Faith / Family / Ordinary Life

A Wedding Homily

These words were spoken at the marriage of Madison & Pamela on August 8, 2009 in Durham, NC.

Earlier this week I was speaking in the Midwest, and on Wednesday was walking down the main street of Lawrence, Kansas, proud home of the University of Kansas. And what did I see? A t-shirt in a window of a barbershop, the distinctive Kansas blue and red and gold boldly proclaiming to all with interest: “Kansas: The Birthplace of Carolina Basketball.” Well, dear friends, I could not not remember that on this day, when two of Carolina’s best come together in holy matrimony, pledging their hearts to each other as only Tar Heels can and should.

A few weeks ago Madison and Pamela joined my wife and me for dinner, and we had a very good time together. We loved hearing their story, we loved listening into their dreams, full of smiles as you would want their life to be. I told Pamela then, with Madison sitting very close beside her, that the first time I met her, I was glad for him. As we all saw last night, she has been beautiful her whole life, inside and out. She is the one I hoped he would find. That he did, and that Pamela found him too, must make the angels sing, “Glory, glory, glory!”

You have asked me to muse on the meaning of marriage, and so I will. As I told Meg, that I have anything to say is simply because she has faithfully loved me, teaching me to love and to be loved, and in her love I delight. So thank you, my darling.

As those who love you, we gather around you to give witness to your promises of love to each other. We take our place in the generations of your families who have over the years and centuries made their own commitments to marriage, commitments that of course have made this day possible. There is a company in heaven and on earth who stand with you, who stand behind you, who long with you and for you, as you promise to love until death do you part. I hope that you feel the grace of that as you stand here now.

When Madison and I began to become friends several years ago, I was his professor. I loved him for his eagerness to understand. Week after week he took the ideas of class seriously, he took the reading seriously; even with his wonderfully easy and honest laughter, he wanted to learn all that he could learn. Over time he began to seek more conversation, and on many occasions we met for breakfast. Intellectually alive, passionate about ideas and words, he is also a young man who knows who he is and where is from, and in that he glories.

The rootedness of Madison’s life in a people and a place is one of the best gifts he has been given. When we lose those relationships we lose something crucial our humanity. As I have come to know him he has caused me think of another whose life I have come to know and love. Like Madison this man also loves ideas and words, even as he loves his family and community. A keen observer of life, he is a storyteller and a farmer, a poet and a social critic—his name is Wendell Berry.

In one of his novels, The Memory of Old Jack, Berry tells another tale of what he calls the Port William Membership, the community over time which has lived and moved and had its being in the little town of Port William along the banks of the Kentucky River. These are people whose lives and histories have intersected with each other over generations. They do in truth belong to each other, whether they want to or not, whether they know it or not. In his own allusive and poetic account of the moral meaning of community, they are a membership, deeply and truly. They are a people whose lives cannot be made sense of apart from each other.

Old Jack’s story is one of Berry’s best. Beginning with his very first years of life, we are given windows into the years of his whole life—from his boyhood until the day he dies. If the first chapter tells of Jack watching his older brothers ride off to a war from which they would not return, another chapter tells of his love for the girl who would become his wife. The sentences and paragraphs create a tapestry of incredible beauty, as Berry captures the wonder and hope and longing and happiness of young love, of a young man and a young woman slowly deciding for each other, slowly choosing to love this one and this one alone.

On a different day it would be worthy of our time to stop and read aloud. Hear these few words:

And now five or six rows in front of him, Jack sees a head he doesn’t recognize—as beautiful a head, surely, as he will ever see, the hair heavy and rich, the color of honey and butter, but worn with a simplicity, a lack of ostentation, that moves him strangely. There is something about that head that is both opulent and innocent. For a moment, though he does not move, he strains toward her, looking at her as though to memorize every tiny detail of the look of her; it is a memory that will stay with him, clear as his eye was then, for sixty-three years. And then he settles back into himself. Well!

From this first sighting of the woman who would become his beautiful bride, the story goes on, and with delight we listen into the ways of young love, so full of what might be, of what ought to be.

But then I sigh, and if you knew the story as I do, you would sigh too. If the one is a chapter of love gladly found and given, the next is a chapter of love lost. Not a physical death, as sweet Dora to David Copperfield, but a death of hope and dream, a death of the desire to love. What once seemed so full of possibility stumbles into sadness, and the tenderness and yearning of early love becomes hard-hearted indifference. Berry writes,

The illusions and false hopes of their courtship could not survive the intimacy of their marriage, and in the failure of their courtship their marriage failed.

A sober note, isn’t it, on a day of glory like this one? And yet, I do want us to hear these words, as we also ponder the words of promised love that you, Madison and Pamela, offer to each other. Marriage does not take place in abstraction; rather it is only understood as we live into its meaning, into its reality. Words must become flesh—if we are to understand them.

Your words today represent the years of your lives, from the little boy prayer of Madison that his father told us of last night, to Pamela’s longest-held hopes that someday she would find a man worthy of her heart. How will you two take into your young love these words of wisdom, hard as they are, from The Memory of Old Jack? That it is one thing to be captivated by love, to be enchanted by another; and it is something else altogether to learn to love in such a way that early love becomes older love, that the love of courtship becomes a long-
loved love.

As the resident theologian of Durham, Stanley Hauerwas, once put it, “We do not fall in love and then get married; we get married and then learn what love requires.” Everyone who has been married for more than a day knows the truth of those words. We get married and then learn what loves requires.

As I have watched marriages over the years, as I have lived within my marriage over the years, there are two habits of heart that seem to sustain good marriages. They are at the heart of what love requires: to take delight in, and to give grace to.

Delight and grace—hear them again. What is it about delight and grace that keeps a marriage alive over time?

If our desire is to see the passion of young love grow into a good marriage, a marriage where both wife and husband are nourished in heart and mind, then it is the decision to day after day after day to delight in the other that will keep love alive. There is a sense, Madison and Pamela, and as your family and friends we would not have it be other, that it is easy for you to do that today. It will be easy to do that tomorrow, and for a week of tomorrows. But to keep deciding to delight in each other—this one, and this one alone, has my heart—that is a work of love that is yet before you. And yet the health and happiness of your marriage absolutely depends upon your willingness to choose and to choose again to delight in each other. In a thousand ways, tenderly and affectionately offered as you alone will know, you will be sustained over the years of your life together by delighting in each other. Madison, Pamela will need that from you—tonight, yes, but even more so the nights of your life over the course of your life. She will need to hear that and see that and feel that as you wake in the morning, as you enter into the thousands of midday conversations that will be yours, as you watch her become the mother of your children, as you watch her grow into the grandmother of your grandchildren, day upon day she will need to know that she is the delight of your eyes.

But twined together with delight, is grace. If your honeymoon is indeed that, a glory worth remembering all the days of your life, there will come a day when all is not glory, when in fact grace alone will keep your love alive. Pamela, Madison will need that from you perhaps more than any other gift you will give. Like every son of Adam before him, he is a clay-footed man, and he will say and do things that will disappoint and hurt you; he will fall short of the glory of God, and of your hopes for a husband—and because he will, he will need your grace, he will need you to give grace one more time. Marriages that are kept alive over the years, where both husbands and wives find honest happiness together, are absolutely dependent upon the giving of grace. The world is just too broken, we are just too fallen, for it to be any other way. As these days of young love grow into time-tested love, Madison will need to know that as you come to know him more completely, that you love him more completely. In most of life, when we know, we choose not to love; how can we, after all? Now we know!? And now that we know, how can we possibly love? We promise ourselves that we will not be fooled again. We protect ourselves from being hurt again, because sometimes it hurts, very terribly, to know another, to trust ourselves to another.

Dear ones, it is easier to love the idea of love than it is to love. Love means taking into our hearts real people, wounded and wounding as they are. The longer I live the more sure I am that to know and to love together, to know and then to choose to love, is the most difficult choice we make as human beings; nothing requires more of us—and it requires a great grace.

As I read Berry, reflecting on his gifts to all of us, it is his understanding of the covenantal character of life that most intrigues me. With unusual insight he knows that we are bound up with each other, that we are dependent upon each other, that we need each other; that there is a mutuality at the heart of human life, and that it is in our responsibility to and for each other that we are most fully human. This is what covenant means, always and everywhere.

From the beginning of time, at the covenant of creation on through to the covenant with Noah and Abraham and Moses and David, and finally to the covenant made flesh in Jesus—the word made flesh—to be in covenant always means to be in relationships marked by delight and grace. Yes, by amazing grace, the God of heaven and earth delights in us. As Deuteronomy teaches, it was not because the people of Israel were stronger or smarter or bigger than the other peoples of the earth; it was simply because God chose to love them. God chose to delight in them, God chose to give grace to them, year after year, generation upon generation.

As J. I. Packer says so well in his classic, Knowing God, it is not so much that we know God that matters, but that he knows us; in fact that he knew the worst about us when he chose to love us, and that no discovery now can disillusion him about us in the way that we are so often disillusioned about ourselves. That is the gospel, that is good news—and that is the heart and soul of the covenant God makes with us.

Today is a day of covenant-making, this day of marriage, of promises made and of love declared. And we are your people, Madison and Pamela, the ones who have come together because of great love for you, and we are the ones who will stand with you, not only today, but for your life. More than any others on the face of the earth, we will hope for you, we will long with you as you find your way into the delights and graces of marriage.

But as we do that, we also say to you that we want you to know that the words you give to each other today will be morally meaningful, if they lead you into proximate happiness together. Proximate—not perfect? Yes, proximate, not perfect. Proximate means close, sometimes very close—but not quite. It is real, so real that it can be touched, but it is not complete, not perfect. At your very best you will disappoint each other; at your very best you will find that you cannot be all that the other requires. There will be needs unmet, hopes unsatisfied. And then what will you do? Will you be able to find honest and true happiness together, proximate happiness together, and be glad for that? Or do you require of yourselves, and this almost perfect day, a perfect marriage as the only possible future, the only future that you will accept?

Madeleine L’Engle has written about this as well as anyone that I know. In her collection of poems, The Weather of the Heart, she begins with seven poems that she calls, “To A Long-Loved Love.” For those who know her life and work, these are best read in relationship to her book, The Two-Part Invention, which is the story of her forty-year marriage, tenderly, poignantly told from the perspective of the last year of her marriage as her husband was dying of cancer. But these poems have been a gift to Meg and me, many times over many years, giving words that we did not have on our own as we have stumbled along in our longing to love and to be loved. The final poem is worthy of our hearing together:

Because you’re not what I would have you be
I blind myself to who, in truth, you are.
Seeking mirage where desert blooms, I mar
Your you. Aaah. I would like to see
Past all delusion to reality.
Then would I see God’s image in your face,
His hand in yours, and in your eyes his grace.
Because I’m not what I would have me be,
I idolize Two who are not in any place,
Not you, not me, and so we never touch.
Reality would burn. I do not like it much.
And yet in you, in me, I find a trace
Of love which struggles to break through
The hidden lovely truth of me, of you.

There are no perfect marriages because there is no perfect love because there are no perfect people. We are clay-footed, one and all. And you, as beautiful and gifted as you are, Madison and Pamela, are clay-footed too. By the tender mercy of God, a proximate happiness is there for you to find together. Be glad in it, be grateful for it.

Because of my work I am often in conversation with people from other parts of the world. Over the years I have heard this observation from people who know the U.S. well, from Asians, Africans, Arabs. They put it like this: “In your culture you marry the women that you love; in our culture we love the women that we marry.” Like all broad-brushstroke interpretations of life, it is mostly true—and yet of course there are exceptions. It is important to note that the difference in cultures, in the way that love and marriage are understood within cultures, carries no moral weight, necessarily. And there is of course infidelity on both sides, in the majority world and in our world. What I do find worth pondering is this: our ways of coming into marriage are a minority opinion, in history and in the world all over the world. Most people do not see it as we do, in the individualism and autonomy of the West; ours is truly a minority opinion. As much as it feels very normal and natural to us—“Of course we will marry the women, and the men, that we love!”—our ways seem strange to the watching world. That ought to be instructive to us, and humbling to us as we muse over the meaning of marriage.

So, dear ones that you are, on this most wonderful of wedding days, our strong hope is that you, Madison and Pamela, will do both, that you are in truth marrying the one that you love, and that you will love the one that you marry. May it be so.

And may God bless you and keep you and may his face shine upon you, on this day of promises made, and all of the days of your life together, bringing those promises into being. May the words of this day become flesh between you.

Copyright © 2009 Steven Gilchrist Garber

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