December 28, 2015

A Persian Wedding

Our much loved nephew asked me to officiate his wedding to a lovely Christian girl- the only believer in a Persian family made up of both practicing and non-practicing Muslims- and including some who have even denounced Islam altogether. Since anyone can perform a wedding in their state, and because I would be going to it anyway, I nervously agreed to take on the honored job.

Their heart was for a fully Christian wedding without compromise, and I was happy to bless them- knowing all too well it came with an inherent challenge whenever you blend two families of differing faiths. I began to ask God for just the right scriptures and words, desiring a way to build bridges between families without any compromise to our mutual Christian faith. They did not want that either and believed it was important to stand for what they believe- but to do it as graciously as possible.

I really prayed hard and felt God directed me to Song of Solomon 2:10-13 where the lovers are thrilled that the winter is past and flowers have returned to blanket the earth. I quietly chewed on these verses for awhile, and one day, I felt led to look up the meaning of her Persian name. It meant “The one who brings the Spring”. This was a confirmation the Old Testament passage was a perfect choice… but it was only the beginning.

How could I possibly perform a wedding ceremony that would build bridges between the Christian and Muslim guests without compromising the fact that we all do not worship the same God?

The bottom line was that I could not. The media, the school system, and the Pope, would have you believe Christians and Muslims worship the same God, but the work of solid Biblical scholars from centuries ago forward -as well as a thorough reading of the Bible itself- reveals something quite the opposite to be true. (Read the book of Acts 4:8-12. Salvation is found in no other name but Jesus Christ.) How the wedding ceremony and reception all played out taught me some very important lessons…  

As the rest of the wedding story also tells, we will have many more opportunities as our own society continues to change. But that's a topic for another time. About half an hour before the ceremony is due to begin, the videographer attaches the microphone to my lapel and asks “What kind of religious ceremony is this?” I explain the situation, and he laughs loudly, exclaiming “This will be fun to watch!”

I immediately get nervous, realizing anew the potential powder keg of the event. I like her father and mother, want to respect them and build bridges for the newlyweds, and I want to do this well. All without compromise. Nerves, nerves, nerves. I stand outside the room waiting for the bride and groom to come downstairs to begin the wedding proceedings.

Inevitably by default, I become a greeter. So I take my unassigned duties pretty seriously, welcoming people, starting small talk, and helping with directions to the ceremony in this posh, extremely high end hotel. A little baby boy comes in on his father's shoulder, so I talk with he and his two relatives about the little guy, and things get a bit easier.  

Standing with the groom, the doors open, and his beautiful bride slowly walks down the aisle on the arm of her father. They come to the front and, I welcome the guests. Explaining that this is not just a civil duty that’s being performed, I remind them that in God’s eyes, the joining of each man and woman is a very holy thing, no less special than the very first marriage in the Garden of Eden. Her father speaks the words of giving his daughter to this man, and I ask them to join me in prayer. I ask for blessing, ending with the words “In Jesus’ Name”- and all is good. 

Then the Persian part of the ceremony begins. As I explain it, the couple sits down on low benches before the table. A shawl is lifted over the them. Mothers and sisters rub sugared loaves together over the bride and groom. They are lightly dusted, symbolizing a sweet blessing over the couple. Afterwards, similar to a cake slicing, the bride and groom dip their finger in honey and feed the other. It’s a very tender moment. While they sit, I begin with Scripture. Sharing the verses, I speak that God is a god of love and that He created marriage and is not embarrassed by romance.

The Sofreh Aghd, a Persian - not Muslim- wedding tradition, as I was boldly told. This beautiful table is spread before the bride and groom at the front of the ceremony, symbolizing the family’s wishes for the marriage.

Admonishing the bride and groom to fulfill their duties wisely and as unto God, I remind them that marriage is also an example of how deeply and sacrificially Jesus loves the people He has created, etc. Vows are said, rings are exchanged,“I Do”s are spoken. The wedding blessing takes place, and I ask God Himself to join them together and that no man would separate them. Jesus is again acknowledged. I joyously pronounce them man and wife. It’s over. Now the fun begins…

What kind of response would I be given at the reception?

Surprisingly warm, it turns out. Honestly, I was quite nervous. Not so much for me but more so for the bride and groom who had to live with the consequences of the clearly Christian ceremony. We are asked to take part in a large both families together photograph. Her brother comes over and throws his arm around my shoulder. The bride’s parents made a point to come over and thank me for such a warm ceremony… as does the bride’s absolutely wonderful brother- who turns out to be a Scientologist! Later I would tell him how much I wanted to honor and respect his parents as well as the wishes of his sister. He smiles and thanks me for doing well. Another hug. I easily hug him back.

The dinner and party begin. We all eat, drink, talk, and take lots of pictures. Mostly Farsi and some English. Steak, salad, potatoes, and saffron rice with vegetables. Candied rose and lavender petals as mints. Home made baklava and delicious nuts from the bridal table. Luscious cake with vanilla cream. Members of her family come by and introduce themselves.

The music is strictly American Standards while we eat, but it’s almost totally ethnic when its time to dance, save Uptown Funk and a Michael Jackson tune. The young bridal party jumps for the chance to dance. The bride’s father comes directly to our table and enthusiastically encourages us all to dance with his family to the Persian songs playing. We get up, and join in. Everyone’s loud, laughing, holding hands while dancing, people hugging each other. After several hours, it’s time to go, so we gather our things and thank our hosts, hug the bride and groom. “Thank you for making the ceremony PERFECT!” they say. We walk out into the lobby as we leave.

I never did find out the meaning behind the Wedding Knife dance.

One woman thanks me for my introduction of the Sofreh Aghd as well, telling me how much it means to her and her family that it was identified as a Persian tradition. “It is NOT Muslim”, she states emphatically. One of the eldest men quietly approaches me and thanks me in broken English, “The service was lovely. Prior to tonight, I did not have much understanding of Christianity - thank you.” One of the bridesmaids approaches us- “ Did you enjoy yourselves? Were you comfortable? I want you to know that 50% of my family really is ok with Jesus and God and everything!” We smile and thank her, both wishing the percentage was higher! 

Was everything said what I wanted to hear? Not entirely, but it was pretty positive overall. Doors to deeper conversation were opened, and I learned and relearned some important lessons, just like I do with much of life:

1- People respond to genuine love and kindness. 
2- A man’s culture and his religion are not the same thing.
3- I have much to learn, and God is still working on me. 
4- Some people are more open to Jesus than you would think.
5- We all have stereotypes to overcome. 
6- God is faithful when we seek Him.


Len said...

Amazing story Mark! I felt like I was actually at the wedding from your descriptions...tasting the food...hearing the music...feeling the warmth of love and kindness. God truly blessed and guided you in your handling of the wedding ceremony. I love your final points most of true and on the mark!

Mark Taft said...

Thank you, Len. I really enjoyed the reception and the hospitality of her family!