Tag Archives: Vow

Of Vows, Legal Code, and Secret Handshakes

Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.
Numbers 30:1-2 (NIV)

When I was a kid growing up on the northwest side of Des Moines, we had a populous and active neighborhood. There were a lot of kids on our block and along the surrounding streets. We regularly hung out and played together. Freeze-tag, Statue-tag, Ding-Dong Ditch ’em, and any number of games might be in the cards on any given summer evening as a bunch of kids gathered to play until the street lights came on along Madison Avenue.

As kids, when you made a promise to one another there were always ways that we pledged ourselves to our word. Secret handshakes were a staple. When you pledged yourself with a secret handshake the deal was sealed. It was golden, and you were under obligation.

In the files I keep here in my home office I have any number of legal documents binding me to my promises, vows, oaths, and pledges. There’s a mortgage binding me to pay back the money I borrowed from the bank to build my house. There’s the agreement my partner and I made to buy our company from the founder. There’s a marriage certificate binding me in a legal marital obligation to Wendy. All of them are official, legal, and filed with the civic authorities lest I break my obligation and open myself up to the consequences.

Back in the day when Moses and the Hebrew  tribes were wandering around the wilderness, human societies were in the “neighborhood kid” stage of history’s life cycle. There were no well established and precedented legal systems. Writing things down, signing them, and storing a record of an agreement for were out of the question. Writing utensils and the ability to record and store the agreements were thousands of years away from being a reality. Moses and the tribes had basically been stuck making secret handshakes.

Today’s chapter is among the first ancient attempts in human history to create a system of rules by which it was determined if a persons vow was binding or not, and who had authority to overrule a person’s vow or oath. Of course, anyone who’s ever seen a library of legal codes or the tax code knows that over time we humans have a way of creating a dizzying complex system of laws, amendments, precedents, and loopholes.

The Jews were just as human. The fairly basic, straightforward text of today’s chapter became a burdensome cultural and religious system in which oaths and vows were taken seriously based on the specific wording you used. If you vowed “by heaven” it might be more binding than if you vowed “by earth” although not was binding if you swore “by my head” except in certain circumstances, in which case it would have to be determined by section C, paragraph 2, sub-paragraph Q…. You get where I’m going with this, right?

Which is why Jesus quoted today’s chapter and said,

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Say what you’ll do. Do what you say. Freedom in simplicity.

Today, I pledge myself to that simplicity.

Pinky swear.

Special Vows

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite….”
Numbers 6:2 (NIV)

I run into some of the most interesting people in my job. Years ago there was a Customer Service Representative (CSR) for a client company who stood out from the crowd because he had the longest hair I’d ever seen on a man. The man was tall and thin and had incredibly straight, long hair that most women would envy. It went all the way down his back. It was so distinctive and prompted such curiosity that one of my colleagues went out of his way to ask the man about it.

It turns out that this man was a follower of Jesus, and he had a friend who was in prison. He wanted to find a tangible way to express his love and loyalty to his friend, and so he informed his friend that he was making a special vow to God, and his friend, that he would not cut his hair until his friend was released from prison. It had obviously been several years, and he was obviously committed to his friend and to God.

The CSR’s vow was a modified version of a voluntary, “special vow” that the ancient Hebrews called a Nazarite vow, as described in today’s chapter. The idea of the Nazarite vow was a way for individuals to “dedicate themselves to the Lord” for a particular period of time for a particular reason that may have been very personal between themselves and God. The reasons can be as diverse as the persons making them, but I have come to believe that there are stretches of life’s journey when a special vow can be an opportunity for incredible growth of spirit and/or witness.

This morning I’m thinking about the special vows individuals make from choosing a monastic life, to a lenten fast, and even to a chapter-a-day journey.  The thing I appreciate about special vows is that they are not compulsory or demanded. Special vows come from a special place of the heart. They are Spirit led and Spirit driven. They may be for a brief period of time, for the remainder of the journey, or somewhere in between. That’s between the person making a special vow and God.

Years after our relationship with the client ended my colleague told me one day that our CSR friend had contacted him. The CSR reported that his friend had finally been released from prison. He was there to meet his friend at his release. Together, they went to the barber shop. To this day my heart smiles to think of what that moment must have meant to both of them. For me, it illustrates what special vows are all about.

Chapter-a-Day Numbers 6

via Flickr and elsie

“Also, for the duration of the consecration you must not have your hair cut. Your long hair will be a continuing sign of holy separation to God.” Numbers 6:5 (MSG)

Many years ago I had a client I visited on a quarterly basis. In the client’s office was a man who stood out from the crowd for many reasons. Chiefly, he stood out because of his long hair. It was extremely strange to see a professional man his age with hair that long. It fell almost down to his butt. After my first double-take, I figured the man was spending his after work hours trying to live out a teenage dream of being in a 80’s hair band.

As my colleagues and I got to know Mr. Hair Band Man over several business trips, we began to learn the much deeper purpose of his long hair. He told the story of a friend who had lost his way and ended up in prison. In an attempt to share the love of Jesus in a tangible way, he told this friend that he was going to take a Nazirite vow like the one described in today’s chapter. He would make a special consecration to God and would not cut his hair until his friend got out of prison. It was almost ten years when his friend was released and he finally cut his hair. His vow and his long hair became a powerful witness to his friend of his love, faith and commitment.

Looking back over my journey, I realize that there are stretches of life’s road that call for special times of consecration. There are periods of time when we may be called to be “set apart” for a special purpose; we may need to consecrate ourselves to God in a unique and more radical way. The purpose of this time of consecration may be public and relational, or it may be private and deeply personal. Either way, vows of consecration and their faithful maintenance can pave the way to new and powerful spiritual horizons.