Saturday, February 14, 2009

Reflections on Forty Years of Marriage

We got a lot of congratulations and expressions of admiration on our fortieth wedding anniversary. “Wow! You two still talk to each other, even enjoy each other!” one friend said. While not really looking for practical advice or the secret of success, we were often asked in effect, “What have you two done to do so well together for so long?”

As I jotted down a list of thoughts that our fortieth anniversary brought to mind, I began to see that this is the wrong line of questioning. In a culture that undercuts commitment and finds covenant incomprehensible, to ask what makes a marriage enduring and happy is understandable but backwards. Our transitory and subjective assessment of ourselves becomes the goal and measure. It feeds a narcissistic, ingrown vision of life and relationships. If God is even acknowledged, it is as an aid to our happiness.

I tell couples whose weddings I perform that real romance is not two people sitting on a bench in a beautiful park staring into each others’ eyes. Rather, it is two people sitting on the park bench both watching the same beautiful sunset. Our moments of greatest closeness have come from looking out from ourselves to parents, children (and now grandchildren), church and wider world. Our spiritual styles are different: I the contemplative explorer, Candy the practical caregiver. Though our efforts at sharing spiritual disciplines have never been very fruitful, that our gazes meet in Christ has united us at the core.

Recognizing that our marriage has endured happily for forty years is less an achievement than a gift of grace for which we can only be thankful. Such awareness prompts an entirely different line of questioning. Since marriage is a sacramental icon (a window into the holy) of the covenant between Christ and the Church, better questions start and end with Christ. How has Christ met us (together and individually) in our marriage? In what ways are we Church together? In what ways are we Christ to each other? In what ways are we Church and Christ to those around us?

Even as I write this I realize that Candy would say, “I’m not very good at explaining things. By the way, did you call someone who just got out of the hospital or home from a family funeral?” And even though I can sometimes respond with a testy, “Let me be the pastor,” I know this is exactly how she lives the answers to these Christocentric questions in our marriage. When criticism comes from the congregation, she winces and bears the hurt with me, and distills out the nugget I need to digest so I can better grow and serve. When the serendipities of ministry flood our hearts, she sings.

Having lived and served in Illinois, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Texas (and a sabbatical in Ontario), we have bonded with close friends scattered all over the world. The tug at our hearts for closer contact is always frustrated by the realities of time and distance. Yet, these relationships are our rich treasure. In this far flung fellowship we have shared marriages and divorces, births and deaths, children’s triumphs and disasters, hope and disappointment, love and injury, joy and grief. And each in their own way has been Church and Christ to us and shaped who we are as a couple and as individuals.

Our journey together has taken us through non-denominational, Presbyterian and Disciples of Christ congregations, and into wonderful relationships with Roman Catholic and Anabaptist communities. We have been profoundly touched by people from Haiti, Honduras, Thailand and Burma and elsewhere. We have sampled diverse regions of our country. We have been welcomed to share the joy of worship with African-American and Hispanic congregations, and from Pentecostal exuberance to Liturgical dignity. With both of us growing up in conservative, evangelical, Scandinavian, Baptist congregations, this journey through a broad spectrum of the Church has been amazing. I have often marveled at how graciously Candy has accompanied me as I forged into new frontiers of this adventure.

Most of our marriage has been lived at a distance from our parents. Even the years my parents overlapped with us in Illinois, we had established independent lives. Our parents have had the health and resources to live independently. As Candy’s Mom’s health and strength declined, her Dad was able to care for her at home until close to the very end. He still lives in that house, but the time for a change is approaching. My parents lived in a total life-care retirement community, so they could go to assisted living as they weakened, and my Mom could go to nursing care after Dad died.

While not always easy to maintain, we and our parents have balanced a lot of mutual love and support with respect and independence. Though our journey has taken us geographically, culturally and spiritually far from the paths of our parents, the solid grounding in Christ and the Church that they built has never been shaken. We have both had the privilege of being with our parents as they were dying (Candy her Mom, me my Dad), witnessing the serenity of one who can echo old Simeon, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.” (Luke 2:29-30)

My mother is secure and well cared for in the nursing center where she lives, with my sister just a few minutes away. Candy’s Dad, however, will need to leave his home before too long. He’d like to be cared for by family, which means us, but he is reluctant to leave Minnesota. As a couple, we are trying to discern how to transition into a retirement ministry, get Erik launched into adulthood when he graduates from the University of North Texas in May 2009, and care for Candy’s Dad in a way that respects his wishes and affirms our marriage. I have already written about how Candy should get to call the shots on this transition, having conformed to my career for forty years (, yet negotiating the intricacies of this passage of our journey will take both of us. We will not only have to make the decisions together, we will need to be a closer team than ever as we get more and more involved with Candy’s Dad’s care.

While we recognize that our children will continue to have challenges in adulthood, just as we have, I don’t think much can match the joy of a great relationship with grown children with whom parents are pleased. Yes, Jon and David and their wives and children are on different paths from each other, but with such good roots and direction. So as a couple we celebrate and pray with our sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

Erik’s path has had more bumps than his brothers’ did by this point. The bumps were probably accentuated by some of the sharp turns and setbacks on our journey. But he’s into what should be his last semester before college graduation. Though the way ahead isn’t all clear, he seems to be taking charge of his own live and making mature decisions. Even if completely self-sufficient upon graduation (unlikely in this economy), even if he marries (seemingly no one on the horizon), we will still be engaged with Erik’s life. Paying off the parent student-loans will take a while. Candy sometimes says that we already spent our children’s inheritance on their education. I think we all believe that was a good deal.

The Christmas after Erik graduated from high school, Rachel and David gave us an “empty nest kit” (use your imagination) as a gift. With Erik’s education track, the empty nest has emerged only gradually. His graduation will be a major but probably not the final step for us into the full fledged empty nest. Nevertheless, we are taking this part of our journey hand-in-hand as a couple, much as we started forty years ago. Oh, we still have passion and exhilaration; we still know we’re on a new adventure that we’ve not been through before; we’re still learning and growing. Yes, we’re still looking outward for our challenges and joys: Erik, Candy’s Dad, a “retirement” ministry with the Church. The byproduct is a depth of intimacy we had no way of imagining on our honeymoon.

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