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Last month, I preached a sermon that has turned into this series: Spiritual But Not Religious or The Separation of Church and Faith. In that first sermon I asked: When did religion become the “R” word? How do we balance our spectrum of beliefs in this congregation, and what is the relationship between different points within that spectrum? How do humanists and theists and those of Jewish or Christian or Buddhist or atheist or spiritual or religious descent or orientation share and speak a faith in which we all find meaning and belonging? Where does our individual spirituality end and our shared religion begin?
I tied these questions to the larger issue of the Language of Reverence that is always alive in our denomination. I’ll recap again for anyone who wasn’t in church last month that a sermon refined the focus on this issue of reverent language almost 20 years ago when a leading humanist UU minister, the Rev. David Bumbaugh, preached to the Chicago Area Unitarian Universalist Council. He suggested that we needed new language to express reverence and engage with other religious movements, and that this language ought to be grounded in a humanist tradition of wonder, inquiry and scientific discovery. He talked about this path as one that invites us out of our small selves and into the largest self, the self that produced the universe, the self that through time connects everything living on this planet, the self that will be our future. (Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence, 2001)
Building on Rev. Bumbaugh’s humanist vision of an imperative for reverent language, our then-denominational president, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, offered a different opinion on the theme in a sermon he preached to the First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth in January, 2003. Rev. Sinkford suggested that a new language of reverence might embrace religious terminology; that our movement had matured enough to allow for a depth of reflection and expression that should include religious language more explicitly as part of owning our place in the religious spectrum of America. Because a local paper misquoted him as saying that he wanted to insert the word “God” into the Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes, a tempest erupted, with hot-blooded debate via email, in sermons and speeches, in letters to the denomination, to Rev. Sinkford, and even in some major media coverage. Even since the mistake was clarified, the issue has continued to evolve and engage Unitarian Universalists because we are always wrestling with how to speak about faith, religion and spirituality in this broad movement that doesn’t just accept but embraces such theological diversity.
In answer to the general question of whether we need a language of reverence, in the last sermon I concluded that the answer is yes, for three reasons: because we need to honor different religions and world views, as well as the range of theologies we find right here in our church home; because we have been, and continue to be, a religion and not a philosophy; and because as human beings we experience reverence. To quote myself: “We all experience reverence on levels that spark our souls and move us even if briefly, even if only momentarily; they lift us, unutterably and repeatedly throughout our lives. It seems inarguable that experiencing reverence, we should have language to express it. Anything less than that is a denial, even a silencing, of that awareness, that precious dimension to what makes being human worthwhile.”
In this month of January when we are focusing our attention on aspects of creation, a word that always implies the sacred capacities for generativity, life and beauty, this brings us back to the reverence that creation so often inspires in us, whether it is the miracles of land and sea, light and landscape, flora and fauna that co-exist on this planet or the infinite varieties of art and craft that express humanity’s endless imagination. Either way, we experience transcendence and have grounds for reverence.
Rev. Bumbaugh is a brilliant writer and expositor, one I am grateful and proud is part of our Unitarian Universalist movement, but I don’t agree with his take on traditional language, if I rightly understand him to be condemning language from the Western traditions and scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. This is where I had to end a couple of weeks ago and so where I pick up today; he seems to be saying they have done to death, not so much by overuse as by abuse and co-option. And while at times I too would like to throw up my hands at the latest outrage perpetrated in the name of the bible or Jesus or God’s plan, I don’t believe his baby-and-bath-water suggestion is the way to go. Because part of my outrage comes not only at the wrongness of the initiative thus being pushed, but also because I know – we know – for instance that Jesus does not ask us to war or kill; in fact, he asks us to save. But, not only do I disagree with Rev. Bumbaugh on principle, I also disagree in spirit, because many people, Unitarian Universalists and beyond, including me personally, are still moved and compelled by elements of the bible or Jesus’ teachings or our unfulfilled yearning towards some divine plan to rebalance and heal our riven and broken world.
Now let me acknowledge that I find myself often turning to language like restore, renew, redeem – and rebalance – as if there was, once, something better, some balance, some rightness, that has been lost. This is an eternal theme in most human societies – legends of a former golden age, or Garden of Eden, some primal time and place of blessedness and harmony when we did not prey on each other nor sacrifice the world to our own wants and wishes. But study shows us is that there never was an era of pure heroes, no time before Pandora’s box of plagues and flaws was opened, no Garden when we knew nothing of murder or manipulation. Or, in humanist terms, competitive survival and tribalism have always been part of existence and evolution. And so it is not our past, not even our mythologies, that tells us there can be more, things could be different – rather it is the source of our mythologies: our own souls and minds and hearts, that tell us there is more. History simply teaches us we cannot look back to find it. And just as we don’t need to choose between spiritual and religious – just as we are made richer by their union in our faith, so too I see no reason to choose between the language of humanism and the language of religion as we seek to be more relevant and more compelling because they are already joined. It is faith: intuition and dreams and wonderings and visions, that first suggests to us that there are larger realities than those we readily find around us. And it is humanism – and science – that offer us proof of what we first intimate – so much more already present and already possible than we can find or know in ‘trudgery’ as we call it in my family – the trudging, drudgery of visionless living. So we will not find the reality of what we seek in history or legend, instead we must look forward to find it in any reality. And whether we call it evolution or revelation matters not, it won’t be our language but our action and our determination that will shape our world, one way or another. To harness both humanist, tangible language and the idioms of faith and holiday, what better time to realize this than the turning of the year, especially the beginning of a year such as this, the beginning of the third decade of the third millennium since the nativity that has defined, literally, our understanding of time in the West. This is the twelfth day of Christmas and twelve drummers drumming would certainly be an exciting spectacle but nothing like enough for us. 2020 is a year when there is a lot riding on which vision of the future is to become part of our story, and our history. Peace on earth, goodwill to all, is the promise of Christmas, the gift we all want to receive, the elusive wish of all humanity across all cultures and contexts and continents is a gift humanity will never receive if we cannot give it.
Part of how we give it has to be by being in conversation, rather than conflict, with each other, using language we can all understand, language that still has its own gifts to give across theologies here in this church, across denominations, even across nations. Raised myself in a Unitarian Universalist church that taught me we were too smart for the bible, imagine my surprise when I found, on engaging with it in divinity school, that there was actually some beauty there, some truth, even some comfort. Imagine my shock when I found my own struggles and yearning and also such beauty in the lyrical expressions of human need, hope, despair and renewal in the Psalms and Lamentations. In my second year of divinity school, some really tough things happened and I was struggling emotionally to ride it all out. I was feeling overwhelmed and desolate and one of my professors knew I was going through a long dark night of the soul. One day she called me to her office and she gave me a copy of Psalm 88 – we heard an excerpt from it earlier in this service. I read those timeless words she had given me, and encountered the extremity of my own pain in the language set down by a nameless other thousands of years before. The more I learned this bible the more I discovered, extraordinary examples of justice and compassion in Leviticus and Jonah, admonitions to a larger and more open heart in the words and deeds of Jesus, inspiration and imperatives to study and debate in the epistles of Paul, in the end a world wholly parallel to ours: the complex, multi-faith, multicultural world that is the setting for, and stuff of, the bible and other contemporaneous writings and writers. Yes, biblical language and idioms are not enough to comprise the whole of our language of reverence, perhaps not so much because they have been tainted by contemporary applications as because they employ a vocabulary and worldview that is admittedly as outdated as often as timeless. But we are always confronted by truths that must evolve, this does not make all that goes with them immaterial. Who among us cannot find a potent and utterly contemporary conviction of our own government in this ringing condemnation from Ezekiel:
Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought. And with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they are scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. (Ez. 34:2-5)
The first Unitarian Universalist church I ever served, was a congregation that, like First U, went back to the 1600’s. And like First U, they kept a giant, ancient, gilded bible in the pulpit. You couldn’t hold its great weight or split its heavy gilt-edged pages or feel its deeply-etched leather cover without thinking of all all the hands that had touched it and leafed through it, all the people who had read it and all the people who had heard it, all the decades and lifetimes of clergy and laypeople and then myself, one more in the chain of who had handled and worked from it, on Sundays and at Christmas. Part of what satisfies us in religion is what we remember or recognize, to the extent perhaps that it is even hallowed by familiarity and memory and depth of context.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….Honor thy father and mother…In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…When you enter the land…, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord….Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer, from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint…My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding, if you indeed cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures – then you will understand…and find knowledge…for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die…a time to keep silence and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace…How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal…In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”… Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get….Do not fear, only believe…Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown;…My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations….for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The bible is not only the stuff of impotent categories and morally bankrupt agendas, and we disempower ourselves, render ourselves ignorant and narrow, when we dismiss it and its language and its vision. And when so much national and local religious and political discourse is grounded in those tropes, is clearly behooves us, if we wish to be part of the discourse, to be able to speak, counter or support, in those idioms.
Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback mega-church and the Purpose-Driven Life fame spoke on NPR once regarding his role in a peace initiative in Rwanda after their terrible genocide. He talked about a huge rally in a stadium there in which he quoted famous lines from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. He said: “There is neither slave nor free, male nor female…” and he added, “neither Hutu nor Tutsi, all are Rwandans!” and a huge roar of enthusiasm greeted his recasting of Paul’s message. How is that the language of the bible irrelevant and corrupted beyond all redemption? If a stadium of traumatized, hopeful Rwandans don’t think so, then whose message is irrelevant now?
Spiritual and religious is expansive. It is embracing. It is fluid. It is engaged. It is personal and communal, it is the inhale and the exhale, it is commitment to the fulfillment of self and commitment to the fulfillment of all and it can speak any language and hear any truth and hold any heart, not lightly, but gently and across time and difference and change and sameness, and that is faith. Amen.
Excerpt from Psalm 88, NRSV
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
TO DO LIST
by the Reverend Lee Reid (1932-1996)
Nov-Dec 1996 Newsletter, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palisades
Mend a quarrel.
Seek out a forgotten friend.
Dismiss suspicion, and replace it with trust.
Write a love letter.
Share some treasure.
Give a soft answer.
Manifest your loyalty in word and deed.
Keep a promise.
Find the time.
Forgive an enemy.
Apologize if you are wrong.
Try to understand.
Examine your demands on others.
Think first of someone else.
Be kind; be gentle.
Laugh a little.
Laugh a little more.
Take up arms against malice.
Express your gratitude.
Welcome a stranger.
Gladden the heart of a child.
Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth.
Speak your love.
Speak it again.
Speak it still once again.