At the age of 6 I declared that I would one day become a pastor. It might seem odd that someone barely able to read chapter books would commission himself to proclaim the word of the Lord. But I come from a long line of preachers. If you visit the cemetery on the plantation that hosts the graves of my mother’s side of the family, you will see names with “Reverend” etched into the tombstones going all the way back to the 1800s. My ancestors, slaves and later tenant farmers, would leave the cotton fields after a long day of work, put on their best pair of overalls and preach the good news to other weary Black folks looking for a modicum of hope.
It would be dishonest to say that I never wavered in that aspiration. But by the time I reached my early 20s my course was set. I would pastor some little church in Alabama and do what my ancestors had done. I would carry on a tradition that would make my family proud. It was a good plan. But it never came to be.
Things changed when I met the woman who would become my wife. She complicated the path to fulfilling my dreams. This is not because of religious differences. She was a church girl. The problem was her dreams conflicted with mine. When we met during our senior year in college, she had already decided to become a pediatrician for the US Navy. I did not know much about the military, but I did know that they moved you around often. That reality makes it hard to lead a congregation. Who would want a clergyperson who could commit to stay for only a couple of turns of the calendar?
Committee members at my local church, who considered whether I should be ordained, recognized this problem when I was in seminary. They initially declined my application because they did not see how my life and my wife’s would work together. In a sense they were correct. Our lives together meant that both of us would have to change.
Many believe that the purpose of marriage is self-actualization. We find the partner who will come alongside us and help us become what we have always dreamed we would be. Conversely, we may think that a potential spouse who would get in the way of our dreams is the wrong person for us.
What if marriage is meant to be something else?
Few of us become everything that we dreamed. One reason is that our dreams can often be shockingly selfish. How could our dreams account for people we have yet to meet? Marriages involve the collision of hopes when the spouses and children of our imagination put on flesh. We discover much to our surprise that they too are persons with aspirations of their own. The question can become: Whose dream will win?
Marriage has taught me that compromise need not mean discontent. My marriage did disrupt my career. During my wife’s seven years of active duty, I was at times a high school teacher and a stay-at-home dad. I went back to school to get a second master’s degree that would allow me to shift from being a pastor to being a professor.
But I was happy. I got to spend time with my children, building bonds that remain to this day. I learned how to stumble through rough ponytails for my daughter and schedule activities for our growing bread. I never became a good cook, but even disasters made their way into family lore. I got to witness my wife thrive as a Navy officer and win the respect of her peers.
After she completed active duty service, our growing family went abroad for doctoral studies, and I later settled into the life of an academic. I have never pastored the rural Black churches that stretch from Alabama to Tennessee as my ancestors did. The prophecy I made at the age of 6 has yet to come to pass.
Both of our careers look different because we are together, but that is fine. It is a gift to learn that others outside of us make demands upon our time and our energy. Love always has an element of death to self.
This does not mean that I have sacrificed all for my kids or my spouse. Everyone in our little community learns to sacrifice for the others. One of the great things that kids can learn is that they too can display sacrificial love.
I have found joy, not because this life is better than the one I imagined as a child. How could I know? I never lived that life. It’s lost to me. I have found joy because out of two seemingly conflicting visions of the future (my wife’s and my own) we have built something decidedly new. We became a family.
My deepest joy came not in getting exactly what I wanted. It is in seeing my wife thrive and my children flourish. If love is truly a deep and unbreakable orientation toward another, what greater joy can there be than helping your loved ones find their way toward joy?
Marriage, for us, has not been a competition for dominance. It is not even a taking of turns for prominence. It is a mutual exploration in which we plot to bring each other happiness or scheme to make our children smile. That is not the work of a day or a decade. This love is hard fought and ephemeral, appearing and disappearing at points where selfishness and human frailty get in the way. We are rarely as charitable with each other as we could be, but we are capable of it! Love again and again breaks out and surprises us in its beauty.
Marriage has taught me that people are what matters. I am proud of some things I have accomplished in my career. Nonetheless, one thing about goals is that they are shockingly difficult to hug. They can not talk back to you or laugh about all the difficult things you had to do to obtain them. They are needy, hungry monsters capable of gobbling our time and our lives whole.
But a person is a wonder. It laughs, cries, changes, grows, frustrates, disappoints and loves us back. One gift of marriage is that we are privileged to witness up close a life different from our own. We get to see the slow unfolding of one of God’s greatest miracles: a human life.