By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
My wife Jeanie displays a famous Norman Rockwell painting every year around this time. It depicts the patriarch and matriarch of a large clan gathered around the Thanksgiving table preparing to tuck into a freshly cooked turkey.
Except from the turkey’s perspective, it’s a happy scene. And it’s a scene Jeanie and I often talk about when doing marriage preparation work with young couples. We say something like this:
Look closely at this scene. See the aged grandparents surrounded by their children and grandchildren at the Thanksgiving table. Everything you are doing right now to get ready for marriage is, in a sense, preparation for that day. Right now, Thanksgiving Day 2060 is the furthest thing from your mind. You are thinking about your wedding, your honeymoon, and … well, many things other than what will happen in 2060. And nothing in our culture leads you to think about 45 years down the road.
But marriage is never just about the couple. If you are blessed with children they will become your greatest responsibility. And one aspect of your responsibility to them will be to exert every effort to keep your marriage covenant healthy and whole through your entire lives and thus much of their lives. Your marriage is the scaffolding on which they will construct their lives. Your practice of marriage will become their default understanding of marriage. Having you happy and together and devoted to each other over their childhood and much of their lifetime will provide for them an indispensable model and an equally indispensable sense of security and order. If your marriage shatters, their sense of security and order will also shatter. You are playing for keeps here.
The dirty little secret of the wedding day is that while it may seem to be about your impossibly youthful and beautiful selves it is actually at least as much about the even more impossibly youthful and beautiful creatures you will bring into the world and raise to adulthood. If all goes well, they too will marry and start their families and then you will be grandparents like this couple in the picture here.
This is one reason why marriages take place in public. Indeed, it is the main reason why the state cares about marriage at all. Because marriage has social and intergenerational significance, not just personal significance. Marriage is not just an extended dating relationship with an oddly expensive celebration day. Marriage is a link in the chain crossing all generations. It is a baton being handed from one set of adults to other young adults who will bring forth into the world the next generation that will one day be adults. You have your own responsibilities that commence right now and that you cannot avoid.
This is one major reason why Christian faith teaches that marriage is a sacred covenant. People date as long as it is fun for both. People in a secular culture marry when, and for as long as, it suits them. But Christians make sacred covenant oaths to God, each other, and the church community. It is perfectly natural for God-created, relational-sexual adults to want to find a suitable partner (Gen. 2:15) to love and make love with. But human beings are also sinners. Our sinfulness affects all our relationships, including (perhaps especially) our most intimate ones. You are blissfully happy today, perhaps. But one day you won’t be. One day you’ll be very frustrated with this or that thing about your spouse. One day you might find another person enter your field of vision in a way that entices you. One day you will grow bored. One day you will grow weary of conflict. One day you will wish that your character, both its good and bad parts, was not so clearly known by your partner. One day you might just feel like blowing up your life and starting over. And all this will one day be true of your spouse as well.
But if you have exchanged genuine sacred oaths before God and with each other, and if you are people of the character who mean what they say and do what they vow, you both will realize that on the day you married you made promises that you cannot now break. You said: I will be with you for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live. You promised to love, honor, and cherish each other. You promised fidelity and exclusivity, not just when you feel like it, but when you don’t. And so, when a hard day or hard season comes along, you will remind yourselves of the covenant you made. Your covenant — and the God of covenant love — will secure and hold you. Within the shelter of that covenant you will ride out the hard times. You will return to each other again and again.
And then, before you know it, you will look up and it will be 2060. It will be Thanksgiving Day and you will have gray hair. You will by God’s grace have children and grandchildren gathered around a table groaning with food and filled with laughter. You will look at each other and think: we did it. Our covenant held. And many generations will call you blessed.
In honor of my late father-in-law, Dr. W. Vance Grant, Jr., 1924-2014, and my late mother, Janice Elizabeth Gushee, 1933-2014.