My obsession with the question of covenant continues. Given that it is holy week, I want to try to take the question deeper into spiritual practice.
Many of us have been through the sometimes laborious and sometimes facile process of developing a covenant for group behaviors. Usually included are things like “speak from your own experience,” “avoid triangulating,” “assume best intentions,” etc. These are all really important and necessary concepts for how to be in community together, and it is easy to assume that everyone shares them – until you discover that they don’t. So I’m not trying to belittle this practice. Indeed, I lead groups in it all the time.
But it doesn’t quite bring us to the level of depth I think I desire for religious community, whatever the structure of that community.
I have always found the phenomenon of secular Jewish spiritual practice to be particularly poignant. So deep is the Jewish identity and practice embedded in some people’s lives, and yet how disconnected from organized religious practice. I believe it is the forerunner of contemporary spiritual expression, and reveals some interesting divergent directions of where people wish to take their faith.
Two novelists recently collaborated on writing a New American Haggadah – Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. Foer grew up secular, but had wonderful memories of practicing seder as a child. Englander did as well, though he grew up Orthodox. Both desired to create a translation that would speak to their contemporary experience, while maintaining the beauty and majesty of the original text. What they thought would be a short project (Englander says, “I thought we were making the Hipster Haggadah and it’d be six weeks or something and we’d be done) turned into a consuming project of several years. The result is stunningly beautiful – visually, textually, experientially.
It had been a while since I was on a two propeller plane. I was on my way to Binghamton for a regional meeting, and saw the little thing sitting there on the runway. I travel all the time, and pride myself on being intrepid, but for some reason this one made me a little nervous.
Nevertheless I got on board, and sure enough, the little thing managed to get into the air, if a little wobbly. I was sitting on the wing, looking out to the right, when I noticed the propellor was slowing…then stopped.
Well surely, I thought, there must be a backup engine that kicks in after take-off. I looked to my left, and that propellor was still going. Hmmm. Hmmm. The flight attendant was looking more attendant. Nobody else seemed to notice. Must be no big deal. After a long five minutes the pilot came on to explain that the right propeller had failed. Happens all the time (well, not all the time, but sometimes and its just fine). We’ll just turn around and go back. No need to worry.
We’re all so well-trained now to be obedient in air travel, and so we waited obediently. I saw the young mother in front of me pull her two year old son much closer. The elderly veteran to my left smiled encouragingly at us all. The young woman to my right suddenly turned to me and started talking about all that she noticed around her. Instantly we were a community — attuned to one another and engaged in a common enterprise– the task of coming to terms with life, with what was most meaningful and present to us in that moment.
We made it back fine, if a little rockily. And we sat huddled together in the terminal waiting for our next plane feeling connected and displaced at the same time.
Community can happen in an instant. I know there is a particular kind of community that happens when people engage with one another over time and through many different kinds of experiences — people who choose to be with one another. And then there’s another kind of community that can come when we least expect it, and are not trying to construct it. It happens to us, and we only have two choices at that point: respond with openness or close down into our own fear. Religious community is like that. We can work really hard to construct our perfect version of what we want to surround ourselves with. Or we can be open to something unexpected and unbidden that speaks to us of life’s energy at its core. The two aren’t mutually exclusive of course, but I wonder how often we give credence to the second kind, or think about how we might respond when community happens. When spirit is born.
When the Western Unitarian Conference adopted their statement of purpose in 1886 they affirmed this:
“We worship One-in-All – that life whence suns and stars derive their orbits and the should of [hu]man its Ought, — that Light which lighteth every [person] that cometh into the world, giving us power to become the [children] of God, — that Love with which our souls commune.”
Think about how radical this must have sounded in 1886. For the Western Unitarians they were making their break from a Christ-centered movement into something they felt reflected the new frontiers of American exploration (without remembering that Native Americans had already explored this “frontier”). For them this was as much spiritual as geographic. They wanted their religious life to be as expansive as the galaxy of sun and stars. Read more