Tuesday, July 31 The Man with Experience

Praying fervently for strength to get me through the rehearsal, I headed toward the church building, less than two hundred yards away. Entering the church, I encountered the wedding director, with whom I had carefully planned both this rehearsal and the wedding. I was very aware of how much could “go wrong” even at a rehearsal, having experienced last-minute changes in the program by the bride and groom, objections to details by family members, and interference from the wedding director.

This time, I was taking no chances. At my request, we had talked by Skype more than a month before. During that hour-long conversation, we had gone over all aspects of the rehearsal and the ceremony itself. I found her to be very agreeable, charming in every way, and fluent in English. It turns out that she had earned a Master’s degree in event planning at Columbia University. She was both warm and professional.

As we waited for the wedding party to arrive, we reviewed the plans we had made. One matter received special attention.  Traditional American weddings have the bride and groom leave the church at the end of the ceremony and then proceed either to the reception or to another place for pictures to be taken while guests enjoy refreshments.

Yangyou had spent the previous year in Glasgow, however, and had attended a couple of British weddings. She had also seen several movies, in which the couple are greeted by happy well-wishers as they walk out the door under a shower of flower petals. She really wanted that to happen at her wedding. But she also wanted to exit the church on David’s arm after I pronounced them “man and wife.”

After a long discussion of various options, the wedding director and I had worked this out over Skype. I was pretty pleased with my solution: The couple would walk down the aisle and out the door quickly, then come back around into the church through a side door. The wedding director had already been to the venue and thought this would be no problem. When we looked at the building, we found that she was right.

I had wanted to talk with the musicians during the rehearsal, but they wouldn’t be coming until the day of the wedding, so that wasn’t possible. Yangyou and David and I figured out a way around this: We would play a recording of the processional and a couple of other pieces during the rehearsal, and she would talk with the instrumentalists separately. The soloist was present for the rehearsal, so we were able to make sure that she knew when to sing and where to be.

When the wedding parents, including parents and other relatives, gathered in the front of the church, therefore, I was prepared for them.

After welcoming everyone, I told them that we would begin with having everyone line up at the front just as they would be at the end of the processional. Then we would go through the ceremony, have them exit, and then practice the processional. I didn’t invent this effective rehearsal plan, but got it from my brother Peter, with whom I had served as a pastoral intern while I was in seminary. I had seen him follow it during our own wedding, and again when he performed the ceremony for our daughter Sarah, and I had followed this procedure several dozen times since I was ordained as a minister in 1969.

This time, however, I knew that most of the wedding party were not familiar with traditional Western-style Christian wedding ceremonies, so I did all I could to explain each part of the ceremony. I showed the men how to stand (hands down, not held in front of them like security guards!), how to walk the bridesmaids down the aisle, and how to greet and lead them out at the end of the service.

In my instructions, I tried to leave out nothing. I demonstrated how they were to turn slowly in unison as the bride came down the aisle, so that they were always facing her, and how to turn towards me during the service. Sabrina, the maid of honor, hadn’t served in that role before, so I guided her movements with my hands on her shoulders, physically rotating her. Likewise, I coached her in how to straighten out Yangyou’s train when she came to the altar rail at the end of the procession, when she and David made their way to the pulpit to sign the wedding register and then back again, and when they began the recessional.

For her part, Yangyou, who had, she said, been thinking about her wedding since she was a girl, had also drawn up plans for the perfect wedding. The program was beautiful – a work of art, really – and reflected many hours of thought and discussion with David. Working with the two of them had been an immense pleasure for me. I liked all their choices, including the music. The Chinese liturgy came from David’s father who, as an elder in his church in China, has performed dozens of weddings. I had translated it into English, which wasn’t hard since it  mostly reflected traditional Western wedding ceremonies. For me to be able to cooperate with him in this way brought a great deal of joy. I knew, also, that at least David’s family would be happy with the structure and wording of what we would all say and do.

Like my brother Peter, I sought to keep a balance between preparing for a solemn event and enjoying the occasion as young people. When we came to “Will you, David, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife,” etc., and he says, “I will,” I added “If you still want to.”  Where I was to say, “You may kiss the bride,” I said, “Yesterday, as Dori and I got into the very small elevator in our hotel, I said, ‘We have to stop meeting like this!’ and kissed her. But don’t tell the French: they would be scandalized!”

Nothing could be farther from the truth about the French, of course, for they are famously romantic, and the wedding director laughed, as I had hoped she would.”

Nor did I pass up this rare opportunity to communicate the deeper meaning of marriage. At several points, I tried to speak of the love of Christ for his church. I planned to do the same in the actual ceremony, but I knew that hardly any of them would be paying any attention at that time.

By the time we had rehearsed every minute detail, I felt that we are all ready for what was sure to be a glorious wedding ceremony.

Frankly, I was pleased with myself. My brother’s tutelage and my own decades of experience had paid off in what I thought was one of the best wedding rehearsals I had ever conducted.

I was convinced that when long-awaited and meticulously planned day came, nothing could go wrong.


Tuesday night,  July 31

Dori and I were looking forward to the rehearsal dinner, which was to be held in the pavilion of the chateau de Valery, built in 1548. Though much of the original structure has been demolished, the pavilion was renovated in the 20th century and features a large upper room suitable for banquets and other events.

When we entered, we saw about ten large round tables with white tablecloths and full place settings. The other thing we noticed was the heat. It was high summer in Burgundy, and we were in the midst of a major heat wave. Our rooms were warm enough to make us uncomfortable, but this second-story dining room was even hotter.

We decided to sit at one of the tables close to the tall open windows. Which table should we choose? We were hoping to sit with our Chinese friends, but didn’t dare to select a place too close to the front of the room, where the wedding party and family would be, so Dori picked the one farthest away, but still next to a window. We had arrived early. That meant that we couldn’t control who would sit with us.

Soon, an American couple from our former church in Charlottesville came over and asked whether they could join us. We couldn’t refuse them, but I was disappointed that we would have to converse in English all night. They were the only other non-Chinese at the dinner, and they don’t speak Chinese, so it was natural for us to sit together, but I wasn’t happy with this development.

Soon we encountered another challenge. The windows were closed, making the air in the room stifling hot. Dori could barely stand it. I managed to open the window next to our table, as well as the one near the table next to us, and got one of the windows at the end of the room partly open, but the windows on the other side wouldn’t budge. It had been too long since anyone had opened them, I guess.

We were enjoying a little breeze when a Chinese man from the table adjacent to ours suddenly rose from his seat and proceeded to close all the windows I had just opened! We couldn’t believe it, so we asked why he’d done this. Well, one of the ladies at his table is deathly afraid of bees and feared lest bees come in and sting her.

We didn’t see how we could tolerate even a few minutes without some fresh air, much less several hours. I asked one of the French staff from the chateau whether bees could or would fly high enough to enter the dining room, and he said that they almost never did. But how do you persuade someone with a phobia? It was a very delicate situation, made harder by my role as the officiant at the wedding the next day.

After some further discussion, we hit upon a compromise: We would shut the windows closest to us and they would keep theirs closed. Though we perspired profusely throughout the evening, a breeze eventually came to cool us off a bit. After a while, even the Chinese at the other table found the heat to be too much, and opened their wide as wide as it could go. God had answered prayer!

Still, however, I wanted to sit and talk with Chinese, not Americans. Ever since moving to Texas, we have had little opportunity to interact with Chinese people. Furthermore, as I’ve said, some of the guests were former students from our Virginia days. We longed to talk more with them and also to meet their friends. Happily for me, Dori was sitting next to the American wife and I was far enough away that I didn’t have to take part in their conversation, which was very amicable. I did manage to hear that they were staying in a very small room on the top floor of the pavilion with only a tiny window, however. The heat was awful. They didn’t know how they would get any sleep that night. We were grateful for our ground-floor and relatively spacious apartment.

Meanwhile, I cast longing eyes at the other table closest to us, filled with Chinese, including Sabrina and a man from the Chinese Christian Fellowship in Charlottesville. How I yearned to be with them!

Our God often surprises us, doesn’t he? But sometimes we have to wait.

Though our mouths were watering at the sight and smell of the French dinner that was about to be served, we had to wait for our meal.

Yangyou and David had decided to honor their parents with a traditional tea ceremony. The parents sit in chairs while the bridge and groom serve them tea and bow in homage to their elders. It was very beautiful, made all the more so by the knowledge that these two young people really do love their parents and want to honor them.

Finally, we were again seated and the waiters started serving what was going to be one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever enjoyed.

The first surprise happened when Yangyou and David came to our table and asked whether they could sit with us! Of all the Chinese present, they were, of course, the ones we most wanted to be with. God had “saved the best for last,” as he often does. We spent the rest of the evening talking with them – what a blessing!

The next surprise came between dinner and dessert. Without warning, we were told to leave our tables, descend the stairs, and go out to the lawn in front of the pavilion for a group photo. I don’t think anyone but the photographers was happy about this interruption, but we all quickly obeyed, eager to return for dessert.

As it turned out, I walked next to the American wife and her husband. The photographer told us all to sit on the front row with the bride and groom and their parents, as honored foreign guests. As a result, I had a delightful conversation with the American couple. I somehow told her that I’d had a physical breakdown and that this trip to France represented a step of faith and obedience for me. I said that my doctor thought that anxiety and tension had played a large role in my exhaustion, and that perfectionism had worn me out.

In a pattern typical of our Lord’s dealings with his people, I learned that she also suffered from anxiety caused by perfectionism. Her husband heartily agreed. They asked me how I had been dealing with this debilitating trait. Though I was still very much in progress, I was able to share what I had learned so far. The ensuing conversation proved to be helpful to them, as well as to me. It was another little surprise gift from God.

After an amazing dinner, we returned to our rooms, eager to turn in for the night before what we knew would be a very tiring day, including the wedding and the reception.

Though it was late, the heat had not abated much. We wondered whether we would be able to sleep, though we were very grateful that we weren’t on the third floor of the pavilion. We had a couple of small windows, but feared to open them wide because of the bees flying outside.

Our heavenly Father knows what his children need, however. We lay down without much confidence that we would get any rest, but awoke refreshed the next day after a good night’s sleep.

Once again, he had taken care of us.