At various leadership trainings I have attended over the years, I am asked to create an elevator speech. Meaning if you met someone on an elevator and they asked you to describe Unitarian Universalism how would you describe it in the time it took the elevator to reach their destination. Now depending on the elevator, it might be quicker or longer. If you take our elevator here, you might have time for a short homily!! Whenever I need to bring out my 30 second elevator speech on Unitarian Universalism, I always usually start with we are a non creedal religion. Meaning you don’t need to believe one specific thing to be a member here. Then I go on to include something like our opening that we are a welcoming community that encourages an open ended search for meaning in life and a commitment to asking our values to shape our actions. We are a pluralistic religion that draws wisdom from many sources. If you were wondering where that came from, now you know. I encourage you to think about your elevator speech. How would you describe Unitarian Universalism in 30 seconds? But of course it is never really that simple. Being non creedal and encouraging an open ended search does not mean we can believe anything we want and do anything we want.
It means we act based on what we have agreed to as part of this specific community. Since we are a non creedal religion, we are bound by our covenants, covenants that we all make with each other as members of this Congregation. Some are explicit like our covenant of right relationship, our bylaws, our policies, our contracts, and most importantly our mission and vision. We also have a tradition of how things have been done in the past. Some believe tradition equals an implicit covenant. However as every new person joins in membership they become part of that tradition, and part of the making of a new tradition and that creates new implicit covenants that includes their open ended search for meaning.
If we are to truly be welcoming, it means allowing the diversity. I believe we are interdependent with others and if so, we cannot find wholeness by ourselves. We need others to covenant with to be whole. And that is why I when I participate in a new member class I always talk about the expectations of membership and what some of the commitments I expect of members. Those commitments include
A Commitment to regular attendance at worship services,
A Commitment to serve the congregation, to give back of yourselves to the Congregation wherever your skills or passion to learn may be.
A Commitment to develop your religious life, through one of our varied programs of Adult RE, Connection Circles, or Spiritual practices
A Commitment of fair share pledging. Which you will hear more about when we get to the annual pledge drive in a few weeks
And lastly a Commitment to be in right relations with other members, which is the most important of all of these
All are called commitments, because I want new people to know what is expected of them, what it means to be a member. It is actually very easy to become a member here, but the meaning of membership is much deeper.
I am ok if people don’t want to make that commitment. And I understand that different people have different life circumstances that prevent them from being fully committed in all those ways. But I have found over my long life as a Unitarian Universalist and as well in my previous religious experiences, that through these commitments, people find meaning in their experience in the Congregation and the Congregations they belong to are more effective and life giving because of such commitments. Now there are many people who consciously chose not to be members. Again, I want to let you know that is ok.
In the last census there were some 600,000 people who self identified as Unitarian Universalists. Yet there are only 153,000 actual members in Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Even if you are not a member, you can participate in almost every activity in the Congregation. It is my sincere hope, member or not, that these programs give meaning to your life.
But by becoming a member there is a difference. William James said, “if it doesn’t make any difference to join, then its meaningless. You find the meaning of something by determining what difference it makes” By becoming a member, you are saying I cast my lot with these people, for better for worse, sort of like a marriage, you say these are my people, these are the people I covenant with, these are the people I want to create a covenant with, these are the people who together with me, will try to create a community based on OUR values, By becoming a member you are saying to yourself, and to the world, this is my religion. By becoming a member you are naming yourself a Unitarian Universalist not just in thought, but in action. By your deed. In naming of something and particularly naming something publicly, it becomes a very powerful force. That is what a covenant is. The naming of our values.
Just as in the Book of Genesis God had humans name everything they saw. I think that story speaks to an important human experience. To name something is to recognize it, is to understand it, is to be in relationship with it for better or worse. And by being a member, you are saying you want to covenant with others and be in relationship with this Congregation. For those who are not yet members, and are interested in hearing more, we are having a UU101 class on Saturday March 15th, or feel free to make an appointment with me.
James Luther Adams, whose picture is on the cover of the order of service wrote extensively on covenanting. Adams was a Unitarian Minister, and professor at Harvard, Andover Newtown Seminary and at our Unitarian Seminary Meadville Lombard in Chicago. He was actually studying in Germany in 1935 and 1936 as the Nazi’s consolidated their power and he quickly left, seeing first hand the use of power to crush dissent. This of course had a lasting impact on him and I believe led to his ideas of the use of religious community as force for moral power in the community. Adams wrote extensively on covenantal liberal religious communities and their need to shape the values of society. He spoke of humans as a species are a covenantal people.
Going back to the Hebrew Scriptures, Abraham making covenants with God, Moses and the Hebrews making Covenants with God. Jesus making a new covenant with his followers. And it was Adams in his paper “the five smooth stones of Liberalism” stated that “revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured, nothing is complete” and thus we will always be making new covenants. Throughout the scriptures as well there is an ongoing story of broken covenant. From Abraham to Moses, to King David and on and on. The famous Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote humans are promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creatures.
There will be times we will miss the mark, but when we do, we must be in right relationship with each other to be able to become a promise-renewing community. We need to engage in conversation. And we need to be able to become more self aware and we need to be able to forgive.
I saw Michelle Alexander the author of the book we studied last year “The New Jim Crow” on Real Time with Bill Maher this week. She was talking about NBC News Anchor Brian Williams Gaffe in listing all the late night talk show hosts and in doing so, leaving off the list the one African American talk show host Arsenio Hall. As Arsenio said, “they even listed Carson Daly” indicating they weren’t just listing the most popular ones. Williams after being made aware of the exclusion, stepped back realized what he had done, and publicly apologized, and Arsenio graciously accepted the apology. Alexander was making the point that we all have unconscious biases and stereotypes, and misunderstandings happen all the time. We have a long history of experiences together that creates these. The key is that when they happen, when we are made aware of them, we should not get defensive, but we should acknowledge our bias, be open to learning from this new awareness, and apologize, and on the other side, when the apology is sincere, be willing to accept it, forgive and move forward.
This is why covenant is so important. Why we point to it. We do not point to one symbol, one specific creed and say follow this, act this way, believe this way. No, we point to our covenant of how we are to be together in community. We believe in deeds, not just deeds out in the streets, but deeds here in our Congregation. Our covenants are what holds us together, Our covenants are what allows us to be inclusive, not exclusive, Our covenants are what brings us wholeness and add meaning to our lives. Without covenants we are all just individuals separate from each other. It is our covenants that bring us together into community.
And as we live out our covenants, and improve as a community we find what works and doesn’t work and we improve our covenants with one another and by so doing we grow as human beings from the experience. Adams in talking about our prophetic covenant says “The meaning of life is found in the processes and responsibilities of groups and institutions.” Although it is true one individual can have an impact, it is the power of the institution, the collective of shared values, organized in a way to impact the community that shapes the community and the wider society. Adams sees it as an imperative of the liberal religious organization to be responsible for the moral character for society.
If we abandon the public space, if we abandon the moral high ground, if we abandon our seat at the table to impart our values within society then the only religious voices that will be heard will be the steady drumbeat of those who spew hate, greed, discrimination, violence and oppression. Ours is a covenant of love, ours is a covenant of compassion, ours is a covenant of justice, a covenant to each other, with each other, a covenant for others who are powerless and oppressed, and as well a covenant with our earth that sustains us with the air we breath, the water we drink and the food we eat. We have the power to impart our values, and we must take the responsibility to do so. If we do not, we have abandoned our humanity.
Adams stresses that the covenant must not be based merely on adherence to law but should be based on trust and affection. I think this is true whether individually, congregationally, or societally. Don’t tell me what you don’t like. Don’t tell me what you hate. Tell me instead about what produces love, what gives meaning to people’s lives, yours but not just your life. What is your vision for a better, more loving, more compassionate, more just community for others as well, and tell me how you think we can get there. Lastly Adams says that covenants “were produced by a prophetic criticism and carried within it a continuing need for the freedom of critical dissent”
As we change as a community, as a society, as more people hear the values we espouse, with each new person who hears our call, we will be changed by their inclusion. This is the nature of inclusion. We can have two reactions to this. We will be forced as individuals, as a community as a world to choose between inclusion and exclusion. Adams said something that I thought was very profound in reflecting on his experience with the Nazi’s.
“Nazism is rooted in elements of nature, namely in ones own blood and soil and territory regardless of the law or universal standards and to suppress every kind of free criticism. Nazim is oriented to nature. The prophetic covenant is oriented to history – to the demands of history and the achievement of meaning in history through social responsibility.”
I have to admit that was a hard thing to read. On the one hand I feel we need to get our own house in order, whether that is our home, our Congregation, our city, our country, but on the other hand, everything we do impacts the entire world. We either like the old westerns circle our wagons and shoot anything that tries to get through, or, or we look at where we have been, and we look at where we want to go, and we open ourselves to new ideas, new ways of being, and new ways of living within a global society. As Bob Dylan said, “we can get busy living or get busy dyeing” As I say we can get busy creating, committing to a certain way of organizing our lives or we can get busy sleeping and accept whatever comes our way. So I encourage you to get busy living, get busy engaging and get busy creating. Perhaps you can start creating your elevator speech. But really, you can only create an elevator speech if you have a depth of what this religion means to you.
So I invite you to engage into deeper conversations about covenanting, I invite you to engage in what it means to be a member, to be a member of this Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Quad Cities, I invite you to engage and volunteer to serve the Congregation that has brought meaning and community to your life and the life of your family. I invite you to engage, not to separate, not to segregate, not to disassociate, but to engage, for through engagement we will find wholeness. And through wholeness we will build the world we dream about. May it be so.