Too Many Notes

Too Many Notes

by Dr. Linda Topp, Director of Administration

This title will be an obvious reference to anyone who’s seen the movie, Amadeus.  However, since the movie came out in 1984 (good grief!), perhaps a little review is necessary. In the movie, Emperor Joseph II has commissioned Mozart to write an opera.  After experiencing a performance, the Emperor offers scant praise and then follows with his unforgettable critique:

EMPEROR: … Of course now and then – just now and then – it gets a touch elaborate. 

MOZART: What do you mean, Sire? 

EMPEROR: Well, I mean occasionally it seems to have, how shall one say? [he stops in difficulty; turning to Orsini-Rosenberg] How shall one say, Director? 

ORSINI-ROSENBERG: Too many notes, Your Majesty? 

EMPEROR: Exactly. Very well put. Too many notes. 

After an astonished reply by Mozart, the Emperor tries to help:

EMPEROR: My dear, young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.

And finally, Mozart asks, “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

This scene sounds very much like conversations in our weekly senior staff meetings these days.  Mark, Lisa, Joy and I are just now fully experiencing the loss of many, many staff hours as the new church year ramps up and there are simply too many notes.  We have collectively, our staff and volunteers, put in place many, many high-functioning programs, some of which have garnered the attention (and envy) of other UU congregations and the UUA.  Our awesomeness shows up in our Beginning and Connecting Points classes, our YRUU program, our Connectors program, our Luminary Program, our all-ages programming at 9:15, our Time for All Ages in every Sunday worship service, our “Take it Home” materials for parents, while our overall excellence shines through our worship associates, pastoral visitors, and every single religious education program, including OWL classes, coming of age and adult programming.

We have lots and lots of volunteers who work on these things, but the burden of nurturing the creative aspects of the programming, recruiting and guiding volunteers and providing much support in the areas of organizing, communicating, and training (along with so much more) falls to staff.

And herein lies the problem.  These programs all grew with a larger staff than we have this year.  That means that now we have too many notes for the available staff hours.  But golly gee whiz, we have awesome music going!  How do we take out notes but leave the melody?  How do we remove tasks from our jobs but leave the wonderfulness?  That is our work for the coming months. 

We are sure our melody is in the shape of our mission and in the actual purposes of our various roles on staff.  What is the core work of this congregation?  What staff SUPPORT is needed to do that core work?  In this time of discernment, we are once again pointed to the wisdom of Susan Beaumont in her book, Inside the Large Congregation.  She writes, “In the effective large congregation, the staff team knows that they do not exist to carry out ministry on behalf of laity.  The staff knows they exist to equip the laity in the pursuit of the congregation’s mission.” (page 191)  These words of Susan Beaumont are a reminder to both the staff team and our cadre of committed volunteers that the selection of which programs to pursue (it’s all about mission!), the excellence of those programs and the work needed to sustain those programs must come from the congregation. 

Now it may be true that we currently have too many programs and administrative tasks to pursue with our current number of committed volunteers.  It is definitely true that, at this moment, the current staff cannot continue to do “what we’ve always done.”  So once again, we find ourselves in that gray area of governance where staff and congregants need to give and take, invent and dismantle, experiment together, succeed and fail together as we seek to answer Mozart’s last question.



Sermon:What is Required-Part 1 (audio & text)


Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
What is required of our religious movement to make it the change agent it hopes to be? Today, at the anniversary of the Universalist John Murray’s landing in the U.S. I will address how we might respond to this question in the context of our Universalist identity. Next spring I’ll focus on our Unitarian side.


Song    by Adrienne Rich  

From “The Persistence of Universalism,” an address by the Rev. Gordon McKeeman to the New York State Convention of Universalists on Oct. 4, 1980

“We live in a time when there are a great many scared people who do not want to hear that they have to enlarge their selves. They do not want to hear that they need to widen their sense of concern and consciousness to embrace the whole of the world. They would like very much into fortress America, or fortress Christianity or to some other narrowed loyalties to which they can give themselves. . . .

“We ought to be pointing in people’s lives to the urgency within those lives to wholeness and that no person can ignore that inner urgency to his or her own wholeness, save at her or his peril.”


The week before last I spent a couple of days in the Habitat for Humanity building down near Biltmore Village in the company of about 45 people. It was a fascinating mix, ranging from people with high public profiles – Asheville’s Superintendent of Schools & members of the School Board, a state senator, a city councilwoman – and positions of responsibility – with Mission Hospital, the Asheville Housing Authority, the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department – but also high school students, community activists, social service providers, and others. Even more, it was unusually diverse for most gatherings in this town – young & old, black, white, Hispanic, and different gender identities.

And the topic before us was something that usually isn’t discussed in mixed gatherings like this one: Race. Not race in the abstract, but how notions about race had evolved over time and shaped our culture, our upbringings and our lives.

We were guided in this work by facilitators from a group called the Racial Equity Institute, based in Greensboro. The story they had to tell was hard to hear – how race emerged as a wedge to divide people in this country from the time of its first settlements, how it acted not only to discriminate against black people but also to confer advantages to white people. Affirmative action, we learned, is a practice that goes back to the founding of our Republic, but it was white people, not blacks, that it was designed to benefit.

We can see it as early as 18th century immigration laws, into Jim Crow legislation after the Civil War, even up to the Social Security Act, the G.I. Bill and federal housing legislation. So, is it any wonder that today we find an enormous disparity in wealth between blacks and whites in America? Yet, even now an invidious racism whispers that the gap is simply evidence is some inherent lack on the part of blacks, some inability to compete on a level playing field.

A point of the training was to demonstrate how the playing field for blacks in America is and has been anything but level – like starting a race well behind your competitors or walking in late to a Monopoly game where nearly every property has been purchased and every move you make diminishes your wealth.

Of course, for the participants this was no game. White people like me were invited to tally the advantages that they and their ancestors had unknowingly accrued, while black participants were left stunned – some, with tears in their eyes, unable to speak – to consider how much loss they and their ancestors had endured: loss measured not just in wealth but in wellbeing, in lives demeaned or cut short, even in their hopes for their own lives and those of their loved ones.

Organizers have invited participants to a potluck supper this coming week, which will be held here, at this church, to talk over what we learned in the training and where we will go with it. I am glad of the opportunity to continue the conversation, but I also worry.

Just this week in Tulsa and Charlotte we got another reminder of how close black people are to the boiling point in frustration over centuries of oppression that they see no signs of abating. We can debate the circumstances of this or that shooting and whether police officers were justified here or there in their actions. But the larger point is that by its actions, by its policies our society, our government shows over and over again that it counts black lives as cheap, and that is simply unendurable.

We in Asheville are not far from our own accounting, with the State Bureau of Investigation report on the police shooting this summer of Jai “Jerry” Williams due to arrive soon to the office of District Attorney Todd Williams. Whatever action the district attorney chooses, we in this town will have work to do.

Much concern has been expressed about whether there will be violence. Of course, no one wants injury and destruction, but it needs to be said that the work before us will need to be more than just keeping the peace. My colleague the Rev. Jay Leach found himself in the midst of chaos in Charlotte last week, and he summed up the state of affairs this way in a post on Facebook. He gave me permission to use this quote:

As disturbing as some of the images from last night are, I am more and more convinced that sending the message that we all need to be calm is the wrong thing to do. In fact, more of us need to stop being so calm, so accepting, so willing to ignore, so supportive of an unjust and unsustainable status quo. Things should change. Things must change. Until they do, until there is justice, there will be no peace.”

So, I wonder: Do you hear an echo of the quote from Gordon McKeeman that we heard earlier in Jay’s words? Listen again: “We live in a time,” McKeeman wrote, “when there are a great many scared people who do not want to hear that they have to enlarge their selves. They do not want to hear that they need to widen their sense of concern and consciousness to embrace the whole of the world. . . . We ought to be pointing in people’s lives to the urgency within those lives to wholeness and that no person can ignore that inner urgency to his or her own wholeness, save at her or his own peril.”

It’s interesting that, like today, McKeeman was speaking in the time of a contentious national election – October 1980 – a moment when, again like today, fear was driving some people’s political agendas.

But he framed his thoughts a little differently. People, he said, “do not want to hear that they have to enlarge their selves. . . . They do not want to hear that they need to widen their sense of concern and consciousness to embrace the whole of the world.”

What he is pointing to here is the heart of Universalism. Remember that historically Universalism arose in the Christian tradition with the notion that all are saved. It is centered in a fairly simple theological proposition: A God whose nature is love would not consign his creatures to eternal damnation. Such an act it is contrary to the nature of love. And if we understand God as love, then it is contrary to God’s nature. And so, there must be no hell.

Even more, the old Universalists declared, it was God’s intent to bring every person to a happy end. And so, McKeeman says, Universalism became known as “The Gospel of God’s Success,” conveying the image that, as he put it, “the last unrepentant sinner would be dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable, at least, to resist the power and love of the Almighty.”

In time, though, the debate over heaven or hell faded and the focus shifted instead to the duty of the living and the nature of the world in which we find ourselves. In that context, it became less urgent that we consider how or even if we image the nature of God – something that lies beyond proof whatever side you argue – and turn to what we might consider to be the nature and consequences of love. What does love call us to in our lives? What does love require of us?

Universalists argued that theirs was not just a theological proposition, but a description of the world. As Gordon McKeeman put it, “running through life is the urgency to wholeness, to integration, to the putting together of scattered pieces of life. There is a universality of natural laws and there is, in parallel with it, a universality of the religious impulse, the desire for holiness or wholeness.”

We can find evidence for this, McKeeman says, when we look at the other side of the coin: “When we see people seeking to live out parochial, partial and insular assumptions, we discover people who create or perpetuate the tragic divisions of life, the costs of which in human misery, pain and suffering we continue to pay.”

There’s another word, an old word that sums up the agony that we experience in this condition, one that we might use to describe this state of affairs: Hell. So, maybe Hell does exist, but it isn’t something that was created for us; it’s something that we create for each other.

Why would we do that? Well, we get confused and distracted, selfish and afraid. We learned at the Racial Equity Institute training that in this country it was fear and greed that tended to drive white people each time they turned up the heat in the Hell they had created for black people, whether it be new restrictions on voting, or housing, or job opportunities.

The thing is that we live with the bizarre notion that while these people are enduring hell, we white people can go about our lives building our own little heavens. We tell ourselves that we live in the American dream, that anyone can accomplish anything with a little grit and determination. Of course, we’ve come to learn that this isn’t even true for most white people, that many people suffer and struggle against forces far stronger than they are.

But rather than question the myth, they bury themselves in shame, check out of the rat race and dive into addiction or despair. It’s a pretty desperate hell of its own.

Universalists warned us against this long ago. As Gordon McKeeman puts it, hell is about separation. We “set up little islands in the human experience” thinking we can make our own way independent of what’s going on with the rest of humankind. “And Universalism,” he points out, “says unequivocally, it cannot be done. You cannot have Hell for some people and Heaven for others.”

So, let’s be clear. The hells we create and the hells we occupy are not just the way of things. They come about by choices we and others make over time that create false divisions and that unfairly advantage some people over others, and until we stop privileging those policies and practices we will be powerless to alter them.

The solution is not to narrow our loyalties, to build walls and gates and find new and different ways to separate ourselves from others onto little islands of our own. The solution is to widen our loyalties, to enlarge our sense of who we are, remembering Edwin Markham’s old Universalist rhyme:

He drew a circle to shut me out – heretic, rebel, a thing to flout, but love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle and took him in.

How we do that is a big part of what about 70 members of this congregation were struggling with yesterday. We got together and invited each other to name those concerns and injustices that rankled us most. Then, we broke into groups to talk them over. It was big stuff – racism, climate change, immigrant rights, mental health and prison reform. Whew!

But this was no gripe session. It was gathering with an eye to action. So, this afternoon we’ll be meeting further to talk about what that action might look like. And you’re invited to attend. Whether or not you were part of the discussion on Saturday, your voice is welcome as we sort out how we as a congregation can be about widening that circle.

It is serendipitous that PBS chose this past week to air Ken Burns’ powerful documentary “Defying the Nazis” about the role of Unitarians Waitstill and Martha Sharp in helping hundreds of Jewish and other refugees marked for death escape from occupied Europe. (And if you missed it you can still see it online at But it’s live only until October 6, so make a point of looking soon.)

The story I told earlier of Martha Sharp initiating a child refugee program is one of the most compelling examples of their work, but there was much more – escorting refugees on hazardous railway journeys, sheltering refugees in safe houses, fabricating travel documents. It was work that put their lives in danger repeatedly, but they kept at it, even though it meant long absences from their children and strains that eventually broke apart their marriage.

Little wonder that Waitstill Sharp reported that when the UUA president first approached him about the job, he was told that 17 ministers before him had rejected it.

So what is required of us? As Lisa Forehand said, it’s something we all struggle with. Because we know, or at least intuit, that answering that question will open an avenue to help us get a sense of the meaning of our lives.

Our tradition through both of its strains – Unitarian and Universalist – declares that the answer to this question is not something we can expect to be given; it is something we must find. And we begin that journey in our own hearts. As Lisa said, we “try to hear our calling and have the courage and audacity to answer.”

It is not required that we all be activists in the model of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, but it is also not sufficient that we coast on by either insulated in privilege or paralyzed by fear.

Like Adrienne Rich, we might take some time to examine our own loneliness, an existential truth that we each come to terms with at some point in our lives. What’s the use?  What am I? How could I possibly matter?

But she won’t leave us there. “If I’m lonely,” she says, “it must be the loneliness of waking first, of breathing dawns’ first cold breath on the city, of being the one awake in a house wrapped in sleep.” Not isolated, not defeated, but awake, aware.

“If I’m lonely,” she says, “it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore in the last red light of the year that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither ice nor mud nor winter light, but wood, with a gift for burning.”

The Universalists had a word for that burning. They called it love. Love calls to us, they said. It nags at us, pleads with us – heck, drags us kicking and screaming, and says, “Get out here. Your presence is required – your time, your talent, your treasure, your genius, your compassion are needed if we are ever going to end the despair and depravity of separation, if we are ever going to live into the wholeness of this world.”

Let us head love’s call.

In the Wake of Yet Another Death

candlelight-vigilby Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, Associate Minister

“How long, O Lord, how long?” are the words heard over and over, the Biblical refrain of lament. I hear cries of lament, of grief and rage, echoing across our country, hurled to the sky, lobbed at passers-by like the tear gas that has become almost as inevitable as the linked arms of protestors responding to the latest death of a Black man, woman or child.

I hear over and over again, this has to stop, at the same time I hear, but I don’t know how. And surely I understand the horrible tension and fear of trying to stop an unstoppable force. Systemic racism is a many-headed beast, a Hydra or a Cerberus, which will not easily be defeated. And yet, we must work together to defeat it, we must. We who are white must work to change the system we did not create, but from which we benefit. A system will work hard to remain in stasis, especially when forces are trying to change it from within. Knowing this we must push harder than the system’s need to remain stable. We’ve got to start listening. We’ve got to start amplifying the voices of people of color. And if you’ve already started these things, that’s wonderful, and let’s keep listening, amplifying, and pushing for change.

It is a fight for the soul of our nation, perhaps, but more than that, a fight for the lives of our comrades, our siblings of color.

Even as I write this, I am sure there is nothing to be said that has not already been said. And yet, I cannot remain silent. My initial lament of, “How long, O Lord, how long?” turns into a deeper understanding that in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, the question does not get asked of the Lord – an agent outside of us who is expected eventually to fix the problem. We must ask the question of ourselves.

How long, my friends, how long?

How long will we let the racist system triumph?

I once heard a colleague say that the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, but that it is our job to reach up and help.

How long, my friends, how long?

DLRE Joy Berry: Snapshots From a Community of Faith on Ingathering Sunday

IMG_4393 (1).PNGHow does a person build deep faith identity?  By being welcomed into the circle, invited to share and know deeply the rhythms, rituals, and sacred spaces of their religious community. This kind of foundational faith development is taught not in a class but by, and throughout, the whole congregation.

Churches often refer to the first Sunday back together again from Summer as “Ingathering”. It’s a special word and a special occasion, a returning of the tribe from all over to the work and fun and worship and learning and music we do in faith community. We say we are a gathered people, and so it was last Sunday as we began putting into practice some of the goals and dreams that arose from our church-wide Visioning for the Future sessions in the Spring. Because a picture really is worth a thousand words, I’m delighted to share snapshots of the ways we came together in worship, classes, and activities at our Ingathering on 9/11.

Gathering in Time For All Ages (TFAA) at the beginning of every service is a change for us this year. It arose from a shared vision of more time together as a family and a congregation, hopes lifted up in the congregational visioning process this Spring. Worship literally means “what we give worth to”: by making room for all ages in our worship service, we demonstrate that we value the experience of shared worship as beneficial to everyone involved. As we begin to consistently share this sacred time and place, in our sanctuary, we tell our kids and families and RE teachers that they too are part of the whole congregation and that there is meaning and learning happening there that’s too important to miss.

TFAA is different qualitatively, too.  The “wordy bits” of announcements and greeting of visitors and the worship associate’s sharing have been moved out of the first fifteen minutes, now taking place after the RE community leaves for classes and activities. This creates space, in those brief moments we share each Sunday with our children and youth and teachers, for elements that get straight to the heart of  who we are: opening words and chalice lighting (now by a child or youth each Sunday!), a story for all ages or important ritual like teacher covenanting or child dedication, a hymn picked to be one we think accessible to everyone, and a ceremonial sharing of the congregational chalice to the RE and classroom chalices.

And those floor cushions! We wanted to make space for our whole community and for everyone to be comfortable. We also wanted to make a strong visual statement to newcomers about our commitment to making worship welcoming to families and children. The cushions have been well-received, giving young people a great view of what’s happening in worship. We also shared an insert in the order of service sharing our goals and suggestions for people of all ages, to help make this transition a good one. That will become a standard part of the literature available in the pews, as we go forward.





Sermon: I See You (audio & text)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The Way of Covenant is ultimately a different way of seeing, of envisioning the people and the world around us. We begin our fall worship season by inviting each other into this wider view of our faith tradition.


From ”Antiphonal Readings for Free Worship” arranged by L. Griswold Williams

Love is the doctrine of this church. The quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need to the end that all souls shall grow in harmony with the divine – Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.

From  No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu
The concept of “Ubuntu” is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu;” “Hey, so-and-so has Ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.”
We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.” It is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.” A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.


We begin our fall worship season by raising up and celebrating one of the foundation stones for us as a congregation and for our religious movement. What is it that gathers as people of hope and faith? Covenant.

Now, there is a document that we call the covenant of this congregation, a document that lays out in some detail how we agree to be with each other here, the disciplines we agree to bring to our lives together: sharing, caring, welcoming the diversity of both people and perspectives that we find here, and offering healing and support where we differ.
It’s a good document and it serves us well. But today I want to explore a different dimension of that word: covenant, not as a noun but as a verb; covenant as practice. To do this, I want to begin by taking us way back to the Puritans, who founded some of the earliest churches in New England, a number of which later became and remain Unitarian.
The Puritans had a stern and forbidding reputation, and for good reason. Their Calvinist theology held that only a select elite preordained by God before the creation of the Universe were truly saved.

But as the writer, Sarah Vowell points out, beneath their harsh theology, these “wordy shipmates,” in her phrasing, perceived that something else must prevail if this community of their making was to endure. She quotes the founding governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, to that end:

We must delight in each other, he says,
and make each other’s conditions our own,
rejoice together, mourn together,
labor and suffer together,
always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work,
our community as members of the same body.”

It was not enough that they shared similar beliefs: the only way that this small band of settlers was going endure was if they made each other’s conditions their own. And not just that either: they needed to “delight in each other,” to find joy, each in the others. It’s not our conventional image of the staid Puritans, but it gives us a window into our topic today

Sarah Vowell says it was Winthrop’s words that gave her comfort in the days after the 9-11 attacks. She was living in New York at the time, she says. “When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what (Winthrop) said and finally understood what he meant.”

She says, “I watched citizens happily, patiently standing in a very long line,” and she marveled, having already experienced New Yorkers’ impatience at being kept waiting for anything. But in this line, she says, “they were giving blood.”

“We were breathing sooty air,” Vowell recalls. “The soot was composed of incinerated glass and steel, but also, we, knew, incinerated human flesh.” So, all the people there truly were, she says, “members of the same body.”

She and her friends were aching for some way to contribute, so when the TV news announced that rescuers needed toothpaste, they took off for the neighborhood deli. By the time she got there, Vowell said, most of the popular brands had been cleared out, so “at the rescue workers’ headquarters I sheepishly dropped off 14 tubes of Sensodyne, the tooth paste for sensitive teeth. “We were members of the same body, breathing the cremated lungs of the dead and hoping to clean the teeth of the living.”

Vowell was right: In important ways, those volunteers and first responders and everyone engaged in the rescue and recovery from that shattering loss were reliving a vision of mutual care and concern that first arrived on our shores nearly 400 years ago: they were engaged in the practice of covenant.

And the covenant the 9-11 rescuers were practicing was not an agreement that was enshrined anywhere. It was instead covenant of being that those people discerned in the moment before them. It was nothing that they needed to invent because they were already a part of it in the fullness of the world. They simply needed to recognize what called to them from the center of their own natures.

A similar point is made in the covenant I read earlier: Love is the doctrine of this church; the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. This was offered up by people not as a theological proposal but as a confession of how they understood the world and their relation to it. Love is the response that the world calls from us; the quest of truth is how we advance it; and service is how it is realized.

Desmond Tutu wrote the book you heard quoted earlier after serving on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission provided a forum for leaders of the deposed Apartheid state to confess the wrongs they had done and seek reconciliation. Its work was centered on the premise declared in the title of Tutu’s book: No Future Without Forgiveness.

The process, he writes, was seen as a “third way” between the prospects of trials for war crimes and blanket amnesty. It was a way, he wrote, that sought “to rehabilitate and affirm the dignity and personhood of those who had so long been silenced.”

And what made it possible, Tutu says, was the African practice of Ubuntu. Earlier, you heard his description of Ubuntu: Not simply being caring, or generous, or compassionate but living in a way, he says, that sees “my humanity caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life.” It is, he said, “the very essence of being human.”

A couple of decades ago when South Africa’s transition was in the news and Ubuntu was trending in news reports there was much speculation about whether there was an equivalent term in the West to describe this deep connection among peoples. Some suggested that perhaps “community spirit” would do. But really “covenant” is a closer match.

Like Ubuntu the practice of covenant draws us to one another in a way that points to our nature and our destiny: we are meant for each other, and we are completed through each other. This state of affairs is not something we choose; it is something we affirm and that the world invites us to give ourselves to.

There is something painfully ironic about observing such a close parallel at the heart of these two cultures – African & American – given our sad histories. But what we share, and that we share reinforces the notion that something universal is at play here.

At the same time, in our separate perspectives we each are in a position to offer wisdom to the other. The African offers an American culture riven with divisions of race and class a notion that kinship is a rock-bottom truth. Social harmony, Tutu says, is the heart of it all. “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another,” he says, whereas the truth is that “you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.” Anger, lust for revenge, resentment are corrosive to both social and individual happiness, since whatever I do to dehumanize another inexorably dehumanizes me.

Covenant, on the other hand, calls us to remember that our lives together are centered in promises. We are, as Martin Buber put it, the promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creature, and it is woven throughout our interactions with each other.

It can be as simple as when you and I make appointment – promise-making, I put it on my calendar – promise keeping, but then I space out and miss the appointment – promise-breaking. But I don’t blow it off. Our relationship calls me to get back in touch with you, offer my apology, seek to make amends and perhaps set a new date – promise-renewing.

The ways in which we fall out of covenant with each other, though, are not always as obvious. We affirm that every person has inherent worth and dignity and feel called to treat them with respect and care. It is a promise, of sorts, that undergirds our lives.

Yet, we come to learn that the privilege we have gained simply by virtue of an accident of birth serves to keep other people oppressed, feeling little sense of worth and dignity, of respect and care. It is a state of affairs that we had no hand in, and yet it is plain that our advantage comes at the expense of another.

Now, we can say that that’s just the way the world works: Some get and some don’t. And while that may be so, this situation also puts us deeply and irrevocably out of covenant with one another.

And that’s not a small thing. If it is true that we are meant for each other, that each of us is a person through other people, this imbalance, this broken promise will weigh on us until it is repaired.

There is no saying what that repair might look like, but for the sake of peace, our own and the world’s, we had best be about it. That is how it is in our lives together. We struggle, we stumble, we err, and still, we return. Covenant continually calls us back again and again to the day-to-day work that reminds us of and calls us to dedicate ourselves to the small disciplines that enact the truth of our wholeness and unity.

I read recently that 15 years after the 9-11 attacks a whole raft of books on the subject are coming out for young readers. Many authors apparently were reluctant at first to treat such a difficult subject, but now many of their readers have no personal memory of the event since they weren’t born yet.

So, what do they say? For those of us whose memories of that day are still quite sharp, there is a similar quandary. What learning can we take from that event, what wisdom can we offer from our experience? Mulling over this, it occurred to me that covenant might offer a lens to organize our thoughts.

As Sarah Vowell noted, for all the horrific images that were broadcast during that time, there were also heartening ones: blood donors, sandwich makers, clean-up crews. They couldn’t erase the damage done to our society or to our psyches by those assaults.

But each in her and his own way was living into the practice of covenant, the affirmation of a common bond into which each of us is born and which all of us are called to serve. Confronted with suffering, they looked into another’s eyes and said, “I see you.” “Sawubona.”

You matter. You are part of me, and I am part of you. You are important to me. I need you to survive.