Words to Unlearn

Like many priests and ministers, the Rev. Samuel Wells has prepared hundreds of couples for marriage in his role as vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London and as former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. In an essay in The Christian Century [September 2022], Reverend Wells writes that the focus of his work with couples is helping them “unlearn” three words and replacing them with the three “new” words.

The first word he challenges couples to “unlearn” is if.

If is about bargaining:  If you keep your side of the bargain, I’ll keep mine.  Wells writes that “on the wedding day the two people being married dispense with the word if — and replace it with the word always. Their love is no longer conditional; it is permanent . . . If is the language of contract; always is the language of covenant.  If is provisional; always is unconditional.” .

The second word couples need to unlearn is for.

“For is the curse of a marriage,” Wells has found.  For is score keeping: each spouse tallies up all the things they have done for the other and expect the totals to even out. The wedding day, Wells says, “is the day to quietly put that word away and replace it with the word with.  With requires constant relating, regular recalibrating, honest rebalancing. The point is never to do it well, or quickly, or efficiently — but to do it together.”

And the third word that couples need to unlearn is ask.

Asking all the questions has to take place before the wedding, Wells writes: asking what the future spouse likes and dislikes, asking what he or she loves and values, asking about the other’s loves and hurts. On the day they exchange their marriage vows, asking must give way to wonder — wonder about the future they will make together.  Wonder says, “dream with me, ponder with me, explore with me, discover with me. When you ask, you almost always have an idea of the right or desired answer. When you wonder, you’re opening your heart to something neither of you yet knows.”

Always, with, wonder — the understanding of those words can transform two souls into one heart; those three words are the beginning of a journey together toward a future of hope and promise. In embracing those words, a couple begins to experience the peace and love of Christ’s resurrection in their life together. Resurrection is not just the central tenant of our faith as Christians — resurrection is also an attitude, a perspective for approaching life and sorting out the decisions and complexities of our lives. What the Sadducees do not understand is that God is not about endings but beginnings: God always calls us to start again, to put aside old behaviours and embrace all that is good and affirming about the time we have been given. Resurrection is to live on in the hope that the struggles we encounter in this life are but a prelude to the fullness of joy in the next. Such resurrection can be lived in our lives today when “if” becomes “always,” “for” becomes with,” “ask” becomes “wonder.”