A Marriage of Seven Decades
From the Gettysburg PO by Michael L. Cooper-White
Gettysburg Seminary President
At the end of the service, the pastor offered an addendum to Jesus’ long list of parables in Matthew 13 concerning the nature of the Realm and Reign of God: “The Kingdom of God,” Kirk Anderson declared, “is like a couple married for 70 years!” The couple to whom he referred are my parents, Alice and Bennie Cooper, married in Milbank, South Dakota on July 30, 1938.
A GOOGLE search reveals the nature of the times in that year when Time Magazine concluded Adolf Hitler was “man of the year” who most influenced the world for good or evil. War was on the near horizon. That the Great Depression still lingered was evident both societally, with unemployment at 19%, and personally, with my folks “hiring out” together to a local farmer for $450 per year. Their early decades together were ones of perennial hardship. Their stories still abound with recollections of scarcity, back-breaking farm labor on summers’ most sweltering afternoons and winters’ coldest mornings, and periods of prolonged prairie isolation for a teen-age bride and her young husband.
On occasions like the one we celebrated the last weekend in July, it is only natural to pose questions to and seek wisdom from the actors at center stage. “So tell us the secret to staying married for 70 years.” “What were the hardest times? How about the best?” As the years have gone by since we celebrated Mom’s and Dad’s 50th two decades ago, I have noticed each has gradually become a person of fewer words. Often the response to our queries these days is only a smile, a nod, or a sigh. “We just kept on loving each other through thick and thin,” is about the essence of their testimony. Perhaps Alice offered the most profound witness at Emmanuel Church when prayer concerns were invited by the assisting minister: “I want to thank God for our 70 years together,” she said simply, then added, “I have thanked God every morning for this man named Bennie.”
Among the cardinal virtues long espoused by Christians and others are the tandem pair of constancy and fidelity—“staying put, hanging in there, keeping on keeping on”—however you wish to define them. They can, of course, be exercised to a fault and exploited to an unhealthy or even dangerous degree. No one should stay in a relationship that has become abusive or death-dealing. Even a vociferously anti-divorce theologian/professor once said to a group of us seminarians about marriage and divorce, “We promise ‘til death do us part and if it’s killing you, you may need to get out.” Perhaps it is because they recognize a long-lasting marriage is more gift than something merited or even earned by fidelity and constancy, my parents have long been among the most understanding and accepting of others whose relationships end painfully.
In this year’s Summer Institute at the Seminary, Roy Oswald reported on the decades-long research he and others of the Alban Institute have conducted surrounding “long-term pastorates.” “We learned of their value for vital, thriving congregations,” would be a succinct summary of a far more complicated conclusion. Rome was not built in a day. Significant pastoral and leader-follower relationships do not deepen to the point of fostering long-term systemic congregational health and vitality in even a few years, the typical duration of a vast majority of pastorates. “Go and plant your feet with a commitment to constancy,” is the advice of the Alban folks, many bishops, and this seminary president who in one fashion or another tries to include that message in almost every annual commencement address.
I am fully and humbly cognizant of the extraordinary gift my brother and I and our large extended family enjoy in the continuing presence among us of Bennie and Alice (now—following our sister’s death a decade ago—known to us alone as Mom and Dad). Given life expectancies in his era, of course Jesus did not include in his laundry list of “like-the-Kingdom” parables one about a couple married for 70 years. But if he knew back then, what Dave and I and a small minority of other children whose parents reach such milestones in marriage know now, I suspect our Lord might have added Pastor Anderson’s example to his declarations about mustard seeds, yeast, pearls, nets and hidden treasures . . .