A Covenant of Marriage

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I've had weddings on my mind. Not only have three of my own children married within ten months (two just in October . . . more on this when I've gotten my life back together), but I had a long conversation about marriage with a seatmate on my flight from Beijing to Hangzhou, and my own state, California, is litigating a proposition over the very definition of marriage.

Yesterday I attended a beautiful wedding. I have known the bride almost from her birth, and watched her grow until we were colleagues, teaching at the same school.


Photo by David Taylor

Melinda did okay, but the groom choked up, the pastor choked up, the father-of-the-bride choked up, and I choked up as well. Yeah, I admit it: I could do a wedding like this every few weeks, and probably cry at most of them. Few things in life are as monumental as the beginning of a lifetime of marriage.

As part of the ceremony, Bob and Melinda did something I have read about, but never seen done. Publicly, they signed two documents. One was the marriage certificate to satisfy the State of California. At most weddings, the license gets signed in a side office, before or after the ceremony, and often with no more formality than the signing of an automobile lease.

But an automobile lease has a withdrawal clause. For a specified period of time after the signing, the buyer can back out. Increasingly, Americans have become a people looking for ways to back out of inconvenient commitments. My seatmate from Beijing to Hangzhou was a New York based lawyer working for Chinese companies who do business with America. Apparently, until recently, such lawyers were unknown in China, but so many Chinese suppliers have been stiffed by their American buyers (read: all the big chains we Americans buy from) that American-trained lawyers are now de rigueur for Chinese who do business with us. Our reputation precedes us. Our word is no longer good enough. We’ve demonstrated that where a loophole can’t be found, a strong-arm will do.

Unfortunately, our general disregard for contractual obligations has colored our ideas about marriage. No-fault divorce negates any and all vows made on the wedding day. They become, in the words of Daniel Webster, “a rope of sand,” not capable of binding anything. Yet marriage grows best in an environment of mutually-acknowledged permanence. On the one hand, knowing a marriage is forever encourages both parties to give it their best, while on the other, it allows each the freedom to relax and grow.

So Bob and Melinda elevated the signing of the marriage certificate, making it a centerpiece of the ceremony, performed in front of their closest 250 family and friends. That I had seen once before, at my oldest son's wedding in Brazil. But then Bob and Melinda went a step further. They publicly signed a second document, stating that while California may allow no-fault divorce, Bob and Melinda each renounce the right to that option. Each has given up the right to contact a divorce lawyer, or even the kind of pastor who would counsel in favor of a divorce.

My lawyer seatmate was in a quandary about marrying his girlfriend. They have lived together for four years, broken up and returned to each other twice, and now find themselves unexpectedly expecting. At the same time he was excited about the baby, he wasn’t sure that he was ready for the commitment of marriage and parenthood. I’m afraid we are a nation of lawyers, still looking for escape clauses when long ago we should have committed ourselves to making good on our promises. Instead of looking for new ways to define words that have held constant for centuries, we should protect those words and hand them unscathed to our children.

So when Bob and Melinda signed their Covenant of Marriage, I teared up. It was a beautiful moment, a burning of bridges, and the creation of something truly sacred.

And for Bob and Melinda, I pray a long and satisfying life together.

For Shawn and his girl friend, I pray they would have the courage to go for the gold.
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