What Valentine’s Day Can Learn from Ash Wednesday

vintage_blindfolded_cupid_valentines_tarot_card-r69e9e0fbe135412f893d556e955012e3_vgbaq_8byvr_324February 14th is Ash Wednesday this year.

We should all go out to eat on Valentines Day with ashes on our foreheads.

I mean, whether you’re a Christian or not, you should go ahead and do it.  Because Ash Wednesday is a day that speaks a deep truth about humanity that we all try to avoid: we’re mortal and flawed.

So no matter what kind of foundation you gussy yourself up with before that first date, and no matter what kind of aftershave you apply to make that skin smell just so-so fine, you can’t change the fact that we all share the same mortal boat.

And I don’t say this so that you will despair.  I say it just out of honest truth.

Because here’s the thing: if you give your heart to something, you will lie to yourself.  You will say, “This. I give it to this because it is worth my heart.”  But the subtext that we too often have in such an action is some sort of delusion that the things worth our hearts are perfect or incorruptible or have earned it by some sort of morally superior truthfulness or…

Look, give your heart away to worthy things, but often times what makes them worthy is that you give your heart to them in the first place.

When I speak to couples about love and companionship and sometimes even marriage, I have to work hard to cut through the syrup and sentiment to arrive at something real at the bottom of it all: love is often, in the end, a choice.

Sure, it starts out as butterflies and pie in the sky, but once that wears away you will see what Ash Wednesday shows us: the flaw, the scar, the thing that was covered under foundation and aftershave, years of perfecting a story that omits a chapter, and hours of therapy.

But it is there, that flaw is there, and that is OK.

Do you hear me?  That is OK.

Because you cannot give your heart to something perfect; there is no such animal…at least not one immediately available.  You certainly are not perfect.

What Ash Wednesday can remind us, though, is that no flaw is fatal.  It’s why Christians mark the forehead in not just any shape, but the shape of the cross, a paradoxical sign that is the embodiment of saying, “Dead things can live again…even those dead parts of you.”

And sometimes, Beloved, all it takes is a little love to make the dead places in us rise from the grave.  Scars fade. Flaws smooth.

Just because something is dead in this life does not mean it will always be dead.

And nothing is ever perfect, mind you.  Even Jesus’ own resurrection came with scars from the hurt and the pain of the fight two nights before.

But that body walked again, by God.

This year we have this fun juxtaposition: Cupid and Christ.  Cupid blindly shoots and we romantically think we fall in love.

Christ, though…well, Christ’s love isn’t blind.  God’s love isn’t blind to all our hurt and pain and wrongs and ego and all that mess.  Christ’s love is visionary, illuminating all those shadowy parts of ourselves, exposing them for what they are: flawed but not fatal.

And that person you fall in love with?  Perhaps we should stop imagining Cupid shooting blindly and start embracing a Divine love that sees all and still finds a way to keep the arms open, the welcome present, the love intact.

Not that you have to fall in love with someone to be whole.  And even more so, sometimes the love we thought would last does not…cannot.  Sometimes our flaws do push us apart in the end. Which is when we need to lean even more into the story of Ash Wednesday and a Christ whose love is visionary and completing (rather than competing).

Because it is not a flaw to not be partnered. Sometimes it is a calling.

And it is not a flaw to be divorced. Sometimes it is a necessity.

But when it all feels like a flaw, keep in mind that the deep truth of everything is that it has an expiration date.  Feelings, life statuses, and even life itself.  Things will not always seem and be the way are today.

So embrace the truth of the situation: we are dust.  Glorious star dust, the stuff of the cosmos, wonderful and beautiful and sparkling, and yet, dust all the same.

So risk the date, fall in love, eyes wide open.  Or be single and loving it, giving your heart to many other worthwhile things.

But remember that things aren’t worthwhile because they are perfect; often they are worthwhile because you love them.

And how do I know?

Because you and I are not perfect, and yet we are loved by God.  And others.

And we’re worth it.

“Christian Weddings Should Be Deeper” or “What I Learned at a Hindu Wedding”

(Let me begin by saying: I’ve paimagesrticipated in many beautiful and full Christian weddings that have been rich in depth and meaning.  The following is in no way a commentary on weddings that I preside over, but rather a general reflection over the state of Christian weddings today)

I had the pleasure of co-presiding at a Hindu wedding this last week.

She’s Hindu.  He’s Christian.

Love, it seems, doesn’t know religious affiliation…though many religions think they have exclusive knowledge of what love is.

The Christian ceremony of marriage is beautiful and rich in meaning, in flow, in design.

But in function, well, more often than not these days a couple wants a short service (at which they’ll wear thousands of dollars worth of material to show off for 20 minutes and in pictures they’ll rarely look at again) with a hefty price-tag.  “Make it simple,” is the common line.

A ceremony can be simple and still take a while…

And think about it.  Think about what the abbreviated service says. Families process in separately.  The Father of the bride exchanges her for a handshake with the groom.  There are readings, a short reflection, vows, the giving of rings, candle lighting (or some other symbol of unity), and then a kiss and applause.

It says that love is simple.  Lord knows that’s not true.

Of course a marriage ceremony is, in Western culture, largely utilitarian.  None of the above is necessary except for the presence of an official who witnesses two people make vows to one another.

But that utilitarianism, which is largely a product of law and right order, has so greatly influenced a religious understanding of marriage, which is in itself a huge symbol of Divine love for humanity, that we have religious weddings occurring with little depth of meaning past “I wonder how much she spent on that dress.”

What are we saying about love here?  That love is individual.  That it should be acted upon quickly.  That its extravagance is seen primarily in material expenditures.  And, assuming there is a reception, that it should be seen almost exclusively as party.

If that is what we’re trying to say about love, then there is certainly no problem with a short ceremony and long party.  In that case, a couple really should go to the courthouse to get married.

But that is not what the Christian faith says about love, and not what the Christian marriage ceremony says about love at its fullest.

I didn’t really have reason to reflect on it, though, until I participated in a Hindu wedding.

For this Christian-Hindu ceremony, we intertwined the different necessary expressions of the two traditions into one.  This was no easy feat.  The Hindu wedding ceremony is long and involved, spanning many days.  It is rich in meaning and symbol.  It involves the whole family on both sides of the proverbial aisle.  It involves prayers, offerings, and multiple processions.

For the wedding ceremony itself, the floor surrounding the couple was covered with baskets of fruit, symbolizing the bounty of the Earth, a habitation we all share.  The altar had statues, but also grain and coins, symbols of a world economy that the couple would now enter into and participate in as one.

The parents of the bride welcomed the groom into the family.  The father entrusted his bride to the groom by noting that she is “as precious as gold,” and that he was now entrusted with the care of their daughter who is precious to them.

They walked together around the altar, step-by-step, plotting the journey of life they were now to take together.  They were tied together by a knot in their ceremonial scarves.  The whole ceremony was done in tandem.  They exchanged necklaces, exposing their necks to one another, a vulnerable thing to do.

It was all deeply moving, and in light of many secular-Christian ceremonies, full of such rich meaning that you saw love for what it is: celebratory but serious, a family affair, a journey together through the various economies the world puts on us, primal and earthy, yet transcendent and heavenly.

The extravagance was in the clothes; yes.  But also in the time spent on the ceremony.  Also in the number of family who participated. Also in the rich use of language and chant.

The Christian ceremony, when done fully, has all of these elements…or should.

And if the elements are absent, I don’t really blame a couple.  The church hasn’t done a very good job at critiquing culture when it comes to weddings other than railing against cost (which it rightly should).  But have we spoken against form and function in the prevailing culture?  Have we spoken for order and symbol, primarily how marriage is a symbol of God’s love for humanity?

A good challenge for those of us in the church is to find ways to include the whole family in the service outside of the obligatory ushering role for a brother and the two mothers lighting tapers for a unity candle (which, by the way, is not an ancient part of the ceremony). We have bridesmaids and groomsmen stand at the front flanking a couple in honorary (and stationary) positions when we could include them as intricate parts of the ceremony, driving home the point that, as persons in this wedding party they are entrusted with helping this couple in their marriage and keeping their vows.

The Eucharist could regain an important place in the ceremony as the couple’s first act is to host a party for everyone, celebrating the great feast that God shares with humanity.  Communion is not common practice, though, at most weddings.

Generous use of prayers and music (and especially music everyone sings), a couple’s procession around the altar, an offering of treasure and flowers given away to charity (as love is charitable), families standing together at the front or doing a remembrance of baptism at the font with the whole family: these are all options for the Christian wedding and speak more fully to Love as a gift to the community, to the family,  and to the world that we all inhabit.  Marriage is a calling like the priesthood.  It is not for every individual, but it is for the benefit of the whole community.

Have a number of readings.  Use ancient vows full of meaning, but perhaps include statements of love from the couple to one another, or letters written from the attendants offering their hopes and wishes for the love they see in the couple.  Have clear, distinct rings.  The ring is a symbol in and of itself: an unending circle of love.  Today, though, we don’t look at the circle, just the rock that sits atop it.

Forgo the aisle runner, buy lilies and offer them to God or to the guests as a sacrifice of beauty, for love is a sacrifice of beauty that each person gives to the other.

I don’t know.

All I know is that we’ve created a culture of utility when it comes to Christian marriage ceremonies.

We shouldn’t speak shallowly of love.  Love is rich.  An extravagant dance and dinner is necessary; love is a party.  But love is also a solemn vow, a serious symbol for a world bereft of symbols that speak deeply.  The Christian church can do better, and we should be imaginative in doing so.  We can learn from other cultures.

It can be more.  Love as a symbol of Divine love deserves more for those who profess faith in God.

I loved my wedding. We had communal singing, Eucharist, and even an offering taken up for charity. But if I could go back in time, I’d use my family more, my attendants more, and I’d, as we like to say in liturgical circles, make the symbols big.  Really big.

I’m often a reluctant Christian because we’ve made the symbols small.

But we’ve sure enough made the price-tag big…

You’re Married, Not Besties

So, I hear “I’m marrying my best friend”…and I cringe just a bit.

It’s said honestly, and I don’t mean to belittle the sentiment at all.  But, just in time for V-day, perhaps knowing that you don’t have to share your bed with your best friend will provide some comfort to someone.

My best friend and I would never write in the sand.  Probably.

My best friend and I would never write in the sand. Probably.little bit.

And I’m not against you and your partner being, in some ways, friends.  Or even “best __________” in many ways.

But I do not think that you must (or maybe even should) be “best friends” with the person you marry.

You need to be great partners.  You need to be great lovers.  You need to be great confidants and plan out a common trajectory.

But you need a different best friend.

See, many marriages fall into the trap of “all-needs-met.”

“All-needs-met” is the syndrome where one, or both persons, in a relationship feel that all their needs will be met by this one person, in this one relationship.

And it’s just not going to happen.

Especially needs that fall within the realm of “social needs.”

Sexual needs, deep emotional needs, partnership needs…these can be met within the marriage unit.

But many friendship needs can’t, and probably shouldn’t, be met there.

Why?

Because you need to dance well together.

There was an interesting interview last night during the Olympics where a reporter was grilling a couple competing in ice dancing.  She said, “We know you spend so much time together, and that you’re best friends…”

And the couple gave such a look to the woman and to one another, you’d have thought that lobsters were crawling out of the interviewer’s ears.

They weren’t best friends.

They had a deep bond, an emotional bond, and they spent a lot of time together working hard at their craft, laughing, joking, crying, helping one another up, and making beautiful movements gliding through this world.

But they weren’t best friends because they needed to dance together, and to do that well, they couldn’t be best friends.

The term “best friends” probably has a different meaning to most everyone, I think.  So perhaps the confusion is on my end.  I may not need to cringe when I hear it.

But, then again, perhaps it’s just a truth that needs to be named: you don’t need to be best friends to be married.  In fact, maybe you shouldn’t be.

The marriage covenant is deeper than friendship.  And your marriage cannot meet all your social needs.

It shouldn’t meet all your social needs.

Because you need to dance with intimacy and having/being a family and setting a common life trajectory and, well, a complex support system needs to surround you because those things are hard enough without trying to throw “being besties” in there.

And I think this confusion lies especially within the church who often sets marriage up as the container that holds all relational meaning.  The church has set marriage up on this pedestal, has made it the culmination of everything and all things, and doesn’t mention enough that marriage is a call that not everyone feels, and that marriage will not satisfy every human longing within the heart.

We all need friends, I would say “best friends,” outside of marriage.  And we all need to know that that is OK.  It does not make your marriage anything less to say that your spouse is not your best friend.

They are more important than that.  They are your partner.  They are your lover. They are your family.

They don’t have to be your bff even if you have covenanted to be together forever.

Because you have to dance together, and even in dancing you need a certain amount of distance between the people to do it well.

Otherwise you’re just tripping over one another…

“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.