“I used to say ‘no promises; let’s keep it simple,’ but freedom only helps you say good-bye...” —The Carpenters
In the TV series “Lonesome Dove” (1988) Captain Woodrow McCall agrees to the deathbed wish of his friend Gus McCrae to bury his body in Texas. En route from Montana to Texas he’s often confronted by the curious who ask why he has taken on this arduous task. On one occasion, the Captain, being a man of few words, simply looks at his questioner and drawls, “I gave him my word.”
A long pause follows as the two men’s eyes examine one another. Then the stranger says, “I can see that you did.” The Captain merely nods and turns away.
There was power in that moment for it captured the character of the man. His beliefs, his words and his actions were one. “I gave him my word.” For Woodrow McCall that’s all that was needed!
In that regard I can’t help but think of our marriage vows for there we must be true to our word. The marriage vow is not a contract that can be readily cancelled by paying a few bills; it is a special promise to love, honor and cherish, “as long as we both shall live.”
The words, “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health,” take into account the possibility that keeping that promise may be difficult and that circumstances and our spouses’ needs may change over time. While there are valid biblical reasons for separation or divorce, mere difficulty in and of itself is not a reason to forsake our vows. Integrity means keeping our word, though keeping it may entail suffering and loss.
I’ve conducted hundreds of wedding ceremonies in my time and it always seems to me that the most meaningful moment comes when the bride and groom exchange rings. The ring declares to the giver, the wearer, and the community that a binding covenant has been made. The ring, being endless until broken by an outside force, speaks of endless commitment to love, honor and cherish one another, “as long as we both shall live.”
“While a normal promise indicates a determination to try, acknowledging the possibility of failure, a marriage commitment before God is a liberation from the possibility of other futures, a choice about how to spend a life that admits no second thoughts” (from a Louis Smedes’ sermon, “The Power of Promises”).
Or, as a friend of mine once put it, “My marriage vows are the vows that keep me when I don’t feel like keeping my vows.”