October 25, 2011

Now And Forever

This past Saturday, together with Cheri, my new bride of six months, I attended the wedding of my stepson, Gary. The wedding was held in a Baptist church in Rochester, Pennsylvania. Gary married a lovely young woman named Jessica (having a daughter of my own named Jessica, I think it is a lovely name for lovely young women).

The bride and groom seem very much in love and very well matched for a long and successful marriage. It was, by all accounts, and by my own observation, a successful wedding. I’ve spent a good deal of the past year, and now this whole past week, contemplating what might constitute a successful marriage, and what it means to have forever-love, because, as we all must know by now, successful marriages don’t always follow successful weddings.

The wedding was American traditional, with modified vows chosen and edited by the bride and groom. Near the end of the vows the preacher asked each of them to recite this vow: “I, Gary (Jessica), promise to cherish, honor and love you, Jessica (Gary), now and forever. (I didn’t write it down during the ceremony, but to the best of my recollection it went like that.) The ceremony included an exchange of rings and the preacher talked about how rings symbolize love with no beginning and no end.

Just six months ago I’d gone through a similar ceremony, reciting similar forever-love vows for the second time in my short life. Sitting in the front pew of the church for this ceremony, together with the other seven parents and step parents of the bride and groom (and living in a society where marriages which end in divorce are more common than marriages which last a lifetime) I was struck by the irony of people taking and speaking such vows of forever and undying love when the odds are so stacked against them.

Romantic human love does end. It happens all the time, and the eight “parents” of the bride and groom at this wedding ceremony were living proof of it. Sometimes love dies, or the loved one dies. Sometimes we kill love. Sometimes love comes to a natural, amicable end, and sometimes the end of love is violent, and terrible, and love is supplanted by its close sibling, hate.

I’d been nervous to meet my new bride’s ex-husband, Woody, the real father of the groom. He attended the wedding with his second wife, Sue. (More irony; Sue was my first wife’s name.) Our meeting and our exchanges over the wedding weekend were amicable, however, and all in all the two real mothers, two real fathers, two stepfathers, one stepmother and one step-girlfriend got along pretty well. There was a palpable tension hanging in the air throughout the wedding weekend between exes and new spouses. But the love and good feelings and well wishes, which manifested in good measure, ultimately prevailed. Life and love are not always simple, and neither are they always easy.

I am merely an armchair psychologist and watcher of demographic trends, and I do not profess to be qualified to say why, or even if, marriages “fail” more often now than they once did. I am also not really qualified to say too much about why romantic human love ends. But it seems to me that one reason romantic human love ends sometimes is because we are human.

Being human means we are self-centered. This is practically a tautology. We want what we want and we want it now. It’s hard to honor and cherish another person, even a loved one, when they fail to properly and timely honor and cherish us. Can you believe what she did to me?!! Why I oughta ….

And let’s be honest. We are, none of us, perfect. We make mistakes. We forget. We get focused on our careers and our kids and our hobbies and our friends and our doing-good-to-others and we get too busy to do all the right things love requires to stay strong. Sometimes we get angry and mad and mean and demanding, and we blow it. We sin and we stray and somehow, before we know it, though we once never thought it possible and it’s not what we wanted or intended, love is sick, and love is wounded, and sometimes love dies.

The brother of the groom, Doug, is a Christian believer who once stated to me that “no marriage can succeed without God.” It is an interesting postulation, but, even though I believe in God, I don’t completely agree with that statement. Surely there are some atheists and agnostics and Buddhists out there who have succeeded in their marriages. What I can agree with, though, is that no love can last forever, and consequently no marriage can last, unless the participants emulate the model of love God uses – which includes forgiveness of wrongs, and grace, and wanting what is best for the other. Christians use the Greek word “agape” to describe that kind of love. The agape kind of forgiving love is different than romantic love, which is called “eros” in the Greek.

I also think we soft-sell the word “commitment” in the wedding-vow ceremony. Sometimes when romantic love flags or fails, it simply takes a gut-check kind of commitment to stick it out for better or worse, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad. This is not to say that I believe everyone should stay married no matter what. I don’t believe that. Still, you get the sense that some people are throwing in the towel before they give it their best shot.

But nobody starts out in marriage intending to fail. Nobody says “I do” love you, or vows “I will” love you forever, when all along they really mean “I don’t” and “I won’t.” Well anyway, no decent person does. And yet, despite our best intentions, despite our promises and our vows, romantic love ends, and marriages end.

All the happy wet and tearful eyes at the Gary and Jessica wedding, my own included, were proof enough to me that we all still believe in romantic love. We root for the young lovers who take the forever-love vows. We’ve seen love succeed and we’ve seen marriages succeed, and we know it is possible – if not easy. And we are suckers for new beginnings. This love will last! This marriage will succeed!

But broken vows and ended marriages aside, what is a “successful” marriage? I suppose if we agree to use the phrase “their marriage failed” when speaking of divorce, then a divorce, itself, could be the sole measure of the failure or success of a marriage. I don't think so. I've seen a few marriages that, while they didn’t end in divorce, could never be called “successful” marriages. Conversely, one should ask, must a marriage last forever, or “until death do us part,” in order to be called a success?

My late first wife, Sue, and I were once part of a church planting effort in Clovis, California. A small group of a dozen or so people planted a new Christian church. Over the course of eight or so years that church saw attendance grow to over 100 people, saw a significant number of believers’ baptisms, featured hundreds of meaningful worship services, bible studies, home group meetings, celebration meals and events. Our children were raised in that church. Through that community of believers we all were connected to God and blessed. But then, for reasons hard to understand, the church eventually shriveled and died, and closed its doors forever. Some would say that church was a failure. But I would say that, while it ended, and the ending itself was a form of failure, during the time it was alive that church was a success. And for those of us who were a part of that church (especially those who received salvation and baptism), the good experiences were worth it, and will continue to be a part of who we are forever.

The Gary and Jessica wedding weekend featured a lovely young couple and their lovely siblings, and even a couple of lovely grandchildren, who all exuded a joy and mutual love and caring that usually only come from loving parents and loving homes. Somewhere in their marriages the real parents, and even the step parents, must have done something good – must have had and modeled real love – and these young people were born of that love, and were and are the living proof of it.

It was clear to me that the love between the former marriage partners of the bride and groom was once very real, and while their marriages ended due to human failures common to humans, there still is a remnant bond of love. No, the marriages won’t be resurrected. But on this happy occasion of a new marriage, and of these new pledges of forever-love, there were knowing looks of pride for how their children turned out; there were hugs and handshakes and genuine words of affirmation and well wishes to their children, and to each other, amongst them all.

So it seems to me that when a marriage ends, notwithstanding the human failures to keep the forever-love vows, we ought not always use the phrase “the marriage failed.” It’s too harsh and frankly it is not always true. If something good came from the years of marriage - good love, good experiences, good children, growth, life, living, learning - we simply cannot look at all of that good and call it failure. The good part is success. The love part is success. The love of children who come from a broken, ended marriage, and their love and their children, are all a part of the continuation of the success of love.

And though the marriage has ended, and though lives take irrevocable new courses, people are still connected by unseverable relationships, and forgiveness, redemption, and a form of love more like agape love are still possible. Even though romantic human love sometimes ends, the purer form of love, agape love, never does end. And that, after all, is the true now-and-forever love.

As for Gary and Jessica, they are the new hope for a true now and forever romantic love. As for the rest of us working on a second or third try, well, love is a powerful thing, and hope springs eternal.

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