This is the homily I preached at the wedding of Christine Letcher and Julia McDonald on August 19, 2006 on the brides’ farm in Leeds, Maine.
Christine and Julia, I must begin my remarks by thanking you for the honor you have given me by inviting me to be part of this ceremony. This is a beautiful place, you are beautiful people, and you are standing in the presence of a beautiful congregation. It makes me happy and somewhat humbled to be in the presence of such beauty.
The two of you were kind and good enough to ask me to talk a little bit about marriage, and I want to do that by using your Farm, this place, as a sacred text, because I believe that Farms are a good and helpful metaphor for marriage.
This, by the way, is not my idea. In comparing farms to the honorable estate of marriage, I am passing along a bit of my mother’s wisdom. You see, my mother grew up on a farm in Western Iowa and she and my dad have continued to live close to the earth, gardening, keeping animals, and caring for the several acres of Northern California they call home. Like you, they farm as they are able while continuing in the employment that pays the bills.
My mother once told me that, in her opinion, one of the reasons that marriages fail more today than they used to is that fewer people are farming. I was maybe twelve when my mother told me this, and for the better part of three decades I’ve been mulling it over in my head, and I think she’s right.
And here was her reasoning: farmers understand the cyclical nature of things. There are good years and there are bad years. Sometimes there isn’t enough water, sometimes there’s so much moisture you have to worry about mold. If every farmer quit farming every time there was a bad year, there would be no farmers.
And so it is with marriage. Those who postpone the embrace of joy until everything’s settled, organized, worked out, solved and serene are usually disappointed in marriage because life is never completely settled, organized, worked out, solved or serene. But the good news is that people can be happy in marriage, marriages can be vital and strong, even when life is difficult, even when the details of life have yet to be worked out.
This, by the way, is why I was happy to see that the ceiling in your living room isn’t finished yet, and that that corn in your garden this year won’t ever be as high as an elephant’s eye. You’re getting married anyway. Life is full of unfinished projects and disappointing crops. You cannot let such things get in the way of your joy.
There is a wonderful little poem called “The Love Song of the Mad Farmer” by Wendell Berry, a poet and farmer form Kentucky that goes like this:
O when the world’s at peace and every man is free,
Then shall I go down unto my love
O, and I may go down several times before that
(From Collected Poems. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985)
To which I say, Amen. We should all remember the farming life, and be happy long before the complexities of life have been solved.
To my mother’s wisdom, I would add this: like farming, marriage can only thrive as part of a larger economy. In farming this means that much of what is needed to run a farm—feed for the animals, seeds for planting, the necessary tools and implements, perhaps some of your fertilizer—all come from town or from your neighbor’s farms, and most the farm’s produce ends up leaving the farm, either because it has been sold or given away, or because it has fed you and made you strong for your employment off the farm.
There is, I believe, a similar economy to marriage. The strongest marriages I know have deep ties to the spiritual and emotional economy of their communities. They are nurtured by the interactions they have with their friends and family, and, in turn, as they are able to give back to the community of friends and family that has given them life, perhaps bringing life and sustenance to another marriage or relationship.
If you look around you right now, you see a good looking group of folks who want very much to be a part of the economy of your marriage, and you are blessed.
More than anything, the institution of Marriage is like a farm because like farms, marital relationships must be tended and given care. They must benefit from our stewardship.
When it comes to the stewardship of farms, city dweller that I am, I am a fan of the kind of care that seeks not just the wellbeing of plants but also works to feed and nurture the soil in which the crops grow. Or, if the farm is a place of animals, care is given to ensure that the animals are happy and healthy and are not just raised for the extraction of as much food as possible.
There is, I believe, a similar organic approach to the stewardship of marriage, where those who are married seek not just marital happiness and connubial bliss, but also tend to the source of that goodness and beauty: the spiritual, emotional, and personal wellness of the individuals who enter into the covenant of marriage, so that there is strength and vitality where the two lives intersect. This kind of stewardship works best in partnership, so that each individual isn’t on a personal journey of fulfillment. The best kind of marital stewardship happens in tandem when both partners seek what is best for each other.
So Julia and Christine, as you live your lives together as partners in marriage, take time to look around your farm. Let its rhythms remind you to embrace joy in every season of life. Let its economy prompt you to a connectedness with your community, and above all things, exercise stewardship over your relationship by caring for yourselves and for one another.