Over the years, in my roles as a Christian pastor and university staff worker, I’ve helped to prepare a lot of young couples for marriage. When it comes time to do formal ‘marriage preparation’, I usually ask the couple to complete an online questionnaire. Once they finish, we sit in my lounge room to discuss the results and share some real talk about what it’s really like to be married. It’s a fun, important and sometimes eye-opening way to help people get ready for marriage.
But over the last few months, I’ve seen the limitations of this process. You see, there’s only so much marriage preparation you can do by sitting on the couch with a cup of tea, a bikky, and a series of coloured charts that claim to capture your mutual strengths and ‘growth areas’ (we’re not supposed to call them weaknesses).
Sometimes, I think the best way to prepare a couple for marriage would be to drive them to a local hospital. I’d take them inside, find a quiet spot out of the way, and ask them to watch silently as an elderly wife spoon-feeds her dying husband. I’d ask them to watch as a husband holds the frail hand of a woman who has long since forgotten his name. I’d take them to the chaotic house of a young couple with three children under the age of five, and ask them to watch the ways in which this frazzled couple continues to love and serve each other amid the hurly-burly of flying poop, vomit and tantrums (and that’s just the husband – boom-boom!). I’d take them to the cemetery, where they could watch a husband as he lays flowers on his beloved’s grave and weeps – then smiles, then weeps again, as memories of a lifetime together flood his mind.
How I’d do any of this without being a total stalker isn’t the point – I’m trying to make a meaningful point about life here. If I could do any of those things, I would. Then I’d say: “That’s marriage. Ready?”
My father is dying. He has been for some time, and a combination of illnesses has made it a long, hard road (to put it mildly). I’ve seen many things in a new light during this time, but what I may have seen most clearly of all is my mother’s love for my father. On one level, I never doubted that the love was there. But these final years – these hardest years – of my parents’ marriage has shown it to me most clearly.
John and Bev Robson were married on August 15, 1963. That’s nearly 52 years of marriage. During that time, they’ve had their share of ups and down, many of which are probably unknown to me. But they have always loved each other. In the last few years, my mother has poured out her life to care for my father when he could no longer care for himself – often at great cost to her own health, always with a measure of sadness, but even more so with love.
She has cared for him because she promised to. And she has cared for him because she wants to. And, yes, she has cared for him on those rare occasions when maybe she didn’t want to – when it all seemed too much, but she did it anyway.
She has cared for him when it hurts desperately, not just when it was easy and convenient. She has cared for him because, I’m fairly sure, she finds it difficult to tell where she ends and he begins. She has cared for him because she knows, as surely as she knows anything, that he would have done the same for her. She cares for him because death has not yet parted them.
She has cared for him because she loves him.
There’s a lot of talk about marriage at the moment, and this is certainly not meant as a direct comment on any current debates. But I’ll say this: when people reject and ridicule the Bible, they are rejecting and ridiculing a book that has given us the very foundation of what most of us hold dear about Western society. Virtues like keeping your promises and displaying self-sacrificial love for others – no matter what the cost – are profoundly and unavoidably biblical virtues. There is infinite beauty in the Bible’s view of marriage, and societies have only been enriched and strengthened by embracing this view.
So I’d love to take young couples to the Blue Haven Aged Care Facility. To most people, it’s a sad and depressing place, somewhere to be kept out of sight and out of mind. But for those with eyes to see it, this place is filled with glory – the glory of marriage in the trenches, the glory of a love that reflects the greatest act of self-sacrificial love in history: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. … This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:7, 9-11)
I’d love to take those young couples to my dying father’s bedside. I’d let them watch in silence. Then I’d say, “That’s marriage. Ready?”