WHAT'S IN A PROMISE?

Mary Louise DeWolf

Community Unitarian Universalist Church
Daytona Beach, Florida
March 26, 2000

Promises, promises, always promises. Has that phrase been in your experience, either in jest or in frustration? An unfulfilled expectation, a hope dashed? Do you remember the phrase from your childhood or from your own parenting, "But you promised!" followed by the logical explanation of why the promise did not happen. Somewhere along life's way we learn that a logical explanation does not heal the hurt or disappointment.

Our society is jaded with political promises. And yet, we want to believe. In fact, we must believe. It is that faith that we can depend on people to keep their word that society is based. If day did not follow night, and spring the winter; if parents did not feed the infant, nor comfort the infant's cry; if good efforts were not rewarded, nor wrongful acts corrected; if contracts were not honored, nor promises kept; then there would be no meaning, no purpose, no assurance, only chaos.

But there are many pleasant and wonderful promises that have been fulfilled: the promise of the birth of a child to enrich our lives; the promise of a new job or career to bring fulfillment and/or increased income or security; the promise of a bud to unfold into the beautiful flower, or the seed to grow into a tree that shades us; the promise of assistance from one nation to another, or the promise of a peace agreement to come to pass.

There are unilateral promises implicit in some relationships: the unconditional love of parents for their offspring regardless of their behavior; or a parental God who loves human beings, creations of the universe, so much that they would never be punished to eternal hell after death. Such was the major tenant of the Universalist faith. However, most promises are at least two sided: I promise to be true to you as you promise to be true to me; the promise of the flower from the bud or the tree from the seed depends on the nurture from nature and/or from human beings to supply the air, water, fertilizer, and freedom from parasites, predators and disease; the fulfillment of the promise of a career depends on our efforts and expertise as well as the opportunities available to us.

What is the promise of religion: peace of mind; life after death; assistance in coping with life; assurance that life has meaning; a way of determining values or providing guidance for making decisions; a way to order society; a way to know what is true; a supporting community? Our matching promise is either a belief (if l believe then I will receive); or a set of behaviors (If I act then my life; or living conditions in the world, will be better); or a commitment to a search (if l search with all my heart and mind I will certainly achieve a greater understanding, peace of mind, etc.); or if l listen, speak my truth, and respect the truth of others then we can create a lasting community of freedom, justice, and mutuality.

In my early teens as a Methodist, the promise was eternal life if I would only believe that Jesus Christ was my personal savior. What was also promised was that if l made this decision I would have an experience of salvation that would be a sign of God's promise. This never happened to me through the many times I knelt at the altar during revivals or at youth conferences.

Part of my experience as a Methodist youth also was the insistence through the minister's sermons that a good Christian would not smoke, dance, go to the movies or play cards on Sunday. Since we lived in the country I had no problems foregoing movies in town. My parents did not smoke and I was not insistent on playing cards on Sunday. However, dancing was another matter for this was the activity of my peers, and it was most important to me to be accepted socially. I struggled and struggled with this issue. I could see no reason that God would not like for me to dance. What it seemed to boil down to was that it was a matter of my obedience to God as interpreted by the minister. If God said so, then it must be done or I would be guilty of disobeying God.

One night as I was washing the supper dishes (this was before electric dishwashers) and mulling this predicament over again and again, a brilliant insight came to me, a revelation, a saving experience, while my hands were in the dishwater, not while I was kneeling at the church altar. Regardless of my minister's admonition that dancing was a bad activity, my reasoning and feeling said otherwise. It then became a situation directly between God and me, leaving out the minister in between. I promised God that I would give up dancing if or when it was shown to me that dancing was detrimental. I would know at that time and God's will would become my will. In other words, I promised to obey God if God would show me without a doubt what needed to be done. Clearly, I did not have to give up dancing at this time but I would be willing to do so if necessary. This internal experience gave me an immediate great peace of mind. You might call it the serenity of rationalization if you like, but one thing I needed from religion was peace of mind and that happened at that time. The promise of peace of mind for obedience, was accompanied by the promise of rational understanding for a change of behavior. A promise of two parties, a mutual promise.

There is an old story of a mutual promise I want to tell you now. It bears retelling in a new way for our own time in history. I use a story, for our lives are set in the stories of our culture. We begin life hearing stories. There are fairy stories and folk tales from our closest adults, told most often at bedtime. I remember pleading many times for my mother to tell me one more story before she left me to my sleep. Then there were my teachers in the first three grades who read a story to us after lunch each day. Here at church we cherish story time with our children where experiences and lessons of others are transmitted through the story teller.

There are also stories from Biblical tradition which are mentioned throughout Western history, literature, and politics. Is there anyone here who has no idea of the story of Adam and Eve? Of the birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas time? Of Moses and the Ten Commandments? We are also beginning to realize that our own personal life journeys and the journeys of our communities are set in the stories of the past. How we see ourselves is colored by our understanding of these stories, as we have seen many people search for their roots or their family history. Perhaps some of the traditional stories continue to exist because people have come to interpret them anew each generation in the light of current understanding, so that truth and meaning may be imparted through story, the way we learn best.

Alice Blair Wesley in Myths of Time and History suggests that the story of Moses could be retold in somewhat the following manner with a little more modification on my part. Yahweh picked Moses to persuade several hundred economic slaves of their promise or, as we Unitarian Universalists would say, of their "inherent worth and dignity." His un-gathered congregation was at the very bottom of the social pyramid. Yahweh sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let the people go, that the Egyptians should stop their unfair use of cheap labor. Of course the powerful don't give up voluntarily, so with a little help from labor dislocations, induced by Yahweh, of course, Pharaoh decided enough was enough and riddance was good riddance. So he told the Hebrews to get going, then changed his mind and chased them up to the Red Sea. By then, however, the Hebrews were on a roll and were not be dissuaded or undaunted. They got across the Red Sea at low tide and the Egyptians drowned when the tide came in. The Hebrews celebrated and thanked Yahweh for sending them such a great leader as Moses.

This was soon followed by some disillusionment by the lack of food and water in the desert. Where had Moses led them to, anyway? They would have been better off in slavery than free in the wilderness. The Hebrews then discovered some white stuff all over the ground which tasted like something they had never experienced before. It was like manna from heaven in the sense that it kept them from starving, but it was certainly not what they were used to eating.

Then Moses went off to confer with Yahweh on a mountain top and stayed for forty days. This was probably the dumbest thing Moses and Yahweh did in the whole story. Left to their own devices, the Hebrews decided to just party and forget about the mission ofjourneying to freedom land. When Moses finally returned and found the people enjoying themselves while he and Yahweh had been working, he got real mad. Yahweh threatened to withdraw his support and let Moses and the Hebrews go it alone. Moses persuaded Yahweh to give the Hebrews one more chance and Yahweh renewed his promise to freely go with the people if they would agree to renew their promise to do things the way a free people are supposed to do them.

The Hebrews agreed and proceeded to have their first capital fund drive. They went over goal and still late pledges continued to come in. They built their portable church. Everybody helped. This congregation might not know how they ever were going to get where they were going, but they had a pretty church and they loved it even if it was in the wilderness.

The point of the story might be this politically religious truth: all people are people of promise, of inherent worth and dignity. Justice is on the side of the oppressed. If we are open to believing this and to behaving to end oppression, the powers of the universe are with us, for we are cooperating with what is ultimately meant to be. It does not come in forty years or in one lifetime but there can be many celebrations together along the way. That is a mutual promise.

Today, we follow in the tradition of the Hebrews as we gather in religious community for liberation from oppression. This liberation is both personal and in the world. Our personal liberation varies with each one of us whether it is liberation: from a repressive or abusive family relationship; or from a restrictive childhood religion; or from a cultural pattern that would limit our becoming fully human. Each of us has that inherent potential which could flower and bring joy to our lives and to all of those who surround us. It is part of the role of a congregation to nurture and challenge all those who would join in seeking a life of fulfillment.

A congregation is therefore called to be an inclusive community. This congregation is a community that finds itself in the name of the congregation: a congregational community that seeks to value the gifts of every member in their similarities and differences; that seeks understanding of its own mistakes; and that seeks to repair the weakened fabric of its spirit and its resources. How you treat each other, and how you treat your minister; how you elect your officers, raise your money, and conduct committee meetings; how you nurture your children and care for the sick and shut-ins -these are the marks of an caring and inclusive community.

A congregation is also called to make a difference in the world, an influence of bending toward justice so that your collective voices, hands, and feet are added to the efforts of centuries past to create more systems ofjustice, more instances of compassion, more freeing for those in slavery of many kinds. Not only would we break free from the oppressors, but also we would free the oppressors as well. This is a big order: to liberate the individual, the congregation and the world.

You began as an ungathered congregation, not unlike the Hebrews, to form a people who would travel to the Promised Land, a Unitarian Universalist home in Daytona Beach. The Hebrews had great dreams too. But after awhile, the wilderness just got to the Hebrews. The manna from heaven wasn't enough to satisfy their growing desire to settle in one place, and grow some crops, and raise their children, and be done with all this traveling. ft seemed to be the same old thing everyday, just pack up and move on. They started gossiping among themselves. Maybe they needed another leader since Moses did not seem to know where he was going, and it wasn't much fun anymore. They got down right stubborn and refused to budge. Moses had to check in with Yahweh again for a little extra help.

Yahweh was a bit reluctant, but forgave the Hebrews for their lack of faith. What the Hebrews found was that only by forgiving each other for doubting that they could make it to the Promised Land, could they once again get on their way. By pulling together and keeping their vision of freedom, they could recommit themselves to the journey. It was taking longer than they had first envisioned, and some of them would not finally reach the land of milk and honey. But they became a people united in purpose, learning what it means to be together in freedom.

When the mutual promise has lost its glow, it is acknowledgment time -acknowledgment of any blocks that have been placed in the way, of honest mistakes made, of harsh words said, of words of greeting not uttered, and of sadness of the vision that has faltered. It is time to say, "I'm sorry. Will you join hands with me and begin the journey again?" Forgiveness is the willingness to let the past be past and to enter into a new promise of mutual fidelity, into a re-negotiated and freely reentered covenant, together. It is the courage of forgiveness to take that hand extended in faith, which is needed to rekindle the flame of freedom. We need each other. The world needs our work. May this be the time of beginning again.