Wow – Elder’s Retreat, President’s Day, Chinese New Year, the beginning of Lent and Valentines Day – all coming together. It is mind boggling and particularly difficult to find a place to wade in for our time of worship this week. On Wednesday I thought I had prepared for today, only to learn that what I was writing was the March newsletter article.
I had begun reading the book the downstairs class has chosen, Eternal Life: A New Vision – I’ve a long appreciation for John Shelby Spong’s willingness to challenge the faddism and religiosity that American cultural Christianity has become – another of his books is Why Christianity Must Change or Die. On a website Paul Anderson suggested, primarily because they gave his book on the Gospel of John a plug, I read a piece on clergy addiction to pornography. I next read a personally insightful piece on neurosis. How was I to know that it was all about getting me ready for this message?
There’s not much I need to say about Chinese New Years, except to tell Li Li “Happy New Years” or for that matter President’s Day and Lent doesn’t begin until Wednesday. So I’m left with this growing need to address St. Valentine’s Day. But where to begin?
The author of Ecclesiastes, sometimes called the preacher, sometimes the teacher, sometimes just the speaker, was a person of great wisdom, but most likely not King Solomon. Now it’s not just my opinion that the voice of Ecclesiastes is wise – that is the testimony of untold thousands of readers over thousands of years. This material is so old it pre-dates any Jewish views of afterlife. According to this book, when you are dead you are dead so you had better enjoy life while you have the strength to do so.
I found of particular interest for today the ninth and tenth verses of chapter 9.
9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
Under the sun is a big thing for our guide, who seems extraordinarily pessimistic as this point. From his perspective even enjoying life with your wife is a meaningless endeavor. It would be hard to imagine this preacher getting flowers and candy for his beloved for Valentine’s Day – the flowers, they’d just shrivel up anyway and the chocolates would melt..
Maybe it’s good to contrast the writer of Ecclesiastes with the martyred third century Roman Christian named Valentine who gave his name to this celebration, and not to unduly confuse things there were actually two. Hallmark and Russell Stover ( no, those were the last names of the two saints, ) but it might seem that they have a lock on the holiday now, but Valentine’s Day celebrations can be traced directly to Geoffrey Chaucer. While the feast day of the martyred Roman saint gives the occasion its name, Chaucer was the guy with the bright idea to tie it to romance. In his The Parliament of Fowls, which scholars say was written in 1382, Chaucer sets Valentine’s Day as the day when the birds gather together to find their mates. He opens his epic with a sigh, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne” – that craft of course being the practice of Love. In his usual manner, Chaucer portrays himself as someone who knows of Love only from books, but in his dream he meets Venus and observes as Nature oversees the pairing off of the birds into nice neat heterosexual couples. Predictably, things go awry when three eagles all decide they must have the very finest female who is perched on the very hand of Nature herself, like a preening supermodel. They all argue not in birdly terms, but as courtly lovers. Roman mythology and courtly love of English high society are the real backbones of Valentine’s Day traditions: candy, hearts, flowers and lace, they are all there. All at least a thousand years after St. Valentine’s martyrdom. Maybe Ecclesiastes is wiser than we imagined.
There are love stories that in the Bible that predate history. I’d like to take a moment to look at the one in Genesis 24. Sarah has died and Abraham is very old (now there was a love story for you). Abraham commissions his servant to go find a wife for his son Isaac. He goes to Haran, finds Rebekah and arranges for her to return with him to marry Isaac. I want all you romantics to see what happens when these two meet for the first time. Here is how the text reads: “One evening when he (meaning Isaac) had gone out into the open country hoping to meet them, he looked and saw camel approaching. When Rebecca saw Isaac, she dismounted from her camel, saying to the servant, “Who is this man walking across the open country towards us? When the servant answered, “It s my master,” she took her veil and covered herself. The servant related to Isaac all that had happened. Isaac conducted her into the tent and took her as his wife. So she became his wife, and he loved her….” How about that, no engagement ring. No premarital counseling. No Prepare/Enrich marriage inventory, No wedding ceremony. Rebecca never got to read Dr. Laura’s The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands and Isaac never read James Dobson’s What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. Isaac simply took her into his tent. The next day they changed the name on the mailbox to Mr. And Mrs. And they lived happily ever after. This is the line that is important: “So she became his wife, and he loved her….”
Notice anything unusual here? Would you have preferred it to read: Isaac loved Rebekah and then she became his wife”? We tend to equate love with romanticism and love defined by hormones and pheromones. What happens when those things are gone? As a society we’ve come to treat marriage like the wrapper on a McDonald’s Sausage Biscuit. When the goodies gone you throw it away. Not so in this love story. How is love defined here? In terms of covenant – commitment. Feelings come and go but covenant is always the base line.
Joe and Jean Wilson come to mind. I got to participate in their Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary party. During World War II, while home on a weekend pass, they met and got married. That comes pretty close to the story of Isaac and Rebecca. It can work.
Psychology tells us that falling is love is a trick sister nature plays on God’s creation to continue the species. And it’s not just human beings that we are talking about. Recently N.P.R. ran a story about the mating sounds made by Blue Whales who fifty years ago were nearing extinction. Since we’ve curtailed their being hunted and their numbers have rebounded science has noted that their mating call has dropped by half an octave.
Two neurotic and deluded human beings meet, one seeing in the other the goddess of his fantasy the other seeing her god. And the hormones and pheromones go wild. People with much experience doing pre-marriage counseling know that talking with people afflicted by this disorder is useless –they are going toward each other and away from you faster than the speed of sound – they can’t hear anything you say. It is just ludicrous to believe that some homosexual agenda is destroying the institution of marriage. Surprise, surprise, boys and girls still continue to find one another! But organized society does something in the middle of all this glandular confusion. It says STOP! – there are some vows to be shared, a commitment that needs to be made. Most likely not fully knowing or understanding what they are doing the couple are led into a community meeting where a covenant is struck.
Quakers avoid making promises as much as is possible. We are only too aware that situations and circumstances can make what we have agreed to null and void despite our best intentions. Organizing conferences among hard nosed Quakers is a real problem because they won’t say “Yes, I will be there.” because down deep they know that they could have a snow storm or the car may break down. So when a Quaker does make a promise, it is a big deal.
In a Quaker wedding the core of it is this set of promises that the groom makes to the bride and she to him. “I Promise, with divine assistance, to be unto thee a loving and faithful husband (wife) as long as we both shall live.” Now that’s a promise, a covenant, a commitment. There is no wiggle room. But what I find particularly interesting is that these vows include an element that when added to Ecclesiastes changes things dramatically. What is that ingredient?
Being wise, he reviews his discussion of life and concludes that when you bring God into the equation, life doesn’t have to be monotonous; it can be filled with challenging situations from God and as such it is an adventure of faith and is anything but predictable or tedious. Death is certain but the life that precedes it is a gift from God and God wants us to enjoy it. Are there questions for which we have no answer and problems without solutions? Don’t despair. As we advance in God’s school of life we will gain wisdom enough to make sensible decisions. And as for wealth, all of life is a stewardship from God and we should live so as not to fear the accounting. The conclusion of Ecclesiastes is “Fear God and obey his commandments; this sums up the duty of humankind.
The three little words of importance to us on Valentine’s Day or any other for that matter aren’t what you might imagine. They are “With divine assistance…” those are the three little words from our marriage vows. With them we acknowledge what every successful follower of any Twelve Step program understands – we can’t do it by ourselves. God’s participation is essential for life to have meaning, for our work to be fruitful and for our special relationships to last. So on this Valentine’s Day what is important is that we know the embrace of our creator as much as we delight in the embrace of those with whom we share mutual affection. Our lives can only be richer, fuller, as God intended. I like the feeling of love – but feelings can get lost in our struggles with life. When it comes to relationships that matter – with divine assistance – we can keep our covenant – our commitment. I Promise.