Marrying in the Lord: A seasoned pastor's advice on planning and celebrating a wedding, page 1 of 2
I should have known better. It was, granted, quite a strange request. Almost bizarre. But I thought I could work with it. I thought that perhaps it could be made into something meaningful; something, in fact, faithful to God’s Word. Besides, it was a garden wedding—an informal setting compared to a sanctuary. Perhaps in that context it just might communicate.
The groom had asked if it would be permissible to tie the wedding rings with a ribbon to the neck of the family pet, a lively poodle. At the moment in the ceremony when it was time to exchange rings, he planned to turn around and whistle; in response the dog would run (correction: fly!) from the back of the crowd, straight down the center aisle, and head directly at him, delivering the cherished rings.
I had carefully prepared my remarks before the grand entrance of the poodle. I read Genesis 2:19-20 and soberly pointed out the context in which God revealed the glory of marriage: despite Adam’s close involvement with wonderful and beautiful animals, he gradually discovered that he could never achieve real community, full humanity, and authentic partnership through interaction with them. I solemnly intoned that the first wedding took place against this backdrop, and that the richness (indeed, necessity) of marriage between man and woman is presented in Scripture by contrasting it to the impoverished quest of Adam for a “suitable helper” in all of God’s good creation. Thus the fact that the poodle was going to bring in the rings would, I urged, symbolize that though everything God created was good, the introduction of woman was far better. Her formation brought about the grand crown of creation: human community, as in marriage, and with it family, and from that civilization, and, ultimately, as in Revelation 21, the city of God itself!
Well, it didn’t work. The dog came flying down the aisle all right—but headed to everyone but his master. Instead, as if to show his resentment at having been usurped by a bride, he ran in and through and all around the attendants, then me, then the crowd. Three big groomsmen, plus the groom himself, started chasing him. Thinking this was a game, the delighted poodle only evaded them all the more. An eternity later, a groomsman finally pinned him down, sullying his tux in the process, and captured the rings. The wedding never really recovered.
You’ve been there too? I suspect most of us have. Such snafus prompted Ann Landers to publish a list of wedding horror stories in her column recently under the title “Clergy Confess: Yes, They Hate Weddings.”
We can all understand why, but it need not be so. This article is a passionate call to reclaim and redeem wedding ceremonies from the banal and predictable routines they so easily settle into. Far too many couples are like the couple on the road to Emmaus. They may be right in the very presence of Jesus. Their wedding is held in a church, officiated by a minister. They use a biblical liturgy replete with Christian songs and prayers. Yet they neither see nor sense the glorious presence of the risen Lord, right there! It is our task to represent Christ well, that they might see him, so that their entrance into marriage may truly be in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Otherwise, a ceremony that could have been best wine remains just plain water—despite megabucks spent on flowers, gowns, tuxes, musicians, photographers, and professional consultants.
So walk with me step-by-step through the entire wedding, exploring ways to open participants’ eyes to the living presence of Jesus.
Designing the Service
Epiphanies—those surprising and holy moments in a wedding ceremony when the glory of God breaks through in an unmistakable way—are gifts. We cannot make them happen. But as Isaiah reminded us (40:3), we can and must prepare a highway for the Lord in what can be as spiritually barren as a desert: the modern wedding. How can we do this?
- Remember what a wedding really is. It is God joining a man and a woman in covenant. This is, first of all, God’s event, only secondarily the bride and groom’s. And we, as ministers of the gospel, represent God. Therefore, we must communicate tactfully but clearly that, while we most certainly wish to honor the unique plans each couple brings to their wedding, we are in charge, and this means that our approval of the ceremony plan is required. At our church we have done this by preparing a complete wedding packet spelling out our policies on every conceivable aspect of a wedding in our facility, including music and photography (see sidebars on pp. 5 and 6), and we require the couple to sign a compliance form. A carefully planned, Christ-centered ceremony can be quickly ruined by a schmaltzy ditty or an intrusive photographer.
- Invite the couple to select a clear, brief, and memorable verse or phrase from Scripture for their wedding (and marriage), a phrase or verse that you in turn can use for your message during the ceremony. This moves them from preoccupation with peripherals into the very heart of the ceremony. If you draw a blank stare in response, give them a list of suggestions (see sidebar), and ask them to select one or more. Teach them to keep their gathered guests in mind as they choose so that God’s Word may speak to the whole congregation at their wedding, not only to themselves.
- The congregation should also be kept in mind when music is chosen. They are there to join the families in both worshiping God, who has granted the wondrous gifts bride and groom are to one another, and praying God’s blessing upon them. Music allows the whole gathered congregation to enter into both worship and petition. (For appropriate hymns of praise and blessing that the congregation can sing, see pp. 20-26.)
- A chaotic rehearsal rarely leads to a consecrated ceremony. I spell out clearly how we do rehearsals. We start on time, open with prayer, have the bride and groom introduce their respective families and attendants, and present typed copies of the ceremony prepared by our volunteer ceremony coordinators. We stress that the plan is final to prevent the chaos that can easily erupt when family members other than the bride or groom try making last-minute changes. Together we (1) talk it through, (2) walk it through, and (3) run it through (a final twelve-minute abbreviated version). We aim not only to do a rehearsal in seventy-five minutes, but also to establish the spiritual tone of the wedding ceremony already at the rehearsal. Our goal is for rehearsals to be no less Christ-centered than weddings.
- One final note. I’ve found it very meaningful to pray with the wedding party just prior to the service. It not only helps to settle frayed nerves and refocus minds after (typically) a long photography session; it is a centering-down exercise to bring all of us in the wedding party into the quiet presence and empowering calmness of God.
Traditionally fathers walk their daughters down the aisle and give them away, mothers light unity candles, and both sets of parents pledge their support. Are there ways in which God can be more fully glorified for the blessings of the parental homes and nurture given the couple? I believe there are. Assuming that both bride and groom have still-married birth parents (now the minority in North America), consider using (or, with single parents, modifying) the following scenarios to honor and involve the families of origin:
- The groom ushers his mother down the center aisle to a spot in front of the congregation, on floor level, where she stands, facing the congregation. He then returns to the rear of the auditorium and does the same for his bride’s mother. (At this point, both mothers may proceed to light the side candles of the unity candle.) He then returns again to the rear of the auditorium and this time enters with his own father. Father and son join the mother, all standing and facing the congregation, with the son standing between his parents. Then the father of the bride escorts his daughter down the aisle and together they join her mother, with the bride between them.
When the guests are seated after the bride’s grand entrance, they find themselves looking not at just the backsides of a father and a bride, but at the joyful faces of all six people. To their left is the radiant bride, enveloped by her parents, and to their right is the groom, enclosed by his. After the welcome, declaration of purpose, and prayer, both sets of parents visibly pronounce a blessing and a promise of support, either in their own words, or in response to the pastor. Each of the fathers says something to this effect:
[Groom’s name] and [bride’s name], I speak for [mother’s name] as well as myself as we most wholeheartedly grant you our blessing and promise you our continued love, prayers, and support.
In this simple way, the congregation witnesses both a son and a daughter leaving their father and mother to form a new home; they also see and hear God approving and blessing the new couple through a final public parental act. Then, after bride and groom each hug and/or kiss their parents in farewell, the father of the bride ushers his daughter to the waiting groom, who receives her from his hand. The father physically places his daughter’s arm onto the groom’s arm, and together the bride and groom step up to their place before the pastor while their parents are seated.
- Families can again be brought into the ceremony at the time of the vows. If both bride and groom come from homes in which their own parents (and even grandparents) have kept their vows, the pastor can give God honor for such faithfulness as well as reinforce the weightiness of making and keeping vows with an introduction such as this:
Today you will be speaking your vows to one another in a most blessed company of witnesses to the power of God, who enables us to keep them. Grandpa [name] is here today. He kept his vow to Grandma [name] for [number] years until she died [number] years ago. Father and Mother [name] have kept their vows for [number] years.
By mentioning parents and grandparents in this context, we not only honor them but also highlight the heritage of faithfulness they represent.
- When unity candles are used, it is traditional for mothers to light the side candles. If this takes place during the ceremony itself, a unique opportunity opens up. As the mothers light the candles, the officiating pastor can describe the background, character, and heritage of each home by saying something like this:
The unity candle represents the fact that in forming a new home today, each of you carries the unique traditions, values, and history of the home in which you were raised. [Groom’s name], as your mother lights the [groom’s family name] candle, we honor your family for their [mention some of the positive attributes or history of the groom’s family]. [Bride’s name], as your mother lights the [bride’s family name] candle, we honor your family for their [mention some of the positive attributes or history of the bride’s family].
- The prayer petitioning God for a blessing upon the new home at the end of the ceremony often involves only the pastor and the couple. However, this prayer is a perfect opportunity to involve the parents again, as well as the attendants. Depending on the space available, we invite the parents and the attendants to form a circle of prayer around the couple on either the platform or floor level. We give an opportunity for parents, family members, or attendants to offer prayers they have prepared for this occasion. The pastor gives the concluding prayer. We ask the gathered congregation to voice or sing an “Amen” or to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the end of this season of prayer. Then, we simply open the circle to the congregation, present the couple, and immediately move into the recessional.
There are three ways to say vows: recite them from memory, repeat them after the pastor, or respond with “I do” to questions asked by the pastor. Sometimes nervous couples quickly opt for the latter. If at all possible, discourage this. Tell them that both God and the gathered congregation are present to hear their own voices speak out their commitments. Practice repeating the vows with them to familiarize them with what they are saying and to help them overcome the jitters. If you are going to encourage them to actually recite their vows (and I do), tell them to start early, write them on small cards, and attach them to the dashboard of their car.
Insist on approving their vows if they wish to compose their own. This enables you to edit out the shallow sentimentalism (“I love you so very, very much. You are my very best friend. I cannot wait to spend the rest of my life with you . . .”) and replace it with the solid language that pledges lifelong troth, accepts the God-established roles of husband and wife, and embraces the responsibilities of mutual service in all the seasons of married life. Here is a fine example of vows written by the bride and groom (see p. 27 for more examples):
[Bride’s name/groom’s name], I love you. I look forward to walking by your side as we set out on life’s journey together. Today I promise before God and all who are gathered here to put you and your needs above all others, to be your support and encouragement as you work to develop the gifts that God has given you. And with God’s gracious help, I promise to love, honor and respect you, [name], for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. I promise to be your loving and faithful [husband/wife]. I will hold true to this covenant as long as we both shall live.
When you stop to think of it, the traditional wedding is full of symbolism. Some of these symbols have become so common that their meaning is often missed. Here are some suggestions for restoring their luster, protecting them from abuse, and even adding some new ones.
- The meaning of the giving and receiving of rings can be enhanced by introducing the exchange with this question:
Are you willing to signify and seal these vows, which all have heard, by the giving and receiving of rings, for all to see, as lasting witnesses to your covenant in Christ?
The pastors asks each, “[name], what is your answer?” Each responds, “I am.”
- A comment by the pastor on the meaning of the rings prior to their exchange may be meaningful as well. It should, however, be kept brief. I often say sentences such as The ring is a circle, reminding us that true love never ends (1 Cor. 13:8a).
Diamonds, gold, and silver are precious, reminding us that true love and faithfulness are priceless.
These rings are made of solid metal, reminding us true love still stands even when all else has fallen.
If the kiss occurs as part of the wedding ceremony (and it usually does), I believe a pastor is wise to discuss with the couple, in advance, the meaning of this moment. If the rings represent faithfulness, the kiss represents affection. Affection is a gift of God and deserves to be “solemnized” as much as any other part of the wedding ceremony. In fact, the kiss is sometimes trivialized, infecting an otherwise richly meaningful ceremony with a moment of inappropriate histrionics.
May I suggest that you make a tactful but firm effort at redeeming the kiss! Talk it over with the bride and groom. Point out that this may be the most public kiss they will ever give each other, meant to express the warmth and depth of the affection God has given them for one another. Suggest that they actually think about how they are going to do this. Perhaps I am overstepping my bounds or being too paternalistic, but I’ve seen too many embarrassing kisses. I now actually coach the couple on how to do a wedding kiss. Some couples need it! So I urge them to avoid the extremes of turning this kiss into just a little peck on the lips on the one hand, or of a prolonged and passionate French kiss on the other. I suggest they find a middle ground, a kiss that is warm, tender, and gentle, reverencing the sacredness in the gift of the sensual.
The Signing of the Marriage License
Some couples ask to include this in their ceremony. I believe it is appropriate because it demonstrates what we say in the wedding form: “We seek to honor the interest of the state in the orderly development of society.” This element can be meaningfully introduced by saying:
I now invite you and your witnesses to sign your marriage license in the presence of God as evidence of your submission to the authority of the state over the welfare of your home.
Though rarely used at weddings, this symbol can be a powerful picture and pledge, not only of mutual service, but also of a commitment to the critical marital discipline of mutual forgiveness. It can be introduced by saying
Marriage can be so easily polluted and even infected by the grime of our own sinfulness and selfishness. But true love not only quickly forgives; it grows stronger from having been forgiven. Jesus has washed your feet; and he calls us to wash one another’s feet, as testimony to our commitment to forgive one another, as often as it may be needed.