Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Power of a Promise

It was 1637, and the settlers in what know we today as Dedham, Massachusetts, came together to discuss the creation of a church.  Although the roughly 30 families had already come together to the extent that they were generally able to govern themselves, they had not yet figured out how to worship together.  And that was a pretty important thing back in 1637.

You might be surprised to learn that our impulse to set up “cottage conversations” whenever we have large issues to grapple with was their impulse as well.  For a year those settlers, now neighbors, met in a series of cottage meetings, each one being organized around a specific question.  Given what we know – or think we know – about the religious sensibilities of 17th century New England, we might imagine that the topics for discussion would be things like salvation, damnation, predestination.  We might imagine that in order to come together in forming a church these doctrinal issues would need to be sorted out and that some sort of mutual understanding would need to be reached.

We’d be wrong.  The result of their deliberations was not titled, A Platform of Theological Understandings Gathered Out of the Word of God and Agreed Upon, etc., etc.  Instead, what comes down to us is A Platform of Church Discipline …  In other words, these folks felt that even more important than a unified theological understanding, what was essential in forming their new church was a common organizational understanding.  Not, what would be the common beliefs, but what would be their agreements about how to be together.  (This should come as welcome vindication for the folks who’ve been serving on our Governance Task Force this past year, who know how important their work is but who’ve often felt as if they, alone, have cared about it.)

The Cambridge Platform, as it is more commonly (thankfully) known established the vision of a church built on covenant instead of creed, built on the promises inherent in such principles as investing ultimate authority in the congregation itself rather than in some ecclesiastical role or structure.  The church – the meaning, the very idea of “church”– is defined in the Platform as “a company of saints by calling united into one body by a holy covenant, for public worship of God, and the mutual edification of one another in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus.”  I want to lift up three things in there:

“A company of saints by calling” means people who identify themselves as trying to live a good, moral life.  No outside body or power declares them to be such; they are “saints by calling.”  We could add, they are “saints” by an inner “calling,” an inner recognition that they belong.
Then, the Platform declares that there are really only two reasons for a church to exist – the public worship of God, and “the mutual edification of one another.”  “Edification” is the improving of someone’s morals or intellect; we could say that it involves making someone a better person.  Yet these 17th century New Englanders apparently didn’t think that this was a job for the clergy to do for the laity but, instead, something that they were all called to do for one another – “mutual edification.”  That’s a pretty huge, radical leap from what was more commonly understood at the time, and that’d be more than a little radical in some arenas still today.

But here’s the big one, the thing I really want to make sure we don’t miss:   the church is “a company of saints by calling united into one body by a holy covenant …”  They weren’t called together by God or some other Higher Authority.  And it wasn’t that they had a shared theological understanding; it wasn’t that they agreed on creed.  What brought them together, and held them together, was that they covenanted with one another, that they made promises to one another about the kind of community they were making and how they were going to behave with one another within it. 

The basis of their church is the basis of ours – an agreement to come together in mutual respect, even when we disagree.  What brings us together, and holds us together, are the promises we make to and with one another about the kind of community we are making, and how we are going to behave with one another within it.  Not surprisingly, the settlers who came together and created The Cambridge Platform are, indeed, our religious ancestors.  There’s a direct line from them to us.  When we ask ourselves, as we’ve been doing this month, what it means that we, as Unitarian Universalists, are “a people of covenant” – this is what it means:  that what brings us together, and holds us together, are the promises we make to and with one another about the kind of community we are making, and how we are going to behave with one another within it. 

Earlier we read together the words of our covenant.  I’ve often thought that when someone signs the book to formalize their membership in this community, or when we recognize our new formalized members during a Sunday service, we should have them raise their right hand and ask them:
·         Do you promise to communicate with compassion and respect, especially when we disagree?
·         Do you promise to celebrate diversity and nurture our inclusivity?
·         Do you promise to embrace each of us spiritually and emotionally?
·         Do you promise to promote social justice within our congregation and the larger community?
·         Do you promise to generously support the ministries of the church with time, money and enthusiasm?
·         Do you promise that when someone has fallen short, you will lovingly call them back into covenant, and hope that others will do the same for you?

I wonder if there’d be people who would decide not to sign if they knew that doing so meant saying “yes” to these promises.  And I wonder what it’d be like if during that same New Member Recognition Service the rest of us were asked to raise our right hands and reaffirm our commitment to these promises, too.

There is such power in a promise.  It’s true that commitments can challenge us. Think about New Year’s Resolutions – most of us make them and then break them, and have done this so many times that we hardly ever make them anymore.  Or, when we do, we take the resolve out of them by saying that we’ll try to do this or that but, you know, “I can’t make any promises.”  Making a promise, a commitment, is saying that I’m going to go for it with all that I’ve got; that I’ll resist giving in to excuses; that I’ll make the effort a priority; that I’ll stick with it even when it’s not particularly comfortable to do so or when I don’t really feel like it, thank you very much.  I understand the reality that all I can really ever do is try my best, but a promise is a way of saying that I don’t intend to use that as an out.  As Grand Master Yoda so famously said, “Do or do not.  There is no try.”  That’s the spirit, the heart, of commitment; and commitment is the heart, the spirit, of covenant; and covenant is at the core of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, and it’s the heart of who we are as Unitarian Universalists who’ve come together to create this community of faith. 

So we promise to communicate with compassion and respect, especially when we disagree.  And that means, of course, that we’re willing to disagree, that we’re willing to risk disagreeing.  And yet even in this open-minded and open-hearted community we often hold back sharing all of who we are, and how we think, and what the world looks like through our eyes.  I guess we often do this because we don’t want to offend anyone.  I know that we sometimes do this because we fear rejection even in this loving and inclusive community.

The first congregation I served had a Unison Affirmation we repeated each week at the beginning of our Sunday sanctuary service.  There was a line in it that said, “We respect differences of opinion, and strive to be a democratic community.”  More than once I felt the need to challenge them on this, asking, “How do we know we respect differences of opinion if we won’t risk having any?”
Take our prized theological differences, for instance.  How often do we really talk plainly, openly, without inhibiting qualifiers, about what we really believe – especially with someone we know – or suspect – believes something else?  I’ve often observed that we UUs seem to have a theological “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” –  I won’t offend you by telling you that I believe in God, and you won’t offend me by telling me that you don’t.  We appear to respect our differences, even though it looks like that because we try to avoid calling attention to them.  The surface may appear calm and clear, yet underneath it’s all pretty murky.

Here’s the thing – maintaining a semblance of acceptance always … always … comes at the cost of the real thing.  Let me repeat that:  maintaining a semblance of acceptance always comes at the cost of the real thing.  And it makes the next step, the one our faith tradition calls us to, eager engagement with difference, virtually impossible.  You see, I don’t want you to hold back in telling me about your Atheism.  I already know how the world looks to a Theist.  I already understand what a belief in God – what I mean by that phrase, anyway – I already understand what a belief in God adds to my life.  I got that.  What I don’t know is what life without that belief looks like.  I don’t know how your life is enriched by your belief that we humans are all there is, and that reality consists of what we can taste, touch, feel, and see.  Clearly it is, but how it is, is a mystery to me.  And unless you dare to tell me, I’ll never know.  And you’ll never know … for sure … that you can.  We’ll express a respect for one another’s different views, but we won’t actually know them.  So we won’t actually know each other.  And TJMC won’t really be what we say it is, what we tell the world it is, what we truly need it to be.

And that’s just one example of the power in the promises we make that make this community.  Read them over again at some point, and see how challenging they are.  And I’d don’t mean just how challenging it will be for me to really live that way, but also the challenge they offer me to go deeper and live more fully.  The much celebrated “seven principles” of Unitarian Universalism are also a promise, a covenant, a challenge.  (You can find them on the UUA’s website,, or on ours,, or in the front of the grey hymnal.)  These are not statements of what UUs believe, no matter how many times they’re described in that way.  Instead, they are a series of principles, and it is the covenant to “affirm and promote” them which brings together, and holds together, as the Unitarian Universalist Association of Affiliated Congregations.  (The UUA’s full and formal name.)

What it means to say that we Unitarian Universalists are “a people of covenant” is that we are not bound together by shared creeds, but by shared commitments.  Those commitments form our covenant, and that covenant is what makes us who we are.  Or, at least, it can.  It can.  If we trust one another, and trust ourselves, enough to put it into practice, we will make real who we say we want to be.  If we can’t, or don’t, we’ll be just show.  And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have the real, than the show.

Pax tecum,


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