MARRIAGE (FIND THE ACRONYM!)
On the 15th April, 1995, the Rev. Jan Croucher (my wife) and I 'celebrated' the marriage of our daughter Amanda, to John Southwell. The beautiful service at the Heathmont Baptist Church in Melbourne, Victoria, began with Amanda's four cousins - sisters who are all brilliant musicians - playing Bach's Air on the G String. After the vows, a homily. Here's what I said:
It is a privilege and joy to summarize the 'wisdom of the ages' (and of 35* years of marriage) about 'how to be happy though married'. Last year I spent three months writing a book about marriage and family, and read all the 'experts'...
I've delivered many of these homilies before, but only once at the wedding of one of my children... John and Amanda, these thoughts are a gift to you as you set out on one of life's greatest (and riskiest) adventures.
Actually, they're thoughts put together by both of us, your parents, on a romantic outing to and from the opera Turandot last Wednesday evening...
Marriage, according to the experts, is about eight things:
However, if you marry to find happiness you're marrying for the wrong reason. Happiness is where you find it, not where you seek it.
Happiness is serendipitous - a by-product of doing other worthwhile things. As you set some big goals for your life together, you'll look back from time to time and say of this occasion or that, 'Wasn't it great?'
And by the way, your partner can't 'make you happy': that's a decision you make for yourself. Indeed no other person on earth can satisfy all your needs... Ultimately, as the Psalms and Proverbs reiterate everywhere, 'Happy are those who fear the Lord.'
This is the basic idea in the Christian concept of 'grace'. I am loved by God before I change, before I 'deserve' to be loved. This love-before-worth is to characterize our relationships as well. Indeed, people grow and change more profoundly once they are accepted as they are.
So in marriage, don't impose a program of change on the other: accept him or her as they are, and they'll be more likely to change anyway. Every culture has a proverb which says something to the effect that 'the sun does not command the bud to become a flower, but simply provides a climate of warmth so that the flower can become the beautiful creature it was meant to be.'
The Bible text for us here is Romans 15:7: 'Accept one another for the glory of God, as Christ has accepted you.'
In our culture we 'fall in love' then marry. Romance, says Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) is a genetic trick that nature plays on us to hook us into marriage. Romance is to marriage as the colour of a car is to the car: beautiful, but not necessarily functional to any significant degree. True 'love' is a matter of the will: I _choose_ to love my partner. Romance is emotional and sexual.
Now romance is important: every couple ought to do romantic things together. Last Wednesday night Jan and I walked and talked along the South Bank of the Yarra: it was a magical evening: the city lights and the moon reflected on the water; the temperature was mild; we weren't in a hurry to be anywhere else. Last week a woman said to me, 'He buys me flowers and chocolates. I like that. But I'd rather do interesting or romantic things with him...' The Song of Solomon is a celebration of romantic/sexual love...
In the words of Genesis and Jesus, we leave father and mother and cling to our married partner. In the vows you composed you said you are dedicating your life to the well-being of your mate. Later, you will have some difficult priorities to sort out. Like, 'Who comes first - my partner or my children?' The classical Christian approach to this 'hierarchy of loving' is: God first, spouse second, children third, everything else
(church, job, others) follows. However, in a well-integrated life, these loves do not compete: they enrich each other, and are inter-related.
In the New Testament James invites us to ask for wisdom, and God will give it to us. John, Amanda, you'll need lots of this substance to survive a marriage. Males and females are not the same. Their bodies, minds, emotions and logics are different! Gender-wise, and sexually, they are different. Generally (but not invariably) women tend to have a more finely-developed intuition; men tend to be linear-thinkers. Both are OK, and complement one another: one is good for reading feelings, the other for solving problems. Men need to work harder on figuring out the agendas-behind-words. And I would encourage women to work harder at setting goals...
Should you 'tell everything' to your partner? My answer is 'Almost everything'. You may decide that something is hurtful and will not be received or understood: sometimes you will choose not to 'link your mouth with your mind': some things are best left unsaid.
You are allowed to enjoy your life: you will never come out of it alive! Plan a day off together each week (the coming of children will complicate those plans, however). Look forward to enjoyable and interesting pursuits you both enjoy. But don't live for 'pleasure'. 'Play' is for 're-creation' - to strengthen you to go back into life to work. But you do not live to work: you work to live. Many men, and some women, are bigamous -
married to their jobs as well as their partners. Then, in mid-life, they have a 'crisis' - moving from significance to security, whereas the other might be moving the other way. That's a time for seeking the help of a counselor.
The early Christian leader Paul had a brilliant insight into husband/wife relationships when he exhorted husbands to love their wives, and wives to respect their husbands. The worst fate for a woman is to be raped and killed: self-respecting women feel aweful when treated as objects.
The worst fate for a man is to be shamed before significant others: men sometimes commit suicide if their shame is too great. John and Amanda, if you give gifts of love and respect to each other, you're in for a special marriage.
Two final words: the opera Turandot is about love and death (the words in Italian are similar). All true loving is a kind of dying: 'dying to self' as the Scripture puts it, so that one can please the other.
And a thought from Richard Rohr, whose tapes you'll be hearing on your honeymoon. (He's probably the best popularizer of classical Christian spirituality in the English-speaking world: you'll enjoy him). He quotes Meister Eckhart to the effect that all true spirituality is about subtraction whereas our culture says your significance is measured by all the stuff - money, material objects, degrees, status, power etc. - you add to your life. Don't buy into this heresy.
Marriage is all about being two good forgivers. And that's hard work. Notice the acronym we made from the initial letters of these key words?
The Lord bless you each-and-both, and keep you in his eternal love. Amen.
1. What is happiness? Why is it serendipitous?
2. Why is 'acceptance-before-worth' so difficult? Someone prayed 'Lord, thank you that you love us before we change, as we change, after we change, and whether we change or not' - and it was an 'aha' experience for many at the Prayer Service. Why would that be?
3. Do you agree with Scott Peck's somewhat dismissive idea about romance? What are the relative advantages of the Western approach - falling in love then marrying - versus the traditional way: marrying the person arranged by parents and tribe, then 'falling in love'? What are the real differences between romantic love and realistic love? Share some ideas about romantic things married couples can enjoy...
4. Talk about 'leaving and cleaving'. How can young marrieds be better prepared for the exclusive, life-long commitment which a good marriage requires? How can we learn to 'leave' the habits and bad modeling about a marriage relationship many of us received during our childhood? (For example: he comes from a family where mother rules, father is weak. He therefore has serious trouble relating to the assertiveness of his wife, and her expectations of him as a 'leader' in the marriage).
5. Are males and females different - in the way they think, solve problems etc.? As the title of a book by Allan and Barbara Peace puts it: Why won't men listen and why can't women read maps?
6. About half the Christian writers of books-about-marriage say there should be no secrets at all between married partners. The other half believe that occasionally something might more appropriately be kept from the other for various reasons... What do you think?
7. Try this generalization: 'Males often seek significance through their work, as they try to out-perform their peers. Women mostly seek security rather than significance - and primarily through relationships, and mothering. Then the mid-life crisis, when the situation is often reversed. He comes to the point of asking "Is that all there is?" and wants a relationship with his mate. But she has now made a life of her own and seeks significance in other contexts.'
8. Why do men need the gift of respect so badly? And why are women so fearful of being 'used'? How can 'the dance of marriage' resolve these needs?
P.S. Did you find the acronym?
* Now (2014) 54 years of very happy marriage!
* Now (2014) 54 years of very happy marriage!
Revised June 2014.