You’re only as good as your word.
I’m telling you the truth, I swear!
Making - and breaking - promises is commonplace, a daily occurrence. Promises are made often and easily broken, leading us to a culture that is jaded when it comes to promise keeping. As author Christine Pohl explores in her book, Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us, making and keeping promises is central to a person’s character and identity. Why, then, is it so easy for so many to make a flippant promise and then later break their word? What does this relative ease with promise-breaking say about society? How can we function as successful, thriving communities if we cannot keep our promises?
“If you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.” - Lewis Smedes
Ms. Pohl attests that we do not really notice the unspoken promises of our culture until they go unfulfilled. We rely on airline and bus schedules operating on time; we expect that afternoon carpool will begin as scheduled; we anticipate the regular coffee and donuts at church each week. We are inwardly grateful when these promises are kept and outwardly angry or frustrated when these promises are broken (even though the airline does not control the weather).
Promise keeping and promise making are connected. Our modern culture’s obsession with individual freedom and personal choices, coupled with “something-better-may-come-along” attitudes, has shifted the focus to making promises that people cannot - or do not plan to - keep. When communities and families stop trying to make and keep their promises, they collapse. “[A] willingness to make commitments to one another remains at the heart of our deepest relationships,” says Ms. Pohl. Our intentions in this moment shape our futures.
“In Iroquois society, leaders are encouraged to remember seven generations in the past and consider seven generations in the future when making decisions that affect the people,” says Wilma Mankiller, first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation.
COVENANTS AND CONTRACTS
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matthew 5:33-37)
The Bible encourages us to let our word, a simple “yes” or “no”, be enough. When we think of operating under contractual obligations, we are “done” when those promises are fulfilled. But, if we instead think of operating under covenantal promises, we are focused on building relationships. By avoiding consumer mindsets, which “shrink relationships to economic transactions,” Ms. Pohl asserts that we can be faithful to our word: “...faithfulness and integrity flourish when there is both truthfulness and promise-keeping.”
At Mount Paran Christian School, the teacher-student relationship is viewed as a covenant of learning, rather than a transactional, contractual obligation. Teachers make commitments to their students, and vice versa, leading to the formation of meaningful relationships focused on a set of shared commitments. And, for 44 years, MPCS has been keeping its promises. The school carries out the weekly activities of learning, growing, and sharing. MPCS begins relationship building with new students through the Peer Mentoring Initiative. The school imagined and is delivering on a promise for the future with the new Murray Innovation Center, thanks to the generosity and promise of donors who believe in this innovative space. Through social media and word-of-mouth, MPCS is sharing its stories of promise making and promise keeping with others who may not know about their special community. All of these are examples of faithfulness, of keeping promises.
THE PROMISE KEEPER
“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19)
Faithfulness is counter-cultural and sometimes sacrificial, but failure to do so leads to betrayed relationships and community erosion. Promises themselves are vulnerable, and we often find ourselves facing conflicting responsibilities in our roles as parents, employees, friends, volunteers, or church and community members. These conflicting fidelities can force us to make tough choices, including living with promises we do not necessarily like. Ultimately, Ms. Pohl says “Our call is fidelity to God rather than to results or success. By spelling out assumptions and expectations, we can hopefully avoid disappointments and broken promises and keep our word to others.
Ms. Pohl does offer insight into promises that are especially challenging:
“Occasionally we so deeply disagree with a commitment or promise that we conclude that to keep it is to ‘break faith’ with true biblical views on the subject. In these cases, a truthful and direct approach with the community seems important. If the problem is a real moral issue, we may need to follow Martin Luther King’s advice for civil disobedience - taking action that is public, loving, and willing to accept the penalty. But in other cases, where the disagreement is less fundamental and we deeply value the community, we will need to abide by promises while working to change the ones with which we disagree. It may be less appealing, but in that way we honor our commitments to the community.”
By staying on-board and helping to effect gradual change, we find ourselves offering our communities the blessing of consistency. And, really, it is that stability and consistency promises help to ensure - for families, companies, communities, and the larger society. It is the ability to continually rely upon one another that builds meaningful, strong, sustaining communities.
This is the third part of a series exploring community-building practices outlined in the book Living Into Community by Christine Pohl. Amber Irizarry is the Communications Content Specialist at Mount Paran Christian School. She earned a Master of Arts degree in Communication from Georgia State University.
To learn more about the Mount Paran Christian School CommUNITY initiative for diversity and inclusion, click here.