Relationships as Covenants

Professor Jameson said very clearly that his church, evangelical and puritanical, was at the center of his family.  You could only understand them by understanding their faith in Jesus and their deep commitment to Christian doctrine.  His wife nodded.  His teenage daughters nodded.  Even his 15 year old son seemed to agree.

The occasion was an interview that I was conducting for a television pilot.  We wanted to explore—and celebrate, I thought—the great variety of American families.  As I began to explore Professor Jameson’s opening, there was a knock on the one way window that separated us from the camera man and the producer.  The producer was already bored.  The pilot needed something juicy in order to win over his audience.  He wanted to know how the parents dealt with the girls so-far-unexpressed dating desires.  I did too, I said.  Let’s see how a deeply Christian family deals with it.  He wanted to watch them negotiate or argue, which I already knew wouldn’t happen in public, if ever.

Over the next hour, the producer interrupted several times and I never got as deeply as I wanted into the specific covenant that bonded the family together.  That was about twenty-five years ago but I remember it perfectly because it spoke to an idea that has become thematic to me: marriages, families, organizations, and communities who are united by a belief in something beyond themselves, are more securely bonded than those who come together simply on the basis of mutual or negotiated agreement.

The origin of the covenantal idea is biblical.  For example, when Abimelech and Isaac decided to settle their land dispute, they made a binding agreement, a covenant, to live in peace.  When Moses brought the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, their relationship to the Commandments was said to be covenantal, which I think means that the relationship with God sealed and strengthened the relationship between Moses, the secular leader, and his community.  Thus the Jews were said to be people of the covenant.

The best way to describe covenantal relationships may be by comparing them to what might be called transactional relationships.  In the law, these are written agreements or promises between two or more parties, generally “under seal” and concerning some performance or action.  Transactional contracts are quid pro quo arrangements.  I agree to do this if you do that.  If one of us fails, the other is no longer obligated to fulfill his part of the contract.  There is no assumed relationship, no necessary loyalty, and it can end when either chooses.

Free agency in sports is a good example of how this works.  The dramatic change in employer-employee relations, once a lifetime affair, ensured by loyalty to an almost family-style relationship, and now a matter of financial calculation, also illustrates the transactional style.

There can, of course, be common ground between the two types of agreements.  If, for example, both parties believe that the law, itself, is sacred, if the agreement is thought to be not only formal but also solemn and binding, then the agreement might be considered covenantal.  But in most cases this is not so.

The covenantal relationship is more like a three legged stool.  Two people or groups come to an agreement but another force is present.  It could be God.  It could be a shared sense of mission, a shared set of values—something larger, more important than the two people and the particular agreement.  If this is so, any breach in the agreement is a transgression, not just against the other party but also against God or sacred values.  In that case, you don’t violate the terms of the agreement very readily; nor do you leave the relationship with ease.

There is, however, a complicating factor in covenantal relationships: the assumption of free will.  As in a transactional agreement, a covenantal relationship must be elected.  You have to make a decision and, once made, you have to be all in.

The combination of a binding yet freely elected relationship has a paradoxical quality.  If you opt in why can’t you opt out?  How do you sustain the experience of permanence when you have free will?  I believe that solving this paradox is at the heart of virtually all spiritual and religious experience.  At the risk of extending myself way beyond my own understanding, let me propose a few keys to such a solution.

The first is a willing suspension of disbelief.  You simply insist, internally and externally, that the compact is forever—or, as they say, until death do us part.  During the marriage ceremony, for example, we are aware, cognitively, that divorce is a possibility, but we will ourselves to deny it.  The marriage is forever—and we believe it.

This brings me to the second key to sealing a covenantal relationship: ritual.  Over and again, rituals like anniversary celebrations and yearly religious celebrations of Easter,  Passover, and Ramadan consolidate our connection to past, present, and future.  They remind us emotionally, more than cognitively, that the covenant is eternal and sacred.

The third key is to hold both sides of the apparent contradiction—freedom of choice and permanence—together, in one hand, one breath, hold them so close that they touch and inform one another and no longer seem in conflict.

There is one last quality of covenantal relationships that I want to name.  In Hebrew, it is called hessed, which means loving kindness.  This speaks to the day by day quality of relationships, when discipline and spontaneity combine to bring generosity to one another.  By contrast, the binding power of relationships that lack hessed feels obligatory, tolerable, necessary, reasonable.  But not enhancing.  The very nature of obligatory relationships is that they are often bothersome and, in fact, unreasonable.  When that is so, the parties resist.  The thought of leaving can seem practical and relieving.  Leaving becomes easier.  Short of leaving, checking out, living within the relationship but without strong feelings becomes the norm.

When you combine the sacred quality of a covenantal relationship with free will and loving kindness, relationships become strong and life giving.  This is an idea—an image and a feeling—that has come to me late in life.  I could not be more grateful.

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When We Summon Our Dear Ones

With glistening eyes, Lily told us this story: A friend’s mother, still lucid but dying, summoned her dear ones to share her last days with her and with one another.  I know neither daughter nor mother but found myself close to tears, choked up and unable to speak.  The same was true for others who listened to Lily tell her story.  There is something about the word ‘summoned,’ something about being summoned that is immensely evocative.

I picture an elderly woman with clear and commanding eyes and a strong, almost stern, expression on her face.  She’s resting in a large bed, covered very neatly with sheets and blankets.  She tells us that her time has come, that life has been filled with struggles and joy, with beauty and terror—just like this exact moment.  And she accepts this moment.  She accepts the finality.  She wants us to accept it too because, in its acceptance is the secret to a good life.

Of course, I have extrapolated this scene, constructing it in my own image and according to my own desires.  It’s an effort to explain to myself—and to you—what made Jenny’s story so powerful.

But my response may, in large part, be the simple awe that the word to “summon” evokes.  The dictionary tells us that it means to “authoritatively or urgently call on (someone) to be present.”  To me, it has a biblical and mythic feel to it.  Moses summons the Israelites when he descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.  Jesus summons his disciples at key moments.  In Islam, the “Da’wah” of Mohammed literally means issuing a summons or making an invitation.  In every case, a summons brings you into the presence of someone or some thing that is sacred and that speaks directly to the core of your being.

When God calls Moses, Moses answers: “I am here.”  He’s not talking about mere physical presence; not even normal attentiveness.  Moses signals that he is entirely present, with all of his senses.  Every fiber of his being is prepared to receive the word of God.  Here, then, is one of the keys to understanding a summons.  It isn’t just the august quality of the summoner.  It is, equally, the quality of our response.  Our response creates or fortifies a relationship, like no other in its intensity.  The connection is profound.

In all of the Western and Middle Eastern traditions, the connection is first initiated by a prophet, then built into a covenant between the prophet and his followers.  In its simplest sense, a covenant is an agreement among people.  But it isn’t the same as a contract, a quid pro quo among people that says “I’ll do this if you do that,” and can be severed at each person’s will.  It is stronger because it involves a third party — shared principles, or revered witnesses, and, in some cases, God.  Leader and followers are bonded together to serve, not only themselves but a higher purpose.

And it involves what Jews, the “people of the covenant,” call chesed, or loving kindness, which means that all transactions among the covenanted people must be infused with this spirit.

Among the most distinctive qualities of the covenantal relationship is that it is freely chosen.  Yes, there is compliance.  Lily’s friend complies with her mother’s powerful summons.   There is even submission.  We submit to the will of the summoner.  So, too, will the people of Israel, Jesus’ disciples, and Mohammed’s followers. This speaks to a powerful human urge, not often articulated in contemporary society, to submit to someone or something that is more knowing and more powerful.  There is relief.  Ah, we don’t have to struggle.  We don’t have to find our own way, at least not alone.  And there is an almost luxuriant pleasure in the surrender.

Yet, the compliance takes on its special meaning because it is chosen.  We are not required to surrender.  We can take another path.  But we don’t.  We choose to submit to the will of another.  And the act of choosing is exhilarating.  We want to leap and yell and laugh with the freedom of the moment.

For some of us, joining these two ideas, freedom and submission, seems confusing.  But living this paradox is at the heart of most religious practice.

So far, I’ve been talking about the person who responds to the call, but what about the person who summons others.  It may be the image of Lily’s friend’s mother summoned her flock that first drew me into this subject, but what does she feel and what might I feel in those final moments?

There she was, in her last moments, not even a religious person, not a person who believed in the afterlife.  In the spirit of dust-to-dust, she is about to disappear.  And, at that moment, she chooses to summon family and friends.  She is powerful enough to do so.  She believes in herself enough to do so.  Imagine: even as she departs, there is efficacy and dignity and the freedom to choose her way to die.

When my day comes, I want to be like this woman.  I want to be lucid and I want to love and be loved by family and friends right up to the end.  But there’s more.  I want to believe that I can summon them to my bedside, not to offer last words of wisdom, but to be with them: to laugh and cry together and to hold one another.  For me, that is a breathtaking image, as vivid and poignant as any afterlife could offer.