I loved their questions the first time.
Kasey and I have been married for six months, but engagement season still tastes like stale maple syrup in the back of my mouth. It’s not like our engagement was a Nightmare on Elm Street — too few black-and-red sweaters and no drawn out chasing scenes from clumsy burn victims — but it wasn’t a Field of Dreams, either: Kevin Costner never made an appearance, and it seemed most times the only people gathering from afar came to ask how excited we were.
It’s not their fault, really, but it wasn’t totally ours either. As Christians, marriage was meaningful — so meaningful, it almost freaks you out. But if marriage was flooded with purpose, then engagement was a desert, a wasteland of decisions about cheesecake and fourth cousins, interrupted by dreams of eloping.
OK, so maybe that is extreme. I am not trying to make sweeping statements about the American church, but our engagement was six months, and most of it had no framework for us to discern its meaning other than what you are before you are married.
And that’s where the questions came. The favorite question was about how excited we were. That is exactly the question I would have asked before I got engaged. At first, we loved that question. Eventually, we became cynical about it, mostly because it made us feel ashamed that we were only one part excited while being two parts nervous, five parts alone, and all parts ready to be done being engaged.
So we tackled to-dos and faked excitement, but mostly we just waited. That’s fine, and I laugh with thankfulness for all that season grew in us. But as engagement posts light up my Facebook newsfeed, I hope three things for the engaged in our community.
1: Our life is one big in-between.
I learned a fancy word when I got engaged: liminality.
The word literally means “threshold.” A liminal space is an in-between space, a place of tension and transition, where longing drags on without relief and the dust takes a long time to settle.
Engagement is a liminal space if there ever was one. You kind of feel married. You pick up two messy little lives and get ready to join them into one. But that’s the point: they aren’t actually one life yet. You have your ring, you are getting all the marriage advice you never asked for, and you might even have picked out where you will live.
In practice, though, engaged couples experience all the stress, little of the pulpit guidance, and none of the finality of marriage. I wanted to arrive. I wanted closure. Instead, we were stuck with a liminal space.
Wedding day felt like completing a marathon. We were done with the liminal space. But the liminal space never ends. This might sound bleak, but our life is mostly made up of these in-between spaces. Once we got married, we got an address, good jobs, and could have all the sex we wanted. But new liminal spaces show up. When you are engaged, you glimpse how much you don’t like being in-between. But life is in-between, and God likes meeting ordinary people with anxious fingers running through their hair.
2: Find the story.
That doesn’t mean engagement is meaningless. Stories lift meaning out of seemingly random events. And stories were huge for us, because it was hard to see our engagement as anything more than a random but necessary series of events.
We had been invited to join a church plant in another state. I was in the ER later that month, battling pneumonia. We got engaged shortly after, deciding that life was short and God was probably faithful. We got swamped with life shortly after: I failed to catch up to school, wedding details ramped up, the church plant fell apart in an ugly way, and family conflict flared up.
As we took a storyteller’s eye to life in the last couple months, a story took shape that gave us strength. In the last few weeks, we wrote letters back and forth about the unfolding story:
“The sun was hazy and high, the cicadas chirped in the distance, and the bark felt hot in their hands. They took one glance — no closer to the infinite number of glances it would require to feel comfortable with the risk they were taking — and set the fledgling tree into the ground. It was the tree they made, and it was the tree they would keep making until they took their final breath.”
We caught momentum: what seemed like noise became music. The hot bark was pressure we felt, the glance was anxiety we had, and the tree was our covenant. It wasn’t magical, but we finally felt meaning: we were preparing to make ‘me’ and ‘them’ into an ‘us’ we hoped would bring life to those around us.
3: Laugh more.
Fear makes serious people. Engagement wasn’t the only reason, but the entire season was among the most serious I had in recent memory. I like laughing, but you don’t see people laugh when they are trying so hard to get things right.
When we laugh, we are engaging in an unsung spiritual discipline. It doesn’t sound spiritual at first. But when I laugh, I surrender for a small moment. Life is inconsistent, so am I, and that’s OK. When I laugh, I’m open to receiving grace. When Kasey and I got serious, we stopped being open to the possibility that God might be up to brighter things and people might surprise us by their love.
And God was, and people did. As cynical as we got about the excitement question, the honest truth is we weren’t very good at receiving grace from anybody. Most times, you will only be as intimate as you are vulnerable and you will only get as much help as you’re willing to ask for. Laughter is like a preservative for people like me who obsess over getting it right.
When we laugh, we get a little better at embracing life’s in-between spaces. When we laugh, we are freed to love the screwy imperfections of our story. And when we laugh, we even glimpse the God who likes writing our screwy stories — engagement included — into God’s own story of restoration.
Just try not to get eloped in the process.