Brandon and I had been married for about three seconds when we decided that we would be awesome at marriage ministry. Because we were clearly awesome at marriage. For those three seconds.
This past October, Brandon texted me while I was at work to let me know he was going to go to an open mic with his friend instead of joining the kids and me at a Halloween party. I burnt holes through the screen of my phone with my laser eyes and typed, “Okay.”
With a period.
Pause. Pause. And then I typed, “So, you aren’t going to the Halloween party thing then?” And then I deleted the “So” and hit send.
“Can you take them without me? Is that alright?” Laser eyes, laser eyes, laser eyes.
“That’s fine. I just had it in my head we were all going.”
All y’all know “fine” is a lie any time it’s used. It’s like “sure,” and “whatever,” and all of the names you’d like to call your spouse but restrain yourself because the kids/colleagues/friends are nearby and you are a good wife or husband and you don’t talk about your spouse that way in public.
I began my drive home thinking about how irritated I was. Why did this bother me? I know my husband has been dying to get out and play music with his friend. Since our move to a new town, all he’s done is work on our house and establish a new routine with our three kids in three different school buildings. There has been no time to let loose.
It isn’t the going out, I thought to myself, it’s the way I feel slighted. Disrespected. Pushed aside for better plans.
In the past, I would have come home carrying a block of ice, extending the passive-aggressive text into a passive-aggressive kitchen exchange, watching him leave and tossing out a cool, I’m fine, see you later, have a good time. That was Plan A, Default Sarah, ready to do battle the way I learned in childhood.
You know, the way I thought would make us really great at marriage ministry.
But last night, I planned to tell Brandon exactly what I felt – dismissed and disrespected. I determined to say something as soon as I walked through the door.
And then I determined to say nothing when I came home. Let Brandon have his night, and then I’d tell him. Later.
And then I determined to say what I felt in the first place. Screw his night out. Why should I sit depressed and irritable, chasing three children away from bowls of candy corn and cake pops all evening, while he has a child-free night?
And then I determined to not be depressed and irritable, to let him have his good time, and to make my time great as well, tolerating the sugar behavior and enjoying work colleagues, crisp fall air, and the trill and giggle of my gaggle of children. All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.
And then I ended my seven-minute commute, watching his friend drive down our road and away from our home without my husband in the car.
There have been times in our marriage when Brandon would’ve just gone and done the thing he went and planned to do. Or we’d have some passive-aggressive blocks of ice, freezing one another out, both having none of the fun.
And then there have been times like Halloween night when we’ve each looked beyond our own interests and made accommodations. While my heart hardened and then softened and then hardened and then softened again, something had changed at home. And when I walked through the door, Brandon was getting the kids, my dish of guacamole, and himself ready for the party.
Neither of us knew fourteen years ago what it meant to be equipped for marriage ministry. To “minister” is to tend to the needs of someone else. We thought the way to practice marriage ministry was to turn outward from our marriage and inspect other couples, tell other couples what they should do to have the best marriage now.
But what we needed to do was turn inward, to learn how to tend to the needs of each other. To be married. To stay married. To practice marriage. To minister within our own marriage.
It turns out we’ve been practicing marriage ministry now for fourteen years and haven’t sat with a single couple for premarital counseling. We haven’t led a marriage retreat. We haven’t served on staff at a church or developed curriculum on sex and money and fidelity.
There’s a Christian saying that marriage isn’t meant to make you happy; it’s meant to make you holy. I kind of hate that. Mostly because such one-liners are thrown out as if they contain all truth and that’s it, there’s nothing else to say. Obviously, if you are not happy in your marriage it’s because that isn’t what it’s about; it’s about holiness and that’s the end of the conversation.
But what is holiness except the profound deepening and widening of our understanding of God’s love for us? What is holiness except the experience of having your heart enlarged and beaten and restored, spurred on to love others more abundantly? What is holiness except the manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit?
And the fruits of the Spirit are first love, then joy, followed by peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. A marriage that is made holy has turned inward to each other’s needs, and by doing so, refracts the Spirit outward. Love and joy. Holiness and happiness.
Yesterday was a minor moment in a 14-year-long series of opportunities Brandon and I have had to not merely care for our personal interests but to tend to the interests of each other. Many times we’ve failed. Sometimes we’ve succeeded.
Every one of those moments has led me to this night and this momentous announcement: I am never going into marriage ministry.
Instead, I’d like us all to scrap the dichotomy of marriage happiness vs. marriage holiness. I’d like us all to lean farther over the edge, into what it means for marriage to be a spiritual practice.
What does it mean to choose to live in the same space as another human who makes fart jokes and sometimes puts the dishes in the dishwasher the wrong way? (I’ll leave it you to determine which of us performs these unforgivable sins.)
How do you weather the wilderness of weeks, months, or years that feel like waiting without a clear idea what you’re waiting for?
What is God doing with the two of you in the valley, on the mountain, in your living room, in your bedroom, when you’re cooking, as you’re parenting, on your commute, when you’re with your spouse, or when you’re away?
Is God doing anything then? What is it, God, you’re doing in this strange and awful and beautiful union?
Something’s going on here, under the surface of the everyday, and I want to know what. I want to find out what it is about marriage that made God bless it. I want to find out how the practice of marriage leads us to become more complete followers of Jesus. I hope to explore just that in this column every month.
I hope you’ll join me on this journey.