“The person who is slowest in making a promise is most faithful in its performance.” ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau~
Dear Member and Friends,
The New Year is a time for making promises…mostly to ourselves. And everybody knows that a promise to yourself is the hardest kind to keep. A promise almost always needs a witness—or even a cloud of witnesses—to hold us to it. Back in seminary, just before Michelle and I got married, I took a class called “pastoral arts,” which was supposed to teach us little tricks of the trade, like how to baptize a baby without making him or her cry. The professor was Craig Barnes, former pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in the city, and now president of Princeton Seminary. As the academic year drew to a close, we were given several choices for a final exam. We had to write an entire ceremony from scratch. It could be a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Since I was getting married at the end of the month, I chose to write a wedding ceremony for us to use on the big day. I worked hard at that ceremony, chopping up pieces of Scriptural books and putting them into the text. I tried to use excerpts from the Song of Solomon, but both Michelle and I found it embarrassingly lovey. Of course, all weddings contain little fragments of First John (“God is love…”) and First Corinthians 13 (“The greatest of these is love…”). I tried to be original. I tried to use fresh, creative language. But I must admit that I cringe whenever I look back at that old wedding bulletin, which my sister-in-law preserved forever in a scrapbook. Dr. Barnes gave me an A- on the project. He said he didn’t have the heart to give me a B on my own wedding.
Having been married well over a decade, I see now that the worst part of my homemade ceremony was the vows. I’d been single all my life. I didn’t even fully understand what we were promising each other. It would have been far better if I’d relied on the ancient wisdom of the church and used the traditional vows. Their words are more poetic and far more meaningful than the ones I wrote. And now, as a minister, I never allow couples to write their own vows. (Call that hypocrisy, or call it learning from my own mistakes. ) They can write declarations of love and devotion that precede the vows, but those things cannot replace the vows. I insist that couples use the vows, word-for-word, as they’re written in my little blue book. It’s a promise far too sacred to be trifled with. It’s a promise so serious that it must be attended by at least a single witness—and preferably more.
Think of all the times you’ve given your solemn word! Oaths, vows, pledges of allegiance, promises to loved ones. There have been wedding vows, for many of us, and baptismal vows, whether as the parents or as members of the congregation. There have been ordination vows to the office of elder or deacon. Some have taken oaths of office, or courtroom, or profession. In fact, if you’re a member of Bower Hill Church, then you’ve made a public promise to follow as best you can in the way of Christ and to participate faithfully in the life of our congregation.
All the living world depends upon the making and the keeping of promises. We make our promises, but then our promises turn around and make us. They define us and clear a path through the chaos of this world for us. As 2015 dawns, instead of taking on yet more New Year’s resolutions, might we renew our commitment to the many promises we’ve made years ago? Promises to God, to each other, to ourselves! The biblical term for this is “keeping covenant,” and it’s a beautiful thing.
In Christ’s Peace, ~Brian