Stories

Exactly 43 years ago today, my wife and I were married. (Happy anniversary, sweetheart. I know you’re reading this.) It’s hard to imagine that we’ve been together that long — and that’s not even counting the years we dated beforehand.

But looking back, it’s even harder to imagine what our lives might have been like had we never met and married, never lived where we’ve lived, never had the children we had.

In some ways, we’re an unlikely couple. We were born on opposite sides of the globe, and were raised in vastly different cultural contexts. If biographers tried to start from our respective childhoods and project the stories forward, no one would have intertwined those plot lines.

But life is like that. We can’t predict all the circumstances that will shape us, whether we interpret them as chance meetings or divine providence. We take what comes, and make of it what we can, sometimes without even knowing quite what we’re doing.

It makes me think of the weddings I’ve officiated or attended, the couples who are still learning what their story will be. Each of their families has its own ongoing drama, like a play in progress. When two cast members, one from each production, come together in marriage, the story lines can blend or clash. That first year of marriage isn’t all hearts and flowers. There’s a great deal of conscious and unconscious negotiation going on: whose way of doing things, whose expectations, will take precedence, and in what way?

Biblically, they may be “one flesh.” But they’re not of one mind.

And realistically speaking, they never will be completely of one mind. Hopefully, what changes by the time they make it to three or four decades of marriage is not that they no longer disagree (sorry if that bursts anyone’s bubble). It’s that they learn which disagreements really matter, and let the others go.

I’ve had the privilege of preparing many couples for marriage, often officiating their ceremonies as well. Many are thriving, but some, I regret to say, are no longer together. For all the romance, hope, and optimism that pervade weddings, we just don’t know what life will throw the couple’s way and how they’ll handle it.

We can’t predict how the story will go. And some stories take a sad turn.

. . .

Recently, I attended a memorial for a friend who, with her husband, was a devoted member of our adult Bible fellowship. One person after another came to the microphone to tell a story about her impact on them. She was a person who loved God, loved life, and loved people. The stories were by turns warm, funny, and inspiring. People nodded and smiled at what was familiar, and raised their eyebrows at the occasional new revelation. And when the stories were done, those like me who didn’t know her well wished we had known her better.

There was a time when, as a minister, I looked forward to weddings but had some trepidation about memorial services. But these days, I find that I enjoy memorials more. There is, of course, the grief and sadness that must be handled with respect and care. But when the life being remembered was good, the grief is clean and the memories uplifting.

It’s one thing to be at the beginning of a story, when you don’t yet know how the story will play out, what will be won of lost, who will grow and who will diminish. There is an inherent tension in the open-endedness of it all. But when a person has lived in such a way as to bring joy or solace, wisdom or vision to the lives of others, the tales told at a memorial witness to a story that has ended well.

We can more or less close the book, and apart from the lingering grief, our souls feel full.

And together, we wait for God to open the book again, to begin the longest and most brilliant chapter of all.