A Sermon by Barbara Wells
p.245, from Julian of Norwich
God wants to be thought of as our Lover.
I must see myself so bound in love
as if everything that has been done
has been done for me.
That is to say,
The love of God makes such a unity in us
that when we see this unity
no one is able to separate oneself from another.
p. 255, from Annie Dillard, "Teaching a Stone to Talk"
At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world. Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world's word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: the hum is the silence....
The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God's brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even address the prayer to "World." Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.
Most of us are familiar with the old children's rhyme, "Sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me." I imagine you remember it for the same reason I do - because it's a lie. Words can and do hurt, sometimes as much as a fist.
There are many words that wound. Our language is full of terms which are used to put down others of another race, gender or religion. Some of those words are the kind which can never be used without hurting another. You know what they are so I won't say them out loud. Others are words which only hurt when used in a certain context. While it was OK, even affectionate for my Dad to call his very short daughter " little squirt," it hurt a lot when others called me shrimp or shorty.
And then there are words that are not in and of themselves designed to wound or even describe someone or something in a way that could be perceived as hurtful. But these words may end up hurting just as much as a slang word used to put us down. I am talking, of course, about religious words, words like sin, Christ, Father in Heaven, Lord, even the words church and worship and religion. These words are not usually spoken with hurt in mind. But for some of us they can trigger a very painful response.
I want to talk this morning about some of these wounded and wounding words and offer some thoughts on how we might, if we choose, begin to heal some of these words and reclaim them in new ways.
But before I go any farther let me just say a word about words. It is very hard to talk about language objectively. Human speech is still a great mystery and how we communicate with one another is really quite remarkable. The thing about words is that they are actually nothing in and of themselves. They are pure symbol, both in spoken and written form. They mean nothing apart from the meaning they are given.
One way that has helped me understand words is to imagine words as containers, boxes if you will, which hold in them the meaning. Sometimes more than one meaning fits in a box (for instance, a word as simple and complex as love!) and sometimes one meaning has many boxes (words like couch, divan and sofa all mean pretty much the same thing). But no matter how many words we use to try to describe meaning, the words can never actually replace what they symbolize. Words contain ideas and feelings but they are not those ideas and feelings.
When we speak of religious words we are dealing with a group of words which, over time, have become invested with incredible power by many different groups and individuals.
Take the word religionwhich other words come to mind when you think of what religion means? There are many words, negative and positive, that may be a part of our understanding of religion. But do you remember where that word originated? I mentioned its definition this past fall but it's important enough to be stated again. It comes from a Latin word "ligare," which, like the ligaments in our bodies tying muscles to bones, is a word meant to describe the bonds that hold us together. Religion doesn't necessarily have to mean belief in the supernatural. It can simply mean the ties that bind.
When I first understood religion in this way it helped me reclaim the word. While I was never opposed to or wounded by the word religion, as a young person I would seldom have described myself as religious. But once I understood that the word could mean something to me that did not challenge my commitment to Unitarian Universalism, I began to use it again.
Now I proudly speak of myself as religious knowing that while what I mean by the word may differ from another's perspective, the meaning in the word box called "religious" can indeed fit me.
Let me ask you for a moment to think of religious words that have become wounded for you. Can you recall any?
Some of these words may be wounded forever. One religious word that I find very hard to use (which many in the religious world accept) is "Lord." This word, used in the Bible as a name for God, was wounded for me when I began to see how patriarchal and sexist it is. While its ancient meaning is rather neutral (it comes from an old English word meaning "bread or loaf keeper" or one who feeds dependents), it has come down to us to mean a male person with great power over others. While it may be truthful to call certain Englishmen of the 17th or 18th century Lords, it does not describe what I call God ( a word I'll get to in a minute). It is clearly male and clearly a male who "lords it over" others. As a woman I cannot call the source of my being by a male name. This word has been wounded for me in a way that I do not think I will ever be able or even want to reclaim it.
But there are other religious words that I may want to own, words that may once have wounded me and may still wound others, even some of you. But in order to do so I have to look at why they are difficult words, and ask myself whether it is worth it to reclaim them.
This morning I want to look a bit deeper into two words. The word "prayer" and the word "God." These are two words that are uncomfortable for many Unitarian Universalists. Others often use them in ways that don't work for us. But I have found meaning in them that has transformed them for me. And so I want to share that with you today.
I do this knowing that this is a sensitive issue for some of us here at Paint Branch. When Jaco and I came here last Spring to be interviewed by the congregation for the position of co-ministers, I did something in the service that I had been doing for years in my former congregation. Following the sharing of joys and concerns, I led the congregation in a pastoral prayer. It is not a common practice in UU churches, nor is it something never done. For me, it was a common piece of my spiritual and worship life which I do quite comfortably and naturally.
But what is comfortable and natural for me did not seem to be so for many here at Paint Branch. There were a lot of concerns that arose during that time and to some degree since we arrived here, about what I meant by prayer, and why I prayed. I have done it very little since then here in our worship service, as I felt it important to have people get to know me a bit better before offering it again. But I also have taken this time to reflect on why it was important to me. I wondered why I had gotten to the place where prayer felt like the right word to use, the right thing to do, in those circumstances. I remembered all the times I had used or heard the word prayer and wondered what it meant to meand why I have used it so easily for some time.
Growing up in a UU minister's home, my family life centered around the church. Perhaps because of this, my parents felt it was important to establish some family rituals. So each night before going to bed, my sister and I said the same prayer, usually with my mother or father present. At dinnertime, when our whole family gathered, we would hold hands and my father would offer a spontaneous prayer of thanks for our meal. So prayer, at least in some fashion, has always been a part of my life.
But it became real for me when I was 23 years old, having completed just one year of theological school in preparation for the ministry. I had to do a two month chaplaincy at Suburban Hospital (just down the road in Bethesda) working with ministerial students from other religions. There I was surrounded almost entirely by Episcopalians and Catholics.
My second day on the job a person died on my floor. As required, I went up to the room, scared to death. I found out the family of the dead woman were Methodists and told them how sorry I was for their loss. Then they asked me to pray with them. I was not prepared for this. But I remembered my experience growing up. I did not think my bedtime prayer would suffice so I thought of how we said grace around the table and I followed that pattern as best I could. I held their hands around the body of their loved one in the bed, and prayed the way my father had said grace. I have no memory of what I prayed. I must have asked that they feel the great love of the spirit around them at this time of loss. Anyway, I returned to my group of Catholics and Episcopalians drained.
They (as new to this as I) asked me eagerly how it went. I told them what I had done. Then one of my colleagues said to me, "Did you have your prayer book?" And I asked, "What's a prayer book?" I did not know that prayers were things other people wrote and you read. I understood prayer to come from the memory or from the heart. My friends were a bit shocked. But my understanding of prayer deepened as I realized that I believed prayer wasn't something someone else did for you but something that comes from the heart.
Later that summer I had another experience that helped me understand prayer in new ways. When a woman asked me to pray for her as she lay sick and worried about what was happening to her, I found myself not praying to a God far away, or even praying for her health. I found myself praying with her, for courage and hope for both of us. And I began to understand prayer as something you did with others, a communion of spirits which brought heart and soul together in a profound way.
And finally during that same summer my chaplaincy supervisor, a wily old Presbyterian, took me into his office as I struggled to understand myself as a minister in this place of pain. After some minutes he said something to me which I have never forgotten. He looked me in the eye and said, "Barbara, you're a prayerful woman. You pray all the time." I was stunned. Could he mean me? What kind of praying did this heathen Unitarian Universalist do all the time? But over the years I have come to believe that prayer is not about asking for favors, or even talking to God. Prayer is a way of opening ourselves to the universe, using words or images that invite us to be in communion even with those far away or long dead. Interestingly, I discovered later that the word prayer comes from an Old Latin word meaning "to question." Of course! To pray, for me, is a lot like asking a question of the universe. Are we alone? Can we connect? Shall we love one another? This is the kind of prayer I pray.
Since those years as a student minister I have evolved in my understanding and appreciation of prayer, both the kind I do in the privacy of my own home and the kind I do with people in church. For the most part, I pray because it is a way for me of connecting to that source of my being that is a mystery; and because it is a way of bringing people's hearts together when the need is greatest. Last year, after those two teen-aged boys killed their fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, the bringing together of hearts seemed not only a good thing to do, to me it seemed necessary. And the best way I knew to do that was to pray.
But then there's the question about whether or not prayer goes to anybody. Most particularly, do our prayers go to God? So let's look at this other wounded word, a biggie: the great and terrible God word.
While I am an avowed theist, I generally don't use the God word all that often. Yet I do use it occasionally. Recently I have asked myself why. God is a word a bit like Lord. It generally implies masculinity and power over. It also has been used so often in this context that even small children, when asked who God is, will point to the sky and say there is "a guy with a white beard up there" somewhere. But the word God, at least for me, is a little less loaded than Lord. I find in interfaith circles I can use and hear the word God without getting my hackles upunlike when I hear "Father in Heaven" or "Christ, our Lord."
This may be because the word God for me is a less a noun than a verb. And believe it or not, this seemingly peculiar approach to the word God is truer to its original meaning than you might think. For the word comes from Sanskrit and it comes from a verb, the verb "to call out."
When I think of that definition of God the word begins to become a deeper box, one able to contain far greater meaning than a simple supernatural being. For God can be, if we choose to let ourselves see beyond the wounds to a different understanding, a way of imagining all of creation being "called into life" by a voice which we may understand only dimly as mystery, even as the "big bang."
God can also mean that place inside our being that "calls out" for love, for hope, for the goodness, the godness that seems so possible in all of us, even in the midst of despair. And God can be that which calls us to be better, do more good, live more justly. Perhaps we can call it conscience; perhaps we can call it soul. I find that using the word God in this way allows me to connect with those over the centuries who have sought to understand the mystery of life and longed to give it a name. It is not a perfect name. But it works, at least sometimes, for me.
But ultimately we must ask ourselves, why should we even consider using religious words, like God and prayer, that have been wounded for so many? I believe there are a number of good reasons. The first I learned from my father. He felt strongly that religious words are powerful and that we "shouldn't let the fundamentalists have all the good words." In other words, the word God does not belong to those who choose to define God in small and literal ways. For too many centuries great mystics like Julian of Norwich have challenged us to see God as more than a person, more than a father, more than a noun. Why should we not use it if it helps us lay claim to the mystery?
Another reason to lay claim to words like these is that they allow us to have a common language with those whose theologies are different from our own. If we can hear the word prayer or God (even if we choose not to use it ourselves) without immediately assuming it has to mean something we don't believe in, we can perhaps be more comfortable speaking in religious terms with those from other spiritual traditions. I remember a man from my former congregation who was an avowed humanist, even atheist, yet who was able to offer the prayer before a Thanksgiving dinner with his Christian sister because he understood prayer in a broad way, even if she didn't. He told me with tears in his eyes what a difference it made in their relationship because he was able to pray with her.
Finally, there are many UUs for whom the concept of God and prayer are real and alive. We cannot expect that here in our liberal churches we will agree with what everyone believes, says or does. I would never ask you to believe in God or in prayer. What I may ask you is to imagine believing in God, or to enter into a spirit of prayer.
For there are those here, and in other liberal congregations across the globe, who need to hear the word God, and to be invited into prayer, just as there are those of you for whom such ideas do not speak. That is the beauty in our tradition. Our diversity strengthens us.
In UU churches all over the continent people like me and you struggle to use words that heal instead of hurt. But what may wound one person may touch another's heart in deep and powerful ways. It is my hope that we can begin to ask ourselves what words are wounded for us, which ones we cannot use anymore and which ones we may challenge others not to use because of the hurt they do to us. But I also hope we may begin to reclaim some ancient words that still carry great power today, and find ways to use them appropriately.
For ultimately, the power of our particular religion, the tie that binds us together, if you will, is our willingness to be together in worship, community and service, even as our beliefs differ. While some see this as a weakness, I see it as an enormous strength. Our church would be far less interesting, far less life changing, if we all believed the same way. We don't, and that's one reason I have stayed a UU all my life. It is my hope, at the dawn of this new century, that we will find ways to open our hearts to each other in even deeper ways than we have in the past. Then may we discover the power of such connection to move us to even greater heights as a religious movement.
May our hearts remain open to the spirit of mystery that lives in all creation.
May our hands find good work to do.
May our minds be filled with both the wisdom of the ages and new learning.
And may our souls find connection even when words separate us.
Carolyn McDade, the composer of Paint Branch's favorite hymn, "Spirit of Life," tells us that this beautiful song came to her as a prayer. In that spirit, may we sing now, together.
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