On Sunday our church band hosted a night of music and reflections about love and romance. They invited me to offer a "Ted Talk" as part of the program. This is what I said.
Not long ago I read a novel called The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon. It’s a young adult novel, and a great one at that. The reader follows a girl and a boy around New York City, overhearing their whipsmart banter and swooning a bit as they fall in love. They are an unexpected pair, and not just because Natasha is Jamaican and Daniel is Korean. Natasha is grounded and rational; she wants to be a data scientist when she grows up. Daniel is a romantic who believes in fate, dreams, and love at first sight. He wants to be a poet, though his parents think he should go to med school. Natasha spends a lot of time shaking her head at Daniel, thinking his head is in the clouds. And Daniel spends a lot of time cringing at Natasha’s cynicism. Like when she’s bursting his bubble about love. “I don’t believe in love,” she declares. Daniel challenges her on this. “So what are the love songs really about?” he asks.
“Easy,” Natasha responds. “Lust.”
“And marriage?” he asks.
“Marriage?” she says dismissively. “Well, lust fades, and then there are children to raise and bills to pay. At some point it just becomes friendship with mutual self-interest for the benefit of society and the next generation.”
Daniel believes that the ingredients for a relationship are friendship, intimacy, moral compatibility, physical attraction, and the X-factor - an element he won’t define, but assures Natasha that they already have.
And Natasha believes that the ingredients for a relationship are mutual self-interest and socio-economic compatibility.
The thing is, neither of them are wrong. In marriage we mix love and legalities, sex and housekeeping, church and state. Lust does fade; there are children to raise and bills to pay. The fact that this seemed realistic to me, and not merely cynical, is all the more confirmation that I am getting old.
If I am completely honest with myself, I’m probably a bit of a Natasha.
When Ray asked me to speak about love and romance I almost winced. Love? Sure. No problem. Love is robust; it is a verb. To love is to cherish, to serve, to forgive, to persevere. Love is patient and kind. Let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God - God is love. But romance? It’s all well and good, but isn’t it a bit thin in comparison?
Romance is a feeling that can burn out quicker than a cheap wax candle - just as flickering, just as fleeting. A healthy relationship - and certainly a healthy marriage - needs a heck of a lot more than candlelight dinners and roses.
It’s not that I think we should toss out the love songs and return to the era of arranged marriages.
It’s just that I think we might need to think critically about the stories our culture likes to tell about love and romance. These stories so often follow the same plot - they meet, they fall head over heels in love, something threatens to get in the way, but in the end true love prevails. They confess their feelings for one another and, presumably, live happily ever after.
The danger of this narrative is how easy it is to believe the relationship is rusty just because the big romantic feelings mellow over time - and how easy it is to meet someone else, fall head over heels in love with them, and convince yourself that this is actually your true love, and that person you loved before is the object in the way of you and true happiness. The fact that this is also such a pervasive plot in our culture - from great literature to bad television -
leads me to believe that our culture might be the teensiest bit dysfunctional about love and romance.
Our faith tradition offers another vision of love, another way of being in relationship: covenant. A covenant is, of course, the heart of a Christian marriage. When a couple gets married in our tradition they stand before God and grandmother, and make some very serious promises.
The vows of the marriage covenant are not about how you feel on your wedding day. They are about what you promise to do with and for this other person to whom you are binding yourself. In the vintage vows of a Christian wedding ceremony, couples promise to have and to hold one another: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. They promise to love and to cherish until they are parted by death.
Making a covenant with another frail and imperfect human being is, I believe, the most wondrous risk a person could possibly take. You are promising to stick by that person when the lust has faded, when there are children to raise and bills to pay. What could possibly be more romantic than that? Of course, it’s a countercultural kind of romance. That is probably why I get the side-eye when I quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer at weddings. “It is not your love that sustains the marriage,” he writes, “but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” We are convinced it is supposed to be the other way around.
In marriage we take a profound and enormous risk - which is why we must ever and always give grace when marriages flounder and fail. There is a little known and underused liturgy in the United Church of Christ book of worship - an order for the recognition of the dissolution of a marriage. It takes marriage seriously enough to prayerfully and lovingly consecrate the end of one.
My very favorite words about love will ever and always be those wise words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. But some of my new favorite words about marriage come not from sacred scripture, but from a Supreme Court Justice. When penning the majority opinion that granted marriage equality to same sex couples, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”
Sounds a little bit Natasha and a little bit Daniel, right?
May it be so.