Promises We Make, Break, and Renew 1


The First Covenant

Some scholars argue that the first covenant God made was with Adam. This was not a joint covenant, like most modern marriages in Western cultures. Before my husband and I got married, for instance, we collaborated on our vows, considering together the promises we would make.

God, however, did not consult with Adam before deciding on the rules of the covenant. Instead, he decreed that Adam should till the garden and keep it, and that he — and Eve, once she was created — must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Should they do so, they would die. As the story goes, Adam and Eve ate of the tree, so God expelled them from the garden and cursed them with death.

If this seems legalistic, that’s not surprising. In the Middle East, around the time this story was written down, the term often translated as covenant, berit, “originally meant a ‘shackle’ or ‘chain.’” [1] A covenant, then, was an agreement to which the covenanting parties were bound. If one or the other did not fulfill his obligations, he would be punished.

A mother touching her baby's fingers with gentleness - the promises we make to one another

Covenant as Relationship

Today, we are more prone to see covenant as a relationship. We make promises that inform the way we treat one another and the world. Like Adam and Eve, we break those promises, yet a covenant gives us the wherewithal to mend them. Because of covenant, we are more than our individual selves. More often than not, we show ourselves to be faithful, hopeful, and forgiving. As Unitarian Universalist theologian, James Luther Adams, writes, although a covenant is legal, it is not fundamentally that. “It depends upon faithfulness, and faithfulness is nerved by loyalty, by love.” [2] Because love nourishes and supports the promises and covenants we make, when we violate our agreements and break trust with one another, our recourse is not wrath, but reconciliation.

Of course, we have a choice. We don’t have to renew our covenant and reconcile the relationship. Instead, we can turn away from one another and embrace isolation. Yet biblical tradition asserts that God does not want us to isolate, but longs for us to turn back into covenant.

Rain and Reconciliation

In the Middle East, the land is often parched. Although in the north of Israel, as much as 1,100 mm of rain falls each year, which is about how much we receive in Portland, Oregon, in the south of Israel, life survives on some 100 mm of yearly rainfall. Even in the north, though, the summers are dry. Drought is not unknown.

In such a land as this, Martin Buber tells us, rain is akin to resurrection. It represents mercy, forgiveness, salvation. Buber explains that regardless of our human tendency to break covenants and rupture relationships, God does not reward or punish us according to our actions. God longs to shower us with grace. Eternally patient, She seeks out any example of human merit, any “spontaneous sacrificial action” on the part of someone somewhere who, while thinking about something inconsequential and mundane, incidentally performs a random kindness. [3]

God Sees Our Goodness

I’m reminded of a folktale told about a man who, throughout his life, was cruel and dismissive. Though he lived many years, he never did a good deed until one day he happened to be driving his carriage down a deserted road when he turned a corner and spied another carriage teetering over the edge of a cliff. Without thinking, the man jumped down from his own carriage and helped to pull the other one to safety. Before he left, he noticed a bit of dirt that had settled on the driver’s shoulders. Absently, he brushed it off, then jumped into his seat and drove away.

When the man died, he stood before the angel court, watching as his deeds were placed on the scales of good and evil. So many bad deeds weighed down the evil side. His lone, unselfish deed was placed on the good side, and the scales tipped almost to even.

Was there nothing else that he could place on the side of good?

The man remembered the dirt he had brushed off the driver’s jacket. When placed on the good side, the dirt weighted enough to tip the scale in the man’s favor. So intently does God long for us to be with Her, that the smallest of actions could allow an evil man to enter heaven.

God’s Forgiveness

In such inconsequential acts does God see our goodness. It is as if God is trying to save us in spite of ourselves. She forgives our broken promises and brings rain to soothe the land. In spite of all the times we have broken the covenant, there exist in this world a grace, a love, and an abiding forgiveness that will not let us go.

For God, forgiveness is instantaneous. It is easy, if one is God, to renew the covenant time and again, forever and ever. That is because God understands there is no separation between us.

There Is no Separation

On a street corner in Louisville, watching pedestrians and motorists pass by, Thomas Merton “was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that [he] loved all these people, that they were [his] and [he] theirs.” [4] He felt that he had woken up, recognized this dream we have that we are separate beings. He saw the intimate oneness that belies our impression of duality. The joy of the moment spread over him. He longed to share with everyone this truth he saw, yet that would be impossible. “There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun.” [5]

True covenant, promises grounded in love and faithfulness, come from such a realization. If we could understand the truth of reality, Merton explains, if we could envision ourselves as shining suns, we would never harm another being again.

No Hurt

This truth is found in Buddhist teachings, as well. Charlotte Joko Beck, in her book, Nothing Special, dialogues with her students about many aspects of Zen practice. One thing she helps them understand, intellectually if not viscerally, is that our sense of separateness is an illusion. Everything is one thing.

Beck describes this oneness as a central point from which all things emanate. This point has no size, space, nor time. We can’t imagine this point that has both substance and non-substance. Instead, we imagine ourselves and everything else as rays streaming forth from this point, as if our ray were separate from all the other ones. In reality, she says, “each of us is always that center, and that center is us.” We’re all connected; “we’re all just one thing.” [6]

Since we are all one, all the same essence, we cannot hurt one another, nor can we be hurt. What we label “hurt” arises out of the mistaken way we interpret sensation. We decide we like or dislike an experience, yet that is a story we tell ourselves. Our thoughts are not truth. They are part of the illusion.

Absolute Versus Relative

The danger in such a philosophy is that we might assume, if we are one and cannot hurt each other, that we have license to be cruel. This is not true. As Beck says, “If we misinterpret the point and say, ‘I can tell you off because I can’t hurt you,’ already that’s a separation. We don’t attack others unless we feel separate from them.” [7]

In other words, if we think it’s okay to hurt someone because her pain is not real, we do not understand what it means to be one.

This is something of a paradox. In absolute terms, nothing hurts us, and death is an illusion. In practical terms, though, in the flesh-and-blood world we inhabit with our bodies and our minds, we experience pain. We can make that pain worse by creating stories about it, such as that we don’t deserve it or we can’t stand it, but we don’t have make ourselves miserable that way. Emotional and physical pain are nothing but sensations, sounds, thoughts. Certainly we should do our best to relieve our pain. Yet if the pain persists, then we can learn to see it as a manifestation of our own being, a sensation, a part of the oneness. We can avoid giving it meaning, for the meaning we create is what causes our suffering.

Living in the Relative

That’s why Beck tells us that “[i]f others mistreat us or cause us pain, they may need to know about it.” [8] She suggests we tell them, however, from a place of compassion. When we speak in anger, others tend not to hear us. If we want to encourage change, restitution, and reconciliation, we must remember we are all one essence. When we understand this oneness, we can no longer cause one another harm. The possibility won’t even occur to us, because there will be no “other” to hurt.

That is why God forgives everything. After all, God lives in the absolute universe where oneness is obvious. God knows our angry and futile outbursts are but expressions of the energy of the whole. As such, they are impotent and unimportant. We may break the covenant, but the brokenness does not stand. It burns out and blows away like so much smoke. What God sees in us are not our failures and mistakes, but the glowing majesty of our souls.

When we see one another as divine, as one with all that is, we cannot hurt each other. If there is a god who sees and understands our essence, who holds and loves us faithfully, who journeys with us in hopeful covenant, this god will be unable to break Her promises. She will also be unable to cause harm.

The Separation the Allows Relationship

In our limited vision, we forget this. We fail to notice; we believe the fantasy. Then we decide we must protect what we call our “best interests,” and we damage one another’s spirit and body, over and over again.

In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be?, Harold Kushner questions our assumptions about the story of Adam and Eve. For him, our expulsion from the garden was not a punishment for being bad. It was, perhaps, a consequence of choosing a life of growth and change and learning, a life that comes from eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a life of illusion. When we divide reality into good and evil, we assume separation. We end up betraying one another.

Ironically, it is this separation that allows us to be in relationship. If all we knew were oneness, there would be nothing to relate to. In such a situation, covenant would be meaningless.

Renewing Our Promises

We needn’t worry about that, though. We do see ourselves as separate creatures. As such, we believe in the reality of good and evil. Hurting one another and feeling hurt, we break our covenants, over and over again. That’s what makes our promises so important. It’s not that we should expect to live up to them always. We will fail.

Yet when we do, Kushner tells us, the question we should ask is not, “Why were we so bad?,” but “Where do we bring our broken souls to have them mended?” [9]

How do forgive and receive forgiveness? How do we reconcile?

Remember That We Are One

To do this, we must remember that we are one. Within each of us shines a sun that is our essence. As manifestations of that essence, we believe we are alone, separate. So we make promises to one another, hoping that in this way, we might become good. Yet we are already good. The fruit Adam and Eve ate did not teach them the truth of their lives. Instead, it deluded them into believing that they, and all creation, were separate beings.

We continue to live in this delusion every day. How amazing that we can nonetheless promise to love one another. How amazing that, though we betray the trust given to us time and again, we so often move past the betrayal, the pain, and the resentment, and offer each other a forgiveness that allows for renewal. This makes us eminently and divinely human. It is so hard to hold onto the truth that we “are all walking around shining like the sun,” yet sometimes we remember. Sometimes we lose our capacity to hurt one another. Then we dwell in the covenant, that covenant that is grounded in faithfulness, hope, and love.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Boadt, Lawrence, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984, 174.
  2. Adams, James Luther, “From Cage to Covenant,” Redeeming Time, Walter P. Herz, ed., Boston: Skinner House, 1999, 45.
  3. Buber, Martin, On Zion: The History of an Idea, Stanley Godman, trans., Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 43.
  4. Merton, Thomas, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, New York: Doubleday, 1966, 140.
  5. Ibid 140.
  6. Beck, Charlotte Joko, Nothing Special: Living Zen, New York: HarperCollins, 1993, 76.
  7. Ibid 82.
  8. Ibid 82.
  9. Kushner, Harold S. How Good Do We Have to Be?: A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness. New York: Little, Brown, 1996, 43.

Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved


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