This Oath We Keep
The year’s end always fascinates me. Though the transition between December and January is technically no different than any other months, it is to us a time of endings and beginnings. This tone is well captured in one of my favorite hymns, “Ring Out, Wild Bells.”
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light.
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old; ring in the new.
Ring, happy bells, across the snow.
The year is going; let him go.
Ring out the false; ring in the true.
Ring in the valiant men and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand.
Ring out the darkness of the land;
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
With the shadow of the old year now behind us, we look to the new with resolutions and goals, pointed at improving who we are or where we are in life. In other words, we are celebrating the death of our old selves and the birth of something better.
Sure sounds a lot like repentance.
This Oath We Keep
Before I go on, let me tell a short story. Once there was a kingdom with many captains of the guard. While these captains were generally very diligent, their men were typically slothful, reflecting the kingdom itself, which was often in perilous disarray.
One evening, a captain who had been guarding the gate with his men all day was asked by the city’s prince to remain on guard through the night, as scouts had seen marauders in the country around the city perhaps looking for ways to sneak in. The captain agreed, he and his men immediately beginning their second watch. But by the twilight, all had succumbed to their tiredness and fallen sleep, that is except for the captain himself.
In the morning, the men arose to find their captain dead, pierced by a stray arrow shot sometime in the night. The prince returned shortly thereafter, inquiring of the men just what had happened. In shame, they recounted their negligence and begged the prince’s forgiveness, which he did knowing that most of his guards often do much the same. Yet as he dismissed them, most returning to their homes, some lingered, turning to the prince and asking if he would give them another opportunity to prove themselves.
“What is to say you will not abandon your next captain as well?” the prince asked.
“Nothing,” the chief-most soldier among them said, “and yet I promise you: this oath we keep.”
If we continued the story, we might imagine that the men falling into their old habits once again leading to another unfortunate event. Or perhaps in their zeal to overcome their transgression from the previous night, these men were able to thwart an attack or raid of some sort. But that is not my focus in telling this story.
Rather, I think about the promise that the one soldier made. He could not guarantee success, and yet he swore that he and the others would keep their oath. This oath then was not perfection. Similarly, we cannot promise perfection and keep it, though we often do at times like New Year’s when we want to figure out how to be our very best selves. Yet there is one thing that we can vow: that we will not give up, nor will we stop trying to be better.
We Vow to Keep Trying throughout Life’s Difficulties
Repentance is not single event, but a process. It is working our best to take upon ourselves the character of Christ as God whittles our weaknesses away. This process includes us making mistakes, even the same ones over and over again, the same sort of thing we do when trying to improve in any aspect of our lives.
And yet, regardless of how complicated our lives are, the response we have to the difficulty we face as we set goals to change and grow need not be. We choose to get up and keep trying. Maybe we need a day to strengthen ourselves before we do. Or a week. Or a month. It does not matter. What matters is that we learn a way a that works best for us.
It is okay to fail and to fall short. We get up, even slowly, and try to move toward the goals that matter most to us. We learn a lot about ourselves as we do. Not only that, but we learn more about where we truly want to end up. Desires change and evolve over time. That’s just a part of life. Through it all, the Savior is there to help lift us up:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
In conclusion, I echo the words of the penitent soldiers from the story. As we set goals and strive to improve, let us have the resolve to endure. It matters not how fast we go, or how ambitious our goals are. What matters is the direction we face as we move, one that carries us closer to God.
Let us vow to never give up, no matter how difficult the way. With such a desire in our hearts, let us say with resoluteness, “this oath we keep.”