Making Promises @UUP 5/21/17
As Unitarian Universalists, we are a promise making people. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, not a creedal one. What does that mean?
Theodore Parker had this to say:
“Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere, its temple all space, its shrine the good heart, its creed all truth, its ritual works of love.”
His ritual really was works of love, he was an active abolitionist. Naming our creed all truth was also a definite challenge to the religious mainstream of his day.
A creed is a statement of beliefs that are taken on faith. Members of religious institutions that have creeds are expected to agree with the beliefs specified in that creed. If you question the Virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or his unique divinity as the only son of God, you can be labeled a heretic. During the reformation, many were burned at the stake for that kind of questioning. Today, people are excommunicated from some faiths because they do not believe or follow all of a church’s teaching.
Parker’s line, “creed all truth,” was an affirmation that people should believe what is true and also that truth is subject to testing, to analysis, to science as well as personal experience.
Unitarian Universalists believe things, of course we do.
As individuals we all have beliefs, some of which we hold fiercely and passionately. There are also a lot of beliefs that we hold in common with one another. Those beliefs are not a creed, however, because they are not a requirement for membership. They are also subject to change based upon new knowledge or new experience. Our creed, if we have one, really is all truth but what that truth may be at any given time or for any given person is open to both questioning and doubt.
Some people consider our seven principles a creed. Many of us when we first read them, say, “oh yes, that is exactly what I believe!” Let’s look at them now if you will. They are in the front of our hymnal.
Please note the introductory lines. It does not begin with “I believe” like the Apostles creed. It says instead that we covenant to affirm and promote– and what does covenant mean? Simply, a covenant is a promise. As Unitarian Universalists, we make promises; promises to do things. The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are not statements of belief, but rather action plans that we try to follow both as congregations and as individuals. Action plans! Don’t you love it?
What matters most is not what we believe, but what we do, how we treat other people and how we care for our planet. It is our promises that hold us together, it is the ways we have pledged to live our lives. That is a lot harder work than simply saying you believe in the virgin birth.
Am I treating that person that bugs me with respect? Am I fair and just when I deal with others? Am I working toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all? If we are faithful to them, our seven principles call us to that kind of reflection and action every day of our lives.
And yes, I guess you have to believe that justice, equity and compassion are good things, so beliefs are a part of it. But the key is not the belief, but the promise of action.
Has anyone here ever been asked, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” It is really the wrong question as we believe a lot of different things, in particular about theology. A better one is perhaps, “What is Unitarian Universalism?”
The best answer is that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith. We are bound together by our promises. Covenants are not contracts, but statements of intent. How we live into those promises, the actions we take in our lives and in the world, are what matters.
Covenants also aren’t rules or laws. You don’t go to jail or get throw out of the community if you break your promises from time to time. We all break our promises sometimes. We are human and we do not always live up to our best intentions.
But living according to covenant can bring us back to those intentions when we fail short. We can forgive each other and ourselves. Then, we can we begin again together in love.
The point is that we have promised to live our lives in a particular way, affirming and promoting certain principles that we have agreed upon.
Many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations have also adopted congregational covenants that contain promises about how we will be together in a religious community.
A sample is as follows:
“As a member of our Unitarian Universalist community, I covenant to affirm and promote our Unitarian Universalist principles. I am mindful, that as an individual and as a member of this community, I am accountable for my words, deeds, and behavior. Therefore, whenever we worship, work, or relate to one another, I covenant that I will:
Treat others with kindness and care, dignity and respect;
Foster an environment of compassion, generosity, fellowship, and creativity;
Share in the responsibilities of congregational life;
Speak truth as I experience it and listen to all points of view;
Practice direct communication. Speak to the individual –
not about them;
Act with respect and humility when I disagree with others;
Seek out understanding and wisdom in the presence of conflict;
Be true to my chosen path although the way may twist and turn, and support others on their journeys;
Resolve conflicts through intentional compromise and collaboration and, when necessary, request facilitation and/or mediation. “
The members of our board of trustees are in the midst of adopting a covenant for the board, promises about how they will work together for the good of the congregation as a whole.
They also think it would be good if we can adopt a congregational covenant, something similar to the one I just read. Such covenants have been proven to enhance the positive feeling of community and to reduce the rancor that can sometimes be involved in conflict situations. Disagreements are inevitable and if voiced respectfully can actually serve to make a community stronger and more committed to its common mission. They can help refine that mission and make it real. But nothing will drive people away faster than conflicts that are not discussed openly, respectfully, and directly.
Being in a religious community that really lives our values is very hard work. How many of you have been hurt by an unkind word by someone you thought was a friend?
What if you discover that you have hurt someone else by a thoughtless act or comment? How did you get back in right relationship? A covenant can help with that, as it is a reminder of how we have promised to be with each other.
Like marriage vows, which are a form of covenant, covenants of right relationship are best if they are created by those who are making the promises to each other.
Those of you who have participated in Chalice circles all have some recent experience in creating covenants.
Those covenants vary, but there are some common themes such as listening respectfully, keeping personal information confidential, sharing time fairly, and honoring the commitment to show up.
If UUP decides to create a congregational covenant, then each of the members will need to reflect upon what is important to them in creating and maintaining a strong and resilient religious community. How do you want to handle conflict? What is the difference between gossip and sharing someone else’s news?
Speaking directly to each other and not about each other is probably the hardest promise in any covenant. What fun it is to complain to a sympathetic ear about something someone else has done! How much harder it is to tell the person directly that you don’t like what they did and why.
One clarification on that: it really isn’t necessary to tell people to their face every little thing we don’t like about them. We all have personal flaws and quirks that it would be a bit rude to have pointed out to us. We all make mistakes. But if we are upset enough about something that we begin to gossip or complain to others about someone else, then we need to express those feelings directly.
It is about respect. It is how most of us would like to be treated. It also prevents misinformation from being spread and the community becoming unsettled by rumors and innuendo. Acting with respect and humility when you disagree with someone is also important. None of us can be right all of the time, and opinions expressed in arrogance can be very destructive in any community.
We also have a culture, both as a nation and as a faith tradition, that tends to be suspicious about anyone in any authority, and that tendency can make it difficult for anyone serving in a leadership capacity. It is not always just about the minister, although the minister rarely escapes such reactions, and most of us have learned to expect it, even if it is not pleasant.
How many of you have served on the board or on a committee and received criticisms that were hurtful? That demeaned your character, ability, or your intentions? Luckily it doesn’t happen very often here, but when it does it can be very hurtful.
A congregational covenant that establishes a practice of acting with respect and humility when we disagree with each other, of treating others with kindness and care, can go a long way in making the inevitable disagreements less personal and hurtful.
There are literally hundreds of congregational covenants that have been adopted by Unitarian Universalist congregations.
If UUP wants to create one of its own, a good way to start would be to create a task force of interested members who could look at a number of samples and then develop a draft to propose to the congregation. If you would be interested in participating in such a task force, please let me or a board member know.
I will end with a poem by the Rev. Derrick Jackson
We Are Called
In these times, we are called:
Called to step into the mess and murk of life
Called to be strong and vulnerable
Called to console and to challenge
Called to be grounded, and hold lofty ideals
Called to love in the face of hate
We are called
And it is not easy
And we will not always agree
And we will yell, and scream and cry
And we will laugh and smile and sing
We are called to be together
There is so much work to do
And we cannot do it alone
We need one another
Holding each other accountable to our covenants, to the holy, to love and justice
In these times, we are called.
Bottom line, the test of faith in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not about believing the right thing; it is rather about doing what is right. May we all strive to live up to our highest aspirations for the common good.
Blessed Be and Namaste