A Celebration of Marriage

There is an old adage that says, "A marriage may be made in heaven, but the maintenance must be done on earth." I couldn't agree more. While ultimately a journey commanded by love through grace and mercy, marriage takes a lot of hard work to survive, not to mention thrive in a society that shuns matrimony's sanctity in exchange for independence and hedonism. You can't just pray problems away in marriage. You ought to pray, but alongside learning the art of compromise, accountability, submission (the healthy, biblical kind), and leadership. In short, as an extension of one's devotion to Christ, one must meld the best practices of faith and works if their marriage is to soar as God intends. As such, contrary to some opinions, it is good for the support of professional counselors and adequately trained clergypersons to help keep things in their proper perspective to be ongoing rather than circumstantial.

Sadly, many Christians approach marriage as a corporate merger of sorts, which goes a little something like this. Perhaps the bride brings her educational accomplishments, charisma, years of experience, and liquid capitol assets to the marital equation. Maybe the groom brings management prowess, lucrative first quarter earnings, and networking savvy to the table. You might throw a little lingo in there about Jesus being a messianic businessman or spiritual entrepreneur for good measure, and there you have it. It is always business, never personal. You join forces not for love, but for the hope of security.

With this outlook marriage is viewed as a mere contractual obligation, and so just like contracts people will violate their vows without as much as a second thought. A covenant, on the other hand, is a theological term that implies a blood oath--the commitment of all commitments, you might say. It is the voluntary, sacrificial giving of one's life to the good of the union. "There is a strong covenantal implication in the foundational text of Gen. 2.24: 'That is why a man leaves his father and mother and attaches himself to his wife, and the two become one.' The man who 'leaves' (Heb. asav) his father and mother is said to sever a covenant with them. When he attaches himself (Heb. davaq) to his wife he creates a covenant with her."[1] Believe me, the covenant approach to marriage is the way to go. It may not be popular, but everything that glitters ain't gold.

My wife and I recently celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. We are overjoyed to have made it this far (understanding, however, that we have a long way to go to reach 40-plus years like some of our mentors), and feel blessed by God to have done so. Yet, we are very cognizant that our journey has been far from a bed of roses. We are just now arriving at a place where we have a good foundation, and understanding of marriage and one another to move forward with. That in itself is a blessing because there have been times that we simply didn't know if we would move forward at all.

If I had to pick the thing that I am most proud of in my marriage, it is that we have grown together, hopefully deep like the rivers that Langston Hughes wrote about.[2] We have become comfortable with the affirmation, at least for us, that there must be a coup d'état against marriage as a relationship of exploitation that is all about "keeping up with the Joneses," a notion that John Ortberg explained begs the question, "But what do you do when the Joneses refinance?"[3] According to pastor-scholar, Wallace Charles Smith:

Christian marriage lifts up mutual sacrifice as the sine quo non of human relationships. Marriage is to reflect the mutual subjection that demands of each partner full loving sacrifice to the other....Marriage requires that persons pledge themselves in full trust to the other. This must be done with the full understanding that by pledging one's self, one is also pledging one's life."[4]

Therefore, marriage--Christian marriage--is about constant acclimatization and change. So often it is described as a lesson in total, unconditional, never-ending acceptance of another, but that isn't altogether true. In accepting dysfunctional, harmful parts of even our dearest loved one (in this case, a spouse) we become world-class enablers, a big part of the problem rather than the solution. I wish that someone had told me that in seminary or church, but I am better for having learned it in marriage, and I am sure that my wife would say much of the same.

As a young African American couple, we do not live on an island that renders us oblivious to the harsh realities of marriage in America today. The research is what it is: "...African Americans are the least likely to marry, when they marry, they do so later, spend less time married than White Americans, and are the least likely to stay married."[5] In fact, "divorce among African Americans has been consistently higher than that for other groups--their divorce rate is twice for whites."[6] By all means, marriage is no joke nor is it for the fainthearted. Even so, we have learned that marriage is not just for Caucasians, as it has been argued through the years.[7] My wife and I are determined to take marriage one day at a time with Jesus as our guide. We are a couple who enjoys being married, as odd as that may sound to some.

No doubt we are called corny, lame, and "whipped" behind our backs because of our commitment to one another in ways that people can see, which renders us peculiar.[8] It is okay though. We will take that chastisement because hopefully in taking seriously what God has done, and continues to do, through our marriage maybe we will be able to inspire some other couple to keep on keeping on through life's stormy weather.

One of my all-time favorite R&B ballads is "Ebony Eyes" (circa 1983, when I was four-years-old) by Rick James and Smokey Robinson. I can't sing well (except in the shower), but I can type a bit, so these lyrics go out to my lovely bride. "I love you. I bet you didn't know that girl. You didn't know that. I need you--right now baby, right now baby. And, I bet you didn't know that, ebony eyes."[9]

[1] Adrian Thatcher, Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times (New York: New York University, 1999), 68.

[2] See Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad (ed), The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Vintage, 1995).

[3] John Ortberg, When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 194.

[4] Wallace C. Smith, The Church in the Life of the Black Family (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1985), 69.

[5] Patricia Dixon, "Marriage Among African Americans: What Does the Research Reveal?", Journal of African American Studies 13 (2009): 32.

[6] Elaine B. Pinderhughes, "African American Marriage in the 20th Century," Family Process 41, no. 2 (2002): 269-270.

[7] Joy Jones, "'Marriage Is for White People'," Washington Post, March 26, 2006. See also, Kristal B. Zook, Black Women's Loves: Stories of Power and Pain (New York: Nation, 2006), and Terrie M. Williams, Black Pain: For When There's Nowhere To Go But Up-It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting (New York: Scribner, 2008).

[8] 1 Peter 2:9.

[9] http://www.amazon.com/The-Ultimate-Collection-Rick-James/dp/B000VWPMNW/ref=tmm_msc_title_0