Post Author: Emily Elspeth Mitchell
There are a number of things that I like about being single. I like changing into my sweatpants as soon as I get home from work. I like eating spaghetti and not worrying about how inelegantly or noisily I slurp up the noodles. I like having my own bathroom; I’m not grossed out by the hair in the shower in the same way as I would be by the sight of someone else’s hair. I like having complete autonomy over what entertainment to consume. I was on a date once, and after dinner the man asked if I wanted to get coffee and continue to talk. I politely and swiftly declined – I realized that I would rather go home and watch a DVD by myself than have the date continue. It was clarifying to realize that I preferred my own company than his. I watched the DVD and went to bed, enjoying a full night’s rest under the warmth of all the covers. Solitude has its perks.
Nevertheless, when it comes to officiating weddings, I feel very much at the disadvantage. Who am I to counsel couples as they make this serious and binding commitment, one that I have never made? Recently, I did pre-marital counseling with a couple who were planning to get married in my church’s historic chapel. They seemed appreciative of our counseling sessions. I created space for them to reflect, I asked questions, and I closed each session with prayer. I did not try to pretend that I was drawing from vast personal experience in dating and relationships during the counseling sessions.
But, as I considered what to say during my wedding homily, I felt my singleness acutely. I felt like an imposter. I feared my advice would be of little worth. Mercifully, I saw my friend Peter a few days before the wedding. Peter was a Catholic priest for many years and he officiated hundreds of weddings as a single, celibate priest. I asked him what weddings were like for him and what kind of advice I could give to a couple about to be married when I was single myself. He replied, “Emily, you are a sacrament. It is not so much important what you say. They aren’t going to remember much of that. But they will remember that you were there with them, that you loved and gave yourself to them that day. That’s what’s important: the sacramental nature of your presence.”
I was raised as a Presbyterian and my theological upbringing has taught me that there are only two sacraments: baptism and communion. I remain convinced of the priority and beauty of these two symbols. But Peter’s encouragement to think of myself as a sacrament was liberating. I didn’t have to embrace his declaration fully in order to find the thought winsome. A sacrament is a sign of grace. It is something deep and spiritual and inward which takes an outward form. A sacrament has flesh, as it were. God’s grace resides in the simple elements of water, bread, and wine. And God’s grace resides in me.
The groom told me twice during premarital counseling that one of the reasons he was on board with a marriage in a church was because of me: the couple liked that I was young and that I was female. His exposure to Christianity was limited, and who I was as a clergyperson— curious, educated, and amicable (as well as being a female close to their own age)—upended his assumptions about Christianity as a whole.
When I was feeling intimidated about officiating a wedding as a single person, it didn’t register with me that they didn’t seek out someone who had been married for decades, they sought out me. To the question, “Who am I to counsel couples as they make this serious and binding commitment, one that I have never made?” I now have an answer: I am beloved and chosen and valuable to God. I am called to be a pastor. I am a billboard for the unexpected and unearned favor of our Lord and Maker.
The wedding ceremony went brilliantly. I invited playfulness to the day by having everyone go up to the balcony and ring the chapel bells in celebration of the event. After the exchange of rings, I put my hand on top of the couple’s hands, praying for God’s blessing and using physical touch to remind them of God’s presence. I heeded Peter’s insight. I did not focus on giving marriage advice, which would have felt artificial. I spoke with authority of that which I knew firsthand – the love and grace of Jesus.
Although our words carry weight, I am growing in my awareness that our presence as clergywomen can carry just as great a weight, if not more. May we all trust in the sufficiency of God’s grace on display in us, no matter our marital status. We are the beloved of God. The sacramental nature of our presence at times of consequence—like weddings and funerals—is of huge import and is cause for significant freedom and joy.
Emily has been serving as Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Maumee in Northwest Ohio since January 2015. She previously served as a pastoral resident at Bellevue Presbyterian in Washington State. She holds degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Whitman College.
Emily grew up in Seattle; therefore, she recycles, makes her own granola, and enjoys spending time outdoors. She averages reading over 35 books a year.
Image by: cspxbay
Used with permission