Category Archives: Further In and Higher Up

Jocelyn R. Plett: A Relief That Comes With Faith

by Jocelyn R. Plett

Last Spring I had the opportunity to be a table host for our church’s Alpha program. If you haven’t had the chance to watch the new (2016) Alpha videos, take the opportunity to go through them on YouTube. They are great resources for a Faith-Booster-Shot, even for those of us who have been followers of Christ for decades.

During the six-week program I was thrilled to discover that both a young man at my table and a friend of mine declared their commitment to follow Christ during the Alpha program. How exciting to be a part of that!

Personally, one of the influential table discussions was on the topic “How and Why Can I Have Faith?” Question 1 on my leader’s paper read: “Thinking of your friends, family or anything else—Who or what do you have faith in?”

Stumped by this question, the six people sitting at my table didn’t think they had faith in anything or anyone. Golly! This was a revelation to me. As the group continued to deliberate the idea, I began to list the things I had faith in as a new returnee to Canada:

  • When my boys walk to school I have faith that it will be open, teachers will be present and able to teach, and abuse isn’t tolerated.
  • If I’m in an accident, the medical system will take care of me to the best of their ability. An ambulance will come with functioning equipment and personnel properly trained to treat me. Competent doctors and nurses will be at the hospital with medication and equipment that is available and functioning. I’ll be treated no matter my financial situation.
  • Laws and authorities work to uphold a society based on rules that make sense and build community rather than tear it apart.

There is incredible relief that accompanies the release of sole responsibly for the health and well-being of myself and my children. I can experience this because I have faith in Canadian systems. I’ve lived for years outside Canada without faith in the systems that should be able to care for people effectively. It was always with the underlying fear that should I or my children be in an accident, we couldn’t trust what would happen to us. That sort of unrelenting unease is exhausting!

I marvel at the simple luxury of faith in human systems, fallible systems. Humans can fail. They function within worldviews that change over the course of time, that are built on limited and ever-changing understanding of the universe.

Jocelyn R. Plett

Even so, I know the emotional and mental freedom of being able to trust these things. The bigger revelation is that human systems are nothing in comparison to the faith and trust I can have in the One who created the universe and my body and who governs the authorities of the earth!

He tells me I can trust Him. This Word does not change as humankind gains increased knowledge of the universe, nor as our worldviews shift over time.

Editor’s Note With Permission: It will disappoint readers, but after serving since September 2012, Jocelyn has decided, while saddened, to step back for health reasons from serving as a columnist. She has “really enjoyed the opportunity for a writing outlet and for the many, many words of affirmation I have received from readers. I do think, however, that pruning back this work may help other areas to flourish.” She is learning to “embrace my limits” (Jeanne Flemming). Thank you, Jocelyn, for serving us, and may the Lord bless you.

Layton Friesen: The Evangelical Mennonite Covenant

by Layton Friesen, Conference Pastor

As I travel across our conference I often wonder: what is it that holds these churches together? What ties bind us across the 4,555 kms of our conference’s breadth? The word I keep coming back to is covenant. What fastens us is similar to a marriage covenant between congregations with the challenges and fun of any marriage.

In fact, I would say that a congregation’s ability to stand up for the truth of marriage in our culture is greatly strengthened if it lives out its own covenant with other EMC churches. It’s hard to convince the world that a marriage covenant is a human tasting of God’s long-suffering faithfulness when the congregation itself can’t bear the nuisance of being in binding covenant with other churches that it does not find agreeable, attractive, or handy.

Which brings me to the difference between a covenant and a contract. In a contract I give you money or services in exchange for the services I know I will get from you. If a wife said to her husband, “What has this marriage done for me lately, anyways?” you would know that marriage is in a very bad place.

That husband would be a fool who would say, “Sure, no problem. I can easily draw up a list of 10 things I have done for you lately and then you will see that our marriage is great.” That marriage has become a contract, and will soon dissolve completely if a deeper mystery is not found.

Likewise for a congregation to ask, “What has belonging to the EMC done for us lately?” is also a very sad question. It would be a foolish conference that tried to draw up a list of all the benefits of belonging to a conference as though that was addressing the real problem.

Covenants involve work and mutual service but they are not based on works. If this connection we have as churches is something created by God (and if not, then let’s be rid of it), then it is a covenant of grace and not of works. We are bound together because God found us lost and alone and bound us together for His greater purpose and our training in divine union. We have not negotiated a contract to scratch each other’s itch.

But like a marriage, once we are taken up into the mystery of our divine fastening, we find all kinds of ways to serve each other, work together, grieve with each other and to celebrate and relax together. Sometimes the covenant needs to be renewed and freshened in our wills and wallets. But none of that is done to prove that this marriage is worth it. None of that is done as a membership fee.

Layton Friesen

Some of our congregations have annual covenanting services where they renew the bond between them. It’s a way to resist the drifting autonomy and alienation that constantly plagues modern life. Perhaps we, the Evangelical Mennonite Covenant, need a similar reminder that “you are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

Note: This column reflects some of Layton’s report at the EMC national ministerial meeting on July 6, 2018, in London, Ont.

Layton Friesen: Tracking the Un-Guessable Lord

by Layton Friesen

For the first centuries of the Church’s life, there was much debate about exactly who this Jesus was the Church found itself worshipping and following. One of the simplest and most profound truths it discovered was this: you will never predict who Jesus is by thinking profound and lofty philosophical thoughts, hoping that your rational concepts somehow coincide with Christ.

The mistake that was so hard to overcome for these early Christians was the belief that by thinking philosophical Greek thoughts about natures and essences, eventually they would figure out who this God-man was. That never worked.

So if not by thinking, how else? By looking. By watching to see what he does, how he lives, and the manner of his speech. What kind of choice does he make here? What does he refuse there? How does he act in this situation here? The mystery of Jesus appears in the manner in which he takes the days his Father gave him, and weaves an utterly unique, never-anticipated tapestry from them.

Jesus arrives and lives so freely, with such dashing improv, that no human could ever guess what he would do next. When the Church finally came to this basic discovery in the 7th century (thank you, Maximus the Confessor) they arrived at a beautiful vision of who Jesus was that has never been surpassed. When you watch Jesus acting, the humanity and divinity appear in matchless unity.

Thus, the basic act of the disciple is looking. Staying alert. Watching intently. Noticing the subtle change in his bearing. Disciples do not predict where Jesus will go by trying to be super-smart—they can only follow.

Once we see Jesus, we can think about it. We can try to appreciate with our intellect something of the love we see unfolding. First we look and then we treasure up all these things, pondering them in our heart. For example, after Jesus lived, the disciples saw the Old Testament as full of references to Christ. Before Christ came and lived however, no one could have guessed his life would happen as it did.

But this order of first looking and then thinking is sure hard for us modern people. We have a hard time believing that after all these centuries we still need to keep tracking Christ’s every move. We constantly seek the “key” to Jesus’ life. We try to detect a pattern or principle that we can detach from Jesus and put to use in our lives.

I see this mistake happening often. We say for instance, Jesus showed hospitality; we then go and detach hospitality from Jesus and make it a kind of free-standing principle or idea in our lives and tell ourselves that we are still following Jesus.

Layton Friesen
Layton Friesen

It’s a lot easier just being generally hospitable than it is following Jesus. I can get hospitality. But you cannot be a disciple by following general principles like hospitality (or leadership, or counter-cultural resistance, or honesty, or nonviolence, or whatever other detachable principle). Jesus is simply unpredictable and he will always bust open my lousy principles and concepts. In order to be Christ-like I have to track his footsteps through the gospels in daily looking and attentive curious waiting.

What this means is that we must keep going back to the words, the phrases, the sentences in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus. Nothing can ever substitute for contemplation, for sitting with Mary at the feet of Jesus and listening to what he says next.

Layton Friesen: Suffering the Corinthians

By Layton Friesen

When we see things happening in the wider Church we strongly disagree with, we are tempted to react rather than suffer. Cutting myself off in disgust from sinful churches gives me a sharp jolt of spiritual Red Bull, but is this how Jesus responds to our sin on the cross?

I hear three major reactions in my church friends right now. First, many are reacting against the evangelical supporters of Donald Trump. “Evangelicals” are those people, the thinking goes, who welcome the most misogynist and xenophobic politicians in order to maybe win a round in the culture wars. And so, in order to prophetically denounce Trumpism, these reactionaries distance themselves from a larger evangelical movement that includes the likes of John Wesley, Billy Graham, and Elizabeth Elliot, not to mention Dr. Archie Penner.

A second reaction going on currently is a reaction against churches (especially Mennonite ones) that have affirmed same-sex marriage. In this reaction these churches are associated with sentimental, liberal drip that exists only to “affirm” the latest contrivance of the sexual revolution.

This is causing serious irritation in relations between Mennonite churches and conferences. People who react in this way suggest we pull out of MCC, MDS, and Mennonite World Conference because this work makes us guilty by association.

A third reaction is coming from people repulsed by the ultra-conservative Mennonites in their communities. These reactionaries want nothing to do with the name “Mennonite” because this associates them with legalism, cultural Mennonitism, and narrow-minded social control.

“We don’t make our men grow beards. We don’t make our women wear bonnets. We don’t harbour drug dealers, nor do our young gather behind Walmart on Sunday evenings to drink and smoke tires. So please don’t call us Mennonite.”

For the record, I disagree with Trumpism, same-sex marriage, and Mennonite drug-runners.

But the old rugged cross looms large over all our reactions. The Sinless One overcomes our sin not by dissociating himself from us, but by embracing us. This dwarfs all our pathetic attempts to maintain purity by distance. It silences all our fearful self-righteousness, all our shrill assumptions that, contrary to the whole Scripture, we were not that hard for Jesus to associate with.

We were a pleasure for him to come and visit. It was not our sins that held him there. God did not need to hold his nose when he came to our house. Not like those other people—God has to be so gracious to them, so long-suffering and merciful. Why does Jesus keep consorting with those people? Has he no standards?

Here is the basic question confronting our reactions: If Jesus still associates with these people, if they are still part of the body of Christ despite their sin, what basis do we have for separating ourselves from them? Unless we know that Jesus has damned them, what theological basis do we have for disassociating ourselves?

Layton Friesen
Layton Friesen

The Corinthian Test is relevant here. Paul lays severe accusations (1 Cor. 3:1; 5:1,11; 6:5-6; 6:16). But instead of cleansing himself of association with this poor excuse for a church, Paul writes to them, sends them his best pastors (Timothy and Apollos), and eagerly anticipates spending the winter with them (1 Cor. 16). Paul is willing to endure the suffering this church causes him because everything in life must finally yield only to the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 9:12). Paul suffers the Corinthians. Who will we suffer?

Layton Friesen: I’m Assuming . . .

by Layton Friesen

You may have heard that the author of this column is assuming the work of EMC conference pastor. I hope “assuming” is the right word.

When a pastor is interviewed for a leadership position the question is often asked, “What is your vision for the church?” Depending on how that is taken, that can be good question or a bad question.

Is it important for a pastor to understand Christ’s vision for the church as described in the scriptures, and should a pastor be able to give a winsome summary of that vision during an interview? Absolutely. Should a pastor be asked to clearly describe a leadership style, a way of handling conflict, creating change, and building teamwork that the congregation can expect? Absolutely.

But should a pastor arrive at a church lugging a specific “vision” for that congregation before the work has even started? Before any prayers have been said at deathbeds? Before any sermons have been preached on the gospel of Matthew? Before long and caffeinated conversations with parishioners become friends? Before the pastor finally understands the history, personalities, and conniptions of the deacon board? I doubt it.

So I will try not to bring a “vision” to impose on the conference. However I do “assume” some things about who we are as a conference, and I now tell you what the main one is. I assume that in God’s eyes the EMC is something.

This bond of communion, this camaraderie at the feet of Jesus, this fellowship in mission, is not a merely human construction. I assume that this covenant between the 64 churches, at its deepest level, is a creation of the Holy Spirit.

To assume that in God’s eyes the EMC is something may sound a little understated. But to assume this does serious damage to one of our enemies: secularism. One of the acids secularism throws at the church is the corrosive product called “nothing-buttery.”

“Nothing-buttery” says that prayer is nothing but self-talk. That church unity is nothing but team spirit. That congregations are nothing but special-interest groups. That “conferences” are nothing but bureaucracy, structures we put up to help ourselves do our “mission” (another concept nothing-buttered in our age).

After we nothing-butter the conference, we can take it or leave it. We can force it to do what we want or else. We can tinker with it, gussy it up to look relevant, despise it as a nuisance or ignore it into oblivion. Nothing-buttery is an acid that destroys any sense that God is in our midst; so no need to take off your shoes, for you certainly can’t be standing on holy ground.

Layton Friesen
Layton Friesen

No one can prove that the EMC is something in God’s eyes. We assume God did it. As a pastor within this communion I can hopefully tend the garden God has planted. I can hopefully offer encouragement, a listening ear, wisdom or a sermon to those the Spirit has led into the fray. As a pastor my calling is to be a real, live pester of unbiblical thinking and living. I assume God has called me to be a pastor in our midst, a beckon that I confess causes me to tremble.

My prayer is that God would use me to show the EMC that it is something in God’s eyes.

Layton Friesen: A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off

“Hi, Greg. How are you?”

“Doing well. Busy though.”

“What’s up, Donna? How’s it going?”

“Great! Busy, busy.”

“How’s the business going, Jen?”

“Not bad, but since February I’ve been running like a chicken with its head cut off. Crazy busy.”

Why do we keep reminding everyone about how busy we are? We inform whoever will listen that we are busy. Why? Of course this is mostly done in a tone of complaint, as though this busyness was inflicted on us by some bad fate.

But let’s be honest, telling someone you’re busy is like complaining about how terribly much income tax you pay. I challenge you to tell a few people you respect that you are not busy and how much you enjoy all the free time you have. For many of us, that would feel like a confession of sin—we are clearly failing to be important, trustworthy people.

We tell ourselves that we are busier than people used to be. I doubt it.

My grandfather had stuff to do when he rolled out at dawn and he did it until he lay down at night. All day long he did things: eat, work, go to town for the mail, go to brotherhood meeting, back to sleep again. Next day, repeat. He was hardworking, though he did not remind everyone that he had continuously been involved in human activity since he woke up that morning. Today we would call him busy-busy.

Perhaps we would all be happier if we just accepted the fact that life will be full and that there is nothing wrong with that. It’s okay. Humans are creatures who do stuff all day. It’s a sign that we were born onto a path and that we must go somewhere in this sojourn.

We are not created to stand in one place. We have not been wronged if life is full, nor have we been elevated as especially important people. Life takes all our time, and part of accepting our creaturelyness is learning to quit marvelling at how all day long we have things to do.

I worry, though, about that word “busy.” It sounds different than “hard-working.” To call our full slate of activities “being busy” suggests we see little meaning in our work. A man digging holes and shoveling them shut all day would tell you he is crazy busy.

Is that how we think of our jobs, schoolwork, eating, serving in church, or bathing the baby? Maybe the real problem is that we have lost the experience of working before God, and so everything becomes mere busy-work, somehow secular.

Perhaps rather than angling for some idyllic spa-like existence of rest and leisure, what I need to do is pray while I work: Pray about my work, pray in my work, and pray through my work. If my work is something I do alongside God the Divine Worker, maybe I could stop being a busy person and start being a regular ol’ hard-working guy. Life with God will take my last breath and my last bit of strength. Being workers is a good sign that we are created by a Worker.

Layton Friesen
Layton Friesen

May you have the strength to work hard and accept your lot as a human. May you give up the need to remind others of your busyness. May you “work heartily, as unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23 ASV). Those who work heartily must also sleep as unto the Lord.


Layton Friesen: Heroic and Magnificent Sleepers

by Layton Friesen

What will it be like to die and rise from the dead? We have a daily picture of death and resurrection that I propose should be considered a Christian spiritual discipline: lying down in bed, sleeping, and waking.

We are a culture of bad sleepers. Of course, some people sleep poorly for medical reasons. But I have read that, on average, adults get two hours a night less than we did a hundred years ago. We frequently hear people bragging to each other about how little sleep they get. That’s got to have serious societal consequences.

Of course, our manic culture has ways of getting some sleep. We now have “power naps.” I detest that word. A bout of insomnia on whoever coined it. As though now even sleeping has to look like some aggressive, production strategy.

The Protestant missionary F. W. Boreham insisted that one of the main reasons missionaries go to peoples of other cultures was to teach them to sleep. The Church, he said, “has excelled in the production of heroic and magnificent sleepers.”

The Scriptures have a lot to say about sleep. God does not sleep (Ps. 121:4), so we can (Ps. 4:8). Baal, on the other hand does, or at least that is why Elijah mocks Baal’s prophets on the mountain who are jumping around, bashing themselves bloody (1 Kings 18:27-29). Moral of the story: to believe that God does not sleep means we no longer have to bash ourselves bloody. Overwork and under-sleep may be a sign that we don’t trust that God will stay awake.

When we sleep we are vulnerable. We fear not waking up. We fear what might happen in the house while we sleep. At a deeper level, when we sleep, our subconscious rears up and starts to talk. Dreams are little video clips of conversations going on inside us that we can’t monitor and control.

So maybe part of our missionary agenda is to be a Church known for sleeping long and well. Practicing sleep is about more than mental health. God has given us sleep so that we can practice dying before we get there. Laying down to sleep each night, giving the day to God, asking forgiveness of sin, letting go of all that was not achieved and sinking into unconsciousness, is a little dry-run in what it will mean to go to sleep when life’s evening shadows lengthen.

American pastor John Piper puts it this way:

Once a day God sends us to bed like patients with a sickness. The sickness is a chronic tendency to think we are in control and that our work is indispensable. To cure us of this disease God turns us into helpless sacks of sand once a day. How humiliating to the self-made corporate executive that he has to give up all control and become as limp as a suckling infant every day.

And waking each morning is a rehearsal of resurrection. Jesus rose from the dead in the early morning. Who has not been amazed at how yesterday’s urgent problem feels doable in the morning after a good sleep. We rise with fresh strength and healing and the sense of a new start, a clean slate. To do this every day, all our lives, as Christians, is how we learn to be Easter people.

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray thee Lord my soul to keep

If I die before I wake

I pray thee Lord my soul to take.


Layton Friesen: It’s Hard to be Good When Everyone Else is Doing It

And now the moment we have all been waiting for, when Layton comes out on stage and tells you the theme of his doctoral dissertation. The flesh is weak and one can only take the suspense so long, so I will bend to the crowds and say a few words.

I am trying to answer the question: how can the Church be gospel pacifists, people who refuse violence in the name of Christ, in a world seething with nonviolence? We live in an incredibly nonviolent world.

Our children learn anti-bullying strategies. They protest racism, sexism, homophobia. Many pass on the filet mignon because eating animals is violent. They attend We Day—arenas filled with thousands of children listening to teenaged Kielburgers who change the world in the name of peace.

War and violence are declining around the world. Figuring deaths per capita, the twentieth century was the most nonviolent century in human history. In the 1950s, there were almost 250 deaths caused by war per million people. Now, there are less than 10. With the end of the Colombian war, for the first time in human history the western hemisphere is free of war. Anti-war protests are common, anything but counter-cultural.

These are glory days for Mennonite pacifists. But two major problems arise for those who desire not only to be nonviolent, but to follow Jesus in peace. As the world rejects violence, some Christians conclude that nonviolence need not concern us. Nonviolence, they think, must be for secular, humanist, or liberal people. This is the mistake of many Evangelical Mennonites. But if society adopts some of his message, does that make Jesus wrong?

Nonresistance is still at the core of his life, his prayer, and his atonement. Rejecting nonviolence just because the world has caught on is like rejecting nursing as Christian service just because some nurses are Hindu and polio is defeated.

The second mistake is to decide that we don’t need Jesus in order to be good people. Secular methods work better. The Church is today blamed for violence. Many leave, thinking they can achieve nonviolence better outside the Church. When nonviolence becomes the civil religion, the idol of the day, people reject the Church as they reject Jesus, who in the end, seems too barbaric for our civilized standards. This is the mistake of more liberal Mennonites.

So how can we be gospel pacifists in world full of nonviolence?

I gambled my fortune and five years of work on the answer to this question being Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988). As a Roman Catholic pastor he struggled with a Church that he felt had lost the unity of spirituality, theology, and ethics. He also criticized Catholic liberation theologians who had reduced the gospel to a political agenda.

Balthasar envisioned believers steeped in the Church, formed by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to surrender into the mission of Jesus. Christ became nonresistant to an evil, yet beautiful world out of surrender to his Father. The Spirit now takes Christ’s submission to the Father and brings the Church to live inside this obedience. Living inside Christ’s beautiful, costly surrender, we love and forgive our enemies because that is what Christ is doing.

Layton Friesen
Layton Friesen

In Christ the Church becomes fruitful out in the world, even spawning offshoots within the world that look remarkably Christ-like even in their wild state. But whether the world catches on or not, we surrender into the nonresistance of Christ to the Father and to the world. This is where gospel pacifism is nourished.

Layton Friesen: The ‘Joke’ that is Epiphany

by Layton Friesen

Proclaiming Jesus is like telling a good joke.

Back in high school, my friend John would regale us with jokes for hours on end and they were roaring funny. Watching him I could see that a good joke is a precarious thing. It has to come off perfectly or it’s worse than no joke at all. If the teller stumbled over words, or had to make corrections in the telling, it got unfunny fast.

A joke separates those who have the wit to “get it” and those too dull. If you don’t “get” a joke, there is no help for you. It’s hopeless to go over the joke again in slow-motion, trying to make it funny by explaining. It depends on a common culture and experience, but gives a sharp kicking surprise in the end.

All of this is an analogy to preaching about Jesus.

Did you ever notice that in the preaching of the apostles nobody once “explains” Jesus? Never do you hear Peter holding forth about the verb tenses that Jesus used when he called Lazarus from the dead. Paul, in his letters, never waxes on about the historical background of Zealots. John does not “take apart” the story of the prodigal, explaining why this story shocked Jews in Palestine. Nobody pontificates on the various word-choices for “love” in the Greek of John 21. Why not?

Maybe the story of Jesus has some of the same qualities a good joke has. It was all-together one event, a wondrous, startling, completed occasion in the life of the world. It was perfectly timed and delivered. Situated just-right within the culture of Christ’s time, it drew into one lightening-bolt a host of back-stories from Israel.

It was delivered once, caught the world unawares, and sent it rolling in sudden happiness—even laughter. In one strike, history was changed. Christ’s life was complete and had to stay complete—the resurrection was like the best punchline.

Could the good news arc across the divide between an Aramaic-speaking Jewish fisher-peasant from Capernaum and an urban Greek-speaking pagan in Rome? It’s a huge question for the apostles, but never once did it occur to them that the secret to the Gentiles “getting the joke” was sermonic rabbit-trails on rural Jewish culture, or tutoring in Aramaic, Jesus’ language. They moved in and told the story again and again to whoever would listen. Some got it and others definitely did not. There was little help for those who didn’t.

And if the apostles didn’t pulpiteer on Christ’s participles, maybe we shouldn’t either. Preaching is telling the good story again, now hilarious for Canadians. It’s proclamation, not dissection.

Now, I need to also say that if we preachers are going to tell the story faithfully so that listeners “get it,” we do need to know something about the language and ancient culture of Jesus. We need to study to get the rhythm, the timing, the tone down into our bones.

Layton Friesen
Layton Friesen

But as the old Methodist preacher W. R. Moltby said, “The well is deep, and you must have something to draw with. But there is no need to make people drink out of the bucket, still less to chew on the rope.”

A preacher that makes you chew on the rope just sounds like someone with no sense of humour, which in my high school was not the guy you wanted to be.


Layton Friesen: You Can’t Make This Up

by Layton Friesen

As a minister, I discourage couples from making up their own marriage vows. I don’t think it’s possible to make up your own vows. What you can make up is a promise. There is a world of a difference between a vow and a promise.

I can make up a promise. “I promise to bring you tomatoes tomorrow.” I promise this because I know I have tomatoes, my schedule permits it tomorrow, and I like you enough to give you tomatoes. The whole promise revolves around me, and my ability to know what I have and to give what I have. If tomorrow comes and goes, and I don’t show up, the promise is broken and cancelled. If I still want to come another time, I need to make a whole new promise.

But a vow is not something I make. A vow is something I take. When I take a marriage vow, I am entering a house given by God, and shaped over millennia by nature, tradition, law, Scripture, and Church.

A vow is received, stewarded and bestowed by a community with roots in ancient places and times, back to creation: “The one who made them in the beginning made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4). Marriage is a reckless and bracing adventure because we enter not knowing what we will find, not only in the stranger we wed, but in the shape of marriage itself.

I, Jane, take you, John,

to be my husband,

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

For the rest of our lives,

According to God’s holy law.

This is my solemn vow.

A vow is not broken like a promise. The vision embodied in a vow goes far beyond my abilities and maybe even my desires. I will fall short of the vow two minutes after taking it, but a vow is not broken by that. The vow keeps turning me in the right direction; it draws me onward to a destiny I cannot reach on my own steam. A vow is broken not by falling short of it, but by abandoning the covenant all together.

So a vow is a prayer, a cry for help. It is taken not by people impressed with their own abilities who now promise to bring these capacities to marriage. A vow is taken precisely by people who know they are prone to wander—Lord they feel it. God helping me, I will.

In days of yore, a sailor looking out onto a stormy sea and knowing that he must stay on deck and at his duty, but realizing too that he could not (for the waves would wash over the deck and his strength would fail to keep him at his work), would take a rope and tie himself to the mast. That is Eugene Peterson’s picture of taking a vow.

We take a vow because we know we must maintain covenant loyalty to at least this one person in our lives, but we know our own fickleness. The vow reaches out to God and the community and keeps us, even when we cannot keep it.

Of course, each person will bring their unique take on this ancient fellowship. But in our society today, many people think marriage itself is like play dough, something we fashion to suit our whimsy.

Layton Friesen
Layton Friesen

Recently the state has asserted the right to make up marriage according to post-1960’s sexual revolution whims. But we do not get to make up what marriage is; we are only stewards who receive it. If marriage is something we create, it only lasts as long as our attention spans. One small resistance to that is to take a vow.