It’s taken for granted that human beings cannot live without hope, an idea Alexander Pope expressed elegantly a long time ago: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” I was amused last week by a bumper sticker that said the same thing in the blunt modern fashion: “There’s no hope….but I may be wrong.” I am fascinated by bumper stickers, and somewhere just south of Billings, Montana a few days ago I passed a car with one that said: “If it wasn’t for marriage, men and women would have to fight with strangers.” I got to thinking about the endless stream of jokes made about marriage, many of which I filed away for years along with serious articles on that topic, and then I remembered that a member of this church had asked me in a letter to talk about marriages, a request I have not responded to very quickly. Partly because it would take dozens of sermons to deal adequately with the complexities of marriage, and partly because I am neither a professional marriage counselor nor a psychologist. I can speak only from three limited resources: I have been married for a long time; I have through a lifetime of ministry had a great many married people share what worked for them and what didn’t; and I have read a considerable part of the vast literature others have written about why marriages succeed or fail.
One thing I have learned is that glib formulas don’t help much because among all the successful marriages in this world, no two are ever quite the same. In one good marriage I know the husband always carries out the trash, but in an equally good one right down the street the husband wouldn’t be caught dead carrying out the trash. One wife helps her husband by keeping the family books, paying all the bills; another good wife bows to her husbands strong feeling that billpaying is a job meant for him. Some couples feel their marriage works well because they dated for such a long time before the ceremony, but there are plenty of others like one pair in this room who dated for only three months and are about to celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary. So I venture cautiously into a topic that should include all sorts of things I can’t handle in a single sermon, like courtship — which is often so uninformed as to make any marriage resulting from it almost certain to fail — or divorce, that painful experience which is sometimes the only solution when a marriage is so bad that everybody in it is being destroyed. I happen to think a good marriage is one of the best things life offers, but there are enough bad ones to make me understand those who fear that kind of commitment. Phil Yancey, in a little book called After The Wedding , has a classic line: “In marriage,” he writes, “we are tiptoeing through a field of land mines on the way to paradise.” I agree with him that any realistic approach to marriage has to acknowledge both things: the possibility of paradise, and the certainty of land mines scattered along the way.
There must be a million jokes about marriage, and through the years I’ve dumped a few of them into one of the fattest folders in my files. One who listens closely can hear something serious behind the laughter, so let’s begin with a few satirical jabs at marriage. It had to be a woman who wrote this one: “The trouble with some women is that they get all excited about nothing….and then marry it.” It may have been a husband who defined marriage as “an alliance between two people, one who never remembers birthdays and the other who never forgets them.” What you notice already about these quips is that they are almost never universal in their application; they grow out of individual experiences. But the next one sounds as if might be based on fairly common complaints: The marriage of Adam and Eve was ideal, it says, for two reasons. First, Adam didn’t have to hear about the men she could have married; and, second, Eve didn’t have to hear about the marvelous way his mother cooked.
The wonder is that so many marriages turn out well, given all the different ways there are of picking a mate. I can hardly imagine somebody marrying a mail-order bride, but a minister I know in Texas has a friend who wrote a girl he had never seen and told her, “If you’re not interested in getting married, don’t bother to answer my letter.” They have been happily hitched for years. The book of Judges in the Bible tells how all Israel got mad at the tribe of Benjamin and made a vow before God not to marry any of their daughters to the men of that tribe. They soon realized this might be the end of the Benjaminites — a worse punishment than they intended — but they didn’t want to break their word so they hit on a plan. At the big annual dance, they would allow the young men of Benjamin to kidnap the required number of girls. “Catch you every man his wife,” they said, and looked the other way. It may have worked as well as another plan James Michener tells about in his book called The Covenant. A certain English army major had a problem: he had 200 German soldiers who could not show up in South Africa’s colonies single. So he lined up 200 English girls, arbitrarily paired them off with the soldiers, and told a preacher to pronounce them married. “When they reached their destination,” Michener writes, “they established some of the strongest families in South Africa.”
These people, obviously, did a great deal of adjusting….but that’s a big part of what marriage is all about no matter how we get into it. The complaint I hear most often from wives is that their husbands retreat into the newspaper and the TV set while they yearn to talk about what has happened that day. Billie and I are constantly amazed at older couples who sit near us in restaurants and never say a word to one another. When we spent a night in Spokane on our recent trip, the motel clerk suggested a nearby golf course club house for dinner. A man and woman who had obviously been married a long time ate a whole meal at the next table without exchanging a single sentence. He stared at one of those big sports bar TV’s while she, basically, ate alone. I made a lame attempt to exonerate a fellow husband on the grounds that perhaps they had just finished a long talk somewhere else. Billie was more direct. She said, “If I were that woman I’d get up, pour a glass of water on his head, and walk out.” I talked even more than usual that night!
It’s possible, of course, that the woman had cultivated no interests and allowed herself to become boring, so that if she had said, “Do you love me still?” he might have been tempted to say, “Yes….better than any other way.” On the other hand, perhaps neither of them had much curiosity about anything at all. I had a student at the University who complained one day that he was getting nothing from a highly descriptive poem by Tennyson. The words were dead on the page. So I took one simple line that began this way: Willow whiten, aspens quiver, little breezes dusk and shiver, and I tried to make the first verbal image come alive. “What does it mean that ‘willows whiten’?” Deafening silence. “Well,” I said, “poet’s are supposed to make us see things better, so what are we supposed to see? Do the willows grow hoary with age, or is it snowing, or what? It took a while but finally one girl said, “Maybe he means that when the wind blows the leaves of the willow they whiten because willow leaves are silver gray underneath.”
Everybody agreed then, but one man who had told me in despair just before the class started that he wasn’t doing well because his wife and children were about to leave him, now said : “I never have had time to see anything like that. In fact, I don’t even know what a willow looks like.” It was hard for me to believe. A grown man who had never paid enough attention to trees to know what a willow looks like. Not that this failure in itself would be terrifying but that it suggested so much more blindness. What else had he missed? And could what he missed have any bearing on the threatened breakup of his home? Was he one of those good hardworking men whose worlds of heart and mind are impoverished because they never learned to see anything much but a time schedule and a blueprint? Would his marriage have been any different if he had taken time now and then to look at some of the simple lovely things life shows us if we are not too rushed? Would it have helped if he had said one evening when he came home, “Come outside a minute. I want to show you something.” And then had asked her to look at the sun setting, or the first green buds signaling spring, or at broad fat plants unfolding from the dirt in the garden spot. Don’t underestimate the cost of being blind to everything but the practical.
But if the things you say to one help make a good marriage, it is equally true that holding your tongue on occasion may save one. Somebody says that often the difference between a successful marriage and a mediocre one consists of leaving about 3 or 4 things a day unsaid. I often say in a wedding ceremony: “Be slow to speak words that cannot be recalled, no matter how much you wish it,” because some words can be almost fatal. I think it was Katherine Anne Porter who pointed out that if we say “I love you,” it may be doubted occasionally for there are times when it is hard to believe. But say “I hate you,” and the one to whom you speak believes it instantly and never forgets. “Say I love you a thousand times to that person afterward and mean it every time,” she says, “and still it does not change the fact that once you said I hate you, and meant that too….” I disagree with her a little. If love has gotten beyond idealistic infatuation, even a moment of hate could be forgiven. After all, have you never for just a moment hated yourself? Why should your partner be denied that sudden feeling so long as it doesn’t last? Most of us could hear those three awful words, flung at us out of a great sudden anger or deep disappointment, and survive them, but there are seven other words that would likely be the end if they were spoken calmly and deliberately — the worst words we can ever say, the words after which there could hardly be any hope left: “I wish I had never married you.” Pride cannot sustain a blow that grievous.
While we are still on the topic of communication for a moment, I remind you that all marriages have some kind of code language beyond the way words are normally used. The playwright Jean Kerr looks at it from a woman’s point of view, but it works both ways. She says that if a husband says, “Can I help with dinner?” what he really means is, “Why isn’t it already on the table?” And wives figure out that if he says, “It would take too long to explain” what he sometimes means is, “I have no idea how it works,” while “Honey, we don’t need material things to prove our love” is often a way of saying “I forgot our anniversary again.” Successful partners not only need to talk; they also need to learn how to listen — to clear language, to coded language, and even to what silence may be saying.
It helps enormously in a marriage if partners can look at themselves as honestly as Ellen Goodman’s Uncle Mike. Her aunt and uncle, she says, are role models of enduring love. “They like each other. They have a good time together. And they have managed it for roughly 41 years. So, when someone asks him the secret, he is more than willig to share the fact that he modeled his own success on his father’s. ‘My father would get up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, “You know what? You’re no bargain.’” Ellen says, “I think he is on to something. If you start your day looking your own flaws in the face, you might work up a pretty good appetite of gratitude before breakfast. If you know you’re no bargain in the morning, by evening you could be atwitter with appreciation for someone who actually loves you anyway.”
Being accepted even when you are obviously not perfect may be, ultimately, the best thing marriage has to offer. A good marriage may seem to be happening for a while after the honeymoon, but when that romantic mist settles down a bit and people can see clearly, it soon becomes obvious that instead of two perfect people there are two imperfect people….and something has to be done about it. The something will probably be an adjustmeant rather than a makeover.
I know a husband so full of nervous energy, so burdened with a Calvinist work ethic that he is unable to relax for more than a couple of minutes before he spots something that needs to be done and is off and running when his wife would like to chat amiably over a long, long cup of coffee. She sputters about it now and then, but adjusted longago, understanding perfectly well that it wouldn’t be much fun living with a clone of oneself. I love the honesty of a character in a book by Robert Nathan called The Summer Meadows. One paragraph, spoken by a widow about her husband, is so poignantly beautiful that when I felt it would be appropriate I have read it at a couple of funerals. I think it will touch a responsive chord in those of you have beentogether for many years.
The woman says of her late husband, “I will miss him forever. For the rest of my life. Don’t ask me was I happy….Not all the time, not every day. Marriage is not a honeymoon; you don’t feel at dinner like you did at breakfast. But you are fed. And you do not sleep alone, and in the morning you do not wake up in an empty house. I do not think of troubles; I think of [what we shared] because that is what I will take with me through the rest of my life….When we laughed, we laughed together; when we wept, we held each other. How much more do you want? So now, when I cry, I cry by myself.”
I need another Sunday for this, so if by your good grace you will come back next week we’ll do Marriage 2. Thank you for listening the way you do.
Single or married, living alone or living together, we ask, Eternal God, to be united into one happy loyalty in the greater family we have created in
this place. Amen.
into one happy loyalty in this place