Yesterday I married Jim and John. It was my first legal wedding, and surely one of the first legal same-sex weddings in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. We stood before God, our congregation, and an array of friends and family to bless and legally sanctify a union of 35 years. Throughout the ceremony, there was barely a dry eye in the house – including my own.
John and Jim are 62 years old, born six months apart. They have been together since they were 27. They have had an extraordinarily rich life together; their love and respect is palpable. Jim is mostly confined to a wheelchair these days. He has terminal brain cancer. The doctors have given him a year to live. The Supreme Court has given John a great deal more peace in these transitional times and in those to follow.
They wanted a traditional ceremony, short and to the point. They wore Hawaiian shirts and khaki pants at the altar. After three and a half decades, John said, why be formal? So, down the aisle we walked, four attendants, the grooms, and me. John’s sister gave him away. Their longtime friend gave Jim away. I called the space in the familiar manner: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”
I kept as close to the traditional script as I could; but I could not, in good conscience, leave it untouched. The wedding ceremony was written for people at the beginning of their life’s journey together. It offers both hope and forewarning that, to a couple who have spent more than half their lives together, is old hat. (As I said in my charge to the couple, “What can I tell you about marriage that you don’t already know? I should be asking your advice.”) Plus, however casual the tone, this was a momentous occasion, not only for Jim and John, but for their loved ones, for our church, for the town, for the nation, and, indeed, for humanity. So I kept the spirit of tradition while honoring the unique beauty and power of this union of souls. Most of the changes were subtle: “reaffirming” versus “creating” a life together; taking vows “that you have lived out over these years.”
It was those old familiar vows that got me. I had kept my composure fairly well up to that point, breathing away a tear or pausing to keep my voice from breaking. But those vows took me back – not to my own wedding, as I’ve never been married, but to my teenage years as a fledgling activist, half my life ago. I have been working for LGBQ and trans rights since the late 1990s. I marched; I petitioned; I organized; I educated; I endured threats and abuse from peers and power figures; I spoke; I made art; I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.
I wrote everything from poetry to op-eds to research papers. One such paper marked a crucial moment in my understanding of civil rights, and of marriage as a critical one. I wrote it at age 16, and I can still quote it. In my research, I read a book (which I only now realized came from the UUA’s publishing house), Richard D. Mohr’s A More Perfect Union: Why Straight America Must Stand Up for Gay Rights, in which the author closes his chapter “Understanding Gay Marriage” with this vignette:
Two men clutch each other; one is at the edge of life.
“In sickness and in health.”
The other has sold the house to pay the medical bills, changed the hospital sheets himself, sacrificed even beyond the point where assistance could help.
“For richer for poorer.”
They are married to each other in their own eyes, in God’s eyes, in the eyes of their church and community – in every eye but the law’s.
“For better for worse.”
And so now, as the doctor unplugs the respirator, as the lovers’ duet ends, the law will put the living lover through a hell for which not even his beloved’s decay could have prepared his imagination.
“Til death do us part.”
As I began to recite the vows and watched the tears in John’s eyes, present since they walked down the aisle, turn into rivers on his cheeks, that scene flashed through my mind. I could not help but imprint it on these two men, one looking up at the other from the chair that allows them to move together these days, and that will carry him through the winter of his life. Three weeks ago, that could have been their scene. But today, it looks like this:
“In sickness and in health.”
The minister’s eyes sting.
“For richer, for poorer.”
The minister’s voice trembles. Cancer is not cheap, but in this moment, these are the richest men in the world. Their wealth of love is abundant.
“For better, for worse.”
The minister’s heart is so full it hurts. The stories these two have! The things they have endured in a lifetime together! The immeasurable joy in this room that they get to have this day they never thought would come! The bittersweetness in this room, knowing that their days to come are numbered…
“Til death do us part.”
The minister’s voice breaks; a tear rolls down his cheek. That day is not far off. No one here is pretending otherwise. But today is not that day. Today, we affirm life. Today, we celebrate this wealth of love; all those present bask in it, rejoice in it, find hope in it. Today, we laugh death in the face, and the Universe conspires to join us as sunlight pours into the sanctuary windows, through which brilliant blue skies and vibrant yellow and orange trees are visible. Yes, this day is very much alive.
Later, as I walked to my car, I watched the tree above it shake yellow leaves onto the still-green grass. It seemed a metaphor for Oklahoma: change tumbling in from above while the ground level doesn’t know that the season has turned. In truth, the season is still turning; though the legal milestone is in place, the work of changing hearts and minds is ongoing. The power of the change we are witnessing is certainly not lost on me, though; 15 years ago, I did not think I would see this day in my lifetime, let alone be the one performing the ceremony. It felt blessedly surreal to say, “By the power invested in me by the State of Oklahoma, I now pronounce you husband and husband.”
Turning out of the driveway, I saw lingering wedding-goers standing under the banner the church put out for this occasion: “Standing On the Side of LOVE.” In that snapshot, I felt connected through the generations of Unitarian Universalists who have done just that, and suddenly, the minor crisis of faith that had been hanging on me this week lifted. I remembered that core of our theology, our hermeneutic of love, and felt restored in my call to preach and live that gospel truth far and wide.
I drove home feeling that John and Jim had ministered to me as much as I had to them; and as I type this, I think to myself, “Isn’t that always the way?” From what my more seasoned colleagues tell me, yes, it is. Congratulations, gentlemen. It was an honor to share this day with you. You are forever in my heart.