When the Wine Runs Out: Marriage in a Special Needs Family
Posted on April 20, 2018
Our family prayer corner is filled with gilded handwritten icons that catch the eye, but today I want to talk about a small icon that hangs in the living room near our dining/library table. Its blue background settles in with the deep teal-blue of our walls, and you might miss it if you don’t know it’s there. It’s a holy icon of The Wedding at Cana.
Most Christians are familiar with the story depicted. Jesus and his mother are at a wedding when the wine runs out. His mother tells the servants to do whatever they ask. He tells them to fill up 6 big stone water jars and draw some out for the steward of the feast. When they do, it’s not just wine, but the best wine ever. The steward gives the groom a talking-to about how you’re supposed to serve the good wine first before everyone gets drunk. This miracle is the first one in Jesus’ public ministry.
This is not a post about drinking wine. I’m fed up with the wine advertisements masquerading as life advice that come at mothers in a steady stream. Alcoholism is promoted as a social skill these days, if the ubiquitous sad jokes about mothers needing to drink lots of wine each day are to be taken at face value. But getting drunk is not the stuff of human love or flourishing or a basis for sturdy marriages.
This post is about being completely tapped out.
When you have a family with special needs, all the reserves you thought would be plenty are exhausted just when the party gets going. Your time, money, social energy, space, and focus are emptied out. You empty them out on purpose, and you empty yourself out on purpose, for your kids and your family. But that leaves you reaching for the shared cup of celebration without anything to fill it.
Marriages work when we choose each other and attend to each other daily, and they also work when we have presence, focus, energy, time, and space to show that love. When those things run out, what then?
Then we need Jesus to come and give us the good wine.
This is not a post giving you a to-do list that’s impossible to meet. You don’t need weekly date nights you can’t afford (and who can you trust to keep your kids from running away?) or weekends away that would spiral your kids into a month of dysfunction, or a cleaning service, or more money to magically appear. Those things are all nice, but some of them are out of reach or out of your control. What’s in your control is the realization that you are out of wine and the request for help from Jesus.
When I am empty of my carefully prepared emotional regulation, my reserves of quiet and patience, my desire to have someone near my face, my ability to make and communicate a decision, my desire to speak, my ability to talk without being pedantic –my skills, in short–, it is THEN that God can bring the good wine. That’s when the unconditional love for one another, the humble presence with each other, can truly shine.
His strength is made perfect in weakness. ~2 Corinthians 12:9
We might already be drunk on the joys and weariness of child-rearing and managing ourselves, but the good wine comes to give us a sober and clear mind and unblurred vision. It comes to make our hearts – the noetic centers – merry. Marriage is not best known in the conditions that we often think we’re meeting when we enter it. It’s best known when we go together to God with empty cups and open hands and ask God to give us joy with one another in the gift of unconditional love.
We’re often taught in shows and magazines to see marriage as transactional, and our broader culture makes the case for that view of marriage. It’s easy to watch expensive weddings and divorces and to think that it’s often based on meeting or failing to meet expectations.
But the Church teaches a different way, where humans are bound not by the desire for use of the other, but by desire for the fruitful and God-bearing humility that comes in sharing life with each other. Marriage is bearing witness. Marriage in the Church makes the bold and counter-cultural claim that two persons can love unconditionally, that mercy will triumph over judgment in this household, that a man and a woman will lay aside their desire to have power in order to empty themselves so that they may know God together.
So what does all of this mean in the trenches? Why is the Wedding at Cana encouraging when I haven’t slept more than 4 hours for weeks, or when no one likes the food we put on the table, or when the grownups are so tired of hearing whining that they’re biting their tongues not to holler? How can it bridge the gap between a husband and wife when neither of them got to their chores that day, and the little one finally ended his meltdown at 1am?
If you will look at him or her and say, “The wine has run out,” it’s as though you’re saying, “I am not blaming you for your weakness, and I hope you will forgive mine, too.” They will look at you and hold your hand in front of the icons, and you will turn your weary faces and embarrassed eyes toward the Lord. Together, you will tell Him that you’ve run out of wine. You didn’t get your child’s attention that day, or you were injured by playing with them. You don’t know if this one will learn to spell, and you hope that one will eat something besides pretzels. You wish you could lay your head on your husband’s chest and rest in quiet, but the kids will be up in 5 hours. He wishes he could take the burden from you, but his burdens are also overwhelming him. You empty yourselves there in the silence or the soft-spoken prayer or the music until you have offered every empty jar to the Lord.
Then comes the good wine.