“Obscenity” or “On Why I Discourage People from Writing Their Own Marriage Vows”

I do a lot of weddings. I have a young community that I serve; it comes with the territory.writing-wedding-vows

And marriage is certainly on the radar these days in the States as more and more parts of the Union have legalized the union of same-sex couples.

I support same-sex marriage.  I should just say that off the bat.  I support it because, despite what you might hear out there, the Bible doesn’t have a thing to say about marriage.  It has many things to say.  And many of those things run contrary to modern notions of marriage.

What I don’t support, though, is for couples to write their own vows.  Sometimes I allow it…with conditions.  But, by and large, I don’t support it.  I’ll just come out of the proverbial closet on this: I’m against crappy vows.

If you want me to use my special designation by the State to do marriages, I’m going to force you to do pre-marital counseling with me.  Each session focuses on a different aspect of life together (and life, in general): family, finances, friends, and intimacy.

(If you want to keep going with “f” words it become obscene).

Another “f” word, faith, is woven through all of those.  Faith as trust: trust in the Divine and one another.

The very first session, though, is where we plan out the ceremony itself.  We spend a little while talking about order and structure, and then we look at words.  I think words are important (as you may know from previous posts).

I think words are so important, in fact, that I don’t continue with my string of “f” words when describing the different pre-marital counseling sessions…even though it would fulfill my great delight in alliteration.  The “f” word we commonly associate with intimacy is anything but intimate.  And although it’s a curse word that spices up language (and I’ve been known to curse), let’s not kid ourselves: we don’t feel particularly intimate with the “f” word in a way that is lasting.

If we did, we wouldn’t use it so liberally.  It is an obscene word that we use to indicate that something is just that: obscene.

“Love” is by far a scarier word to say.   And intimacy is not obscene, it’s scary.

So, because words are important, I always take the couple through the various words that I can/will use in the service: the declaration of intention, the prayer of the day, the blessings.

And then we get to the vows. And at this point I usually say something like this, “Now, I’m going to give you some options for vows and I want us to talk about them.  I want you to use one of these options. If you want to write your own vows, that’s a possibility…but I need to see them before hand.  And we need to talk about them.”

In all honesty, most couples aren’t interested in writing their own vows.  They’d rather have someone write something for them on a day when they’re already more visible than they’d like to be.

But every so often a couple will want to write their own…and that’s when I do my damnedest to try to talk them out of it.

See, this is the thing: in marriage, you can’t just promise whatever you might want.  And because love is scary, we often don’t know exactly what we want…and so we just go with what we know.

And so much of what we know is just sentimental generalist crap.

A vow is something very specific.  I had one of my best couples consider writing their own vows because, as the future bride put it, they wanted to “publicly express their love for one another.”**   Of course they do.  But that’s what the marriage ceremony is in and of itself.

A vow is not an expression of love, and yet so many labor under the delusion that it is.

A vow is a sacred promise, a statement that you say in front of people who, if they are at their best, will hold you accountable to them.  A vow is you saying, “Hey everyone listen up! I’m going to pledge some very specific things to this person across from me, and I want you to hear them and hold me accountable to them.”

Expressions of love are not vows.  Expressions of love are emotionally based.  Vows are not emotionally based, no matter what popular culture tries to tell you.

Vows don’t come from your heart, nor do they come from your head.  Vows come from that place that exists somewhere between rationality and emotionality, because you keep them even when it doesn’t make sense, and even when you don’t feel like it.

So many couples want to write their vows in secret, apart from one another, and then surprise the other with them.  Such surprises are best left for other points in the service, or other times in the whole event of the marriage day.  If you write your vows in secret, how are you to ensure that you’re vowing the same things to one another?

One of you cannot vow to be with the other to the bitter end, while the other only mention staying together in sunny times.  That happens, you know.  I’ve heard self-stylized vows that had very little to say about “the worst that is to come.”

And that’s when the vow is so important!

In a day and age of choice, which is what we are in, I’m sorry…I’m not willing to provide you with this particular choice.  You cannot choose what you vow to one another in marriage; marriage cannot mean whatever you want it to mean.

And I know that may seem to trample on individuality, but I’m trying my hardest to impart one thing and one thing only on you two: this is important.  You will make of your journey together what you will, but I want to hear how you’re going to make the journey, and I’d prefer you use ancient words that people have leaned on throughout all of time.

Because for as much as this is about you and your love, it’s also about all of us who witness it.  Because you invited us to be there.  So I’m going to try to hold you accountable to these things to the best of my ability.

And I’m not one who believes a couple should “stay together at all costs.”  Sometimes an amicable divorce is healthier than an acrimonious marriage.  But, at the very least, can we not look at the vows you made and figure out where things went wrong?  Let’s not pretend that people divorce over irreconcilable differences.

We divorce because vows are difficult to keep and we have trouble living together in covenants.

And so, instead of vows, too often we just have statements of love and intention because other people are really really difficult to live with.

No one marries intending not to stay together; I know what you intend.  I want to know what you vow.  I want to know what you promise from that place between your head and heart, that place of deep yearning that leads people to come together in marriage in the first place.

I don’t think marriage is under threat because people of the same sex want to marry.  Any two people can make a vow; gender doesn’t have much to do with it.  Marriage is under threat because people, of any sex, want to marry on their own terms.

And so much of the church is missing the boat here, I think.  We shouldn’t stand against same sex marriage, we should stand against shoddy vows and a society unwilling to comment on them in a meaningful (read: not judgmental) way when they fall apart.

I think the Bible has many things to say about marriage, most of them absolutely foreign to our modern ears and notions about the institution.  The question for the church isn’t, “What does the Bible say about marriage?” It is rather, “What does our faith say about marriage?”

And our faith, the Christian faith, says vows and covenants are important.  This thread flows through both testaments.

I’m a reluctant Christian at times because, well, we’ve been silent on the vows…but have a heck of a lot to say about who should marry.

And to not see the difference?  That’s just obscene.

**The couple eventually decided to have some statements of love that they had written to one another read before the vows themselves.  This is a great option, I think.

4 thoughts on ““Obscenity” or “On Why I Discourage People from Writing Their Own Marriage Vows”

  1. spot on in pointing out how our focus in the marriage debate is wrong. A lot of my own thoughts contained here, mirrored back at me, written far better than I could 🙂 Some would say you’re brave to make these views public, I just see it as our duty as disciples of Jesus to speak out for Justice – and that’s just what you’re doing here, in my view ( eg I’m a reluctant Christian at times because, well, we’ve been silent on the vows…but have a heck of a lot to say about who should marry.

    And to not see the difference? That’s just obscene.) Fab stuff. Thanks for sharing

    • Hey Whitney,

      I provide options from a work called “Renewing Worship: Marriage, Healing, and Funeral Rites.”

      I don’t know that I can publish them directly on here without infringing on copyrite laws, but you can email me and I think I can provide them.

  2. This is my first time stumbling on your blog and I find it very thought-provoking. I’m a former Christian and you discuss so many things (in the few entries I’ve read so far) that should be discussed regardless of beliefs. Thank you for your boldness!

    Just another perspective: As someone who not only wrote her own vows with her husband, but worked with her husband to write the entire ceremony and select the readings… I still find many of your points valid and interesting. I agree that that the vows are of upmost importance and should not be some dribble written the day before the wedding. We spent months working on the wording of our vows and ceremony and discussing what marriage meant and what it didn’t mean. The words were so important me that I found it unfathomable to have anyone decide what would be said on the day besides my husband and me.

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