Monday, 18 July 2011

The Wedding

I recently had the pleasure of attending a wedding of an English gentleman and a Dutch lady. It was a rather lovely affair, unusual for the fact that the sermon and the best man's speech was given by the same person. Below are the transcripts, as requested by the Dutch family. Most of the points are entirely unoriginal and are simply borrowed and stolen from Plato, Roland Barthes and Vince Vaughan.

The Wedding Sermon...

“Love bears all things”

We all understand love as a story. The sort of once upon a time in the romantic south of France story where a boy meets a beautiful girl. Obviously he falls in love, pursues her; she gets a bit woo’d - maybe they fall out over a misunderstanding, some students in Gent or a trip to a military base in Afghanistan. Eventually, after a gloomy mid-point, everything gets ironed out, they make up and she marries him before he can escape to somewhere else dangerous and inhospitable. We compulsively watch hundreds of identikit stories like this replayed again and again in Rom-Coms, chick-lit, and old episodes of Beverly Hills 90210; when we’re in love as part of the smug-partnered set, and when we’re not as a socially acceptable merlot-fuelled form of self-harm.

One of the most famous ideas behind love stories comes from Plato: the story of soul-mates. We get this in all those meaningful phrases, “she’s the one”, “you complete me”, “my other half”, or in John’s case “my better half”. The story goes that originally humans were odd eight limbed androgynous creatures with two faces who scuttled about causing trouble. Zeus, in his great wisdom, cut them in half and sewed them up to make them weaker but more useful. The only problem was that they naturally felt incomplete and died from hunger as they clung to their separated halves. Each of us, apparently, is in this state looking for our missing half to heal the wound in human nature. Love is the name for this desire for wholeness. Soul-mates appear in hundreds of films - It had to be you, Made in Heaven, Serendipity, Ghost, Monster in Law, Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet - that one has a good book of the film - and of course the Runaway Bride.

The thing is, though, although Plato presents it very nicely, he also dismisses it as a load of rubbish - after all if we only fell in love with the other piece of our self that would basically make us all narcissists! He has his hero, then, Socrates, tell a quite different story. The context for these stories, by the way, is a dinner party where a group of drunk friends get together and each gives a speech saying how deliriously fantastic, beautiful and intoxicating love is. Basically, it’s a bit like a wedding.

So he says that after the birth of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, the gods had a feast, and they all came along including the god, Re-source. Funny name but at least it tells you something about him - that he’s resourceful - and it’s no more odd than the most recent Beckham, who they named “Harper Seven”. After dinner the less fortunately named goddess Poverty, who was always in need, came begging at the gate. Now seeing Resource, who’d got drunk by this time, stumbling into the garden to have a nap, Poverty saw a chance to relieve her self of her perpetual lack and so snuck over and slept with him, becoming pregnant with his child. And this child was Love.

Now because he is the son of Resource and Poverty, Love is always poor and far from being sensitive and beautiful, he’s tough with hard skin, no shoes and is always sleeping rough. He lives in doorways and by roads, and like his mother, Poverty, is always in a state of need. But like his father, Resource, he schemes to get hold of beautiful things. He’s brave, impetuous, a formidable hunter, cunning and full of tricks.

The point is this. We live in a world that idolizes love. Love actually does make the world go round, it lifts us up where we belong, all you need is love - don’t worry I’m not going to slip into Ewen MacGregor - but love is always something to aspire to, to dream of, like an American watching the royal wedding - it’s pure, sublime almost untouchable and only for the beautiful. But Plato’s point is that far from being pure, beautiful, clad in lace and soft lighting, - like a fairytale - love is a combination of poverty and resourcefulness. To love is to recognise a lack in yourself, something missing. Something you want very dearly, something you depend upon - that causes you pain not to have and be with. And we don’t really desire the things we have. I was very excited about getting surround sound for my TV. Now I don’t even notice it. Life has a way of numbing you to all pleasures but novelty. But to love is to keep recognizing something missing, something desired, to not take for granted, but to yearn for more and more of the beloved.

But love is also resourcefulness. Most English boys of course mope around listening to Radiohead during their teenage years, though knowing John he was whistling along to Marvin Gaye. I’m not sure if there’s a Dutch/Belgian equivalent since the only group I know from this part of the world is 2Unlimited, famed for their hit song “No, No Limit.” I imagine though that Gertje was perhaps reading something clever but miserable like The Sorrows of Young Werther - either that or just taking great delight in breaking boys’ hearts. But love doesn’t mope. Because to love is have your beloved as your highest priority; which means all your resources, your courage, your cunning, your charm will be directed towards possessing, pleasing and gaining the affection of your beloved.

And it stops at nothing. It is a continual desire to use what we have for the benefit and celebration of our love. Where most Romantic Comedies - thinking of say Speed - finish with a big heartfelt kiss, and subtly replace the heroine for a repeat storyline in a straight to Dvd sequel - love demands resources through and even beyond the wedding night. So that’s it for Plato - love is poverty and resourcefulness. Recognizing the depth of our need, affection and desire for another, which makes us vulnerable and dependent; and giving everything we have for the sake of that beloved.

And we see the same in the reading we’ve just had. If love is patient, kind, not envious or arrogant, insistent or irritable, then love is making itself vulnerable to its beloved. It’s giving over some of its independence and agency in trust. That’s why you’d better be pretty sure about that trust, maintaining that trust and always giving to each other genuine reciprocity. But whether we like it or not, love makes us vulnerable. But with this ‘it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’. These are its resources: it has endurance, trust, optimism and courage.

And there is no doubt that when St Paul is writing this he has in mind the crucifixion as the consummate picture of vulnerable and resourceful love. The hymn we just had is one people usually remember from school - and particularly, I think, the verse with the alliterative whipping and stripping tends to stick in people’s minds - it’s John’s favourite anyway. But again the theme is the poverty and resourcefulness of love. That through torture, execution and the hell of it all, the dance of love goes on through its resources of hope and kindness. And, through our poverty and resourcefulness, our love is fashioned and cannot be destroyed. Or to put it another way, the love God has for us and the love we are commanded to give one another, the love we promise, is never lost but kept safe with God.

If love is poverty and resourcefulness, if it depends upon trust, then it is not just a sentiment but a promise. “I love you” is not an ordinary statement. It is a question. There are only two responses. Either - “I love you too” - or anything else. Anything else here amounts to “I’m just not that into you.” Even “ohhh love you,” or, “you’re so hot right now,” or Patrick Swayze’s “ditto,” doesn’t cut it - “I love you” demands the formality of “I love you too”, because it’s also a commitment, a promise. Between You and I - out of the resources and poverty that is love. Marriage is this same commitment, between You and I, between Gertje and John today, to say “I love you” - “I love you too”, every day, out of poverty and resourcefulness, in an echo of the divine love that makes the world go round.

The quotation at the front of the order of service gives a picture of life and of a relationship as an exploration: “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” Whatever our fortune we always begin and end in poverty. And to be an explorer requires self-chosen poverty. It is only by standing still that people accumulate. Beneath the quotation John and Gertje thank all of us gathered here. As we hear their vows now, then, we should recognize that we too are part of their love, their marriage, standing with them in their poverty at this new beginning - and after this wedding the poverty is almost certain to be quite genuine - and, as we are able, even if it’s only raising a glass of champagne, offering our resources to a lifelong love story. Amen.

The Best Man's Speech...

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, John has asked me to speak briefly, “speeching” as Gertje would call it, on behalf of the bridesmaids. And may I add my own thanks and praise to his. You are probably by now sick of the sound of my voice but have some compassion - if I had not had to give this speech I would have by now drunk at least three times as much champagne. And that’s just at breakfast. It’s not often you get the chance to speak twice at a wedding. John clearly felt I needed a practice run before this speech. Either that or he figured that getting in a priest would be damage limitation. I had worried earlier about picking up the wrong speech in church and having to explain the theological significance of John’s short-lived venture into cottaging. Merely, in this case, an internet search looking for somewhere we could go on holiday in the country that threw up some unexpected results.

My relationship with John began while he was a fresh-faced undergraduate at Exeter. It became clear we wold be close when we both found ourselves slipping away from college at 3pm every afternoon and sneaking home. Sharing a passion for the early series of Beverly Hills 90210 has always, for me, been the defining point in our relationship. I haven’t though been able to find out much about John’s early life. It is a testament to the fidelity John inspires that when I emailed round hunting for stories no one got back to me. Of course I tried hacking into John’s mum’s voicemail but that didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

Now everyone knows and loves John as an outstandingly charming, well-brought up boy with the very best of English manners. Everyone, that, is except my mother. And I only share this now so the Vanhouttes know what they’re getting into. We’d been to a party. Well several parties and two after-parties and, it being late, 4am, I realised it was time to go home. Seeing that John was deep in conversation with a new found friend I quietly slipped away. This displeased John. About twenty minutes later he realized that he had been abandoned and called my mobile. Upon reaching the answerphone he unleashed a fifteen minute stream of consciousness that James Joyce would have been proud of, varying between a caustic summary of his emotional dis-ease at being left behind and the various physical consequences this might have upon my person when he came upon me - alongside a detailed David Attenborough style commentary on the deteriorating nightlife, the habits and plumage of 4am Exeter.

By a fluke of technology my 3210 Nokia had strangely diverted the call to my parents’ home phone. Mother, fearing an emergency, struggled out of bed in the middle of the night and arrived just as the message clicked on. My mother, a rather conservative and fretful woman, listened throughout with growing horror to the sick pervert who was planning on hunting down her beloved child. By the time I was reunited with my phone I had 18 missed calls from her and my entire family were mobilised. To this day Mother remains unconvinced of John’s suitability for diplomacy.

But all of you here will know John as an outstanding friend with a natural ability to bring people together and to create a sense of community and fun wherever he goes. While he was a postgraduate I had the honour of presiding over the postgraduate society with him, which he turned from a handful of geeks playing chess to Pi Gamma Sigma, a thriving social scene that brought all sorts of people together. And it’s good to see Professor Tiger come all the way from Boston to be here today. I love you Tiger.

The highlight of the year was the annual Christmas party, which at John’s insistence had a snow machine and a Santa’s grotto. In a spirt of collaboration we had both dressed up as Santa Clause but John was able to take the role much more seriously. When I finally made it into the grotto I could see John had been taking up the slack left by me as he sat there with a girl on each knee, listening to what I assume was their Christmas lists.

On our way home we were stopped by a police woman who rightly castigated us for drinking wine as we walked. Curiously, and perhaps irresponsibly, rather than just confiscating the bottle, she insisted that the two Santas immediately finish it off and I can report that John manfully, great friend that he was, took his share without complaint. Afterwards, spurred as always by a keen moral sense, and taking seriously his role as a surrogate Santa, with great energy he reminded the passing eateries, all of which were closed or closing, that their lack of generosity would be rewarded only with coal.

But to return from such ancient history, I must say that I know of no one more loyal or tolerant. Even on his stag weekend, when a bout of seasickness had me decorating his wetsuit on the back of a jet-ski, or when I threw him off into the sea, not a word of criticism was voiced. I must thank Christian, the better best man, for organizing this. Aside from a rather intemperate request for an unusual local dessert from Michael and Dave stumbling round the ring road for half the night and losing his shoes, it was a very respectable affair. Unlike Gertje’s stag night in which I hear she dressed up as a pirate and went round the seedier parts of Amsterdam [The speaker had meant to add “including a once-in-a-lifetime motor boat trip”]. I can see who’s going to wear the trousers in this relationship.

And may I take this opportunity to say how beautiful you looked today, Gertje. A dress even more perfect than Pippa’s at the royal wedding. I hope you didn’t find there was too much praying at the service. And thanks to Gertje’s parents - it takes a man to give away an angel.

But to return to John. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how bright, talented and successful he is. A friend of mine remarked to me years ago on how John always seems to land on his feet, and although Gertje is reason enough to suspect that John is a lucky, lucky man, this is not without his own considerable courage and determination. Having already served in Afghanistan and looking towards Pakistan this courage is readily apparent. And he’s hugely lucky to have found someone to share this sense of adventure with - as Gertje has already had her own adventures in China and elsewhere, and matches him for courage, ambition and fun every step of the way. I’m sure you will share many more adventures together - I don’t know of any couple more suited to it. I’ve been privileged to see your relationship develop and I’ve never known John more in love or more happy. I know that you will both enjoy a wonderful life together.

So treasuring in our hearts all our personal memories of John and Gertje, and looking forward to sharing many more with the both of them, let us once again be upstanding for the bride and groom...

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