One of the remarkable things I witness—as a pastor—is the covenantal love of spouses, especially as they get older. Yesterday, I spoke with a man I have known for forty years. He is a man full of life, married to a woman who has lived with deep devotion for God. They have been a steady, godly, presence in my life. But his wife’s health is beginning to seriously decline. There are less freedoms. He is now his wife’s principal caregiver. He must be her eyes, attending to her ever present needs. There is no complaint. He describes his work in terms of privilege, devotion, loyalty, and love.
After talking with him (and BTW, he always calls with the intention of encouraging me!), I sat down with another congregant whose wife is on kidney dialysis. He must take her for treatments three times a week, enduring the long waits. He too is her primary caregiver, and has been for years. We once stood together next to a hospital bed, where the doctors said it would only be hours before her transition to eternity. Years later, she is still living life, but requiring his constant care. He looked unusually tired and weary yesterday. Caring for another when you are deep into your own older years has its costs. But he too has no complaint. It comes with “till death do you part.” It is an understood part of marriage. It is at the very heart of covenant, promise, pledge, pact (take your choice). It is the necessary reference point.
These stories help to answer a question brought up at staff meeting yesterday. We have had unending discussions about church membership. Should we require membership? Does it really matter? How can we get people to join, given that well over half have not made such a commitment? Some of the staff are uncertain how to answer when a congregant says, “I attend your church, but I am not into the membership thing.” Or, “I just don’t believe you have to be a member to go to church.” Or, “Membership seems so rigid, legalistic.” Or, “I just have not valued it enough to take the time to declare with my signature, ‘I am in.’”
These responses seem to parallel those that say, “I am not into marriage. Living together gives us a greater freedom.” Or, “We actually have a better relationship because we have not conformed to the traditional expectations of marriage and vows.” People today much prefer living together without the confines of contract.
But then I go back to the covenantal love I witnessed today, the love of two people who say, “I am here through thick and thin. After all, I made a vow. I am committed to you. I have signed on the line with my heart.” Truth is, meaningful relationships require covenant. In his book, Five Smooth Stones, Eugene Peterson notes that the main structure of any relationship between people is covenant. Without it, there is no assurance we will be there when times are difficult. In our fallenness, we have this tendency to be fair weather people—there only when the sun is out. There when the marriage is good or one’s health is strong. There when we like things in the church. There until things get too hard in the relationship. There until a pastor leaves.
God, in His very nature, is a covenantal God. The relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit, are all based on love, loyalty, and covenant. It is obvious in Scripture they live in unceasing devotion to one another. And amazingly, God has chosen to enter into a similar covenant relationship with us. He says things like, “I will never, ever leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5). Covenants, it turns out, form the backbone of the metanarrative of Scripture. So it is not surprising that this is the kind of relationship He calls us to have with one another—be it in marriage, friendship, or church.