Promise-Making, Promise-Keeping (text & audio)



Click here to read “Directions” by Billy Collins


“Do you promise?” The question always catches our granddaughter for a second: then her reply, with a sober expression framing her big brown eyes: “Yes, I promise.”

The request is never anything of particularly great moment – thankfully her life is not yet that complicated – but even a five-year-old recognizes the weight of that question. And she’s never shy about making a similar request of us and expecting a response that is equally as serious. It is a part of our bonding with each other, the testing and trusting that creates intimacy. But it’s also an introduction to something larger and deeper that is within and between us all.

Martin Buber famously declared that we human beings are the “promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing” animal. Promising is not just something we do; it defines and creates us as social beings. And, as Buber’s formula suggests, it can be a challenging  thing to negotiate. Not all promises are easy, not all promises are wise, not all promises are kept, and even when promises are broken that doesn’t necessarily end a relationship.

And still, promise-making is at the heart of who we are, of what we do as human beings, and, I want to argue today, something we liberal religious folk can offer up as a source of hope for the world.

Last week I told you that this is a community where you are invited to discover what your heart and mind and soul declare must be true about how the world is and our place within it. We frame that in the first half of our congregation’s mission statement, which I remind us of each Sunday – “we nurture individual search for meaning.”

The second half of that statement reminds us that we do this in community: not simply for our own edification, but with an end in mind, that we work together for “freedom, justice and love.” And it’s important to remember that those words at the end are not tagged on as an afterthought – “hey, join us here and figure yourself out and, oh, if you have the time you might want to help us out in this other work.”

We believe that this other work is integral – no, even more: necessary to any hope we may have of finding integrity and peace, of knowing who we really are. And it’s bound up in a process of promise-making that we call covenant.

This notion of covenant is very old with us and so, as you might gather, has followed some twists and turns along the way. It dates back to the 1550s in Great Britain to a religious reformer named Robert Browne who pushed for a radical shift in church life. Inspired by leaders of the Reformation in Europe, he drew on the image of God’s promise-making in the Bible to argue that churches should be gathered in a similar way. Churches, he said, should be formed based on a covenant among persons.

And instead of agreeing to a common doctrine, he said, people could agree to walk together on the basis of certain religious principles. They could choose their own ministers and teachers, put forth and debate issues to learn the truth and welcome diversity of opinion, even protest and dissent.

This notion took root and crossed the Atlantic with the Puritans and guided the formation of those first congregations in New England. In 1648 this arrangement was codified among the gathered churches in something called the Cambridge Platform, which both described and defined how covenant worked. Essentially, it laid out the practices that congregations followed that reinforced the ties within, among and beyond them through regular worship, meetings and mutual care.

In the years that followed, though, the role of covenant faded in many congregations as disputes over belief began to divide them. More conservative congregations began to set high bars of orthodoxy for people to be admitted into membership, and some congregations – including many that were later to become Unitarian – put aside the old covenants to avoid religious disputes.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that, once again, reformers in our movement called attention to this covenantal tradition and offered it as a way of reestablishing who we were and what we had to offer to the world.

What they discovered is that this notion of covenant addresses a fundamental tension in our movement. In a way, that tension is represented by the two halves of our congregation’s mission. On the one hand, we encourage and defend the right of each person to make up her or his own mind about what is true on religious questions – the search for meaning that we take to be a lifetime’s work. But if the gatherings of our congregations are to be anything more than the fitful herding of cats we must also agree on some principle that unites us.

Historians of our movement went digging into the files of some of our older churches and discovered these old documents with such expansive sentiments as these: Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.

Covenants like these do nothing to inhibit the wide ranging explorations that we as individuals or congregations may undertake to learn and come to terms with what is true and right. But they do provide some context for the work and some understanding of the spirit in which this work is done.

So, it’s no surprise that in the mid-1980s when calls came to revise the founding documents of Unitarian Universalism to make them more inclusive, the words that were chosen were framed as a covenant. The language that we proudly point to today, that you will find mounted and framed in the foyer outside this sanctuary, is presented as principles that we as member congregations covenant to affirm and promote. They are not statements of belief; they are promises of how we will behave with each other and in the larger world.

A little over a decade ago a task force was gathered in this congregation to take us to the next step. As a member congregation of the UUA, we agreed to affirm and promote the principles it adopted, but how about with each other? What promises do we need to make to each other to make this safe space for us to be about the often challenging and emotionally risky work of building a spiritual life?

The result of that process was the covenant that we read together last Sunday as we welcomed new members and friends into this community. I invite us to read it together each time we widen the circle of this community both as a way of bringing newcomers into the promises that unite us and of concentrating our attention for a moment on the work we try to do here.

Because the fact is that we all have rough edges that can damage others, and conflict is a fact of life in any gathering of people. We serve ourselves and each other best when we acknowledge that and commit ourselves to finding ways to work through those conflicts or find healing for the injuries we do to each other. It’s tough work and can make for some uncomfortable moments, but our hope is that we will come together again and recommit ourselves to this path.

But, when you think about it, what really leads us to choose this path? The way we usually frame the answer to this question is to say that as individuals with free will we decide that it is in our interest to commit to others and bring a community into being.

Now, that’s fine and there is probably some truth to it, but, to be honest, if that’s all that underlies our commitments to one another, it’s pretty tepid broth. If my decision to enter into covenant with you is based simply on my calculation of how it will benefit me, it won’t take much for that calculation to change. I may decide that I just don’t feel like it any more, and, hey, don’t give me grief, I get to decide what’s in my interest or not. OK, but then this covenant we thought we had really doesn’t stand for much, does it?

So, what else might guide our promise-making? Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, offered a way of thinking about his in a talk she gave to General Assembly about a dozen years ago.

She suggested that the covenants we make are centered in the covenants we inherit. The fact of the matter, she said, is that “we receive who we are before we choose what we will become.” Our very existence, after all, emerged out of a web of relationships that were simply given, and everything that we do or achieve is woven together with persons and forces that ebb and flow throughout on lives. We can elect to drift on obliviously pretending that nothing we do touches anything else, but plainly that’s not the way it is. And thinking this way puts us deeply out of touch with the world before us and the very source of meaning and strength that might awaken and transform us.

When my granddaughter and I trade promises, we are not negotiating contracts to achieve our mutual interests. We are building connections of love and trust that help realize a deeper hope in both our lives.

In her book An American Childhood, Annie Dillard compares the work of writing a book to raising a child, and she could just as easily be talking about the place we move from in shaping our covenants with each other.

“Willpower has very little to do with it,” she says. “If you have a little baby crying in the middle of the night, and if you depend only on willpower to get you out of bed to feed the baby, the baby will starve. You do it out of love. . . .  There’s nothing freakish about it. Caring passionately about something isn’t against nature, and it isn’t against human nature. It’s what we’re here to do.”

This is something that I think our liberal religious notion of covenant has to offer the world. We don’t create covenants with each other out of mutual self-interest. We don’t do it for fear that God will hate or condemn us if we don’t. We do it because it’s what we’re here to do. It is how we best realize the hope that we as human beings are for the world.

We are given the opportunity to tap a well in our hearts that is wider and deeper than we can know but that many of us learn to keep sheltered and hidden. We might imagine that the promises we make limit us, but in fact the opposite is true. The promises we make release the latches that make the love that we shelter away available. The testing and trusting we do with each other takes our commitment to greater depth and opens previously unimagined possibilities.

Of course, some of the promises we make are not kept or turn out to have been ill advised. So we take a step back and look for ways to reconnect. As a community we offer consolation, care, and space for healing and renewal. In the end, we remember that, while we may have been wounded, the heart is a muscle that is strengthened by being used.

Opening our hearts to each other, Rebecca Parker points out, prepares us to open our hearts to the world, to make our communities centers of resistance to oppression and injustice. The work can be challenging, but we gain courage from knowing that we are leading from the source of our strength, joined as communities gathered not out of convenience or artifice but out of our understanding of a truth at the center of our being.

It is hard, as Billy Collins puts it, to talk of all the ways we are touched and shaped in this brief snatch of eternity that we are given, where we take the vast outside into us before the lights wink out. It can be frightening, lonely.

We look for travelers to share the way with us, people who will walk along side, who will be there when we knock on their doors, hoist a pack and join us for a bit. In our promises with each other we build a structure that supports us all, that creates a crucible for our striving and searching and a shelter against the storms. Each person who joins our covenant adds a brick to that structure that, it is our hope, in time may help heal the world.