Faith Matters: Covenant as an art: How caring for others puts us in touch with God’s love

The Rev. James Koyama, pictured here reading a book to his grandson, is the pastor at the First Congregational Church of Montague.

The Rev. James Koyama, pictured here reading a book to his grandson, is the pastor at the First Congregational Church of Montague. CONTRIBUTED

By THE REV. JAMES KOYAMA

Pastor, First Congregational Church of Montague

Published: 03-01-2024 11:34 AM

I’d like to share a recent experience with you and what it says to me about being part of the church in our world. Quite recently, one of our members passed away. He was a man beloved by many, who I came to know near the end of his life.

When we celebrated his life, we ran out of bulletins. It was something we might have foreseen because he knew a lot of people. But we didn’t, because the impact he made on the world around him happened in an often quiet and unassuming way. He was the kind of person who would be comfortable striking up a conversation with a stranger, slipping seamlessly into your comfort zone without your even noticing it.

I had the pleasure of sitting with him on his porch and conversing with him and had the sense that he was genuinely interested in my well-being and that he took the long view on how relationships develop. In other words, he seemed content to let things unfold and that he avoided drawing conclusions too quickly. I think he was wise enough to know that winning an argument is usually a lot less important than understanding who you are talking to.

I could go on, but what I am saying is that he knew how to relate to people as someone who intentionally nurtured those skills. And I bring up his behavior because it is in such stark contrast to the way so many of us react in the presence of strangers today.

The man I am speaking of is one of many elderly people who have either gone on before us or are still present in our midst and who gently apply the same kinds of skill. And because I am a pastor who has spent my career in the church, I’ve spent a lot of time with people like this. Maybe you have been fortunate enough to have people like this in your own life — people whose kindness and willingness to be a friend is so sincere and natural.

The people I am describing are people whose lives are an expression of something called “covenant.” A covenant, religiously speaking, is a vow that we make to conform all our relationships to the love of God. Biblical religion is rooted in covenant. And so, when people become part of a church, they typically enter into such a covenant. In other words, they commit to the well-being of others in as wide a circle as possible.

For many independent minded and individualistic people, these bonds can seem odious, like being put in a straightjacket of rules or like being chained to a heavy obligation. Folks who see it this way are quick to flee.

But I think that this is a misunderstanding of covenant. Caring for others in a way that helps them flourish puts us in touch with God’s love in a way that deepens our lives and awakens us to a greater and more lasting joy. It feels good to do things that are good and that connect us with others.

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My feeling is that we ought to think of the challenge to live in covenant as being an art — an art that has everything to do with learning how to make friends. It requires all the kinds of skills that our late friend quietly and steadfastly practiced and refined. He neither yanked on nor gave too much slack to those invisible cords of relationship. He knew them to be the golden cords by which to make the world a better place, and so he managed them with respect; patiently and wisely and without fanfare. And in doing so, he made a lot of friends and made his own life and ours more beautiful.

Here are a couple of good questions you may like to ponder during this season of Lenten reflection. “How many friends do I actually have, and where am I when it comes to the art of making friends?”

The Rev. James Koyama is the pastor at the First Congregational Church of Montague Trinitarian, a member church in the United Church of Christ. The church is located at 4 North Street in the heart of Montague Center. Worship and Sunday School are at 10 a.m. on Sundays, followed by a social hour and refreshments. Choir practice is on Wednesday nights at 6:30 p.m. See our website for scheduled events montaguechurch.org or call us at 413-367-9467. All are welcome!