The Covenant Community

Covenant: a law or agreement between God and a community.

We gathered a Swarthmore Friends Meeting Saturday October 6th to examine how we could transform our meetings into “covenant communities.” Present in this examination was the sense that our meetings are generally not covenant communities. Friend Tom Gates led us into this examination with a talk he gave in the morning there. One of the distinctions of a covenant community, he said, is that it is a place in which the central question asked is not, what can this community offer me, but rather, how can I best serve this community? Again, we were led to see all the ways in which our tendency towards individualism impedes the emergence of covenant communities, and yet we acknowledged that P.Y.M. Quakerism is especially attractive to individualists, who are free to attend our meetings for worship for as long as they wish without many demands being made on them, doctrinally or otherwise.I am such an individualist, and I remember well all the ways my ego fretted as I moved closer and closer to convincement. “But they’ll change you!” my ego cried, “You’ll become one of them! You won’t be the unique and amazingly sexy and compelling you anymore!” But in one of the many paradoxes of a life lived in the Spirit, I soon realized that God wanted me to be more authentically me, and that joining the Friends and working towards a covenant community was a path to my own power; a power meant to be shared in the service of something greater than my own desire. I still tell dirty jokes. I own a cell phone and text people madly. I put good and meaningful work aside to watch baseball games. I dress in women’s clothing and entertain people . . . if I am so cast. And, I am a 21st century Quaker, who tries to live in the Light of the Inner Christ, and wants to spread the good news that such a life is available to any who want it.

At Swarthmore, I was also aware that there is much which is joyful and useful in the simple act of assembling together as Friends. Simple in the event, not the planning and execution. In this age of multi-tasking and simultaneous schedules, getting the numbers we wanted for the conference was daunting and we fell short of our goal. Still, I experienced the feeling I have had a Residential Yearly Meeting: of meeting Friends from other meetings and delighting in our common values, experiences, joys and frustrations. I think this is why early Friends put such a premium on traveling ministry. Each meeting, each “outpost in the kingdom of God” (as Arlene Kelly called us) needed reminders that they were not alone, that they in fact were part of something much larger than the sometimes overwhelming demands of their own little outpost. Tom reminded us of Paul’s letter in Corinthians, in which the covenant community is described as a body with many different parts (Cor. 12:12). Paul is saying, by each being our individual selves – the parts of the body we are created to be – we will be serving the whole body (Christ) best. I have written this before in theatrical contexts, but here it is in a Biblical context: I am best when I am most true to myself, when I am most “Ben” – the elbow I was born to be. And, this is when I am most useful to God. Trying to be someone else makes me false, inauthentic, and God wants truthful people. But it’s deeper than that. I think Paul is also suggesting that we cannot experience love unless we are both deeply ourselves and deeply in the service of Something greater than ourselves.

Surely it was God speaking to me, or underlining something essential, as I had only just read those words the day before in Patricia Loring’s bookListening Spirituality Volume II. That night I was astonished to find that that Paul’s letter continues to the famous passage about love, the one often read at weddings:

13:4 Love is patient and is kind; love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, 13:5 doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil; 13:6 doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 13:7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 13:8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will be done away with. Where there are various languages, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be done away with. 13:9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; 13:10 but when that which is complete has come, then that which is partial will be done away with. 13:11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things. 13:12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known. 13:13 But now faith, hope, and love remain—these three. The greatest of these is love.

Perhaps there is a connection to be made here too: that when we are authentic – truthful and genuine, the “body part” we are meant to be – we are more available to love.

I was conjoined to a different kind of community Friday night, the night before the conference. Me and about 20,000 others felt the Spirit rush through us on the amplified wings of the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The Boss seemed more pissed than I’ve seen him before, not at us but at what’s up in the country his so loves. “I love being in Philly,” he said, “birthplace of some of the greatest things in America, like cheese steaks, and the Bill of Rights”. The songs he played, and the sequence he played them in, all seemed to be saying – wake up, don’t believe what hear or see, and even though you’re being deceived there is still virtue and hope, but you have to make it happen. Click here for a great opinion piece by my friend David Bradley about the Boss’s message last weekend.

As I sat in worship this morning images of 20,000 souls pumping fists and singing in unison drifted through my mind. And I was moved to speak to my Friends about what we sacrifice when we stay too attached to our individualism, and the enormous power we have when act together.