Archive for August, 2011

Covenant in the Face of Reality

“The people’s covenant is a covenant with the essential character and intention of reality.  It is not merely a covenant between human beings; it is a covenant between human beings in the face of reality.  The fundamental demands and possibilities of reality are not created by humans but exist in its very nature.  The understanding of reality is appropriate only when it is seen in terms of an ethical covenant.  The covenant is with the creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, transforming power.”

— “The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern”, James Luther Adams

A couple of years ago I visited the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Durango, Colorado, where I had been invited to preach.  My sermon was entitled “The Dance of Freedom and Responsibility”, referring to the Fourth Principle — “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote … a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” — and the struggles we face in our everyday lives between the “fundamental American ideology of individualism”, as linguist Ronald Scollon named it, and the inescapable inevitability of our interdependence within families, cultures and societies, not to mention the biosphere itself.

During my sermon I used the word “covenant” a few times, and in discussion over coffee following the service I was asked what I meant by it.  Now in part because I was nearing the end of my years in theological school but also because I was working with District staff and ministers, I knew that Unitarian Universalism was beginning to rediscover the power of covenant.  I was beginning to understand how it was the gift of our religious tradition — indeed, how it is our gift to the world.  I was starting to see how covenant connects us in the process of becoming human, recognizing that we may not always get it right and that success comes through faithfulness not fallibility, and how it embraces us, in the words of James Luther Adams, as “the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life.”

What came to mind, though, was the Homeowner’s Association where we lived, and how visitors to the development were greeted first by big letters on a wall ominously spelling out “A Covenant-Controlled Community”, and then by a number of other signs forbidding some activities and threatening others.  With this mental image I realized that, in some people’s vocabulary, “covenant” might not be an altogether positive word.  (Even those free of the often petty tyranny of an HOA might have heard of it as the name of a crime organization in the television show “Alias” or the mysterious force that wreaks havoc on Jim Carrey’s character in the movie “Yes Man”, neither of which are glowing recommendations!)

So, trying to undo some of the damage done to the idea of covenant, I proceeded to talk with the Durango UUs about it in terms of the promises we make with one another concerning both our individual and collective behavior, promises to bring our best selves to our relationships so that, as UUs, we can be “a church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand.”  It has since occurred to me, however, that covenant isn’t just about voluntary promises — and, indeed, the HOA use of the term (and even its part in “Yes Man”) isn’t completely off-base.

For there are “fundamental demands and possibilities of reality” that constrain our behavior as human beings.  From the impossibility of exceeding the speed of light — as the bumper sticker says, “186,000 miles/second: It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law!” — to the inadvisability of changing ecosystems in unsustainable ways to the illegality of neglecting turn signals while driving, there are plenty of times we find ourselves part of arrangements not of our own making nor often of our own choosing.  Aside from the hard laws of physics or even the soft laws of biology, though, we are nonetheless faced with choices when it comes to human laws, whether the covenants of HOAs or the rules of the road.  How do we respond to what we see as injustice, for instance?  Bearing responsibility for the character of our own society, how do we speak truth to power?  If working within the system fails to bend the arc of the moral universe, when is civil disobedience justified?

Born into a world we did not create, it is through the choices we make that we help one another become human.  What do your choices say about your becoming?

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An Eclectic Approach to Scripture

Given the Unitarian Universalist commitment to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” we have a suitably broad sense of what constitutes “scripture”.  In fact, you probably won’t hear the word itself too often, except in generic terms that include such texts as the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching and the Analects of Confucius.  We are open to finding truth and meaning, after all, not just in the scriptures of the world’s religious traditions, but also in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and the poems of Mary Oliver, in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Jorge Luis Borges’ short fiction.  A Unitarian Universalist library, for that matter, is as likely to include Starhawk as Meister Eckhart, The Humanist Manifesto as The Feminist Ethic of Risk.  The word “eclectic” would be an understatement!

This diversity of wisdom and inspiration, of course, is reflected in the sermons you’ll hear on Sunday mornings in Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Freedom of the pulpit is one of our basic values, allowing — indeed, encouraging — preaching that expresses personal and religious views and commitments without fear or favor.  That freedom extends, of course, to the choice of topic and readings, message and music, all of which are intended to work together to produce a Sunday service that is relevant, informative and uplifting.  But given such a wealth of possibilities, where does the preacher start in selecting each sermon’s topic?

Traditions that draw upon a single source of scripture often follow a “lectionary” or similar multi-year schedule of readings; sermons or homilies are then based on those readings, allowing the tradition’s stories to be told and retold and reinforcing the sense of community through shared identity.  For similar purposes, Unitarian Universalist congregations are increasingly turning to monthly themes to guide the planning and writing of sermons.  There is no specific list of readings through which to work — after all, how many years would be enough to get through everything at the UUA Bookstore, let alone the world’s literature? — but three or four services on a related topic allow us to engage in that free and responsible search for truth and meaning with a month-long conversation about some aspect of what it means to be human in a religious community.

Such monthly themes are often connected in an arc that takes some particular theological path during each church year.  As we travel together the paths of our lives, such themes can help us to co-create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, drawing upon every text, poem and song that offers us meaning and insight.

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Promises, Promises

I once kept track of all the promises I made in the course of a week.  There were a lot of them!  None of them were major promises of the order of, say, wedding vows, but I was still surprised at how many promises I made during one ordinary week.

At home I made promises about errands and cleaning, whether picking up a quart of milk or running a load of laundry.  At work I made promises about attending particular meetings and submitting reports on specific topics.  With friends I made promises to see them or to call them or to mail them something I thought they might like.  With colleagues I made promises to meet them for lunch or read a book they’d recommended to me.

Not all of these promises were necessarily made to other people, since some of them were things I’d promised myself I would do.  In many cases, though, I knew that keeping my promise was a factor in somebody else’s reality, affecting their emotional well-being or their ability to do their own work.  I realized that I was accountable to those other people, whether they knew of my promises or not.

I also realized that I broke my promises more often that I had known, and certainly more often than I liked.  Sometimes I had promised something I simply could not deliver, due to limited time or ability.  Sometimes I was dependent on someone else’s promise in order to keep my own.  Sometimes I simply forgot or I rationalized a way to make the promise a low priority out of my own laziness or selfishness, and acknowledging that about myself was often painful.

Thankfully, I was in most cases able to renew my promise.  Whether by friendship or fortune or grace, I was able to make good on what I’d promised, though not necessarily in the exact terms of the original promise.  Forgiveness was an integral part of that, and was sometimes most difficult when I was the one who needed to forgive myself.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber saw the making of promises as essential to human nature.  Indeed, he described humans as promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking and promise-renewing beings.  This is central to the idea of religion that is about behavior more than belief, that our becoming human is a life-long process, and it is particularly instructive for faiths such as Unitarian Universalism that are based on covenant rather than creed.

The concept of covenant dates back to the ancient Near East, when sovereign nations set up treaties with their vassal states.  That political idea was applied to the theological realm in the Hebrew scriptures, where covenant describes the relationship between G-d and humanity as a set of promises that can provide order and continuity in society.  Of course, humans are finite and fallible, prone to mistakes in both understanding and action, but the good news is that when covenant is — inevitably — broken, it can be re-made through faithfulness and love.

Unitarian Universalism traces its basis in covenant to the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the declaration of religious independence by New England’s Puritans and their ecclesiastical constitution.  Centuries later, we have been re-discovering the power of covenant, coming to understand it as the container formed of faithfulness and love that embraces a church of different people with different beliefs.  Each congregation words its own covenant between its members in the face of the demands and possibilities of reality, but the spirit of covenant asks us to act — and, particularly, speak — in ways that are truthful, that are reasonable and that are kind.

Perhaps this week you’ll keep track of the promises you make.  Pay attention to how you keep them, candidly notice when you break them, and realize the grace that allows you to renew them.  Whatever your religious persuasion — even none at all — think about what it is that holds you in community with family and friends, with those you love and those with whom you work to lift up the character of society so that none may be deprived of mercy or justice.

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