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.