Marriage: valuing difference

I am an identical twin. Whenever people see my brother and me together, usually the first reaction is to express how similar we look and act. People, it seems, naturally start with what appears to unite us and make us ‘the same’.

When two people celebrate a marriage, again what seems to be the focus is on what they must share in common, what makes them ‘one’. In various marriage traditions the unity of the couple is, obviously, presumed. In Christianity we read the scriptures about ‘two becoming one’; leave in order to cleave (Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31).

We may therefore read into such a coming together a complete blending of the individuals, almost as if the two people in marriage must dissolve their separateness into one kind of amorphous blob. Somehow, it feels like individuality needs to be ‘erased’, we feel, in a proper marriage.

As a twin, I am continually intrigued by what challenges not only my twin relationship but other kinds of relationships as well: It is more difficult to consider our differences, what is dissimilar, between people as something to celebrate and lift up.

I am impressed by your differences that stand in sharp relief this weekend as you exchange wedding vows. Because, the very foundation of the way you are getting married is based on your differences. Not on something you share as the same.

Each of you come into the marriage union with a different and distinct set of religious beliefs. One is baptized Christian and the other is Hindu. In order to celebrate the marriage, you participated in a Hindu ceremony on Saturday, and then a Christian worship service on Sunday.

Using this experience as an important marker on your journey of life, I want to encourage you to continue celebrating the differences between you. Stand on your own two feet, albeit side by side. A healthy marriage will reflect two, distinct points of view. Don’t deny the individual journeys and identities of each person that brought you together in the first place, lest not those identities be diminished, ignored, suppressed or repressed in the course of your marriage. A healthy marriage will reflect an activity and character that results in two sets of feet moving in tension as in a dance, albeit in the same direction.

Kahlil Gibran, born in northern Lebanon, was an early twentieth century philosophical essayist, novelist, poet and artist whose 1923 book, “The Prophet”, is considered a classic in Arab literature. It is in this book that his poetry on marriage highlights the paradoxical nature of a true coming together, and a true unity of separate souls:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.

Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a …[smothering] of love;

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.

For only the hand of Life [God] can contain your hearts.

And stand together yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart, 

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.[emphasis mine]

“Let their be spaces in our togetherness.”

What you are showing us is that we need not be afraid of what is different in the world today. We need not be afraid of what we don’t understand, just because it is a ‘mystery’. A mystery is not something we can’t understand; a mystery is infinitely understandable. Always unfolding. Always yielding and revealing new insights. Always inviting us to learn more, appreciate more, and love more. This is the true adventure and ongoing discovery of marriage and love.

You see, there is really only one reason, one motivation, one activity that gives charge, energy and purpose to your differentiated union. It is love. It is the passion and pure first love, born in the human heart, despite all the differences of our lives. Not denying them. Simply placing those differences in the perspective of love. The movement of love in your heart brings you into conversation and dialogue in the first place. And then, this love leads you both into deeper expressions of joy and intimacy.

Without needing to control the other, or force the other to change into our likeness. Love does not demand subservience. Love does not force another into submission. Love is not controlling of the other. Instead, love respects another who is different, seeks to understand the other. Love forgives the other and listens to them.

God is love. And that is why we are here today. As Lutheran pastor and teacher, Dr. Kristen Johnston Largen, writes, there is “inherent value in difference – even religious difference” (Interreligious Learning & Teaching, Fortress Press Minneapolis, 2014, p.79). Religious difference, in truth, is “part of God’s plan, rather than an obstacle to it.”

Love calls us out of our comfort zones, into the sometimes challenging and messy realities of being with another and participating in another’s field of life. On the one hand respecting one’s own integrity in doing so; at the same time, boldly entering another’s life. Marriage, in this way, is one of the best schools of love.

Raimon Panikkar, who was one of the most creative voices working in the area of interreligious dialogue encouraged people of different faiths to remember that “We belong together, even if our notions and codes are incompatible” (quoted in Largen, ibid., p.81). We belong together, in relationships of love. The scriptures you chose for your Christian wedding reflect this central tenet of Christianity (1 John 4:9-12, 1 Corinthians 13:4-13).

In the Christian faith, God is understood in a relationship. We call it, “The Holy Trinity” – three persons as one God. The truth of our lives is demonstrated most clearly in relation to one another. Because each of us has gifts and strengths to offer the other. In marriage, you individually have something the other needs, and the other can teach you a thing or two – I am sure! Each can learn from another, each from our own areas of strength.

For God bringing us together today.

For God bringing you both together in love.

Amidst the diversity, difference and distinctions of our common lives.
We give thanks. And praise be to God.

Amen.

Resonance in marriage: a wedding day sermon

The afternoon we first arrived at the Bed and Breakfast on the shores of western Newfoundland, I headed straight for the beach. I didn’t know it was high tide when I saw several meters off shore a couple of large rocks breaking the swells like solitary giants guarding the beachfront.

Our nine-year-old daughter wanted to wade out to those rocks. But I hesitated. I was worried about what danger lurked at the base of those rocks never-mind the strong riptides that usually surge around these things. I just couldn’t see what lay underneath the swells.

Early the next morning as I looked out over the waters of the Gulf of St Lawrence I was taken aback by the ocean floor that was exposed by the low tide.

Those two rocks were now joined at their base by a flat, sandy smooth, debris-free floor. Without the swirling, roiling waters and white caps breaking all around the rocks, I was able to see that these otherwise solitary giants were profoundly and essentially connected at their root, standing united on the same, pristine ground.

Separate and distinct on the surface, yet fundamentally joined and united. Both — being separate AND being connected — are important, when it comes to healthy relationships, especially in marriage.

One thing that has connected you to one another is music. And so a music metaphor may prove useful to placing your marriage in a healthy context. For example, in my appreciation of music I enjoy listening to how dissonant sounds resolve into resonant sounds.

Dissonance happens — at least on the keyboard — when two notes directly beside each other are played at the same time; at first, it doesn’t sound right. The sound those two notes make when played together is not pleasing; it sounds ‘off’. And if a whole musical piece was played like that, I’m not sure I’d be satisfied at all.

Resonance, on the other hand, happens when there is at least a one-note space in between the two notes being played at the same time. Resonance is harmonic and therefore pleasing to the ear.

Two notes, when sounded at the same time, produce something that is greater than the sum of their separate parts. It is a beauty that is greater than us, individually.

If the musical piece, however, was only made up of resonant harmonies, the music would sound cheap, flaky, unreal and superficial. It’s always more pleasing to have those minor, dissonant chords eventually resolve, unfold and fall into the resonant harmonies.

But I can’t fully enjoy the resolutions unless there was the dissonance to begin with. You need both: The sounds that upset the equilibrium, even challenge the sweet desires of the ear, as well as those pleasant harmonies.

If the climax of a piece of music seeks resonance out of dissonance, for me, then, it is not so much who is playing the piece but how the music is played. This we can apply to relationships of love.

Recently a good friend of mine suggested that, in the end, is not so much who we love, but how we love that other person. Do we love the other with grace and forgiveness? Or, do we expect our partner to change, to be more like us, to reflect our opinions and orientations to life?

You see, when we have the courage to love without expectations of the other, when we love with the grace of God that is given to us all, we acknowledge the other as a distinct, separate being. Like those two rocks which on the surface stood apart from one another amidst the swirling waters of the ocean.

In this self-giving love, we allow the other person to be fully who they are. By acknowledging this separateness there will be experiences of dissonance, of conflict and competing desires, to be sure. This is normal, even healthy.

Famous poet, Kahlil Gibran, in his writings about marriage and love entitled, “The Prophet”, sounds this note over and over again — that in honouring our separateness and the ‘space in between us’, we discover what true love is all about.

How we love makes all the difference. Because you know, despite the differences that mark your unique individualities, what is underneath the surface. You know that both of you, though very different in your personalities, stand on a common ground. You are both linked by the ground upon which you stand.

I’ve already hinted at what connects you both — indeed, us all. This ground upon which you stand united is the very grace and love of God that created each of you in the first place. Despite those necessary differences, the other stands with you on the same side of the fence — a fence that doesn’t really exist. By appealing to the ground of your being, especially in times of dissonance, you will, by the grace of God, experience harmony, true joy and resonance.

And, in the end, perhaps give you the courage to seek even a deeper connection with the other, a path you may likely not have undertaken had you not recognized what keeps you united.

When the tide came in and the pounding surf splashed around those two rocks once again, my daughter and I playfully waded out to those rocks and created some precious memories of being together. I was able to relax and take a risk because I knew what was underneath the surface; I knew the ground upon which we stood.

May your marriage make good music! Including some dissonance, but finding those resonant harmonies as well.

I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love — Ephesians 3:16-17

Marriage is a dance

Dear couple,

You took ballroom dancing a while ago. And quite a few times this experience came up in our conversations.

So much in the image of dancing relates to the couple relationship in marriage. If you can hold the image, for a moment, of a couple engaged in a dance, let me reflect on what this experience can teach us about a healthy marriage.

Marriage is a dance. Usually someone takes the lead, and the other follows. But, depending on the music, the roles might reverse. Sometimes in marriage when circumstances change, health challenges mount, or when certain stresses pile up, the one who usually follows might need to take the lead for a while; whether it’s taking care of the other, or simply giving a little bit more time and love. Other times, the roles might need to reverse, again.

The first message here is to remain flexible in your roles and learn to give and receive when called upon. Rigidity and inflexibility are not signs of a healthy marriage; being flexible and fluid with roles and responsibilities, are.

Secondly, in a dance, couples sometimes dance together and sometimes apart. Kahlil Gibran (“On Marriage”) wrote about the blessing we find in the spaces between us. Honouring our differences and the important function of our individuality in a relationship is just as important as the togetherness part.

In truth, respecting boundaries may even be more important because in doing so we recognize our unique gifts and contribution to the relationship. Instead of pretending we have to be the same and merge our concept of self – blend it – with the other until we lose a sense of unique self, we learn to complement one another in mutual love.

Indeed, there is a time in the dance where we need to ‘let go’ of holding the other’s hand and dance separately: Pursuing our unique hobbies and interests, spending some time with our own friends, asserting one’s own opinion vis-à-vis the other – these are examples of a healthy individuality within a committed couple relationship, a vital characteristic of the ensemble.

Mutual and reciprocal love also means that when a mistake is made, or a mis-step as in a dance, both individuals in the partnership have to face the problem. Both are affected. When one of you messes up, both of you are thrown off course. And in that moment of confession and realization of the problem, you are left facing each other. And what will you do in that moment?

When you’ve described this situation to me, I was glad to hear that in the dance you tried to regroup, and get back into sync with each other and the music. And carried on. Because mistakes will be made, to be sure. In marriage, when one partner slips, we often think: “Well, that’s HIS problem.” Or, “that’s HER problem.” “They need to fix it;” “They need to get help.” “It’s not my problem.”

Actually, it is. The mutual nature of a healthy relationship means that just as much as it takes two to tango into a problem, it will take two to tango to resolve the problem and manage it. Any problem or conflict in a relationship carries with it mutual responsibility – causing it and resolving it. Accepting this truth will go a long way to getting a couple back into the dance.

For example, whether or not you directly exhibit symptoms of a problem that affect the relationship, you ask yourself: How did I contribute to causing this? What is my culpability? Was there something I was doing, or not doing, to allow this problem to grow? And, what is my role in solving the problem? What can I do to improve and help the situation?

In order to get back on track, both sides of the question need to be addressed by each partner.

Finally, the broad context of a dance is a party, right? Let’s not forget this: At a party, you dance. It is a joyous event, something to be celebrated. Like marriage, and this wedding day, you are surrounded by a community. Marriage is a public act, supported by others around you. Your friends, your family and your church gather to celebrate and give thanks for your decision to be married.

And, what is more, we’re having a ball! It is a party. Take the time to look around you today at the faces of those who have come to support you and pray for you. These are the people who have walked with you and promise to continue walking – and dancing on the dance floor – with you on the journey of life. Marriage calls us, in the end, not to retreat and isolate ourselves from, but to engage with our community and our world in meaningful and productive ways. Marriage is a reflection – a witness – to God’s purposes in the world.

The music is the source of our dancing and our partying. The music is the reason for our joy in marriage. The music is like God’s presence. It is always there for us. God’s love, God’s peace, God’s Word – are available to us. God’s grace is the beat – the rhythm – that gives life to our movement with one another.

And for this, we are eternally thankful!

Dance on!