Connected Beyond Belief
A message delivered January 12, 2019
by Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
Grass Valley, California
“Ultimately, the only freedom adequate to human dignity is the freedom to do what love asks of us. And the greatest blessings of life come to us and through us to all the world when, with intimate and freely bonded companions, we are trying together to live with the integrity of faithful love.” – Alice Blair Wesley in Our Covenant
Anchored in Covenant
Our Unitarian and Universalist theological history – the history of our ideas about how things are and which things matter – goes way, way back, but, as Alice Blair Wesley points out, our institutional history -the history we can trace through institutions like congregations – begins in the 1630s, when our religious ancestors in New England, on their way to the American Revolution, made a decision to base membership in their communities not on a creed or a set of beliefs, but on the promises they made to each other about being a member and about being a community. It was about loyalty to the community and its cause.
They rooted themselves and their future in covenants, in mutual promises, rather than statements of belief, and we here in Grass Valley are one of their futures. Just like children who learn the values of their parents but take those values to places their parents never dreamed of, our religious ancestors would not recognize us as related to them, except that: to join this community is, as it was for them, to commit to become “long-term partners in the business of living with integrity,” as Wesley put it (Wesley 17-18).” Living with integrity wherever it leads us, I would add: spiritual integrity, emotional integrity, and intellectual integrity.
This is a hallmark of our tradition – the primacy of integrity, undividedness within ourselves, even when it means we have to let go of the ideas, behaviors, and perspectives of generations when experience, when new knowledge, or when our hearts demand it in order for us to be whole and not split within ourselves.
So, like our institutional 8th or 9th great grandparents, we have two kinds of covenants that members here make with each other toward integrity.
The first kind covenant is an agreement with and a promise to work toward the reasons UUCM gathers as community in the first place. It’s captured in the mission statement that members articulated and voted on two years ago, a mission that is subject to change if integrity demands it.
I invite us to say it together. Like all covenants, it is aspirational, members commit to keep working toward its fulfillment. Now, as you know, the experience of reading words out loud together varies in terms of the quality of the experience. So, to prepare us, I invite you to engage a technique I use with choirs:
- I invite you to speak the first phrase as if you don’t really care, as if you are uninterested and uninteresting: “With courageous love and a sense of wonder”
- I invite you to speak the second phrase as if you and the person you are speaking to are both hard of hearing and someone’s using a leaf blower right next to you: “we cultivate our spiritual, emotional and intellectual strength”
- I invite you to speak the final portion as if you’ve had way too much caffeine, or are super, super, super excited! Ready? Go! “to create a world more compassionate, sustainable and just.”
Now, I invite you read this congregation’s mission as if it matters, as if you believe, deeply, that living it would make a difference in your life and the life of the community.
I invite you first to breathe a few times to cleanse your palate and to get ready…and to speak the mission with meaning and heart, as if it matters to you.
With courageous love and a sense of wonder
we cultivate our spiritual, emotional and intellectual strength
to create a world more compassionate, sustainable, and just.
Members and joiners of this congregation say, “Yes, I commit to doing that with you.”
Again, if that ever feels like a mission that no longer has integrity, members can vote to change it.
What’s With a Behavioral Covenant?
The other kind of covenant is captured in a congregation’s behavioral covenant. It is another set of aspirational promises, this time about how the members will be with each other, treat each other, journey together, live in integrity with each other.
The current UUCM Covenant of Right Relations was created in 2009, meaning it is due for review, a process just getting underway.
The current behavioral covenant reads:
Recognizing that conflict is normal in human relations and wishing to relate to others as harmoniously as possible, I sincerely intend to:
- Treat others with kindness, empathy and respect.
- Communicate with patience, flexibility, and a willingness to negotiate in the spirit of meeting as many needs as possible.
- Be aware of my own thoughts, feelings, and needs, and share them directly and honestly with others, without judgment or blame.
- Invite and listen to all points of view, respecting others’ feelings and needs and encouraging minority opinions.
- Take responsibility for my own mental, emotional, and spiritual balance, asking for support when I need it.
- Be mindful of the needs of the group as a whole, mourning together when individual needs cannot be met.
I’ve heard people say, “We don’t need a covenant like that, we’re all adults here.” It’s not that we are not all adults, it’s that we are all human.
The Importance of the Quality of our Relationships
Mary Sellon and Dan Smith, who studied religious communities in the 1990s, noticed that:
“…some otherwise excellent programs [had very little] impact, [while] seemingly insignificant or poorly planned events touch[ed] people in significant ways. People dropped out of churches that were vital and exciting. Other people stayed tenaciously loyal to churches that appeared to be ho-hum in [terms of] the programs and facilities they offered. [They] noticed that some pastors flourished wherever they went. [While] others with superior theological and practical training continually failed. ‘What was it that made the difference?’ they asked themselves (xi-xii).”
“Authentic, loving relationships repeatedly surfaced as the … key … element that made the difference (xii).”
Not only did “participants’ sense of fulfillment and commitment [vary] according to the quality of their relationships with each other, . . . “the effectiveness and impact of a congregation’s work. . . [also] varied according to the quality of their relationships with each other (xii).”
Sellon and Smith pointed out that though all of us are committed to the ideal of loving our neighbor, we are often “at a loss for how to [do that] in a contentious [committee] meeting (xi).”
Lisa Ward wrote that “a covenant is not a definition of a relationship; it is the framework for our relating.”
The behavorial covenant is meant to call us to behaviors that support the health and integrity of our relationships with each other, to remind us that it matters. It puts up some helpful bumpers on the bowling lane of congregational interactions not only because it’s good and healthy for our relating with each other, but also because the effectiveness of everything we do – our justice work, for example – is affected by the quality of our relationships with each other. Ideally, our relationships embody qualities like “caring, playfulness, collaboration, authenticity, and deep trust (xii).” These are always works in progress, right?
The integrity of this community requires the integrity of our relationships. This is foundational to the life and effectiveness of this congregation. And this is central for me, a personal and vocational goal to which I am committed.
One of our great Universalist grandfathers, Hosea Ballou, speaking from a tradition that prioritized love above all else, put it this way:
If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury,
but if we do not, [agree in love] no other agreement can do us any good.
A wonderful thing here is that UUCM’s mission names this when it names right up front that members aspire and commit to do all that they do “with courageous love” – and in part to that end, members also commit, in that same mission statement, to cultivate emotional strength.
Mary Sellon and Dan Smith teach that the deep, healthy, and meaningful relationships that best anchor a community like this one require a lot of work and commitment to keep building our skills. We are, after all, human. We have to work at it continually.
In every congregation I’ve participated in or served, including this one, I have witnessed some of the most beautiful, generous, supportive, kind, loving, brave and nurturing behavior.
And in every congregation I’ve participated in or served, including this one, I have witnessed harmful, small, biting, destructive, rude, unaware, and hurtful behavior. Sometimes my own, of course.
Did I mention that we are human? Did I mention that covenants are aspirational?
It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being committed to work toward health and wholeness. As Victoria Safford points out, covenants aren’t about enforcement, they are about reinforcement – the covenant and we ourselves are “reinforced by forgiveness and by grace, when we stumble, when we forget, when we mess up (“Bound in Covenant “ in the UU World, Summer 2013).”
That’s why we make such promises – to help us stay with it. That’s why this congregation will review its behavioral covenant and also review what UUCM has in place to help us reconnect when we don’t get it right.
The final piece I want to bring to this today is to offer a little bit more about how our body is involved in all of this, outside the control or awareness of our conscious thought. It’s one of the reasons we need covenants to assist us, and why religious community matters.
The basis for this is what we are coming to know about the two sets of vagal nerves that run from our brain stem – evolutionarily, the oldest part of our brain – to our internal organs. The back and forth information sharing from organs to brain and back takes place without our conscious thought, thank goodness, it’s what kept our reptilian and mammalian ancestors alive, and what keeps us alive too.
The vagal system is continually monitoring and discerning whether or not it is safe to be with the other beings we are with.
When our vagal system decides for us that we are not safe with another being, our bodies gear up to fight, or to run, or, if all else fails, to shut down. It does not consult the rest of our brain, especially if the danger threat is high. It’s not something we think about. When our vagal system decides for us that we are not safe, when we are geared up to protect ourselves, it also shuts down our ability to be open, to be creative, to connect to other beings, AND it shuts down our ability to communicate to other beings that we are safe to be with.
It’s only when our vagal system decides that we are safe, when our vagal system is calm, that we can convey cues of safety to others. Our bodies our exquisitely tuned to pick up and to give this kind of information. It is transmitted through our eyes, through the sound of our voice, through our body language, and in particular through the expressions and micro-expressions of our faces. And the communication is continually going both ways. We are continually co-regulating each other’s vagal systems. Is it safe? Is it not safe?
Imagine a parent with a crying baby…
What does the parent do? The parent speaks in a soothing, sing-song, voice. “It’s okay, everything’s okay.” Faces close, soft animated facial expressions, lots of eye contact… And that usually helps. The baby calms down. But not only that. When the baby calms, the baby’s calming calms the parent! Who then has more calmness to offer the baby, which calms the baby even more. It creates a spiraling feedback loop that gradually calms both of their vagal systems. They co-regulate each other!
To make this clear, imagine the same scenario with a twist. The baby is crying. The parent speaks in a soothing, sing-song, voice. “It’s okay, everything’s okay.” Faces close, soft animated facial expressions, lots of eye contact… But… the baby keeps crying, maybe getting even more agitated! What happens to the parent? The parent does not calm down. “Nothing’s working! The baby is still crying!” The parent gets frustrated, agitated, maybe worried, which not only doesn’t help the baby, but ramps up the baby’s vagal system even more, which frustrates the parent even more. A different spiraling loop of co-regulation.
You know this plays out with adults too, right? I can see the looks some of you are giving to people you care about.
By the age of 3 or 4 months we are continually co-regulating with others, and not only with humans, but with other animals as well, mammals that have a vagal system that can respond. This is why pets are so important to so many people.
We are built this way for the sake of our survival. As Stephen Porges, the originator and key researcher of polyvagal theory, puts it, we have “a biological imperative” for connectedness. Not a creed, not a covenant, not a nice-thing-for-a-community-if-you-can-get-it, but rather a biological, hardwired, largely unconscious drive for life-sustaining connectedness, whether we realize it or not.
And we can only reach that sense of connectedness, can only develop the deep and trusting relationships that calm our vagal system, when somebody in the mix has a calm enough vagal system, is feeling safe enough, to give us the cues that calm our own bodies, and help us know that we are safe.
That sense of safety is critical to our ability to optimize our personal and our collective potentials in many directions, says Porges. It is critical to living our mission with courageous love and the kind of wonder that opens us to seeing new ways forward. If we do not agree enough in our vagal sense of safety and trust, no other kind of agreement can do us any good.
Our personal integrity and our collective integrity are very much intertwined. And it’s not all in our heads. It is, very literally, in our hearts, our guts, and hands, our voices and our faces, in not only what we say, but how we say it, and whether and how we look when we say it.
This community is the living laboratory and the nursery for our wellbeing. It is the launching pad for our ability together to move the world toward compassion, sustainability and justice. It starts very close in. Between us.
Our UU ancestors taught that this journey is about learning to walk in the ways of love, as we know them now and as we come to know them in each generation. They realized that a covenant, not a creed, offered the best chance to find our integrity. They understood a covenant as “declarations of interdependence” (in Victoria Safford’s words) Little did they know. Or maybe, they very much did know [hand on heart].
We human beings are the “promisemaking, promisekeeping, promisebreaking, promiserenewing” creature, said Martin Buber.
For the sake of all of us, so may we 21st century covenantal Unitarian Universalists in northern California know ourselves to be.
Sources Cited or Consulted
Safford, Victoria. “Bound in Covenant.” UU World, Summer 2013. https://www.uuworld.org/articles/bound-in-covenant
Porges, Stephen W. The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. 2017.
Sellon, Mary K, and Daniel P. Smith. Practicing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005.
Wesley, Alice B. Our Covenant: The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church : the Spirit and the Promise of Our Covenant. Chicago: Meadville Lombard Theological School Press, 2002.