Monday, April 1, 2013

The Art of Promising by Rev. Kenn Hurto

"From Promise to Commitment"
2013 UUA General Assembly Theme

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are crafting so-called “Covenants of Right Relations” that attempt to articulate how — at our best — we most want to be with one another. This arises because in today’s multi-cultural world, it is often unclear what constitutes good behavior in groups. For instance:

• Among some people, looking another in the eye as you speak shows respect and trustworthiness; in other groups, to do so is impolite, even aggressively hostile.
• I come from the Midwest where raising your hand to speak at a group meeting is the “right” thing to do; elsewhere, that is seen as a silly encumbrance to the free exchange of ideas — interrupting, talking over one another is just fine; to me, that’s rude.

Those are comparatively easy illustrations. But what do we do when someone in our congregation behaves in ways that leave many emotionally unsafe — such as:

• Belligerently interrupting a sermon?
• Threatening members of the congregation with violence (yes, it happens)?
• Hugging that is, well, more than hugging?
• Gossiping maliciously or sending e-mail “flames?”

How do we stay in community honoring the dignity of each person when some inadvertently or even willfully cross a line into rudeness or a bullying posture? Are there no limits to our tolerance of “odd ducks,” as one member said to me?

A carefully crafted Covenant can help guide us during such times. My dear colleague, Eunice Benton, former Mid-South District Executive, calls these efforts an attempt to describe “good manners.” An effective covenant not only names what we can expect of each other, it also gives us permission and guidance when one person’s or group’s demands endanger the community.

The word covenant appears in English in the 14th century, derived from the Latin convenire, meaning to agree to come together. Thus, a covenant is simply an agreement, or promise to be together. It’s about our intentions and promises of how to be together. More nuanced meaning suggests that it is an unenforceable, but binding commitment to do or not do certain things together. The marriage vow, I promise my faithfulness, is the most familiar covenant. The bond of friendship is another. A covenant makes explicit what is normally implicit in a relationship.

Historically, this notion is central to the Free Church. We solemnly bind ourselves — not to agree and enforce a creed — but to be on a journey, seeking an ever better understanding of life’s truths while working for love and justice. A favorite covenant of mine comes from our congregation in Salem, MA (still using a modernized variant of this 1629 phrasing) which promises “to walke together in all God’s waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himself to us in his Bless word of truth.”

Next summer in Louisville, our UUA General Assembly will focus on From Promise to Commitment: “Promises call us into relationship. The experience of making, breaking and remaking promises is the reality of our lived faith. We will gather in Louisville to examine and renew our covenant to our faith, one another, our congregations and the larger world.”

Covenanting or promise making is easy to say but hard to live. We have yet much to learn. This is good work for us to do, for, as Dr. King said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

Come to GA (details here: . Let’s get clear about the promises we make to one another in a beloved community. We will transform ourselves, our congregations, and possibly our world.

I’ll see you there. Kenn