A Covenantal Imagination

I am pleased to announce the publication of a collection of my essays from 1971 to 2003 laying out the main contours of the development of my thought. I entitled it A Covenantal Imagination, because at the core of this development has lain the rich concept of covenant, with its many ramifications in theories of federalism, of the dynamics of reconciliation, and a framework for knitting together our oikos of work, family, faith, and the land.

This collection completes the work of making my thought and primary publications available to a wider public. While not tombstones, these publications represent the completion of one phase of my life, leaving me free to continue to explore realms of poetry, liturgy, woodworking, and conversations that cultivate the work of reconciliation in its many dimensions.

My long-time colleague in the Society of Christian Ethics, David Hollenbach SJ, now at Georgetown University, wrote that “These stimulating essays draw on the central biblical image of covenant to argue that human freedom and social connectedness can be mutually supportive, not opposed. They…argue that the covenant that can link us to God and one another sheds ethical light on practical areas ranging from family life…to the struggle against racism and pursuit of post-conflict reconciliation. A valuable contribution that can guide our divided society to greater mutual respect and solidarity.”

My Emory colleague Jon Gunnemann wrote this about it: “In these essays Bill Everett traverses an extraordinary array of ethical issues, ranging through the ecological crisis, marriage, family and work, the importance of federalism and reconciliation in political life, and much more. The theological theme of covenant anchors his interpretation of these issues, but Everett’s sociological imagination, interwoven with the insightful use of metaphor, symbol and story, leads the reader at every point to see the world refreshed and anew. An invaluable treasury.”

Scott Paeth, who was my teaching assistant at Andover Newton and now Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University, reflected that: “A Covenantal Imagination is a fitting testament to a lifetime’s work as a theologian and ethicist. The depth and scope of reflections in this volume demonstrate Everett’s commitment to understanding Christian ethics as touching on every dimension of human life . . . . The thread that ties these essays together is Everett’s understanding of covenant as the key to the moral framework in which Christian social ethics is done.”

So you can get a quick sense of the range of subjects these articles touch on, I’ll conclude this announcement with the Table of Contents.

Cybernetics and the Symbolic Body Model

Liturgy and American Society: An Invocation to Ethical Analysis

Ecclesiology and Political Authority: A Dialogue with Hannah Arendt

Vocation and Location: An Exploration in the Ethics of Ethics

Land Ethics: Toward a Covenantal Model

Stewardship Through Trust and Cooperation

Shared Parenthood in Divorce: The Parental Covenant and Custody Law

OIKOS: Convergence in Business Ethics

Transformation at Work

Sunday Monarchists and Monday Citizens?

Couples at Work: A Study in Patterns of Work, Family and Faith

Human Rights in the Church

Constitutional Order in United Methodism and American Culture (with Thomas E. Frank)

Seals and Springboks: Theological Reflections on Constitutionalism and South African Culture

Reconciliation as New Covenant, New Public

Serving the Church and Facing the Law: Virtues for Committee Members Evaluating a Pastor

Public Works: Bridging the Gap Between Theology and Public Ethics

Reconciliation between Homecoming and the Future: A Case Study from the Vietnam War

Journey Images and the Search for Reconciliation

 

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Giving Thanks for Desmond Tutu

Another Great Soul has burned through the flesh of this world to dwell forever in the heart of God. As for so many thousands around the world, Desmond Tutu’s death arouses memories of how he touched my own life. Like them I lift up those moments like the little stones adorning graves in countless Jewish cemeteries. Our dear Archbishop—and you did not have to be Anglican to claim him as your spiritual guide—was a frequent visitor to Emory University, where I was on the faculty of the School of Theology from 1985-1995. In 1991-1992, while I was on sabbatical abroad, he claimed my office for his own, assisted by my diligent and kind secretary Flo Strobhert. Did he open any of my books upon the shelves? Was my chair comfortable enough for his frame? I will never know. But perhaps the osmosis of his spirit cleansed the room a little bit of lesser thoughts drowned in lesson preparations and administrative work.

And then there was the time a few years later, in 1998, when I was in Cape Town doing research on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that we met in the elevator going up to the floor of the building on Adderly Street where he and Alex Boraine were chairing hearings. In his arms was a large bouquet of flowers. He told me, with great excitement, that they were flowers for the unsung secretarial staff who were supporting his work behind the scenes. We chatted, the doors opened, and he sailed off to deliver his flowers of thanks. Moments later we were in a dreary room hearing testimony of atrocities and tragedy.

Window in St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. Watercolor by Sylvia Everett

What did this say to me? At the core of his life was a delight in the individual lives around him. At the core of his mission was the belief that every human being is precious in God’s eyes. It is from this bed-rock conviction that his work of forgiveness and reconciliation arose. He only tried to live that out every day. It sticks in my mind to this day what was told to me by one of his friends—that he began each day by praying for each priest in his care, along with their families. Each one was precious. Each one was his responsibility. Each one deserving of respect and care.

And so this light has now expanded beyond the confines of our universe and we are all the better for it. I am grateful he touched my life, grateful he touched so many. The light continues and the darkness cannot shut it out.

I close with our little Christmas reflection for this year:

 

Within the treadmill of a heart-ached longing world

We glimpse arrivals daily of a New Beginning—

A babe, whose wisdom once again returns in aging years of wonder, awe, and gratitude,

A work of wood, the gift of trees who are our lungs, of limbs once tortured by the wind, offering up the grain of patient perseverance,

A swirl of colored glass and stone, the iridescence of the elements extracted from earth’s blazing womb,

A home, desire of refugees and wanderers, a gift now settled, beacon of a hope to share with all the world,

A sacred space where souls renewed might sing, might pray, might nurture up compassion for a suffering world,

A book whose words ignite our minds to wander universes yet unborn.

And so the mirror of this season shines upon us as we move from waiting thankfulness to yet another step in care for this amazing world.

Immanuel.

God walks with us.

 

 

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Of Crosses, Stars, and Peace

As we roll into Advent and Christmas, I have completed the project for Boston University’s School of Theology with a version of the processional cross I made for our church in 2017. Since then I have spent many hours reflecting on its meaning while in worship events at our church. Sometimes the hard maple disk is for me the moon, with intimations of the cycles of human gestation, birth, and then, rebirth. Most of the time it is for me a sun, the source of all life in our system, cauldron of unbelievable power. With it, we live. In it we die faster than the blink of the Big Bang. In all of this the disk speaks to me of the Christ reality of creation and redemption.

Radiating out from the sun are the arms of the cross, the walnut wood echoing the rough timbers on which the life of God was nailed. But instead of nails we have here rays of light crossing through the wooden members, streaming out toward the horizon. The light of the world goes through the wood. Here the light is made from the wood of the holly tree, whose red berries in the early winter punctuate the darkening world like specks of blood, feeding the winged creatures sheltered in its branches.

At the center of the disk is a deep red core made of purpleheart. Sometimes it speaks to me of the traditional bleeding heart of Jesus in Catholic piety. Other times it becomes for me a dark hole, reminding me of the black holes at the heart of galaxies, where all matter is drawn into an infinite singularity and from which, some speculate, erupt new worlds, even new universes.

In this way, this sunburst cross reflects both the ancient sacrificial dynamics of the remembered crucifixion and the cosmological creation and regeneration imagined in contemporary science’s story of the universe. In either case it expresses for me the passage into both death and life, an expression of the overwhelming power, illumination, and faithfulness of God’s love.

I am always troubled by the symbolism of the Christmas season. The myth of the virgin birth is still caught in a false understanding of how human life arises—not from the seed deposited by the man in the woman’s empty womb, but from the mysterious joining of bearers of our genetic code. It is a mistaken conception that haunts us even today in the controversy over the abortion of “pre-born infants” even as we know that what we face is more than simply “reproductive health.” We don’t know what to do with a life and a universe that is constantly evolving from what we know not to what we cannot imagine. The gnostic notions of pre-existing beings who slip “down” into our world from the heavens “above” to walk the earth and then climb back into the starry realm that is our “real home” are simply unbelievable for someone who has even a foggy idea of our current cosmological knowledge. And then there is the ghostly apparatus of patriarchal monarchy hovering over the carols, readings, and banner art seeking to claim once again our heart’s allegiance in a world of struggling republics, constitutions, and civil conversation. Instead I struggle to reclaim from these intractable mythic elements the citizenship of even a nameless peasant woman, the flight from despots and corrupted rulers of temple and forum, the longing of a craftsman for a sustainable and beautiful world. As our commercial world says, it’s a tough sell in a clamoring marketplace.

And so Christmas always brings the way of the cross, not the pyramid of sacrifice that omnipotent fathers demand of their submissive sons, but the way of patient pilgrimage to the mystery that even this little concatenation of genetic code on this flimsy bit of stardust participates in the creative love for whom twelve billion years is but one step in a dance, whose embrace is warmer than a thousand lovers in this world. So maybe this dark time in the northern hemisphere offers an encouragement to look up at some distant star that brings us awe, some cross of sunny rays that illuminates our pinched and weary ways. I hope these days offer all of you a new glimpse, a new facet in the jewel of this life.

I close this reflection with my liturgy for the lighting of the fourth candle in Advent, the peace candle.

Call to Worship

In the midst of deathly silence

            We hear a song of gratitude.

Lost in the howling winds

            We feel a stranger’s helping hand.

Along the streets of forgotten hopes

            We hear the steady footsteps of the messenger of peace.

Broken by the world’s unyielding pain

            We drink from the fountain of God’s mercy.

In the darkened corner of a stable’s stall

            We come to the table of God’s peace.

[A Hymn is sung]

Invocation Prayer

            O Holy Giver of all Peace,

In the new birth of a little babe release us from the bondage of our sinful pasts. In the midst of our self-righteous conflicts, help us hear your still small voice of peace. In the destruction of our fondest hopes reveal your patient, loving purposes. In the words we speak and songs we sing, make manifest the splendor of your beauty. In each prayer we utter, renew us with your peace. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Statement

            Out of a distant town in a defeated nation came the bearer of God’s peace. Not in armies’ might nor in the pomp of public spectacle, but from a simple couple in distress came the Life that saves the world. From the babe tight swaddled on the straw a light burst forth to lead us on the path to God’s abundant mercy. In the mystery of his own self-giving we receive the miracle of God’s undying love. In memory and in hope we light this candle of Christ’s peace.

Lighting the Candle

Prayer of Dedication

O Holy Source of All Creation,

Ignite our hope lest we be lost among the shadows of despair. Unlock our gratitude that we might sing your testament of love. Lift up our burdened hearts with your earth-saving joy. And lead us in Christ’s footsteps to the garden of your peace. Amen. Amen. Amen.

 

 

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Words in Waiting

Never has the Advent admonition to wait had such import as in this seemingly endless pandemic. We are waiting for the coming of a time that is in some sense a return and renewal but also something that we sense will be entirely new. The world will never look the same. At least that is our sense in this struggle to push through yet another viral variant, another vaccination, another round of resistance, another possible lockdown or quarantine.

In the midst of this anguish of waiting, with almost 800,000 deaths in this country alone, and many more around the world, we reach for words, for images, for glimpses of the way ahead. And then the ancient words recalling Isaiah’s hope and the stories of Matthew and Luke sound once again our ears. A voice in the wilderness, a light in the dark sky.

I have been composing some words for the four Sundays of Advent at our church, where we, like so many others, light the candles of the Advent wreath to mark our journey of anticipation in these days. Traditionally, the candles represent, in this sequence, Love, Hope, Joy, and Peace.  Rather than wait for the final Sunday and the lighting of the Christ candle, I share the words I prepared for the first three Sundays, in hopes that they might help in your waiting and your hope for a renewal of our creation.

 

First Sunday of Advent

Call to Worship

In the wilderness of our despair

            We hear the lonely voice of hope.

In the midst of plague and pestilence

            We feel the touch of healing hands.

Within the dark interior of our fears

            We glimpse the light of an opening door.

In the cry of infantile desperation

            We find the love that will not let us go.

We come into that light of peace

            We find our way to the open arms of God.

( A Hymn is sung)

Invocation Prayer

O God of Promise, God of Hope,

In a world of resignation and despair, fill us with your hope for all creation. In a time when life itself seems at an end, renew us with your power and love. In the midst of lies and wild imaginations, let your Wisdom fill us with your Word. In this gathering of hungry hearts, feed us with the Bread of Life. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Statement

We awaken daily to the word of refugees around the world, driven by despair and led by hope of a better life in a new land. We hear of prisoners who languish in forgotten cells, longing for the freedom of a life renewed. We are besieged by illness and decay of body, spirit, and of mind, held in life by a hope that will not let us go. Today we join our hearts with a suffering world, longing for the light to lead us on to God’s abundant new creation. And so we light today this candle of our hope in God’s abiding love.

Lighting the Candle

Prayer of Dedication

O God, Abundant Giver of all Life,

Ignite in us again a patient hope for the renewal of the earth within the fullness of your love. Guide our feet, our hands, our minds and hearts into your ways of Peace. And let the world respond Amen.

The Second Sunday of Advent

Call to Worship

Before the Holy Source of all creation,

            Babbling tongues fall silent in astonishment.

Within the clouds that blind our eyes in fear

            We find the hands that lead us to the light.

Struck dumb before the miracle of life renewed

            We hear the song of a mother’s gratitude.

Within the lonely silence of our awe

            God calls us to a new creation.

 Before an infant’s glistening new-born eye

            We look into the face of God.

( A Hymn is sung)

Invocation Prayer

Come Holy Spirit, Come Immanuel,

Take up your dwelling place among us. Bring us silence that we hear your call. Bring us darkness that we see your light. May our ceaseless chatter stop before the mystery of your love. May our careful plans lie patient to the wonder of your peace. May the arms that hold the world at bay embrace the child you lay before our eyes. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Statement

Amid the anxious chatter in our mouths and ears, God brings the silence that reveals the miracle of life anew. To eyes bombarded by a flood of fleeting images, God brings the vision of a world redeemed. On knees that buckle under burdens of despair and grief, we pray for liberation to a life of justice and of love. In darkening days we seek the word of ancient prophets and the light of God’s self-giving power. And so today we light this candle in anticipation of the love that comes to save the world.

Lighting the Candle

Prayer of Dedication

O Holy Giver of All Life,

Even as Elizabeth and Mary felt their babies leaping in their wombs, so may we today be filled with tremors of anticipation for a world renewed. In our silence may we testify to God’s amazing promises. In our song may we renew the harmonies of righteousness and peace. In our deeds may we reveal the beauty of your boundless love. In our steps may we walk roads made smooth by God’s undying care. For in your power and grace, we pray. Amen.

Third Sunday of Advent

 Call to Worship

In the wilderness of quaking hearts

            We hear the laughter of a tiny child.

In the midst of work-worn animals

            We smell aromas of a banquet for the poor.

In the darkest night of age-old terrors

            We see a sun burst forth in universe-creating joy.

Out of the anguish of a woman’s labor

            We hear the exultation of a world redeemed.

 ( A Hymn is sung)

Invocation Prayer

O God of Promise, God of Peace,

Amid the countless galaxies we stand in awe before your power. In the intricate design of every facet of our world we see your wisdom and your faithfulness. In every helping hand and warm embrace we feel the mantel of your love. By your grace a boulder soon becomes a door, a stone becomes a blooming rose. In the clouds of our despair a rainbow flashes promise in our eyes. And so today we pray your presence in the promise of your peace, your joy that liberates us from the prison of our fears. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Statement

Out of a woman’s labor pains emerged a bearer of God’s peace. In her self-giving came a song of joy and liberation. In the darkest night burst forth the light illuminating all our worlds. In her victorious words we feel today the purposes of God. The animals stand witness in our destructive fires. The still small voice endures beyond the shouting marketplace. The act of lovingkindness builds the temple that no hands destroy. Released from self-concern we enter joyfully the symphony of God. And so today we light this candle in remembrance of the joy that saves our world.

Lighting the Candle

Prayer of Dedication

O God, Our Savior, Joy of the World,

May the joy you set before us lead us to your new creation. May our feet be steady on the path of justice. May our tongues break forth in praise and gratitude. May our hands reach out in mercy to a suffering world. And may the heart of our rejoicing fill the world with peace. Amen and Amen.

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