Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Marriage

Tuesdays in the Chapel
September 11, 2012 ~ 8:30 am
MIT Chapel

Andante in D Major ~ Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Lee Ridgway, organ

READING: "Family Stories" by Dorianne Laux, from Smoke.

I had a boyfriend who told me stories about his family,
how an argument once ended when his father
seized a lit birthday cake in both hands
and hurled it out a second-story window. That,
I thought, was what a normal family was like: anger
sent out across the sill, landing like a gift
to decorate the sidewalk below. In mine
it was fists and direct hits to the solar plexus,
and nobody ever forgave anyone. But I believed
the people in his stories really loved one another,
even when they yelled and shoved their feet
through cabinet doors, or held a chair like a bottle
of cheap champagne, christening the wall,
rungs exploding from their holes.
I said it sounded harmless, the pomp and fury
of the passionate. He said it was a curse
being born Italian and Catholic and when he
looked from that window what he saw was the moment
rudely crushed. But all I could see was a gorgeous
three-layer cake gliding like a battered ship
down the sidewalk, the smoking candles broken, sunk
deep in the icing, a few still burning.

Our theme for the year is “In my family….” And you fill in the blanks. The idea is that there are values conveyed to us from our families that we may or may not recognize. I found the poem read this morning a reminder that not every family was like my family. I loved the image of a birthday cake flying through the air, but I think I would have mightily uncomfortable in such a family.

One of the values that my family taught us was that marriage was an institution to be cherished. My parents were married nearly 60 years when they died.  I was reminded of that reality the other day when a professor at a local medical school caught me after a wedding to ask me the state of marriage in the US. I gave him my best information, i.e. that one out of two weddings in the US end in divorce. We commiserated and then went to the wedding reception.

We both wondered what we might do to address the problem and there are probably things we might do, but the answers are not easy to imagine. My parents did not tell us marriage was a high priority concern of theirs. They simply chose to stay married and I still remember hearing them recount the events of the day as I fell asleep.

I find efforts to commend marriage by building into law definitions of who can marry ill advised. The suggestion that it is an attack on marriage for same sex couples to marry strikes me as nonsense for it seems to me that the opposite is in fact true. To participate in an institution suggests you value the institution. I expect same sex couples to have the same difficulties with staying married as do their heterosexual contemporaries. The issue with marriage is more complicated.

People stay married for lots of reasons. Some of them are not noble. Inertia rules for some. Fear of being alone is a significant influence. Fear for ones safety is also a factor. People stay married for the children, but you have to wonder about how the children of such marriages view marriage having seen it at its worst.  But these factors are also reasons why marriages are not healthier. Inertia does not lead to the sort of transparency that gives space for the mid-course corrections and sacrifice for the sake of children is often hiding other agendas.

Let me suggest to you that  the young people I see these days, I have done 20 weddings this year, are a cause for hope. They value marriage and they believe in it. They are not getting married because they have to get married. They are making an informed decision. Many of them have lived together and know what it takes to stay in a relationship and now they wish in the front of family, friends and God to make promises. It is a hopeful time.

But it is also a reminder that for all of our talk we do not value long term commitments ourselves. We shy away from commitments to voluntary organizations such as churches and service clubs preferring to bowl alone.
We believe that whoever has the most toys does win. Instead of passing laws limiting who can marry we would be wiser to pass limits on the video games one can own, the fantasy leagues one can join and the amount of time spent on Facebook.

My family was not perfect. But somehow my five siblings have all married and stayed married. From Mother and Dad we learned that marriages work best when promises are kept and when conversations continue late into the night even when they are difficult.
 This closing reading has shown up across the country because it captures the importance of marriage as an institution. I was first asked to use it in a wedding ceremony four years ago by a young couple getting married in our chapel.

READING: Margaret Marshall on Marriage, from "Goodridge Vs. Department of Health" by Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall

Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations...Without question, civil marriage enhances the "welfare of the community." It is a "social institution of the highest importance."

Marriage also bestows enormous private and social advantages on those who choose to marry. Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family.... Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life's momentous acts of self-definition.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Chorale-Prelude on "Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten" ~ Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Lee Ridgway