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UNTIL WE ARE PARTED BY DEATH

June 18, 2019

Having retired five years ago, I do not perform nearly as many weddings as I did when I was a senior pastor. Still, I do conduct a few wedding ceremonies. This Spring, I have had the privilege of officiating at two weddings, both for young couples just beginning life together. I was reminded of how young Clare and I were when we got married. We were both twenty-one years old.

Today Clare and I celebrate our fifty-third wedding anniversary.  Eight years ago, my wife specifically requested that on our special day we begin cleaning the basement.  She wanted us to work on a project that had been on our to-do list for a long time. It might not seem like a very romantic way to spend our forty-fifth anniversary.  Moving boxes, discarding trash, and loading the car with used items to be delivered to the Salvation Army and the Children’s Shelter were all a part of the day. It was the only gift my wife requested, and I wasn’t about to disappoint her.

We worked together for several hours. Then, I picked up take-out food, and we ate supper together on our back porch, surrounded by boxes and bags of trash. We talked together about our marriage. We are married, and we are also best friends. Whether working together on a grungy project or dining out at a nice restaurant, as we did the following evening, Clare and I enjoy being together.

This year Clare’s request for our anniversary was far less demanding. “I just want us to have a meal someplace where we can be together and have eye contact with no distractions.” Both of us are mindful that we have no idea how many more anniversaries we will have together. Each one is to be savored.

Most of us are 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 members who have suffered through the dissolution of their 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 candles in a hot Methodist Church, Ben passed out. When he fell forward his mouth hit the altar rail, knocking out his two front teeth. Blood was everywhere.

My brothers scooped up Ben’s limp body and hauled him, arms and legs dangling, out the side door. Clare’s father jumped to his feet to attend to his son. 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 the bride and the 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.”

After a pause, 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 cleaning out the basement on a wedding anniversary.

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.

Our times are in His hands.

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 for 51 years.  And we’ve been married to each other for three years.  That’s a hundred and twelve.”

In a marriage that is an enduring source of joy and love, until we are parted by death is reason to celebrate.

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