“You Reading This, Be Ready,” By William Stafford
How are you with promises? I mean, not only how are you at keeping your promises, but how are you at making them, too?
I think that generally I’m pretty good at keeping promises. I try to think about the commitments I make and attend to them, though I mess up sometimes. Just this past week an error I made in keeping my calendar resulted in someone cooling her heels in our church office while I scrambled get in.
Well, it happens, right? Sure, but it bothers me. Because I know how I feel when other people fail in their commitments to me, and even worse if they seem to just blow me off and act as if it doesn’t matter. So, when I’m the one at fault, I try to make sure to acknowledge the mistake I’ve made and apologize for it and the wrong that I’ve done them.
It may be just an inconvenience to them, or it may be something deeper: embarrassment, or even deeply hurt feelings. I can’t know, and I can’t change it, but I can at least make some gesture of compassion and respect. Because, promises matter, even the little ones. When we make a promise, we put something of ourselves emotionally into the transaction. And to have that promise broken feels at some level like a violation.
So, I try to be careful about the promises I make, too, though often these days I find I have little choice about them. Just about every commercial transaction we make seems to have some carefully lawyered promise written into it, whether it be the cell phone contract or some credit card payment.
There you are online trying to make some purchase and suddenly up comes this screen full of dense text entitled “terms of agreement”: I agree to . . . yada, yada, yada. And, of course, you read every word, right? No, I don’t either. I look for the box I can check that will let me get on to the next screen and complete the purchase. The box may say, “I agree,” but it doesn’t feel like much of an agreement, except that I accept that I’ll be dunned if there’s some hang-up in my credit card.
This state of affairs may satisfy corporate bookkeepers, but it doesn’t do a lot for the state of promise-making in our culture. Indeed, it serves as a reminder that while our lives are flooded with promises of this sort, there are whole industries of people working to find loopholes in those promises.
There’s a Darwinian kind of feel to all this: the survival, not necessarily of the fittest, but of those who can best game the system. OK, maybe this is how the whole miracle of the marketplace works, but we get into trouble when this sort of sensibility invades our private lives. For, no matter how grizzled or world-weary we may be, there is still something tender inside of every one of us that is looking for the real thing: true communion with another human being.
It could be a partner; it could be a friend; it could be a community of people. It feels like a rare thing these days to be in relationship with people who live inside their promises, not because the terms of a contract loom over them but because of their personal commitment to keeping them.
And so we learn to be wary, reluctant to commit to others and ready to flee when the inevitable lie is uncovered. Well, what did you expect? You expected better. Some of us learn to harden ourselves, or to define the world by our own interests, or just hide away to avoid the harm and deceit we’ve come to expect. We also learn to deny the longing for connection that we feel and the deep grief for it that lives inside us.
The importance of promise-making is very old in our religious tradition, originating among the Puritans who settled New England in the 17th Century. Here’s a statement of this that comes from John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts , who famously told his shipmates aboard the Arabella:
We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must hold familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ 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.
The language may be archaic, but the intent is clear: Winthrop was laying out the terms of a promise that he proposed the settlers make to one another.
Heading into an unknown land, seeking a new way in the world, he urged that they support each other, not just in the supply of “necessities,” but also by laboring and suffering together, by making others’ conditions their own, by “delighting in each other” in “meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.”
History shows that these settlers had mixed success in living up to that promise, which was a big part of why our forebears, Unitarians and Universalists, later split away to form their own religions. But the notion that we as religious communities are gathered by promises has endured. We frame it, in this congregation and elsewhere, as a covenant. These are words of our choosing that tell how we intend to hold a space for spiritual exploration that makes room for a diversity of belief.
People new to this community may wonder how a religious community could ever exist among people with differing beliefs. My colleague Meg Riley, minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, says in a recent newsletter column that the way that we create spiritual or theological common ground “is so simple it’s almost embarrassing: We agree to do so.”
No person, no pronouncement compels us. On entering this community, we simply are asked to enter into that agreement. That’s a way of pointing to the fact that for us, our covenant, our promise to respect and care for one another, to stay in conversation even when the going gets tough, is more important to our community than the individual beliefs of its members. Sounds simple, but in practice it’s anything but.
It means that we endeavor to leave ourselves open, not just to hearing what others say to also to being changed by it. There are people from across the theological spectrum – theist, atheist, humanist, Christian, Buddhist, mystic and more – who can’t imagine being in community with people with different beliefs.
It’s what makes us distinctive and puts the lie to the criticism that, as Rebecca Parker, former president of Starr King School for the Ministry, puts it, UUs are some kind of “empty cipher.” We are open to many things, but there are ways of thinking that have no place here.
* “You can hold a view that there is no God or that God exists,” Parker says, “but you cannot hold the view that God is the all-powerful determiner of everything that happens, that there is no human freedom. We hold that freedom is a real and essential characteristic of life.
“You can define salvation, healing and wholeness in many ways, but you cannot hold to the view that there will be an ultimate separation of the saved from the damned. . . . UUs are clear that all souls are of worth.
“You can be devoted to a specific religious practice – Christian prayer, Buddhist meditation, or pagan ritual (to name a few), but you cannot hold the view that one (perspective) encompasses the exclusive, final truth for all times and places.
“Finally, you can see this world as tragically flawed, wondrously gifted, or both. But you cannot hold the view that salvation is to be found solely beyond this world. UUism is clear that the ultimate is present here and now, and can be grasped and experienced, even if only partially, within the frame of our mortal existence.”
And there’s more. The reason this business of covenant making is so important to us is not just because we want to be nice, although we do try to treat people with compassion. And it’s not just that we think it’s important to leave room for people to make up their own minds about what they believe, though we do strongly hold that position.
It’s centered in the understanding that the covenant we make extends beyond ourselves. It is a way of helping us to see that we live and have our being in relationship. The covenant we make with each other helps us better understand the larger unspoken covenants into which each of us was born.
“We are not our own,” writes Brian Wren in one of our hymns. “Earth forms us. Human leaves on nature’s growing vine.” And not just Earth: generation on generation we form each other in ways great and small, ways that may even be invisible to us, yet are undeniable all the same.
Beyond the beliefs that arise among us out of the circumstances of our lives, there is a greater unity that we are a part of, a unity we hope to model in our lives together and bring into being in whatever ways we can. The unity of all things is not something we are observers to: we are in the messy middle of it, bound up by our spirits’ longing, by our very DNA. The covenant we make acknowledges that and invites us into deeper relationship.
This being in relationship is one of the inescapable truths of our lives. A couple of weeks ago when Asheville Playback Theatre led our worship service we invited you to reflect on two questions: who are you, and whose are you? We paired those questions because they are inevitably interwoven. Who we are is defined at least in part by those with whom we are in relationship. And our relationships are shaped by the particularities of our individual identities.
We are not always so good, though, in acknowledging the covenant that is embodied in those relationships. We take things, we take each other for granted, even assume we are entitled to the bounty that is ours.
Is it any wonder, then, that we are so often divided from one another, that we have such a hard time, as John Winthrop put it three and a half centuries ago, “making others’ conditions our own, rejoicing together, laboring and suffering together, delighting in each other . . . abridging ourselves of our superfluities, holding familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality”?
In our disappointment and grief, we forget that we have at our disposal the power of promise. It is a power that I want to argue that we in this community are gathered to employ.
We gather to promise each other a crucible where we may bring our full selves to the life-long journey of spiritual exploration, free of judgment but not of challenge, free of compulsion but not of invitation and inquiry. We gather to promise to be present to each other in each stage of our lives to our wonder and our befuddlement, to growth and decline, to joy and grief. We gather to promise to call ourselves and each other to account to live what we proclaim, to be guided by our hearts as well as our minds, and to put our muscle and our money where our mouths are.
It is good to begin this worship year with a reminder of the promise that underlies our commitment to this community and all the opportunities we have to put it into action.
I’m grateful that our Board of Trustees is beginning this year with a process designed to elicit from the congregation where we want this promise to carry us as a community. Last week they began by inviting about 10 members of the congregation to talk with them about what nurtures them about this place, what motivates then to take part, and also what hinders their involvement and they might add or change to improve their experience.
We learned from these folks that they have a fairly positive experience of Sunday worship and religious education as well as social activities like Restaurantours and family potlucks, as well as social justice work like Room in the Inn and our sharing our offering plate with the community each week.
We also heard disappointment at the lack of diversity in our congregation, difficulties that some newcomers have finding a way in, and intolerance that flares from time to time.
The process will continue the rest of this fall at the board, and in other venues, too, throughout the year. Please look for opportunities to join in as you can. The Puritans aren’t the only people who ever struggled with holding to their covenants. We, too, need occasions to remind ourselves of and renew the promises that gather us and to challenge ourselves to live fully into them. One thing that 35 years of marriage have taught me is that promises are not static. They require continuing attention, investment and care. So it is with us as a covenanted congregation, too.
To create what we hope to see – a place where our tender hearts lead us into deeper connection with our best selves, our dearest values, beloved community – will take a combination of both dedicated commitment & work, and making room for the gentle grace that is forbearance and love.
Out of great need, the Persian poet Hafiz put up, climbing in dangerous terrain, we are holding hands, friends. Holding back, playing the observer, kibitzing from the sidelines – all ways of what Hafiz calls “not loving” – are not neutral acts. They are ways of letting go.
Won’t you stay with us in the game? Will you ever bring a better gift for the world than the breathing respect that you carry wherever you go right now? What can anyone give you greater than now, starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
* From “Quest,” newsletter of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, Vol. LXIX, No.8