My seminary classmate was 30 years older than me. I sat in his small apartment, hoping for the kind of wisdom and guidance I had already come to know he might provide. At the time, I was only a few months into theological school and just over a year into my marriage.
The world in which I moved was heavy with transition and new ways of being. I was feeling the burden of all this change, and so was my marriage. The details of the challenges my spouse and I were facing don’t matter now. I suspect most married couples have endured similar pressures, especially during the early years of their covenant with one another to remain together “for better, for worse.”
I told my friend what I knew, laying before him the mystery of what was happening and the weight of it all. He listened patiently. When I was done sharing, a few tears were rolling down my cheeks. Silence hung in the room.
And then he spoke with the voice of a grandfather, which he was. He spoke with the perspective of a man who had lived through his own broken marriage, his own disappointments, his own reflections on what life had brought through circumstances he had chosen and those he had not. He spoke with well-earned confidence that he had something to say that I needed to hear.
“Mark,” he said. “You have to be strong.” More silence.
And that was basically it.
I know we chatted some more that night, but neither of us really needed to say much more. I had put my burdens before him and he had reminded me not only that I could carry them, but that I should. Or at least, that the covenant I had made with my spouse required that I try.
He didn’t say, “Mark, you have to be rigid.” He didn’t say you have to be angry. Or you have to be happy. Or you have to be vengeful, or oblivious, or passive aggressive, or forlorn, or committed to pretending that all is well even when it is not.
“Mark, he said, “You have to be strong.” Still, to this day, his words are the best marriage advice I have ever received.
Several years later, I was preparing to officiate a wedding for a couple not affiliated with our church. They asked me to preach a homily as part of the ceremony. This was a surprising request, considering that I didn’t know them all that well, and given that most couples I marry just want the ceremony and nothing but the ceremony. Nevertheless, I agreed. And I knew the homily I had to preach.
Theirs was an extravagant wedding. Held outside in downtown Des Moines, it involved dancers and antique automobiles and stringed instruments. When the time came for my homily, I closed the book from which I had been reading the words of the ceremony and spoke from the heart. I told the story of the early days of my own marriage, and how my wise friend had offered me guidance that had served me well ever since, guidance that I thought worth sharing with them.
“When things get tough,” I told the couple, “as they most certainly will, you have to be strong. That is the covenant you are making today…to be strong together.”
I sensed by the look in the bride’s face as I spoke that maybe I had not offered the homily for which she had hoped. In fact, I thought she looked a little angry standing there in her beautiful dress. I couldn’t blame her. Why would I, the hired help, distract from the fairy tale with the truth? I felt bad for raining a bit on this lovely parade, at least until after the service.
As I walked away from the revelry, the parents of both the bride and groom went out of their way to pull me aside and offer their gratitude for the words I had spoken. The dads offered me firm handshakes, the moms big hugs. They knew I had told the truth. And they knew that the truth matters. Having kept their covenants for many years, through what I have to imagine had been their own challenging times, they knew the rewards of being strong. They knew that being strong is what keeping a covenant is all about.
As parents wanting the best for their children, they wouldn’t want to inflict a narrow understanding of “being strong” on this couple, and neither would I. We wouldn’t want any married couple to commit to undying confidence in their covenant despite all evidence to the contrary. I wouldn’t want them to think being strong means uncritically accepting abuse or tolerating bad behavior without naming it and calling each other back to the covenant.
“Being strong” does not mean resignation to being trapped in an unhealthy or unsafe situation. The “being strong” I describe includes a willingness to honestly assess how the covenant is being lived and whether room exists for the health and growth of those bound in it. The “being strong” I suggest is the very means to the freedom we all deserve, a freedom that comes when we hold ourselves accountable with others to be the kind of people we want to be and to live the kind of lives we yearn to live.
When we are in covenant, being strong requires that together we hold the responsibility to remember, to celebrate, and even—when necessary—to mourn. Being strong means being willing to return, in our memory and in the moment, to the covenant we have made, to the shared vow to travel together to the very best of our ability, through all of the ambiguities, disappointments, and yes, the mistakes, of our lives together.
Being strong in covenant is not being certain of the destination toward which we are traveling or even the path that will take us there. Being strong in covenant is choosing to travel together despite all the uncertainties and maybe even because of them, unsure of where we are headed but knowing how much it matters that we are willing to move in directions we might not yet understand or predict.
We who have made a home in Unitarian Universalism understand covenant, too, for ours is a covenantal faith, a religion not bound in creed. We are not bound by shared understandings of the holy or of our final destination. We are united in our covenant to travel together, to hold ourselves and each other accountable to preserving the precious freedom for each of us to discern the ultimate as our hearts and minds allow.
We are bound in a covenant to the journey of unending revelation and discovery that unfolds when we open ourselves to the possibilities of creative interchange in community. We are bound in covenant to the journey itself, to a way of being.
When people ask me what the point of our religion is if we don’t all believe in God, I explain that we do not share a creed, but we do share a covenant, and that covenant to travel together through our differences is where our religion finds its meaning and its power. We don’t always do it well, but the promise we keep with one another asks that we try.
“We…covenant to affirm and promote” the principles of our Unitarian Universalist Association, “promising to one another our mutual care and support.” Many UU congregations recite covenants as a part of their services. The members of my internship congregation, the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois, still say together as part of their weekly worship a covenant their minister (James Villa Blake) crafted in 1894:
Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
In my congregation’s weekly services, we share covenantal statements as well. We have a chalice lighting reading in which we call upon our “reason and our passion” to “lead us to be true to ourselves, true to each other and true to what we can together become.” We don’t name that truth, but we express our intention to pursue it, for the good and growth of all.
When we extinguish the chalice we say that we will “go from this place open to life, expecting to love, and prepared to serve.” We do not list specific promises of what our life, love and service will entail, knowing that they will mean different things to each person. And yet, I believe, these words are a covenantal statement, because when we say them and we strive to live them, we are agreeing that there is a larger purpose to our time together and that we are each responsible to carry that purpose forward.
When we welcome new members we affirm together the importance of this “workshop of common endeavor—a place of comfort and challenge,” promising to combine our “strength and talents” to “better shape the meaning of our lives” than we could alone.
When we dedicate children we promise to offer these young people our “caring, wisdom and trust,” and our dedication to “building a world worthy” of their “gifts of life and hope.”
Through these shared covenants we invite each other to be strong, to see that our unmet expectations and disappointments are less important than the promises we keep and renew with each other to help build and sustain the community we yearn to inhabit.
We practice leaving space for the individuality of our companions even as we hold ourselves and each other accountable to the larger goals of our union—a nurturing of the compassion, humility and intimate justice so desperately needed in our world today.
In this faith, just as in marriage, we know that we may be disappointed. We know that things will not always go as we expect. We know that we have the right (and sometimes the responsibility) to leave. But my hope is that through our commitment to be strong in the face of adversity, through our discipline of being disappointed and staying anyway, through our practice of pursuing right relationship with our companions, we will do our part to nurture the peace, freedom and justice befitting the kind of people we most want to be and the kind of world we most yearn to see.
It is a world where more of us can more often be “true to ourselves, true to each other and true to what we can together become.”