Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 22, 2010

Promise and Response: the Spiritual Practice of Relationship

Did you know that “the doldrums” doesn’t just refer to a depressive state, but is also a meteorological condition that occurs at sea when the winds die?  In certain tropical and subtropical seas, at particular times of the year, the wind just goes away.  While this might be preferable to dangerous storms, the doldrums were to be avoided by commercial sailors before ships were powered by steam. 

The meteorological doldrums don’t affect trade nearly as much as they used to, but boats powered by sail still try to avoid them.  I’ve read accounts of solo sailors trying to traverse the oceans, who get caught in the doldrums.  At first, it is just boring.  They spend their time reading, swimming, looking at the sky.  Then it can become maddening, because after a few weeks the loneliness is intense.  Humans are not wired to be completely isolated from human contact for long periods of time.  We are wired for relationships.

Relationship is the spiritual practice I want to focus on this week.

As people of faith, we believe that the reason people are relational is that we are created in the image of a relational God.  God seeks to be in relationship with people just as people try to be in relationship with each other. 

There are some differences between the way we relate to each other and the way God relates to us.  If you ever watch afternoon talk shows like Oprah or Dr. Phil, you see that relationships between people, whether they are dating, married, parent and child, siblings, or friends, is a kind of dance.  One person is afraid to give too much or reveal too much because the other might take advantage.  Each tries to get the host and audience on his/her side. 

We are always afraid of what the other person might say or do to hurt us or embarrass us, so we remain guarded in even our closest relationships. 

Even so, we continue to look for the perfect relationship, which, of course, does not exist.  Imperfect people cannot a perfect relationship make.

In Genesis 15, we see God in the act of symbolically establishing a relationship with Abram.  He is making a covenant.  We usually define covenant as “an agreement between two or more persons.”  That sounds pretty equal, doesn’t it?  But we see here that Biblical covenants, where God is one of the parties, are totally lopsided.  Who is the initiator?  God.  Who sets the terms?  God.  Who makes the promises?  God.  Who decides how the covenant will be sealed?  God.  Who acts out the covenant agreement?  God.

In the ancient middle east, long before the writing of contracts, covenants were sometimes sealed by the custom of cutting animals in half and placing the two halves of each animal apart from each other, making a path between them.. The two parties making the covenant would then begin walking, from opposite ends of this path, between the animal pieces, passing each other in the middle and ending up where the other person began.  They walked between the pieces, declaring that they would be cut in half like these animals if they failed to keep up their end of the covenant.  Thus the practice was called “cutting a covenant.”

Pretty gross, huh?

God directs Abram to bring the animals and cut them in half, making the path between them.  In the symbolic form of fire, God and God alone passes between the pieces.  Abram is the passive observer.

From then on, Abram is asked to continue in that relationship with God, and to establish and maintain relationships with people and with the earth.  He travels, he settles.  He has family, encounters strangers.  Sometimes he is good at the relationship thing; sometimes not.

And so, through the ages, this story comes to us.  It is a story of a God who reaches out, unilaterally.  It is a story of people who respond, or attempt to respond, faithfully. 

Thousands of years later, we are still reaching out and responding to the call to be in relationship.  The season of Lent reminds us that God has reached out to us.  And we turn to one another in response, looking for those in need, caring for those at hand, loving those closest to us.  Sometimes we do this well, sometimes not.  But the call to relationship is always before us.

The promise of relationship is made by God.  God establishes it with the world.  Now it is up to you.  This week, look around for those in need of relationship.  Examine your heart for your own relationship needs. 

Then respond to God and to others, out of your own heart.

For out of the heart, love grows.

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