until they are compacted and united; so saints or believers in judgment of charity,
are not a church unless orderly knit together.” (Cambridge Platform, 1648)
For a while, in various versions of the 5 Jagged Rocks, there was not a specific reference to covenant. I excused this in my mind by calling the whole thing our covenant. But finally, I could not call my rocks a complete tool kit without explicitly naming how critical I understand the practice of covenant to my faith and my sense of righteousness. And so I added:
We are made whole through relationships of trust and accountability.
The corollary in JLA’s smooth stones seems to be, “we freely choose to enter into relationship.” Freedom was a big deal to JLA, likely because of the way he understood the Goliath of his time, which was working to squash human freedom. It was important to him and to his context that we underscore the relentless presence of human choice and free will. He affirmed the independent individual capable of making free decisions to enter into relationship. He wrote about voluntary associations and a mutual consent and lack of coercion. Although we might question the actual content of these claims today, regardless of their validity, the way he understood his Goliath is not the way we understand ours, and so inevitably the way we construct this stone won’t be precisely the same.
Today, we don’t need to be reminded that we are free to choose. Often times, in fact, we long for fewer choices. Our Goliath threatens us not by way of our free will, but by confusing us by offering us too many possibilities. The question for us today is – how should we decide which relationships are worthy of our love and loyalty? And how will we find such relationships and make them last?
Which is also to say, we don’t need affirmation that we are free to remain outside of binding relationship. We know this. Marriage is optional. Casual relationships are common. Technology makes it completely possible that a person rarely have to speak or interact with another person with any kind of regularity. Speaking specifically about religion – there are no longer societal pressures to join a church in the same ways there were a few decades ago. You can be spiritual but not religious. And as the news reports tell us relentlessly, increasing numbers are.
As UUA President Peter Morales has described it, this kind of individualism is “the spiritual disease of our time.” Luckily we have within our tradition a healing force for precisely this kind of ill. Our covenantal tradition affirms the necessity of gathering in community, and the critical role of relationship in spiritual health and wholeness. But not just any kind of relationships. Not casual relationships, and not just those places where you go to be told how great you already are, or how terrible. Not community that knows you superficially or who would reject you if they got to know who you truly are, or who you are afraid would. Not relationships that break at the earliest sign of disagreement or discomfort.
The kind of relationships that can take down that Goliath of individualism today are built on three things: trust, accountability, and intention.
Trust allows for mutual vulnerability and authenticity, a deep sharing of our fears and hopes, a willingness to be real. And it creates an environment where no matter what, we can rely upon the constancy of our relationship. This does not mean a relationship cannot be injured, even gravely so. But it does call us to study and practice compassionate communication, intercultural competency and the asking for and offering of forgiveness and beginning again. Ultimately the trust of these holy relationships is built on an affirmation that we are indeed promise-making, promise-breaking and promise-renewing creatures. Covenants anticipate that we will break our promises. As I said in a sermon not too long ago: we will disappoint you. It’s the staying after the disappointment and working to be a part of the transformed relationship that heals that deep ill of individualism for good.
Embedded in this trust is accountability, what our religious ancestors referred to by either “mutual edification” or its potential outgrowth, “admonishment.” Edification goes beyond education to include a moral component; that it is mutual describes the desire that we are each growing morally and spiritually – with and from each other. Admonishment has a negative tone today, but that doesn’t seem to be the intent. It is not criticism, it is not judgment. It is “speaking the truth in love.” It is moral counsel based in deep relationship and a sense of shared values. This kind of accountability means we respect each other enough to invite each other to be our best selves. It means speaking up when one we love seems to be heading astray. It means asking loving questions, and remaining open to the truth as it is unfolding in them, and in the world. It does not mean assuming our way is another’s way – but it does invite us to hold each other’s stories up as if a mirror, and to remind one another of our heart’s own song, particularly on those days when we are sure no such song ever did or ever will exist.
Lastly, these kinds of relationships require intention. They don’t just happen. they are not casual. They require practice and set-aside time. They require care and commitment. They are not always convenient. Sometimes they ask you to forgo the thing you wanted to do in favor of gathering with those to whom you have pledged your trust, accountability – love, and loyalty. Through my experiences in small group ministry, I’ve started to realize this practice is not unlike meditation. You sit down with the same group, in the same ways, at the same time, again and again – and eventually, your body and mind begin to crave such a set-aside time. It comes prepared for deep authenticity, listening, sharing – no chit chat required. But fall out of habit of these gatherings and it is much harder to overcome that monkey mind.
Where do we discover and live into such relationships of trust, accountability, and intention? For me, the local Unitarian Universalist congregation is my place of practice – both as a whole, and in particular circles like covenant groups, ministry teams, youth group, learning communities, etc. etc. This is the point of church for me – to practice these kinds of relationships. But I don’t think an official church community is the only location of such covenanted communities. My theatre community in college was surely such a community. And today, I find and practice these kinds of relationships beyond the congregation I serve – as its minister my particular practice of covenant there is somewhat different after all…so I have a circle of friends and colleagues and family all of whom I would count as my covenanted community. I know many chosen extended families – especially in the queer/activist world – who would fit this definition.
I support and I am curious to discover where our willingness to offer this gift of covenant beyond congregations will take our faith in the coming years. Because it is a gift. And it’s just the rock we need for our Goliath today. Let’s get it into the hands of every David we can find.