Not everyone is comfortable with the metaphor of the Christian Church being “a bride married to Jesus Christ” as a union that centers a family of faith, producing new offspring into future generations.
If you’re one of those persons, I will plead for your grace and forgiveness in advance. I hope you will “read on” anyhow.
A good portion of my first 20-25 years as a clinician in behavioral healthcare involved work as a marital therapist helping families restore what was once a happy and secure “footing” in this world of untold stressors. So when my “call to ministry” as a pastor was sensed within my own heart and mind somewhere in my early 50’s, it was as if I heard Jesus saying to me, “I want you to be my marriage counselor” as a church pastor. In fact, what I heard was similar to what the Hebrew prophet Hosea must have heard centuries ago. The very basis for Paul’s use of the marriage metaphor in describing Christ and his Church involved the Jewish marriage metaphor for God and his chosen nation of Israel, a marriage Hosea was bent on repairing if at all possible.
Marriages are hard. They may start easily enough but they get hard in a hurry. The simple becomes complicated. Terribly complicated sometimes. And even the best of marriages over time can look back to find there were some bad times. Even some worst years gone by.
Often the work of marital therapy involves a kind of restart. “If you could do your own part in this marriage all over again with this same spouse, I wonder what you might do differently this time?”
Very often in marriage there is something that happens where both partners were unprepared. They didn’t see it coming. They weren’t ready for it. Blindsided by circumstance! Maybe it was an unexpected loss; or an unexpected gain. Someone left; someone entered. Something or someone came in between. And they didn’t handle it well. May be a different circumstance for each partner. Perhaps a different stressor emerged, but whatever such unexpected events or situations were, both partners can look back and see, and now say to each other, “I wasn’t ready for it.” And “I didn’t handle that well.” Or “I messed up on that one.”
Leading up to “and I would do it differently if I could somehow back up and start it all over again.”
Sometimes in counseling couples with troubled marriages, I still ask this question: “Did the person who officiated your wedding warn you in advance to be ready to make a lot of mistakes along the way?” Never have I gotten a “yes” answer to that, even though it’s the surest prediction on earth. Which suggests to me that the officiant back when made his (or her) own mistake. And yet mistakes are like classes we take in life, and in marriage and family, so we can learn to survive and even thrive. Mistakes are teachers that help us grow and improve. And they are 100% guaranteed to happen in marriage.
Occasionally as a pastor I would be asked to officiate what we typically call a “renewal of vows.” My response was often, “I would be delighted to do so, but only if you will come up with different vows now than you used before.” I would challenge couples to come up with “older and wiser” vows they were unprepared to say to each other back when. A kind of “tell each other what you’ve learned from your past mistakes that will make you a better spouse in the future than you were prepared to be in the past.”
Now let’s ask another question. This time of the Christian Church.
If the Church can at least pretend that it is like a spouse and Jesus Christ is our partner in Holy Matrimony, what vows could we maybe write that shows we’re older and wiser and better prepared than we were the first time around nearly two millennia ago?
What in the world was the Church unprepared for back when? Where were we blindsided? What were the losses and gains that caught us by surprise and revealed our ignorance? Where did we go wrong in the past and how can we hope to get it right in the future?
Probably seems like a harsh line of questioning to many of you reading this. My own thought, however, is that the best possible marriage or the perfect relationship needs to stay the course. Forget all about renewing vows. If the old ones are still working great, don’t mess with success. Why not keep on keeping on? Better to re-old than re-new in that case.
From my years of service as a marriage counselor, though, here’s another observation for whatever it may be worth. Just because one spouse thinks everything is rosy and keen doesn’t mean the other spouse will say the same thing. There are times when one partner sees a rose and the other sees a stem lined with thorns. So unless both Jesus and the Church are happy with each other, it’s not a happy marriage. It’s a marriage in need of renewal. It’s a marriage that needs a restart with plans, and vows, to do things differently this time.
Now stay tuned.
I’m taking a two-week break and then coming back with my own assessment. I will report on what I’m hearing both from today’s Church and today’s Christ. If it’s the best partnership possible with mutual happiness already happening, I’ll make quick work of our celebration. If not, then I will share what it might look like for Christ and the Church to do a renewal of marriage vows. It’s the closest I can come to answering my own “call to ministry” at this time.