Keeping one’s word: So simple, so difficult. My story.

“I shall come into Thy house with burnt offerings; I shall pay Thee my vows” (Psalm 66:13).

During seminary days, I served a little church on Alligator Bayou some 25 miles west of New Orleans.  We moved into an apartment in the back of the church and lived there for the next 30 months.  The Cajun culture was a new experience for this Alabama farm boy and the church proved a blessing from beginning to end.

In prayer meeting one Wednesday evening, someone asked a question about a scripture. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll look it up and get back to you.”  Afterwards, Earl, a middle-aged member of the church, pulled me off to one side.

“The pastor before you was always promising to look up something and get back to us. But that was the last we would hear of it.  If you tell someone you’re going to get back to them, pastor, do it.”

Earl, as I was to discover, could be a little caustic in his counsel, but he was on target with this.

Nearly a half century later, his words still ring in my mind.

However, I blush to admit, these days I occasionally find that I’ve promised to get back to someone and haven’t. That bothers me a great deal.

The way it happens would have sounded like science fiction when Earl first passed along his advice.

It’s called the internet.

The only reason I’m sharing this now and in this manner is that I imagine it’s far more common than one might think.

I have two email accounts and also receive mail through the personal messages box on Facebook.  In a typical day, this may involve 50 or more messages.  These notes fall into three categories: spam (easily deleted), optional (these are usually regular mailings I signed up for but rarely have time to read; not so easy to delete since I hope to get to them), and legitimate (messages from people with Bible questions, requests to use my cartoons or permission to run an article, invitations to speak, or updates from family members. These are keepers and need a response.).

Soon, my in-box begins to bulge at the seams, with two or three hundred “kept” messages. Most I’ve answered, but did not want to delete just yet. Some I still intend to deal with.

Here and there among that “stack” of mail will invariably be messages from a few people who sent photos of family members. “Can you draw this for me?”  “Our pastor is having an anniversary. Can you do his caricature?” “Can you draw me for Facebook?”

I almost never turn anyone down.  If they’re willing to take it in black-and-white without my having to go to great lengths (coloring, adding details, changing the expression on grandpa, inserting a person from Photo A into the mix on Photo B), it’s not that big a deal.

But sometimes I forget.

This week, in my office at the church, I noticed in a stack of papers a first attempt to sketch a family from a photo they had sent two months ago. Reviewing the messages from that time, I see I had not so much “promised” to do it the following week, but had left that impression.

I drew them quickly, scanned it into the computer, saved it, went to the mailbox and wrote them, browsed til I found the drawing in my “pictures” file, added it, and pressed “send.”

An hour later, they said they love the drawing.  All is well.

The problem is there are several others waiting to hear from me.

Complicating matters, I can’t locate their emails with the photos. I wrote one friend asking him to resend his photo, that I seem to have deleted the earlier one he had sent.

A promise made but not kept feels like something from yesterday tugging at me, holding me back.

Likewise, filling a promise feels wonderful.  “There! Got that done!”  I seem to breathe better.

My wife asks, “Why can’t you just say no?”

I was never very good at that.

Am I a people-pleaser? Maybe so. Given a choice between disappointing a friend and pleasing him or her, I’ll choose the latter every time.

I’ve written here previously how I admire people with such a strong sense of God’s purpose and calling that they are able to say ‘no’ to otherwise good invitations and reasonable requests for the simple reason that they do not fit with the Master’s plan.

When someone turns down a request I made to them–can you speak here, write this, serve on this committee, chair this one–I understand it and even admire them.

I just have a hard time doing it myself.  Doing a friend a favor is such a simple thing.

Pastors deal with hundreds of people at every level: church members, church employees, denominational leaders, colleagues in other churches, neighbors, friends of the family, family members themselves, and so forth.  It’s so easy to make a promise and then move on to the next item on our agenda and forget it.

I expect we’ve all done that.

I hope we can agree to cut slack to those who promised us something but who haven’t lived up to it.

I hope someone is cutting me some.

Yesterday, it occurred to me that a week ago a friend had left a phone message for me to call her.  I was driving at the time and could not deal with this, but accidentally hit “delete” when I went to save her call.  So now I did not have her number.  Well, I could find it when I got home. Send her a Facebook note or something.

By the time I got home, I had forgotten all about it.

So yesterday, when this hit me, a sense of panic washed over me.  Oh no!  “Lord,” I said, “she’s a sweet lady and will not be offended. But let her call me again.”  Two hours later, as I was walking on the levee beside the river, the phone rang.  She and I chatted and swapped prayer requests for the next 20 minutes as I completed my walk.

The only solution for right-brained people like myself who do not keep good records and promise things in good faith but which we promptly forget may be to ask the Father to remind us.

And determine to do better.



7 thoughts on “Keeping one’s word: So simple, so difficult. My story.

  1. Great column. I have new respect for forgiveness and promises after reading Lewis Smedes’s papers on both ( available on Chrisitianity Today) website. Forgiveness allows us to control our past and keeping promises allows us to have some control over our future. We are all guilty of your lapses. I am a physician and had an older physician years ago give me advice similar to Earl’s advice to you. People expect their doctor to follow up on his promises. Love your work and read it every day. Bob

  2. Just, Thanks. Your years of serving the King has left you with much wisdom and I’m glad you share it with all of us who read your articles. Thanks.
    Secure in Christ,
    Pastor Mark

  3. Having lived with “Earl” for over 18 years, I would say that he is more than a “little” caustic. The fact that you and he remained friends long after you left shows how strongly you walk in grace and love. Didn’t you preach his funeral?

    • I am more than amazed, Iris, that a) you read this and b) you recognized your father. 🙂 Thank you. I loved the old curmudgeon, but then, I didn’t have to live with him. (Another smiley-face! ha) Yes, I did his funeral. Wonder how he’s getting along in Heaven? (third smiley-face) –Joe

  4. It is said that C.S. Lewis felt compelled by the spirit to answer every piece of fan mail that he received. This was before Narnia and many of his great works. At first it was easy, but then after many of his popular books hit the shelves his mail load became what he called the “bane of his existence “. He often had to outsource some letters to his brother to write for him just to keep up. Yet he continued to keep this commitment and promise and answered every piece of mail numbering into the thousands. After his death many of these letters came forward from adults and from letters written to children. Many of these letters have been compiled into volumes and other books for anyone to now read. Many of them are short notes, but many have well thought out theological and practical advise and wisdom that is to the benefit of so many today. What a blessing that although he didn’t understand this compelling instruction to respond to all these letter, God did. We are blessed by his kept commitment and faithfulness. Just thought I would share.

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