For Fred And Becky

Ben H. Swett
Bethany Christian Church
14 March 1982

Fred and Becky have asked me to say a few words on the subject of marriage ... but I really don't know much about that subject. I've only been married once. And besides, I've only been married for 26 going on 27 years, so I'm just a beginner. Perhaps being married is like being a Christian, because I'm always a beginner at that, too. But nevertheless, having forewarned you that I'm not an expert, I'll share a few thoughts that may or may not be relevant to this occasion.

Ideals

First, it seems to me that more than two people come forward to be married. There is a man and a woman, and with them come his idea of what a wife should be and his idea of what a husband should be, plus her idea of what a husband should be and her idea of what a wife should be. All six of these people, two real and four ideal, are involved in the wedding and will be involved in the marriage.

We have to assume that a bride is fairly close to her groom's idea of what a wife should be, and vice versa, or there wouldn't be a wedding. On the other hand, it's not likely that either of them fit perfectly into the other's ideal, and that's probably just as well. Suppose they did. Suppose two real people were precisely what their marriage partner was looking for. Would that be a perfect marriage? I don't think so. I think they would tend to keep each other just as they are, so neither of them would be as likely to grow or improve. The marriage might be fun for them, but the real people might not develop any further.

If there's too much difference between the real people and the ideal people, the marriage is on shaky ground from the beginning. However, if they are a close, but not quite perfect match, then the two real people are likely to try to improve each other--just a little, here and there--and that can be good for them, because few human beings are beyond improvement. The French have a saying, "Vive la difference!" and it might mean more than we usually think it does. It could apply to the difference between real and ideal that is the growing edge for improvement.

Is trying to improve your mate a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know, but I think the answer must depend on which way a person wants his or her partner to change. In some cases, the ideal might be an ill-digested amalgamation of old parent tapes, societal stereotypes, personal preferences and romantic notions. If so, the real person may be superior to the ideal, so the ideal needs to be changed. In other cases, one or both of the real people may stand to benefit greatly from the altering influence of his or her marriage partner, toward the partner's ideal.

This is one of the areas where Christians have an advantage. If your partner's idea of what you should be is based on the teachings of Jesus, then his or her efforts to change you toward that ideal are actually good for you. That's something to think about, especially when you get tired of your mate's efforts to improve you.

Don't take it too seriously

The same line of reasoning applies to the ideal that each person has for his or her own role in the marriage. For example, some people take their ideal of their own role much too seriously. They try so hard to be the perfect husband or wife, as they dimly define the term, that they drive all the joy out of themselves and make their partner miserable. That is, to put it mildly, not smart. It would be better to build some latitude into the ideal, to leave room for laughter and the right to be wrong. After all, we are pretty funny and most of our mistakes are less than lethal.

If we reserve the right to be wrong, and correct our mistakes without getting too up-tight about it, then the Golden Rule demands that we respect our partner's right to be wrong, which is the freedom to make mistakes. There are a lot of big words that try to describe this liberating idea, but I don't know any that have more meaning for me than "patience" and "kindness" and "mercy."

As I said, I don't have any magic answers to this distinction between real and ideal husbands and wives. Each couple has to work it out for themselves, and it may take more than a fortnight or two. However, I believe marriage is at least as much a process of learning as it is of loving and living, and we all would be well advised to take that into account. The time may come when we have to choose between the real person we married and the ideal person we thought we married, or between the real person we are and the ideal person we wish we were.

Step outside the problem

Some people say that married couples should learn how to fight. There are lots of books now that teach marital infighting, but when I was young we were told just the opposite. We were imbued with the romantic notion that people "Got married and lived happily ever after." If they had a fight, they were supposed to feel guilty about it and pretend it never happened. Then the popular slogan "All's fair in love and war" came along to replace romance with cynicism. But I say, "A plague on all those notions." I think people should expect to disagree, and to fight once in awhile--unless one of them is a jellyfish or a doormat--but I don't think people need to study marital fighting the way they study karate. I think it would be better to invest some effort in learning how to make up after a fight. That's where the fun comes in.

If one or both partners can step out of themselves, even for a moment, and see themselves and their partner as the sweet, stupid, loveable, valuable, fallible little children that we all really are, then the urgency of the issue tends to go away. Of course, we are least likely to remember this just when we need to remember it most, but practice may make practical, if not perfect, human beings.

Choice

Marriage has a different meaning now than it once did. It used to be expected, almost demanded, in our society, but now it's more and more a matter of choice. When viewed as a choice, it seems a bit awesome.

Responsibility now rests more and more on the individual, and the society doesn't help very much. It's not only your choice to be married or not to be married; it's also your choice to stay married or not to stay married. Your mutual covenant is renewable daily. Either of you can break it simply by changing your mind. Trust is required because marriage is not enforced. Now that marriage is a daily choice rather than submission to societal norms, there is something courageous, almost fool-hardy, in this blatant public commitment to each other and the unknown future. You cannot possibly know what the future will hold. You cannot know each other or yourselves well enough to make such promises, and it wouldn't help much if you did, because people change. Therefore, what you are doing is a gamble, a step in the dark, a mutual adventure and a mutual investment.

It's almost as though you were saying, "I don't play penny-ante games. I want no less than a lifetime--table stakes, up front--with all its treasure and all its pain. I am willing to make that kind of commitment, and I feel I am worth the same kind of commitment on the part of my spouse." It's a bit gutsy, when you think about it, this step in the dark, and it's surely more admirable as a matter of choice than it was when society demanded it.

Roses and thorns

People get married for a lot of reasons, and marriage means different things to different people. To some, it's an escape; to others, a rite of passage, an economic arrangement, or a status symbol. To some, it becomes a castle against adversity, or a cave to hide in; a home to return to, or a prison to escape from. It all depends on the people involved and how they define the concept of marriage.

Given that each couple defines marriage for themselves, I think you are making an admirable public statement of what your marriage will mean to you. From your selection of the songs and the symbols used in this service, and from the wording of your vows, I believe you define marriage as a spiritual partnership, an adventure to be shared. If I hear you correctly, you have said, in your selection of the song presented just before the processional, that you don't want to share only half of life. You want it all--the bitter and the sweet, the boredom and the excitement, the laughter and the anger, the sorrow and the joy--the whole thing; the whole richness of human experience, undiluted and unmitigated. I think you are to be congratulated for seeing through the romantic notion that happily married people should not have hard times. If you welcome the hard times as tools of growth and work with them--together--for your mutual strengthening, then you will be free of a societal myth that has destroyed many a marriage.

I've seen the results of keeping the hard side of the marriage vows. For example, there was a woman in this church who lay sick in a nursing home for many years. Her husband kept the letter and the spirit of his vow: "In sickness and in health." He came every day, for most of the day, and took care of her. He talked with her, and read to her, and kept her mind alive. I saw the look in her eyes, a look of inexpressible gratitude, as she watched him leave the room to go visit another patient. And I tell you, the bond between those two people, forged in pain and suffering and sacrifice, is far stronger than anything built on pleasure or comfort or satisfaction.

I am beginning to think that the hard side--the hard times that no one would wish for or seek or wish on another--may in fact be the most beneficial and strengthening aspect of marriage.

Vows

I would like to say something about the nature of vows. As I said, I don't know much about marriage, but I do know something about vows.

First, a vow is a promise you make to yourself. You take a vow upon yourself, as an act of your own free will. That's why we say vows are taken, rather than given, and that is why no one can ever truly take a vow for anyone else.

Second, no one can hold you to your vows. Although many nations and religions have tried, no law of God or man can enforce a vow, because it is strictly an act of individual free will. That's why there's no way you can make your partner keep his or her vows; you can only keep or not keep your own.

Third, vows are almost invariably tested, sooner or later, by the normal course of events, and they do not become real until they are tested. When you say, "I will..." that's a prediction, not a fact, until your will has been tested in the crucible of action. Then and only then can you honestly say, "I have..." And only after many repetitions of successful testing can you honestly say, "I really do keep my vows."

Fourth, how well you understand what you're doing today will be revealed to you by your own reaction to the testing of your vows. If you find yourself thinking, "But you promised..." then you have not understood. If you find yourself thinking, "Nevertheless, I promised..." then you have understood the nature of vows.

Fifth, it has been said that the vows taken by priests and nuns are like marriage vows, and that is true. However, the opposite is also true. The vows you take here today are no less sacred and no less stringent than those taken by the members of any religious order. They are no less sacred, because you have not left God out of them. They are no less stringent, because you are taking a partner into this order with you, instead of entering it alone. In fact, the order you are entering is the only form of discipleship designed for a man and a woman as a team. It can be a training ground for souls, more real, more difficult, and more rewarding in terms of spiritual growth than any monastery or convent that ever existed.

Summary

Marriage is an opportunity in which a man and a woman can learn how to love each other, and their in-laws, and their children, and an ever-increasing circle of friends and neighbors and relatives. Real love grows in height and breadth and depth until it transcends all human distinctions. Therefore, the reality you can build from this beginning is not limited to yourselves alone; and as you know, it is not limited to this world. The reality you can build together is the kind of love that is both the will and the very nature of God.

Amen.