There are times, though, when it proves to be impossible to keep a promise. Which causes consternation. I have seen this frequently in the case of teenagers (including my own teenaged self). We make a promise to a friend to go to the movies this Friday night, and then parents come along and explain that we have to go and visit our grandmother on Friday night, and then we wail, "But I promised!" More sophisticated teens may add an explanation that this is a matter of personal integrity, that parents must give way to the teen's sense of responsibility to peers.
There are others who simply cannot make promises. Promising seems like too much of a commitment. We might not want to promise simply because we might worry that things won't work out and then we will disappoint someone or let them down. (And someone wails, "But you promised!!!) Or we might worry that we will feel hemmed in, because we want to reserve the right to change our minds or just to be free from feeling responsible or just free. (Sometimes this is called "commitment phobia"). So we qualify our promises (calling upon some version of "the Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise") or we just won't promise at all. And we try to get others to see that this is normal.
Then there are the times when we make promises that we simply should not make. Either because we promise out of a sense of guilt, or because we are manipulated into the promise, or because we get kind of puffed up and imagine we have the right or authority to promise something that is not ours to deliver. How many of us have promised to fix something that we simply could not fix? How many of us have felt that if we made a rash but heartfelt promise (like in the movies), the cosmos would somehow rearrange itself so that we would somehow have the ability to make good on it?
This promising business is actually one of the things I really like about being an Episcopalian. We do make promises, pretty regularly, but we always make them in the context of being both assisted by God and being upheld by the community. When a person is baptized, they or their godparents make promises and then those assembled promise to uphold those persons being baptized in their Christian life. When a couple comes to be married in the church, they each make promises to each other before God and everybody, and then all those assembled promise to uphold those persons in their marriage. When people stand up in church and make promises as individuals, the other people there make promises, too. We believe that God has made promises to us, and we believe that there are promises we ought to make in response - the promises we make in the baptismal covenant. We promise to be in community and to attend to our formation through study and prayer and participating in the Eucharist; we promise to repent when we go astray; we promise to witness to our faith; we promises to love neighbor as self; we promise to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.
But we promise "with God's help." And we promise among those who promise to support us. We are not just out there all alone, flapping in the breeze and buffed by the storms. We are upheld by God and by the community.
Not that this makes promising a cinch. It is not easy to uphold persons in their marriages in our society; it is not always obvious or easy to know what we should actually DO that might constitute upholding a person in their life of faith. It's not easy to know when or how to make good on our promises even if we want to.
But I like the exercise. And I think that when we do this over and over, it sinks in, and we naturally begin to act as if we are upholding those others in the community in their vows. We naturally begin to make good on our promises, sometimes without knowing we are doing so, just by being in relationship with those others.
Because that is the bottom line. The basic promise we make is to be in relationship with God and with others, and then we live that out as best we can, with God's help and being upheld by God's people.