A Covenantal People, part 2

Our greatest 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, understood “God” to be “community forming power.” That power which brings and holds community together – that’s God, said James Luther Adams. So Adams did a great deal of thinking and writing about Voluntary Associations – about the Covenants that are the community-forming power.

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal issues a report every four years, and their 2021 report was called, “Unlocking the Power of Covenant.” If you tuned in to the service three months ago, on July 18, or watched it on Youtube, then you heard me talk about that report. The Commission observes that:
“We are the promises we make and the vows we break.”
A Covenant, it says,
“is a mutual sacred promise between individuals or groups, to stay in relationship, care about each other, and work together in good faith.
They go on to say:
“No single concept is more central to our faith understanding than being in covenant. It is at the core of our identity. It is how we try to build and sustain the Beloved Community. It is the foundation of our governance structures at all levels.”
For congregations, covenants come in two main forms: aspirational covenants and behavioral covenants. Behavioral covenants define the behaviors we promise to follow or avoid. Because behavior is publicly observable, we can notice when someone has broken covenant, and encourage zir back in to the right relationship that our covenant says we promise to uphold.

It’s a reality of being a people of covenant that we sometimes do break covenant. And that reality means that being a people of covenant also entails being a people of forgiveness, recognizing that we stray and calling each back, over and over, every time we do. The life of covenant turns out to be less about staying and more returning – over and over and over again.

Aspirational covenants are the promises that aren’t behaviorally defined, so we can’t judge whether someone else is out of covenant. Certain behaviors might cause us to inquire gently whether the person is keeping the aspiration in mind, but, ultimately, only you can decide if you are keeping the aspirational covenant – and only you can assess how well or poorly you are living out the aspiration.

Behavioral covenants generally pertain to smaller groups, such as boards, committees, classes, and study groups – though some congregations have adopted a congregation wide behavioral covenant.

An example of a covenant – largely behavioral, but with some aspirational aspect is on the wall down in room 43, where the 2nd and 3rd grade class used to meet a couple years ago. The class covenant is posted – handwritten with a red marker on newsprint sheets. Our Saturday morning Zen group gathers in that room, so I have a chance to see that covenant every week – to sit in silence in the presence of its strictures. It says:
Covenant for 2nd & 3rd Graders, 2019-2020.
One: listen and don’t speak when someone is holding the speaking stone.
Two: Be kind to others even when they are not your friend. [That one’s got to be my favorite.]
Three: Pick up after each other and ourselves – don’t litter. [Notice it doesn’t just say pick up after ourselves, but pick up after each other.]
Four: Treat each other as you want to be treated and/or how they want to be treated.
Five: Listen to others.
Six: Raise your hand when you say something.
Seven: Safely move around with as little distraction for others.
Eight: Don’t play with anything that is off limits – not supposed to.
Nine: Be respectful to others. [I like how respectful was originally written an extra “T” which was then scratched out. At first, it had said “rest pectful” -- which conjures an image of respect as a place of rest. I like that.]
Ten: Let’s use the back on track clap to get our focus back on track. Clap-clap; clap-clap-clap.
And finally, eleven: Come together with a calm and open mind.
It’s a good covenant – for 2nd and 3rd graders, as well as for the adults who practice Zen in that room. It’s a largely behavioral covenant, though there are some aspects of aspirational covenant – like “come together with a calm and open mind” – which doesn’t have a behavioral definition, and for elementary schoolers, as for all of us, is sometimes more an aspiration than a reality.

An example of an aspirational covenant is our congregation’s mission. It says:
We covenant to nurture each other in our spiritual journeys;
foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community; and
engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.
That’s our aspiration. It doesn’t mean it’s JUST an aspiration – that we aren’t actually doing it. We ARE actually doing those things – we really do, as we have for some time, nurture each other in our spiritual journeys, foster compassion, and engage in transformative service.

To say this is an aspirational covenant means three things:

(1) It means that every time any of us gathers – for a committee meeting, or Journey Group, or social justice team, or RE class, we are aspiring to do these things better than we have before – ever more thoroughly, ever more whole-heartedly, and ever more skillfully and effectively.

(2) It also means there’s not a behavioral definition specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for what nurturing spirituality, fostering compassion, or engaging in service looks like. And third,

(3) it means you haven’t broken the covenant unless you’ve stopped trying, stopped aspiring to so nurture, foster, and engage.

Our seven -- or eight -- Unitarian Universalist principles are also an aspirational covenant.
We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote
- the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- justice, equity, and compassion;
- acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;
- a free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- democracy;
- world community;
- respect for the interdependent web;
- dismantling racism.
Those aren’t our beliefs. They are what we promise to aspire to.

Covenants make us. They spell out who we are. When I don’t know who “us” is, then I don’t know who “me” is. By becoming more conscious of our covenants – spoken and unspoken – we can live into them more fully, and become who we are with greater awareness and greater intentionality.

Our Committee on Ministry has been studying the Commission on Appraisal’s report on Covenant, and I have been discussing that report with them over the last three months. The Committee on Ministry will be doing some investigating this year into the ways covenant works, or fails to, here at Community UU. Our Committee on Ministry is like our own congregational commission on appraisal, and this year part of what they’ll report on is the status and functioning of CUUC’s covenants. So do stay tuned for opportunities to participate in that process as they are announced.

Marcia Pally’s 2016 book, Commonwealth and Covenant, recognizes that we need both situatedness and separability.

We need to be situated — embedded in functional and caring families, and thick communities that define our values and our selves: villages of ordinariness in which you can be your plain old ordinary self without the constant expectation to prove yourself.

We also need separability. We need to have the freedom and the support “to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living.”

What creates situatedness, notes Pally, is covenant. A contract protects interests, she says, but a covenant protects relationships.
“A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love.”
Contracts stipulate an exchange of goods or services, but people in a covenant delight in offering their gifts.

We are here to offer each other what gifts we can – to hold open the space of grace. It’s not that we are like-minded, as Rev. Worsnop said for today’s invocation. It’s about “people who value compassion, justice, love and truth, though they have different opinions about all sorts of things" (Worsnop). It’s about seeing the goodness and dignity, and the failings and foibles or one another, and still loving each other. It’s about giving of ourselves, and being called together into a different way of being in the world.

I am so grateful to be held together with you, to be connected with you, in covenant. It is such a wonder. Thank you so much.


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