Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Renewal of Marriage Vows

I have been asked to assist in the renewal of marriage vows for a couple of friends. Here is the ceremony that I have been working on. I would welcome your comments, evaluation, and feedback.

When asked to participate with you in the renewal of your marriage vows, the first idea to pop into my mind was the word faithfulness. As is often my custom, that thought sent me to the dictionary to explore this idea of faithfulness. The suffix of the word, the “-ness” part of it, conveys the idea of an instance or state of being, or a quality of being. That idea reminded me that part of what we attempt in marriage is to take the instance of making pledges in a marriage ceremony and extending those pledges into a state of practicing those ideals throughout our lives. So when we take a person as our lawfully wedded spouse—when we make marriage vows to love, honor, cherish, and obey—and when we pledge ourselves to our spouses and to them alone, we are establishing some standards by which faithfulness can be measured and some guideposts by which we can assess our progress through this most intimate of human relationships. As believers, we set all of this in the context of a covenant made with each other, before God, and in the presence of witnesses.

That definition almost immediately reminded me that faithfulness is one of the most prominent descriptions in the Scriptures for God’s relationship with God’s people. The words “faithful,” “faithfully,” and “faithfulness” are used 160 times in the Scriptures; and about three-eighths of those occurrences use the words to describe God’s faithfulness. That explains why Thomas O. Chisholm in 1923 penned the words to that timeless hymn praising God, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Phrase after phrase in that hymn remind us of the divinely inspired image of what faithfulness means when we follow God’s example of faithfulness. With God there is “no shadow of turning.” God “changest not.” God’s “compassions … fail not,” what God has been God “forever wilt be.” The seasons of the year; the sun, the moon, and the stars; and “all nature” give manifold witness to God’s “great faithfulness, mercy, and love.” God’s pardon, peace, and presence cheer us, guide us, strengthen us, and give us “bright hope for tomorrow.” The refrain of the hymn asserts that “all I have needed, Thy hand hath provided” as each morning brings new mercies to us.

That kind of faithfulness is a worthy goal for us in our marriages; but frankly, the goal is way too high for us--and we can say that from two perspectives. No one of us will ever find a spouse who can fulfill our every need in every way and in every instance; and none of us can be a spouse who will be the perfect answer to all of our spouse’s needs. Marriages are not perfect because we are not perfect people. The expectations of perfection that we sometimes bring with us into marriage are quickly discovered to be unrealistic. Some people can’t handle that discovery, and either they create a make-believe life out of ignoring the imperfections in themselves and in their spouses, or they become disillusioned and either live a lifetime of muted disappointment or break up the marriage in hopes that someone else can become their “perfect spouse.”

What we are doing here today is to seek another path that steers us between disillusionment on the one hand and dissolution on the other. We are imperfect people in imperfect relationships—but, so what? Where did we get the idea that we could be perfect or that our spouse would be perfect? Why do we imagine that some other “perfect person” might be out there who could change things? Why does the reality of imperfections disappoint us when we must honestly acknowledge that we ourselves are imperfect?

Renewing vows is not a cure-all. It is not a magic potion or a remedy that can correct, counteract, or remove our imperfections. It is, rather, what the initial marriage vows were intended to be. It is a pledge to make a sincere effort to devote yourself and all you are to another person because you genuinely love that person. You want to be with that person--to live, to love, to support, to endure, to assist, to uplift, to strengthen, to forgive, to embrace, to enjoy so long as you both shall live. In this, the traditional marriage vows continue to have meaning: “I take you to be my spouse, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”

These words that pledged faithfulness were somewhat empty words when you were first married, because you had little of the shared experiences with the better or the worse, the richer or the poorer, the sickness or the health. Now you know so much more. You have experienced so much together. You have had good times and bad. You have had ups and downs. You have had sickness and health. You have had gentle peace and the expected conflict. You have dealt with each other in each of your best and worst personas. And yet, through all of this, you have returned to this sacred time and this scared place to say:
  • I truly love you, and I want us to spend the rest of our lives together.
  • I pledge to you anew my constant love and faithful devotion.
  • I beg your forgiveness for where I have failed you in the past.
  • I plead for your patience for where I surely will falter in the future.
  • I pray that God will strengthen me as I strive to meet your needs.
  • And I pray the God will bless you through me as we walk together in love.

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