Julie Andrews acting as Mary Poppins talks of ‘a pie crust promise’ in the Disney movie of the same name, and describes the pie crust promise as: “Easily made. Easily broken.”
At its simplest, a promise is for an individual. One person can promise to do things for ones self. In the more complex, a promise is an oath, or pact between one person and many. In another, a promise is between a person and God; and God and his people.
I make those famous ‘pie crust promises’ to myself a lot of the time. I’m not one for New Years Resolutions, but I do promise to myself that I will do something and that usually works…for a while. My newest promise to myself is to take more time for physical fitness. I’ve found that living in the land of beer and pretzels has changed my features so exercise is something I need to do. Self-care is a phrase that is thrown around among church leaders, yet our track record is pretty dismal. Self-care phrases are surrounded by the words of expectation and guilt, namely, “would’a, could’a and should’a.” “I really should exercise more!”, prompts me into doing so under duress. The excuses for not finding the time to exercise are rampant, as there always seems to be some more pressing issue, or meeting in the calendar to look after other than ourselves.
In the church congregation I have managed to pull a ‘Jephthah’. What is that? Well Jephthah is mentioned in the Old Testament book of Judges and in his pride he publicly proclaims that as God as his witness he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to give God glory. Tragically it is his loving (and only) daughter that runs out of the house first to meet her father. Promising to do something and then not doing it comes with the speaking before thinking type of personality. I’ve promised to do some things in the church and have not acted upon them with the speediness I had promised. For this I am sorry and these things hang about on a long To Do list like some spectre of Christmas Past.
While the above promise mentions God, it is more a statement of oath that is a public one. The promises, or oaths, that I made as a priest, are also in the context of community, but have a deeply personal relationship with God, and with God’s people. Like at a wedding when one party makes oaths to the other (to love and cherish in sickness and in health) so too does the person being ordained priest make those similar statements to God and God’s Church. “Will you be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh? Answer: I will endeavour myself so to do, the Lord being my helper.” (Book of Common Prayer pg 576-577) Judging from my bookshelf I read a lot of books about the world in which I might find God present. Of course I study my Bible and attempt to pray the daily offices of Morning and Evening prayer, but the big word is attempt. Does this count as endeavouring? I think that a lot of people do endeavour as these questions of promise and fulfilment are perennial discussion topics in a congregation. It is in the struggle that we meet God, not in the giving up and walking away.
Perhaps I have now come full circle in my list of promises as I have, in the past, trained to run races and proudly remember making a very good time in one gruelling mountain race. I have not always run, neither have I always prayed the daily offices. Perhaps it is the enduring of the promise that is the place of grace. Rather than looking at a promise as a quick way to find a solution, or the fast track to complete a goal, a promise is an enduring relationship between me and God, just as it is a relationship between me and a community. The promise is not the thing that will change us, it is the continual wrestling with ourselves, with the words we speak, and the work we have left undone. The promise will rear its head again and again because we are cannot complete all that we have promised. That is God’s work of promise that is completed for us, and so we continue to wrestle with our own promises and shortcomings and we end up being changed – a people who run with a limp.