Of Wedding Vows and Sinner’s Prayers

KissOn my recent visit to Whitcomb Court with members of the police department and the “faith community” there was a woman in my group who insisted on asking everyone we visited, “If you were to die right now do you know for a fact you would go to heaven?” Usually the answer wasn’t yes or no: it was, “I think so.”

“You think so?” the woman asked. “Do you want to know how you can be sure?” And then she quoted Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” And then she would ask the frightened young woman standing at the door to repeat after her as she led her through a version of “the sinner’s prayer,” similar to the one below:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.

At the end of one such prayer she said to the young woman standing there, “Now you’re not a sinner anymore; you’re saved.” And I wondered: does it really happen like that? Are there “magic words” that can save you?

Later I thought about how I do a wedding. At some point I ask the groom to repeat after me, and I lead him through his vows. Afterward I do the same with the bride. And at the end of the service I say, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” When I sign the marriage license after the ceremony I attest to the fact that these two—who used to be single—are now married.

In some ways it seems like magic.

But I don’t think I would be there if I weren’t convinced that they wanted to be married, that they were doing because they loved each other.

Let me give you an example:

Two years ago my daughter and her fiancé were married before a magistrate at New York’s City Hall. I saw the 45-second video. The magistrate asked Nick if he would be willing to take Ellie as his wife and he said yes. And then he asked Ellie if she would take Nick and she said yes. And then the magistrate (who was clearly enjoying his role) drew himself up to his full height and by the authority vested in him by “the great state of New York” pronounced them husband and wife. And that was it; they were married.

But there’s more to the story.

Nick and Ellie had known each other in high school in Washington when Nick was an exchange student from Australia. When he decided to come to New York to see if he could make it there as a chef (because if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere) he got in touch with Ellie. They began to send e-mail back and forth, and then text messages, and then long (expensive) phone calls until Nick finally invited Ellie to come see him in Australia. She did, met his family, did some sightseeing, and when she was getting ready to leave Nick said, “If I come to New York do you reckon I could be your boyfriend?”

That’s what happened.

He came to New York and they began dating and at the end of a year he found out that his visa—which he had thought was a two-year visa—was about to expire. He was going to have to go back to Australia. But Ellie didn’t want him to go back to Australia, not without her. She loved him. And he loved her. And that’s when they began to talk about getting married. Three weeks later they stood in front of that self-important magistrate at City Hall and exchanged their vows and seven months after that—to the day—we had a “real” wedding ceremony on the banks of the Rappahannock River right here in Virginia. I did the wedding, and when I asked the groom to repeat after me I heard his voice break. When I asked Ellie to do the same I saw the tear slide down her cheek. I was convinced that they weren’t just going through the motions, that this wedding—which had gotten its start under such unusual circumstances—was the real thing.

That’s not the feeling I had at Whitcomb Court.

I believe the decision to follow Jesus is every bit as personal as the decision to get married, and twice as important. It’s not something you can force somebody to do. When we stand before the Lord someday I don’t think he’s going to ask us if we’ve said the sinner’s prayer. But he might ask us what he asked Peter that day by the seashore, the kind of thing people have been asking each other for centuries before taking the plunge of marriage:

“Do you love me?”

The Sound of Falling Snow

tree_snowing_800Yesterday was my daughter Ellie’s 21st birthday.  Hard to believe she’s been in the world that long!  In honor of the occasion I dug up a story that I wrote about her when she was four years old, when we went to visit her grandparents in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  It goes like this:

It had been a rough night.

We were staying at my parents’ house near Asheville and the girls were having trouble sleeping in unfamiliar beds.  It took a long time to get Ellie down and when I got to my room I found Catherine, my youngest daughter, snuggled up beside Christy with her head on my pillow.  I tried for several hours to sleep on the six-inch strip of mattress she had left to me, but finally staggered back to Ellie’s room and crawled in beside her.

At 5:30 the next morning she called my name.

“Daddy?”

“Umph?”

“I think I hear snow falling.”

And slowly i came to, and more slowly still I found myself glad again for children, for their innocence and imagination.  Only a child would lie awake listening for a sound that can’t be heard—snowfall, or the hooves of reindeer on the roof.  Think how much more sleep we would get, and how much more life we would miss, if it weren’t for them!  I reached for Ellie’s hand, and together we lay in the darkness, straining our ears for the imperceptible sound of falling snow.

It was much later in the day that I thought how much Christmas is just like that.  In all the noise of this season those of us who believe hold hands and strain to hear the sound of Incarnation.  Above the roar of jingle bells, office Christmas parties, and the unwrapping of gifts we listen for the imperceptible hush of God breathing through human nostrils.

And some of us would swear that we hear it.