Posts Tagged grace

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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Summer Serenity

Summer tends to be a time of transition and replenishment.  One year of school has ended and another has yet to begin, and though work continues through June, July and August, almost all of us feel the change of pace, the shift in activities.  More than in other seasons there are camps and conferences, picnics and parties, visits to friends and family, weddings and vacations.  The sunny splash of the beach beckons, as does the coolness of the forests and the mountains.  Weekday work may not be so different, but regular schedules are relaxed, the precision of the kitchen replaced by the carefree delights of the grill, the glow of the television abandoned for the shade of a porch or a tree, the electric hum of air conditioning silenced on cooler days when open windows invite in gentle breezes.  There is a sense of lull but also of activity — of pausing, but also of anticipation, enjoying the season for itself but also looking ahead to the Fall.

Churches tend to go through their own time of transition and replenishment during the Summer, too.  Spring elections are behind us and new leadership roles are taken up; ministers and staff review, regroup and make plans for the coming year; formal religious education classes are in recess and instead there are camps and retreats for children and adults alike.  Those who have studied such things tell us that most “church shopping” takes place during the Summer, when families in particular look for spiritual homes where they can feel part of a supportive community, where their questions can be answered and their answers can be questioned, where they can join with those of like heart and mind to give thanks and build the common good.

Sometimes Summer’s transitions are bigger than usual.  There may be a new school, a new job or even a new career, perhaps accompanied by a move of many miles.  Such changes, even if deliberately chosen, are often bittersweet, the promise of the new offset by the absence of the familiar, the excitement of possibilities for the future dampened by the distancing of the comforts of the past.  If unchosen, they bring with them feelings of loss and regret, perhaps fear of the unknown, and usually anger at the causes of the unwanted changes.  Change, though, is inevitably a part of life, and there is no escaping it; indeed, it is a major part of life and since most changes, large or small, are not chosen, it is in how we respond to change that we do our living.

The Serenity Prayer is a well-known expression of what it might take to do that living, appealing as it does to “the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  I have kept a copy of this prayer pinned to the wall above my desk since I was a child, finding in its simplicity a deep wellspring of hope that I had not encountered elsewhere.  As an adult, I have come to recognize and appreciate the power of being in community that brings life to that hope, that fosters in us wisdom, builds in us courage, and nurtures in us serenity.  We do our living in response to change to the extent that we are resilient — able to bounce back from all that our world throws at us, able to give thanks for the simple gift of life and all its challenges and graces alike — and we are so much more resilient when we are, as individuals, joined in community with others.  Families and friends, colleagues and congregations, all can offer us the love we need in our daily lives to not just survive, but thrive.

May you enjoy replenishment of life and the spirit in these Summer months, in yourself and in the company of those who bring joy to your heart.  If you are in transition, may you find those who will comfort, support and encourage you, never able to do your living for you but still accompanying you on this journey of faith, hope and love that we call Life.  And, with a song in your soul and a smile on your lips, may all your days be glad.

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