Prayer: God of Love,
Lead us deeper into your heart this morning. Give us ears to hear and eyes to see the very rhythm of your divine life. And now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.
Some time ago, a newly engaged couple contacted me, wondering if I would officiate their wedding. Before I agreed to anything, they wondered how adventurous I was.
They asked if I would be willing to do a surprise wedding…
The groom explained it like this, “we don’t really want a large, expensive, stress-inducing wedding ceremony. We want something simple, affordable, with the people we care most about. And we want it to be memorable. So… would you be willing to show up at our engagement party, when all our friends and family are gathered, and marry us on the spot?”
Needless to say I had to do some digging into this proposal. After some time with the couple I discovered that their hearts were in the right place, that they weren’t running from anything or from anyone, and that this would beautifully reflect their personalities and relationship.
So I was adventurous, and I agreed to a Surprise Wedding. And pre-marital counseling.
I showed up to a hillside engagement party. The breeze was soft and the sun warm. The couple came to greet me and then turned to their friends and family who had just finished a delicious meal. The groom announced,
“We’re so glad you’re here to celebrate our engagement—you each mean so much to us. Mom and dad, would you come forward please. Today is not only our engagement party, it is also our wedding day. Michael is here to marry us, today, with all of you as our guests.”
The laughter and tears started to flow. Parents moved to the front. The 30 or so guests circled around me and the couple. And we began the wedding ceremony… outside… in the round…
They wanted a surprise wedding, and they got one. They just didn’t realize that I had one more surprise up my sleeve.
They had chosen as their Scripture passage a portion of what we read from the Song of Solomon. And this is the surprise I gave them:
“Jeremy and Brittany, the scripture passage you chose is quite appropriate for an occasion such as this; for it, too, is quite different, unexpected, and surprising. It comes from the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, which is unlike any other book in the bible: no history is set down, no rules prescribed, no prophecies proclaimed. The bible is where we expect to find stories about God, but in this book there is not even one explicit mention of God. Maybe most surprising of all is the subject matter: erotic passion. The Song of Songs is an impassioned dialogue between two unwed lovers. It’s pretty sexy stuff. The passage we heard reflects some of that erotic intensity: love’s flashes ‘are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame.’
“I’m not sure you had all that in mind when you picked this passage to be read. All that may come as a surprise to you.”
Indeed it did. The bride and groom were wide-eyed and snickers could be heard around the circle of friends and family.
The Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon as it is also called, is racy stuff. I received an email this week from someone who heard I was preaching from this book. She wrote: “When I was a child, we were told in Sunday school not to read that book!” I believe her. It’s filled with descriptions of the human body, lyrics of longing and yearning, and fleshy metaphors of forbidden love.
Allow me to paraphrase the first few verses we read:
Oh that you were available to me, so we could be wed. Then we could kiss in public and not be despised. I would take you to a special room in my house and give myself to you.
Friends, the very next verse, verse 4, elaborates on that. I encourage you to read it and the many verses that come before.
One pastor, who offers a seminar on this book, laughs every time he gets into the nitty, gritty details, because inevitably there are people in the audience double-checking to see if this is actually the bible they are reading from.
But why? Why is it so surprising to talk about intimacy and passion, the complexity and difficulties of human love in church? Is it not polite? Is it uncomfortable? Is it scary? We are immersed in images of love, sexuality, and sensuality through television, movies, print media, and the internet. Yet, for some reason, we often shy away from a central dimension of human life in church: intimate love.
Historically, the racy material of the Song of Solomon has been interpreted allegorically—that is, as a way to talk about God’s love for Israel or Christ’s love for the church. I’m not opposed to those interpretations, but I think they miss an important part of the story: the passion of human love.
Intimate love is a crucial experience for us to engage and reflect on in our lives of faith. Loving human relationships—whether we are married or not—tend to be central to how many of us organize and live our lives. We long to love and be loved—not just abstractly, but intimately and tenderly.
So, yes, the Song of Solomon IS in the bible. Yes, this book talks about erotic love. Yes, though the book is about unwed, forbidden love, we still read it at weddings. And rightly so.
You see this book is not just wild fantasy or pornographic poetry that should be locked away or ignored. No, this unique book in Scripture is full of wisdom. Wisdom that is important for exploring what love in the context of human relationships might mean for us as people of faith.
I’ve heard it said that “we may fall into a ditch, but we don’t fall into love.” Love, on this account, is always a choice. While I do believe many choices are involved with love; we talk about “falling” in love precisely because there is some aspect in our experience of love which feels out of our control, beyond our grip—it is bigger and stronger than we are. “Love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave” (v. 6).
The Song of Solomon gives us a picture of love’s potency, love’s raw power. Love is a powerful force that can sweep us up and carry us away. Whether you are single or married, enthralled with a lover or annoyed with a spouse; I suspect we have each known the power of love at one time or another… even if it was unreturned, even if it was forbidden.
This picture of love’s power helps us respond to the many images of love that circulate around us. I want to explore one distorted image of love that we are all prone to–whether we are young or old, rich or poor, wed or unwed, married 50 years or 50 minutes.
It is a sentimentalized image of love. We can easily imagine that love is simple, always beautiful and that “love is all we need.” If we just love, then marriages will thrive, the world will be at peace, and everyone will be happy.
Friends, the reality is that marriages fail, lovers disappoint us, and fights erupt. Intimate love is by no means simple because it is shared between human creatures—and we are not simple creatures. We have limited time, attention, and resources. Sharing life intimately with another person means negotiating boundaries, learning to communicate clearly, balancing time, and enduring disappointments.
Love is a kind of attachment or connection to another person. And intimate love brings about intense attachments and connections. Such attachments can take us to surprising places of fear, anger, anxiety, and confusion. I let every couple I counsel in on a little secret that brought me great relief when I first heard it: love is not about avoiding quarrels or “fights,” it’s about learning to fight well. You see we need more than love—love is not enough—we also need respect. Without respect lover’s quarrels become demeaning and destructive. We also need sensitivity, openness, and humility. Without these things, love will draw us into abuse, paralysis, or bondage. A sentimentalized image of love has no room for the dangers that love brings. Love is a wondrously dangerous force: “Do not stir or awaken love until it is ready”(v.4) proclaims the Song of Solomon. We should not stir love without readiness, without a waking sense of what is involved.
I asked Bob Vickers what he thought was crucial to his marriage of 40+ years. He didn’t give me a cliché about love; instead he said honestly, “plenty of grace.” We need the room to learn how to love one another better, over time; and that requires forgiveness and flexibility.
Sometimes we need the advice of others. Sometimes intimate love is so complex and challenging that it means asking for help. And asking for help from a counselor or therapist is a difficult thing to do. Therapy and counseling are still stigmatized in our society. We feel that if we seek out help from someone outside our relationship then we are somehow incapable or defective. We so value self-reliance that “getting help” is below us or an indictment upon us. The truth is quite the contrary: no matter how wonderful or difficult our intimate relationships may be, we can all, ALL, benefit from counseling. It will make strong relationships stronger, and give relationships that suffer new hope.
This is why I strongly encourage engaged couples to meet with me for pre-marital counseling before I officiate a wedding. My purpose is not to serve primarily as a gatekeeper—is this love legitimate or is this couple truly ready to be married?—nor is my purpose to offer expert knowledge that will prevent all heartache. No, instead my purpose is to help a couple better talk about their love and the complex challenges it will raise for them in their shared life together.
So, when I lead a couple through pre-marital counseling sessions, I often ask them to come up with a marriage mission statement—what is the purpose and meaning of marriage for them. Talking about this together helps couples get on the same page as they frame their commitment to one another in love. And those frames can be quite surprising. After hearing a young woman talk about family, companionship, trust, and loyalty, I asked her groom-to-be what he thought the purpose of marriage was. He looked at me, looked at her, shrugged, and said “Tax benefits?”
Friends: “do not stir or awaken love until it is ready” (v. 4). But do not shy away from love either. Let your love be awake—aware of the complexities and challenges that accompany love; and prepared for the adventure, delight, and surprises that love brings.
The honest exploration of intimate love in the Song of Solomon helps us see that love is beautiful, wondrous, and dangerous. And I believe that God dwells with us in the beauty, wonder, and danger of love. For how else would true love be as strong as the grave, fierce enough to withstand death?