The Power of Language
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
May 1, 2018
If it is language that makes us human,
one half of language is to listen.
Silence can exist without speech,
but speech cannot live without silence.
Listen to the speech of others.
Listen even more to their silence.
To pray is to listen to the revelations of nature,
to the meaning of events.
To listen to music is to listen also to silence,
and to find the stillness deepened and enriched.
I was with a gathering of friends and acquaintances one day when John, a sweet guy who’d been having a hard time told us about a conversation he’d had recently. It was with his friend Tim who’d been raving about a “heart blessing” he’d been to. John was immediately intrigued and wanted to go. He needed a blessing – his heart longed for something, and it felt like just the thing. He asked when it would be and if it would be open to newcomers.
Tim looked at him a little perplexed, like he didn’t expect the question, and said: really? You want to come with my to my next harp lesson? I didn’t know you were interested in learning how to play the harp?
It’s funny, what we see or hear, isn’t it? Sometimes we hear what we expect to hear, or, really *want* to hear. The person says harp lesson, we hear heart blessing. Maybe because it’s what we want, or expect, somehow.
It’s funny, the different parts of us, that are listening. What we hear when we listen with our longings. What we hear when we listen with our inner poet, whether on purpose or not. What we hear when we listen, only half-listening, as children sometimes do. Creating inner parties out of dinner parties and trinity fish camps in our imaginations, complete with holy men and hushpuppies…
What we hear, what is intended.
Language is such a funny thing – you know I speak Dutch, right? I was 5 when we left the Netherlands and so I don’t have an accent in it. When I go back, my relatives tell me, I sound just like everyone else. Except I still get odd looks from shopkeepers when I buy things because the words I use are from the 1970’s. And the idioms I use are all American. Kind of like someone coming into coffee hour speaking King James English. They pretty much don’t know what to make of me.
Words, language, phrases change over time. They change in our culture, they change in our religious institutions. We don’t always notice it because it usually happens slowly, but it happens.
And our relationship to those words, to that language, that changes too, because we change. Our perspective on the world shifts. We close doors on certain ways of thinking and open doors to others. We decide we do or do not agree with certain philosophies and instead we align with other ones.
It’s a way of relating to the world that you could almost say is an essential part of UU-ism, this questioning, opening, and realigning. For those who were raised UU, it is an ongoing value, to hold teachings lightly, whatever they are. Question everything, as the bumper sticker says.
And for those of us who were raised in different religious traditions, there is a kind of fundamental perspective shift that often happens on the way here. So many who arrive at the doors of a UU church have questioned and balked, identified problems with the philosophies we were taught growing up, rejected old perspectives, struggled to be free.
I always appreciate participating in our New UU new member classes and hearing people’s stories. And getting to witness the self differentiation, and courage that is, frequently, required, to break out of expectations, learn to think for ones-self, to feel for ones-self. To trust one’s own intuition, sometimes at risk of facing disappointment, even rejection from family members or others who don’t understand.
And we arrive here. Sometimes it’s a gentle glide, sometimes a skidding sprint, half-looking back to see if those old stifling beliefs are still pursuing us.
And we land here, free. Or free-ish.
Because those old beliefs, well. They don’t always just get left in the sanctuary or vestibule of the church in which we learned them. They usually end up in us. Whether we arrived skidding here this year, or whether it was our forefathers who leapt in the 1800’s, we carry something from those religious pasts. Or perhaps, you could say that as a faith movement, carry something from all those people who leapt into Unitarian Universalism, all those times, from all those different faiths. Carrying with us now the things we loved, like, particular liturgy, the tunes of some hymns, the feel of that old sanctuary, while carefully leaving out all those things that gave us a stomach ache.
Or, at least, we try to do that.
When you first come here you may recognize some familiar Christian tunes in our hymnal but the words may come as a surprise – language about Jesus has been replaced with words about the beauty of nature, for example. Or, someone pointed it out to me, I didn’t even realize this at first, that our hymn #114 forward through the ages, is the same melody as the original, some say imperialistic, hymn: Onward Christian Soldiers – words completely changed – demilitarized and dechristianized. And then there’s the spaces in which we gather, you’ll note – reflective, open sanctuaries, created for some kind of reverence. They even include pews sometimes, but, there are no crosses, no crucifixes, no particular symbols of any one religious tradition.
Those who came before us, and we, too, have tried to create, indeed, a sanctuary, away from that which was troubling to us or just never felt quite right. Away from theologies and words and symbols which were forced on us, or that we never agreed with, that hurt us, or were passed along by people who hurt us.
So that here we create room for something different to emerge, where we’re not locked in battle with ideas we can’t accept, and instead have room to step back and look again. Where we can decide what looks true to us now, and explore with our hearts and our minds where our conscience leads next.
We’ve created a space where we can be free.
Or, as I noted before, free-ish.
Because you’ve probably noticed, try as we might we can’t completely escape it. Can’t escape all the ideas, symbols, and words. Maybe you’ve heard the joke about why UU’s don’t make the best hymn singers. Because we’re always reading ahead to see if we agree with the words.
Because, in spite of best efforts, some of those words that some do not like still end up in our hymnals and they end up in our books and our magazines and our worship services. I’ve preached here before about the word amen, and, just recently, 3 different people, at different times, mentioned having an issue with a word. 3 different words. All religious words. It gave me pause. They were all words that, you might say, carry baggage, carry overtones, that come from our history.
So I’ve been thinking about that. What do we do, about the words, their history. About the impact they have.
And I’ve been thinking about what it means to become truly free.
And I’ve been thinking about our history, about those forebearers who, like us, wanted out of the oppressive religious systems in which they were enmeshed. Who stepped back and took a second look, exploring where their conscience led. Also seeking freedom.
So I want to take a detour into a bit of that history, which may give a little context/background for where we are today.
I remember, when studying our history, learning how churches or denominations grew, evolved and split. How at one point a group is all together, believing mostly the same things, holding the same values, walking the same path, but then, over time, something shifts and some subgroup starts to see things a different way. You can witness the process of differentiation through reading dualing treatises, magazine articles, and sermons, back in the day. Particularly in the early 1800’s in this country, when Unitarianism was just becoming a “thing.”
You believe God terrorizes people in order to get us to behave? We believe God loves and supports us as a parent their own child. You believe certain concrete things in order to be saved from hell in an afterlife? We don’t believe in a supernatural place of eternal punishment. You believe I am a heretic and threaten the foundations of your entire belief system? Well, I believe you are a foolish nit lost in the backwater of your own mistaken unwillingness to see a larger truth.
Okay, that’s not word for word what was written.
But I do remember it got heated. And angry. And, while in the 1800’s heresy was no longer punishable by death, it was clear that the two groups with their widening ideologies could no longer share the same sanctuary, same minister, the same name.
They split and Unitarianism was born. A new denomination, a new movement, with room to explore a different way of believing. A denomination that was created to have a wider view, an encompassing view. A religious movement with, as its highest ideal, a new openness, a new inclusiveness, a yearning to break out of what was referred to as narrow creed, and ultimately, embrace wisdom in all traditions.
A new denomination was born, separate from the Christianity of its past, split, in a painful rift that, I imagine, was more like a family feud than polite understanding of agreeing to disagree. As one author, writing about that time, put it: “At issue […] were such differing conceptions of human need and human nature, that the liberals and Calvinists couldn’t even agree on what to argue about, and so they argued about everything. Following the logic of family infighting, one dispute led to another. Eventually the argument came down to who really owned the communion silver and the building.” I picture friendships broken, trust undermined. A bitter taste in the mouth, on both ends.
This all has left us in an interesting place.
As Unitarian Universalists, we evolved out of the Christian tradition, and embrace Christianity as one of our sources, but we also split off from Christian churches, and that split carried emotional energy. And as a movement, we have an interesting and sometimes uneasy relationship with Christianity and all that it represents. We embrace Christianity, and we’ve rejected it. We embrace theism, meaning, a belief in God, and, many among us do not believe in God. We encompass a whole range of beliefs that various people hold at various times and some of them are in tension with each other. Sometimes a single person can hold beliefs that appear to contradict each other and I know that only because I’ve seen that in myself.
Back to those words. Even as some of you have shared with me a dislike for some religious terms, others of you have shared with me terms that you like, and appreciate. Someone told me recently that they miss hearing the word God. I’ve heard before an appreciation for the nuances that religious language can express. And I think, too, about the rich world of religious literature that uses these terms, writings that contain, in their midst, gems, wisdom, hope.
I’ve been thinking about words themselves. What are words, anyway? I picture them. Containers. Containers for meaning, certainly, but containers for feeling too. Words are like that. When I say table, I picture the table in my living room, wood, oak stain, for which I happen to have affection. You may picture your bright yellow Formica kitchen table, perhaps you have affection for it too – it’s when you’ve eaten breakfast with your partner and children for years. When I say the word aunt, I think of my beloved aunts. I picture a kind face, a warm hug, bright homes. For someone else the word aunt may conjure up edgy, or absent, or disheveled, or a variety of other impressions.
Religious words are similar, they have a meaning poured into them over centuries of definition and redefinition. The word God meant one thing to the Christian Calvinists from whom we split, the word God meant something else to early Unitarians. The word salvation meant one thing to them, a different thing to early Universalists.
And for us, hearing these words now? I expect we hear some of what got poured into the word before our time, outside ourselves, and I expect some of what we hear is a reflection of our own experiences, echoing back at us, for good or for ill.
But here’s the thing.
Words aren’t static. You’ve probably noticed this. Words are not defined once and held the same forevermore, meanings, emotions, connotations, everything. Words evolve. They emerge from old meanings, as we who use them emerge from old understandings too. Sometimes people intentionally work to redefine terms that used to mean one thing, to broaden it, or defuse it, or to change it altogether.
A generation reclaimed the word queer. Black people have, in some ways, reclaimed the N-word. I saw a lot of t-shirts around reclaiming the term “nasty woman” last year. The word “they” is now being used as a singular non gendered pronoun. We reclaim, recycle and repurpose words all the time.
The earliest Unitarians did this too. In fact, the word Unitarian? It was originally a put-down. William Ellery Channing began the reclamation process when he preached a sermon called Unitarian Christianity, saying, in effect. You can say what you want about that word but I claim it as mine and I’ll give it my meaning, and my purpose, and now I’m going to tell you what this is, so, listen up.
Still, finding our freedom is not always so simple as looking into the history of a word, our history with a word, understanding it all better, and claiming the word anew.
I think of words that trigger me and I’m reminded of the story about the boy who would react violently whenever he saw kreplach, a type of Jewish dumpling. Every time he saw a piece of kreplach in the soup he screamed, “Aaaaah, kreplach!” So his mother decided to teach him not to be afraid of kreplach. She took him into the kitchen and rolled out some dough. “Just like a pancake,” she said. “Just like a pancake,” said the little boy. Then she took a piece of meat and rolled it into a ball. “Just like a meatball,” she said. “Just like a meatball,” said the little boy. Then she rolled up the meat in the dough and held it up. “Just like a dumpling,” she said. “Just like a dumpling,” said the little boy. Then she dropped it into the soup and put it in front of the little boy, and he screamed, “Aaaaah, kreplach!”
Words, concepts, experiences, history, what is said, what we hear, what triggers us, what opens us up. Whether we want a harp lesson or have come longing for a heart blessing. Whether we’d like to go to a dinner party or whether we are here to experience in rich and unfolding inner party, here we are, together, today.
Whatever our particular relationship to the words we use (or avoid), we’ve all made it through the experiences of our past, our collective history, and the personal history of each and every one of us. The amazing, beautiful, rich, difficult challenging fullness through which we filter everything.
We’ve come together from our separate pasts, with their uniqueness and their commonalities. Streams merging, new horizons calling. Where will we take it from here?