We Covenant As…

The Rev. Alison Cornish

October 14, 2007 – 

Can two walk together except they be agreed?

– Amos, 3.3

Yes and no.

– UU Historian Conrad Wright

“We need to be ready… We need to be ready …!” These are the words of our denomination’s president, the Rev. William Sinkford, as the Unitarian Universalist Association launches its first national media campaign in 50 years. It started last month with commercials during “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central in certain time zones. It continued this past week with full-page ads in TIME Magazine, and will keep going through December with a series of “advertorials,” also in TIME Magazine, that direct readers to time.com and the religion archive that they’ll find there.

Cable television, print media, the world wide web – it’s like we’ve suddenly discovered the modern world, and can’t wait to stake our claim on its attention. In the Rev. Sinkford’s words, “Our national marketing partnership with TIME magazine will promote our faith and encourage spiritually engaged dialogue in the public arena. It will also bring seekers to our doors… We need to be ready not just to greet visitors, but to welcome them into relationship within our faith community.” We need to be ready. We have sent the invitations, we’ve put out the word – spread it far and wide, and now, “we need to be ready.”

But what does “ready” look like? As I read the Rev. Sinkford’s words, I am trying to resist the temptation to run around the meetinghouse, checking for crumbs on the floor and spots on the windows; straightening our literature rack and inventorying “hello my name is” name tags. And my mind wanders … who is it that watches Jon Stewart, or reads TIME Magazine, and hears, or perhaps recognizes, the words “Unitarian Universalist” for the first time, then takes the next, brave, step – actually comes to check out a congregation? What will they be like? What are they looking for? Will they find it – here? Will they like us? Will we like them? What do we have to offer?

The situation is made more challenging, of course, by the fact that some of the “traditional” religious questions these guests might have on the tips of their tongues don’t apply. “What do you believe?” the inquiring guest might ask. As you know, the response is likely to be different from each and every member so asked. That might be an interesting exercise – to ask a guest just how many beliefs were revealed and shared in the course of a single coffee hour. But it is not beliefs that either define who we are, or bind us together. Our “we” is not “we believe.”

So it would be understandable, once learning that belief does not unite us, for a guest to ask, what does? What is it that makes a congregation out of a collection of individuals? What is it that constitutes “community” amongst these folks who do not seem to share beliefs?

Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith. The center of who we are is covenant. Careful now, not coven, not convent – but covenant. In its simplest terms, a covenant is an agreement made between parties. A covenant is about the mutual commitments, the promises made, one to another, in good faith and sound intention. It is written not in “I” language, but in “we” language. One of the most commonly recited covenants in Unitarian Universalism are these words by the Rev. James Vila Blake: “Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law. This is our great covenant: To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.” It is a statement of common purpose and intention, a “we unite as” statement, not a “we believe” statement.

It is a description of how it is that we might walk together, even as we disagree on many things in life.

What is implicit about covenant is perhaps what is also unique to this tradition of ours – the principle of tolerance of diversity. One might consider oneself a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist, or a Unitarian Universalist Christian, or a Unitarian Universalist atheist, and still be a party to this covenant.

Now, it would be great if stating that this idea, that covenant is what unites us, was the beginning and end of the story. But we know it is not that easy. In his book “Walking Together,” Unitarian Universalist historian Conrad Wright points to any number of times in our history when “what unites us?” erupted as a fiery and volatile question. In fact, some of our most illustrious ancestors – William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson – were entangled in exactly this question. As shifts in theology pushed and pulled Unitarians, and Universalists, in new directions and explorations, our congregations, and our denominations, have returned again and again to the question, “what unites us?”

In Wright’s words, it’s important to understand this question not as “who is in and who is out” – the question of boundaries – but more a struggle as to how to state what it is that unites us. As Wright says, “[it’s] the effort to determine what [we have] in common, and so to recognize how much and what kind of diversity [we are] able to tolerate.” (WT, 30)

Huh? There aren’t boundaries, but there are limits to the diversity that we’ll tolerate? Isn’t that the same thing?

Not quite. I find some language borrowed from Martin Buber to be helpful in visualizing what exactly defines covenant. I think of it this way. The values named are what unites us – such as the Blake covenant, “to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.” I see this as the center of a circle. But the circle itself is defined by its radii – and the radii are individuals’ relationships to that center. It is not that a circumference has been drawn that defines a circle, and one is either inside or outside that boundary. It’s that each and every individual has a relationship to the center, a gossamer-fine, but tenacious, attachment anchored to the center, to the covenant; and these individuals define the circumference, the “edge” of the community. In this way, there is always room for someone to join, to also attach his or her “thread” to that center, and to therefore become a part of the circle.

This image provided by Buber helps to illustrate these words from Unitarian Universalist minister George Beach, when he writes:

People do not ‘join’ a covenanted community; rather, they constitute it; there is no ‘it’ without them and each time new folks join, the whole is literally reconstituted.

Going back to the image of our circle, you can see how this would work. There’s no pre-drawn “circle” waiting for people to join by jumping into it. The circle only exists – because all who constitute it exist.

So, let’s look more closely at who it is that constitutes this circle, those that choose to join, who covenant with others, who grab hold of one of those threads emanating from the center. Who is a Unitarian Universalist – and who might be a Unitarian Universalist-to-be? It may be helpful here to think of the first time you came to this congregation.

Maybe that was decades ago – and maybe it’s today. Everyone has had a “first time.” What was the first thing you noticed? What made you feel included? What made you feel excluded? For those who have been here for a while, what made you feel, over time, that yes, there was room for you? What was it about the “center” that called you to grab hold of your “thread of relationship?” And, over time, how has that thread grown thicker and stronger? When has it become stretched, and thin, to the point even of breaking? For anyone who has been a part of religious community for a long, long time, their thread is likely to have numerous knots and splices, tangles and frayed edges. That’s just a part of being in a covenantal relationship. Covenants must be renewed continuously. Every time new members join the circle, there’s a new perspective to be accommodated, and, again, the whole is literally reconstituted.

This is no easy work. For no matter how much we affirm diversity, say we honor and promote pluralism, the human spirit tends to seek the familiar, the comfortable, and the known. Take, for example, this exchange I had with a member of another congregation at a conference last Saturday. I asked her how involved she was in the life of her congregation. “Oh, very!” she said. “I’m so comfortable there. I’ve met so many like-minded people who are now my friends.” And then, in the next breath, she said, “Well, it’s not very diverse, you know, we’re all sort of the same.” She seemed not to be aware of the irony. Too often, when that question, “Who might be a Unitarian Universalist?” is considered, the whispered answer is “people who think like us, look like us, and have backgrounds, political views and life stories that match ours.” In the most extreme cases, it’s not even “like us,” but “like me.” And in one fell swoop, the beauty and glory of a covenantal faith that is so elegantly designed to accommodate difference is nearly wiped out. And come dangerously close to what could actually be understood as a creedal test of some kind – a way to exclude those whose views are not quite in line with those held by those who are already here.

Here are the hard facts, the context into which the UUA now launches its national media campaign. The racial and ethnic profile of the United States is changing, and the largest growth is among groups not typically found in Unitarian Universalist congregations. This is not just a question of numbers – not about whether or not congregations, or even the denomination, is going to grow or not. It’s much more a question of who we want to be in relationship with, who we want to encounter here within our walls. It’s about how relevant, and connected, we want to be to the changing world around us. It is what calls us to ask, what would a diverse, pluralistic congregation look like? What would we lose? And what would we gain? What would our covenant be then?

A partial answer to these questions might be found in these words, again quoted from Conrad Wright:

An acceptance of diversity, an awareness of differences, is a constant challenge

to us to widen our vision, to re-examine our unexamined prejudgments, perhaps

even to learn from others. We need such challenges if our faith is to be alive and

creative. (WT, 34)

We need diversity if our faith – if we – are to be alive and creative. When I say diversity, please know, I don’t mean to imply that all are welcome, regardless of their beliefs. Contrary to some bad PR, Unitarian Universalists cannot believe anything that they choose. No faith tradition can encompass the whole range of theological positions.

Ours certainly does not. For example, no one who genuinely believes in the infallibility of the Pope on matters of faith and morals is likely to feel at home in one of our congregations. Or someone who believes that the Koran demands that innocents be killed for others to reach heaven. No, what I mean by diversity and pluralism has to do with the different life experiences and stories, the various social and ethnic backgrounds, the variety of orientations and worldviews that we bring here, when we risk bringing our whole selves here to this faith community. While our bold statements to the world proclaim “all are welcome,” we need to pay close attention to whisperings that undermine that impulse. I do not mean to suggest that there is any Unitarian Universalist congregation that goes out of its way to be “un-welcoming.” While some of us have more orderly literature racks, or cleaner windows, than others, most of us do know how to extend a hand of greeting. And even if we notice that the newcomer is different from us, we might continue the cheerful hello, who are you, how are you? But as we invite folks to know us better – and we them – as we, in Bill Sinkford’s words, “welcome them into relationship within our faith community,” we will have to understand, and find ways to embrace, the differences that they bring. This is the tough part. In my experience, Unitarian Universalists are very good at both avoiding and denying difference – which, in the end, leads to devaluing difference. How so?

If we blithely say “here we are color-blind,” we deny the very real fact that, for people of color, life in this country is substantially different than it is for people with skin that is white. If we say “it doesn’t matter to me whether or not you are gay or lesbian,” we send a message that the very specific life story and experience of this person to whom we are talking also does not matter. If we make assumptions about other’s life circumstances based on our own – assumptions as small as scheduling a meeting at a time convenient only for those without 9-5 jobs, or as large as creating financial expectations based on those with access to substantial resources – we may well crowd some folks out of the circle. If we forget, or overlook, that people of all ages come to this building, and that the needs of a seven-year-old may be different than those of a ninety-year-old, we may well have turned our backs on someone who needs our help.

So, are we ready to welcome those who bring difference into this meetinghouse, into our lives, not just as guests, or visitors, but as those with whom we will walk? Will we help them to find a way to grab hold of a lifeline to a covenant that unites all? Will we take their spirits into our hearts, and like Coyote, dance and sing and play with them, and would we feel less whole without them in our lives?

I now offer you a chance to engage these questions in a less abstract way. If you’ll take out the little cards I passed out a few minutes ago … and break the seal, and open them up. Inside you’ll find a short biography of a potential visitor to a UU congregation. I’ll give you a minute to read … and then I’ll also read a few out loud for those who might not have received one, or for whom reading in this space is difficult.

My name is Susan. I’m 45 years old, single, unemployed and pregnant. My mother is a Unitarian Universalist in another state, so I thought I would come to the local UU congregation to see what they have to offer. I haven’t been inside a church in 35 years.

My name is Edwin. I’m 68 years old, and my wife of 40 years recently died of cancer. I’m retired, and I have a lot of health problems. I was raised Catholic, but I don’t feel like I can trust the church. But I can’t stay home by myself, either.

My name is Gerry. I’m 42 years old, and I teach in the public schools. No one knows that I’m gay – not my family or friends or – most importantly, people at the school. Naturally I spend a lot of time alone, and several times I’ve considered ending my life.

My name is Ariel. My three-year-old daughter and I recently moved to this area after leaving my abusive husband. I’m looking for a job, but I don’t have anyone to watch my daughter. I’ve never been to a church, but I’m trying to make a “fresh start” in life.

My name is David. I’m 25 years old, and I have a form of autism that makes it hard for me to have a regular job. I live in a group home around the corner, and since I can’t drive, I have to walk everywhere. I noticed this church, and your sign that all are welcome.

Think about these people. If one of them found a home here, what would be gained, for them, and for us? If one of them found a home here, what would be lost, for them, and for us? How would you be changed? What would be challenging? What would be liberating?

I keep a stack of these bios on my desk. And I keep writing more, adding them to the pile. When I’m writing a sermon, or a newsletter column, or thinking about a class to teach, I pull one out and imagine how my words might be heard by this person. They help me think about my own pre-judgments, widen my vision, imagine what I might learn from them. I use them to dream encounters with people who are different from me, whom I have yet to meet. I want to be ready.

What you do with your bio-on-a-card is, of course, your choice. Perhaps you’ll try seeing this place through their eyes. Or imagine a conversation with them. Or maybe you already know them, and you’ll decide to invite them to join you here.

And why would you do this? Maybe you want to be ready, too. Ready, in the words Michael O’Neill wrote and e-mailed to many of us this week, ready to understand this about our congregation, “that it is not the commonality of belief that brings us together in fellowship, but the shared experience [that] our lives are meaningful and filled with grace … to know we are terribly incomplete, not just from consciousness of our own brokenness, but also by our need for others…”

I want us to be ready – ready to be made more whole. Ready to dance, and play, and sing, with the spirits of others lodged deep in our hearts.

Reference: Conrad Wright, Walking Together (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1999).

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