The Day You Said “I Do”

wedding aisle

The year I graduated from college I received 17 wedding invitations. Though it was difficult to decide, I could only afford to attend a few, so I chose the weddings of my three closest friends. The first wedding was in a city church and the reception in an old bank building with 20-foot granite columns and gleaming green floors the color of dollar bills. The next was a homegrown affair in the bride’s backyard. The chickens, donkey and dogs were relocated for the day, a flower-covered arbor set in the corner with the grills far enough away so the smell of barbecue ribs and rocky mountain oysters wouldn’t be mistaken for the groom’s cologne. The bride and I spent four hours the night before baking batch after batch of rice krispy treats which we sculpted into a large castle, complete with turrets, for the many underage guests. The third wedding was a simple, elegant affair in a formal garden on an estate, followed by a dinner cruise which boasted an open bar and a DJ.

To date, I’ve probably attended around 40 weddings as well as fulfilling various roles at them: flower girl, guest book attendant, gift attendant, babysitter, cake server, song leader and soloist. I’ve been a bridesmaid four times and now, as a pastor, I’ve officiated a few weddings, one of which took place under a dripping palm tree at the wind-whipping tail end of an Arizona monsoon.

Weddings, I’ve learned, are as diverse as the couples they honor. But for all that diversity – for all the poignant walks down the aisle, the beautiful music, the first dances, the funny and sentimental toasts – nothing beats the moment when a couple takes their vows.

Vows are what make a wedding something more than a party we throw to celebrate our friends. When you stop and think about life and our culture, it’s truly an uncommon thing to stand before a public audience and before God, to pledge your life to someone else. Whether the language is formal or casual, traditional or unique, long-winded or concise, all vows say, in essence – I’m all in, forever, with you.

Even as a happy single person I am deeply affected by these moments, these vows. Pause and think of the magnitude of saying, I love you in such a way that I will put your needs before my own. The weight, both joyful and challenging, of living up to such love! Each marriage is a new creation, and vows are the moment of incarnation. My eyes are usually dry at weddings until the vows. That’s when my tears flow like cheap champagne; it’s a moment, an event, beautiful to behold.

Recently, though, I’ve been crying sad tears. It seems like every month I get a message or phone call from another friend whose marriage is in significant crisis. For the first time in my life I have a special prayer list just for couples. The list has grown to twelve names. The issues they battle are varied and complex: infidelity, loss of faith, mental health difficulties, conflict resulting from unanticipated change, stagnation, and things they can’t yet articulate. My friends are hurting and angry and afraid, and I hate that there is nothing I can do to fix it. All my prayers seem to turn out the same – God, I don’t know what they need, as individuals and as a couple, but you do. Provide what they need! Do it now.

As I’ve prayed, as my ear has grown hot against my cell phone – as I’ve pondered this creation we call marriage which seems as fine and fragile as bone china – I’ve felt moved to write a manifesto of sorts. So, if you are one of the friends I’m talking about, this part is for you.

As someone who loves you and who believes that marriage is a sacred thing, I make a public declaration and a commitment to you as you walk this valley of shadows. I do this because on the day you said, “I do,” I didn’t just show up for the wine and cake. When you said, “I’m all in,” in front of God and all of those witnesses, in my heart I said the same.

I wish I had a magic wand to erase the painful events, the misunderstandings, the words that can’t be taken back, the erupting diseases that brought you to this place, but we both know that magic wands are fairy-tale fluff. So I promise that I won’t try to diminish the giant monsters you are battling by giving you manufactured pearls of wisdom. If you’re looking for advice and I don’t know what to say, I’ll just say so. I may not have many – or any – answers, but I promise to listen long and well to your concerns.

I will doggedly remind you that you are not alone. Yes, you’ve discovered that a disintegrating marriage is one of the loneliest existences on earth, but you are not alone. Think of your wedding album, about the crowd in all those pictures. Many people love you and would consider it an honor to encircle you with support in this crisis, just as they did at your wedding. It takes courage to admit we don’t have it all together and deep faith to confess when things are falling apart. I will continue to encourage you to be faithful and courageous, which means regular reminders to care for yourself, to gather the support that you need, and to seek professional help. I will gently remind you that there is no shame in seeing a counselor; in fact, it’s a positive choice, a great, long-term investment in your personal and relational health and healing.

I promise to be a safe place for you to experience or express any emotion. You can use all kinds of colorful and “unacceptable” language and not worry that I won’t make eye contact tomorrow. You can yell or be silent. We can go kick-boxing or open the mega-pack of tissues from Costco.

And while everything is safe with me, I promise I won’t let you get away with unjust or dishonest speech about your spouse. Afterall, I hope (and deep down, under all these thorns, I believe you hope) that you will discover a way to healing and stay married until death parts you. Really loving you means that I have to be honest with you. I can’t only try to make you feel good if it leads to avoidance or denial; that isn’t the path to healing. So as difficult and risky as it might be, I will be honest with you about what I see, but I’ll do my best to infuse my honesty with compassion so it won’t sting too badly.

I promise to keep your confidence, but if I fail in this, I will confess and ask your forgiveness. And when I’m in company and free to speak, I will speak of both you and your spouse with respect.

I will pray without ceasing until these clouds pass.

And if the day comes when your marriage ends, I will never treat you like a failure.

These are my solemn vows. Hold me accountable to them. If I’ve hurt you, please tell me. If you need something more or something less from me, don’t hesitate to speak up. I may not be able to give you what you need, but I promise to be here, to listen, to remind you of God’s love and forgiveness, to be your friend in sickness and in health, in grief and gladness.

May gladness be your epilogue.

Lily of the Valley symbolizes a return to happiness.

Lily of the Valley symbolizes a return to happiness.

Scripture Most Evangelicals Don’t Believe

“The board could not reach unity about hiring a single woman to do family ministries.” This sentence was the culmination of a five month interview process with a church. The main components of the position I applied for were adult spiritual formation and pastoral care to families. The search team spoke at length with six of my references to hear stories of my ministry and they grilled me with tough questions for hours. They unanimously recommended me to their board as the candidate called to this position. And then, in a completely unexpected turn of events (for the search team, pastor and me), the elder board rejected their recommendation. The pastor had the unfortunate burden of calling to tell me why I would not be called to serve their church. He told me that, for the elders, it wasn’t so much that I am a woman as it was the fact that I am single.

None of the board members met or interviewed me. Their decision was not based on the Lord’s presence in my life, the fruit of my ministry, my character or my professional qualifications, though I am sure the search team and the pastor gave witness to all of these. They based their decision, it seems, on the belief that there is an incompatibility between the role of pastor and singleness.

This decision reveals an implicit bias widely ingrained in the evangelical community – that being married is best. I believe that because Paul uses a marriage metaphor in an attempt to describe the depth of Christ’s love for the church (see Ephesians 5:21-33; 2 Corinthians 11:1-3), and because as we interpret and apply scripture we have not understood that there are limits to metaphor, we evangelicals have allowed the Christ/Church marriage metaphor to transform our understanding of human marriage into the quintessential symbol of relational health, wholeness and joy.

The belief in the greatness of marriage has so saturated evangelical culture that our beliefs about singleness are shaped almost entirely by default. Because we see marriage as such a beautiful and whole expression of love, singleness has becomes a less-than, not-to-be-envied, even suspect, way of living. This bias reveals itself every time I visit a new church or meet a new group of believers who, when they discover that I am single, start telling me about their unmarried friends, brothers, cousins and coworkers like eager sales associates for eHarmony. It waves its banner annually when our pastors preach a multi-week sermon series promoting healthy marriage while offering (maybe) one sermon or a two-minute aside about living faithfully in singleness. (This trend is even more problematic when we consider the reality that, according to the 2012 census, singles make up 47% of the adult population in the United States.) We see the slimy underbelly of the evangelical bias toward marriage when believers speculate together about the sexual orientation of friends and family who remain single in their late twenties and thirties and beyond. (Is there a more unchristian practice than this?) And it is our unchecked, unbalanced bias toward marriage that leads even our elders to believe that single people and childless people cannot empathize with and minister to couples and parents.

I can’t help but notice that all of these beliefs and assumptions about marriage and singleness exist in riotous tension with another of Paul’s letters. In my opinion, 1 Corinthians 7 is perhaps the single-most ignored, if not disbelieved, passage of scripture by evangelicals today. I encourage you to grab your Bible and take an hour to listen to, pray through and study this passage, but for the sake of our current topic, I’ll quote only highlights:

7I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do…17Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them…25Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.32I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.39A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

Paul talks about singleness and marriage in a balanced way, not denigrating either lifestyle, calling them both gifts from God. How many evangelicals do you know, married or single, who really view singleness as a gift?

It doesn’t take an exegetical contortionist to pick up on Paul’s inclination toward singleness. He actually recommends that believers remain unmarried because it allows them to focus solely on pleasing the Lord. He says, “it is good” or kalos to remain unmarried. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says that kalos was a word “applied by the Greeks to everything so distinguished in form, excellence, goodness, usefulness, as to be pleasing; hence [to be kalos was to be] beautiful, excellent, eminent, choice, surpassing, precious…”

What I love so much about this passage is that it reminds us that to marry or to remain single is a choice, and to choose to remain single is a beautiful, admirable thing. By Paul’s testimony, those of us who are unmarried have the advantage of space within our hearts and lives to devote ourselves first and foremost to Christ. The word devoted (verse 34) can be literally translated “sitting constantly by.” What a beautiful image, that being single allows us to sit constantly by Jesus. What a wonderful, perhaps even ideal, context in which to minister to the church.

I know many naysayers would ask me how I reconcile this with Paul’s teaching about overseers in 1 Timothy 3 –“the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife…he must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him…” People often read this passage as a job description for pastors and consequently believe that overseers must be men who are married and have children. I believe that Paul writes descriptively from within the culture and context of the early church, not to indicate that he sees gender, marital status and parenthood as prescribed conditions every potential overseer must meet. It seems that the main point of Paul’s instructions to Timothy is that overseers must be people of integrity and proven character. If marital status and parenthood were ‘must haves’ in leading the church, then Paul himself would not have been respected by the early church as the wise apostle and advisor that he was.

A woman recently asked me to be her mentor. She is older than I am, married and has a child. Her husband asked her why she would approach me when I am not married. She told him that she chose me because I am wise. She believes I can help her unpack the message of scripture and help her weave it into her daily life. With a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, I can and will.

Every day I minister to men, to married people and to parents. Our congregants respect me and seek me out for counsel not because I share the same life experiences they do (in most cases I don’t); they seek me out because they have seen consistent evidence of my character, they know my devotion to God and his Word, and they have seen me live what I preach. Bottom line – they trust me – not because of my age, gender, marital status or how many child I have or have not birthed, but because I am a faithful servant of our God.

Singleness is a good gift from God. It is a way of life that should be respected in the church, if nowhere else. It could be approached as a significant life choice to be prayerfully discerned by young adults and by those following a call to ministry. How many evangelicals believe this? How many single Christians believe this? Unfortunately, we seem to have shaped our regard for marriage and singleness based on cultural influences and our personal experiences rather than the teaching of scripture.

It’s Valentine’s Day, church. I want you to hear and believe this message, as I do: there is nothing deficient in me or my ministry because I am single. With God’s strength, mercy and love, I can do all things. I cheerfully celebrate Valentines Day and every day because I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a God whose love for me is whole and fulfilling. I wholeheartedly support and work for healthy marriages and families. Would you do the same for me in my singleness?