Weddings are most often big and beautiful declarations of love between a man and a woman. Sometimes they are flashy, sometimes quietly artistic, and usually highly emotional. Whatever the budget, weddings are a time for individuals and families to lay aside other important endeavors and invest what they can into the creation of a new family. They take a lot of energy and a lot of focus.
In the West, we commonly talk about a wedding being the primary time for a women to "express herself," carefully arranging even the smallest details to reflect her beliefs, tastes, whims. If she wants to feel like a princess, her wedding will involve sparkles and tiaras. If she is an environmentalist, she will work to make her wedding as green as possible. If she is a musician, great care will go into arranging the music. The list of things to express is as varied as women are. Every bride has been told, "It's your day." We've all had conversations with women who are greatly concerned with displaying the best things about herself through her wedding. The West looks at a wedding and expects an answer to the question, "Who are you?"
We need to pause here and consider how much pressure women are under by believing the idea that their weddings must demonstrate who they truly are. So much of the stress surrounding weddings is first and foremost stress concerning identity. Even the bride who declares, "I don't care about all of these silly details!" is often still trying to tell the world something about herself. She is still telling us what to think of her as much as any other bride.
If this is all true, and weddings have become the primary place for women to express the things they identify with, then I've come to realize that weddings really incredibly fragile and tender things. And the women behind them even more so. How can an event and the woman behind it bear not only the weight of a covenant and vow, but also the brunt of ultimate self-expression?
I first started to see this problem in myself when I got engaged and then married. Up until my engagement, I had exhibited many different attitudes towards weddings. As a little girl growing up, I idolized them and dreamed of the day I would act and feel like the fairy princesses I dreamed of being. In high school, I believed a wedding was an inevitable dream and would never have doubted my chances of wearing the white dress. By college I started to develop a more critical attitude. A hint of scorn started to show towards other women who openly obsessed about their future wedding day. Though a wedding still loomed large as my secret heart's desire, I thought it best to approach it circumspectly and realistically.
In the five years between finishing college and my own marriage, I mostly harbored bitterness towards weddings. Really what I harbored was bitterness towards other women's weddings. I hid this jealousy under a veneer of criticism concerning "wedding traditions" and "frivolous expectations." The amount of money, time, and energy given to weddings became ridiculous to my mind and only the closest and dearest of my friends escaped my all out exasperation with wedding season. I declared to myself that I would not be like every other bride if I ever found myself planning a wedding. I was going to be sensible, after all, and avoid throwing myself into the unnecessary craziness of obsessing about insignificant things. My three main goals were to never make wedding planning a bigger priority than all of my already established relationships and responsibilities; to never obsess over what I perceived to be the silly and superfluous "details"; and to make sure the wedding was a community event, not something isolated from the people involved in every aspect of my life.
But once the ring was on my finger, and real decisions had to be made concerning an actual wedding, it felt like something slowly and powerfully started to take over my mind. I cared about everything connected to the wedding and obsessed over every detail. But it wasn't an obsession that led to joy and delight in the coming day. It was an ensnaring obsession that more often than not led to insecurity and worry. I could not let go, because in my mind, the decisions being made weren't about an event, they were about me. For example, if I had never been a girlie girl, but chose pink bridesmaids dresses, what did that say about me? My girlfriends were all surprised with this color choice, as was I, so how could I not contemplate what these physical details told the world about the changes romantic love was creating within my personality?
As I broke everyone of my three "goals" concerning weddings, it felt like I was slowly loosing ground to a version of myself that I never wanted to exist. I felt guilty about putting so much time into the wedding, but I didn't know how to not think about it. I became more and more isolated over the period of engagement, one of the primary things I had promised myself would not happen. I wasn't being the person I wanted to be, but I didn't know how to be free of this thing that was so incredibly important.
I continued to muddle through this minefield my entire engagement, through the wedding day, and into the first months of marriage. Of course, I often found peace in knowing that in the light of eternity, the details of the wedding didn't matter. In the comfort and love of my fiancé, I knew that the vows we made were the most important part of the whole thing. And of course my wedding was one of the most wonderful and amazing experiences of my life, blessing my husband and I deeply as we committed our lives to each other before the Lord.
But I started to realize something was really wrong when I continued to obsess about my wedding after it had taken place! For days, then weeks, then months, I found myself going back over the details of the wedding. Had everything been as I wanted it to be? Maybe if I had just changed a few things here, a few things there, then it would really have been ideal. I fully acknowledge that some of these things can be chalked up to personality - it's rare, but sometimes I really can be a bit of an OCD psycho.
But who among you married women of my generation hasn't dealt with some of these feelings when you first get your wedding pictures back from the photographer? You scour them, desperately hoping that the photographer has captured the true atmosphere of the day, the one that you skillfully crafted and planned. You look to make sure that you are captured as you want to be, according the image that you picked for yourself on the most special of all your days. And if something, anything in the pictures didn't turn out how you hoped? You have to admit you feel like a key piece of the wedding, a key piece of your identity, has been lost.
So let's pause here. What am I trying to get at with all of this musing and soul sharing? Frankly, I believe modern weddings have become a quagmire of idolatry in our generation's drive to create their identities. Women are being trapped within their own drive for self-expression when it comes to their weddings. I spent a lot of my first year of marriage chewing the cud on this topic and here are the conclusions I came away with.
1) We need grace.
Your identity is not found in your wedding. Christ has made you free and given you a new identity! You do not need your wedding for anything - anything - to tell yourself or the world who you are. That is Jesus' job, let him do it. If you want an environmentally sound wedding, and styrofoam plates show up, the blood of Jesus covers you. If you want to lose ten pounds and instead gain twenty, the blood of Jesus covers you. If you want to create community by inviting everyone you know, and your parents will only pay for half of the guest list, the blood of Jesus covers you. If you want to walk down the aisle to Sufjan and your best friend insists on singing a duet, the blood of Jesus covers you. Create beauty and do good in your wedding, but remember that not a single thing on that day can stick to you like the sweet blood of Jesus. Claim it is as the strongest identity you have.
2) Think upon the wedding feast in heaven.
Because of your new identity, you know where all of this is headed - think upon it in the months leading up to and following your wedding. Whether your wedding turns out exactly as you dreamed up, is an unmitigated disaster, or just more normal than you're content to accept, it is only the faintest foreshadowing of the real wedding we expect to attend. Relish the good things about your wedding as a foretaste of heaven and mourn the disappointing things about your wedding as the remnants of a fallen world, but in both, keep your eyes on heaven. With the whisper of heaven in your ear, the work of a wedding will become sweeter and the disappointments less tragic.
It took me months before I could think about my wedding without worrying over everything that went wrong and what people would think about it. But I learned that with your identity soaked in the blood of Jesus and your mind caught up in the winds of heaven, the anxieties and frustrations of "your day" can blow away like the chaff of yesterday. There are many things I still wish had ended up different, or better, about my wedding. But when I think back on it, I delight in the beauty that was created not because of what it said about me, but because "...Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know if part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." The feast of Christ is coming and I could see its approach on my wedding day.
What's in a Wedding Anyway?
When I got engaged at the end of August, I wondered if it would open a door onto a world of deep thoughts concerning womanhood. It didn't. Granted, much in my life has been changing. But those changes have not made me inherently wiser or more thoughtful about my identity and place in society. Life goes on and I remain mostly the same. Now I find myself wondering the same about marriage. My suspicion is that it might have some small impact on my observations and thoughts, but overall nothing earth shattering will change. I still ask the same questions; I still struggle with the same doubts; I still get irritated by the same signs of brokenness.
While my personal changes have not yet caused much writing, the world around me remains much the same and continues to provide much food for thought. I worked briefly for a woman as a "mother's helper," and I find myself pondering something she once said in conversation.
I consider this woman to be very typical of a certain American demographic. She is in her mid 30s, but looks and acts younger than what older generations would assume of her age. She and her child's father have been together for more than a decade, but are unmarried, and the baby was an unexpected surprise after many years chasing careers and enjoying life with friends. Their lack of preparation for or pursuit of creating a family has not deterred from their love for their child and they now dedicate all of their time and energy to giving him the most perfect, protected, and politically correct childhood in their power to give. They have and want "family," but in untraditional ways.
I found out they are not married through an awkward conversation about my own upcoming wedding, and it was in this conversation that she sparked food for thought. After answering many of her questions regarding my wedding, I nervously asked about her own wedding and she laughed and replied there had never been one. Her laughter eased the whole situation and we were able to talk more freely. I asked if they had ever considered marriage assuming assumed the answer would be "no," but was surprised when she replied that actually her partner really wanted to get married while she did not. I asked more about why he wanted marriage and her response went something like this, "...well, I think he believes it's something sacred," but as an atheist she just could not see any deeper significance to marriage since they already knew they were a committed family. From my understanding, neither one of them have any particular religious commitments, and yet, here she was, telling me that the only point of discussion they had concerning the value of marriage was its possible sacredness.
In the midst of our conversation, this point of sacredness was interesting to me, but it was until I drove home that the full weight of it settled through the silence of my car. Here was a couple with no real interest in or connection to the theological arguments for marriage stating the whole point of the union. It struck me that in all the "culture war" debates concerning marriage, we tend to focus on and speak to the practical or natural needs and reasons for marriage. I believe the rational is that those reasons are the only space in which Christians can speak a common language with nonbelievers, the only areas in which we even have a hope to persuade. But maybe that is not the case. Maybe the younger generations are more open to arguments based on the spiritual aspects or "sacredness"of marriage?
The more I think about it, the more interesting it is to me that faith communities are relying more and more on "practical" arguments for marriage while this very secular couple focuses more on more on the spiritual arguments for it. And it makes me mourn that the church thinks it must neglect what it believes to be the most central truths about humanity in order to speak to the broader culture. The centrality of sacredness in the meaning of marriage should be the starting point of the church in speaking to the culture about marriage, not something that is left for those who already accept the reality of a God who created marriage and therefore has something to say about the institution. I believe some are focusing on this, but the overall voice of Christianity in America does not emphasize the sacredness of marriage when arguing for it. We talk about need for commitment and the goodness of the family, but those two things are only byproducts of understanding and knowing the sacredness of marriage. It is not commitment that we should mourn the loss of in marriage. For who can remain committed to something purely secular? Who can find within themselves the capability for it? The lost meaning that should be mourned and fought for is the rich and deep meaning of marriage that goes beyond commitment and family.
The Bling Without the Sting
A few weekends ago, my brother married his longtime sweetheart and our close family friend. These two are some of the most beautiful people I know, inside and out, and they put a lot of careful thought into the details of their wedding. Aesthetically, they have an eye for beauty, and spiritually, they have a heart for justice.
This was particularly evident in their choice of engagement ring. I interviewed my new sister-in-law recently and thought you would be interested in hearing her answers concerning the issues surrounding diamonds. And make sure you check out the Marlene Harris website...
1) Dish about the ring! What do you like about it?
"Exquisite" is the word I think of when I think of my engagement ring. It is a new ring designed in an antique style. The thing I like the most about this ring is that I have never seen another quite like it and there is a lot of beautiful detail work. I also like the effect of having many small diamonds surrounding the larger diamond; making it extra sparkly.
2) Did you choose it or did your fiance choose it?
My husband (then fiancé) chose the ring with the help of two very tasteful sisters who both knew me well.
3) Where was the ring bought? And why?
The ring was purchased from Marlene Harris who is a small business jeweler in Blawnox, PA (right outside of Pittsburgh). I believe Daniel chose to go there because a number of our friends had bought their engagement and wedding bands from Marlene and he had heard good things about her collection.
4) Are you happy with the ring?
I am happy with the ring. I do not know if I would have picked it because I had something much more simple in mind but I am very happy with it.
5) Why did you want a conflict free diamond?
A conflict free diamond was very important to me because, particularly in Africa, diamond sales have been known to support slavery, violence, and in general the exploitation of communities and peoples. I knew that this ring is likely the most expensive item that I will own and I did not want the money to support the suffering of individuals. I also did not want to feel guilty about something that so beautifully symbolizes the covenant that Daniel and I were to make to one another and to God.
6) How important was it to you to have a conflict free diamond?
I felt very strongly that I wanted a conflict free diamond. Daniel and I had a conversation about it so I was confidant that he would keep my concerns in mind. I definitely would have been disappointed if he had not gotten a conflict free diamond.
7) When did you first think about wanting a conflict free diamond? What caused you to consider it?
My family has a good friend from Sierra Leone and I remember him talking about how his country had very valuable resources, particularly in diamonds, and yet his people were living in severe poverty and devastation because of exploitation and oppressions that had taken place in that land. I believe that was the first time I was made aware of the issues surrounding the diamond industry.
8) Can you explain the issue of conflict free diamonds to us?
A conflict diamond is a diamond that has been illegally smuggled and sold on the open market. The proceeds of these sales have been known to financially support violence, slavery and manslaughter. In Sierra Leone the diamond industry supported a brutal civil war that devastated the country and destroyed the lives of many. The rebel forces that had control of many of the diamond mines would smuggle the gems to dealers who would then place them on the open market. The money from these sales went to support the rebels in their merciless campaigns. These forces were known to use amputation as a weapon against villagers and would also enslave their captives forcing them to dig, at gunpoint, in search for gems. Although the civil war is now over, the effects and devastation remain. In a 2007 National Geographic documentary called Diamonds of War: Africa's Blood Diamonds, it was estimated that 60% of Sierra Leone’s diamonds are sold illegally and placed onto the open market. In addition to supporting potentially dangerous organizations and groups, the profits from these diamonds are not shared with the people of Sierra Leone because there is no way to tax the profit sales or registration of the stone. This is just one example of the devastation that conflict diamonds can have on a country and its people. Other African countries have also experienced the effects of this illegal market. Here is a link to a page that has more information on this topic.
9) What advice do you have for couples thinking about buying a diamond?
Do your research. This may be one of the biggest purchases that you make, so just think about it and make sure you are on the same page.
10) What thoughts do you have for someone who does not have a conflict free diamond and starts to feel concerned about the issue? How should they feel about their ring?
Well if you really want to find out what the origin of your diamond is then talk to your jeweler. No matter its origin, the diamond that your husband/fiancé gave you has meaning because it symbolizes his commitment to you. That alone makes it special and the chances that your diamond was illegally sold onto the market is still relatively low.