Sunday, June 21, 2009

Stronger Than Death

In case any of you were wondering, I asked permission of the couple who inspired this post for permission to include it on my blog. They were more than happy for me to post these thoughts.

Marriage involves serious commitment of a kind not called for in any other relationship. No other human relationship requires that we take vows publicly. And no other relationship fastens one person to another regardless of circumstance or mood; that is, one’s commitment to a marriage partner is not conditioned by the loss of romantic feelings or by misfortune. Consenting to marriage is, therefore, consenting to be this person’s exclusive covenant partner, friend, confidante, and lover through the various experiences of life. It’s a recognition that in this person one has found love. And love means there is a mutual willingness to share a life of fidelity. Whatever else may change, this allegiance is not to alter.

These days the significance of marriage is eroding. Whether we’re talking about divorce, the prevalence of common-law relationships in our culture or the rising (or so it seems) support (legal and social) for same-sex marriage, the value of one man and one woman committing themselves wholeheartedly to one another has become more difficult to discern for many. Especially in a social climate where relationships have become more about personal fulfillment (whether consciously or not), finding relational meaning through sacrificial love is almost quaint.

All this is on my mind for a simple reason. I recently had the privilege of presiding over a young couple’s marriage. Actually, I had this privilege twice! If that seems strange, it’s because the circumstances in this case were exceptional. The first wedding ceremony was held in the event the groom would not be in sufficiently good health to make it to the intended wedding date. Without wanting to sound overly grim, we couldn’t be certain whether he’d even be alive by the actual wedding date. For the last two years he’s been struggling with cancer and this past winter was told it was terminal. Over the last couple of months, his health has worsened. So this is why they asked if I could marry them sooner—they wanted to be sure they would be married.

This situation is exceptional in more than one way. First and most obviously the majority of couples, especially young ones, don’t find themselves having to face the possibility that one of them might die and soon. Maybe especially when we are younger, we tend to live as though we are immortal. We don’t give a lot of thought to our own mortality, at least not willingly. If we do, usually that’s because we are given good reason to do so.

But the other way in which this situation is exceptional is that this couple decided to press forward with the decision to marry even though they had no guarantee that their marriage would last longer than a few months. In purely medical or scientific terms, the chances were not good. Outside of a miracle, the bride would become a widow sooner than later. Yet they married. I think this exceptional because in a day and age when marriage has become a question of convenience and, Lord have mercy, disposable, such a decision—conceivable or not by us—stands as a testimony to its true meaning and purpose as a covenant, not to mention putting real flesh and blood on that part of the traditional wedding vows that say, “in sickness and in health . . . as long as we both shall live.” Rarely do such words resonate as strongly as they do here.

Thinking of this brings to mind these words from Song of Solomon 8:6, 7:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot wash it away.
If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.

Talking to some people, I know that not all would see this marriage as wise. Some wondered whether they would do the same thing in the same situation. I confess, too, that I had similar questions in my mind. The question, put bluntly, is this: would you still get married if your fiancé was terminally ill and, in all likelihood, did not have long to live? Put another way, would you want to go through with a wedding if you knew that you would have to go through a funeral for the very same person within the span of a few months or even weeks? Honestly, on one level I can see how neither answer (yes or no) would be an easy one.

At both wedding ceremonies, the groom in question praised the commitment of his bride, particularly the fact that she never once complained and never once wavered in her commitment. Certainly it would be understandable if she had; but she didn’t, despite what to some would be seen as an impossible situation. How many others would have cut and run, chasing instead their dream of long-life and marriage rather than demonstrating such a selfless and sacrificial love?

In the movie Shadowlands, which portrays the relationship and eventual marriage of Christian author C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham, we see Lewis and Gresham face a very similar circumstance. In fact, as portrayed in the movie, their wedding ceremony takes place in her hospital room where she’s being treated for cancer. In a tender moment, Joy says to Lewis something like, “The pain now is a part of the happiness then.” That is, as soon as we open ourselves to the possibility of love we also open ourselves to the possibility (and likelihood) of pain. What we love we can lose, and losing what we love always hurts. Only avoiding the vulnerability required of love frees us from the pain of losing what we love. But ultimately this involves a much deeper, more profound loss.

No small wonder that Scripture likens the relationship between God and Israel (Hosea) and between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:25 – 33) to the relationship between a husband and wife. Both are covenants. Both call for unconditional love and fidelity. Both relationships are unchanging regardless of changing circumstances. Indeed, in the case of Jesus he ultimately and willingly died for his bride—and did so to save her, to demonstrate his commitment to her.

And marriage, contrary to the thinking of many today, is about a dying to self, an instance of the gospel—and kingdom life—taking shape in a practical day to day relationship where such a commitment is needed if the relationship is to last at all. Without the willingness to die to one’s own interests and desires and the idea that marriage is about what I get out of it, any marriage will crumble.

So when I watched and officiated over this young couple’s wedding(s), I confess to being amazed. Amazed and touched. It was a privilege for me to participate. And for those who witnessed their commitment—and who will continue to—and still have questions over the wisdom of their choice and whether they could do likewise, I understand. But all I know is that their example is close to the example of Christ’s love for us—a love not conditioned by changing circumstances but instead shaped by the insistence that the love marriage requires “is as strong as death.” In the case of this couple, perhaps it’s even stronger.

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