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June 19, 2016

On Saturday June 18, Clare and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary.  Clare specifically requested that on our special day we spend time with each other and with our children and grandchildren. That is exactly what we did.

As this special anniversary approached, we talked together about our marriage. After fifty years we are still married, and we are also best friends.  Clare and I enjoy being together.

We are certainly aware that marriage can be fragile. Few extended families have escaped the pain of separation or divorce. Clare and I have several good friends and dear family who have suffered through the dissolution of marriages.

Both Clare and I had parents who were married to one person until death separated them: mom and dad for fifty-eight years and Clare’s parents for forty-two years. Our parents set a good example for us.

We were married on a hot, humid Saturday in a small Methodist church in the Midlands of South Carolina.  My three brothers and Clare’s only brother, Ben, were the groomsmen.

The wedding proceeded as rehearsed the previous night. Holding Clare’s hands, looking into her beautiful green eyes, I repeated my vows.  Suddenly, there was a loud crash behind me. Clare’s brother had fainted.

Always a quiet person, Ben had been ill the night before. He had kept it to himself so as not to interfere with the wedding. Unable to eat, standing motionless next to a bank of flaming candles in a warm Methodist sanctuary, Ben passed out. When he fell forward his mouth hit the altar rail, knocking out his two front teeth. Blood splattered everywhere.

My brothers picked up Ben’s limp body and hauled him, arms and legs dangling, out the side door. Clare’s father jumped to his feet. The pastor simply waited to continue. Finally, the father of the bride and the three stunned groomsmen returned. Then, Clare repeated her vows to me.

I have long thought that Clare had an advantage. I repeated my vows with little understanding of what it meant to promise to love Clare for better or worse. By the time we continued, she, at least, had an inkling.

Few couples understand the gravity of the vows they make. It is the commitment made between bride and groom that is most important.

Our marriage has gone through numerous changes. For many years our marriage focused on our children. We had to make adjustments as our parents aged, especially when Clare’s mother suffered from dementia. More changes were required as our children became college students and then adults in their own right. Once our nest was empty, it started filling up again, this time with grandchildren. Clare and I enjoy our family, but we also take delight in those times we have for just the two of us.

An old man and an old woman, married to each other for sixty-one years, were driving along a country road in a pickup truck.  They got behind a late-model car.  In that car was a young couple.  The boy was driving, and the girl was sitting in the middle of the front seat.  The boy had his arm around his girlfriend.  The older couple in the truck followed the young couple for several miles.

After a while, the old woman said, “Pa, I remember when we used to be like that.”

Pa replied, “I ain’t moved.”

We realize that our need for intimacy has not diminished, but it has changed. We have so much in common – a long history together, five children, wonderful in-laws, and thirteen beautiful grandchildren.  Marriages that endure are characterized by the bond that comes through shared experiences of joy and sorrow. The adventure of embarking together on a journey into the future is exciting, even if it means taking care of the mundane chores of living.

Someone asked Clare if she had ever considered divorcing me. Her reply was priceless.

“Divorce? No, never divorce. Murder, yes, but never divorce!”

It is a response she borrowed from Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Dr. Billy Graham.

Just last week I was asked by a young person how long Clare and I have been married. When I said, “Almost fifty years,” the astonished friend asked, “What is your secret?” It is a question I have been asked many times and there are several answers.

A long-term marriage requires a big dose of forgiveness. The idea that love means never having to say you’re sorry is just not true. Love means exactly the opposite.

A marriage that lasts requires an ongoing effort to communicate with each other. This demands the ability to listen with undivided attention, a discipline that must be constantly renewed.

A marital relationship that endures must be based on committed love. It usually begins with a spine-tingling love that is described as being head-over-heels in love. However, love that last is far more than a feeling. It is a decision, an act of the will.

The traditional marriage vows do not mention feeling. Those vows speak of a deep commitment to love for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. I think the vows might also add come hell or high water. These words define a committed love that keeps only to the beloved.

What makes marriage last? A simple answer is the simple truth that marriage for a lifetime requires the sheer determination on the part of both husband and wife to make it last. Like any thing of value, marriage requires maintenance. Clare and I have learned to do a regular marital checkup and tune-up.

Finally, a long-term marriage requires an understanding of the four-fold nature of intimacy.

Physical intimacy is important, but physical intimacy includes more than a satisfying sexual relationship. Marriage needs gentle holding and touching.

Emotional intimacy is important. Being able to share feelings across the spectrum, from anger to affection, is a characteristic of a healthy relationship.

Intellectual intimacy is necessary. We regard each other as intellectual equals. Each of us is a teacher and each of us is a student. We continue to learn from each other.

Spiritual intimacy, we have found, is essential. We believe that God is an invisible presence in our home and in our lives. We pray together and worship together. This is the way that a couple can have the love described in the Bible, a love that, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (I Corinthians 13:7-8)

Along the way, through all of the twists and turns, peaks and valleys, in the road we travel together, there is so much joy, so much for which to be grateful. Perhaps the wisdom in Robert Browning’s familiar poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra” puts it best.

          Grow old along with me!

          The best is yet to be,

          The last of life,

          For which the first was made.

My dad and my stepmother were celebrating their third wedding anniversary at a restaurant in Tryon, North Carolina.  The waitress noticed that they were holding hands. She asked what occasion they were celebrating.

Dad replied, “We’re celebrating our wedding anniversary.”

The waitress said, “How wonderful.  How long have you been married?”

Dad responded, with a twinkle in his eye, “One hundred and twelve years.”

The waitress was startled.

Dad explained, “I was married to my first wife for 58 years.  Ruth was married to her first husband 51 years.  And we’ve been married to each other for three years.  That’s a hundred and twelve.”

In a marriage like ours that is an enduring source of joy and love, fifty years and beyond is reason to celebrate.

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