“MAY LOVE BE THE SPIRIT”
The affirmation with which we began today’s service (Hymnal source) is the most commonly used covenantal statement among Unitarian Universalist congregations in the US, and some in Canada as well. Can we truly say “Love is the spirit of this church?” Or is it more in the nature of an “aspiration,” which is what my home church in San Diego calls it. They have recited these words every week for much of their 130 + years of existence.
I invite us to reflect today upon the spirit of love, especially in the context of religious community. How do we invite love to be “the spirit of this church?” How do we invite love to be the spirit of our lives? For love is not simply a feeling that comes and goes. It is a commitment to be present with open hearts. Within community, this can be a demanding spiritual discipline. This is especially true in a community as diverse as ours.
For today, I'll use Scott Peck's definition of community: "a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to 'rejoice together, mourn together,' and to 'delight in each other.'" You’ll notice that he defines community in terms of qualities found in any loving relationship: commitment through good and bad times, open and respectful communication, self-revelation beyond the superficial, delight in one another. Community, when experienced deeply, has a dimension of mystery about it – for the Holy – the Spirit of Love- then dwells among us.
My colleague and mentor Tom Owen-Towle puts it this way: “Friends, you and I, this our chosen congregation, live in and live by a web of loves – each one lending strength to the others and all of them somehow, with effort and grace, supporting us, nudging us, on into our tomorrows . For the duration of this, our sacred partnership, we are twisted and intertwined together.”
Loving commitment within community, as in a marriage, is often framed by covenantal language.. For the ancient Hebrews, their covenantal understanding was that they were a chosen people in relationship to their God as well as to each other. We, my friends, have a different covenant. We are heretics -- we are a choosing people! Yet we have framed our Statement of Principles as a covenant statement. We have relationship covenants, and covenant groups. Ministers and congregations covenant together.
You see, a covenant is more than a contract. A contract is an agreement between people in which, if one breaks the terms, it is null and void. The reason a covenant is essentially religious is that it involves a third entity. For the ancient Israelites this was unanimously perceived as God. But it can be, as our Principles suggest, a moral ideal or ethical commitment. At the very least, our Principles are the third party to our own community covenant. If you or I act in a way which violates one of our Principles, that does not release any of us from our covenant, because we are covenanted to the Principles themselves, not simply to one another. Our own theologian, James Luther Adams, tells us that a covenantal community has a sacred ground that cannot be reduced to purely utilitarian ends. That ground is the Spirit of Love.
This basic definition of covenant is central to our faith. We are a covenanted community, rather than a creedal one. When we dedicate our children, or commit ourselves to a life-partner, we are exercising our power as “choosing” people. We are choosing covenant -- choosing to perceive our relationships in the frame of our highest values and aspirations. Our relationships do not exist for purely utilitarian or self-gratification ends. They are committed -- we are committed -- to serving a higher good, however we define it. However much we may feel we “get” from this beloved community, “getting” in the instrumental sense is not the most important reason for being in community together, nor for supporting it.
For me personally, I have no trouble with the idea that the Divine is a party to my covenants. My sense of the Holy is about wholeness -- a commitment to the highest ethic of justice, truth and love I know. This in no way means I can always live up to this aspiration! But I'm never off the hook about trying, no matter how often I - or others - have broken covenant.
Peck tells us we cannot reach true community – or true relationship- until we go through chaos together and are then willing to let go of our expectations and assumptions -- to stop demanding that people play roles in our personal script. When we are willing to surrender our desire to convince and control others. Instead, we learn to trust that each person means well, and is coming from his or her own experiential truth. We listen to one another, and share vulnerable feelings. It isn't easy, going through this letting go. As the poet W.H. Auden puts it:
"We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die."
Ironically, once in true community, converting and healing happen all the time. But not because we are trying to change one another. They happen because loving community nurtures growth -- because honest, respectful dialogue is transformative. We are each our own healers, but we are stronger, more courageous, wiser, more loving and generous, and often more committed when we share the spiritual journey with others -- others who reflect our potential back to us and allow us to test and refine our vision.
Relationship -- authentic, caring relationship -- is itself a spiritual path -- one on which we cannot escape facing the broken places in ourselves that need healing.. In true community, we keep before us the covenant -- the shared promise to serve a Spirit larger than our own narrow self interest.
I like this theory a lot. It challenges the practice of pseudo-community, where relationships are superficial and conventional. It makes sense of the struggles --the chaos -- which often seems necessary in developing relationship. It provides motivation for traversing the stage of letting go.
That reminds me of one of the many UU light bulb jokes. "How many UUs does it take to change a light bulb? None -- they believe it must change by itself." That's not what I'm saying, exactly. Most of us don't do too well trying to change entirely by ourselves. We do need feedback, and compassionate listening, and challenge from one another. We need acceptance and safety and trust – all aspects of love. We even need the friction sparked by our differences.
A community in which the spirit of love dwells is a healing community. Within it we are able to move toward healing ourselves, and together find the courage to work towards healing our world. That is the return we receive for the risk and commitment and surrender it takes to bring such a community into being.
Like the Velveteen Rabbit in the story many of us read to our children, we are challenged to love one another into being real. For only as we are real can we love our world into being more real. Only as we trust our experience and speak out of that foundation can we challenge the harmful philosophies so prevalent in our society today. This is a learning place – a place to try, and sometimes fail. A place to stretch, and sometimes get bent out of shape. A place to discover the sturdier hope which grows when we ground our dreams in what is real.
We weave here a web of community that accepts and comforts, heals and celebrates. We are covenanted together to create a space where the worth and dignity of all is affirmed. Where we relate to one another with compassion. Where it is safe to make mistakes. Where we experience moments of unconditional love despite our differences. Where we may not think alike, but we are learning to love alike.
It is because we are such a community that our Welcoming Congregation commitment and other efforts to open our doors to increasing diversity are so important. If Love is to be the Spirit of this church, we need to proactively affirm the power of love in its many forms.
I end these reflections with the words that concluded the Covenanting Ceremony between minister and congregation – my Installation service five years ago:
“May ours be a ministry of love and justice in a world in need of such transforming care. May ours be a ministry of reconciliation, both in word and deed. May we build bridges among all people, and be ever more inclusive in our befriending. May we encourage one another to follow our deepest calling and create peace and justice wherever we go, that all may have life, and have it more abundantly.”