What does it mean to be in “covenantal relations” with others? Centering Thought:“When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”
― Martin Buber
Celebrant: Lennie Martin, Anchor: David Gortner First and Second Service Music: Ted Cory Share The Plate:NW Hub
At the time it never occurred to me that I was re-enacting, in my own way, an archetypal spiritual pilgrimage narrative you can find described the book of Genesis (and also in other ancient sources). All I knew was that on a walk one evening in my hometown of Atlanta in 1970 I looked up into the starry sky, and it suddenly dawned upon me that I was being called to leave the city of my birth and travel to a distant place. The time had come for me to leave.
According to the scriptural account found in the 12th chapter of Genesis (which I suggest is to be taken figuratively rather than literally) God commanded Abraham, the first Hebrew patriarch, to “go, get yourself away from your country, your birthplace, your father’s house and go to “the land that I will show you.”
Now I won’t say that God commanded me to leave Atlanta, but something within me – some deep realization beyond my conscious understanding – just laid it out there for me and somehow I clearly knew I should heed this call and I did.
Abraham’s journey took him from the land of Ur of the Chaldeans to the area that would become the small kingdoms of Israel and Judea, whereas my journey took me from Atlanta to the San Francisco Zen Center. Regarding such journeys a Rabbinical commentator notes that “only be breaking away from the external forces that operate upon our “selves” can we hope to find our true “selves” and our destiny.” To do this we must first put some distance between ourselves and certain external forces – perhaps religion, nationality, political ideology, class, family – that too often squelch personal realization and growth. This is not to say you
have to strike out on a literal geographical pilgrimage, but it is to say that the path of spiritual growth entails choosing and taking your own path. As my psychology of religion professor James Fowler put it: the “locus of authority” shifts from external to internal.
Not everyone hears or heeds the call to make this journey toward a more authentic self. Many are willing to assume the roles they have been assigned and continue to believe what they are led to think and believe by the proclaimed authorities.
Some, however, hear and heed a choose. Not to be too self congratulatory or say we’re better than others -because we aren’t -but this is one thing we have in common as Unitarian Universalists. Most of us –around 90% – came out of other religious traditions or from no traditions (hence the term “come outers”). And those among us who grew up as UU’s also make this
journey in that you have had to consciously, willingly decide to remain a UU. No one has forced you to be here. You heard and heeded the call to walk your own path of spiritual growth.
Hearing and heeding the call be be a more authentic self is something you do for yourself –not in a self centered, narcissistic way, but in a self centering, grounding way. The ancient Rabbi Hill said it best: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Indeed.
Sometimes people have discovered that I’m a UU minister and have cornered me with this inevitable question: “What do UU’s believe?” and it now occurs to me to say that we believe in ourselves. Or better yet –we place our faith in the wisdom of our authentic selves rather than creating and attaching to any particular belief system. That is the foundation upon which you must stand – being your authentic self – if you are to enter into covenantal relationship with others . This is what Unitarian Universalists claim to be all about – creating covenantal relations, not making creedal affirmations.
Now, as a Unitarian Universalist, in order to enter into covenantal relationship you must attend one of our invitation only midnight initiation ceremonies. There you will learn our secret password, our secret covenantal handshake, secret greeting and our mystery teachings;
then you must walk barefoot over a hot bed of coals, and then you get your symbolic covenantal tattoo in a place where the sun never shines. Once you have done all this you swear to cease having friendly relationships with all those who are not members of our exclusive UU covenantal club.
Or have I gotten this all wrong? Maybe so. Well then, what does it mean when we say that ours is a “covenantal” religious movement?
This doesn’t require you and I to walk on a bed of hot coals and it’s not rocket science. No, being in covenantal relations with others is, in my experience, more spiritually challenging than any of that.
I got a sense of this a few months ago after a Sunday service in late May wherein we addressed a controversial topic – the Israeli – Palestinian issue. It was timely for us to focus on this issue since the entire UUA was preparing to discuss this at our UUA General Assembly, plus which several members had been a sking me for sometime for us to reflect upon this in one of our worship services. So I invited a good UU friend of mine and a Jewish peace activist to
speak their conscience.
Frankly, I was nervous about this service – part of me wanted to keep dodging this issue because I feared that it would sow division and discord in the congregation. My fears were not ungrounded. After the service some members told me that they did not appreciate this service – it felt “unbalanced.” Perhaps it was. A bit later I learned that this issue was similarly divisive at the General Assembly where the business resolution calling for boycott, divestment and Sanctions (BS) failed to get the necessary two thirds vote to pass (it got 54%).
Today is not the time to discuss this tragic, intractable, complex, sensitive issue in which good people can adopt differing opinions regarding the best path to peace and justice. Yet it is the time – it is always the right time – to ask the question this recent controversy challenges us to ask: is it possible for people to disagree, even to have some significant conflict and yet remain in loving, covenantal relationship – that is, a relationship in which you bring your most authentic self into your relations with others in their
authenticity? Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian recognized this an “I and Thou” relationship wherein you acknowledge the sacred worth of the other as opposed to what he called an “I –it” relationship wherein others are objectified.
Earlier I noted that Rabbi Hillel asked “if I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That’s just half of the quote. He also asked “But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” In other words, don’t procrastinate. You are called to have to make a good faith effort now and again and again to be in right covenantal relationships with others – being both for yourself and for others.
It requires unfailing dedication and persistence: As UU minister Victoria Safford put it: “a covenant is a living breathing aspiration made anew every day.” It’s a profound resolution to live in harmony with others – to have, as Albert Schweitzer put it “reverence for life” or as the Buddhists put it: to feel empathy and have compassion for all beings (not just human beings).
An auspicious place to practice creating covenantal relations is in our own Unitarian
Universalist communities. As you probably realize, it’s not always going to be easy. There are and will be conflicts, misunderstandings, miscommunication. In my quarter century as a minister in this district who has served in conflict management roles a number of times I have seen conflict become painfully destructive of the community; BUT I have often seen conflict serve as a creative force when members have a strong commitment to maintaining covenantal relations. It strikes me that this is OUR special calling as a religious movement – to recognize and cultivate the many helpful interpersonal skills and practices we can learn that create healthy, life affirming covenantal relationships, to excel in discovering underlying unity amidst our diversity. When we fail to give this a good faith effort – to do this hard work ourselves -then our calls for peace and justice in the world ring hollow.
Yet really, that is just the beginning. I sense a call to create covenantal relations everywhere, every day of my life – how could it be otherwise? Consider our hurting, polarized nation and world –humankind’s relations are so broken by destructive, divisive forces. Dark clouds of hate, anger and fear block out the light of love. There are so many who are despised, neglected, marginalized, abandoned. There are many of us who look across social, political, cultural and religious divides and see those on the other side as “the enemy.”
But I don’t trust that vision – the one that tell me that those people on the other side of whatever divide – are the enemy. So, in my imagination I decided to take a daunting journey: to go be with those I consider to be on the opposite side of where I stand in the national political arena. Here’s how this went down in my imagination: There I am at the rally of that presidential candidate I don’t support, surrounded by people with whom I have some fundamental disagreements. It’s an ugly scene. I hear some racist, jingoistic, xenophobic comments; I see expressions of anger and rage. The folks at the rally recognize that I am not one of them and we immediately fall into an “I – It” relationship. We don’t recognize each other’s humanity – we only see through the lenses of political symbolism and instantly pin labels on one another. These folks freely express their anger at me and this stirs up feelings of fear, anger and hatred in me. We both hope to overpower, outvote, vanquish one another. In other words, I’ve lost my spiritual balance.
Then – I remember I call myself a Unitarian Universalist, and that the first principle of our faith is that “We COVENANT to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of EVERY person.” It doesn’t just apply to those who share my political views” – means
EVERYONE!. This thought leads me back to my authentic self and I find an opportunity to re -engage with a few of my political adversaries. Somehow I discover that I can remain calm, and I begin to ask questions –
not like an interrogator but like an interested friend – so I can understand why these folks feel the way they do. It’s scientifically verified that we tend to mirror one another – if I’m hostile to others, then they will be
hostile in return. Yet if I embody an authentic spirit of empathy and compassion others will tend to sense this mirror this back and I can see that this is what’s happening. As I embody genuine warmth and compassion they
begin to reflect that back. We can perceive one another’s humanity beyond the political labels – we ’re spiritually subverting the hostile dynamics. Now we’re not relating to the political identity of those around her –
we’re relating to one another’s underlying humanity. Covenantal living is not just a way of thinking – it’s a way of being. We’ve begun to create life affirming covenantal “I and Thou” relationships on this barren patch of the political landscape. Amazing. Could this actually happen? I wonder.
A few weeks ago several of us, including Charlie and Sandy Coates here, were in Transylvanian region of Romania and we visited this beautiful ancient Saxon – built cathedral in village of Biertan. The guide showed us this little room – “the matrimonial prison” – where in times past, whenever a couple in this town were arguing and fighting and on the verge of splitting up they were locked together in this room with just one bed, one bowl and one spoon – for a month. During the many years of this practice only one couple chose to divorce. Every other couple figured out a way to work things out.
So here we are – in this one world – all together whether we like it or not. Some say we are tragically flawed beings fated to be trapped in swirling eddies of never ending enmity and that we can never discover how to flow onto to peaceful realms of coexistence. Our covenantal tradition begs to differ.