More Than Words Can Say

Covenant, part 3

A contract, whether oral or written, consists of words. There may be disputes about the meaning of those words, but the words are the contract. Covenant is different. Covenant is ultimately beyond words.

Yes, we generally do make attempts to articulate the covenant in words, but the words aren’t the covenant. A poem can articulate the love the poet feels for the beloved, but the poem isn’t the love. The covenantal reality is much more than what can be spoken. A marriage covenant, for example, can never be wholly and fully expressed by the vows made at the wedding, no matter how carefully or extensively those vows might be crafted. The promise is more than what can be said.
Love rings the bells of wanted birth and wedding day --
Love guides the hands that promise more than words can say.
(Brain Wren, "Love Makes a Bridge")
This is not to say that articulating vows is unimportant.The words matter – but they matter not because they capture and constitute the whole promise, but because they serve to point to the promise that is deeper and wider than words can say.

As a people of covenant, we cannot grasp all that this covenant means – we can only live it. We cannot articulate all that our commitment to each other means – but can articulate a few aspects that will help us stay pointed in the direction of being the people we want to be: we promise to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, or being, to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, to nurture each other in our spiritual journeys and engage in service. The words are merely the tip of the iceberg of the covenant as it is lived.

The great Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams speaks of the community-forming power – this mysterious thing that, like God promising Abraham, lifts us out of our separate, small lives and forms us into community, a great nation. Covenant is the name of that mystery, that community-forming power, the promise and commitment to be together, bear witness to one another, to be for each other what we cannot be alone. As Annie Dillard says,
“Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other's beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.”
We are surrounded by a culture that emphasizes individualism, heroic separation. The covenantal theology that Unitarian Universalism has inherited and shaped in its own way teaches that there is another way.

Our flourishing lies in the promises we make to and with each other. That flourishing happens through the keeping of those promises, and maybe even more it happens through the repairing of the promises when they are broken. For under-girding our covenantal promises to each other is the covenantal promise to the promise of covenant itself – our promise to do the work of re-connecting when we find ourselves divided. We forgive ourselves and each other and begin again in love. When we think someone isn’t doing enough, when we find someone annoying, when we think someone isn’t listening to us, is doing things wrong, in that very moment: forgive ourselves and each other and begin again in love.

That’s the covenant, and the covenantal tradition of which we are today the latest manifestation. Of course we try to keep our promises, and often we do. But it’s when we don’t that we confront the task of repair, of beginning again in love, and that’s when our lives meet the holy. As Rev. Gretchen Haley writes:
“Let me tell you right now, sometime in the next year, maybe in the next few minutes, the people you most believe in and care about are going to disappoint you. Your church is going to disappoint you. This world is surely going to disappoint you. Like, all the time. We all are walking wounded and weary from the way this world can – and does – break our hearts. And what our faith asks of us, what our faith imagines for us, is that somehow, right at that moment when our hearts break, we will find our way to see through that heartbreak. We will stay put – not close off, not run away, not hurt back – but keep on being in relationship, doing what we can to repair the world and each other, keep on opening our hearts with greater love. And, right then, our covenantal faith says, we are most whole and most at home.”
We are promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, and promise-repairing animals. And here we are. A group of people who happen to be in a room together looking for meaning and belonging -- the most recent embodiment of a tradition that shows us how to do that. For we are a covenantal people -- and our lives do not play to an empty house.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Covenant"
See also
Part 1: The Covenantal Tradition
Part 2: What Makes a People

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