Renewal of Vows

Father David Epps's picture

Last week I participated in two meaningful events. The first was a “Renewal of Vows of Holy Matrimony” for seven couples at our church who completed a course designed to strengthen marriages.

On the last evening of the course, the 14 people stood before the altar and, once again, before God and witnesses, made life-long vows to each other. One couple had been married 20 years. Another couple wed just a year ago. The other five couples were somewhere in between. At least three of the couples had not been married in a church ceremony so, for me, it was a great privilege to pronounce upon them a “sacramental blessing” and to see their union blessed by the church.

These men and women, no longer starry-eyed about what marriage is all about, joined hands, looked each other in the eyes, and, with God’s help, vowed to “live together in the covenant of marriage ...” to love, comfort, honor, and keep each other “in sickness and in health” and, “forsaking all others, be faithful” to each other for the rest of their lives.

Some of these couples have already endured great hardships, have tested their relationships to the breaking point, and have gone through many deep valleys together. Some have conquered most of their problems and some undoubtedly have issues yet to be solved. But the intent, the desire, the commitment was, once again, expressed in a solemn, yet joyful, ceremony.

Later in the week, I participated in a service with 41 other clergy in Fairhope, Ala., in which we renewed our vows of ordination to the ministry. As the archbishop pointed out, we weren’t really “renewing” our vows since, in the beginning, we clearly understood our vows, like the vows of marriage, to be for life. He shared that we should, instead, look upon the service as a “celebration” of the vows we had already made. Still, it was a thought-provoking and solemn time.

When I first entered the ministry some 35 years ago, I was naive, idealistic, and ignorant of what the ministry required. For years, I had seen my pastor on Sunday, dressed in black pulpit robes, leading a small congregation into tremendous growth and expansion, always smiling, and, seemingly, admired by all. All I knew was what I saw from the pew.

In those days, I knew nothing of pastors and priests enduring heartache, disappointment, unrealized expectations, anonymous gossip and even slander against one’s self and one’s wife and children.

I knew nothing about sitting with sick people in their last hours on earth, of watching families fragment and dissolve, of stillbirths and miscarriages, of children with cancer, of friends dying in accidents or dropping dead with heart attacks or strokes.

I didn’t realize that the same people who sat in the pews on Sunday mornings were capable of the same heinous sins and crimes as those who dwelled in the lowest and most decayed rungs of society.

I wasn’t prepared for domestic violence, adultery, incest, alcoholism, drug dependency, despondency, and suicide.

But, prepared or not, it all came. I certainly wasn’t prepared when one member of a congregation murdered his wife and another young man in another church shook a baby to death.

Still, here I was, 36 years, pastoral ministry in four states, and service in 12 churches later, vowing to continue my call, to commit myself to this trust and responsibility, to be guided by those over me, to read and study the Holy Scriptures, to minister the Word and the Sacraments, to be a faithful pastor, to try to pattern my life so that I would be a wholesome example, to “persevere in prayer,” and to ask God’s grace for myself and for others.

I was asked once again if I would be loyal to the teachings, discipline, and worship of Christ, and I was asked once again if I would obey my bishop and other ministers who had authority over me.

Some of the men around me were in their late 70s and stood during the service by leaning on the pew in front of them. Others, standing straight and strong, without a trace of balding or grey hair, were barely in their 20s.

Some had been ordained decades, others only months. There were those young firebrands who, like the first privates of the great wars, couldn’t wait to get into battle. Others, who like sergeants-majors, with multiple campaigns behind them and bearing the wounds and scars of countless battles, understood that, whether they renewed their vows or not, they would continue to serve on the front lines and in the trenches. They always had, and always would, do their duty and serve God and God’s people.

There are similarities in these two events, of course. The couples who were renewing their vows, and the clergy who were affirming theirs, had already made vows that were for life. All had suffered and had experienced joy. All were looking to the future and not the past. And all were depending on the power and love of God in order to be able to be faithful to the promises they had made.

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