April 19, 2021

Today is our 25th

Today is our 25th wedding anniversary. I’ve gotten up early (as I always do) to write this. Jill seems to sleep her deepest at 6am. I pulled the blankets over her gently breathing body, covering her foot up, (one always seems to find itself astray and lie cold bereft in the mornings at the edge of the bed). I then stumbled around in the dark for those undies on the floor, the tracksuit pants and runner’s hoodie, then quietly came into my study to write.

By 6am most days I am either writing or running. Jill’s a night owl, I am decidedly not. From day one of marriage. Day one of marriage was our first day of living together. Of sleeping together. But day one was also the first day I realised that Jill was not a morning person. Wasn’t then. Isn’t now. I will, as I have done so often, go in at 7am to check on her, make sure she’s right for the day. Help her get out to the practice. By 8am I will have handed her her coffee for the car, and will have waved her and Declan our son off, as she drops him at school on her way to work. At least I hope that is what will happen this morning. If it does not something will have gone wrong.

Twenty five years. I can’t believe it. Silver anniversary. Not sure I like the “silver” bit – it sounds like we came second. Doesn’t feel like that at all.

Twenty eight years since we met. I still remember the first time I saw her. I recall a brown skinned, long haired waif of a young woman, wafting into the just-started children’s ministry meeting I was attending at the very first church job I had. I was a rookie. In so many ways. Jill’s mum was in the meeting and Jill had to speak to her mum before the meeting began. I remember thinking to myself “I want to marry her!”

Or maybe I only remember remembering that. Memory works that way. We don’t remember events, we remember memories of events, and memories of memories of events. And so on. So much of our lives together are a blend of such memories of memories. The really memorable stuff – I’m pretty sure I’ve got that nailed down! Birthdays, birth days, stuff like that. Or maybe not.

Here’s what I do know. I can’t remember life without her. Can’t recall the emotions I felt before Jill was in my life. At least can’t recall emotions that did not include Jill. Was she ever not there in my life? That time existed I suppose. I’ve seen the photos. I’ve still got some of the books that were purchased before I met her. But that all feels like fake news. Doctored photos. Fiction books. There’s a sweetness to that feeling. A mystery I suppose.

And a fear. Even now we lie in bed talking about how long we have been married and the conversation inevitably leads to death. I say inevitably. But don’t take that the morbid way. We talk about the pang we feel at the thought that there will be future memories that one of us will have that will not include the other. Unless of course we die together. Which seems almost a relief, except for what it might mean. Except for the suspicion that that would be traumatic at some level. But the pang is there, more real and more visceral two and a half decades on. It’s signposted to us as she reaches menopause and her periods become intermittent, and suddenly the idea that we should take precaution lest she fall pregnant becomes a past idea. And there’s a grief (and a relief!) in that too.

My father-in-law was 54 when we married. My mother-in-law 52. The respective ages we are now. There’s a mystery to that. Let me be frank. How as a 28 year old getting married would I have only thought of a 52 year old as a matronly figure, but looking at my wife as she dresses for work, or as she walks into church (I’m always there earlier obviously), I see this lovely, confident woman who my eyes kept being drawn to? It’s the wonder of marriage surely. To say nothing of how lovely she actually is.

Sometimes I rush off to the supermarket to get something I’d forgotten, just prior to dinner. I do most of the mid-week cooking as Jill’s psychology practice is super busy and the work super draining. She comes home exhausted. So there I am walking down the Asian foods aisle looking for some sort of paste or bread, and she’s in the aisle too, having popped in on the way home from work. She doesn’t see me at first, but at that moment the aisle morphs into that aisle in that lovely old red brick church in Perth where I saw her resplendent. And I walk up to her and she sees me, or I say something, and we smile knowingly. And we walk past the rice section just waiting for someone to break open a packet and throw some over us again, while the song track on the supermarket sound system morphs into the mellifluous tones of a church pipe organ.

People say the best day of their lives is the day and days their children were born. Not I. My wedding day every time. I loved the days my children were born, but my wedding day hasn’t been surpassed. Perhaps that’s because I still hold the conviction that it is a taster to the wedding day we truly long for – the marriage feast of the Lamb. Not to sound too spiritual, but there’s something about a Christian wedding that just feels different. I’ve heard enough people – Christian and non-Christian – say that to believe it. But when she walked down the aisle, she literally did take my breath away. Though given how nervous I was – the most nervous in my life in which public engagements and speaking to crowds is my thing – there was little breath in my lungs to take!

And of course we have to talk about sex in this Sexular Age. Why is it that people speak of sexual excitement in a long term marriage as something that diminishes? I grew up in high school in the 80s in which the average conversation among my peers was about how a long term sexual relationship guaranteed boredom. You couldn’t stay with someone that long and not get sexually bored, surely? Not true. Like many couples in our fifties we’ve asked ourselves sometimes, “Was that the best sex we ever had?” Or is that how it’s supposed to be? Or indeed is it that memory of a memory of a memory thing at work? Either way, can we stop that nonsense of thinking that human sexuality and desire for one’s spouse wanes over time? Not true.

Much of that has to do with the mystery of otherness surely. Here we are in an age that supposedly celebrates diversity, but the most asymmetrical relationship is still heterosexual. We will never ever get to fully experience the sexual experience of the other in a heterosexual relationship, never fully know how they feel what they are feeling in the way that they do. And that’s God’s design to maintain that mysterious otherness, and to point to that mysterious Otherness of the Creator and the creature relating to each other. Close Intimacy and a chasm of mystery all in one.

In 25 years Jill has seen the worst of me and the best of me. And no doubt vice versa. There are times we have stormed off, had weeks of grumpiness. We’ve had tears of all sorts. And in the midst of all that there has been Jesus. Where would we be without the softening of the Holy Spirit when we are angry or feeling unforgiving? I can’t imagine the loneliness of being married to someone who did not love Jesus and wish to serve him, and serve him alongside me.

Which brings us to church and ministry. Jill knew what she was getting in for when she married me and there have been some painful and pain-filled times in church ministry for us. Great times too, but they blend and soften on the horizon like a distance vista of hills. The hard times? The pain? The tears? Sheer granite mountains, imposing and windswept, right in our faces. So many times Jill has asked “Can we keep doing this?” The other thing she keeps saying – has said from day one – and which guides my life and thoughts and actions so much; “I’m for you, remember that, I’m for you.”

So many times I feel guilty for having put her through something that she read better, and saw coming more clearly, than I did. She doesn’t feel she is cut out for the task. But every church we end up at, even those we help out for short periods if time, heck, even ones we sometimes visit, we’re last to leave.

There’s a conga line of people waiting to speak to Jill, seek her counsel, ask her for help. She works all week helping people for wages, then works so much of her spare time helping them for free. I sat in her practice one time manning the phones for a day as a procession of people came through every hour on the hour. Occasionally I heard muffled wailing through the supposedly soundproof walls. I wondered, How does she do it? And then how does she come home and have to deal with the rest of life?

Yet she does. And has. For years.

Will we get 25 more? It’s a question we ask. We thought we might not get more than 13 in total when I was mistakenly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The pain and grief we felt at the time still sits with us. Still guides our thinking in some ways. I remember the specialist saying “six months tops” and the guilt I felt at how I had dudded our family of good holidays and rest times as we churned through ministry, or more to the point, it often churned through us, felt a bigger lump in my throat than the one on my pancreas felt at the time. I felt like I had cheated my family of so much time. Whatever else I’ve done in the second half of marriage so far, it’s been to take better and longer holidays!

In 25 years time I will be my father-in-law’s age now – 79 going on 80. Jill will be my mother-in-law’s age now – 76 going on 77. I feel a tenderness for them as they age that I hope my own children and any spouse they might have, will feel for us. The time has gone so quickly. I felt so vital and young 25 years ago and here I am teetering on the fulcrum of the next 25. A downward slide.

A downward slide but for the resurrection. One day one of us will wake up in bed without the other ever again in this life. I pray it will be due to death, for any other possibility is worse. But death is not the end. We married each other with a life to look forward to, and even now, still relatively young in modern Western terms, I think about our deaths on a regular basis. But our resurrections too. I’m still grappling with Jesus’s words around the fact that there will be no marriage in heaven. Given how good and lovely marriage is, I can surely only be because there’s something better that will include Jill and me in such a way that we don’t feel the lack of our exclusive intimacy. What a good, gracious kind God we have.

I can hear the shower running. Jill’s up for another busy day. I’ll go and put on the kettle for her, go upstairs to wake up Declan for school (he got his mother’s late night genes), and just assume that my other progeny Sophie is already up and reading a Russian novel of some sort (she got my genes). And God willing we will do it all tomorrow morning again. Start of the next 25.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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