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June 6, 2021

          This week I have remembered a wedding at which I officiated more than fifty years ago. The ceremony was at a Baptist church in Lenoir, North Carolina. Both the bride and groom were recent graduates of Gardner-Webb College, where they met and fell in love. Both had a gift for music and a call to ministry. The groom was my brother, Lawton. The bride was Dawn, a remarkable woman. She died of COVID-19 complications on May 29, 2021, the Saturday before Memorial Day.

          Lawton and I were in seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, at the same time. Dawn was my brother’s soul mate. She was an educator who completed her professional career as a school principal. She and my brother were the parents of four beautiful daughters. Dawn was an excellent mother and grandmother. As my sister-in-law, I remember her funny stories gleaned from years as a pastor’s wife and as a teacher, counselor, and principal. I remember, too, her life of faith and love.

          For the last several years, Lawton and Dawn served together as chaplains at the Martha Franks Retirement Community in Laurens, South Carolina.  Several months ago, they both contracted the coronavirus. Lawton had a relatively mild case.  Dawn’s illness was much more severe. They both recovered to the point that they could spend Mother’s Day weekend at the coast celebrating their fiftieth anniversary with their family.

          When Lawton asked Dawn what she wanted for her anniversary gift, Dawn said, “I want us to make our final arrangements.”  They did.

          Three weeks later, Dawn was again admitted to the hospital. She died the next day.

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

          When a couple stands together to repeat their wedding vows, I hear them say those familiar words:

To have and to hold,

From this day forward,

For better or worse,

For richer or poorer,

In sickness and in health,

To love and to Cherish,

Until we are parted by death.

          I have thought many times that young couples cannot possibly understand the full meaning of those vows. How could they?

          The commitment made is a solemn promise to face life with all of the uncertainty implied in the words.

          Clare and I will soon celebrate our fifty-fifth wedding anniversary.  Ten years ago, my wife specifically requested that we begin cleaning the basement on our special day.  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 the 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 is 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 an excellent 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 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 celebrated 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.”

          A marriage can be an enduring source of joy and love until we are parted by death and beyond. That is reason to celebrate.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at

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