Will you be mine?
This romantic question shivers and quivers around Valentine's Day. If the answer is a fluttery "yes," it's often not long before the happy couple is waltzing down the aisle with a more serious question before them.
Do you promise to have and hold this person, now and forever more?
Who hasn't sat in a wedding and felt a little skeptical when they get to this part? It's almost impossible not to, knowing as we all do that nearly half of the marriages in the United States end in divorce. It makes saying this vow before a congregation and before God a seeming act of self-delusion. Or is it?
As a Christian minister and a divorced person, I have a foot in both camps. I know from personal experience the chances of failure are high. But as a person of faith, I believe these forever-after marriage vows are worth making, despite the fact they no longer make cultural sense. In fact, that's precisely why they matter. They are non-sense, in the best sense of the word.
We live in accelerated times. Gratification is usually instant, and most of our big commitments are fungible and term-limited; our contracts have clear escape clauses -- cell phone agreements, church memberships, apartment leases. Our big purchases -- TV, computer, car -- all have "return if not satisfied" policies attached. There's some wisdom in these practices. Who wants to be stuck with costly possessions that break or stop working or simply become unaffordable.
But there's a hidden cost to this pervasive attitude when it begins to bleed into our relationships. Circulating through our mental calculations about even our most significant relationships is the question -- does this meet my needs and live up to all my expectations? And when the answer is no, we are quick to invoke a mental "return if not satisfied" policy. Don't get me wrong. There's no virtue in surrounding yourself with people who make you miserable or, even worse, harm you. But if expend-ability pervades every inch of your understanding of human relationships, the day will inevitably come when a disturbing, indeed debilitating, reality sinks in. You, too, are expendable. There is nothing more damaging to the human spirit than the fear that when you cease to satisfy, the trash pile beckons.
In such a world, the strange act of sharing marriage vows -- publicly promising to have and to hold forever -- becomes truly counter-cultural. It cuts against our consumer values by attesting to the possibility of commitments that hold no matter what life throws at us -- the possibility of love no matter how many pounds you put on, or jobs you lose or how unsexy your feet start looking. The power of these vows are particularly clear when they are religious vows, because they claim ultimate authority and speak to our deepest aspirations and beliefs. There is something profoundly important about our aspirations as human beings to believe it is possible to say to another person, "I'm going to give it everything I've got, and wed myself for as long as I live to another human being."
That we may end up breaking a vow does not invalidate the importance of making it. After all, we often set unreachable goals to provide a lofty vision for what we hope to attain. Deep in our hearts, none of us truly believe there will ever be -- or at least be any time soon -- absolute justice or peace on earth, yet we keep working towards these ideals as if we did. The fact is, having made a vow, we can sometimes find the strength to stick with something, or someone, we might be tempted to abandon. A vow might give you a sense of the longer view, and the patience not to say, "that's it... I'm outta here!"
That said, it's also important for us to remember that the biggest failure of all can be trying to keep promises that we simply cannot keep. Vows are not about keeping yourself mired in patterns of destruction. Vows are not devised to break and reduce us. On the contrary, it is precisely because they are about engaging our highest aspirations that we sometimes have to break them.
If there is nothing but misery remaining in a relationship, you are not helping yourself, you are not helping anyone, by maintaining your marriage vows. Two miserable people do not one happy God make.
All these religious vows matter because they give us just the faintest glimpse of the only vow that never breaks: the vow God makes to love the world. God doesn't say, "I will love you if you are good." God doesn't say, "I will love you if you don't get depressed, don't gain weight, don't have an affair." God puts no conditions on love at all. God loves us, no matter what. If we are capable of aspiring to the unconditional value of human life, it is because of this vow, the one without which our lives would have no meaning, the one in which no failure is possible.
It's a vow that, this Valentine's Day, makes the most beautiful non-sense imaginable.