October 2012 Visiting Teaching Message: Honouring Our Covenants
The discussion of “covenants” can be a tricky subject. After all, covenants -especially religious covenants- are personally and privately avowed, making way for potential awkwardness in discussion of honouring covenants. So let’s break it down. What is a covenant?
I know what you are thinking. Covenant = a promise. Cool. But what else?
The Hebrew (Old Testament) term translated to covenant is berith. Berith stems from a root term that means ‘to cut.’ The associated symbolism was in cutting a sacrificial item (usually an animal) wherein involved parties each received a portion, and when combined, the item was made whole. The religious connection was that in covenant with God, we are made whole.(1) The related Greek (New Testament) term translated to covenant is diatheke. This is traditionally interpreted as a legal and binding “declaration of benefits to be given by one party to another.” (2)
When we combine these two concepts, the term covenant is defined as a sacrifice that results in benevolent gain. To be a party to a covenant, we need to have faith, or testimony of the benefits of that covenant.
To be true, the history section of this message emphasises preparation for, and participation in temple and/or marriage covenants, which is a route that I think most would feel is traditional and expected. However, I have previously written my thoughts on the temple here and here and did not feel that this month’s message was necessarily best served with only a temple focus because not all women in the church are endowed or married, or happy about the endowment ceremony or happy in marriage.
So what covenant have we all made outside of the temple? Our first covenant. The same one wherein Christ indisputably participated and partook: baptism. Consider this from the Relief Society magazine:
As faith is the first principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ, so baptism is the initial ceremony. Baptism is twofold, corresponding to the soul, its subject, which is both spiritual and temporal. It signifies for that soul rebirth and illumination.(3)
I love this for two reasons. First, the concept of rebirth, because giving birth is a power reserved for the female experience. To me, it is symbolic of the beauty of womanhood, even if we never give birth. It is reserved and owned in the female experience. Second, the illumination of the soul—in all of life’s darkness and difficulties, anything associated with illuminating one’s soul fills me with hope.
Specific for visiting teaching, this makes me think of a fresh start. A real re-birth. Because I hate to break it to you, but life can be hard. Really hard. And sometimes, we need to feel like we can gain a re-birth of soulful illumination, even if we still wake up and life appears the same. We can seek for, and receive the spirit of atoning rejuvenation because we have been baptised. No matter for what. Had a bad hair day? No worries. Bad break up? Bring it. Crazy family issues? Bad job? You are still a great mother and/or employee because you get a fresh start through Christ to be energised to face it all again.
Yeah, I know. Easier said than done. So seek it. What helps the sisters you visit teach feel good about themselves? That is to say, what helps them to honor the concept that they are daughters of God and deserve the feeling of being freshly baptised with soul-filled illumination? In seeking this sense of re-birth, we re-engage with the baptismal covenant to share in benevolent (spiritual) gain.
But before we end it, let’s get to a very real issue: the inability to keep covenants. Now before you think I am telling you to get all judgemental as you visit teach, consider this: way back in the day, I was serving as the secretary of an Institute Council (love April’s post, The Third Counselor). It was a heavy calling wherein we organized singles dances, advertised Institute classes for graduating seminary students and YSA as well as organized activities for 19 stakes. From time to time, members of the presidency, myself included, were assigned to contact the Stake Presidents to ask for support, give updates or otherwise.
One of the first calls I made was to a stake president who chucked at me when I introduced myself. Always the professional, I was undaunted and decided his snickers were something of a mistake that would eventually embarrass him, so it was best for me to ignore. Not so. Within a few minutes, he understood that I expected him to take information from me and do something with it, as per the terms of my covenanted calling. He was disinterested, and asked who my priesthood leader was. I told him, and informed him again that I was fulfilling my calling and my assignment in relaying information to him. He cut me short, and said that he would only accept information from a priesthood leader, not an auxiliary member (um… I think he confused the term “auxiliary” for the term “female.”) The sad result of this was that in this 19 stake-call list, there was a specific group of stake presidents that only accepted information from male members of the Institute Council Presidency. In the end, I could still be true to my covenant in fulfilling this calling because the assignment was adapted away from those who sought to disregard me because I was a covenanted daughter, rather than a covenanted son, of God.
But adaptation is not always possible along the road of covenant fulfilment and enactment. Sometimes, if not always— there will be parties and forces that will impede and block us from acting in truth to the covenants we have made. These challenges can be so disheartening that –well, in that situation, I felt like it was best for me to angrily quit because circumstances (in this case, misogynistic ideology) that left me powerless to fulfil my end of the covenant I had made to do the calling.
We all know this feeling of powerlessness, frustration and disappointment. Indeed, I am disposed to think that most of us are experiencing a degree of powerlessness right now.
From the message:
“When we realize that we are children of the covenant, we know who we are and what God expects of us,” said Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “His law is written in our hearts. He is our God and we are His people.”
In these disheartening situations, remember that you are a child “of the covenant.” You are a child of Christ’s atonement, and your inability to always perform in absolute exactness is perfectly acceptable because of Christ, regardless of the cause of the impediment to perfection. The law of the atonement means our offerings are accepted, no matter how inconsistent they appear in regard to our perceived assignments. In other words, perfection is not for now, and with the atonement, we can experience a spiritual re-birth that allows us to feel the sensation of a fresh start.
How can we encourage the sisters we teach to feel like they can have a daily “fresh start” from life’s challenges? How can we encourage others to stay the course when other people or circumstances block or impede our path to fulfilling our covenants?
Did you notice that I added the traditional ‘u” to the term honoring? Take that, u-less American spelling! (tee-hee!)
(1) Theodore J. Lewis, “The Identity and Function of El/Baal Berith,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 115, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), 401-423
(2) Herman Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 130-31.
(3) Relief Society Magazine, “Lessons”, Vol 2, #4, April 1914, 200-201.