In Defense of May (and Marriage)

Tra la! It’s May! The lusty month of May! That lovely month when ev’ryone… Guenevere belts exuberantly. Everyone, what? The fantastical composer of Camelot would have us believe…

It’s mad, it’s gay, alive, a lust display
Those dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks
Everyone makes divine mistakes.
The lusty month of May.

Spectacular? Yes. Glamorous? Yes. Over-the-top? For sure? But there is absolutely nothing about May — compared to any other month — to justify the disparaging suggestion that it is a time when dreary vows everyone takes, everyone breaks.

Quite the contrary! I’m honored to have been asked to officiate at a couple of weddings in the next few months. My considered assessment based on interaction with these couples suggests something beautiful, wonderful, singular and sacred.

Officiating is being invited to get up, close and personal with the intimacy shared by a couple. But we all witness the same mystifying magic when two people commit to loving their one-and-only unto death. It’s not as rare as cynics suggest. However, it’s more precious than even we can imagine.

My husband and I enjoyed dinner with one such couple this weekend. Below is my thank you to them from the next day. I share it here in the form of an open letter with the hope that its contents express something worthwhile for others as well.  Of course, names have been changed and descriptors generalized to protect this precious couple’s privacy:

Dear Ginny and Peter,

It was wonderful to reconnect and renew friendship last evening. We had a really enjoyable time with you over dinner and covering a broad range of topics in conversation. Thanks for your warm and generous hospitality — the prep time it took to prepare such a feast (homemade pasta!!!!) is recognized and appreciated!!! We also love Willow and cannot wait to introduce him to Jeb the Dog.

Savoring our time with you, a few more thoughts have come to mind. For example, I cannot say often enough, prepare for your marriage every bit as much as for your wedding. Yes, you’ve got great experience of living together as a couple and significant knowledge of each other. Don’t take that for granted, build on it!

You might simply reflect — personally as well as together — on the question, “What does it mean for me/us to make a public, permanent ‘I’m-not-going-anywhere-without-you’ commitment?” Make a point of talking with each other about the details of, and dreams for, your relationship even more than the specificities and practical details of your wedding.

Take advantage of the wisdom that surrounds you in your families and communities. You might say to people and couples you admire and respect, “We look forward to our marriage as much as our wedding. We really appreciate the way you live your life and believe you have tried and true wisdom to share. What good counsel would you care to share with us based on your experience?”

The sort of people you’d want to ask that question would be deeply honored — and probably humbled — that you’d seek their confidence. Then listen, listen, listen! Engage them with questions that further plumb their wisdom. These conversations may turn out to be more valuable than any wedding gift you receive from them.

Another thing occurred to me this morning while walking with Jeb the Dog at the creek… The link between spirituality and intimacy. A crude but accurate way of expressing it is, “Sex and love-making is not just about our bodies!”

Intimacy — deeply satisfying, other-centered, life-giving connection — is not just about being physically naked but by being emotionally and spiritually transparent, received and treasured by your one-and-only. In this way, your lives will deepen and your ongoing commitment will be greatly enhanced — both on your wedding day and all the years to come. Begin cultivating now this desire and capacity to actively engage each other spirituality.

That might sound pretty abstract, even disembodied. Here’s a practical way it might take shape for you… Today I am ordering for you a copy of Joan Chittister’s most recent book, Radical Spirit: Twelve Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life from Barnes & Noble. Not because it’s about marriage, it’s not! I’m sending it because anything Joan Chittister writes is worth reading.

I propose that you read it together and talk about it as you go. It’s not “homework” from the guy officiating at your wedding. It’s simply an explicit invitation to you as a couple to develop the habit of continuously deepening your capacity to share intimately about your spirituality — to be transparent, received and treasured in this core part of who you are personally and together. You both seem to like books. Perhaps sharing some spiritual reading is a practice you will want to continue in the years ahead.

Do this, or something more to your liking, because you want to as a lead-up to your wedding day. Keep doing some practice of explicit sharing of your spiritual selves as an ongoing enrichment to your lives throughout your marriage. It’s then that you will enjoy the cumulative gifts of deeply physical, emotional and spiritual love-making — the greatest proof for, and most intimate encounter with, the love of God we can experience this side of whatever else is next!

This sort of marriage will be my heartfelt desire for you as I officiate at your ceremony but also all the while we are enjoying a great celebration of fun, family and frivolity.

Again, thanks for a most enjoyable dinner and conversation last evening. The two of you, together, are a blessing.

Richard

For Better, For Worse

My marriage vows are meaning much more to me these days — not “wedding day” vows but the promises we live daily through the ups and downs of the everyday. Yes, I’m talking about “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death.”

This deepening appreciation was set in place by a nasty sprain and ankle fracture two months ago. No weight-bearing use of the leg and inability to drive for nearly seven weeks almost drove me crazy. The hardest part was accepting my powerlessness and dependence on others, primarily my husband. I rued the day tables would be turned and questioned whether I’d be able to match his patience, generosity and kindness.

Well, the fates have a wicked sense of humor. The very day after I got out of my “boot” and was able to transition to a Velcro brace to support my fledgling mobility, my husband fell on an icy sidewalk just outside our house when taking Jeb the Dog for his daily afternoon walk.

The tables were more than turned — with a nasty sprain, two fractures and an actual break he will have surgery to implant a plate and numerous screws as soon as the swelling is sufficiently reduced. His injury was far worse than mine! As if the fates wished to place a huge exclamation point on the coincidence, his surgery is scheduled for the precise day and hour I was previously scheduled to begin physical therapy on my healing ankle. My injury? His injury? Distinctions collapse in marriage.

“For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death.” Familiar words, often expressed as a naive wager that things will always be okay if not easy. Words often spoken as an either/or, as if life proffers a dualistic one-or-the-other. Rather, we learn that what we profess is actually the warp and the woof of a single fabric and it’s our gift to weave it all into a seamless tapestry.

And there is more! From the cruel depths of this Minnesota winter — with the two of us hobbling around begrudgingly needing others for help, depending on the incredible generosity of neighbors, with Jeb the Dog thoroughly confused and bodily inconvenienced by disappearance of any semblance of routine — the worse, poorer and sickness part of the formula takes precedence. All the while reminding us that the horizon of death can not be ignored.

And, still more! The begrudging admission of powerlessness, the icy starkness of winter, our cruel fate and dependence on others, all yield another gift — the truth of love, the safe harbor of relationship, our reliance on one another. Who would know if the risk is not taken, the promises not made?

Strange, isn’t it! Love surely shines forth in the easy and happy times. Yet we discover an unplumbed depth, find an untested resilience, desire to affirm what we have vowed when we discover the face of love from that place of need, poverty and dependence. Such is the nature of love, it’s most sublime gift.

Amid the depths of winter we are taken off guard by the gift of Love, the presence of Love, overcome by the Presence of One who chooses to be with us precisely when and where we need love most.

The Power of Two

“Self do it! SELF do it!” protested 3 year-old Michael as he climbed up the cabinet to get a treat. Mom recognized her challenge in this moment — keeping her son safe while strengthening his spirit of initiative and autonomy. No easy task!

Michael’s brother retold this endearing family tale as the core message in his best-man toast this past weekend. Younger by a year, and himself single, Andrew offered wise counsel for his elder brother and new sister-in-law, Rebecca.

Although addressing the bride and groom, everyone at the wedding banquet was taken by Andrew’s timeless wisdom. Praising his highly accomplished sibling for much Michael has achieved on his own, Andrew reminded his brother of “The power of Two.”

Yes, “self” can do much. Indeed, self should do much. But there is only so much any one of us can do alone. We are inherently limited as individuals. We need each other. We must rely on each other. We are better off together.

We too easily mouth such words and pretend to know their truth. But as Andrew reminded everyone in that moment, our stubborn independence runs deep. Though a strong autonomous self is a necessary stage of emotional development, it does not signal the culmination of personal maturity. Far from it.

Andrew nailed it! When two truly become one, we discover a power that is not simply arithmetic but exponential. Such is “The power of Two!” Not only is this the gift of marriage, it is the universal and timeless truth of Love.

What’s God Up To, Now?

How many Christian churches do you know that are next door to a Muslim mosque? Each time I round the corner of 18th & Lyndale Avenues on Minneapolis’ Northside, past the mosque’s muted gold and vibrant blue minaret, a wave of warmth and satisfaction washes over me. Despite headlines suggesting the opposite, this is the “real” America, who we are at our best and as it should be!

The relationship between our two communities is amicable and respectful. Given that Christians celebrate Sundays and Muslims gather on Fridays, our spontaneous interactions remain limited. But our hearts are open and we envision greater dialogue and seek out ways to join forces in service of our neighborhood and city.

Yesterday was even more exceptional. We were celebrating First Communion Sunday and Easter flourishes still adorn the church. Pews were full with extended families exuberant to mark this significant moment in the lives of excited children. Outside flowering trees, tulips, daffodils and fresh yellow-green foliage offset the crystal blue sky.

An off-handed comment by my husband shattered my revelry, “First Communion is a really big deal for Catholics!” His innocence — naïveté more than anything — caught me completely off guard. He was viewing this moment with a different pair of eyes. He wasn’t raised Catholic! He doesn’t have the Catholic symbols and sensibilities imprinted in his psyche. Wow… How easy it is to presume so much even about someone I know so well!

As the liturgy continued, his observation and my embedded assumptions filtered my experience of the celebration. Serving on the council for his Episcopal church, he is not ignorant nor uncaring about the Christian faith! We shouldn’t dismiss my husband’s religious perceptions and sensibilities too quickly.

What about our Muslim neighbors down the street.? What sense would our language about eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood make to them? What about Father, Son and Holy Spirit? What would they hear? How would they see what we so readily take for granted and presume about the God of all creation?

Still, I walked toward our parked car in the direction of the mosque at the end of the liturgy with deep gratitude and confident excitement — God isn’t done with us yet! In fact, God still has a lot of work to do if this good creation is to be brought to fulfillment. That realization itself carries a pretty fair rendering of the Good News and is reason for hope.

I made my First Communion fifty-eight years ago! Nevertheless, the remembering we do at every Eucharist holds the same potential — in fact, has the very purpose — to “disrupt all self-enclosed worldviews, every arrogance, idolatry, patriarchy, or religious fundamentalism that would justify the erasure or diminishment of persons, any person, in the name of God.”

First Communion Sunday at the Church of the Ascension on the Northside of Minneapolis will not generate headlines. But if we perceive how we are constituted at such moments, who we become at Christ’s initiative, we recognize a privileged point of convergence — an encounter with God, the one God of all peoples, no exceptions!
______________________
After returning home from this liturgy I picked up a book I have been savoring, Sophia; The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2009). I stumbled upon the “disrupt all self-enclosed worldviews” quote on page 210.

Who’s Invited? Who’s Not?

I saw and looked away. I could not look again. I could not even bring myself to read the accompanying story — I knew. We all know. The world knows too well! But not now, please!

We are planning our wedding! We want nothing to detract or conflict with our special day. The silver’s been polished. God forbid the weather be less than perfect!

Our special day leaves no room for too-much of what our world knows too-well. Individually and collectively we have perfected the fine art of distraction, denial and diversion. Not now, please!

The heart wrenching image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lifeless on a Turkish shore, has been emblazoned in our consciousness. How are we to celebrate our marriage, mark this happy occasion with family and friends? We are here to commit our selves to one another in love, seek the blessing of the church.  Ominous images impinging on our celebration? No, not now!

Then, what’s the point? If not now, when? We are masters at slicing, dicing and segregating our loves and our lives. And, it doesn’t work! Our “gated communities” too often leave us more isolated, private and alone.

Is not marriage about unity, openness to life, self-giving? Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was not on our invitation list — he needs to be. Not to dampen our celebration but to keep it real, full and consequential.

I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.

With these prophetic words, British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is summoning all of Europe to reaffirm its Judeo-Christian heritage in light of the current refugee catastrophe. Is this not the fullest and finest expression of love, to love precisely the one who is not just like you?

Will the world be better off because two people promise to love one another for the rest of their lives? We hope so. Perhaps it will be — provided our love is big enough, all-embracing enough, other-centered enough, life-giving enough.

Aylan Kurdi, as our young ring-bearers bring wedding bands to the priest for blessing, you will be remembered. Your spirit will summon us to look, to see and never look away again from what we dare to pledge in love — even unto death.
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You may read Rabbi Sacks’ superb article from The Guardian [here]. Special thanks to Susan Stabile for posting it on her Facebook page today.

The Final Word

People tell me I like to talk. Sometimes I talk too much. One of my core faults is always wanting to have the last word. Hidden in here may be one of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog.

Yes, I do like shake-’em-up conversations, especially with people who are more curious about next questions than needing to have pat answers. Sometimes I toss out strong opinions hoping to elicit an equally strong response.

Nothing is more disappointing than to have someone back-off. Well, actually, there is something more disheartening — that is to have someone recite pious palliatives, hide behind doctrinaire opinions or bolster their closed-mindedness by only getting their information from like-minded ideologues.

My ideal dinner party would be a table with Krista Tippet surrounded by five guests of her choosing from her Public Radio program, On Being. In a setting like that I would never have the last word. I would be more than satisfied if I could leave with a whole new set of provocative questions. But I digress.

The primary inspiration for this post was happening upon a sermon recently preached by a minister of the Uniting Church (Methodist/Reformed) in Swansea, Australia. His Scripture reference is the Beatitudes.

The very same text are the Gospel verses Russ and I have coincidentally chosen for our wedding service. As an exercise in not needing to have the last word, here is a link to a marvelous sermon preached by a Reformed minister half a world away… [link]

We would be honored to have his be the final Word preached at our marriage ceremony.

Until Death Do Us Part

Too many are tormented. Too often our churches and moral leaders instill lingering shame instead of comfort and support. They just don’t get it!

Once again I sat across from a long-suffering faith-filled Catholic who was in a second marriage without an annulment of a first marriage. As a gay man, I get it! I know what it is like to be deemed “inherently disordered” if not demonized by a church in which I had eagerly professed vows as a religious and served as a priest.

As a family member, I get it! First marriages of two siblings culminated in divorce. Both married again. Neither sought the “benefit” of an annulment from the church. Neither have I sought official “laicization” (that is “return to the lay state”) from ordination as priest. Annulment and laicization legalities simply feel condescending and shaming. With my sibs I choose to have no part of it.

As a friend, I get it! The same sad story is all too common. Too many live with lingering doubts and troubling conflicts inflicted by a church they want to call home. Many tears have been shed, many doors slammed, many hearts broken. As one friend recently shared:

“Till death do us part” has been narrowly assumed to be physical death. In my experience, there is also mental, emotional, and spiritual death that can occur. I hung on to a 21 year marriage until I was so close to mental, emotional, and spiritual death that it has taken 21 years to get resuscitated.

As Scripture attests, those in high places are wont to impose heavy burdens on others they themselves would never carry. (Matt 23:4) In this — and so much regarding sexuality and marriage — the church leadership is simply wrong!

Married people know this! Your average Catholic knows this! The Synod of Catholic Bishops gathering for a second session in October have a rare opportunity to show they are beginning to get it. Perhaps as preparation they can meditate on the verse: “It is mercy that I seek, not sacrifice!” (Hosea 6:6; Matt 9:13 and 12:17)

But married people and average Catholics have our work cut out too. We “get it” but too many of us are still shackled by shame and doubt. Perhaps all who have been baptized would do well to reflect on the words Jesus heard at his own baptism in the Jordan and his disciples heard spoken at Jesus’ Transfiguration: “You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased!” (Matt 3:17 and 17:5)

God does not say to those he loves, “Get an annulment, jump through these legalities to become acceptable.” To all who are baptized into Christ — and I would include all who have been created in God’s own image — God says, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.”

With that as bedrock, we are prepared and commissioned to love as best we are able — until death do us part. In this God is more than well pleased.