Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and beyond.
May 7, 2019
With Heart, Soul, and Mind:
Honoring Our Commitments and Keeping Life Connections in Balance
"It always helps to have people we love beside us when we have to do difficult things in life."
I've been thinking more and more about covenants these days. The truth is, I have a number of them. They include my covenant with God...with my wife, Susan, and her family...with our daughters, Lindsey and Kelly...with my church....with my colleagues in ministry...with my brothers, Mark and Gordon and their families...with several groups in the community that I am a part of. I have a number of covenants in my life.
But what does it mean to see life as a series of covenants with others, as opposed to living life in some other way? I think it makes a great deal of difference how you respond to this question.
To begin with, the word covenant is both a noun and a verb. The noun means an agreement that is formal, solemn, and binding. As a verb, it means to undertake a pledge, a promise, or a vow.
The word covenant comes from the Latin word con venire, which means a coming together, and it assumes that two or more parties come together and agree upon some promises with each other. The concept of covenant also appears frequently in the Bible....280 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and 33 times in the New Testament texts...so you know that it is important in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In fact, while the Biblical concept of covenant has a male-oriented history to it, the idea of covenant goes way back in time in terms of things related to God...all the way to Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, David...and the Israelites as a people. And as the Gospel spreads, women such as Priscilla, Phoebe, and Lydia take on leadership in the emerging church and clearly they have a covenantal connection to God as well. So one could easily say that in terms of people of faith, covenant matters a great deal.
And...covenant was a vital concept to John Wesley's understanding of the Christian faith. The first Covenant Service that Wesley performed took place on August 11th, 1755 near London with 1800 people in attendance, renewing their baptismal vows... and re-upping their covenants so to speak. Some observers say that the Covenant Service and prayer that Wesley developed are one of the distinct contributions of Methodism. For more details on this history and practice, click here.
So when Wesley ask his fellow Methodists to respond to the following question in their various small group settings, "How is it with your soul?" he might have added the question: "And....how are your covenants working out these days?" It would have been a nice blending of his concern for personal piety and social holiness. It is a bit like the ancient expression "your word is your bond." This concept speaks volumes about who one is as a person...and what one values in life. Covenant has an incarnational quality to it.
For me, the concept of covenant is represented by a series of connections that begin close to home and expand outward, involving others who are a part of my life in various ways. Which means, when you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, your first covenant is starring at you face-to-face, because the status of your covenants with others says a lot about the promises and commitments you make between yourself and God...and this cuts to the very core of your being. So how is this, primary commitment going for you?
And...in your love relationships...and community commitments, how have you upheld your covenants with those around you in ways that honor the social compact? These questions aren't ask to make us feel guilty or frustrated or forever inadequate in our relationships with God and others, but instead I raise them so that we might return to the very ground of our being...and re-consider how we relate to our world.
I don't know about you, but sometimes I find it difficult to keep my various commitments and covenants in balance with each other...sometimes because of time...sometimes because of competing interests.
So sometimes my covenant with Susan and others in my family are thrown out of balance because of my desire to honor my covenants with those I work with at the same time (it's what today is often referred to as "maintaining a positive sense of work-life balance").
And sometimes my covenant with God, which includes a commitment to certain values and expectations, can cause strains in the covenants I have with others, even within the church, because our values and commitments take us in different directions. We see this now within the life of the church as people who hold different beliefs try to remain in connection with each other over issues that they do not see in the same light.
It can be a challenge to hold a variety of things that you value deeply in balance with each other...and with integrity because the concept of covenant is about primary things.
It would be much easier to have a single covenant and call it good, but that's not what happens in a relational world. "Coming together" doesn't just happen with a single relationship or in isolation from other factors in life. Life just isn't that simple...but honoring what we value most in life is central to everything else and making this work out on a daily basis isn't always easy to do.
The truth of the matter is that we live in a transactional world in which we exchange goods, services, and time with each other every day. And...there are lots of competing interests. So, how do I maintain those values and relationships that are most important?
Well...part of it has to do with the nature of covenants themselves. Covenants have a very different language associated with them that has to do with commitments, investments, partnerships, and the "coming together" with others. So covenants are always about moving toward others...building relationships, creating trust, and valuing those around us with a sense of respect and esteem. And...this involves a different, deeper level of spiritual connection than is true with simple transactions. Covenants demand that we don't over estimate our own sense of importance...and that our attention is focused on the needs of others as much as it is on our own well-being.
Consider Wesley's Covenant Prayer, in which he speaks about our relationship with God:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
Put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing.
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
It is not always easy to keep our lives and our covenants in complete balance, but it is critical that our understanding and value of them remain central to our lives and a part of our daily consciousness, because without our covenants with others, we would be traveling alone. In fact, the opposite of "coming together" is falling apart.
So how is it with your covenants these days? I pray that you will find ways to nurture, honor, and renew them in your life, trying to hold them in balance with each other. For without keeping our covenants, it would be difficult to start each morning, looking in the mirror and being at peace with one's self and God.
Blessings on your journey,
Lowell Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. It seeks out where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities.
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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