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
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
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
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.