My mama walked out on my dad on the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary.
Today is the eve of ours.
We are married now as long as my parents were when their marriage ended with her driving away heartbroken in the middle of the night in a used Honda Civic he never knew she bought, and him devastated and begging we all tell him where she was.
It would be more than six months before any of us knew.
Marriage is a mystery often solved by grace.
We were married the 25th of June, 1994.
My parents were married 23 years prior, on the 26th of June. And when we walked down the aisle, I think on some level, I thought I was mirroring their marriage. I just didn’t know how very nearly their story could have been ours.
I just thought, like them, we’d weather through any financial flattenings, the inevitable diverging of dreams, even if there was the coffin of a child, a walking away from the fresh dirt of a daughter’s grave.
But their nigh-unto-25-year marriage abruptly ended on our hardly-but-a-second-old 2nd wedding anniversary, and what the preacher man had said during our marriage ceremony should have been my premonition — for all of us.
Pastor Dixon looked over his glasses at me during our ceremony and said what we didn’t expect to frame our vows: “Ann. I don’t know if you know that John Denver song, Annie’s Song?”
Did he know that it was my father’s favorite song, the one that my mother played on the piano for him on Sunday nights on a piano in desperate need of a tuning but none of us even noticed for the glory of it?
I glanced past my veil to my dad brushing away the tears running down his cheeks, my mother squeezing his other hand.
“Did you know that John Denver had written those lyrics for his wife, Annie: “You fill up my senses — like a night in the forest … Come let me love you, come love me again.”
I could hear my mother singing, her voice rising with the notes, see my father laying tired on the living room couch on a Sunday night, asking her to play it again.
Love is an endless coming home.
“And the song so inspired musician James Galway —- that he wrote an album of love songs for his wife, named Songs for Annie — “ The preacher’s English accent had boomed across the sanctuary and I’d smiled nervous into my almost-husband’s eyes.
“And then John Denver divorced his Annie. And James Galway ended up divorcing his wife.”
I — hadn’t expected that turn in the story. For a myriad of shattering reasons, love songs can bleed into laments and marriages can not survive. That could have been us. That should have been us. That would have been us — but for the Grace of God.
Everyone enters marriage expecting a forever thing — yet marriages are fragile things. Marriage can be tough as nails, and yet still be vulnerably tender as a bare, beating heart.
I wish now I had looked over at my parents in that moment. Did they have any idea their own marriage would experience a fatal heart attack and die within two years?
Every single marriage is a miracle of grace. I’ve about wept over the unmerited grace of ours.
There were whole seasons, I drank the Kool-Aid of self-entitlement and didn’t water the relationship that is us. Long dry spells that I only saw what wasn’t, instead of who I could be. I broke promises, and about broke family, and I out and out broke hearts — mine and his both. It bears repeating: Marriage is never an accomplishment to be proud of but a miracle to give thanks for.
I couldn’t have known it when we said I do, but I’ve known on it on some pitch black roads when didn’t know where to turn or how to keep going, and undoubtedly, it could all gone another way, but it’s our story, in defiant spite of me:
The covenant that binds can be what sets you free to be.
The covenant that binds can be what holds when everything’s blowing up.
The covenant that binds can bond your heart to your one place of belonging, when everything else lets go.
We may have taken the rather unconventional route of writing our own vows, and I confess, I forget by and large most of what we vowed, which, yes, is perhaps proof positive that either why one should stick with the traditional vows, or alternatively, why one should frame their vows and vow them again every anniversary — but what I remember is this, because we’ve said it to each other countless times over the last 2 and a half decades: “I promise to dig deep channels of communication between my soul and yours.”
I would rewrite our vows now — because I am only still now coming to understand:
I promise to dig deep channels of communication between my soul and yours — and the only way to dig those deep channels of communication, is with shards of the heart.
I promise courage to break open my heart in vulnerability — so you can walk into a deeper intimacy.
I promise to be care-ful and full of care with your heart — because: Giving your hand in marriage means handling another soul with the deepest care.
I promise to take time and daily sit down with a cup and cup your heart — because: Give a marriage only scraps of time and it will about starve to death.
I promise to live forgiveness because nothing else is life-giving. Because: Forgiveness gives oxygen to the soul.
I promise to destroy shame and never you — because: Shame says things can never change. Shame beats down and grace lifts up and love makes a way through.
And I promise to wear a habit of gratitude — because thanksgiving gives us a way out of entitlement and judgement and control management and gratefulness gives us a fulfilled life.
And don’t I know it: Marriage makes promises but broken people break promises and this can break a heart.
But there is a God who is faithful when we are faithless, a God who walks through the covenants we stumble through, a God who keeps the promises that we keep trying to keep because Grace never fails to keep coming to meet us. No matter what happens — and this is all that matters.
Because He alone fulfills His promise:
You don’t need all the people to love you, but One to love you always.
How do you live through a grace you don’t deserve, except to try to serve that grace to everyone passing by?
When I heard Annie’s Song the other day, for the first time in what seemed like decades, drifting achingly from a bedroom of one of the kids our love has made, I’d stopped at the top of the stairs, caught in a time-warp back to our wedding day.
The man who married this farm-girl Annie 25 years ago tomorrow, he wouldn’t know the promises of Annie’s Song if his life depended on it, has never written a poem or a love song in his life.
But there are men who actually live their love song promises with a steady faithfulness that could be mistaken for boring — but the truth is:
Those who experience the boring love of one heart boring deeply into their heart live drunk with the grace from that well.
When we made our promises as baby-faced kids 25 years ago, how could we have known it:
The fairytale weddings are actually the marriages that tell the full story of the Gospel.
The ever-hope-after-everything story that simply says: Take my hand and I take yours and there is a Grace that takes even us now —
a grace that fills up the senses, on the eve of forever.
Pick up my raw story of The Broken Way and how to love when it’s hard. This one’s for all of us who have felt our hearts break a bit…
This one’s for the brave and the busted and the real and dreamers and the sufferers and the believers.