My fiancée and I were living in Europe when we got engaged. All our friends were getting married, and it seemed like the thing to do. In fact, it was sort of a mania. We were working for a parachurch organization called Continental Teen Challenge. There were a lot of weird theological traumas and dramas going on at the time, and try though we may, avoiding being swept up in this or that "new truth" was difficult.
The prosperity doctrine was sweeping Europe, as it had already more or less peaked in the States. "Name it and claim it" was the order of the day. In a nutshell, the concept was simple: God blesses his children with material things to prove his love and their faithfulness. Poverty is for suckers and those lacking in faith. If one wants to drive a Cadillac (note the American bias) – or in Europe, a Mercedes – one need only to ask the heavenly father to provide it, and he will.
"We're King's kids!" exclaimed a Swiss friend of mine who had fallen hook, line, and sinker for the new "truth" du jour. "We deserve the best!" he explained as he turned his beat-up, aging Peugeot into the hardware store in Friedberg, where we had come to get some shelf fasteners. "The Bible says that God will not deny any good thing to those who love him!"
Along with the claiming of riches to which all Christians are entitled, came the next logical step – claiming perfect health! That winter was particularly miserable and cold in Frankfurt, and germs were everywhere (I guess that is why they call it Germany). Anyway, catching a cold was considered a sure sign that one was not really up to snuff in his prayer life, since "God does not want us to be sick." Everyone got the flu at some point, and I was no exception. I wasn't really buying the line that getting sick was the equivalent of falling out of God's favor ... so I just stayed home and got over it.
The "name it and claim it" doctrine was playing it's course out at the Teen Challenge Training Center, where we had hired a wild-eyed, Southern‑fried preacher from Georgia to teach basic Christian truths and personal evangelism to would‑be Teen Challenge workers from all over Europe. He had made a name for himself the previous year by carrying a wooden cross all over Europe, preaching in lousy German in parks and on street corners in places like Frankfurt, Munich, and Berlin.
Heavily invested in American religious trends and movements that come and go, he was convinced that one sure sign that one was out of touch with the true will of God regarding our health was eyesight. "Why would God create you with bad eyesight?" he roared! "If you truly believe God made you whole and perfect, throw down those glasses and trust God for your healing! Do it right now!" They did. I still get a chuckle when I recall seeing all those glasses piled on the altar in the chapel at the Center. A Danish friend of ours in the program had complied "on faith," and then nearly killed herself and some innocent bystanders near the Frankfurt airport one night due to bad visibility. I'll say!
What a spectacle! But the doctrine that really took the cake that year was the "perfect marriage" concept. It goes something like this... God has a perfect mate for you; and every man should simply pray for divine direction, then simply ask whomever he felt "called" to for her hand, without hemming and hawing around about it. The woman should pray that God will "send" her the right man; when he asked for her hand, she would know that it was God's plan. The number of weddings announced shortly thereafter was legendary.
Though not swept up in the tide of engagements myself, I had long before realized that I had to get married if my career was going anywhere in the Church. Unlike my Catholic acquaintances in the clergy who were supposed to remain celibate and single, Protestants were expected to marry and procreate in order to show their devotion to God, and to portray the perfect Christian family to the outside world.
I was twenty-three at the time and I was beginning to feel the pressure to get hitched. The notion was rather painful, as I felt coerced by circumstances. Had I been Catholic, I would have been able to simply go into the priesthood and abstain from women. It would have been a relief. However, there are myriad reasons why single male missionaries are not only frowned upon in most Protestant denominations – in many, it is forbidden. At the time I wasn't sure if that had anything to do with homosexuality, but it was always couched as: How can a single man counsel women in a spiritual environment without being tempted by the lusts of the flesh?
I did pray about it a lot, along with a heavy dose of "God, please make my health perfect. I claim my right as a King's kid to what I truly deserve … heterosexuality!"
Well, I assumed that would be one of those prayers God would answer in his own time. Meanwhile, I was finished with my ministerial studies, and wanted to apply to my denomination for ministerial credentials. I dreaded explaining why I was not married or even engaged. So, I made a logical, practical, and – in the end – quite positive choice, and asked my best friend to marry me. We had been a sort of Will and Grace, and although everybody was totally caught off-guard when we announced our engagement, it was greeted with great fanfare both at the Training Center and the big Pentecostal church in Frankfurt.
We had no plans for the wedding whatsoever, as everybody was getting married in elaborate, expensive ceremonies that we attended regularly. Of course, since all our friends were either getting married in Europe, or going back to the States to much folderol, we decided to return to the States in December, as our cheap airline tickets were nearing expiration. Our intention was to return to Europe in the Spring, and put together the big fat Christian wedding then.
My fiancée's family was still living in the little East Los Angeles enclave of El Sereno where she had grown up. They were still attending the same little Assembly of God church that they had always known, and the pastor hadn't changed in over thirty years. It was quaint, traditional, and charming. One thing had changed, however – the congregation. From a collection of nice, kind, pleasant white Christians, it had become a collection of nice, kind, pleasant brown Christians. In fact, the Taylors were the only remaining elderly white couple in the almost completely Hispanic congregation. Although they stood out a bit, no one seemed to notice. We all had a grand time.
Beth's parents were delighted about the upcoming nuptials, but were crushed that we were planning to go back to Europe to do the big fat wedding there. We both felt bad, but they understood that in many ways they were a little out of step with the times. We spent our time itinerating (That is a euphemism for fundraising.). Meanwhile, letters and photos of massive weddings and receptions were pouring in from all over Europe and the States. Everyone was so happy happy happy. We were happy for them. But we were both starting to get a funny feeling. Having been living on a shoestring for a couple of years already, planning an elaborate wedding and then getting set up as a married couple in a very expensive Europe just seemed like kind of bad stewardship – to use religious parlance.
So, like all good Christians, we prayed about it and decided to throw together the most inexpensive, practical, spur-of-the-moment, little wedding that the law would allow. Beth rented a wedding dress from a local shop, and volunteered her best friend from High School to be the maid of honor. I recruited an old Army friend from Viet Nam days who was attending a local seminary to be best man. That Sunday morning the pastor announced: "God has spoken to Tom and Beth about their wedding, and has told them to get married right here in Calvary Chapel! Hallelujah!" It was like Jesus himself had made the announcement personally. Everybody went wild.
"We are going to have the wedding next Sunday afternoon, after the morning service; so you can all just bring a hot dish for the reception, and you don't even have to go to lunch or change your clothes... Come on out and we will have a wedding celebration and feast just like in Cana!" (Minus the wine, to be sure.)
The wedding went off without a hitch. What was there to rehearse? The regular Sunday service ended in the conventional way with the doxology, a prayer or two, and the benediction, whereupon the organist pulled out all the stops and began pounding out the wedding march on the electric Wurlitzer; and we were off. A few minutes later we were married. Beth and I retired to somewhere behind the curtained baptismal and changed into our traveling clothes, which we had organized in advance.
The congregation made its way into the large room in the back of the church. They had opened the sliding plastic doors to reveal a sumptuous feast of enchiladas, frijoles, tacos, and fixings of every kind – salsa of every variety, and menudo. It was better than Cana! Someone had even thought of a cake! We stayed and soshed a while, then hit the road for San Diego, where I was preaching later that night. We couldn't have planned it better.
We heard later that the whole affair was such a hit that everybody waddled back from the fiesta, started singing choruses, and carried on praising God; and the pastor took to preaching; and they just had a whole 'nother service right then and there!