What is in a promise? Is it something we say, something we do? In my life, I usually say I will promise to do something. Most of the time, when I make a promise I am making a commitment and that thing gets done. Sometimes, I forget- especially if I don’t write the promise down somewhere. Promises are lived. They are in the agreements we make with friends and family to be somewhere at a specific time. They are in the unspoken ways we promise to care for one another- a parent cares for a child, a friend is there to listen, a partner offers support, a community is consistently present for those who take part.
In my life recently, I have been thinking much about trust, specifically how to build trust with others. Promises can be a foundation of trust, especially when they are kept and followed through on. And I know that when we break an agreement we have with someone or with an entire community, it takes time to rebuild trust and to rebuild relationship.
A few years ago, I had a family member who broke trust with our family. Through a course of events, she began spending less and less time with our family and more and more time with a very controlling partner. It was sad to see this person I loved drawn further and further away from the family. When the relationship ended, many amends needed to be made and, thankfully, she began spending more time with our family again. Trust was rebuilt. Promises were remade. I often wonder what promises she had made to herself that were broken over the course of this bad relationship. And it is my hope she could remake promises to herself about caring for herself, spending time with those she loves, and other promises I will never know about.
See, a promise can never be perfect and it cannot be completely binding. We all make promises and we all break promises. As I read that line, so many situations flood to my mind- times when I made promises and kept them and times when I broke promises, both big and small. A promise can have unspoken conditions, like I care about you, but only if you share the same political views as me. Those moments of finding out the full scope of a promise are decision moments for us, we can choose whether we want to keep a promise or to break it. Not all promises are meant to be kept, whether we intend to break them or not.
For a promise to be made, a relationship must exist. Promises made to a community keep us together. Each week, we promise to come together, to worship together, to be here for one another. We promise to do good in the world, to live out our values of respect, dignity, and interconnectedness in all of our relationships. Sometimes we do better than others. But these promises are the foundation blocks to building relationships in this community. These promises to each other and to this community are our covenant.