“…for not with you alone am I making this covenant, but both with those who stand here with us today, before our God, and with those who are not here with us today." Deuteronomy 29:14-15
The sages say that God gave Torah to the people in the wilderness because, without the teaching, the world is a wilderness and the people wander aimlessly. And yet, after receiving it, the people wandered.
This is because practicing the way is not nearly as easy as receiving it.
Thankfully, this covenant between the Eternal One and us is not contingent on continuous good behavior, on always getting it right, or on never having to learn from our mistakes. Time and again, God renews God’s covenant: a faithful commitment to be in sustaining relationship with us—all of us—and a call for our relational commitment to God and to one another. Whenever we are gathered together, we stand before Holy Abiding in everlasting covenant.
This reality is foundational to a core value we hold in the United Church of Christ (UCC)—the commitment to covenant relations. In our practice, we are called to be with each other as God is with us. Thus, we are not merely receivers of Holy Covenant, we are responsible for our part in the doing of covenantal relations.
Even as we in the UCC strive for this, we know by history and experience it is far from easy. As humans do, we fall short. Dedication to practicing covenant relations requires a fair amount of intention and more than a little spiritual fortitude, but mostly, it requires a willingness to love enough to be changed in the process. And, on occasion, beautifully transformative things happen.
Now and then, Sacred Speaking opens up all around us.
In June, I had the privilege of joining my Transfaith colleagues at the Open and Affirming Coalition National Gathering, in Baltimore, where we convened and co-facilitated a workshop series to launch Trans Still Speaking in the UCC.
In the hope of rekindling the spirit of trans UCC community-building begun by Gender-Fold Action Alliance, Chris Paige, Louis Mitchell, and I engaged in workshop discussions with transgender/gender-diverse peers and allies. We spent fruitful time looking back, uncovering insights from our history in the UCC. Then, we turned from looking back in our collective memory, to looking forward in communal imagination.
We broke into two groups, sharing together around vision-crafting questions, before coming together again as one group to discuss what emerged among and between us. We, as trans/gender-expansive persons considered what we, as people of faith in the UCC, need from our denomination—both nationally and locally, practically and spiritually—in order to grow and thrive in the life of the church.
In another group, allies considered what they believe the church needs from us.
This was rich, vulnerable and revealing work for all of us. At moments in our process, I became aware something was stirring in me. Later, alone in my room reflecting, I understood: I had heard our allies expressing something I had never heard before. Something longed for, something vital—I heard lay folks and UCC leaders articulating recognition they need us, the church needs us, and I heard them naming ways they understand we have a place in the Church, writ large. This was, and is, profoundly meaningful.
There were moments throughout the Gathering that were not easy and tested our individual commitment to covenant relations. This is to be expected; in the work of learning to recognize, name and address the culturally transmitted, assimilated biases and practices that keep us from being the church we claim we desire to be, there are always happenings that trouble the table.
Yet, we held table and we remained gathered around it. This, this remaining, is the covenant: abiding together, being willing to take a deep breath, pull our chairs next to one another, and engage in the communal meal—the great feast of relationality, inviting a still-speaking opening of Holy Utterance among and between us.
Covenant calls us to ground our love of God in our practice of staying in relationship, across difference and diversity, and keeping dialogue even in disagreement, misunderstanding, and conflict. Practicing covenant relations is about setting a wide table, recognizing the Holy One abides with and in all who gather, and staying present in an active, ongoing meal together. Often, it involves remembering to pass the bread when it is hard—perhaps, chewing a fair amount so we can hold our tongues and listen.
We do this, not because God needs us to do it, but because we need to do it.
We do it precisely because it is often hard and challenging; we do it because spiritual renewal happens in and through our discomfort, not our comfort. We do it because we learn to love God with all our hearts, souls, and strength (Deut 6) by learning to practice loving one another. We do it, not merely for those who are present with us, but for those who are not—to keep among us those who went before us, hold those who cannot be with us, and to make sacred space for those who are still to come.
We do it because, when we fail to do it, the world is a wilderness and we wander in it aimlessly.