Twenty years ago today, I was waiting in a hallway right next to the baptistery where I was immersed a decade before. Within a few moments, I stood in front of my home church to greet my bride, Maria Hanna, and to pledge to her before God and those witnesses my love and my life. Today, I look back and wonder what all we’ve learned in these twenty years together. The main thing is that I’m glad we didn’t wait until we were ready to get married.
I knew on our first date that I loved her and wanted to spend my life with her. But many told us, “Wait until you can afford it before you get married.” It’s true. We had nothing. I was a 22 year-old first-year seminary student; she not much out of high school. I worked and reworked budget scenarios, and never could find one that would suggest that we could pay our bills. That’s why I kept delaying asking her to marry me, even after I knew she was “the one.” I thought I needed stability and a put-together life before I could ask her into it.
My grandmother wisely asked one night when I was finally going to ask “that girl from Ocean Springs” to marry me. I answered, “When I can afford it.” She laughed. “Honey, I married your grandpa in the middle of a Great Depression,” she said. “We made it work. Nobody can afford to get married. You just marry, and make it work.”
Apart from the gospel, those were, and remain, the most liberating words I ever heard. I bought a ring that wouldn’t impress anyone, then or now, but we were headed for the altar. My only regret is that we aren’t today celebrating our twenty-first anniversary instead of our twentieth.
My grandmother’s wisdom is akin to what sociologist Charles Murray talks about in his book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead as the difference between a “start-up” marriage and a “merger” marriage. A merger marriage is the sort one sees every Sunday in the weddings pages of the New York Times, with a groom who’s a hedge-fund manager with a master’s degree behind him and a bride who’s a film professor with a Ph.D. and tenure. They each have their lives, and they merge them. A “start-up” is where the marriage isn’t the capstone of the life, but the foundation. It’s where the husband and the wife start their grown-up lives together, often with nothing but each other.
We weren’t ready to get married. That’s true. But our finances were the least of our worries.
I wasn’t ready, at twenty-two, to know how to console a sobbing wife when she learned that her parents were divorcing. I wasn’t ready to collapse into her arms when I heard that my grandfather had died.
I wasn’t ready to pack up and move all our hand-me-down furniture into a moving van for years of doctoral work in Louisville. I wasn’t ready for miscarriages. I wasn’t ready to hear that we’d never have children. And then I wasn’t ready for an adoption process that took us to the former Soviet Union and back with two very special-needs babies. I wasn’t ready for the doctors to be proven wrong, and kind of suddenly be the parents of five sons. I wasn’t ready to be celebrating our twentieth anniversary with a two year-old toddler in the house. And I could go on and on.
Of course, I wasn’t ready for all those things. In a very real sense, “I” didn’t even exist. The life that I have now is defined by our lives together. That’s why the Scriptures speak of marriage as a “one flesh” union, of a head and a body together. These aren’t two separate lives, bringing their agendas together. This is two people joining together for one life, life together. One can prepare oneself to be a husband or to be a wife. But one can never be really “ready.”
As I look back, I can see the intense joy in our lives that would never have made it into our daydreams about the future. We loved those nights eating only cheese sandwiches because that’s all we could afford. We loved doing youth ministry together, and figuring out what to do when a teenager showed up on a mission trip with marijuana in tow. We loved sitting up together while I wrote a dissertation on kingdom ethics, taking breaks to watch “Frasier” reruns together. We loved holding each other’s hands as we prayed for the money we needed to adopt (we weren’t ready for that either).
And, even now, when I am blasted by some Planned Parenthood abortion activist or some neo-Confederate white supremacist, I love sitting down with her to remember that it doesn’t matter to me what anyone thinks of me or my ministry, as long as I please the King I pledged my life to in the baptistery of that little church and the girl I pledged my life to at the altar.
Truth is, there’s no way we could have made that budget work. And there’s no way we could have grown up enough to be “ready” for what providence had for us. We needed each other. We needed to grow up, together, and to know that our love for each other doesn’t consist in our having it all together. It didn’t start that way, and we still had us.
When I look back at those wedding pictures from twenty years ago, I see faces of people, some of whom are now gone. I see my grandmother’s face there, and I think how right she was. I see a boy and a girl in love, though not as much in love as now, after twenty years of, as my friend Andrew Peterson puts it, “dancing through the minefields,” together.
Were we ready? No. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.