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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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