Monday, September 24, 2012

A Language of Reverance (September 16, 2012)

I grew up in a UU church, and my parents gave me the gift of religious freedom. As Nancy Shaffer writes in her poem "A Theology Adequate for Night" in her beautiful UU meditation manual:

Not God as unmoved mover:
One who set the earth in motion
and withdrew. Not the One to thank
When those cherished do not die ---
For providence includes equally
Power to harm. Not a God of exactings,
As if love could be earned or subtracted

But during certain moments freedom from dogma is not enough for me. What I needed as a small child, and what I want today is simply something to get me through the nights when one feels adrift in an infinite universe, and your non-being sits like a chaperon in a dark corner of your bedroom making the "why" of life seem urgent and ever-present.

Shaffer continues:

But-- this may work in the night:
Something that breathes with us, as others
sleep, something that breathes also
those sleeping, so no one is alone.
Something that is the beginning of love,
and also each part of how love is completed,
Something so large, wherever we are,
we are not separate; which teachers again
the way to start over.

Night is the test: when grief lies uncovered,
and longing shows clear; when nothing we do
can hasten earth's turning or delay it.

This may be adequate for the night;
this holding; something that steadfastly
breaths us, which we are also learning to breathe."

This was the comfort I needed and could not find as a child in my UU church: to learn again and again that there is something steadfast in the universe, to learn how to remember it in the dark of the night, and to breathe. And yet I know now that this is absolutely part of our religious tradition, so the question I would like for us to answer together today is why? Why as a child who went to Sunday school every Sunday did I not know this?

When I was in Seminary, everyone was talking about the Baby Boomers, and a whole new wave of un-churched folks entering our churches who were hungry for more spirituality. This idea was met with the collective sound of tens of thousands of UU humanists groaning, as they worried that the rational Unitarian Universalism that had been a refuge and a sanctuary for them would be irrevocably changed forever. Then in 2003 our UUA president Rev. Bill Sinkford set off a “firestorm” of reaction by suggesting that:
"I would like to see us become better acquainted with the depths, both so that we are more grounded in our personal faith, and so that we can effectively communicate that faith-and what we believe it demands of us-to others. For this, I think we need to cultivate what UU minister David Bumbaugh calls a 'vocabulary of reverence.' …we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence. To name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms—the ability of humans to shape and frame our world guided by what we find to be of ultimate importance.”

Now, almost a decade later, I believe this conversation is still relevant. Some folks in the pews and padded chairs of UU congregations sought us out precisely because we did not talk about God. As Rebecca Parker enumerated so beautifully in the open letter you heard Brian read today, “God-talk has often aided and abetted injustice and oppression.”  If a little girl grew up in a religious community where not only was God not female, but the religious leaders could not be female, it stands to reason that as a woman she might abandon such a God. If you went to a church or synagogue where you were told that God judged queer folks, no wonder you would abandon such a God. If you left your childhood faith because you just could not repeat those parts of your church’s creed that did not match with your knowing of the world, perhaps you came here and were relieved to be away from that which oppressed your spirit. Perhaps it is a comfort to sit through a whole Sunday morning with your beloved community where no one uses traditional religious language. And yet…

A parent who raised her child UU recently told me that on the ride home from church one day her child said “UUs don’t worship god, they worship famous UUs.” This cuts right to the heart of things, doesn’t it. Have we, by avoiding religious language, also avoided the important conversations that  our beloved community is uniquely called to facilitate?  Perhaps because many of us have been oppressed and stifled by religious language, we sometimes miss “the possibility of reverence”?  This astute UU child noticed that instead we tell stories from our history, of role models for living out our humanity.  That comment challenges us to wonder-  do we leave ourselves with enough language to discuss those things that are larger than ourselves, the mysteries of life?

In my first year as a religious educator I taught a wonderful 1st grade curriculum called “Around the Church Around the Year.” I wanted to apply all I had learned in seminary, so I tried to find the “null curriculum” that is what we teach by what is left out. I noticed that not once in the whole curriculum did we mention God, or the spirit, or really any theological or spiritual concepts at all. Theology was our Null curriculum, with which we were teaching our children “Church is a place where we never talk about God, or our spiritual lives.” This was quite a shock to me at the time, and now that I am a parent myself,  I ask with even more urgency -- do we give our children a language to confront grief and despair and to feel they are not left alone with only their 2 hands to change this broken world? As Nancy Shaffer writes
“Night is the test: when grief lies uncovered,
and longing shows clear; when nothing we do
Can hasten earth’s turning or delay it”
It is easy for us to inhabit our religious plurality as a congregation by sticking to common ground. Our humanity is part of what binds us together. Our belief in reason, in the strength of our human capacities to grow and to heal ourselves and one another. But I think there is more we have in common that we do not often explore together. And I think some of these things that lay unspoken are the very ideas, stories, symbols that comfort us in despair, that help us express our most exalted joy, that help us save and savor life.  I said to my theology class one day in seminary – “why don’t we talk more about our own experiences of the divine, of the transcendent?” and after a silent pause, a classmate answered “because they are private.”

Why don’t we talk about holy things in church? More than one member of our congregation has told the story of being told explicitly by their Sunday School teacher or other religious leader to “stop asking so many questions!” There wasn’t just a null curriculum suggesting that we don’t talk about our deepest religious questioning and yearning, but a full on explicit finger wagging from someone in authority. And this is not to cast aspersions on other faith traditions. I myself remember a time when I preached a sermon on Channing’s use of the word “soul” and had a long-time member of that church say to me “I don’t think you should use words like that in church. I don’t think it is very UU.” So in part we may be reluctant to ask our deepest questions, to talk about theological issues because some explicit, implicit or null curriculum taught us that we were right to be reticent.

And I want to say that I am so sorry for each child who was told to stop asking questions. I am so sorry for each adult who got the impression that their most deeply held beliefs were not a topic of polite conversation. I am so sorry for each of you who has heard words like “God” or “sin” used in a way that felt like a cudgel, a weapon against you or against any person in this world.

My seminary was full of long-time UUs who knew this pain. My classmates asked again and again “Can we use words like “god” and “prayer” in a congregation where we KNOW that beloved members sitting in the pews still have bruised places, muscles that clench in defense against such language? Can we talk about Jesus when we know that folks who heard his story about separating the sheep from the goats felt like they must be the goats? And the answer always was the same; the job of the beloved community is not only to be a sanctuary for people’s tender places, but also to challenge. We must be a  loving, compassionate community that listens so deeply that we can sit with and love one another, especially  through those difficult places into deeper healing and understanding.

I’m sure some of you are thinking- “why bother?” Why even bother to reclaim or reconstruct all this old fashioned religious language so piled with baggage that each use carries with it thousands of years of misunderstanding and hurt? Because for thousands of years when people just like you and I have tried to express something larger than their own daily worries and troubles and tedium; we as a human species have created this language to try to communicate to ourselves and to one another.

There was a wonderful study done by a cognitive psychologist at Harvard called Elizabeth Spelke about language and the brain showing that having language actually allows certain functions of the brain, actually allows certain kinds of concepts, like space and color to be connected, allows us to have thoughts like “left of the blue wall.”

And in fact adults who have their language capacity temporarily disabled loose their ability to think certain thoughts. [i]

Now I’m going to make a huge leap here, because my field is applied theology, not science, and say if we know that language itself helps us solve certain problems, helps us synthesize information, I wonder… could we be handicapping ourselves by avoiding using certain words? My old theology professor Rebecca Parker pointed out that when you go to the index of your UU hymnal, you won’t find the word “God.” Instead you find “Transcending Mystery and Wonder” You won’t find the word “salvation” though there is an entry for “hope.” And I wonder, are there thoughts we could have, are there links we could make with the word “God” or “divine” that we can’t make with the words “Transcending Mystery and Wonder” or “spirit of life”? Are their literally thoughts we can’t have without certain words?

I also think it’s important to remember that these words allow us to talk across traditions, (I don’t think you will find “Transcending Mystery and Wonder” in our neighbor’s hymnals) and allow us to follow the evolution of concepts across time. Katie and I were cleaning out the library the other day and came across a worship resource for lent. We had been pretty mercilessly pruning the library so that all the books fit on shelves and there would be no piles left on the desk or floor or other books, but we wanted to keep all the books that would help us hang on to our UU history. We agreed that our current worship team would probably not use a book on lent very often. Then she noticed that this was a Universalist publication! We had allowed the word “Lent” to turn us off from a conversation with Universalists from just maybe 50 years ago. Universalist theologians have done some really important thinking about things like “sin” and “evil” and “salvation” and “hell” --thinking that lead the way for other American religions. If we refuse to engage with those words we lose all that theological heritage.

These are not “other people’s words.” Our library is full of these words. I will be the first to agree that when I say “Soul” I probably mean something different than that preacher on the Family Life network does. I guarantee that how  I define “sin” is different than his. But those words belong to all of us. No one gets to define what they mean for me. Our theological history is one that has, for over 400 years, made our neighbors think twice about a less constrained understanding of these ideas.

But if we are going to use these powerful, dangerous words overlaid with centuries of meaning, we have to be ready to listen. Really listen to one another. If our brothers and sisters are going to talk about that which comforts them when “grief lies uncovered.” We must promise to listen to one another with open hearts. When our sisters tell us how the spirit moved in their lives, or when our brothers and tell us how the word “spirit” grates against a tender place, we must listen ever more deeply.

Finally, we must remember that we are talking about things that often defy words, things that are ineffable, that no words can do justice to: the pain of childbirth, and the inexpressible mystery of seeing a new life enter the world. The pit of despair and the embracing love that calls us back to life,

 “What wondrous love is this, o my soul, what wondrous love is this that brings my heart such bliss, and takes away the pain of my soul?”[ii]

Our deepest feelings, our most profound experiences can make words seem small and petty. Theologians have always grappled with and confessed the audacity of using words to describe things no words can every really contain. In even beginning a conversation about those things most precious, most (if you will) holy to us, we must admit that we are merely fumbling in the dark.

This year the worship team will, over the next few months, consider a Language of Reverence. They will ask you to think about those difficult words so overlaid with meaning that sometimes they mean nothing at all. We will talk about reclaiming the words that may be useful to us, and finding new words when the old ones fail. We will have a chance to talk about the words that are difficult for us, and just be present in that discomfort with one another. But ultimately this must not be a conversation about words. Let it be instead an opening of our hearts to one another, fumbling and gesturing wildly to express whatever gets us through the night, to express our gratitude when this sun rises again.

[i] Radio Lab does a wonderful presentation of this here: starting around 11’30” 
 [ii] -lyrics Connie Campbell Hart “What Wondrous Love”