Promises to Others


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“Promises to Others”  Second of a Series of sermons Sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely    

September 10, 2017

Reading

A Promise is a Promise  Frank Sonnenberg

Do you think before you make a promise to someone? What if you can’t deliver on your word? Does it really matter? The world isn’t going to come to an end, is it? Well, actually no, but have you considered . . .

Many people are pretty casual about making promises. As a result, promises are frequently made at the drop of a hat with no real intention of keeping them. “Let’s do lunch,” “I’ll call you later,” and “I’ll be there in five minutes” are all examples of throwaway promises that are frequently made but seldom kept. However, this casual attitude can have real consequences.

When you break a promise, no matter how small it may seem to you, alarm bells aren’t going to go off, but it can damage a relationship or your reputation. Think about it — when someone else breaks a promise to you, or gets caught in a lie, doesn’t that make you feel violated or cheated?  You can’t help wondering whether you were wrong to ever trust that person.

Getting away with a lie can also be dangerous because it fools liars into believing they’re invincible and that they have little chance of getting caught. Before you know it, lying can become a habit, forcing liars to spend precious time and energy keeping their stories straight. Once others learn about the lies, some people may forgive, but they surely won’t forget…

There was a time when keeping your word held special significance. We took great pride in being of good character. Personal integrity was both expected and valued. That was a time when everyone knew each other’s family, and you wouldn’t do anything that would cast a shadow on your family’s good name. It was a time when integrity was instilled in children at a very early age and was viewed as instrumental in achieving success. The truth is, our world may have changed, but the importance of integrity has not. While we may not know everyone in our own town, the world is still smaller than you think. Create some bad news and you’ll learn this for yourself.

Every time you give your word, you’re putting your honour on the line. You’re implying that others can place their trust in you because you value integrity and would never let them down. It goes without saying that if you don’t live up to your word, you may end up tarnishing your credibility, damaging your relationships, and defaming your reputation. Most importantly, you’ll be letting yourself down.

But . . . when you operate with complete integrity, what you say will be taken at face value, your intentions will be assumed honourable, and your handshake will be as good as a contract. Most importantly, you can take great pride in the standards that you’ve set for yourself and sleep well at night knowing that your conscience is clear. As for others . . . just when they think they’re fooling the world, they’ll realize that they’re only fooling themselves. A promise is a promise after all.

Sermon

At the end of the month our Jewish friends celebrate their highest of Holy Days, Yom Kippur.  It is the Day of Atonement, the day of making up for broken promises, for dealing with good intentions that failed, for making things right.  It is about becoming whole again, becoming at-one, if you will.

As we delve deeper into the promises we make and those made to us, the Jewish tradition offers some interesting concepts on forgiveness.  They differ dramatically from Christian practices.  In order to atone for sin, the good Jew must go to the person who has been wronged and ask forgiveness directly.

Now, think about that for a moment.  You have broken a promise to someone, perhaps hurt them quite badly even if you had not intended to do so.  And you know it.  I expect most of us know that sick feeling we can get when we have failed someone, especially if they are close to us.  But fessing up to it is hard.  It can require courage sometimes.  The good Jew has to go and connect directly with the wronged party, face the potential of their anger, feel the burning shame of confession and be prepared to do what is possible to make things right.  That’s hard!

The alternative is walking away with this piece of you unfixed, unhealed.  Assuming it happens more than once, you get a person who is increasingly isolated, increasingly cut off from community and affection.  Correcting our course, getting back on the right path is a key to spiritual and mental health.

But what happens if the wronged party is not ready to forgive?  Tradition says you must approach them three times asking forgiveness.  If you are refused each time, then and only then can you seek forgiveness from God.

This reminds us that promise making and breaking are two way streets. At least two people are involved when promises are made to others.  I might screw up and fail to deliver on a promise for all kinds of reasons, and I might feel genuinely sorry for my actions.  But forgiveness goes both ways.  The wronged party has to get past their hurt, be be able to forgive and move on.  That can be hard, too.  Some people can get so wrapped up in the broken promise that they get trapped by it.  Some people simply cannot get past the hurt. They can wear it like a badge of honour or an oddly comforting blanket. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but should it stop the offender from moving on?

Judaism says no, that three tries three genuine tries is enough.  The Jewish tradition recognizes that just as you had no right to harm in the first place, the hurt party has no right to hold the repentant promise breaker hostage.  Some relationships cannot be mended after the breaking of a pledge.  That’s just the way it is.  There is no judgement on either party in this ‘three tries’ practice, but rather a very human acknowledgement that we all have challenges in our lives and all meet them differently.

The expectation is that we have a chance to learn, grow and move toward living better lives having been changed by the experience. Forgiveness is available to all who have genuinely tried to atone.

Directly seeking forgiveness up to three times seems like a pretty arduous regime to me, certainly worse than my Catholic upbringing where I confessed anonymously to a priest, said a few prayers and was absolved.  Or other Christian traditions where a general confession prayer at church seems to cover it.  This Jewish thing has consequences!

And maybe consequences is what we need to strengthen the commitment to keep the promises we make to others. As a minister I am on a list with AA.  From time I am asked to help someone doing their fifth step.  I did one last week with an elderly man trying to get clean again nearly 50 years after his first visit to AA.  In the fifth step people in recovery, having  undertaken an inventory of their wrongs, ”Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”  In step 9 they then go as directly as possible to the person they have harmed and own up to the hurt they have done.  That’s the consequence. It seems that the Friend Named Bill had at least a passing familiarity with Yom Kippur practices.

Last week in a sermon about the promises we make to self I spoke about how the Hebrew Bible is a history of promises made, promises broken and promises remade – mostly between the leaders of the Hebrew tribes and Yahweh.  This High Holy Day is a continuation of that theme.  The message is very simple.  Nobody’s perfect, everybody screws up and everyone has a chance to make good again.

It may seem an odd way to begin to discuss a sermon on the promises we make to others, but let’s face it, whatever our best intentions and even well meaning actions, we are going to screw up and break the promises we make to other people.  Let’s begin with that assumption.

What is it in our make-up that makes promise-keeping a challenge so difficult for so many of us?  There are a lot of factors.  For one thing, many who study such things feel we have different kinds of ‘promises’ that we make.

Psychologist David McGraw names three categories, each carrying a different weight of commitment :

A promise is a personal commitment people expect you to keep.

There are 3 types of promises.

1. Strong/Healthy Promises

•Promises I am fully committed to keep; You can count on me.

•If I am unable to keep my promise, I can renegotiate my original promise

•i.e. I will meet you for coffee at 8 am. I will complete my assignment on time.

A promise is a promise and I accept a firm obligation to deliver.  I imagine this is how most of us think we make all of our promises, but is that really true?  I think many of us, including me, have at least sometimes made what McGraw calls:

2. Shallow Promises

•Look like a strong promise, but an unspoken condition exists.

•i.e. Yes, I will play golf with you on Saturday (unless it rains or something else comes up)

The comic strip Zits illustrates the shallow promise quite nicely:  Mom asks teenager Jeremy if he has any weekend plans. “Oh sure.  I’ll probably decide to do something with friends and then when a more interesting possibility comes along I’ll bail on the first thing.  Later on when the second thing falls apart, I’ll just end up moping around here.”  “Unbelievable,” says Mom.  “At least I have PLANS!” He calls back.

Those of us who use social media to set up event pages know the meaning of shallow promises only too well.  People click ‘going’ all the time, but event planners know very well that a substantial number of those folks won’t make it.  Jeremy’s plans seems to be an increasing norm in society these days- casually say yes with no thought to the weight o the promise.

McGraw then names his third category with a very harsh term.  He calls them,

3. Criminal Promises

•Promises that at the moment we make them, we know we have no intention of keeping

•i.e.  Maybe…My son asks me to play with him when I am done, and I tell him maybe

Harry Chapin’s song Cat’s in the Cradle reminds us that breaking promises, especially McGraw’s ‘criminal’ ones have consequences.  In the song the father who broke promises to his son ends up having his grown son break promises to him.  Karma.

The concept of keeping promises has become watered down, and I will be the first to own my small part in that.  I confess to having made and broken my share of shallow promises, and maybe even some bigger ones too.

Yet, I note that making promises and being honest merits no mention in our Statement of Principles.  Perhaps it’s simply assumed as a given.  And yet it only appears as the ninth of ten commandments in Exodus and then only in the matter of not bearing false witness against your neighbour.  It’s curious how our formal moral codes often leave this promise thing out.

Once the appearance of honour seemed to be everything, and keeping one’s promise or oath was a critical part of being honourable, but not so much anymore.  Even perjury is seldom prosecuted these days. Certainly we don’t have much respect for people in public life and their promises.  Huffington post reports that in Canada, politicians are rated the least trusted of professions (18%) followed by car sellers (28%) and pollsters (34%).  CEO’s, bankers, lawyers and realtors all came in around 50%.  When the people who supposedly lead our society are perceived to be untrustworthy, why should the rest of us bother?

Psychologist Frank Sonnenberg (author of our reading) has an answer:

When you break a promise, no matter how small it may seem to you, alarm bells aren’t going to go off, but it can damage a relationship or your reputation. Think about it — when someone else breaks a promise to you, or gets caught in a lie, doesn’t that make you feel violated or cheated?  You can’t help wondering whether you were wrong to ever trust that person.

Getting away with a lie can also be dangerous because it fools liars into believing they’re invincible and that they have little chance of getting caught. Before you know it, lying can become a habit, forcing liars to spend precious time and energy keeping their stories straight. Once others learn about the lies, some people may forgive, but they surely won’t forget…

We live in such a complex and fast moving age. There is so much false news, subterfuge and and anti-science beliefs that fly in the face of proven facts.  Finding information we can trust is increasingly difficult.  It seems to me that finding people we can trust is becoming more and more important.  And perhaps if we hope to find them, then we have to make the first step up and be the most trustworthy person we can be.  Only make promises we plan to keep.  And when you fail, seek to atone for them as soon as possible.  Follow the path of Yom Kippur.

Trust, faith, covenant, promise-keeping, atonement- all of these are two way streets. The first step along those streets belongs to each of us.

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