Words, Words, Words…

The Chance to Love Everything – January 2012  —  

“Words, Words, Words…”    ——-

Before I started seminary, I wrote myself a mission statement filled with a number of promises.  One such promise was to puzzle out what people meant by the word “God.” Not necessarily if I believed in such a thing, but just try to understand what other people meant by it.  I wanted to stop having that pit in my stomach when people said “God.”  That feeling that made me believe we could never really connect.  I wanted to be able to really hear people, no matter how much difference there was in how we understood and named the universe.

It wasn’t an easy mission.  I had to listen deeply, turn off my “argue” instincts, and just try to hear through their words to their underlying experience.

Some people expressed traditional notions of a deity.  Others, it turned out, meant a life force.  Others just meant to describe the mystery of life, the part of life that was always unknown and unknowable.   And still others just meant to say Love.  Big, unconditional, unstoppable love.

There were all kinds of answers throughout my four-year journey, so much diversity, and so much joy.  My heart opened through these conversations, and through my willingness to keep listening through that pit in my stomach (what is that – fear? confusion? fight or flight?!).

Unitarian Universalists care a lot about words. We want to be authentic, we want to be true, we want to be heard for what we’re really trying to say.  This care and concern over words has caused many a debate in our congregations throughout the years.

In January 2003, then UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford started the most recent large-scale conversation over words.  He preached a sermon in Fort Worth, Texas, where he advocated UUs grow a greater “vocabulary of reverence.”  You can find a summary of this sermon here: http://www.uuworld.org/2003/02/calling.html.

He upset lots of people in doing this, people who wondered if he meant we should return to traditional Christian language exclusively and away from humanism.  It was ironic that people reacted that way, because actually, Sinkford’s ideas were referencing humanist Rev. David Bumbaugh’s call for a “vocabulary of reverence” in his lectured called, “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence” published in the journal, Religious Humanism, the year before.

In that lecture, Bumbaugh argued, “We [humanists] have manned the ramparts of reason and are prepared to defend the citadel of the mind.  But in the process . . . we have lost . . . the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language which would allow us to enter into critical dialogue with the religious community.”

The debate intensified for the next few years, with most ministers preaching sermons on the topic, and with most congregations finding themselves in a sometimes bitter debate within their congregations over how to grow, and also hold true to what they loved about Unitarian Universalism.

Humanist and lifelong Unitarian Universalist Rev. Kendyl Gibbons responded to this debate in 2006 with what is considered one of the most influential pieces on the question of religious language. You can find the full text of her essay here: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/4026.shtml. In summary, Gibbons thoughtfully asked that we consider creatively using the symbols and vocabulary of tradition to allow us to more fully connect the individual’s experience with the universal – and vice versa.  She also argued that we can’t invent a new vocabulary of reverence “out of whole cloth,” and that we have much to learn from the wisdom of those who came before us who used these words in their religious communities.

In a recent sermon, I suggested that words are containers for the imagination.  They can prompt us to grow, to wonder, to change.  And they can also be places that keep us stuck, scared, unchanging, ungrowing.

You might have noticed, I’m a fan of using words that are “sticky.”  Primarily, because I find that those words that cause us that feeling in our stomach, are great opportunities for growth.  And Unitarian Universalists believe in growth – personal, societal transformation – in stretching our hearts, our souls.  If it causes you to resist – lean into it.  There’s probably something there for you to learn.  Not to agree with or even use yourself, just to learn.

And second, because I believe we are about connecting with people – all kinds of people.  And in order to do that, we need to have a comfort and capacity to use words that all kinds of people use.  Words can’t be a block in making those connections with people – whether in or outside of our congregations.  Without squinting or squirming, we need to be able to offer words that comfort across multiple vocabularies, and we need to be able to invite in words that aren’t our own, and receive them fully into our hearts as another’s truth.

And third, because I agree with Kendyl Gibbons that our religious ancestors have a lot to offer us, and we need to be able to engage with them, understand what they meant when they used some of those words we find confusing today, and be able to apply this as a source of wisdom and guidance in our lives today.

And finally – and relatedly – I embrace those sticky words because conservative Christians didn’t make up these words, and they don’t just mean the things they’d like us to believe they do.  They aren’t their words, and I won’t give them up to them – any more than I’d give up the word “love” to them.  “Love” is a word conservative Christians use a lot after all, in ways I don’t always think is the right use of the word.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep on using it and helping clarify what it means to me to be loving.  They don’t get “love,” and they don’t get “church,” and they don’t get “religion,” and they don’t get “God.”  And they don’t get all kinds of other words they’d like to claim as singularly theirs to define and use.

Look around on Sunday, this is what religion means.  This is what faith means.  This is what worship means.   Claim it, it’s ours too.  We come from a long and living tradition that has fought hard for our place in the religious landscape.  And as one of our hymns says, “what they dreamed be ours to do.”

As we continue to walk and grow together, continuing the long Unitarian Univeraslist tradition of taking words seriously, let us recall the words from nineteenth century Universalist minister Hosea Ballou:

“If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury.  But if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good. Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.”

Keep on growing, keep on loving, stay with the “sticky” places – with love and with openness, for in those places, we will find the tools of transformation, the tools of changing ourselves, and changing the world.

With love and in faith,