Guest Outpost blog by Stephen McKinney-Whitaker
I recently officiated a wedding of two women, Jessica and Kirsten. The wedding was a first for me — the first time I officiated a wedding of two people already legally married.
In the eyes of the state they were married last year, so why did they want to get married again in the church? When I began ministry, I would probably have said something like, “Because they want God and the church to bless their marriage.” I would have been wrong.
In the first years of my ministry, I thought weddings were about blessing. I thought the session’s vote to approve a wedding was the church’s act of blessing the wedding. I thought my decision, after pre-marital counseling, to perform the wedding was my act of blessing the wedding. I thought the whole wedding service was a request for God to bless this couple’s union and future life together. I thought that a wedding was an opportunity for a couple to receive a gift from God: a blessing like Jacob demanded from his unnamed wrestling partner. “We come seeking your blessing,” we say, as if God’s blessings aren’t freely showered on us all the time. Weddings aren’t about the gift we receive; they’re about the gift we give.
At Jessica and Kirsten’s wedding, I wrapped their hands in my stole and spoke to the hope that they would be wrapped in each other’s love and in the love of God from this day forward. This couple came to the church not to receive my blessing, or the church’s blessing, or even God’s blessing. They came to give their relationship to God, because wedding days are not about what we receive. They wanted to give God their relationship in the church they worship in. They couldn’t do that until this year. That’s why they had a wedding even though they were already legally married. It wasn’t about a blessing; it was about a gift.
At a wedding, we give our relationships to God. We say, “God, take this love that two sinners have for one another and turn it into something beautiful as only you can. We give it to you, Lord, because with you all things are possible. You who turned water into wine, who turned the cross into a symbol of hope, who turned me around on the road of life, who turned my future destination from death to resurrection, we trust you can turn this imperfect love and relationship into something beautiful. We give it to you.”
We give our relationships, and our marriages, not to the pastor, or to our families, or to our church. We give them to God. Couples can do this without a pastor and without a church, but why would we want them to? Here are two people – maybe members, maybe non-members – who want help and guidance on how to give their relationship to God. Isn’t that why we exist, to create and nurture disciples of Christ in a welcoming community, to help people give their whole lives, – including their relationships – to God?
I now know I’m not the gatekeeper of marriage. I don’t grant or deny God’s blessing to a couple. I am a guide and teacher who helps two people in love approach God with a gift because they trust God with that gift. They trust that the love they have together is better held and nurtured in the hands of God than in their own hands alone.
Our church often gets requests for weddings from people who do not attend any church. That’s the blessing of weddings. The church is blessed to help two people trust God with something precious, perhaps for the first time in their lives, and give their relationship to God in a spirit of worship. To help couples do this is a gift. One we should never refuse lightly.
STEPHEN McKINNEY-WHITAKER is pastor and head of staff and United Presbyterian Church of Peoria, Illinois.