The breeze on this glorious spring morning whipped around my naked neck. I should have collected that wool scarf hanging on a hook at my door entry and wrapped it around my now vulnerable neck. My mistake. Now I tugged at the zipper of my thin jacket, pulling it closer to my chin, urging it to work harder at its job. I had been fooled by the May date and glamorous light streaming in through clean windows. Warm in imagination but chilly in reality.
All of us, in some way or another, are tugging at thin jackets to ward off a brisk season of unusual winds. We are striving to make sense or at least find peace during a pandemic. As I walked along the sea wall in this strange new world, I was reminded of a pledge I made to my husband 33 years ago.
We are striving to make sense or at least find peace during a pandemic.
We used very traditional words: To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.
I said it out loud again and found it surprisingly moving. I am prone to tears in the best of seasons, and so, weeping is now part of my daily spiritual practice. The lament for the world, for care workers, strung-out addicts and strung-out parents of small children.
That marriage vow starts with the phrase to have and to hold, from this day forward.
I took the words very seriously on my wedding day, and still do. Today we have each other—although the hold is far less passionate and frequent. We have loved each other through cancer and times of celebratory health, through the birth of four healthy sons and a daughter. We have endured.
In 1987 I recited those wedding vows with a nod to crazy optimism. Our relationship was by then littered with red flags. As a young woman boasting of a newly discovered faith, I crossed mystical fingers behind my back. This union has indeed become a habitation as described in the Margaret Atwood’s 1987 poem of that same name, which ends:
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
we are learning to make fire
About 18 months before those nuptials, I made a very different pledge—to God. Not your classic monastic vow to poverty, chastity, and obedience. In my evangelical context, poverty was just a state of mind for those of little faith; abstinence, anecdotally, was applauded but more or less ignored. So that left obedience. That vow stuck. I tried hard to honor the vow—to spend time in prayer, practice hospitality, and care for others. Over time, I began to realize that it was the softening of my heart that God desired rather than any act of will—surrender more than compliance. I have changed my allegiances over the years, setting up camp first with the Pentecostals, then the Vineyard movement, and now my home is with the Mennonites. But through the various iterations of my faith, I have experienced that God remains the same. His love is sustaining me and is not dependent on my good or bad decisions.
That spiritual vow was different from my marriage pledge. It was a promise made to an unseen and unknown God. It was a leap into a space full of hope. A return to my childlike fantasy of a SuperGod. It offered renewal—a “clean slate.” A new creation. No more condemnation. I trusted a God I barely knew. I could only hope that he was all he claimed to be.
Over time, I began to realize that it was the softening of my heart that God desired rather than any act of will—surrender more than compliance.
In retrospect, I essentially handed over my life to a sherpa to help me get to where I was going. I would have to navigate the difficult terrain myself—using my soulish muscles and will—but God promised never to leave me. To be there to guide and wait until I caught up or returned from a digression. In total, that was the vow: to be obedient to Christ and rely on him to carry my heavy baggage on life’s journey.
One vow was until death do us part, and the other pledged for an eternity. I have wanted to renege on both numerous times but have hung in there.
My husband and I came to Canada as Permanent Residents about nine years ago. Australian by birth, I was thankful and excited to be here. I fell in love immediately with our new city, Vancouver. Although we were not expected to pledge faithfulness or obedience to Canada formally, the inference was a promise to abide by the laws, to be a good member of society, not cause any trouble, and renew our residency cards every five years.
But as I walked the path around the bay at Kitsilano Beach, reflecting on the vows I’ve made in my past, I mumbled a new pledge to my city and its people:
For richer, for poorer
In sickness and in health
In this spring of our discontent
I pray for our leaders, essential workers, all our people
And, as we ride out this curve, I will do my part.
A vow to humanity—committed to the common good. My vow to Vancouver was addressed to magnolia trees in bloom, to tall apartment blocks over on the West End, to the boarded-up Starbucks on Cornwall, to logs piled high on side of the beach, to missing basketball hoops, to oil tankers sitting pretty on the horizon, to cyclists, lone joggers, and babies in prams.
Vows can firm up our belief systems, leading us away from temptations of infidelity in marriage, and affirming us as children of God. Even now, several months later, my private pledge as a citizen compels me to wear a mask and do my part to protect my neighbors.
We are asking so much of fellow humans these days. No doubt as we cautiously peek out of our social caves, some will raise the alarm bells over the lack of individual rights and personal freedoms. The libertarians are already back in force. They have much territory to claw back.
Even now, several months later, my private pledge as a citizen compels me to wear a mask and do my part to protect my neighbors.
On my walk, after speaking out this new resolve, my steps became strong and purposeful. I walked up the steep incline of Arbutus Street toward home. My breath labored. My jacket was too warm. Without slowing my pace, I pulled it off and tied it around my waist. I noticed the three white stripes along the sleeves, classic Adidas. I thought then of my three parallel vows: to God, spouse, and the common good. I felt gratitude for these commitments that push me to love beyond myself on another ordinary, extraordinary day.