A few weeks ago I was presented with an exciting opportunity and a difficult decision, it was a job offer that would take me from the work of being a solo pastor to a new position on a large staff that could open up new horizons in my career, but would also require me to give up some of the ways of operating that had become easy and familiar after a decade of working alone.
So I called my bishop to ask for some advice, and what he said has stuck with me as wise counsel for anyone standing on the forward edge of a commitment, as Matt and Erika are this afternoon. He said, “Know your story. Know why you’re making this decision. Understand that change is hard, but that when you know why you’re making a hard decision you approach that hardship as an opportunity for growth.” He went on to tell me that over the years the people who get themselves into the worst trouble are those who’ve forgotten their story. He said, “Once you’ve forgotten the story that drives your decisions, you begin to feel and act like a victim of your own life.”
So the question that needs to be asked as you step into your future is: what is the story you will tell about your marriage? How do you understand the decision you are making today? Why are you making it now? What will you do when this decision becomes difficult to sustain (as it almost certainly will at some point)? What story can you tell that will help you face life’s hardships as opportunities to grow closer together?
One of the benefits of being our age is that we each have enough story behind us already to know that life follows its own rules. It routinely defies our hopes and expectations just as surely as it refuses to conforms itself to our worst fears and prejudices. Life has its own lessons to teach us which, if we can stay open to receiving them, become chapters in a story that is uniquely our own.
That said, there are some truths we hold in common as we each do the work of sharing ourselves with each other; there is some wisdom to be passed down from generation to generation, from couple to couple, as you stand before this community of people who possess volumes of hard-earned experience about life. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d share four truths my parents shared with Kerry and me on the day of our wedding that I now pass on to you:
First — life is full of wonder and miracles.
I still remember the Greyhound bus ride from Minneapolis to Des Moines made the fall of Erika’s first semester of medical school. I was reading a novel of some kind, I suppose, and Erika was reading a textbook — on, what, biochemistry? — when she turned to me and said, “Wow! My entire relationship to oxygen has completely changed!” It occurred to me that her relationship to oxygen had actually remained quite stable, but that her understanding of that relationship had been transformed.
This is one of the gifts of marriage — that you can turn to each other, over and over again throughout the course of your relationship and share how the ordinary things of life have all of a sudden become extraordinary again. Your relationships to each other, to your careers, to your families, to your bodies, to your politics, to your selves will change over and over again, and you have the opportunity to share all of that with each other. “In the press of daily life, may you know the blessing of time and attention for one another that love may deepen and flourish.”
Second — life is hard.
There is very little in life that robs us of our power to act more quickly than the assumption that things are supposed to be easy. Childhood isn’t easy, growing up is messy, and #adulting (as it’s now called on Twitter) is a never-ending series of puzzles to be solved and obstacles to overcome. We can’t be blamed for wishing that marriage could be an oasis from the challenges that come at us outside the home, but it’s not likely.
Instead, the blessing marriage proposes to offer is a place where your efforts to grow beyond past limitations are supported, your struggles along the way receive a sympathetic hearing, and your failings are met with grace and forgiveness. “In the twists and turns of life, howling winds and jagged edges of every sort, may you be blessed with patience and kindness, resilience, insight, gratitude, and great love, enough to carry you through to safe and healing harbors.”
Third — Relationships are messy and complicated
In her brief but brilliant poem, “why some people be mad at me sometimes” the African American poet Lucille Clifton writes, “they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and I keep on remembering / mine”
All across our country in places like Charlottesville and Chicago, and right here in Denver and Boulder, I’m sure, we are doing violence to one another because we refuse to allow for the truth that each of us is having a very different experience of reality. The social contract that is supposed to bind us together has been ripped apart by a politics of amnesia in which we keep insisting that women, and people of color, and immigrants, and LGBTQ people, and every other person who’s ever known what it feels like to be pushed to the side, remember their own story from the point of view of people who know them the least.
That dynamic plays itself out in our marriages as well, and it may well be that we will not be able to reconcile to one another in public until we’ve learned to do it in the privacy of our homes.
So, when you find yourself most certain that your version of events is correct, that your perspective on what’s happening is most needed, that is the very moment when you should stop and cultivate a deeper curiosity about what your partner knows, what they remember, how and where and from whom they learned those things about how the world “really” works.
Then, “when disappointments and disillusionment come, and threaten to make a home in your hearts, may you be blessed with the memory of all that drew you to each other, and all that you most love and enjoy in each other’s company.”
Finally — Life is short and precious.
It is tempting to think that there will always be enough time later to create the memories that will strengthen our children, or cement our friendships, or nourish our marriages — but, in truth, none of us is given any more or less time each day, and none of us is given the assurance of tomorrow. So, each day is an exercise in values-based budgeting. Who and what gets your time and attention; who and what does not?
Decide, now, to give the best of yourselves to one another and not the leftovers. Do not delay in naming what you need from this life and expect from each other. Do not let your desire for other people’s approval or fear of their opinions keep you from creating the life you long to live. Know your story. Know why you’re making this decision. Understand that change is hard, that this marriage will be hard, but that if you commit to it and to each other, you will be treated to wonder and miracles and blessings too many to count.