We celebrate being married fourteen years this week and really, I still want to just run away with you. This is not because we are perpetually in love. It is however, born from a happily ever after that hasn’t always been so.
We married on a summer morning, with peonies and roses in hand. We were children, really, though we felt like we had waited too long already. We wanted to get on with our life, we wanted to not have to say good bye each night. We wanted to fall exhausted to sleep in arms that were always meant for holding each other. I walked down the aisle and you teared up as we said vows, as we made a covenant that felt full of joy that day. Its champagne bubbles made us laugh and hiccup in delight. They bubbled over into wine, dancing, strapless wedding gowns. We said words like richer and poorer, sickness and health, and really, we didn’t know what those somber words meant. But our eyes were earnest. We said them as best we knew. And that was enough. Because if we knew it all then, would we have said “I do” then?
But we promised those abstract words. And they rose up real and true, loud and strong. And you gave me the platinum band that made it to my knuckle and I pushed it all the way down and it clinked with the engagement ring — the one that I somehow lost years later in Scotland while doing the dishes. But you never shamed me for losing what cost you years of teenage sweat and work. For losing the symbol of our love. For losing something that was so precious. Because, you see, even the diamonds were not the thing.
The covenant was. “Covenant” is a big, often clumsy word and it feels like stately pews and things that are perhaps, a bit out of date. We didn’t know then that “covenant” meant that it would encircle our kisses, our years of international travel and starry eyed wonder at the beauty and majesty of living life together as husband and wife. We didn’t know then that something like that word could stretch so large and wide to encompass 8 moves, 4 children and one unborn lost baby. We didn’t that covenant would grow to accommodate job and career changes, loving new cities, stretching in ways we didn’t know possible. We couldn’t know that a covenant could stretch and grow and fill in the cracks of silent anger where we turned our backs on each other. We didn’t know that covenant meant it would repair the hurt and angry words yelled across wood floors and bitterness felt through the reverberation of slammed doors.
I think because you’re the pastor and I’m the pastor’s wife, that we somehow got a pass on this marriage deal. That we were wired for more holy, more sacrifice, and because we’d looked starry eyed at each other so long, that surely the rings would make it all only easier. Surely by virtue of our roles, your vocation, that marriage would come easily. Surely God owed us that? Surely marriage would be blissful, because love always had been. We didn’t know the beauty of a covenant that can get battered and beat up and somehow look more beautiful on the other end. I thought that the nicks just made it ugly, but never knew that when a marriage is tousled and comes out the other side, that it (like the Velveteen Rabbit) is more real.
But we coasted for awhile on champagne love and a friendship that looked like independence. There were years where we could each do our own thing, play the role of adult in our jobs, and spend $50 on a gourmet salad for a dinner party, because what else was there to do with money but spend it? In graduate school, we could find cheap flights and spend the weekend in London in a drab part of town, but it didn’t matter because we were young and adventure was always to be had. We drank in the world. We skipped like children on cobblestone streets and if we were not still drunk on love, we were happily content to walk side-by-side, pursuing our own individual dreams, working hard.
But then the babies came, and the one that never was to be born was the first one to make me swell with mama-pride. And I became a protective hen, circling my future brood, drawing all mama knowledge to myself. It was then I lost a bit of myself as your lover, as our covenant grew to accommodate more love enfleshed. We became parents, we divided and conquered. We fell exhausted to sleep but there was no encircling arms. We were too tired, too busy to reach out to the other.
In all those years of merely surviving, of roles changing, the anniversaries piled up, celebrated in dinners and cards. Our covenant felt cracked, it didn’t make our eyes light up and the giddiness of those first several years had long ago gone flat. I didn’t want something as boring as covenant then, I wanted the bubbling excitement of those early years with kisses that spoke volumes, with touches that sent electricity through my finger tips. I figured covenant meant disavowing all our early excitement. I was always leaking milk, or covered in sticky-fingered messes or spit-up from the next baby. Instead of pressing into the beauty of those early parenting years, of seeing myself as more real and loved, I floundered, my head barely above water. Where was I? Who had we become? I had turned into a mother. I morphed into a role that felt too big and never big enough. And maybe mother was a more comfortable role to grow into than wife and lover. Its path was clear. Our children are young, they’re covered in dirt, and their voices are too often too loud. And as they needed tending, I bowed to the tyranny of the urgent. I figured we were both self-sufficient adults. You didn’t need me. Not in the same way anyway. Just in the abstract. And abstract didn’t hold much water.
We had years of repelling each other like magnets, where we retreated to our corners, licked our wounds and felt unloved. It was never something major, just the accumulation of thinking the covenant would take care of itself, that we were owed something by each other and by God. We forgot the basic truth: when we said “I do,” we vowed to always be on the same team. As the good news of a good God who runs after his children when we’re stubbornly clinging to our own record of rightness sunk deeper still, we thawed and turned toward each other. You walked in instead of walking away. I practiced saying “I’m sorry.” We laughed. We took long walks. We cooked together again. We retraced the liturgies of our early love-making.
Now, too, there is a bit of space now to run away again. It is time to reimagine us, to put time back into this structure, to weave our stories together again. It is time to see the beauty in well-worn furniture. We’re not jetting off around the world, or even far from town, and yet, I can’t wait to run away to celebrate the 14 years that this covenant has held us up. I do not need the miles. I do not need the airplane, even as I feel the ache of all the lives we have not lived — because an airplane is not the only adventure. Moving place is not necessary to travel well. Adventure happens when your eyes are open to see what is always there.
If this marriage covenant is supposed to hold us up, ours is not particularly alluring anymore. It’s not the sexy, modern chair in the hotel lobby — the one that is never actually used. But ours is sturdy like those wooden pews, it is solid and has weathered rain and taken a beating. The nicks each tell a story. And perhaps those gauges, nicks, and weathering are what is going to make this structure far more beautiful. Perhaps becoming real looks vastly different than what I imagined when we danced on our marriage morning to the song that we heard on our first date.
Because looking back, I think I was hoping for a marriage that always felt new. I wanted to be picture perfect, to be adored, to be whisked across the sea on endless adventures with umbrella drinks and museum trips. I wanted everything that Facebook pictures and the magazines promised romance would be. Champagne, pearls, and witty repartees. But on the other end of 14 years, we can sit cross-legged on a beat-up wooden pew and know without a doubt that we will be held. You have seen me at my most vulnerable — bringing our four children into the light through swears, fear, and strength — and you have never left me. You have never used my weakness as shame, it has always been a crown of courage. We will always have a sturdy place to land, as we’ve worked to rebuild the broken places of our love. We have a safe place to rest our weary feet.
Because I’ve lost the diamond ring. The champagne goes flat. The money for the adventure runs out with four little birds in our nest. We are left then with either bitterness, envy, or the solid hope in a covenant that encircles, bends and stretches through loss, anger, grief and fear.
Because ultimately the strength of that covenant doesn’t rest on words we said when we were just babies. It rests on the great I AM who says he will never leave us or forsake us, who runs to welcome his wayward bride, who clothes us with the robes of family. He is the rock of ages and, on that foundation, we can keep placing our little wooden marital pew.
We can say I’m sorry, will you forgive me? We can crack our anger open and let the sadness pour like egg white until there is nothing left. On that rock we will have the courage to crumble and throw our bodies on solid ground when we feel we are melting with confusion, or upended when life looks nothing like it did when the air was thick with peonies and diamond hope.
But on the other side of 14 years (though I would never say no to a trip around the world) I’ll take the small adventure any day. I’ll take a beat-up wooden seat every single day of the year. It has stood out in the rain and proven itself as solid, sure, faithful, and true. And “covenant” is such a beautiful word — of shame met with faithfulness — that it’s the beginning of a story I want to fall deeper into. It is our story. And it’s far more beautiful than champagne promises.
So my love, let’s run away together. There are always adventures to be had. Even ones that look like ordinary and start with faltering words of vulnerability. We have room again for promises and dreams in abstract words that we’re unsure what those will look like. We’ve stretched that far before. We can have the courage for those dreams, too. We do indeed have a soft and sturdy place to land.