When it’s time, it’s time.
by Leonard R. Payton
There was the young man, Todd, a son of the congregation whose roots went back three generations. One Sunday morning in late January, there he was, an infrequent attender sitting towards the back of the church and smiling radiantly through the whole service next to a young woman I had never seen before.
When the service was over, he hustled up to me and said, “Pastor, I want to talk with you about me and Brittany getting married in September.”
I said, “Sure, let’s get together. Can I get you to fill out this information form that will help me get started?”
The form included a line for an address. They shared the same address. Indeed, a few weeks later, I dropped in on them at their home. They had matching Barcaloungers symmetrically placed before a wide screen TV for watching Packers games. I visited them in their home without giving them a clue that I had mentally registered their cohabitation.
Our information form stated that we did weddings for members at St. John’s. Todd was a member; Brittany was not. Brittany would need to go through membership instruction, and Todd would come along with her. The curriculum was straight from the Small Catechism. I did not prescribe the length of instruction, though I think we all presumed that we would finish well before September, in time for the wedding.
About the middle of March, we arrived at the Sixth Commandment:
You shall not commit adultery.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.
I had determined in advance to deal with the cohabitation at this moment. I hasten to add that I have not had smashing pastoral success with this problem, and it continues to grieve me. Nevertheless, we love the sheep, and we continue to try.
Todd had deep roots in the history of this congregation. I knew they mattered to him. He had talked about things his pastor said during junior confirmation instruction. He had talked about his grandfather who had been a butcher and who had prepared legendary churchwide barbecues. All of this history mattered to Todd. He could look through the pictures of confirmation classes going back to 1911 and talk about many people and things that had happened.
The congregation’s history would do the heavy lifting for me. I studied the wedding entries of the congregation’s church register assiduously. It was a very large book with a single word ornately printed on the front: “Kirchenregister.”
I looked at the dates of weddings for several consecutive years from roughly 1918 to 1925. I cross-referenced those dates online with the day of the week the wedding occurred. As it turns out, weddings could happen any day of the week, though Thursday held a slim margin over the other days. I asked my older parishioners about that. They blinked and said self-evidently, “It’s because they were done with the milking.” (If you are mystified, so was I.) I hand wrote the day of the week into the church register: “Tuesday, Friday, Monday, Monday, Thursday, Thursday, Saturday, Thursday, Sunday.” This lasted until the 1950s when a five-day work week made Saturday a convenient day for weddings.
Todd and Brittany came for their appointed meeting. We opened with a brief prayer, then read the Sixth Commandment. I locked eyeballs with them both and said, “OK, then. We have a problem, but I have a solution. Todd, scoot over.” I sat down between them with the church register in front of us and popped the book over to 1918. I showed them the days of the week: “Tuesday, Friday, Monday, Monday, Thursday, Thursday, Saturday, Thursday, Sunday,” etc. Then 1919. Then 1920.
After a minute or so of this, Todd asked, “Pastor, what do you think was going on?” I said, “When it’s time, it’s time. Todd, it’s time. You and Brittany need to get over to county court house, buy your wedding license, come back here and let me marry you. We can still do a big ceremony in September, and it will feel like a wedding.”
Todd looked around me at Brittany, whose face at that moment I will never forget. He said, “What do you think?” I do not remember what she said. She was an understated person, but it was clear that she was happy and more than ready. Todd was happy too, and said, “I’m going to go home and have a beer!” Within a week, they were back with the marriage license in hand.
The Rev. Dr. Leonard R. Payton serves St. John Lutheran Church, Forest Park, Ill.