Yesterday a blog post about marriage went viral, filling my Facebook feed with affirmation that a young woman, on the cusp of celebrating her first anniversary, had discovered the truth about marriage, a truth we don’t often hear in Christian culture: that none of us finds a Soul Mate or the One, and that marriage is not about tripping happily into love, but about the choice, every day, to work hard at marriage.
My parents have been doing this hard work for half a century.
Fifty years ago this week, mom and dad got married smack in the middle of God’s own Mennonite country. Since it was July and Kansas, I imagine the church sanctuary that day was broiling, although in pictures, everyone looks happy rather than overheated. I’ve always admired my mom’s insanely thin waist in her wedding dress, and wondered at how dapper my dad looked in his suit. I also wondered why none of my grandparents seemed to be smiling in the photos. Maybe it was the heat.
My parents took off for their honeymoon in a VW looking young and cosmopolitan and in love, a 1950s black and white romance with a happily-ever-after beautiful bride and her handsome man. Though it was really 1963, and according to family lore, my parents had their first major fight that night, as they started their honeymoon, drifting across the Kansas plains toward Colorado and trying to decide how they would spend the money they’d saved for the trip.
This would be the first of many arguments, about money mostly, some even on vacation in the Kansas plains, their three children in the back seat taking sides about where we should eat dinner (at a cheap place, or one a little more pricey) or where we should stop for the night (at a cheap hotel, or one with a swimming pool). Their initial argument was resolved—mostly—when they finally stopped for their first night as a married couple, as was every subsequent argument, some 50 years’ worth.
Had my parents listened to the ubiquitous dating and marriage advice that has become de rigeuer in today’s Christian popular culture, they probably would not have married (and I would not have been me). They had different upbringings: my mom, the last of five kids in a Mennonite farming family; my dad, the last of two in a non-Christian home situated in the middle of a small Mennonite town. My mom, at 25 when they married, was definitely an old maid, her Boaz having failed to show up while she attended college, then worked in Christian service after graduation.
Most significantly, they’d only seen each other three times before their wedding, had never lived in the same community, had no idea what day-to-day life was like when lived together. They were pen pals for two years before they even met, got engaged during their first face-to-face encounter, then wed after two other weekend meetings. When they married they were still, in many ways, strangers. Dr. Laura and her advice-giving comrades would have been aghast.
So would those marriage advice gurus who assume you are to wait for the man of your dreams, be he a Boaz or some other godly man’s man, and that every moment of your marriage should be the greatest love story God ever wrote, and that you are to be every moment in love with your soul mate. When I read this kind of tripe in blogs targeted toward young people thinking and dreaming about marriage, I think about how the idea of a “happily-ever-after” marriage with your soul mate sets up people for false expectations and disappointment, potentially even on the honeymoon night, when your husband wants to spend more money on a hotel room than you ever thought possible.
My parents have endured for fifty years not because my dad is a Boaz, nor my mom a Proverbs 31 wife, nor because they were God-designed soul mates, only meant for each other. They have endured even though they drive each other crazy sometimes. Even though they long desperately for moments away from each other, a “space” my mom especially craves. Even though they fight on occasion over the same rough terrain they’ve mined for a half century, without resolution.
In other words, their marriage has thrived not because they live by some chimera of biblical marriage we see touted in evangelical popular culture, but because they have attempted to live by the message of Jesus’ ministry: that we need to love each other, care for each other, extend grace even when doing so seems unwarranted, and forgive the hell out of each other, even when we have no desire to do so.
This is the witness their marriage has been to me, and the witness my siblings and I will celebrate this weekend with some too-sweet punch at my father’s favorite watering hole, a coffee shop here in town. It hardly seems enough of a reward for the hard work they’ve done to nurture their marriage, to raise their kids and now grandkids, and to accept the little annoyances that continue to crop up fifty years after they began life together.
My parents are far from perfect. (Believe Me.) But their willingness to model grace, love, and mercy in their marriage has been their greatest witness to me, a powerful manifestation of the gospel in ways not much else has. And for that, I’m truly grateful.