Renewing the covenant

“He discovered his re-set button early on & there were not many things that bothered him all the rest of his days just because of that.” That recent comment by a site called StoryPeople made me think that pushing our reset button is a good way to think about approaching Lent and renewing the covenant that binds us to God.

Not only during Lent but anytime, perhaps the best thing I can do for myself or anyone else is hit my reset button, reset my relationship with God and with God’s creation, renew the terms of the covenant God made with me and with everyone and everything else. When I’ve realigned myself with the cosmos and its creator, there aren’t many things that will bother me, and I enter into what St. Paul described as a peace that surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:6).

While growing up, many of us were taught as I was, that we were born into a contract with life. We were taught we will receive the best life has to offer if, and only if, we hold up our end of the contract, perform the way life expects us to perform, and be the persons others expect us to be. If we do that, life will reward us appropriately. There’s no free lunch, we’re taught; we’ve got to earn what we want out of life. We’re taught that’s the way it is even with God. I was taught all those things, and I believed them, until I discovered that’s not the way it is with God.

It’s not a contract God makes with us; it’s a covenant, a one-sided relationship in which God gives us everything we need for a full, complete life, and in return asks for only our gratitude and love. Look, for example, at the covenant God made with Abram and Sarai and with all their spiritual descendants, even you and me (Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16). God brought to the table everything life has to offer. Abram and Sarai brought nothing; they were old, far past their productive years. Their age was marginalizing them, and they were losing their influence in the world. And there was no one to carry on the family name.

Abram and Sarai had nothing and needed everything. God had everything, it seemed, but was lacking the one thing God wanted most – a mature human relationship of mutual love. I’m taken with the imagination of James Weldon Johnson in his poem “The Creation,” which I quoted last week. Johnson imagined that when God, out of loneliness, had created almost everything that is,

[God] looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.
Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

We didn’t need God to create us. Creation didn’t need God to create us. In fact, considering the mess we’ve made of things, I sometimes suspect creation might be better off without us. But the sacred story tells us God needed us, and created us, and entrusted all the rest of creation to our care (Gen. 1:26). All God asks in return is that we love God and live grateful lives loving the things God loves as God loves them. All God asks is that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31).

So when Abram and Sarai were almost past their usefulness, God came to them and said: I still love you, and I’m going to give you everything, and I’ll give you new identities, new names – Abraham and Sarah – and I’ll give you multitudes of offspring who will carry on your example of faith. How do we live in a covenant like that? Here’s one way to begin.

Begin with gratitude. Create a place of quiet stillness in your surroundings, a moment of quiet stillness in your mind and heart. Close your eyes, take several slow, deep breaths, and repeat the phrase in your mind, “In this moment, I am grateful.” As you inhale, think “In this moment,” and as you exhale, think “I am grateful.” Do this for five or ten minutes, longer if possible, until your heart relaxes and you feel a sense of gratitude take hold of you. Make it the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you do before going to bed at night. Do it while drinking your coffee or tea, while washing your hands, while washing dishes. Do it every day, and notice what happens.

The traditional disciplines for Lent are prayer, turning toward God and listening to what God says; fasting, turning away from superfluous needs and abstaining from everything that estranges us from God, from our true selves, and from others; and giving alms, doing something to alleviate the concrete needs of others. If that’s too difficult or too complicated, try introducing a daily ritual of gratitude into your life, and celebrate the joy and opportunities you discover within your reach.

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