Not long ago Kay Warren, wife of pastor Rick Warren, wrote about renewing their wedding vows 40 years into marriage. She articulated the sort of sentiments you wish all people could say so many years after they initially said, “I do”. She said the sort of thing I hope to say one day myself in my own marriage.
It was meaningful because of the years the Warrens already had under their belt. No one stands before their fiancé and the crowd of witnesses on their wedding day able to make promises of commitment and faithfulness, courage and fortitude, tenderness and compassion, fully cognizant of what those promises mean.
These promises on Day One look different than how they look on Day 14,600.
It takes time for the vows to take root. In the debilitating sicknesses and pain that require more selflessness than one feels they have the capacity for offering. In the frustration and anger over unresolvable conflict and hurt. In the ache of loss and the stretching of change.
There the marriage vows go deep, are fortified, and are called to mind and cursed in what they require or feel stifling in what they ask. Real life causes us to look at the absurdity and naiveté of these vows and wonder how anyone makes it to any numerical milestone at all.
Because marriage is hard. Made all the more challenging by life. And life is hard too. The two together, on some days, can seem impossible.
Crazily enough, the apostle Paul refers to us—believers in Jesus, followers of Christianity—as the Bride of Christ. We are in a marriage, so to speak with Jesus. Which makes those of us in the Church a sort “one” with each other, as we are one with Christ.
The day we make our commitment to Jesus is a day we make the same sort of commitment to His Church. In our Confirmations and Baptisms we become inextricably bound up with God’s people. In our public professions of faith we communicate allegiances to Jesus, but also to the people bearing witness.
That day is like our wedding day. We make sentimental promises, our eyes misty from the emotion. We are so swept up in the symbolism, and the beauty, and the promise, that we couldn’t possibly grasp what we have gotten ourselves into even if we tried. We can’t imagine the millions of minutes, the totality of sacrifice it will require of us.
Like marriage, our relationship with the Church ebbs and flows. Some days it is easy, effortless, fairytale-like. Other days it is not. Some days we feel an integral part of a beautiful movement. Other days we do not. Some days we are understood and invigorated and empowered. Other days we are not. Some days we feel part of a family who sees us and knows us. Other days we look around confused, uncertain, asserting to the Church we belong to, “I don’t even know who you are anymore”.
We begin to see in startling clarity how human Christ’s beloved is. The illusion is gone. Like in marriage, we have days where we find ourselves staring at our spouse wondering what we have in common, searching for what unities we share, desperate for ties that bind and not sides that divide.
Some days end well. Other days we end up sleeping in separate bedrooms.
If you’ve been a part of the Church for any amount of time, you’ve had these days. Days where the Church has inflicted a personal hurt. Days where it’s taken a public or political stance—or hasn’t, when you rather it did—that offends and baffles. Days when due to the action or inaction by those in the Church you feel suddenly very much alone.
These are hard days in the marriage of the Church. They highlight our differences in opinion, conviction and belief. It finds us in deep conflict with heightened emotions. It causes us to shake our heads in confusion at those who think differently than us and elicits a frustration that what feels black and white to some—on either side of the issue—feels hopelessly gray to others.
We turn on each other and do not fight fair. We know better, but do not act better. We name call and talk with contempt. We do everything we knew better than to do. And at times, we are embarrassingly dysfunctional.
And yet. Even still, in the seemingly insurmountable discrepancies in thought, we work to keep our vows. Especially these days. When the world feels out of control, and our relationship with the body of Christ feels just as volatile. When our frustration and hurt with one another compels us to want to walk away, throw in the towel, and cut ties. On these days too, when our commitment is threadbare and our patience is thin, our place in the Church is secure due to the promises we naively, but confidently, made when perhaps we didn’t know any better.
So, what do we do? We repeat our promises—even through gritted teeth. So when things feel uncertain, when we feel jaded and cynical, we can recall what we started with in the first place. Our commitment. Our love. Our emotion filled devotion. Even if we had no idea what we were getting into. Even if we were hope-filled, but experience poor.
We make our vows. Again.
Because vows repeated waist deep in the messiness of oneness with Christ’s Church, is more meaningful than vows made one day in.
We are the Church. Still. We are the bride. Always. We are not always the same. That’s good. We do not always see eye to eye. That’s expected. We misunderstand, we overreact, we isolate and offend, we judge and condemn. We are not always our best selves. We are far from perfect. We air our dirty laundry to the dismay of anyone watching. But we are in it together. And though we have bad days, there are good days too. Really good. Days where we are beacons of light to the world and each other, where the one thing that unites us is enough. Because as different as we are, for each of us in our separate individualities, Christ is our goal. Our aim. Our love.
We are the Church. For richer and for poorer. In sickness and in health. Till death us do part.