We all know that our relationships have a significant impact on other spheres of health in our lives. When we have strong ties to our friends, extended families, spouses, children and communities, a solid foundation for health is nourished. But when those relationships are expected to exist in isolation from each other, too much pressure can be put on those relationships. There can be pressure to have flawless relationships with our children. Single adults can be expected to endlessly serve their friends and neighbors. And we all have seen marriages that are expected to function without the support of community.
This past weekend I drove to Philadelphia from Durham to attend a wedding. My husband was there to support his best friend by being the best man. The wedding was a beautiful mix of style and substance. The bride and groom had the ceremony and reception at a facility that was in the middle of the woods, which lent the proceedings a kind of rough, rustic fairy-tale quality.
The ceremony itself took place in a stone amphitheater that felt like it was built around the time Stonehenge was constructed. It was a beautiful place to watch a couple get married and it felt like their marriage was springing up out of some primal past, up from the rocks and moss and trees. But there’s the rub: we were an audience gathered to watch something good happen. The presiding minister, who my husband’s family knows to be an excellent human being who loves God and has lived his life in God’s service, had played a significant role in the groom’s life. But it became clear over the course of the ceremony that we were there NOT as participants in this sacrament, the liturgy of marriage, but as spectators of someone else’s special moment.
He preached classic sermon texts from Genesis two and Ephesians five, but the message we were left with was that we were gathered there to watch God do something to these two people. The God in the sermon was extremely fond of marriage, so much so that He had instituted it as a rock on which to build in the creation. Marriage was about God, and a successful marriage was one that “had God at the center.” Of course, all of this was good. But as the ceremony and sermon went on, suddenly it became clear to me that at this wedding, something was missing that should have been driving the whole thing: Community.
The group rallying around this couple was not there as the Church (though nearly all of us were practicing Christians and many where actual members of the couple’s place of worship) but rather people meaningfully connected to the couple who had come to watch something wonderful happen to them. Moreover, and perhaps more deeply troubling, the unity and bond of marriage between two others becoming one was not traced back to its source. There was no Trinity. On p. 118 of the Methodist book of worship, the congregation is asked to “do everything in [our] power to uphold and care for these two persons in their marriage.” Marriage in the Methodist tradition is not a thing that happens merely between a couple and God, but one that is supported, facilitated, and affirmed by the community of the Church. It finds its shape and roots and source in a community that is God and is nourished, supported, and guided by God’s body, the Church.
Marriage, like baptism and ordination, is the work of God in the church. Pastors, baptized individuals, and married couples share the distinction of owing their lives to the church. Pastors, if they are to be healthy and whole, need the community of the church to be with them, to nurture and support them, and hold them in prayer and relationship. One of the great difficulties for clergy is loneliness—of being the other within a community–but there is a call and opportunity for pastors, like married couples, to say out loud that they need support, they need care to be whole and human in the midst of the hard work of their vocation.
Image by Caren Swanson