How to Find Yourself: thoughts about marriage that are about more than marriage

This past weekend, I presided at a wedding. As always, the ceremony is a time of joy and celebration. The bride and groom look their best, and everything that happens point to one thing: happiness and smiles.

So, when I stand before the just-about-to-be-married couple, speaking to them (and to those who are gathered), I want to say nice, happy things. I want to add to the festive spirit. And I do.

But I also want to say: Do you really know what you’re doing? Are you really ready for this? Because your vows are real. This is the real deal. And marriage will be one of the most difficult things you ever do.

Now, that’s not what I say. At least not in so many words. But I do say this:

We live in a world that can be cynical about marriage. There are those who doubt that a couple can spend a lifetime of love together. That instead of finding freedom in marriage, it ends up being a shackle.

As someone once sarcastically said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who would want to live in an institution?”

But that’s not how the Bible sees it. In fact, from the very beginning, God makes man, and then provides man a helper; an equal, a partner for the journey. For life – with all its challenges and disappointments, with all of its joys and pleasures – is meant to be shared. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The days your heart aches and the days your heart skips a beat. The day you get a promotion, AND the day you lose your job.

And the way to grow stronger through Whatever comes your way – is by firmly holding onto each other.

In other words, marriage is hard. In part, because life is hard. And there’s a reason that in our marriage vows, we don’t say: “I do, if I feel like it,” or “I do, as long as it works for me,” or, “I do, as long as it’s not too difficult.” That’s not how marriage works. That’s not how life works. The way through the difficult times is to walk through those difficult times together.

I recently read a long article, published by the New York Times, that talked with couples who are practicing what is called “open marriage.” If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Open marriage is where a couple “opens” their marriage to other intimate relationships, to other lovers. And the article is full of people giving reasons why this makes things better, at least in their minds.

While most of us can come up with a number of reasons why open marriage doesn’t work and doesn’t make sense, perhaps it’s a perfect sign of our times — where so many believe that life is found, not in our commitments, but in our freedoms. That is to say: real life is found by always keeping our options open.

The preacher and writer John Ortberg contends that so many who live for so much freedom end up coming to the end of their lives, and they can’t remember what they did with all the money they were free to make and spend. They can’t remember what they did with all that time they were so busy protecting. They can’t remember what happened to all those relationships that they were so free to exit. In the end, by keeping their options open, and by not fully committing to anything, they end up with a life committed to nothing.

Then Ortberg makes this vital point: It’s not in our freedom, but in our commitments, that we find ourselves.

What an absolutely counter-cultural argument, one that is sure to mystify many. But what a vital truth that is spot on. In a world where so many run from commitment — whether it’s in marriage, or parenting, or a job, or church, or just settling in one place to be a blessing to those around us — it’s really true: real life is found, not in what we keep open, but what we hold onto. In the end, we are defined, we are shaped, we become: not by what we run from, but what we commit to.


Thanks mom (and dad) for 60 years of faithfulness

Later this year, my parents will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. By my count, that’s nearly 22,000 days together. I think they deserve a party. This summer, if all goes well, my parents’ five children and spouses, along with 12 grandchildren (and two spouses), and 5 great-grandkids will converge on St. Louis for a celebration 60 years in the making.

And it might not have happened if it were not for a promise. Back in the fall of 1952, my mom, who lived in western New York, decided to go to college in Illinois, at what is now known as Lincoln Christian University. Her sister — my Aunt Dorothy — decided to go to Eastern Christian Institute, a small school in New Jersey. Mom promised that she would join Aunt Dorothy after a year, if the school in Jersey checked out alright.

Well, Eastern turned out alright, and Aunt Dorothy told mom that. But mom really liked Lincoln, and would have stayed there if not for the promise that she had made to her sister.

So my mom made her way from Illinois to New Jersey (kind of a reverse of the Westward Expansion; Go East, Young Woman!). The school was small — really small, with less than 25 students. Mom and dad got to know each other (how could they not in such a small college?), and they just kind of fell into dating.

As they began to get serious, Aunt Dorothy asked mom what was going on between them. So my mom, apparently unaware that this was the 1950s, went to my dad and asked, “Are we getting married?”

family picture
Mom & Dad (and kids), about 15 years into marriage

“Well, I guess so,” was dad’s reply. And despite his less-than-overwhelming level of confidence, the relationship continued, and grew stronger, and on August 1, 1954 — a day when the temperature would reach 100 degrees — mom and dad gave each other their unconditional vows in a decidedly unairconditioned church in East Orange, New Jersey.

And 60 years later — or, over 500,000 hours, if any one is counting — our family will celebrate the difference a promise makes. A promise made by one sister to another, that led to a meeting between a girl and a boy. But even more — a promise made between two people to love and serve each other, til death do them part.

On Sunday, at Fern Creek Christian, we will talk about that kind of love. And those kinds of promises. And we will honor that kind of faithful love, the kind that is rooted in God himself — the greatest promise keeper of all.