the necessity of explaining that love endures all things. As a Christian, I think that is where we fail most spectacularly. The vast number of children who have lived through the excruciating process that is divorce perhaps defines my generation more than anything else, and the numbers are pretty clear that “Christian” marriages fair no better than others. I’m not saying there are never grounds for divorce, but it’s about as close to an absolute truth as can be made about human relations in the world. This is such a serious decision that if you cannot promise til death do us part to work out differences within the construct of marriage then marriage should not be entered into in the first place.
Marriage is intimate. There are many types of relationships that allow us to explore deep, meaningful connections with our fellow human beings on this planet. This isn’t about being introverted or extraverted, shy or the life of the party. It’s recognizing that marriage allows—and requires—that two people come together in raw, authentic intimacy. It’s the ultimate in tolerance; not merely accepting a checklist of strengths and weaknesses but embracing them because the beauty of the whole would be different without them. I also think this is where many relationships based primarily on sex fail. Overemphasizing that component of intimacy ultimately cheapens it, and, let’s face it, sex alone is not strong enough to hold two people together over the long term. However, I also think this is where some Christians get in trouble to the other extreme. Physical intimacy is certainly part of the joy of creation, but the communication process by which intimacy develops is more difficult with sex for some people than any other area. I see physical intimacy as adult play in a context which allows for fulfillment and closeness in a way that playing kickball or playing at the creek as a kid never quite offered. I recognize that I have generally positive memories of being a kid, so there are others who may choose to describe that differently, but I don’t think I’m alone in drawing that parallel.
Marriage is a social construct. It provides a way for organizing small groups of individuals, leading to loyalties that cross all other divisions and groupings of people. It allows for a system of distributing property and dealing with how to support people in the midst of seemingly enormous civil institutions. It creates a forum in which absurd demands must ultimately give in to reality. Call that diplomacy or tact or accountability or realism or compromise or something else entirely, it is a quality that our collective institutions are not good at developing.
And finally, marriage is definitely not where I’m at. At least for now.