REsources for Living
by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
I’ve been going lately to choir rehearsals in a classroom at a school for the arts, so I’ve had a chance to read the posters on the front wall. One poster talks about what the students will do: be respectful of each other, be open to trying new things, do their best, and so on. Another talks about what the teacher will do: be respectful of the students and not yell at the class or humiliate any student.
In short, what they have on the front wall of their classroom is a covenant—a set of promises that people make to each other about how they will be together.
When you’re thinking about covenant, it’s important to remember that a covenant is an agreement, not just a hope. When you have a classroom covenant or a covenant of marriage or a covenant of how members of a church will be together, it isn’t just an aspiration, a statement of how you would like things to be on the best days. It’s a commitment—or it isn’t a covenant.
But then, what happens when a covenant gets broken? What happens if the teacher loses it on a really frustrating day and does yell at the kids? What happens when a student says something mean to another student? What happens when a person who has promised to support and encourage their spouse through all the changes of their lives comes up against a change that they really just can’t stand? What happens when church members get caught up in gossip and start assuming bad things about one another without talking things through directly?
What do you do when a covenant gets broken?
Well, you might want to step back and think about whether the covenant was realistic to start with. Maybe it’s possible for someone you love to change in ways that you really just can’t support. Then you have to go back and re-think the covenant and either change your agreement or decide that you simply can’t be in covenanted relationship at all. That can happen with friends and even church memberships. If someone wants to be a member of a community but can’t—or won’t—behave in the ways that the community has agreed to behave, then the best solution can be to ask them to leave. It’s never easy, but it can be the right thing to do.
But much more often, people just mess up. They had every intention of living up to their part of an agreement, but something falls apart. I know as a mom that there have been more times than I care to count when my plans for speaking calmly and kindly to my daughter have gone to pieces in the face of frustration. I didn’t decide that it’s fine for parents to yell at their kids; I just yelled. Given that all of us human beings are less than perfect, maybe what we need from our covenants is not just a statement of how we agree to be together, but also a statement of how we will come back into covenant when we mess up.
I am imagining a third poster on that classroom wall—or in my kitchen or in a church social hall. It might say:
If I feel you have broken our covenant I will talk with you directly. I will name your behavior and how I feel about it, but not assume that a single action defines who you are as a person. I will be clear with you about what I would like you to do differently, and what, if anything, I need from you in order to make our relationship whole again. If I realize that I have broken our covenant I will go to you directly to apologize. I will name what I did wrong and what I intend to do in the future. I will ask you if there is anything you need from me to make our relationship whole. If you come to me to tell me I have broken our covenant I will listen harder to what you have to say than to my own defensiveness and embarrassment. I will be more invested in making our relationship whole than in being “right.”
The idea of a covenant is a very old one. In the Hebrew Scriptures God makes a covenant with Noah, promising not only Noah, but also all the creatures of the earth that the world will never be completely flooded again. Which is great, but you have to think that the promise never to completely flood the earth has got to be easier to keep than a promise to never yell. Especially if you’re perfect to begin with.
For the rest of us mortals, keeping covenants is not just a matter of making a commitment to how we will be together. It’s also about making a commitment to coming back into right relationship after we mess up, turning over and over again back toward love and truth and compassion, back toward our core commitments of who we are and how we want to be in relationship with one another.