Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In Defense of Marriage

Thousands of ears and eyes are focused upon the Supreme Court this morning as we await their decisions on two cases of equality. Two appeals are testing whether the fundamental constitutional right to marry is for all couples or only couples where one person is a man and the other is a woman. What the court does today could change the lives of thousands of people in our nation - the 120,000 legally married same-sex couples in our country and the thousands of additional couples who are or will one day seek the same gift.

I remember well when the Defense of Marriage Act was making its way through Congress. I was on the staff of Senator Tom Harkin at the time, sitting next to the person who was responsible for responding to letters from Iowans who wrote on this issue. I can still visualize the stack of letters sitting on Kim's desk 17 years ago. But I don't remember having an opinion about marriage other than the fact that I knew I would one day marry, have two children and live in a four-bedroom house with a garage. I knew what my life would hold (not that things always turn out the way you thought they would - thankfully!) - but I did not have any inclination to become involved in a conversation over what the lives of others could hold.

Seventeen years later I find myself as one of many voices of dissent when it comes to both the Defense of Marriage Act and the laws of the United Methodist Church. I believe with my whole heart that marriage is a fundamental right that enables two people to experience life and happiness to the fullest possible extent (when done well). I believe we are withholding a gift from God and a fundamental right when we say that only heterosexual couples can be married in our churches and by our pastors.

Last fall I married a couple who came to the altar with few people supporting them. Never before have I received so many nasty phone calls and threatening messages from "friends" who wanted to do everything they could to prevent the marriage. "She's making a huge mistake," they would tell me. "You're not going through with this are you?" "How could you possibly be a minister and bless their relationship?" I have never heard so much hate mixed in with any other experience as a pastor, and the voices caused me to pause and scrutinize this relationship, going through the steps of the premarital counseling curriculum as though it were a UN peace negotiation.

People were upset not because of the way this couple treated each other or the depths of their love. They were upset because of the age difference. How could a 59-year-old man possibly love a 90-year-old woman?

After much prayerful conversation, I determined that both of these people were in for a blessing. It would be her third marriage, and she's the biggest lover of love in my congregation. It would be his first. He was ready to care for her, to do everything possible to keep her in her home the rest of her life (no small gift when one does not have any children or close relatives). She was ready to make space for him in her home, to share life together, to be in real community (no small gift when one lives in a rented room with family thousands of miles away). How could I withhold a blessing? How could I say "no" when it seemed like God was answering countless prayers through this relationship?

Craig and I have not yet conceived a child. Sex does not define our marriage. The greatest gift of our marriage is companionship - knowing that beyond a shadow of doubt, no matter what happens in this life, it will be a moment spent together. I know that if I am in the hospital, Craig will be by my side. I know that if I die, Craig will take what resources we have and share them in the same way I would. I know that if I am crying tears of happiness or sadness that a tissue and a shoulder will be waiting. Our marriage is far from perfect but I am a kinder, more gentle and loving person because of Craig. I experience life through what God does in our midst as a married couple.

The piece of scripture we regularly turn to at marriage ceremonies is found in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians where Paul defines love for us. "Love is patient, love is kind...." It reads like a romantic kind of puppy love so we put the words on pillows and cross-stitch them to hang on our walls. But the words are anything but easy to embody and rarely lived out to their fullest in marriage. They are not a description of love between man and wife. They are the words that define the love of Christ - a love we are to embody.

Rarely is this love lived out when we are defending anything.

Defense requires walls, divisions, fences and arguments. Defense requires me to tell you why what I have is better than what you have and why you are not worthy to receive it. Defense rarely includes Christ who was constantly tearing down walls, making things even, and putting people on equal playing fields. We cannot defend something without leaving others out whether it is defending our wealth instead of sharing it, defending our borders instead of allowing people to cross, defending our table as though it is ours instead of saying it is Christ's table who bids all to come, defending our marriage instead of seeing how others could be blessed in the same way despite their age or sexual orientation. People who spend their lives defending what they have are some of the ugliest, nastiest, stingiest people I know. A church made up of people who are constantly defending their time or their resources is a church that is not going to have its arms and feet go far in the name of Christ.

I'll defend marriage as one of the greatest gifts God has ever given to me. I'll defend marriage as a blessing God first gave when God noticed in the garden that it is never good for a person to live alone. But I'll never defend marriage as something that is to be shared only between a man and a woman.

It's time to head to the Supreme Court with lots of prayers and anticipation for what the day will hold.


Brian said...

Your paragraph about divisions and defense spoke the loudest to me. I just don't want to be caught by Christ defending something he would freely share with others. Thanks for being there in Washington for so many of us.

Jerry Roberson said...

I must agree with Brian. Your statement about what "defense" is ... and is not ... is a bit of an eye-opener. I'm looking at that word in from a new perspective ... and not always liking what I observe. I'm tempted to post your words on my Facebook page.