I have one of those childhood memories that may or may not be true, about something that occurred (if it actually did) at a wedding my family attended when I was six or seven. The ceremony took place in a park. All I remember was that when  it ended, everyone let go of purple balloons at once. Watching those translucent globes float away was magical. The chance to create a moment like that seemed the real reason why people had weddings. That love stuff—well, I didn’t understand it then.
I don’t profess to understand that love stuff much better now. Nor am I an expert on weddings. An unexpected pleasure of accumulating years on the planet, though, is how many things you do that you’d never really envisioned yourself doing. Turns out becoming a Universal Life minister is one of my odd little unanticipated roles.
Every story like this probably has a distinct beginning. My call to the cloth was sounded at the dining room table during a conversation with my friend, Evan, who was visiting from San Francisco with his family. After seeing us, he was off to a wedding, where he was going to officiate. “I’ve done ten weddings,” he said.
Evan became a Universal Life minister when one of his best friends was getting married. “The bride’s other close friend was a woman, so she was going to be the maid of honor, and I wondered aloud what I’d be, so my friend told me to pick something. I said, ‘I guess I can marry you.’ So I did,” he recalled. Now, Evan’s a great guy, funny, smart, quiet, thoughtful, but not in an unapproachable way. I blurted out something to the effect that I’d be great at that. I didn’t give it a lot more thought, but I must have mentioned the conversation to my stepsister, not yet engaged (but determined to be), and she assured me that when she and Tom got married in my back yard (she’s a planner), it would be good if I would serve as their minister (cum host, and it turned out, cum wedding planner).
Click-click-click: that’s about how easy it is to become a Universal Life minister. On the one hand, this whimsical act sounds overly breezy, but I think its accessibility is A-OK. I mean, you can go to Vegas and be married by an Elvis impersonator. Isn’t having a friend or family member marry you a step up? If formal religion isn’t of major import to you, then selecting a person to marry you is often about finding someone you are comfortable with to perform this duty (or about its being the last minute and your needing someone—anyone qualified—to do this for you). Given that in all but two states, same-sex couples can’t even marry (for no good reason), a little arbitrariness also seems fitting.
Emily indeed got engaged. My marrying her came up during our first post-engagement conversation. I had some long to-do lists, everything from find hotel rooms and rent tents to get ordained. As I said, signing on to the ministry took about three minutes. Writing the ceremony—which was according to Emily and mostly Tom’s wishes to be short, nonreligious, and without poetry—took a lot longer. As a first-time minister (and big sister and, heck, writer), I aspired to be a little bit wise but humorous, and given all the boring wedding ceremonies any of us has ever attended, I was determined for this to be an interesting, memorable and not boring ceremony. For the record, that’s easier said than done. Before I really turned my attentions to writing this special (but not sacred) text, before I even thought much about what marriage means or the nature of love or any of the big-ticket wedding day questions, I began to see that my role—as a minister or sister or host, commingled as these duties were—included some pretty critical hand-holding.
Tom, you see, is an introvert of the sort that he didn’t talk much the first times we met, of the sort that he’d sooner do something dreaded (I’ll pick go to the dentist) than have people make toasts about him at his wedding reception. Emily is, let’s say, the polar opposite of Tom in this regard; the prospect of a full weekend spent being toasted with the epic windedness of a filibuster on the Senate floor left her giddy. I began to see that my job was to ensure they reached a shared vision for the wedding weekend that they both could anticipate with pleasure, and, obviously, that they’d enjoy experiencing. This was a process that had to unfold and sometimes untangle. It was also a huge gift for me, because through it I got to know Tom better and I got to see how my sister and imminent brother-in-law learned both to speak up for themselves (well, Tom especially learned that) and listen to each other better (Emily did more learning about that).
Emily’s therapist articulated the goal in a single sentence: Emily needed to be sure that Tom would have fun at his own wedding. I rephrased it slightly: This should be the best wedding you ever go to. Emily and Tom did some great negotiating about all sorts of matters: short ceremony, limited toasts (three), no tired, lukewarm food on the brunch buffet (quiche was the compromise), and no wedding cake (ice cream sundae bar—the hit item of the meal).
That wedding came off beautifully. For the ceremony, I ended up writing about the growth process that Emily and Tom embarked upon to reach their wedding day, how, in essence, they reached out to one another to form a new kind of bridge, one that built upon both their strengths and challenges. I was humorous, but never at their expense.
Wedding planning, even all those silly details, actually functions in the service of marital preparation. I’ve officiated at three weddings since, and I’ve observed that this is always the case; planning whatever ceremony, whatever celebration—large or tiny—is an important rite of passage for the betrothed. How could this be, I wondered many times when agonizing over details for Emily and Tom’s wedding, because by the time I’d taken on my new role in this field (my former experience included bridesmaid, maid of honor and bride) I had three children and the idea of spending so much energy on one day (one weekend, even) seemed an odd mixture of frivolity and indulgence that I could not begin—after years of thinking of time out for a shower as indulgence—to fathom. Of course, I spent six months planning Emily and Tom’s wedding, sometimes confirming hotel rooms from soccer field sidelines. But the critical growth came from ensuring that Emily and Tom wrangle over details, not for the sake of an exercise but because their communication improved and they did a better job of ordering their priorities together.
My friends Kate and Bill likewise grew closer over issues as diverse as chairs and vows. And I waited while another couple, this time one I’d never met before, cut and pasted poems into the order they finally deemed perfect for their ceremony at a local bed and breakfast. Only her parents and ten year-old daughter attended, yet they so lovingly included the child in the formation of their family that a couple of months later I could articulate to my friend Michael how special a moment this would be for Emily, his stepdaughter-to-be, when he and Jennifer essentially eloped at home in the presence of their baby daughter, Arella, Jennifer’s seven year-old Emily, two of my kids, one other friend, and me.
Celebrations, rites of passage—these are moments that matter in our lives, not because a fairy tale or a church or even the government says they matter. They are opportunities to define such big things as love or maturation. They are opportunities to encircle the ones we love—a very few or very many—in our arms and share with them how grateful we are to go through life together by witnessing our milestones and all the hope and love that accompany these life steps. For me, being a minister serves as its own opportunity to appreciate this truth about how we march through life. I get to savor this, and I hope, help others do so.