Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Matrimonial musings. Part 1

Thirteen years ago today, I married Kristi.

I don't remember much about the day. I remember wearing a rented tux, while thinking that men renting a used garment for their wedding and women buying a dress at a significantly higher price, for the same event, says all kinds of interesting things about exactly whom these ceremonies are predominantly for. I also remember my brother, my best man, kept speaking in an Irish accent. He kept asking, "Doo ya loff har?"to which I was supposed to respond, "Aye. Ah doo." He also continued willfully misunderstanding "best man" as a superlative, telling others repeatedly, "I'm the best man in this whole building."  I remember inadvertently walking into the space Kristi was getting ready and seeing her before I was supposed to. This upset her, which momentarily had me thinking I'd ruined our wedding before it started. It wouldn't have been the first time I'd ruined something before it got off the ground. I can be sort of a North Korean rocket sometimes.

The rest of the day is a blur of faces and words. Being escorted down back halls so I wouldn't see Kristi or walk under any ladders. Pats on the back from jovial men, telling me I had but a few more moments of freedom, which isn't funny the third time. Tearful women in my family who were happy for me, and perhaps a bit stunned that I was marrying at all, let alone someone the caliber of Kristi. My mother-in-law, leaning in to tell me that if I ever hurt her daughter, she'd kill me, and me momentarily forgetting how to swallow as I wondered what her humor/sincerity ratio was. I remember the lump in my throat when Kristi appeared and walked down the isle, and how surreal that felt. Gorgeous woman. No less so today. Then the ceremony, the candle lighting, my best friend Jonathan shredding on the acoustic for the requisite musical interlude, a perfectly out-of-place high five from an old schoolmate as Kristi and I walked back down the isle, and then eating with various family members at Chili's or O'Charley's or the like. 

But there's one thing I completely forgot until I started doing weddings a few years later as a pastor. And that was the exact content of our wedding vows. We did the traditional vows because, as NT Wright points out, it's not likely that you'll know what your signing up for on your first day of one the biggest commitments of your life. Sometimes tradition is tradition because it's been tested and found strong. Often, wisdom says embrace tradition.

Our vows went like this:
I Steve, take you Kristi, to be my wife. To have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until we are separated by death. As God is my witness, I give you my promise.

Most of the hiccups I've had as a husband over the years have been largely due to forgetting or not understanding what I signed up for. And most of the problems I see married couples having is essentially the same thing. What we say in our vows, and how we actually relate to our spouses just moments after the vows are made, are very much at odds.

Note that these vows, and most likely all the adaptations and versions that we've heard in the weddings we've been to, have only one contingency; death. They are completely focused on serving the other, with no demand for a return on investment. This is not to say that death is the only acceptable reason for a marriage to end. My point isn't the justifications for divorce. My point is the attitude of the one making the vow being rooted in other-centeredness. Note that there is nothing like, "as long as you make me happy" or "As long as you remember not to bug me too much and make my efforts worth it for me" or "as long as you maintain a body shape, outlook and disposition that I can derive pleasure from" in the vow. These would be terrible things to promise. They are obviously base and immature sentiments that don't require vowing at all. Yet, after making these "you-first-always-until-I'm-dead" vows, we very often begin a journey of trying to get the other to be and do in accord with our preferences.  Or else. The other-centered vows get swallowed up in our actual, selfish style of relating. 

Reciprocity and love aren't the same thing, and in fact may be mortal enemies. Marriages are rooted in love, business is rooted in reciprocity. Many marriages are struggling and sputtering because they are being built on "if/then" contractual thinking. The couple act like business owners, only doing what is profitable, and cutting back things that don't pay off regardless of how well received the "product" was by the customer. And this all makes sense, largely. It's how most of the interactions we have seem to function. The transactions we make outnumber our acts of service by a pretty significant margin. In light of how so much of our existence works, it's hard to imagine even wanting to do something with no demand for a return. Some might argue that there is no such thing. And yet, vows keep getting made, we keep getting misty-eyed, and we still believe somewhere that there is beauty, at least conceptually, in one serving another no matter the ups and downs or personal costs ahead. Underneath our transactional living, we long for the beauty we hear hinted at in our vows.

So a few questions.

What if what Christ said is true; that it is more blessed to give than to receive? That's not a contrasting statement, it's one of scale. The last thing any of us should try is being selfless. Jesus never commands us to be selfless. He simply espouses less self. 
What if it's better to serve than to be served? 
What if the life we're trying to mine from our spouses is actually found in serving them, ministering to them, and allowing them to be whatever they are without it costing them our commitment and tenderness? 
What if the vows we make aren't just supposed to sound beautiful? What if they are? What if they are beautiful not for their loftiness, but for them being the keys to experiencing the happiness we've been deceived into thinking is the responsibility of our spouse? 
What if fullness of life comes from saying "no matter what, I will always work to submit my interests to yours"?  

These questions are worth asking when we feel like giving up on the person we've committed our life to. It's worth asking if our struggles couldn't be alleviated to some degree (completely?) by simply going back and reminding ourselves that we signed up for a life marked chiefly by serving, not by being served. Or, in short, reminding ourselves that we signed up for love.

“Love is unselfishly choosing for another’s highest good.” – C. S. Lewis

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