d sawyer11-sWith all the current talk about changes and challenges in marriage mores, these remarks I made at a wedding, drawn from my process theology perspective, inform spiritual caregivers as they counsel or officiate at weddings of any kind.

Family therapist Carl Whitaker said that marriage is like two very different cultures sending out missionaries to each other with the main purpose to convert each other.

Different religious communities understand the missionary task in different ways. For many, Whitaker’s metaphor is based on an older, discredited model of missionary life. That old model was also the model for marriage in European culture for a long time. It assumed a position of dominance that maybe never really worked, but certainly does not work for most of us in the twenty-first century. It assumed a superiority of one person or one culture over another. It created win-lose relationships.

A twenty-first century model for missionary work is to enter another culture as a stranger, eager to get to know the stories and ways of others. In a spirit of mutuality, it’s about sharing stories, identifying what people want and need and finding ways toward mutual understanding.

This also is a twenty-first century model for marriage. It’s about doing everything possible to serve, build up, encourage, and celebrate each other. In the most popular scripture for Christian weddings, those words described as lasting forever in 1 Corinthians 13, faith, hope and love, are usually heard as nouns pointing to things. They can also be heard as verbs—one paraphrase of that verse goes like this: “We have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly.” (Peterson, The Message) In the twenty-first century model for marriage, it’s about doing what it takes to make love work.

When two people come together at a wedding, they are indeed missionaries from two different cultures. Their choices are either to colonize one or the other culture, or to create something new, something daring, something lasting from the creative interchange of the two family cultures. That’s doing love extravagantly.

But the “missionary” metaphor does describe a reality of married life that those of us who’ve been in it a while can attest: no matter how much “in common” a couple feels at the moment of marriage, they will come to points along their journey where they recognize the differences between them, some of which will be direct descendants of their respective families.

For those times when the differences are stark and rubbing the wrong way, when it seems too high a price to agree or give in, when mutuality seems too hard to maintain, a couple can shift from “mutuality” to “solidarity,” which is defined as the willingness to accept differences as gifts from God. Instead of seeing seemingly incompatible values or principles as signs of trouble, in solidarity, they learn to see them as challenges and possibilities, as gifts to move through to achieve a deeper, healthier, stronger bond. It means to stand together in the commitment to one another while embracing differences. It means to find the sense of WE even as they recognize their individuality.

This is a matter of shifting balances. Most of us walk without thinking of it at all. For those who are learning to walk, either for the first time or again, it is a terrifying experience. This is because in order to walk we have to lose our balance temporarily, and then regain it, and then give it up and retake it. In this way the two legs become equals, each having to both give and contribute to the controlled falling equally.

So, encourage your marrying couples to grow together, with a high degree of mutuality and with a fallback position of solidarity. As they do they will be creating a new culture, a new civilization, a new community of love that carries on the best of each of their two families, transformed into something new and beautiful.