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Rev. James Ellis, III Headshot

It's So Not About the Ceremony

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Weddings are overrated. Okay, well, not really, but you know what I mean. The way in which many people these days enter into marriage, through the wedding ceremony's excessive glitz and glamour is nauseating. Please, don't call me to officiate your wedding, if this is the sort of thing that you have in mind. I just can't take it anymore. We live as if the bigger and better the "show" produced in the ceremony, correlates affirmatively to long-lasting, more meaningful marital unions, but alas we are mistaken. As Richard Foster laments in Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, "We really must understand that the lust for affluence in contemporary society is psychotic. It is psychotic because it has completely lost touch with reality. We crave things we neither need nor enjoy."

Just consider today's wedding: The bride's parents or the couple themselves set a budget for the festivities with perhaps savings accessed or even a loan acquired to cover mounting costs. A stunning wedding dress is ordered, as are seemingly less spectacular ensembles for bridesmaids. A consultant or coordinator is secured, that is, unless aunt (or uncle) so-and-so is permitted to take charge of this task for a more nominal fee. Speaking of fees, the clergyperson must be paid (much to my chagrin). Maybe a "love offering" will do? An expansive ballroom is secured for the reception alongside a professional caterer. Gift registries are arranged. Flowers are procured, and depending on the season they may even be flown in from a region or country far, far away. The groom and groomsmen are fitted for their tuxedoes.

Respectively, a mature best man and maid of honor coordinate lively entertainment in celebration of the last night before lockdown (please smell the facetiousness). Mailing addresses of family, friends, and a host of "others" (despised co-workers, ex-somethings, long lost relatives, etc.) are located in order that intricately designed invitations can be distributed. The honeymoon is booked at a top-notch resort on some luxurious, tropical island. And, last but not least, engagement rings and wedding bands are carefully selected with the infamous "Four Cs" of diamonds (color, cut, clarity, carat) leading the discernment process. In short, we are often heavy on fluff and light on substance, stuffing ourselves with conspicuous consumption. And, anyone who has an even remotely healthy marriage will tell you that this just won't cut it for the long haul.

Please understand though, I know of what I speak. My wife and I recently celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary, a milestone which our early thirty-something selves are exceedingly grateful for, to God and one another. But, we didn't have the greatest of beginnings. For more reasons than I can fully articulate here, our wedding was a hot mess. Call us nerdy, but according to our calculations only roughly five percent of those who attended our nuptials (which totaled about 200) are involved in our life as positive sources of encouragement today. If re-do buttons were real we would be all about a destination wedding with a few trusted friends and family. Yes, a whole lot less drama; simpler, tasteful, and focused on the "right" things from the very start this time around.

My wife will be the first to tell you that these inaugural years of marriage have been challenging, to say the very least. Leaving your family of origin (mind, body, and soul) and literally becoming "one flesh" (Genesis 2:22-25) with your spouse, whom you have pledged your life to, isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. Then, there are the racially and ethnically specific challenges that you face. As an African-American couple, we can identify with Union Presbyterian Seminary theology and ethics professor, Samuel Robert's assertion in his landmark text, African American Christian Ethics: "The relations between black men and women continue to be fraught with much tension and ambiguity. The absence of so many men from the marriage pool either through imprisonment or early death through inner-city violence further frustrates the ability of young women to find eligible partners and thus form eventual stable family lives." There is an inordinate amount of historical, emotional, cultural, and other baggage that a couple must diligently trod through in order to survive. Even so, while still very much works in progress and under construction, we are living proof that with God's intervention and a loving environment it is possible to unravel oneself from whatever pathologies once seemed normative and beneficial.

As much as it is complex and challenging, marriage is also awfully fulfilling. Without a doubt, my wife is my very best friend. Spending time with her isn't a chore, but a joy. There is no one on this side of heaven that I would rather do virtually anything with at any time. We are different yet share common values in the things that matter most. It is neat to look back on our respective upbringings and life pre-marriage to see how God beautifully welded us together with experiences and attributes to help bring out the best in each other. Among many other lessons learned, we now know that a reckless life is not what we have been called to. Real life is not like a commoner's version of The Game. We are far from being the Cosbys and Lord knows that we are nothing like the sensationalized characters of Why Did I Get Married Too?

I am convinced that successful marriages are so because both parties embrace endearing values like honesty, trust, encouragement, honor, and selflessness. Of course, in marriage you don't cease being a valued individual. You should, however, in your dreams, plans, and prayers transition from thinking primarily of "me" to "we." In fidelity forever, marriage is about giving your all to your husband or wife and to him or her only, forsaking all others. It is about the choice to co-labor with another in holy matrimony as a unit, no longer solely individuals pursuing their respective pleasures with reckless abandon. No, now you have someone else to consider.

Marriage is about partnership, not domestic slavery or hedonistic exploitation. It isn't about a wife accepting childlike or otherwise irresponsible behavior from a man simply because he is a man (like that ever makes sense), and it isn't about a husband giving a woman the so-called "world" at the detriment of both of their souls. In marriage the best and worst of you are laid bare, and you learn all the more not to take life for granted. Marriage is the beautiful journey of two souls trying to make sense of the world. Contrary to the hyper-commercialized examples that we often see, marriage is so not about the ceremony. It is about the covenant, the lifetime pledge of love that has been made, which couples must constantly work at to sustain.

To my lovely wife, thank you for being my biggest supporter. Happy anniversary! In the words of Martin Lawrence, "You go girl!"