Sermon: A Way of Commitment (audio & text)

(This sermon resulted a winning bid at the UUCA 2015 Auction from David Ehlert,
who asked that I address this topic: Marriage – the Ultimate Commitment.)

Not long ago, I was mulling over this whole notion of commitment and Dave’s inspiring
words on marriage, when I came upon a headline on an article that caught me up short:
“Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”
Not why you might marry the wrong person, or how to avoid marrying the wrong person. No:
why you WILL marry the wrong person. And the author, Allain Botton, was no slouch: a 46-year-
old British philosopher & documentary maker who has written both novels and non-fiction
books on the subject of love, he has a pretty sophisticated understanding of all this. And he
wasn’t being totally (although I think maybe he intended to be partly) a provocateur just trying
to stir people up.
His point really was to question this romantic notion that we seem to be stuck with –
women, men, gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, transgender: really, everybody – that there is that
person somewhere out who is the perfect partner for us, the one. Right?
It reminds me of a reading that Debbie and I have joked about over the years that was
among the selections offered for us to consider for our ceremony by the minister who married
us – now nearly 37 years ago. It draws a picture of a couple destined for each other from the
beginning of time, from the moment life first arose from the primordial ooze. We called it the
mire and muck reading. (We didn’t use it!)
We laugh and say, “Come on. The one? We’re grown-ups. We know better than that. Of
course, not everything about our prospective mate will please us. There are always
compromises to be made. That’s the way life is.” Uh-huh.
And still, let’s face it, in just about every relationship we enter, especially those where
we see the possible prospect of life-long commitment, there is that little shred of hope eternal
that we will turn out to be a matched set – our strengths and weakness, pluses and minuses
complementing each other in a wonderful balance that will carry us on together in harmony for
the rest of our days. And then there comes that moment when we are confronted with
something in our partner that we sure didn’t bargain for. Maybe it’s a silly snit, or a smashed
cup, or a humiliating dig, or the stone-cold silent treatment.
It may not be a big deal, but suddenly at some level the thought flits through our minds :
uh-oh – maybe this is the wrong person! We say to ourselves, or maybe a friend: “I don’t expect
him/her to be perfect, but . . .”
Alain Botton suggests that maybe we should make a practice of simply acknowledging
our foibles, what he calls the “bewildering array of problems that emerge when we try to get
close to others,” early in our relationships, before we get too deep into it. Maybe it would be
better if at an early dinner date we simply asked each other: “And how are you crazy?”
So, how might you answer? It’s not a question that most of us think about. We may
even feel that it really doesn’t apply. I’m no saint, we may say, but on balance I think I’m pretty
easy to live with.
We all know people who go through serial relationships, and each time a new one
begins we can see the train wreck coming from a mile off. When the inevitable break-up comes,
we get to hear chapter and verse about why this was “the wrong person.” And, of course, that
may be true, even if in the back of our minds we’re wondering how much this friend’s
“craziness,” as Botton puts it, contributed to the result.
Of course, when you think about it, there is no end of craziness in this process. What
crazy impulse, childhood need, or passionate urge led you to choose this person to be your
partner anyway? There’s no science in it that can assure you of a good outcome. It is in many
ways a roll of the dice, a shot in the dark as it is.
The perfect person? Let’s be honest. As Botton puts it there are ways in which, “every
human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we (without malice) will
do the same to them.” But, he says, none of this is cause for giving up on a relationship. It is,
instead, reason for adjusting our expectations for it. The person best suited to us, he suggests,
is that not the one who shares our every taste, but one who can tolerate difference with
generosity.
So, let’s talk a little about commitment. Like Dave, I am one who believes in marriage:
and a good thing, too, as I am married myself. And in 12 years as an ordained minister I have
officiated at around 80 weddings, with more on the way. And so far, among those couples I’ve
stayed in touch with, I’ve had a pretty good batting average: most of those marriages endured.
Of course, putting it that way gives me far more credit than I deserve. As inspiring as I
hope those ceremonies were, whether those unions endured had nothing to do with me. It had
to do, rather, with how the members of those couples lived into the commitments that they
made that day.
Because, in the end, as I often make a point of saying, commitment is different from
love, at least at the beginning. Wendell Berry’s words are some of my favorites for making that
point. The meaning of marriage, he says, relies not on some fleeting romantic impulse, but on
the giving of words. It’s a reminder that marriage began as a kind of contract, a business
transaction that was a means to transfer property or secure a place in the social hierarchy.
Love, really, had nothing to do with it.
Nor, necessarily, did the prospect of happiness. Family, friends – not to speak of the
couple themselves – certainly hoped for happiness, but everyone figured that it would take
time: because happiness, after all, is more grounded than love. We can be miserably in love,
but not miserably happy.
Happiness with another person takes time and attention. It’s not a momentary flash in
the pan. It takes work, and some of the hardest work is opening ourselves to the uncertainty
that accompanies any relationship.
As Wendell Berry puts it, the giving of words in marriage “is an unconditional giving, for
in joining ourselves to another we join ourselves to the unknown.” There is much we do not
know and cannot know about another person or what the future will bring.
So, as carefully as we may try to vet each other, talk things through, there are things
that are going to sail in from left field that we are not and cannot be prepared for. There is an
easiness, a confidence, a flexibility together that we must learn to cultivate that’s centered in
those less flamboyant emotions, like humility and respect.
As Wendell Berry warns, “what you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be.
Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you –
and marriage, time, life, history, and the world – will take it.”
In the end, it is not a road whose path we can map. It is, instead, a way: a way of being,
a way of thinking, a way of acting . . . a way of loving.
That’s the delightful thing that nobody tells you, because there’s no way they can
describe it. Living over time in caring, considerate partnership carries you to a unique
appreciation of another person that only the two of you can know. It is loving of a different sort
than what the two of you knew at first.
It brings to mind when I was cooking a caramel dessert the other day. The ingredients
bubble in the pot and you stir and stir, and nothing seems to happen until suddenly the
transformation occurs: the liquid darkens into a mixture of incomparable sweetness and
complexity.
At its best, that is what the commitment of marriage can give us. That is how it can be,
as Dave quoted the writer Patricia O’Brien earlier, “one of the best bets for a truly balanced
life.”
But lest we get too treacly, Jane Hirshfield offers us another image that reminds us of
the struggles that it sometimes takes to get to the sweetness: the powerful testimony of what
she calls the “proud flesh” that grows back across a wound: stronger, darker than what she calls
“the simple, untested surface before,” a scar that amounts to something like “honors given out
after battle.”
I don’t know a single couple that has endured over many years whose relationship
doesn’t bear its share of “proud flesh.” We are, each of us, fragile, fallible beings, capable of
folly and conceit. The test of longevity, then, is how we respond, what grace and humility we
can command, what strength we find together when those episodes appear.
And so I quibble a bit with Dave’s notion of marriage as the “ultimate” commitment.
One could easily mistake that to mean that marriage is in some way the “ultimate” state, a sort
of epitome of human achievement.
I think of a friend who endured many years of a rocky marriage but was determined to
stick it out – “I don’t believe in divorce,” she once told me – until one day when she and her
husband were arguing and he assaulted her. It was the wake-up call she needed to show her all
the ways that the relationship had been in trouble for some time and that it was time to end it.
Her health and her hope lay in leaving.
Equally, coupling is hardly the only path to fulfillment. People who choose to be single
or who survive the death of a spouse can find rich and rewarding lives with friends or in
communities like this one.
But I get Dave’s point. There is unique joy to be found in a deep, intimate relationship,
and marriage is how we package it in this culture. I remember being amazed a couple of years
ago after same sex marriage was permitted in North Carolina when dozens of couples showed
up at the Register of Deeds office. Many came to this church after we distributed flyers inviting
them to come for free ceremonies. We offered flowers and cakes, and services at half a dozen
locations across our campus. There were several clergy doing the weddings. I performed about
10 weddings myself.
What amazed me about those couples is that nearly every one of them that I married
had been together for at least 20 years. They didn’t need marriage to be committed to each
other, but marriage also gave them something unique.
There were all the legal benefits that state-sanctioned marriage confers, of course. But
also for each one there was something in that moment when their eyes welled at the reciting of
vows where each seemed to see in the other something they hadn’t seen before. The sealing of
that commitment was like an exclamation mark in their lives: ultimate – maybe – at least for
them. And for those of us in attendance, strangers to these people, though in that moment
joined with them in a kind of embrace, there was something special, too, an affirmation of how
it is possible for we humans to be with each other.
For all our craziness, we are capable of giving ourselves to others who light our fire and
making of that love an enduring commitment that fills us both. How we do that is for us alone
to discover, and there is a good chance of accumulating some “proud flesh” along the way. But
in that effort we also affirm something in ourselves that spark of compassion and hope that
helps us realize the best within us.
I can only say that it’s been my experience. May it be so for you.