An Invitation to Make Vows, Imperfectly
This past Sunday I was ordained an elder in my church. Though it’s the first time I’ve mentioned it here, the process of becoming an elder has been a year in the making. I’ve been training and praying about this decision since last September.
I could talk about what led me to this point: how my desire to live more intentionally slow has pushed me to focus my energy more and more away from the internet and toward my local church. I could write about the experience of being “ordained” as a woman after growing up in a tradition that does not ordain women. (That’s my Deeper Story post for next month, btw.)
But the thing I’ve been most affected by, the thing I can’t stop thinking about these past two days following my ordination, is the power and ferocity of the vows I made.
Commitment gets a bad rap in our culture. It stifles us. It closes down our opportunities. And there’s this really hard thing about commitments or promises or (gasp!) vows: They show up first, before the hard work.
First we make vows; then we live into those vows. I keep thinking what a gift that is, that God would ask us to commit before showing us what we’re actually getting ourselves into. Otherwise, how could we ever sign on to a marriage, a child, a career path if we knew the potential pain waiting for us in the fulfilling of those promises?
I woke up Sunday morning trembling, knowing that I would be called to the front of my church. I’d follow the liturgy, promising before God and my congregation that I would lead faithfully, that I really believe what I say I believe.
Do you believe the books of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God?. . . Will you be diligent in your study of Holy Scripture and in your use of the means of grace? Will you pray for God’s people and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?
In the liturgy of the Reformed Church of America, I answered the questions about my belief with simply this: “Yes, truly, with all my heart.” And I answered the questions of my diligence and example with, “I will, and I ask God to help me.”
There was no option for, “I will believe most days.” Or “I’ll try my best to be diligent.” Just like there is not room in marriage vows for love and cherishing “as long as we both are kind.” (Or faithful, or sensitive, or not freaking mean.)
Vows don’t really leave room for our own failure, except for that lovely part: “…and I ask God to help me.” It doesn’t say how loud you ask God to help you, how often you will scream your prayers for that sacred assistance. It doesn’t mention how on the days you beg yourself to believe that the Old and New Testaments are indeed the Word of God, your vows may be the very thing tethering you there to the deep, rich beauty of a mysterious book you don’t always understand. Your vows will force you to reckon with your own doubt.
Just like the marriage vows cannot prepare a bride for the reality of sickness and health: The sweet joy of the days at the beach when you and your spouse laugh with each other and smile over your kids’ heads at the glory of it all. The suffering of not understanding one another, of fearing for the other, of hurting and shaming each other.
Vows are the ultimate of invitations. Because when you stand before the people you are called to serve, when their voices in one accord receive your humble commitments, when the hands are laid on your head and the Holy Spirit shows up to receive those vows that crossed your lips, you join God in the mysterious glory of the adventure ahead, whether or not you’re capable of living up to it. (You’re not). And whether or not it will be easy. (It probably won’t.)
All the greatest decisions of my life have required vows. So let’s do it again. We’re all invited.