My son was surprised to drive by the church this week and see the title of today’s sermon announced on the sign out front: “Dr. David Farmer Talks about My Relationship with My Spouse.” He called and wanted to know if there was something I’d forgotten to tell him, said he didn’t think I’d had a spouse since his mother and I were divorced about sixteen year ago.
Of course, the “my” in the title actually refers to those of us with spouses collectively. Also, the full title includes spouses and significant others, but there wasn’t room on the sign for that. So, I’m still single, and the sermon is about strong relationships with spouses and significant others--assuming that if you have one, you have only one or one or the other, not one of each or more than one of each. I will remind you right here at the beginning that both Hebrew and Christian scripture were written by and for those who believed in and practiced polygamy so any biblical references we use have no clue as to what modern US monogamy is supposed to look like; nor does scripture have any concept of the modern so-called “open” marriage or relationship. The marital laws were written so that men could have multiple wives and concubines too. Women could only legally be involved in one relationship, and that would be with the man to whom she was married; which was another way of saying, “the man who owned her.”
The rule of thumb was that a man could have as many wives and concubines as he could afford to care for and as many children from them as he could afford to support. So, when the Ten Commandments command, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” for the man, this meant stay away from the female property of other men; for women, this meant you’d better not have sex with any man other than the man who owns you.
There’s a lot of adultery going on today, so many couples dissatisfied with their sex lives. The legal document signed by me, two witnesses, and the Clerk of the Peace does not make a couple married according to the law of relationships, only by the law of the land; and it provides for property and financial rights and privileges and, strangely enough, conjugal expectations. The mechanics of sex are not discussed or described in any marriage laws I’ve even seen, but I’ve always been taught that Baptists favor the missionary position. Sexual expression is for most couples a vitally important aspect of demonstrating the depth of love for most couples, but there’s no formula that works for every couple; frequency as well as style has to be determined by each couple and likely gets readjusted across the years. Although in the age of Viagra, perhaps there are no changes at all in terms of timing or method. There are just new answers for the doctor when she asks, “How did you get that bruise?”
How often are married couples in the United States having sex? Who better to ask than Dr. Oz, and this is his answer:
It turns out that for married couples under 30 years of age; the frequency (on average) is about twice a week. For married couples between the ages of 50-59, the frequency is about once week. So now you know how often your neighbors may be having sex. But remember, these are averages. Some couples are happy with more frequent sex, some happy with less frequent sex. And that's really the point: not how much sex you're having, but whether you and your partner are happy with the sex you're having, regardless of the frequency.
If you’re not happy in that department, the stage may be set for adultery.
The Hebrew/Jewish law said that committing adultery was punishable by death; practically speaking, the women caught committing adultery were put to death while the guilty men managed to go unnoticed. This is exactly the scenario in the famous story of the woman caught in the act of adultery and dragged from her bed of adultery to the feet of Jesus by the Pharisees who wanted to test his toughness on the law. They said to Jesus, “We all know the law says adulterers are to be stoned to death. As religious as you say you are and as committed to the law as you say you are, we’re SURE you want to help us keep the law so why don’t you get this stoning party started?”
Jesus said, “You’re exactly right, but all of you who have never sinned should get to cast the first stones; step up to the front of the line.” No one moved. It was typical not to find the man who had been in bed with her; perhaps he was back at home with his wives, or perhaps he was one of those in line demanding that she be put to death. The player who cheats with you, who makes you “the other woman” or “the other man,” will not necessarily stand with you in case your seedy sexual alliances come to light and cause trouble.
Anyway, the crowd slowly dissipated, and after a few minutes only Jesus and the woman who’d been thrown at his feet were left, and Jesus asks her an odd, but redeeming kind of question, “So where are all your accusers?” The answer was obvious. Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.”
What words of grace. She had just experienced the equivalent of being strapped to the electric chair just as the governor calls the warden and halts the execution.
My very favorite retelling of this story is in a youth musical from the mid-70’s called “Bright New Wings.” The words to the songs and the dialogue were written was Ragan Courtney. Little did I know that when I directed a church youth group in performing this moving production, I’d one day meet Ragan Courtney and go to church with him and his family. So, now, though I never see him, I consider Ragan a friend, and he wrote this rendition of the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, set in the Old American West. Ragan is married to the glorious singer, Cynthia Clawson, and they have been co-pastoring a church in Texas for a bit, but are leaving that so that she can get back full time on the concert circuit; and he can get into a full-time writing mode.
Back to the woman caught in the act of adultery story as concluded by the stupendously creative, Ragan Courtney. We pick up after the woman’s accusers had faded into the sand. She is narrating her own story, unlike the biblical version.
He turned to me and smiled. I smiled back at him, and he said, “No man condemns you, and I don't either. Go and sin no more.” I turned and walked out of that place a new woman. And my red taffeta petticoats no longer sounded like the viscous whispers of jeering people. No. They sounded like angel wings as I turned and walked into the newness of life.
For the most part, we’d have to say that cheating on spouse or partner is destructive to a marriage or partnership. Someone was telling me just this week, and I can’t remember in what context, this worn old tale that isn’t true, but continues to be repeated over and over again: Men are less capable of faithfulness than women are. That’s nonsense. There have many more opportunities for men to cheat on their wives in most cultures across time, but, given the opportunities, women have kept up pretty well.
In 1997, so-called “infidelity statistics” for Americans stacked up something like this, according to “menstuff”:
- 22 percent of married men married several years had strayed at least once during their married lives.
- 14 percent of married women married several years had had affairs at least once during their married lives.
- Younger people were more likely candidates; in fact, younger women were as likely as younger men to be unfaithful.
- 70 percent of married women and 54 percent of married men did not know of their spouses' extramarital activity.
- 5 percent of married men and 3 percent of married women reported having had sex with someone other than their spouse in the year 1997.
- 90 percent of Americans believe adultery is morally wrong.
- 50 percent of Americans said President Clinton’s adultery made his moral standard about the same as the average married man, according to a Time-CNN poll.
- 61 percent of Americans thought adultery should not be a crime in the United states; 35 percent thought it should; 4 percent had no opinion.
- 17 percent of divorces in the United States were caused by infidelity.
Let’s get some numbers closer to today:
- Recent studies reveal that 45-55% of married women and 50-60% of married men engage in extramarital sex at some time or another during their relationship. That’s up A LOT in ten years.
- Only 46% of men believe that online affairs are adultery. Some 80% think it's ok to talk with a stranger identified as the opposite sex. 75% think it's ok to visit an adult site.
- About 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an affair at some point in some marriage according to marriage therapist Peggy Vaughn.
- Affairs affect one of every 2.7 couples, according to counselor Janis Abrahms Spring.
- Ten percent of extramarital affairs last one day, 10 percent last more than one day but less than a month, 50 percent last more than a month but less than a year, but 40 percent last two or more years. Few extramarital affairs last more than four years.
- A lesser known fact is that those who divorce rarely marry the person with whom they are having the affair.
- Frank Pittman has found that the divorce rate among those who married their lovers was 75 percent. The reasons for the high divorce rate include: intervention of reality, guilt, expectations, a general distrust of marriage, and a distrust of the affairee.
- One-third of divorce litigation is caused by online affairs.
- Spouses who get hooked on Internet porn are a growing complaint among spouses filing for divorce, according to a survey of 350 divorce attorneys. "If there's dissatisfaction in the existing relationship, the Internet is an easy way for people to scratch the itch," said lawyer J. Lindsey Short, Jr., president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, which conducted the study.
Even though both Hebrew scripture and Christian scripture were written in cultures that permitted and encouraged polygamy in the context of arranged marriages, there were still some great love affairs, some great marriages and partnerships along the way.
One of the greatest love stories in Hebrew tradition was the one about Jacob and Rachel. Many of you know at least part of their story. Jacob asked Rachel’s father, Laban, if he could marry Rachel, and Laban said, “Of course. We’ll agree to the marriage, and you can read the fine print later.” That was ok with Jacob; he’d have done anything to marry this beautiful woman who knocked him off his feet just being in her presence. Laban said, “You’ll get to be with her most every day, but we can’t go through with the actual marriage until you earn her hand by working for our family for seven years.” Jacob hated the requirement, but if that’s what it took for him to have Rachel as his wife he’d do it, and he did.
After severn long years, Jacob said to Laban, “OK, Pops, it’s wedding time.”
Laban agreed, “Indeed it is.” So a great ceremony was planned, and as at many weddings across time many of the participants had too much to drink. Jacob was one of those who had guzzled the wine with delight. Finally, the beautiful Rachel would be his wife. Seven years of waiting; now a lifetime of joy with her.
Someone guided the drunken Jacob into the honeymoon tent, and then Laban escorted his daughter to the tent where she would enter to begin her sexual life with her husband. It was an extra hot night in the old desert that night, but Jacob nearly had a conniption fit the next hung-over morning when he saw the unveiled face not of Rachel but, instead, of her older sister, Leah. Jacob went running for Laban, “You idiot. You brought the wrong daughter to our marital bed! What in the world is wrong with you.”
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” Laban said. “I decided that you could marry both daughters, but Leah, the older, should go first. You can go ahead and marry Rachel too while we have the Rabbi and the musicians here, but in order for me to give her to you as your wife, you will have to agree to work another seven years. It will go by so quickly though; you’ll be living with the woman you love with a bonus.”
The curse words Jacob used to tell Laban what a low life he was have never been able to be translated with accuracy so use your imagination, and you’ll probably be pretty much on target. Jacob worked those seven extra years so Laban could never come back and say to him, “You still owe me for her.”
I want to tell you about another great biblical couple, but they never married--each other anyway. They were a gay couple when there was no such thing as gay marriage, but a gay thing on the side was rather widespread. In this case, the gay thing became the most important thing. The lovers were the Prince of the Hebrews, Jonathan, son of King Saul, and King Saul’s court musician and armor bearer, David, who himself would be king someday.
We get some little hints here and there about the importance of their relationship, but the truth doesn’t come out in full, as far as we know, until both Saul and Jonathan die in battle-related confusion; and David laments over them in the hearing of all of Israel.
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished (2 Sam 1:25-27 NRSV).
I can’t tell you how many fundamentalists would like to clip this page out of their Bibles, but it’s here to stay. Jonathan and David were a couple, and they loved each other with intensity. True love, I’d say, lasts to the end.
What makes long term marriage work? Well, I have words from the experts today. First, words from Diane Ekquist who just celebrated fifty years of marriage to Don this past Friday.
It is difficult to put the way we have handled 50 years in a capsule, but here are some thoughts:
1) Of course love comes first even in the hard times.
2) A close second is respect for your spouse and with that, for each one to be worthy of respect (including fidelity).
3) To be interested in your spouse’s work or occupation so that you can be aware and share the ups and downs.
Find something to laugh about every day.
While this may not apply to every couple, life has never been dull with Don!
Writing from the 58 year marriage mark, Bob Miller devised a list of twenty secrets to the success of a long term marriage.
Here are 20 secrets for starters:
1) Faithfulness to partner is imperative.
2) Agreement on number of children.
3) Agreement on raising of children.
4) Agreement on individual caring of children.
5) Agreement on education of children.
6) Agreement on letting go of children.
7) Agreement on handling money; thrift and savings,
8) Agreement on investments, trusts, wills, etc.
9) Agreement on lawyers, CPA’s, etc.
10) Travel together both local and foreign.
11) Plan for retirement way ahead.
12) Enjoy each other's company.
13) Enjoy each other's friends.
14) Enjoy each other's health and vigor.
15) Enjoy both work and retirement.
16) Aid those you can in various ways.
17) Love in-laws whom you can and move away from those you cannot.
18) Say, “I love you,” at least once a day to each other.
19) Keep yourself and clothes clean.
20) Make all important decisions together.
I perform a lot of weddings and have throughout my ministerial career. The first marriage ceremony I performed was my sister’s; a few years later, I performed my brother’s wedding also. When my sister’s son got married three or four few years ago, he had or would soon be enrolling in Jerry Falwell’s seminary, and I wasn’t even asked to help carry the trash out after the reception; I was offered no role whatsoever, which was intended by my nephew as a slap in his liberal uncle’s face. But I’m not bitter.
Some weddings I’ve performed through the years delighted me. Some bored me. Some brought tears to my eyes because of the tenderness I sensed between the couple. Some made me anxious like the one in Baltimore ay which the bride who arrived a full hour late for her ceremony. Some made me laugh like when a bride insisted on going ahead with an outdoor wedding even though there had been lots of rain leading up to the wedding; we did as she wished, but her lovely high heels, dyed to match the color of her dress, sank into the mud; and when the ceremony was over she had to be carried away from the altar because her feet were stuck in that mud.
Recently, it was thrilling to perform the wedding of Liz and Rick, Barbara Reader’s daughter and, now, son-in-law. They worked so hard on their ceremony to make sure it was exactly them, and that helps the officiant more than you can imagine. Add to that their exuberance for each other, and it was both deeply moving and electric. I share with you three poems that Liz and Rick chose for their ceremony, one of which I read, and each one read one of the other two poems to her or his about to be spouse.
I read this one by Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism.
Your love contains the power
of a thousand suns.
It unfolds as naturally and effortlessly
as does a flower,
and graces the world with its blooming.
Its beauty radiates a transforming energy
that enlivens all who see it.
Because of you, compassion and joy
are added to the world.
That is why the stars sing together
because of your love.
And I couldn’t help throwing in a little Disney, from “An American Tail.” A spouse isn’t necessarily a soul mate, though we would wish for that. When a spouse is a soul mate, the marriage--indeed life itself--is richer shared with this other human being who may not make the sun rise and set for any other person in the world, but she or he does for you; and you realized it early on without having to be told. When you had to be separated either before excellent cell phone quality or in the absence of a quality coverage area, you found yourself singing along with Fievel Mousekewitz, the brilliant little mouse from the animated film, “An American Tail,” when he had to be separated from all his loved ones. This is part of what I think of when I ponder what makes a great marriage.
Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight
Someone's thinking of me and loving me tonight
Somewhere out there someone's saying a prayer
That we'll find one another in that big somewhere out there
And even though I know how very far apart we are
It helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star
And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby
It helps to think we're sleeping underneath the same big sky
Somewhere out there if love can see us through
Then we'll be together somewhere out there
Out where dreams come true.
Rick read this Yeats poem to Liz. There were fewer and fewer dry eyes in the crowd.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Then Liz read a Sara Teasdale poem to Rick.
As dew leaves the cobweb lightly
Threaded with stars,
Scattering jewels on the fence
And the pasture bars;
As dawn leaves the dry grass bright
And the tangled weeds
Bearing a rainbow gem
On each of their seeds;
So has your love, my lover,
Fresh as the dawn,
Made me a shining road
To travel on,
Set every common sight
Of tree or stone
For me alone.
I think monogamous marriage for life is a great and glorious way of life for those who are cut out for it; that’s why I’m still performing marriage ceremonies in spite of the fact that my own marriage failed. My marriage to Lindon Fowler failed, but marriage as an institution did not fail.
The best way to strengthen marriage and to have it continue lasting as an important human institution is to stop trying to force people who lack long-term marriage skills to get married. There is a majority of people in our country who think that marriage is like chewing gum--or tobacco, depending on what part of the country you’re from; if you’re just given enough time, you’ll catch on and become a pro in a flash.
There is no paradigm for just what will make your marriage work for you. The plan, the promise, the persistence--these are all in your hands and, to some degree, in your hands alone. Others may want to help because they care, but the two of you will make it work and make it last if it does, and you will find your own ways to ensure that. We all of us are outsiders. We will not understand the foundation or the cornerstones. The mortar, only you will know how to mix and dry and cure.