The Importance of Vision
Fifty Two Years and Counting
Helen and I have recently celebrated fifty two years of marriage. It has prompted me to reflect on marriage in general and our marriage in particular. Many years ago, in 1995, we visited the then famous Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles, where I was attending two weeks of seminars in Church Growth and Preaching. Wandering around the campus I chanced into a back office for some forgotten purpose. My attention was drawn to a large sign on the wall. It read something like: The Top Twenty Factors to bring happiness in your Life. I will always remember the first one at the top of the list.
“Marry the right person. This one decision will determine 90% of your happiness or misery.”
I have subsequently discovered by the miracle of the internet, that the quotation comes from a book, P.S. I Love You by H. Jackson Brown Jnr. I can’t verify the statistics. However I do believe its general principle. Of all the crucial decisions in life, this decision is of the highest gravity.
I have repeated this saying many times in subsequent years and reflected at length on how such decisions get made. Despite the inevitable ups and downs, of which there were many, I believe our marriage has been highly fruitful and successful. We have supported each other through the ebbs and flows of life. Yet we made this decision when we were incredibly young and with much growing and maturing to do. I was two months over twenty three and Helen was a few hours off nineteen. We were at an age when we didn’t really know ourselves, and so it was almost impossible to fully reveal who we were to each other.
There are many reasons why our marriage has worked but a foundational one was that we both believed at a very deep, existential level in keeping our promises. That concept pertains to every area of life but it particularly refers to the promises made in marriage which are about as important and sacred as a promise can be. So from the very earliest discussions that we started to have about our relationship’s being permanent, we believed in the sanctity of marriage. Later, as we progressed in maturity, we both came to understand the real basis of marriage is the commitment we made to each other. I read quite a number of modern secular books about marriage and while some of them are very helpful the idea of promises and commitment is almost completely absent.
In the old Anglican 1662 prayer book service, when the man concludes his vows to his intended, he says,
and thereto I plight thee my troth.
To ‘plight a troth’ is an archaic way of saying, to make a covenant. The word covenant is the Hebrew term that describes an agreement made between two parties and a marriage is one such agreement. The Hebrew idiom is actually to ‘cut’ a covenant. The 1662 Anglican marriage service is the one from which many protestant marriage services are derived, and is the departure point for modern, secular services. It has a robust covenantal structure, containing a promise (the vow), the swearing of an oath, a sign (the ring) and made before witnesses, (God and the congregation). I labour this point because in later years when I was preparing young couples for marriage, I specifically taught them this covenantal form. I also emphasized that they would affirm their promises with the words, “I will” rather than the popular but inadequate, “I do”. This is because the promise is for the rigours of the future. It is not merely an affirmation of what a starry eyed couple may feel today. My reason was that it is crucially important to have a firm idea of what marriage is, rather than some vague understanding that it is a flimsy bond of love that can disappear like a transient vapour, as soon as the frantic, hormonal coupling evaporates, and real life descends.
Many years later we went to a Marriage Weekend designed to strengthen couples’ relationships. One of the exercises we were given was to draw our marriage. That was an unusual but helpful task as it made us ponder our relationship from a different perspective. We ended up drawing ourselves as trapeze artists cavorting on the high wire with a strong safety net beneath. The high wire was our life with all its thrills and spills. The strong safety net was our life-long promise to each other that we were committed to keeping.
So for those intending to marry, please choose ever so carefully. And for those on the journey, on the high wire please secure your safety net.