Standing under a family of firs — white, red and Douglas — our family paused before beginning the wedding.
This was not just one of the dozens of weddings I’ve officiated; this was the wedding of my firstborn daughter among the sacred aroma of sugar pine and the incense cedar of the El Dorado National Forest in northern California.
I began the ceremony by sharing my long-held secret to a good marriage:
“If you were to ask me what is the most important lesson I’ve learned in my almost 30 years of marriage, I’d have to tell you that love is a choice, not a feeling.”
So today, I wasn’t going to ask this couple about their love. I knew they loved each other. Attesting to love is only a testimony of the present.
No, today I would ask them to make radical promises of their future will. That’s a much scarier proposition.
On this day I asked them to make willing promises about loving, comforting, protecting and forsaking all others. Would they be faithful? Not until love parts, but rather, as long as they both shall live?
“I will,” they declared.
I once was approached by a couple with handwritten vows that declared their promise to stay married until “love do us part.” I politely asked them to find another officiator, because this chaplain always will say, “till death do us part.”
Eighteen months later, the love she had for another man parted the newlyweds.
Why didn’t this marriage last? Why do so many fail? I wish I knew the complete answer to that question, however, I believe it often is because people don’t realize that wedding vows are everyday, not just on the wedding day.
If taken seriously, the future promise of the will means that they look for ways to perform acts of kindness and compassion, whether practical things like doing their fair share of housework, or relational things like good listening.
In my house, this is the kind of willing love that keeps on going whether I burn the toast or burn my temper. It is the kind of love that tells me I am forgiven before I can ask. It is the kind of love that “halves a sorrow and doubles a joy.”
Like many couples, my wife and I sometimes go to bed dead tired. We easily can find ourselves too tired for the fun I seek and too tired for the cuddling she requests. But we rarely are too tired to talk out our day and absolutely never too tired for our three good night kisses and “I love you.”
It’s the intentional building of a relationship where independence is equal, dependence is mutual and our obligation is reciprocal. This kind of daily choice — day in and day out — brings something deeper and far more lasting. It brings Jesus’ words to pass, “The two shall become one flesh.” (Matthew 19:5)
Without a daily commitment of the will, relationships easily degrade. It’s too easy to become like the husband who stopped telling his wife he loved her.
When she confronted him with this deficiency, the husband replied, “I told you ‘I love you’ on our wedding day. If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.”
At the end of the day, not only must we declare our love regularly, but we have to assert our will to make things work — till death do us part.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You also can follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.