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Making Promises, Making Covenants

By Janeen K. Grohsmeyer.

Do you remember your first day of school? I remember mine. Your parents and grandparents probably remember their first days, too. Probably everyone remembers, no matter how long ago it was.

Going to a new place and starting something new can be exciting... and sometimes a little scary. We have a lot of questions:

"Where do I sit?"

"What time do we eat?"

"Where is the bathroom?"

"Am I allowed to climb the trees?"

"Does the teacher expect me to do homework?"

And, of course, "When can we go outside to play?"

At school, the teacher shows us where things are and explains how things work. She tells us the rules. Once we know what we are expected to do and what we are allowed to do, it's not so scary anymore.

Sometimes, though, there is no teacher. On the playground, it's just kids. Sometimes we make up our own game, and we decide how it ought to be played. Sometimes we make the rules.

On the jungle gym, we can decide that the red bars are fire and you can't touch them when you climb. When we play tag, we can decide that the person who is It has to count to ten before they start chasing everybody else. It can be a lot of fun to make up the rules to your very own game. You get to make it just the way you like it.

That is, if the other kids agree. But, what if you think the red bars on the jungle gym are fire and can't be touched, but another kid says that the red bars are fine and you can touch them however you want?

There are a lot of different ways to play a game. And if you don't want to play all by yourself (and you can't play tag by yourself), then everybody has to agree on what the rules are while you are playing. Maybe you can keep all the rules. Or maybe you can change some.

Some how, some way, after discussing and changing and arguing and compromising, everybody agrees on what the rules should be. Maybe you don't like one of the other kids' rules all that much, and maybe someone else doesn't like your rules all that much, but you both agree to them anyway because you got some rules you liked and so did the other person. Then, finally, everyone promises to each other to follow the rules, with no cheating, and we can play the game.

When we agree to follow the rules we make together, we are covenanting with each other. A covenant is a promise to each other about what we are going to do, and how we are going to behave. We need a covenant to have fun playing a game.

Covenants are not only for the playground. They can be made by people in families and by students and teachers in schools. They can be made in religions too. Our Unitarian Universalist religion has a covenant.

Our UU Covenant was made about 50 years ago, when your parents and grandparents were young. Back then, there weren't any Unitarian Universalists. There were Unitarians and there were Universalists. Two different religions, with different names, different buildings, different songs... different rules.

The Unitarians and the Universalists had been talking to each other for a very long time. Even though they had different rules for how they did things, they realized they agreed on many important ideas, many principles of life. Just like the kids on the playground, they had different rules, but they wanted to play the same game.

In 1960, they decided to play together. They knew they had to figure out new rules that all the Unitarians and all the Universalists would agree to follow.

It took them almost a year. After discussing and changing and arguing and compromising for months and months, the Unitarians and the Universalists from hundreds of different congregations agreed on six Principles — six rules — that they all could agree to follow. It's true that one person might not have liked another person's ideas for rules all that much and maybe that person didn't like the first person's rules all that much. But they agreed to follow them anyway, because they knew they both got a lot of the rules they wanted. And they got to play together.

They compromised.

And then they covenanted.

They decided to "play the same game."

Twenty-five years later, in 1985, they added one more Principle, to make it seven. You may already have heard of the seven Principles. These are the rules that Unitarian Universalists agree to follow:

1. Each person is important.
2. Be kind in all you do.
3. We're free to learn together.
4. We search for what is true.
5. All people need a voice.
6. Build a fair and peaceful world.
7. We care for Earth's lifeboat.

Today we will make a covenant with each other, here in Wonderful Welcome. We will work out rules for the times when we are together. We may have to make some compromises, in order to get most of the rules we want.

When we promise to each other to follow the rules we make, we are covenanting with each other. Just like the kids on the playground playing tag. Just like the Unitarians and Universalists did 50 years ago.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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