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We are a People of Covenant

 What Matters to You

What relationships matter to you
that involve a promise?

How is God involved in the relationship?

How do promises, covenants,
help hold things together in tough times?

What Matters to Us

"What is it that holds people together even in the midst of all kinds of differences? When folk in the United Church of Christ talk about how they relate—to God, to each other, other churches, other religions, even creation—they often use the word "covenant." It's God's good glue that keeps us together. (LTH, Vol 7, 772-776). Covenant is a holy promise of devotion that is shared. When that glue sticks, God forms a bond of unity that is pliable and dynamic, not rigid or unresponsive. Unity is a result of a covenantal way of life and an amazing gift of God.

Both covenant and unity have been in our UCC heart since we formed in 1957 and they run through our blood because of our historical foreparents. In the Bible, God is a covenanting God. It is so central to us that Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17, "that they may be one," is the prayer inscribed on our logo. In our Statement of Faith, covenant is a gift of the Holy Spirit binding all faithful people together. We celebrate this covenant every time there is a baptism or we gather for Holy Communion. The first word when we utter our name, "United Church of Christ," expresses our yearning for covenant. "United!"

Covenant is how we relate to one another within local churches, and it is much more than that. In the 2001 edition of our constitution, for the first time, covenant was officially described as the foundation for our way of being the church. Each congregation has "autonomy (LTH, Vol 7, 565-568)," meaning it's free to discern its own way of being and believing. Yet, because of covenant, we bind our selves to one another beyond the local church—to associations, conferences, the national setting, and General Synod. And, guess what? Those settings are called to covenant with your local church. The constitution puts it this way: "Each expression of the church listens, hears, and carefully considers the advice, counsel, and requests of others. In this covenant, the various expressions of the United Church of Christ walk together in all God's ways."

Another word similar to "unity" that expresses a faithful result of covenant is "ecumenical." Most often it points toward the unity, or desire for unity, among all Christian churches throughout the world. We are not only a united church, we are a uniting church. This doesn't mean all churches become alike, or one is swallowed up by another. Instead churches come together, each with their own distinct gifts, to more fully express Christ in the world.

For us in the United Church of Christ, "ecumenicity is not an option" (LTH, Vol 7, 569-571). It is essential. We demonstrate it in a network of partnerships and councils with other churches. A few of those relationships include the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, the Ecumenical Partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Formula of Agreement (Lutheran/Reformed), and Churches Uniting in Christ.

Do we enter into a covenantal way with other world religions? More than ever, we encounter persons deeply devoted to their own faiths—other than Christian. In the past, missionary efforts were primary in our approach to other faiths. Our efforts included assisting with health care, education, and working for justice, but often we did not tolerate God's gifts through other religions. Today, we seek prayerful discernment and conversation together—open to God seeking us in new ways through such a dialog. Our commitment to a covenantal way of life and to being united and uniting, calls us to honor our religious partners, engage in conversation, assist inter-religious families, and work together for justice and peace.

Because we are people of covenant we value diversity and the variety of gifts. We are bound to all God's children. Beyond relationships, our covenant way of life extends to how we care for the earth which cradles our very existence. Mack Stokes describes covenant as a "gift of God that bonds the will to God's justice." (LTH, Vol 7, 773). Our prayer for unity extends beyond the unity of all churches to the reconciliation of God's whole world.

A covenant way of life is personal and public, pastoral and political, local and global. At times all this covenanting and uniting isn't so easy to figure out. A commitment to one group conflicts with the covenant with another. We become torn in a way so that the glue grows brittle and the bond is ready to break. Then with humility, we struggle with God and neighbor about what is faithful. When it holds, we declare "Thanks be to God!" Covenant is a way of living.

Where is brokenness in our world that yearns for reconciliation?

With whom or what is God calling us to covenant?

What Matters to UCC Congregations


Youth and adults from Los Alamos unite in building homes in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

What ways does your church demonstrate a covenantal, ecumenical, or uniting heart?

What seems to be the distinctive gifts of the United Church
in Los Alamos? How do they inspire you?

What is your prayer for them?

The United Church in Los Alamos isn't just a United Church of Christ congregation. It's Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, Moravian, American Baptist, and Reformed Church in America, too. The church formed in 1947 as a chapel for families who came to work at the national scientific laboratory during World War II. "They joined together, not because they had to or because of financial considerations," says their pastor, Don Childers, "but because they felt God called them to unite." The church continues to this day with formal relationships with each of the six denominations.

One of the first things the church did was establish a covenant. The covenant is still used today by persons seeking membership. The closing words of the covenant include these:

I seek fellowship with all who devoutly love the Lord Jesus Christ and adopt His standard of teaching and conduct as set forth in the New Testament…

Realizing that the success of the church depends upon the consecration of its individual membership, I covenant to uphold it by my prayers, to attend its services, to contribute to its support, to labor to maintain its peace and harmony, and, as far as possible, in every way to promote its temporal and spiritual welfare.

United Church extends this covenant into the world. Even though Los Alamos has been known as the birth place of the atomic age, United Church hosts the Los Alamos Committee on Arms Control, a nonproliferation organization, in their building. They join together often with the Jewish synagogue across the street, annually celebrating Thanksgiving together. A highlight of each year is a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico, where youth and adults together build homes. Persons from other churches in Los Alamos often join in on the mission.

When asked to describe the church, Childers answered, "I love this church. From the beginning, it's been intentional about being united."

 

People Matter 

How does their personal covenant connect with church
or more public covenants ?

How does your personal covenants connect with public life?

What is your prayer for Mary Etta and Mary?

What do you imagine their prayer might be for you and your congregation?

As early as 1861, the controversial Congregational pastor, Horace Bushnell, stated that "covenant was a family covenant." He argued that God's relationship to us was birthed through family. Church and home had an "organic unity." He celebrated "a redeemed family life as the first and final location of social transformation" (LTH, Vol 5,111).

The covenant between Mary Etta Perry and Mary Cowal expresses Bushnell's vision. Their covenant has grown deeper, nurtured over thirty-five years. They first met at a hospital. Mary Etta was a clinical nurse and the other Mary was in her first year of nursing. They worked the midnight to morning shift on a floor where they cared for patients who were suicidal. In the early, early mornings the "Marys" often had time to reflect on life. During those hours, Mary Etta says, "We shared our histories, compared similar dreams and our hopes for fulfilling our call to hospitality," Mary continues on, "…specifically to have homes with space to share with whoever needed a safe place to be a while."

Sharing their stories and compatible dreams, they fell in love. These dreams became the "directing light" that led them to their first covenant in 1971. They stated it this way: "to love each other, to serve others, and to live for the rest of our lives in the spirit of walking humbly with our God."

Because both came from large, deeply spiritual families, they sought a church home. "We were faithful to our covenant to share home and hearth, all the while searching for a home church." Mary Etta says, "Just before our 30th year together we found the UCC, and it found us!" "Here our covenantal relationship is affirmed and blessed," says Mary, "and we feel, at last, woven into the very fabric of the open and affirming spirit of the UCC."

On a Saturday in 2001, they celebrated with a covenant ceremony before 100 of their friends and family. The next day the covenant was reaffirmed and blessed during Sunday morning worship at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville, North Carolina.

This is a powerful witness: holy lives drawn together by God, held together in holy covenant, embraced by a community of faith, declaring: "you are blessed." Bushnell's organic unity between family, church, and social change happens in holy covenant.

History Matters

What do the following historical moments contribute to the UCC?

Where do you see evidence of this history in your congregation?

What keeps us faithful to our covenants?

Do covenants ever need to change?

Salem: A Covenant of Peace?

As for covenants, our English forebearers loved to make them. The Pilgrims had the Mayflower Compact. And in 1629, a group of Puritans sailed across the Atlantic to a fishing village called Naumkeag, Massachusetts, and established another covenant. The Salem covenant joined the settlers' personal, congregational, and public lives calling on people to walk together in God's holy ways. The locals picked up on their holy vision, and, together, they renamed the village, Salem, meaning "peace."

Their old-English covenant sounded like this:

We covenant with the Lord
and one with an other
and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God,
to walke together in all his waies,
according as he is pleased
to reveale himself unto us in his blessed word of truth.

When the Salem congregation needed assistance, they reached out to the Plymouth colony of Pilgrims. The Pilgrims extended their fellowship to the church at Salem. Thus began covenantal relationships between our congregations. Salem, however, wasn't always so peaceful. There were days of terror. In 1692, Salem convicted and executed 19 persons as witches. Church members were among the accusers, the defenders, and the executed. The covenant shook.

Today, members of one of the three congregations with direct links to the original First Church of Salem continue to declare the covenant, at least four times a year, in fresh language. Tabernacle Congregational Church, UCC, continues a covenantal way of life.

 

 It Takes More than One…

In 1893, Philip Schaff wasn't happy at all with revivals sweeping the land. The popular services often led people to faith characterized only by individual experience with little commitment to a broader Christian fellowship. This professor at the German Reformed Seminary in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and his colleague John Williamson Nevin, reminded folk of the presence of Christ in the sacraments and the unity of Christ's wider Church. He promoted conversation between Christians—even with the Catholic Church often only demonized by Protestants. His words are a great celebration of our spirit of "uniting and united." Sounding more like ecumenical advocates of the 21st century, he called on churches to treasure their distinctiveness, but also to examine their selves carefully.

Schaff professed:
"No sect has the monopoly on truth; the part is not the whole; the body consists of many members, and all are necessary to each other."(LTH, Vol 5, 297.)


The Big Covenant of 1957

From informal letters and conversations beginning in 1937, clergy from the Congregational Christian Churches of the United States and the Evangelical Reformed Church explored their faith and work. In spite of different ethnic origins and ways of governing their church life, they discovered "a strong unity of thought and mind." In 1942, the denominations got serious about that discovery and formed a joint committee on union.

The Christian Century magazine in October of that year described the two churches' effort:

"It is a significant and heartening fact that these two churches which have had a taste of union want more of it! They are not content to be merely united churches, but wish to be uniting churches." (LTH, Vol 6, 505)

Almost 20 years later, after conversations, negotiations, prayers, reams of paper, writing a Basis of Union in 1947, still more conversations, and court cases, the churches united. On June 25, 1957, the United Church of Christ was formed in Cleveland, Ohio. Among the jubilant words, music, and prayers, the Reverend Gerhard W. Grauer prayed to Almighty God:

We covenant together, but we cannot create, we cannot unite, we cannot constitute a United Church of Christ. What we propose, do Thou perform. (LTH, Vol 6,744-746)



Walk-out: A Hispanic Prophetic Call to Covenant

Worship and witness of local Hispanic congregations had been vital for years. In 1987, however, many Hispanics were weary and frustrated with the broader UCC's "neglectful response to the needs of Hispanics" (LTH, Vol 7,731-734). Our covenant weakened.

That year, at the General Synod in Ames, Iowa, Abraham Reyes, a Mexican American layperson from New York City, called Synod to be a covenant people. He proposed a resolution that called for greater involvement of the Hispanic community in national leadership, ministries, and resource development. In his statement, he concluded:

Our soul is hurting and our hearts are broken! It is therefore, with a profound sense of corporate loss that we must leave you now! We will return to hear your response to our claim for justice. (At that point the Hispanic delegation walked out of the Synod auditorium.)

At a later session of Synod, Reyes and Avery Post, president of the UCC, walked together, along with members of the Hispanic council, into the auditorium to a standing ovation and song. Post reported "a healing suggestion for us all" along with a plan for more inclusive leadership in the broader church. Reyes' responded:

We come back to you with faith, and a spirit of reconciliation, to call each other to do our mission. It isn't my mission, it isn't the Hispanics' mission, nor your mission, it's God's mission. A time to build, a time to heal.

Bible Matters 

God covenants. The Bible speaks of covenants between God and God's people. Yet holy covenants are also between people, churches, nations, and with creation itself. Making covenant is all over the Hebrew scripture, being mentioned about 286 times. God promises and God makes good on them. At the end of the story of Noah and the flood, God covenants and the rainbow appears (Genesis 9:8-17). When God liberates the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God covenants. Moses' sister, Miriam, dances, and Moses delivers commandments (Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 6:1-25, 7:7-11). Covenant is also expressed between people as in the undying friendship and loyalty between the biblical hero, David, and a king's son, Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:3).

Covenant in the Bible is not a mere legal document written on stone, but devoted actions promised between people and with God. We are called to take God's covenant to our heart and live faithful lives expressed in love and justice (Jeremiah 31:31).

The covenant continued in Jesus. Jesus Christ is the new covenant expressed at Holy Communion when Jesus' presence is poured out on God's people (Matthew 26:28/1 Corinthians 11:25)--reconciling, healing, and feeding the world. Our participation in the new covenant leads us to join as partners in Christ's reconciliation in the world.

Select one of the passages above. Ask God to be present, as you slowly read it aloud. Then close your eyes and remain in silence. What comes to your imagination? What comes to mind? Hold that before God.

Reflect on questions as:

What is the role of God in this covenant? What about people?

What is being promised, given, or required?

What are the fruits or results of the covenant?

What is difficult about making a covenant?

Pray a prayer similar to this: "O God, what covenants would you have me renew? O God, what covenants does our congregation need to renew? God, inscribe your covenant deeply upon my heart."

Prayer Matters

If your congregation has a covenant, look it over. Perhaps it is used when persons become members of your congregation. Spend time with it in prayer. Perhaps read a phrase, pause, and ask for God's wisdom as you consider the words.

If your congregation does not have a covenant, consider crafting one for yourself. Perhaps over several weeks, prayerfully reflect on what it means for you to be bound to God, to be united with God's children and creation, and to travel in God's ways. During a time of prayer, write one that might begin with words such as these, or your own words: "Living God, you gave me life. I am bound to you. So I seek to…"

Worship Matters

The rite of baptism is a celebration of God's covenant with us. The prayer of thanksgiving often offered over the water recalls God's covenants expressed throughout the Bible. In the water, we share in that covenant that God established since the beginning of time. In the water, we are united with Christ and the universal Church. We are children of the covenant celebrated in the community of Christ's church.

If you are not baptized, consider the meaning of baptism particularly as "participation in God's eternal covenant." If you have been baptized, you and/or your entire congregation may renew this sacred baptismal covenant in worship. Ideas and liturgies are available to help you "remember your baptism and be grateful." Some liturgies maybe used on any Sunday, others are appropriate for particular days in the church year.

God's World Matters

God calls us into partnerships that unite denominations, congregations, and communities across the globe. Through God's transforming Spirit moving in our world, we are invited to envision and help shape a more just, compassionate, and peaceful world. Sometimes those partnerships reach across religious, social, economic, and ethnic divides to unite diverse communities in common action and healing specific regions of our world.

One such place is the Darfur region of Sudan, an area torn by civil strife which has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and left thousands more displaced from their homes. The desperate situation in the Darfur has led to interfaith partnerships that span the political spectrum in an effort to provide humanitarian aid for the refugees and advance the cause of peace. Discover how you and your congregation may unite in an effort to bring healing to the region. For specific ways, see http://www.ucc.org/disaster/. Also view our ecumenical efforts in Darfur through Church World Service.

What Matters is written by Sidney D. Fowler. Designed by Duy-Khuong  Van (risingflare.com)
Copyright © 2005 - 2008 Congregational Vitality in the United Church of Christ.

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