"We use contracts to manage the messiness of living. We use covenant to let our loved ones know we bless the mess"
Do we build our relationship with others based on contracts or on covenants? Henri Nouwen, author, priest and spiritual director wrote that contracts are transactional. You do something for me and I will do something for you. For example, at the beginning of winter, I agree to pay my neighbor and he shovels my walk each time it snows. Or, we tell our children that if they do well in school, we will extend their curfew. Those are contracts. Once we use this filter to view our interactions, we will see that there is a remarkable amount of contractual relationships that we negotiate daily.
Covenants, on the other hand are a one-sided promise. I promise to do something for you regardless of what you may or may not do for me. There is no quid pro quo. These are much more difficult to see; especially if we are looking for them in our day-day encounters. Certainly, marriage vows are a covenant, as is the unconditional love we express for our children and our loved ones. What is interesting though, is that while we “covenant” our love, we work it out on a day to day basis through a multitude of stated and unstated contractual arrangements. How a couple divides up the household chores is a contract. If one partner works full time and the other works part time in order to be with the children, that is a contract. Telling your kids that they can play multiple sports in school, but they must also help with the chores around the house is a contract.
When I first started thinking about these concepts, the idea of covenant seemed like a no-brainer. Of course, I have a covenant with my children I thought. I promise to love them no matter what. I vow to be there for them when they need me. I stand with open arms and a loving heart when they leave and return home. But I must confess that I don’t always live up to those standards. For example, I began to feel as if the relationship with one of my adult children was all one-sided; that I initiated all the contact. I eventually got to the point where I told my child that I was done reaching out. If there was to be a relationship with me, they would need to initiate it. Essentially, I shifted from a relationship that I thought was a covenant to one that was contractual: I will no longer reach out to you until you begin reaching out to me. Predictably – in hindsight – this ended up with a long and painful silent period. I’m happy to say that things are slowly working out, but I know it will take a while before everything is back to where they were before.
My point is: Covenant is difficult, but not impossible. We use contracts to manage the messiness of living. We use covenant to let our loved ones know that we bless the mess. We know that all of us will fail, all of us will falter, all of us will not live up to stated and unstated expectations. But what the covenant ensures is that our failings are not the measure of our relationship. The measure of our relationship is how easily we look over the mess and how deeply we express our love. You are my beloved. And I know that I am yours. That is the covenant.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.