I have vows on my mind.
Today, I spent a bit of time working on a wedding service for a dear friend whose upcoming, COVID-19-altered ceremony I’ll officiate. At the center of the service, of course, are the vows that a couple makes to each other. Like many pastors, I often have elated, freshly-engaged couples ask me if I think they should write their own vows to each other. Whenever this happens, I tell the happy couple that it’s a terrible idea, and I try my best to dissuade them from it.
In an article in The New Yorker last summer, Sean Lavery explored this phenomenon. “We all know the terms of the traditional wedding vow: about sickness and health, richer and poorer, till death do us part. This might be a fair enough expression of love and devotion, but the world has changed since its first invocation.” On this side of the sexual revolution and the turn of the century, Lavery observes, “many of the couples taking a trip down the aisle now abandon the traditional pablum and write their own vows.”
Why is this? Lavery evokes the allure of the customized vow: “A contemporary handcrafted wedding vow is expected to be many things at once. It is tailored for an audience of one but performed in front of every living person you care about. It must consolidate, neatly, all of the elements that ignited the relationship in its early, fevered days yet carefully forecast the utterly unknowable future… As with all things, authenticity is paramount, and it is important to keep in mind not to promise too much. And, anyway, perhaps ‘forever’ is an unrealistic goal.”
These are the assumptions of many of the couples I’ve served over the years. And yet, Christian vows don’t really care much about most of what the modern customized wedding vow does. They’re not mostly about how the groom or bride feels about their spouse-to-be on their big day. They’re not concerned with the ardor that “ignited the relationship.” They’re uninterested in present feelings, because they’re mostly a promise of future fidelity. The vows are about, as a friend of mine says, “making an appointment with your future self.”
I have this dynamic on my mind today, because I made some vows myself over the weekend.
This past Sunday was the worship service which marked my installation as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach, Florida.
It was a day jammed full of joy: we celebrated the faithful ministry of the retiring pastor I’m succeeding; my father and several of my dear friends and colleagues preached and prayed; there was beautiful music, bread and wine, goodness and grace.
But mingled in with the joy there was some fear and trembling inside me, too. My kids jokingly called Sunday’s worship my “interrogation service,” and in one way, they weren’t wrong. Along with the joy and the singing and celebrating, there was also the gravity of promises made between me, this community, and almighty God:
“Relying on the Holy Spirit, do you humbly submit to God’s call on your life, committing yourself to God’s mission, and fulfilling your ministry in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture and guided by our confessions?”
“Do you promise to be faithful in maintaining the truth of the Gospel and the peace, unity, and purity of the Church?”
“Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”
“Will you be a faithful minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by proclaiming the good news, teaching the faith, showing the people God’s mission, and caring for the people?”
There’s a part of me, while being asked these questions, that thought, “Can I really do this stuff?!”
And the honest answer is: of course I can’t.
Reformed Christians are especially attentive to the reality of human weakness and infidelity portrayed so vividly in Scripture. Human beings are bad at keeping their promises to God and each other. And, I’m in touch enough with my own weaknesses, blind spots, and shortcomings these days to know that this is true of me, too.
This is why I love that, in the promises made at weddings as well as ordinations and installations in the Reformed tradition in which I was ordained, when someone is asked to make a promise, they respond, “I will, and I ask God to help me.”
I will, and I ask God to help me.
I promise to be a faithful minister, and I know I have no chance of being one. But, I do have a faithful God.
I promise to preach, and teach, and lead. And I know I don’t actually have what it takes to do those things. But, I also know I’ve been claimed by Jesus, the Prophet, Priest, and King- I have the One who it takes.
And so, it was sobering, but also profoundly freeing, to answer each of those questions, one by one: “I will — and, I ask God to help me.”
In a time when many of us feel keenly our inability to live out our vocations — whether received in baptism, marriage, or ordination- as we’d desire, perhaps this is a moment to lean into our weakness, our limitations and vulnerability. And to taste there the grace of the faithful, promise-keeping God, to listen to the call of Christ, and to respond, “I will — and, I ask God to help me.”
First, congratulations. Second, I so absolutely agree with you about the marriage vows. Third, you had me on the installation vows. What a privilege to say them, and what a challenge to our consciences. But God did help me.
Congratulations, Jared, on your installation to the First Presbyterian Church of Palm Beach, an honor, indeed, especially as you start out on this new pathway. I wish you the best.
It’s hard for me to understand why you have an aversion to self made vows. After all, the vows made up by churches are made up by someone, whether they are the vows of a Baptist, Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Pentecostal or whatever church. They are not holy because they are sanctioned by a church. Vows made by the couple generally express the love and commitment that a couple have for each other, and if it’s a Christian wedding most often express a mutual commitment between the couple and God. In that the vows are personal, they express the couple’s own feelings of love, fidelity, and commitment. They have been thought through by the couple and not just vows imposed on them by a church that many couples give little thought to at the time of the wedding service. In that some church formed wedding vows can often be meaningful, in part or in whole, that doesn’t mean that customized vows by the couple aren’t just as meaningful or even more so, because they come from the heart. And after all, the wedding is the couple’s own expression of love and commitment to each other. In contrast, using the church formulated vows is often the easy way to get through the formality of a wedding. So rather than being a “terrible idea,” self made vows sound like a great idea.
Thanks for your kind words of congratulation!
And, to clarify, what I wrote was in part a bit of hyperbole for the sake of humor. I’ve never literally sat across a table from an engaged couple and told them that writing their own vows was “a terrible idea.” In pastoral counseling, I do recommend people use one of the standard variations of Christian wedding vows rather than simply trying to conjure up their own, or, if they do really want to write their own, to try to express in their own words more or less what the “standard” vows say. My reason for that is that, shaped by the “myth of the sovereign self,” (to borrow a little Charles Taylor) that’s so pervasive in the post-secular West, left to themselves, it’s my experience that most people will tend on their own to mainly write “here’s how I feel about you right now,” when, as I indicated above, that’s not actually what Christian wedding vows are for. They’re for committing one’s future in a covenant, not simply sharing one’s feelings in the present. Hope that’s helpful!
Thanks, Jared. I confess my wife and I wrote our own vows. And I have allowed couples whose weddings I officiated to do so as well but I always make one major proviso: they have to promise something. The vows have to include actual vows and not just romantic hyperbole or gushy sentiment and in particular they have to promise faithfulness. I think all the couples who I married managed to do this. But not promising anything significant is the big danger here and why it could be a terrible idea!
I just liked your candid way of saying it, “terrible idea.” Interesting how several readers have reacted…..I’ll not comment too much and avoid risking saying all too much, but…………
Love to just read the vows you made at your new charge. Did you make them or were they the traditional? Could serve as a regular re-read for pastors dealing with people in the midst of the present limitations imposed on them.