When someone dies, even if life is cut tragically short by illness or misfortune, we do not say, “he or she failed.” On the contrary, we grieve, even as we gather together to share stories, remember the times, good and bad, and to reflect on what we gained from the years we had. We say thanks be to God, and though many of the days ahead will be filled with a paradoxical mix of laughter and tears, we move on. We never get over death, but we can learn to get through.
The end of life does not indicate failure. Why is this not true when it comes to the most intimate of our relationships as we continue to speak of “failed marriages”?
“So much worse than the end of a marriage is a marriage that dies but is never given the grace of a kind ending.”
As if those left in the wake of such loss do not suffer enough, too much of our language is condemning and accusatory. “Failed marriages” produce “broken families.” Though divorce does not carry the stigma it once did, in our culture it still whispers, “You failed.”
The United States remains one of the most religious nations on the planet, and in my part of the world the air remains tainted by a religious-conservatism that once dominated the ethos. Our collective conscience remains stained by a selective biblical literalism that allows us to pick and choose whom to bludgeon and how to bludgeon. You know what Jesus said about divorce, right? Most people do not – but, it’s in the Bible, so. . . “You failed.”
Too often when a marriage ends there is enough self-imposed judgment that once-partners are never able to completely free themselves of the indictment. (Forgiving oneself is always the hardest part.) Once a marriage has ended, many people look in the mirror and never escape the guilt and weight of their own failure. “My marriage failed.” “I’m a failure.” It’s adding insult to injury, again and again and again.
And yet within the liturgies of the sacrament, we continue to ask people to commit “’Til death us do part,” even though the data is clear. Only about half of all marriages achieve that high ideal. Religious and non-religious, those consecrated at an altar and those not consecrated at all, many marriages are parted by something other than the physical death of one of the partners.
So much worse than the end of a marriage is a marriage that dies but is never given the grace of a kind ending – though we seldom acknowledge this reality. How many have stayed in some kind of Zombie Marriage, like the walking dead, occupying one house and one life, long after the intimacy and the companionship ended? Surely this is not what Jesus was encouraging with his words about divorce.
“A good marriage is a sacrament – an outward sign of an inward grace.”
“We did it for the children,” they sometimes say. Really? And exactly what are your children learning from this kind of marriage? “The Bible doesn’t allow divorce, except for unfaithfulness.” Really? And to what exactly are you being faithful in this so-called “marriage”?
The Bible champions love, not legalism. When he was once asked about marriage in light of eternal life, Jesus concluded his response by saying, “God is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12) – living people (then and now), living relationships, living marriages!
One young mother who was raised in a minister’s home had just endured a painful divorce. As she reflected on the experience, she said the hardest part had been hearing the words she had said at the altar, over and over again. They pierced her soul. Before God and all those witnesses, she had made a solemn vow: “’Til death us do part.”
It is the ideal. It is wonderful when it works. I know no better proof of the presence of God in the world than a long, happy marriage. The push and the pull. The give and the take. It takes grit and grace, so when it lasts, a good marriage is a sacrament – an outward sign of an inward grace. What better evidence could there be that God truly is with us?
But like all living things – and like organizations and events and other relationships – marriages sometimes end. Almost as often as not, marriage partners are not parted by death. When marriages do end, partners can survive, even thrive. And children are resilient and flexible, and can be blessed by good parenting, even when good parents can no longer share the same address.
So let us offer grace in the liturgies of our formal worship, as well as in the words of our daily witness – grace that blesses all the beautiful potential for health and happiness that marriage uniquely holds; and let us extend the grace of our blessing when death comes to a marriage itself, not just to the death of one spouse.
I take you to be my wedded spouse,
to have and to hold from this day forward,
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
as long as we find true life together,
for God is a God of all things living.
And to this – to life in our love (and love in our life) together – I pledge my faith.
As a spouse, the father of two sons, and a pastor, that’s a vow I believe we and God could live with for a lifetime.