Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | August 6, 2008

Breaking the Covenant

“This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear toward me is a commandment of men learned by rote” (Is 29:13 and echoed in Mt. 15:8 )

In reading “The Living God”, discussion of the broken covenant of Israel sticks with me (pp 107-109)… or rather sticks on me like a post-it note, falls off, gets mislaid and ultimately forgotten until uncovered in the midst of one of those millennial “clean out” events I am so good at avoiding. And so I post it here before I forget.

There’s this covenant… I’d prefer to think it applied to another people in another place… to the Hebrews, to those Old Testament types, to the Muslims, to the “Oh my gosh” folks in that temple over there… the one I used to go to. But no, the truth is that it applies to me here and now. I have broken this covenant; I have followed the commandments “of men learned by rote”; and I have been content. No one made me do it: I did quite fine on my own.

So this is not another post about someone else or something else or someone else’s covenant, but about the stilling of my own ardor and love for God. It’s how I came to stand in this ancient Church. And like the darkened soul of a man blown in like a tumbleweed from a bad Western, I remain. Were someone to ask me what I’m waiting for… I don’t rightly know. Could be for the game over in the corner to end, the liquor to run out, or the sheriff to ride into town… can’t tell.

Yeah, and the image is replete with the rest of the usual bad cliches: My family’s done holed up “somewhere in the hills” waiting for “stuff” to blow over; and my “neighbors” here next to me lay back wondering whether I’ll “stick” or turn out just another scarecrow …more dead inside than the last “deputy”. Though I try to look laid back, in truth, the tension sometimes gets me snapping; but it could be it’s just the rest snapping back at me. Don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve got no place to blame anyone… more than likely, they have me pegged for putting on airs ‘bout setting things right or whatever. Seems the only badge I’ve earned is their disbelief; and the only words come to their minds… they’re just too nice to say.

Wish I could say it were better, but like a laser whose light skips a track on a smudged CD… I make this game every Sunday …as if making my way back might make a different ending. ‘Course it doesn’t. But I try… honest. Still each trip I wonder, “As long as I’m not going to get it done, as long as I’m gonna fall short… what’s the dang deal… what’s the bit about making the road as hard as possible? Can’t we lighten up somewhere?”

Yeah… it’s not an existential thought so much as a chuckle or a grumble before stumbling and falling to my knees that maybe we shouldn’t take ourselves …much less our rituals.. quite so doggone seriously. And maybe we could make a little room in here at the bar for refreshing some of those dry mouthed folks outside. Still, as I look both ways and cross, my shoes take me up the steps inside; back before the altar; back within a puff of the swaying, heated incense; serving and singing; and for at least a while these thoughts fall from my mind.

Maybe it’s the smoke…. Maybe it’s ONLY smoke… and maybe not. Maybe as I descend back outside once more, I wonder whether my forgetting is just the hardness of the ride; or whether forgetting is the reason I came… whether I am doing the right thing or whether this is precisely the wrong thing. Maybe I’m not sure… maybe I can’t admit which it is that I’ve come for… so I need these folks next to me. And maybe figuring this out’s just a touch above my pay grade.

And yet what it seems to me is that the short take on the Great Commission is more a measure of my “great” failure than anything more. Maybe my sacraments are broken or incomplete in this way – even here – for it seems as if peace is bought at such a price.. a price that leaves those most loved without, behind, and beyond these doors… then maybe there is no peace. Seems no mystery of this sort… no matter how right the “glory” in other respects… cures the cries I’ve ceased hearing… much less the cries I shake off for not knowin’ how to answer.

My heart knows were this overcome, there’d be a Prodigal’s ring and feast somewhere; but my fingers are bare, and my plate’s still empty. Clearly I misread the part where we were already part of the “family”, mourned over, and no others objected to our coming. We weren’t; they didn’t; and I suspect this is far more in keeping with “what’s right” than I’d wish to grant. Perhaps where we do not mourn those who do not, cannot, or will not hear… perhaps there it is that we have left not just someone else, but something of ourselves behind as well. And perhaps one day…

But for this day… for now, “The Living God” gives hope that the impasse is not yet fixed or set, and there is still time. Where Hosea tells the story of infidelity, and there is a similar descent into wanton ways amidst an abundance of riches, wayward worship, and a time strangely familiar… even here… even now… that is not just a personal journey, but a journey of her people and our journey of faith as well…. here in this story is an answer. For here, the patient husband like the Prodigal’s father returns a portion far richer than “earned” and offers instead that which is granted by Grace:

“I will betroth you to Myself forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Myself in righteousness and justice, and in mercy and compassions. I will betroth you to Myself in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord. It shall come to pass in that day,” says the Lord, “That I will listen to heaven, and it shall listen to the earth. The earth shall listen to the corn, and the wine, and the oil; and they shall listen to Jezreel. I will sow her to Myself on the earth, and will love her that was not loved, and will say to that which was not My people, “You are My people!” And they shall say, “You are the Lord my God!” ( Hosea 2:19-23 )

And I can pray that this may be my portion as well, and it will be enough.


  1. That’s all any of us can do, most of the time.

    But doing it is important.

    Our baptism was our betrothal to Christ, Who is ever faithful. He will find us; He will save us.

  2. Faith is the answer.

  3. Thanks for the words of encouragement.

  4. James, you do have a way with words and I am grateful.

    I was listening to a podcast the other night on OCN. It was all about the wasted time of looking in the past or in to the future in our prayers, thus not meeting God in prayer right in the “present”…right now. I always want to be better, do better, hope for better. I do not stand in the present moment in the presence of God. Thus I miss what He has for me right now…union with Him.

    The speaker, Fr. Mellitos, went on to say, “Say yes to what is present by God’s will, in the present moment.” This is so very hard. But I am not sure why.

    He also said, “The prayer of the heart is being precisely present in the presence of God.”

    Thanks for helping me remember.

  5. Athanasia:

    Thanks for your note. One of the unread books on my shelf… waiting for the right moement… is Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s “The Sacrament of the Present Moment”. Somehow… that moment is always ’round the corner. I suspect it’s a treasure worth more than the others that somehow seem to supercede it. Yet here is a gem that might be on the same train of your thought:

    “… if all knew that saintliness consists of all the suffering which their state provides each moment; that it is not any exceptional state that leads to the sublime heights of perfection; the the philosopher’s stone is to surrender to God’s will which makes everything they do divine – how happy they would be! How clearly they would see that to be a saint there is no more to do than what they are doing, and no more to suffer than what they are suffering; that even what they reject and count for nothing would be enough to purchase the most blessed holiness.”

    “… Just as there was no difference between what the good and the bad thief had to do and suffer in order to become saints, neither is there for souls, some of whom are worldly and others spiritual. Those who damn their souls do so by attempting to achieve through their fantasies what those who save their souls achiever through submitting to your will, and by protesting and grumbling about what those who are saved suffer with resignation. Thus, only the heart is different.”

    Yeah. He adds to this… but I won’t here. So thanks in turn to you for reminding me to pull this book off the shelf and throw it in the vacation suitcase!

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