~ by David Maxwell
Cher didn’t sing. Liza didn’t dance. No one jumped half-clad out of a cake. But twenty-five mostly middle-aged and fabulous straight and gay friends came from across the country last December to our joyful marriage ceremony and dinner in New York City.
Why did we get married after twenty-one years together? Well… why does anyone get married? A couple gets pregnant and decides that perhaps it is the right time. Parents nag for long enough that the couple gives in. Two lovers happen to be in Las Vegas and the line is short. Somehow, it’s just the right time to formalize their relationship in the presence of family and friends, naming their love and making a covenant before God.
Marcelo and I never really thought we would do this. Maybe it was bitterness; we said we didn’t need a stupid piece of paper to legitimate our relationship. Our personalized relationship blueprint has worked pretty well all these years. We never doubted that God was supportive of us, even if the church and government were not. We fortunately have enjoyed the support of friends, neighbors, and family. Still, when some state governments and denominations finally opened the marriage door, we found ourselves skipping through.
One of those doors creaking open is the Presbyterian Church, which has now approved the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. I no longer need to hide. But it has not yet approved same-sex marriage, meaning that I, a Presbyterian gay minister, cannot be married in a Presbyterian church or by a Presbyterian minister. I am confident the church will soon resolve this glaring contradiction that creates a problem for supportive clergy, churches, and couples alike. Meanwhile, thank God for the ecumenical world! Our officiant, Serene Jones (a dear friend who is also president of Union Theological Seminary in New York), is a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister and she adapted a United Church of Christ wedding liturgy. No church rules would be broken.
The original plan was to go to New York and quietly get the job done. After all, our biological families are in Chile, South America, and Tulsa, Oklahoma–neither of which has legalized same-sex marriage. Many of our closest friends are in Louisville, Kentucky, where we live, and it’s not legal there either. We didn’t expect anyone to make the huge effort to converge in a state with same-gender marriage. No, we would get the license at City Hall and Serene would marry us with a few witnesses and a lot of champagne.
But the celebration grew. First, Serene graciously opened her home and strongly encouraged a larger guest list. Then my older brother Mike from Oklahoma called to tell me he was coming, invitation or not. The list quickly expanded, including friends near and far.
We quickly made plans. This would be the kind of wedding we never thought we wanted, but only because we never believed it would happen. So many things make weddings fun and memorable.
While guests started RSVPing from around the U.S., no one from Chile could come. So the food and drink would have to represent Marcelo’s home country instead. We toasted with Chilean pisco sours, a traditional South American cocktail, and a Chilean pizza joint (New York City has everything!) delivered fresh, homemade empanadas.
The day of the wedding a nephew and niece both posted how proud they were of us on Facebook and dozens of their friends “liked” it, offering cute, supportive comments.
Unexpected strangers showed up and added to the fun. Serene’s teenage daughter texted me a few hours prior to the wedding and asked if two of her best friends could come. “They’ve never been to a gay wedding,” she explained. Her two gorgeous, dressed-to the-hilt Jewish girlfriends came with a bottle of champagne sent by their parents. “Mazel Tov!” they exclaimed and offered to help serve the other guests and take pictures.
Friends made the effort to travel far for such a short experience. A dear friend from Kentucky made the trip unexpectedly. Serene and I met in college in Oklahoma and both worked at a campus ministry there. Our campus minister, Don Gibson, came to the wedding. Old friends from the past and present came and blessed us with dear words of love and support.
Just the fact that people show up is a tremendous gift. But some of the kind words people say at weddings stick in one’s head and heart forever. My brother gave a toast that only a big brother could give. I will never forget it.
And as meaningful as it was to have friends present and celebrating, what mattered most was the service itself. After all had gathered, Serene led us in worship. I have performed a number of weddings but now I was in a position to listen, to promise, to be blessed.
“So, this is what getting married is like,” I kept thinking. Our relationship was taken out of the control of our private home and placed in front of friends and God. Everyone present prayed to God, asking for a blessing and for strength to honor promises made. We repeated vows used by millions of our ancestors in the faith. Both of our voices quivered as we looked through our tears at one another and promised things assumed for more than twenty years but never said in this way. Whatever bitterness or sarcasm my heart held toward marriage melted away.
Marriage, flawed as the institution may be, is still somehow sacred. Two people agree to an ancient covenant before God and friends. I was converted; perhaps civil unions and domestic partnerships are fine for people who prefer to omit all the God talk or all the institutional religion. Certainly, civil rights should be granted to all couples regardless of the exact title of their contract. But I realized that what we wanted was marriage—nothing less. It more accurately reflects how we have understood this strange, wonderful union. How it works is a holy mystery and it has only survived with God’s blessing. Society and the church need to catch up.
David’s reflection on his and Marcelo’s wedding was the conclusion of Covenant Network week on ecclesio.com.