Because Marriage Needs Faith and Humor
I was, what, maybe five years old? We were in Chicago. I had climbed up the tight spiral stone staircase to the organ loft of the Chapel of the Holy Grail.
From my perch, that small chapel was majestic. It was lit with candles and incandescent with music. It was packed full of jeweled and tuxedoed adults while Dad, robed in black, officiated a wedding. Some childhood memories glitter and glow.
We stayed with Disciples House friends, in the Brownings’ brownstone, which is how the memory comes. And later that night while the adults smoked and laughed and visited (the soundtrack of my childhood), I found myself riveted to their black and white TV. I was watching my first-ever episode of Monty Python. Yes! The parrot sketch.
Dad was never a congregational pastor, but he still did lots of weddings. Clergy in higher education have that joy. I’ll never know Dad’s mind on same-sex relationships (he died before we talked about a lot of things). But Mom and I have talked enough about him and about their marriage that I’m pretty sure he’d tell same-sex couples the same things he told everyone he married.
You need two main things to make a marriage last, he said, beyond just being in love. First, recognize that it’s a faith commitment. Second, you’ll need to have a sense of humor.
He was right.
Marriage is a faith commitment
If the church is going to take marriage seriously, we need to help couples talk about their faith. I don’t mean whether they’ll go to church together or if they want to baptize their kids as infants. Those are just noise unless they talk with each other about the things that matter most, what Tillich calls their ultimate concern.
They can marry without a center aisle, a call to worship, scripture, prayers, or a sermon. They can marry without rings, unity candles, lariats, brooms, flowers, caterers or fancy clothes. Old, new, borrowed, blue: nice, not required. Grandmother singing “The Lord’s Prayer” unaccompanied on the beach? It’s a treasured memory of my sister’s Sanibel wedding. But it wasn’t what united Jamie and Craig. Even a license, for all its civil benefits, does not make a marriage.
What we can’t marry without is vows. In The Princess Bride, Buttercup realizes she never really married Prince Humperdinck, despite their Impressive Clergyman, because they “kind of skipped over that part.” The church should care about the vows. In making their vows a couple expresses their ultimate concern. They make a faith commitment.
In August it will be 25 years since Katy and I stood holding hands in the chancel at University Christian Church in Fort Worth. With friends surrounding us and our voices catching through happy tears, we said to each other, “I plight thee my troth.” Old words. And we knew what we meant. Plight: to risk or endanger. Troth: the full faith and truth of who I am. Translated: “I risk the truth of who I am by pledging myself fully to your care and keeping.” That’s a faith commitment. I’d have to become someone neither of us would recognize to break it. So would she.
The truth of who I am is the most precious gift I can give Katy; and the second is like it: fully accepting the truth of who she is. It’ more than just taking a chance on each other, like some sort of Pascal’s wager last resort. It’s about as close as we can come to experiencing divine mystery. Just as God is fully one in three distinct persons, so marriage unites a couple as one in three distinct persons: You, I, and We. Another divine mystery. No wonder it’s a sacrament.
The only difference I see in working with same-sex couples is that they have greater challenges to overcome. Unsupportive family, judgmental churches, and societal prejudices are like hurricane winds battering even the strongest love. It makes it especially important to explore the sort of faith commitment they are making in their marriage, and to offer them a genuinely safe, open and affirming, supportive community of faith. A couple can have the deepest love and trust for each other. But marriage is a faith journey that won’t go well without faithful travel companions. If the church rally cares about marriage, it will become a trusting, loving faith community that supports every couple as a lifeline in stormy seas.
So there’s another set of vows the church should care about. These are the vows we make as a community to each couple we marry. I tell couples a church wedding means that we, the church, are standing up with you and for you. As Christ’s Body, we are saying, we will trust you and love you, walk with you and support you, welcome you and challenge you, nurture you and grow with you. You become part of us and we become part of you. Marriage is a faith commitment. Yours to each other, ours to you, and all of us and God together.
Marriage requires a sense of humor
For Katy’s birthday we went to hear Garrison Keillor read from his new book. He echoed what my dad used to say. He peered out at the audience, and in his best Lake Wobegon voice, he said. “Marriage requires a sense of humor.” Beat. “She’s going to need it.”
No need to count the reasons why. Morning breath, scales, mirrors, schedules, work anxiety. Overwork, overdrafts, overcompensating, underappreciation, underarmor on the floor. Two drops of milk left in the carton. “No, I do not snore.”
Mainly, though, a marriage needs humor because the vows are impossible. Hear me out. It doesn’t mean every marriage is doomed. I’m not talking betrayal or cheating. You can avoid those, and should. I’m talking accidents, mistaken yet good intentions. Humor helps a marriage weather the over-under toilet paper storm. At least she replaced the roll!
Even the most faithful couples struggle to be completely self-giving, open, vulnerable, and trusting every waking hour. Humor cushions the blow when the red socks get washed with the white blouse. When you thought the garage door was up before backing out. When the paint in the kitchen really is not the right color. But it also can help when the sex is bad, and the money runs low, and the patience boils dry.
The prepositions matter, by the way. Learn to laugh at yourself and with your partner, and your marriage will flourish. But laugh at your partner and you’ll discover how hard it is to live with yourself.
Humor won’t make excuses for willful violations of our faith commitments. But it does help us see the best in each other and not just the worst. Love bears all things, but humor does much of the heavy lifting. If we can laugh at ourselves, we can forgive a lot of imperfections in ourselves and in each other. Humor helps us take ourselves a little less seriously. That in turn helps us take our vows more seriously and not give up on each other too soon. It’s driven by the same impulse as forgiveness. Humor and forgiveness heal a lot of minor wounds. They walk hand-in-hand.
Theologically, the church needs a sense of humor, too. There’s divine laughter working behind the scenes as Easter people move from cross to empty tomb to upper room and beyond. If we can laugh with (again, not at) each other, we can defuse tensions that otherwise take up so much of our attention that we can’t stand up with and for each other.
God likes a good joke as well as the rest of us. Why else turn water into wine? If I remember right, that happened at a wedding.
Why do YOU think the church should care about marriage?