Love Ordains


L_CindyI preached a sermon on discovery, dreams, and love. Then I pronounced them man and wife in the lush green grounds of Belle Villa Resort, Thailand, beneath the warm setting sun, before they made their grand surprise exit atop an elephant, whose tail swished against the bride’s flowing train.

I’m not an ordained minister, but I married my friends.

Let me tell you this love story:

When I was working with a non-profit organization in Tianjin, China an American acquaintance from my graduate school years contacted me, inquiring about a job opportunity. I connected her with a job teaching English to college students at TFSU (Tianjin Foreign Studies University). Soon, she arrived in the city of 13 million during the hot humid summer months—a single, young American woman from Iowa, drawn to globe-trotting with a longing for adventure. An account of her first impressions can be found in a series of rapid fire emails in my archive, mostly regarding the distressed state of her apartment.

Tony, the Wai Ban (a Chinese department official responsible for foreign teachers) at TFSU and clearly adept in handling expat demands, responded to my friend with kindness and patience. I admired his solid demeanor and work ethic.

Having only communicated via email up to this point, my friend and I finally met up in person and quickly became reacquainted. As it is often the case, real life conversations reveal dimensions of a story unavailable through professional emails. I listened to her fears of leaving the comforts of American culture and community and choosing to live alone in a foreign country with no language, no friends and an unknown future. I understood then, she hadn’t simply stepped into an apartment in disarray, but had taken a bold leap into a life outside of her comfort zone. I included her into my home and family until it no longer surprised my husband and children when she showed up for dinner at any given night.

We became the best of friends—kindred spirits who shared laughs and secrets, the one you call in moments of crisis. I watched her blossom into a beloved teacher to her college students and thrive in her new life in China. As much as we enjoyed welcoming her into our family, I knew she longed for a relationship to begin building her own family. I began to play matchmaker, pulling and tugging on the strings of single, eligible young men in the expat community, trying to be the master puppeteer of my friend’s love life.

A year quickly flew by and her teaching contract at TFSU was up. She had a one way ticket back to America. Just before she left to return home, an email arrived in my inbox.

“He kissed me! What’s a girl to make of that?” Taking me by delightful surprise, I learn she had developed a crush on none other than her Wai Ban, the dashing Chinese prince who had come to the rescue of a damsel in a shoddy apartment a year ago. Right before embarking on her journey home, she asked him out on a date that ended with that fateful kiss. Soon after, she packed up her belongings and headed back to America.

She spent a summer doing some soul searching about whether to return to China. She called it a “Road to Discovery.” It involved hiking in the woods, silent meditations and conversations with me. Together we peered into the foggy future and tried to decipher if the prospect of True Love held enough sway to draw her back around the world. On paper, there were some red flags: a vast chasm of East and West culture, language, habits and faith lay between them. Having married internationally myself, I knew the path wasn’t the easiest one to take. The happiness of my friend at stake, I felt the burden of responsibility in each word of advice I gave in those tender moments.

“Go back,” I said. You have to give the relationship a chance. She made the decision to bear the many costs associated with a move back to China and took her old job back. The Wai Ban and the English teacher began their undercover relationship with hot pot dates and game nights at my place. The love and tender care he had for my friend was undeniable. I remember the moment I knew they were going to make it. She had pondered aloud to me,

“I really think he can be wonderful to me my whole life.”

Soon after, he proposed. Together, they asked me to officiate their destination wedding in Thailand. The unconventional relationship was to be covenanted in an unconventional setting. I agreed, of course. My only concern was how to make it through without dissolving into tears.

4:59 p.m. on the Big Day and the hour was approaching. The threat of rain retreated, a small rainbow marked the sky. I had chosen a floral dress with a thin delicate sash at the waist, defiant against the norm of male clergy albs as I filled the role. I stopped mentally rehearsing my wedding invocation and immersed my senses in the present air of romance. The affordable flowers in Thailand luxuriously strewn across the entire wedding grounds spoke of the beauty of the union we were about to witness. Besides the small ripple of chuckles elicited by my daughter’s graceless dumping of petals down the aisle, the atmosphere was a quiet, holy, waiting.

The moment came as my beautiful friend, the bride, stood at the start of her path to marital bliss. Adventure awaited her, much like her foray in and out of China. She was ready to take another bold leap. Flashing images of our enduring friendship across time and continents melded with swells of joy at this happy forever after. The processional music brought her step by step to the altar, closing the distance between us; the couple before the minister, a friend in disguise. We awkwardly stuttered exchanges of “You’re making me cry!” and allowed the genuine tears to mark the start of the service. I delivered my sermon encouraging them to continue on the journey of discovery—to savor each other’s character, to celebrate their varied background and to never stop dreaming large. The words rolled off my well-rehearsed tongue, stringed together by the best intentioned hopes from a sister-friend.

There never was a need for an ordained minister to officiate their holy matrimony. The divine seal of approval was stamped with our sacred friendship.

Only love can promise more of it.