By: Catherine Larson|Published: August 3, 2009 3:00 PM
The Depths of Covenant (Dappled Light)
As the serpent slithered away from the Garden of Eden, I’m fairly sure he must have brushed past a certain then-harmless ivy plant, growing along the ground.
And when God cursed the ground, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the oils from the skin of that serpent—cursed to crawl on its belly—infected that ivy for the generations to follow. At least so went the fevered thoughts of someone who, after a three-week-long infection with poison ivy, woke up at 4 a.m. to feel her skin literally blistering.
Here’s the scene: It’s our first wedding anniversary, and the first weekend of a long-anticipated vacation in the mountains of North Carolina where we’d said, “I do.” Three weeks before vacation, I’d been pulling weeds in my garden at home.
What I thought was a mosquito bite turned worse a few days later, then worse, and worse. Until finally, with arms, legs, and stomach covered with the stuff, I became the picture of misery. By the time my arm had swollen an inch and a half beyond its normal size and my hand had gone numb, I looked at my husband and told him that it was time to go to the ER.
The rest of the so-called vacation consisted of my husband meticulously caring for me. He made sure that meds were taken at the right hours, helped me to apply a prescription-strength cream twice a day, brought me water in the middle of the night and food when I was hungry, and tried to keep my mind off scratching.
And he didn’t heave a single disgruntled hrumph when our special anniversary dinner plans were canceled and when the tennis rackets, golf clubs, and swimsuits stayed packed in the trunk.
And so it was that somewhere between feeling sorry for myself and wondering if there’d be any way vacation time could actually be counted as sick leave, I realized the opportunity God had given me. I had expected our one-year anniversary to be a little slice of honeymoon pie. Instead, I discovered that God wanted to show me something about the nature of covenant—the “in sickness” part of those vows we’d made the year before.
Itchy, oozy, and cranky, I felt as thoroughly unlovely as unlovely can feel. I’m sure all of us have known those times—times when we know that for someone to love us is just no walk in the park. But when someone does—when someone draws near to that which should repel, when someone holds fast when it would be easier to keep one’s distance—we know what it means to be loved.
It’s a picture of grace. It’s a picture that is supposed to remind us of our relationship with God. God, the all-perfect, binds Himself to that wreck of a bride named Israel. He will not desert her. He has covenanted with her. He has bound Himself to her, and He loves her with a fierce and unrelenting love.
Over the past year, God has given me the privilege to see that dynamic at work in my friendships as well. Several close friends of mine have struggled with ongoing illness of one kind or another. And I’ve done my best to be there for them. Not because I think I’ll get something out of it, but because there’s a voice in my heart that says, as Ruth said to Naomi, “Do not bid me to leave you.”
Aside from my wedding, I’ve never formally made a covenant to a friend like we see examples of in the Old Testament (Jonathan to David, Ruth to Naomi, David to Abner), but I have made them in the quiet of my heart before God. I know that despite whatever cost there may be, I will not let these precious friends go—in sickness or in health.
That’s the thing about a covenant. A covenant is not made for one’s own benefit. It is made for the benefit of the other. It is not made on certain conditions—I will be here for you as long as it is fun for me, for example. And it is not temporary. A covenant is based on that wonderful Hebrew word we see used so often to describe God: hesed—loving-kindness or steadfast love.
And here’s the beauty and joy of covenant, be it in a soul friendship or in a deeper way in a marriage. Covenants enable another person to relax and experience care, to experience the safety that no matter how many bad days or personal foibles they have, you are for them. You are with them. You aren’t going anywhere.
As we begin to relax, as we begin to be the true person we are—fallen, bruised, and wounded, we see ourselves in the eyes of another fallen, bruised, and wounded soul. And we learn the intimacy of brokenness. We learn how desperately we all need grace, how desperately we all need care, how desperately we all need Jesus.
And while covenants are never conditional or self-serving, somehow kindness begets kindness. Look at how Jonathan’s kindness saves David’s life, and how David’s kindness saves the life of Jonathan’s descendant, Mephibosheth. Look at how Ruth’s kindness to her mother-in-law is rewarded by God’s kindness demonstrated to her through the kindness of Boaz. This is the economy of God.
English never exactly inherited a word for this hesed, this loving-kindness. Apparently, in Middle English there was a word for it. It was “ruth.” Today, all we have in our language is the vestige of it, the negation of it: “ruthless.”
It tells me something. We live in a “ruth”-less world. We live in a world desperately void of covenant faithfulness, of steadfast love, of in-sickness-and-in-health kind of kindness. And yet how desperately we need it. How desperately we need to see Jesus extended in the hands of our friends and the eyes of our spouse. And how desperately we need to extend that care in return. It may just be the cure for what ails us.
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