Bound in Covenant (Excerpt)
by Victoria Safford, lead minister, White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church, Mahtomedi, Minnesota
A covenant is not a contract. It is not made and signed and sealed once and for all, sent to the attorneys for safekeeping or guarded under glass in a museum. A covenant is not a static artifact and it is not a sworn oath: Whereas, whereas, whereas. . . . Therefore, I will do this, or I’ll die, so help me God.
A covenant is a living, breathing aspiration, made new every day. It can’t be enforced by consequences but it may be reinforced by forgiveness and by grace when we stumble, when we forget, when we mess up.
Every Sunday in my congregation we repeat in unison the affirmation that Unitarian minister James Vila Blake wrote in 1894 for the church he served in Evanston, Illinois: “Love is the spirit of this church…” Each week, quietly, aloud, I promise that I will “dwell in peace”—and then I don’t live peacefully at all. By Monday afternoon or Tuesday at the latest, I’m living fearfully again, or acting meanly or self-servingly.
I say that I will “seek the truth in love,” and then proceed to act quite otherwise, closing my ears and shutting down my open mind and heart, seeking instead the validation of my own narrow, safe opinion. I say, “Our great covenant is to help one another,” and then I forget to do it.
I love singing the round in our hymnal based on Rumi’s invitation, “Come, come, whoever you are.” Whenever I sing it, however ,I think of the line from the original poem on which is left out of the song: “Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times…”
Yet, because I am held in and hold to a covenant—with the people in my church and with others whom I love, with convictions I cherish and principles I mean to practice—I turn to a different page in the same hymnal. I repeat the line, “We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love,” and I remember: a covenant is an aspiration to go deeper in relation to ourselves, to our best intention, to our God, and to each other.
Someone said to me not long ago, “Covenant is a promise I keep to myself, about the kind of person I want to be, the kind of life I mean to have together with other people, and with all other living things.” When we welcome babies in our church, when we welcome new members into the community, when we celebrate the love of beaming couples, when we ordain new ministers, we speak not in the binding language of contract, but in the life-sustaining fluency of covenant (from covenir, to travel together).
We will walk together with you, child; we will walk together with you, friend; we will walk together with each other toward the lives we mean to lead, toward the world we mean to have a hand in shaping, the world of compassion, equity, freedom, joy, and gratitude. Covenant is the work of intimate justice.
Excerpted from “Bound in Covenant” which appeared in the summer 2013 issue of the UU World.