Charging the Congregation

I sat in the passenger seat of my friends’ car as Indiana beamed under a rare mild July day outside. Cornfields sped by and washed into an impressionist blur. Stephen was driving, and Rachel sat behind me. The Greatest Showman played in the background for the kids.

“When you’re careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself,” said an actress.

The adult dialogue up front felt similar. We talked about divorce among our friends. In my short marriage thus far—thirteen years—being close to divorced young people has been not only an emerging theme, but a cup of great frustration. I wrote a song about the relative pain of it years ago; it’s emotionally nauseating merely to hover near the situation. Looking in, I can’t imagine the soul-wounds sustained on the inside of the upheaval. Once you’re so close to a person—intimately, emotionally, dependently—there’s no way to completely extricate that person from your heart. Divorced people know this, and the rest of us can guess. My most pressing complaint during our Indiana drive was different, however, because I remember my cousin’s wedding.

My uncle was officiating, and he took the opportunity to lay out the reason for an old tradition. You’ll recall, though it isn’t quite so widely observed anymore, that it is customary for the bride’s family to sit on one side and the groom’s family on the other. Then, during the ceremony, the betrothed pass between them. My uncle, in a miniature sermon, referenced a bit of pageantry as old as the Jewish nation.

“The LORD said to [Abram], ‘Bring me a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.’ Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two, and arranged the halves opposite each other… As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him… When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day, the LORD made a covenant with Abram.” Genesis 15: 9-10, 12, 17-18

There it was. Pass between flesh and flesh. Paint the picture once again of God’s covenant with his people: Jesus the Bridegroom, and his Church the Bride.

Yet, if we fast-forward to that most marital and erotic bit of verse called Song of Songs—that is to say, one rarified and quite important song among a great many others—we see the sections labeled ‘Friends’ by later Bible printers. Matthew the Evangelist recounts Jesus’ parable about the wedding attendants and their oils lamps. Tradition holds that there be witnesses to a marriage. This is the flesh those who walk the aisle must pass between. Thus we sat in our places at my cousin’s wedding, seeing what must be seen, attesting before the Lord and before each other to what transpired. In our ironical age, such gravitas seems silly. We’re like to smirk and change the channel at such weighty language and implicit decorum, but in the face of marital difficulty, I need my witnesses to stand by me. And, let’s be honest, is marriage ever easy?

We often get that ‘Charge to the Congregation’ or its equivalent during weddings. How seriously do we take it? Most of the divorces I’ve been close to have come as a kind of half-surprise (or a complete shock). If we are to be the Church together, don’t we owe it to each other to be more present than that? If we’re going to say that we’re witnesses, not just wedding spectators, shouldn’t we check up on one another now and again? If we’re not, I fear that we are careless with other people, as the actress said. I fear what ruin we may bring upon each other, and upon ourselves.

Now, I get it: who would want to project that kind of intrusion into someone else’s marriage or relationship? Secret and unspoken dynamics are present there, hidden riptides that can sweep an unsuspecting third party quickly out to sea. It’s tricky, not to say dangerous, to get oneself involved. Cops famously hate domestic calls, because they are unpredictable and can turn ugly in a hurry. Surely though, day by day, there’s something we as witnesses, as the Church, can do for one other so as not to be surprised by the words, “She kicked him out,” or, “He left in the middle of the night.” Or worse, of course. I have friends who would beat me up if I had an affair, hit my wife, or did some other hideous thing, but while I appreciate the heart-felt threats, that’s more reactionary than constructive. Along the through-hike that is marriage, perhaps it’s good to ask better questions.

“How often do you buy your wife flowers?”

Not enough.

“How often do you look her in the eye and tell her she’s lovely?” Not enough.

“How often do you take the kids to the park and give her two precious hours alone?” Wait, what?

In the nebulous country of walking as pilgrims together, we know we have to be careful not to browbeat one another. But, good grief, I need these kinds of questions. Marriages and other relationships are built around small decisions and tiny course corrections. If we don’t attend to these, we can be quickly blindsided. For myself, if I don’t have friends reminding me to be Christ-like in my marriage, I run afoul of my own selfishness with astounding ease.

Are we witnesses at each other’s weddings? Or did we just show up for the little cubes of Colby Jack cheese?

Indiana gave way to Ohio, then Kentucky, as The Greatest Showman played on. Stephen and Rachel and I kept talking it out, wondering aloud how to help each other along the way—wondering how to be brothers and sisters to one another. There’s no magic pill, I know, but we can certainly do a better job of carrying each other. ‘How are you?’ can be more than an oversung platitude. It takes true asking, and it takes worthwhile answering, but it can be done. We are witnesses.

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