Building Covenants Between Us
At last Sunday’s Scripture Study, we looked at the difference between contracts and covenants. A contract is a legal document that outlines the expectations and responsibilities of all parties in a transaction. It often includes protective language to limit the liabilities of whoever drew up the contract in the first place. When negotiating a contract, we typically seek to get the most we can at the least cost. An example of a contractual relationship that was raised last Sunday was that of the doctor-patient relationship.
Once upon a time, this relationship was more covenantal. Doctors lived in the same town as their patients, went to their homes when the patients were ill, and probably knew the whole family. Although medical expertise was important in a doctor, the supportive interaction itself provided a good part of the healing. Doctors could be supercilious and paternalistic, of course, but they generally focused on maintaining a professional dna caring connection.
Now, most doctors have contracts with hospitals or insurance companies that place resource limits on the relationship. We seem to have lost the sense of covenant we once enjoyed with our medical providers.
This shift from covenant to contract is common in many areas of culture. This is not all bad. Contracts provide safeguards for vulnerable people, such as employees who might otherwise not have sick leave or overtime pay. Laws require protections for renters and homeowners that ought to be part of every rental or remodeling contract. Sometimes contracts are adversarial, but they don’t have to be, and they do have their place.
That place, however, is not in worshipful communities or marriages. If you are looking for open-hearted, caring interactions, it’s more helpful to talk about covenants than contracts.
But what are covenants?
How We Treat One Another
Covenants describe how we want to treat one another. Do we want to be polite, generous, and compassionate? What about being honest? Should we encourage listening? How do we respond to belligerent or ignorant actions? What if someone has an uncontrolled mental illness? Who holds us accountable? How do we create safe space for one another?
The answers to these questions won’t come quickly. They are complicated. Even when we figure out our answers and draft a covenant, the agreement won’t exist once and for all. Covenants are living documents, meant to be reviewed and reconsidered. As we grow and change, and as our community shifts, we may decide to emphasize different aspects of our relationships with one another and as a community, and processes for healing and restoration may evolve with time.
Regardless of how the covenant changes, its core must always be about relationship. The covenant must address the ground of healthy relationships: respect, integrity, generosity, and love. If we intentionally set a goal of acting from such deep kindness, we as individuals will be transformed, and in this way, so will our community.
The Rabbi’s Gift
A story retold by William J. Bausch, M. Scott Peck, and others shows the difference between fulfilling the contract of a community and treating one another from a place of compassion, generosity, and loving kindness. Bausch’s version goes something like this:
A monastery had fallen on hard times. Once a thriving place, with lots of monks, regular visitors, lush gardens, and well-kept buildings, now only the abbot and a few brothers lived there. They felt stressed trying to keep the place up, and they grumbled to one another. Hardly anyone visited. The only good thing that ever happened was that every once in a while a rabbi would come to pray in a shack in a clearing on their land. His presence so filled the area with love and light, that somehow, they always knew when he’d arrived.
Once, when the rabbi was in the woods, the abbot decided to visit him. He arrived at the man’s hut only to find him in the doorway, his arms open, as if he’d been waiting for the abbot to get there. They embraced, if they were long-lost brothers. The rabbi welcomed the abbot inside, and they sat at an table that had a Torah open on it. Silently, the two gazed at the book, and then the rabbi started to cry. Unable to contain himself, the abbot cried, as well. Together the men wept until they had no more tears.
The Rabbi’s Teaching
Drying his face, the rabbi said, “You and your brothers are worshiping God with heavy hearts. You have come to ask something of me, and I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once, and then you must never speak of it again. Do you agree?”
The abbot agreed.
“The Messiah,” the rabbi said, “is among you.”
The abbot gaped at him.
“Now you must go,” the rabbi said.
Again, the men embraced, then the abbot left and trudged back to the monastery, his mind heavy with thoughts.
The next morning, he gathered the monks together. He told them that the rabbi had given him a teaching, and that he could tell the brothers what it was, but he could only tell them once. Then they must never again talk about it or tell anyone else.
When the monks agreed, the abbot told them, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”
Living As the Messiah
The brothers were amazed. They stared at one another, trying to imagine grumpy old Joseph or forgetful Thomas or stingy Andrew being the Messiah. What could this mean? And what if, each man wondered, he was the Messiah himself? Was it possible to be a messiah and not know it? The teaching puzzled them, but they did as they told and never mentioned it again.
In a short time, a change came over the community. The brothers treated one another with reverence. Kindness and gentleness became the norm. They forgave slights and mishaps, and they appreciated one another’s gifts. Each man not only acted toward the others as he would toward a messiah, but each one tried to act like a messiah himself, in case he was one.
After a while, the entire monastery felt warm and welcoming. Outsiders began to notice, and people came to visit, wanting to enjoy the glow that surrounded the monks. New brothers joined. With their renewed energy, they spruced up the grounds and buildings, and music and laughter filled the rooms.
By that time, the rabbi had stopped walking in the woods. The shack had fallen apart. Yet the magic of his teaching lived on in the monastery where it became the norm to treat everyone, even themselves, as if they were the Messiah.
Dealing with Broken Agreements
In all our relationships, we make agreements. Usually, these agreements are unspoken, which is fine if everyone is kind and generous, but in most cases, we are not, at least not all the time. Relationships can become stiff, distant, and corroded. Talking openly about communication and how we want to be treated does wonders for intimate relationships.
Such openness can do wonders for communities, as well. That’s why we create covenants. They make expectations clear, give us guidance in how to behave. They also provide a vehicle for healing and restoration when rifts occur and we hurt one another.
During last week’s Sharing, we talked about our First Principle, which honors “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” It’s hard to believe that’s true. Does everyone have inherent worth and dignity? What about mass murderers or serial rapists; terrorists or torturers? Does a spark of blessedness or even decency dwell within them? Were they truly born with something beautiful inside that perhaps could someday be blown into beloved flame? If so, should we not try to reach that shimmering coal?
Keeping the Community Safe
Yet even if there is, how do you keep a community safe when cold and calculating individuals hide their spark so deep not even they can see it, so deep no breeze can touch it? By trying to help the perpetrator whose heart is empty and whose soul is shriveled, do we risk hurting others?
Even if we could always know for sure who is who evil and who is not, it isn’t only evil that disrupts and dismantles communities. What about severe mental illness, active addiction, people who can’t control themselves? What about those who manipulate not out of some lack of empathy, but because their wounds make them so scared they don’t know how to behave any other way.
Can we really help everyone? In the same circle? At the same time? Might there come a day when we must send someone away? Who and what is unredeemable? Or is it less about the other person, and more about our own limitations? We have them, after all. Perhaps we need to figure out what they are, so we know who we can, and who we cannot, serve.
Covenants and the Messiah
I don’t have firm answers. We try to protect the vulnerable by creating covenants that include expectations of behavior and guidelines for those who haven’t experienced much kindness in their lives. After all, we want people to feel comfortable sharing who they are and what they need.
That is why, on October 9, we will start the process of building a covenant together, coming up with goals and hopes and promises. It will not be easy, and it will take time.
In the process, we might might discover ideals and motivations we didn’t know were there. We might learn to speak honestly about our aspirations, hurts, and stories. Perhaps for the first time, we might consider not only how we ought to treat others, but also how we want to treat ourselves.
Regardless of the covenant we create, or with whom we develop it, or even if we build one at all, no covenant will inform healthy, loving relationships or community unless it is grounded in deep respect and compassion. Perhaps the first covenant we ought to make is to treat ourselves and each other as if one of us is the Messiah. Or perhaps we should act as if we are all Messiahs.
In faith and fondness,
Photo Credit: By Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606 – 1669 (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons