Today my wife and I are celebrating 20 years of marriage. I could write the obligatory post or FB update on how amazing she is and how undeserving I am and how I'm glad we get to go on this journey together and I hope we get 20 more years on this journey. I believe those things and could easily say them and mean them.
I could talk about how much joy I still have when I see her or hear her voice. But we've both come to realize that after 10 years those things were easy to say, but after 20 there's a whole lot of other things in our lives that won't allow me to write something trite because 20 years of marriage isn't easy. It's been very hard. The fun of the first 10 years disappeared a bit in the light of other developments. We often say to each other, remember when we used to make up corny songs or give each other silly nicknames? Of course we remember, but we don't do that nearly as much now. We still do some of that, but they have mostly disappeared in the light of other developments.
In the second 10 years of marriage God has made sure we understand things about ourselves we didn't wish to learn. He has brought us into and maybe never-in-this-body out of certain kinds of suffering. He has shown us how fragile life is with our marriage, our kids, our continuing struggle with selfishness and heart idols. So on this our 20th anniversary, we want to share some thoughts about marriage, mostly for my younger married and not yet married readers. We often think about you with a bit of envy that we can't go back to the time when marriage was easy and a daily adventure. It really was easy in comparison with what has come to us. And we know our experience won't be common to all, or the timing of what we have learned, but we hope others find it helpful as we have found it helpful to meditate on our marriage and share these things with you.
What I offer below isn't some well crafted, well edited article. It's my anniversary morning thoughts, unplanned beyond the time it took to write it. We talked as I wrote, and this post accurately relays how we feel. This is what 20 years of marriage vows have meant to us, though we could obviously say much more. And we hope to convey that we aren't complaining. We can't talk about the vows without mentioning the hard part of the vows. It's not pretty or easy, but it's good.
1. To Have And To Hold From This Day Forward
Having and holding each other felt pretty doggone good 20 years ago. I remember as a young unmarried man thinking of how amazing it would be to be married one day and holding a woman who loves me at any moment of any day that I'd like to hold her. And now 20 years later we hold each other less often than we did, but still a lot. Some days, right in the middle of the day, we will go lay in the bed for a bit and hold each other and talk about whatever. It still is a joy, though we find ourselves thinking of something that needs to get done and move on.
In a bigger sense, we 20 years later have still only each other to have, and each other to hold. There is no one else, and we love that. And we are still each other's best friend. What we started in only having and holding each other has continued. And we look forward to more days, weeks, months, and years of only holding one another.
In the last 10 years, we didn't just get the pleasure of having and holding each other. We had to, often because there was little else in this life given to us by God to cling to. We still had each other. We held each other when under attack from gossips, when Molly had both of her brain surgeries, when horrible things happened to our children, when the things of this world and the messengers of Satan pushed us, we fell into the arms of God and each other. And we're still here.
It isn't good for man to be alone, and at times in ministry and in various times and places, it's been very lonely. I remember many days and nights, from early on to two days ago, where something in me needed to hold someone and she was there. By God's magnificent grace He has provided me with a beautiful, godly, loving wife...to have and to hold. And we move forward.
2. For Better, For Worse
We've had remarkable "better" times. I know a lot of married people who seem to love each other very much. Good on them. But I can't think of anyone who has more fun being married than me and Molly. It's a trip. And "better" times are just grand, when the bills are paid and the basement isn't flooding and the kids are getting good grades and there aren't any cavities. When times are good we sing together and enjoy each other's company. We forgive each other quickly and enjoy each others idiosyncrasies. We make time to hang out and talk, to get alone, to spend time around others. But anyone can endure the better times.
Especially during the last 10 of our 20 years the "worse" times have been pretty bad. Some very bad. Some things we've been through are still too painful to describe in a post like this, so I won't. Many of my readers already know some significant "worse" times through my blogging during and after Molly's brain surgeries. We haven't had it as bad as many others, and we've had it worse than many others. But comparison isn't the point and isn't how we think of our marriage. This is our road. It's our marriage.
We've had to preach the gospel to each other a lot. In worse times the gospel can get lost. God has given us each other to put someone there day by day to speak of the cross and peace and grace and love and forgiveness when one of us is distracted by the worse of our own sinfulness or the bad things that happen to us. Our stresses tend to bleed into each others lives because we are one, but we endure together. Sometimes the one not suffering gets angry or bitter and the one who is suffering is suffering well and reminds the other of how Jesus suffered for us and the gospel breaks us of our bitterness.
I had no idea what "worse" would look like in marriage. We were both naive. We thought we took the high and happy road by being fully committed to covenantal love for one another, and that would lead to a ton of better and little worse. Experiencially, it didn't. Though we've never even discussed divorce since we see it as a non-option, it doesn't take the breaking of a marriage apart for a married couple to be broken. Still God, through giving us one another, makes those "worse" time, as bad as they are, really a "better" time because He is there with us, and we are there with each other.
3. For Richer, For Poorer
We've never appeared on the "richer" side of things for the American middle class context. My income has always been lower than to provide all the things we generally believe we need as Americans. After all this time our kids haven't gotten braces and don't have money for college. The last 5-6 cars have been free or almost free, by necessity. Our last three homes have been parsonages or missionary housing, free of charge, and we have never owned a home or townhouse. Nearly everyone our age and life stage is driving something newer and better. Everyone's house is bigger. Everyone's retirement account is fuller. Probably not completely fair, but the feeling is there and mostly accurate.
But 20 years of marriage has taught us that a bigger house doesn't make for a happy home. A nicer car often means a bigger car payment which we don't have. We aren't living for retirement, because we realize real rest is coming on That Day. Sure, we'd like a new BMW or Suburban to drive. Really we would. But being married and having four amazing kids and keeping things simple is a kind of riches to us.
When times have been very tight, we still retell the stories of God providing vans and houses and groceries. Our kids aren't hearing stories of financial achievement, but faith and a God who provides far beyond what we deserve. Our marriage has endured times where we have gone without because we go with God and with each other. We go with the Church who has loved us and given so much for the gospel's sake.
We hope our finances improve and we are able to provide our kids things that we want, and we are working and praying toward that end. But if we can't, we know One who can provide in riches and in poverty. He has proven Himself over and over. And my wife and I remind each other of that as often as we can.
4. In Sickness And Health
In connection to money, we should add here that the plan from early on, like many couples, was to keep Molly home from work during the formative years of our kids until she could work (if she chose to) once they entered school. It was very difficult, but we did it. She was earning almost $30 an hour as a dental hygienist early in our marriage. But we sacrificed for the kids. She worked at home with our kids and I held one or more jobs while full time in school. Then came her diagnosis with Chiari I Malformation resulting in 2 brain surgeries which pretty much eliminated her chance at that career or much of any other career.
She took a job working at a local elementary school with a special needs kid during school hours last year. It messed her up and she had to stop. Still many local friends think she stopped for no particular reason. Truth is, it was devastating to her health. Because she's pretty and always looks happy around others, most don't realize the sickness runs deep and has ongoing effect. Few understand what daily life is like when "health" seems to be a condition that will never describe her adequately again until That Day.
Molly is "sick," never fully well, always living below the level of those first 20 years of her life and first 10 years of our marriage. Right now, for example, she wakes up every day wondering if she will have that particular headache that puts her down for a full day of vomiting and out of commission for anything else. And it's all a result of something no doctor is able to change.
Both of us have suffered varying levels of depression and anxiety the last 10 years. The last 10 years both Molly and I have lost our ability to sleep well. Sometimes we can't fall asleep. Sometimes we can't stay asleep. Rarely do either of us feel fully rested.
The first 10 years of our marriage I was in various stages of health, working hard both mentally and physically. After a few fun years of mountain biking and being in amazing shape, I found I had a few disc problems in my upper back. Often one day of exercise messes me up for weeks. Lifting weights has become nearly impossible. The only trip my family took to Disney World, I couldn't ride any coasters with the kids because of extreme pain when both awake and asleep.
We've had times of health, and times of "sickness." What we have learned along the way is that we get to endure together and help each other in the sick times. I've told Molly many times that as odd as it seems I have found the times of her greatest fear and deepest sickness, namely right before and during her brain surgeries, to be times of great growth for me. She is helpless and needy and I get to serve her. I learned to take care of her household duties as well as do my own work as a pastor. I learned to have someone lean hard on me in times of incredible need, and I enjoyed being there for her. I learned to lean hard on God because I was forced to live beyond my means...which is what I should have been doing all along.
Sick times have only begun. Our 20 years of marriage have us both about the age of 40, which is still young. We don't feel that young. Times get so bad that Molly will look at me and say, "I sure wish Jesus would hurry up and come back." She means it. And yet being married in sickness and health means we hold each others' hand while waking up another day and working hard for each other, for our kids, and for the sake of the world hearing the gospel. What a joy to have all this pain and endure it together as husband and wife for all this time.
5. To Love And To Cherish
What love meant to us 20 years ago was ridiculous. It meant a lot of awesome physical things (at least for me) and a general vibe of fun and adventure and playfulness and a general attitude of "What's next? Let's go do it!" For Molly it meant security and companionship. It meant sharing life with a best friend and lover.
Now, 20 years later, love is so much better though at first it doesn't feel like it is. Love early on was all over the place. It was public displays of affection and big toothy grins in photographs. It was weekend trips and events and discovery of wonderful life stuff. We got to explore the world we inhabited and the pleasures of marriage together, and it was exciting. It hasn't stayed quite that way.
With the births of our children in particular, the quick, heated, excited kind of love began to shrink. Actually, it didn't shrink so much as it transformed. Now our sharply directed love for one other became spread out. Anyone who tells you that you can experiencially love your spouse the same before having kids and as you are raising your raise kids isn't telling you the truth. It becomes work. Justin Buzzard has had to write a book about how to Date Your Wife because too often we stop. The first years of marriage was a constant date. Since having children, dating has has to become intentional. And those deep conversations into the night have become conversations into the evening after the kids are in bed and the last household chores have been done and "OH MY look at the time, I have to get up early in the morning for MOPS group." Goodness sakes.
We thank God for those years of racy love and the millions of kisses and endless hours of playful teasing. That's a part of our love for and cherishing of each other. We thank God for the years of settling in to a deep and abiding love through huge mistakes, hurtful arguments, angry comments, putting off forgiving each other, apathetic stretches, and lulls between moments of kissing each other like we really mean it and don't have something better to do.
Love has lost some of it's glorious youthful bite, but grown into learning I need to listen to her like her voice is living water poured into me. Love has become seeing gifts I am still learning to discover. Cherishing her has grown into a daily job of staring at her once again, like I did before, thanking God for the years on her face because it's those years of knowing each other deeply that gave her mildly aging face character and tells a thousand stories of her love for me, beyond what I have ever deserved. I've learned that loving and cherishing my wife almost never has to do with what sounds good to me, but learning what sounds good to her and letting her have that to her hearts content and being the one to enjoy supplying it for her. And yet I'm so far from doing that like I should. How much I love her, and how much I have yet to really love her.
5. Until Death Do Us Part
To end this briefly, we haven't gotten there yet. We've known for a long time it can end any day. We've never realized that more than right now. We've been given a 20 year gift and hope to enjoy it longer. But 20 years in we have absolute certainty that we have been given to each other less to have fun and more to work for each other toward that common joy of life eternal. We aren't headed toward a more perfect eternal marriage with each other, but with the Bridegroom who will show us what this momentary marriage was always pointing us to. It took us 20 years for this idea to actually sink in, but in many ways we've only scratched the surface of understanding what forever will look like. But considering the massive pain we've endured and the indescribable joy we've found in 20 years together, eternity is going to be a stunner.
I love you, Molly. Keep walking with me in these broken bodies and with these selfish struggles with sin, hold my hand, and let's stay on this narrow path to something far better than what has been so amazingly good.