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Language of reverence
Rev. Katie Stein Sather, September 25, 2005

Have you ever been told to mind your language? I have. A mother of small children found my words to be, shall we say, too earthy. She assumed her children would mimic me, I guess, and she didn't want them using dirty language. Yes, I tried to mind my mouth after that.

Another time, a group of people uncomfortable with traditional religion drew up a list of words they were unwilling to consider. They found these words too loaded with old meanings to be part of their spiritual language.

Words are powerful. Ask any woman who has felt excluded by the use of "man" when "men and women" or "humanity" was meant. Words, especially words used in a religious context, hold layers of meaning. Some of the connotations we might consider negative, but the kernel of meaning might well contain good food for thought and reflection. If we can tease the concept out of its original context, and consider it in our own context, that old word might have some valuable insights for us.

We Unitarians have been much in the news these days, especially in connection with the same-sex marriage issue, both in the US and in Canada. We were among just a few other religious groups who presented a brief before the Senate last year. In May, when the Canadian Unitarian Council was meeting in Hamilton, religious writer Tom Harpur devoted his whole Toronto Star column to us. He was recommending, highly recommending, a Unitarian church as a place to find the kind of spirituality he speaks about in his most recent book, The Pagan Christ. He means a place that questions the old ways, and is open to new ways. He means a place where the individual can discern their own beliefs. We know just what he means, because that's why we are here, too. He concludes his column by saying, "I have one strong suggestion for those [Unitarians] meeting in Hamilton. There are hundreds of thousands of Canadians currently looking for a spiritual home. But they're not looking just for a debating society or for membership in a group of do-gooder, would-be intellectuals. They want, in the midst of the other good things you have to offer, a truly living experience of God. They want meaning now and a future hope."

How will we speak with these folks who come knocking on our doors? I mean, what kind of language will we use? The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the US, Rev. Bill Sinkford, suggests that we Unitarians develop a language of reverence. This phrase "language of reverence" comes from Rev. David Bumbaugh. Now David is a Humanist. And he believes that Humanists, who "once offered a serious challenge to liberal religion, now find [themselves] increasingly engaged in a monologue," largely because of a vocabulary inadequate to engage other people of faith. Bumbaugh writes "We have manned the ramparts of reason and are prepared to defend the citadel of the mind. But in the process of defending, 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."

Bill Sinkford believes that we as a denomination have come a long way from how we were in 1961 when the Unitarians merged with the Universalists to form one denomination. The Universalists were a shadow of their former selves at that time, their theology of universal salvation having been more widely adopted into mainstream Christianity. They remained theists to a large degree at merger. Unitarians were widely humanist—atheists, agnostics and other non-theists. Neither group had a creed even if there was a certain degree of consensus among the churches in each group.

At merger, they did not try to agree on theology, but they could certainly agree on a set of values. The current version of them is what we know as the Principles and Purposes. Look for these cards, or on the back of our order of service for them. What you see here is a more inclusive and poetic rendition of the original 1961 version. It's a great statement of values, but you have to look very closely to find any theology. There's no sense of the divine in them, or much comfort for any of us who might be ill or dying. Rather than reverence, they speak mostly of abstract ideas and ideals.

So where is our theology? The UUA's Commission on Appraisal—the research group of the UUA, all volunteers—has just spent several years asking that very question. The COA has nine members, two of whom have connections to us. Rev. Linda Weaver Horton lives in West Vancouver, and Mark Hamilton is a child of Beacon. He grew up among us here in this congregation. They, and the Commission have been asking, "What is the core of our religion?"

All too many of us feel as though we're not only on the outside of mainstream religion, but on the fringes of Unitarianism as well. A prominent minister tells the story of being the keynote speaker at a multi-day conference. After her first presentation, a woman hangs around afterward to say thank you for her address, adding, "I'm a theist, but I can't say that out loud at my church. It's too full of humanists who can't tolerate religious language." The speaker thanks her for her kind words. The following day, the minister is not surprised to have someone else hang around afterwards. He says, "Thank you so much for your words. I'm a humanist and my congregation has changed so much in the past ten years. It's so full of God talk now, I feel shut out."

The common witness to these conversations was a district executive who happened to know both of them. His wry observation to the keynote speaker was, "These two people belong to the same congregation!" Neither of them felt truly at home in their home congregation. This fits my own impression of several Unitarian churches I know, including Beacon. I believe we need to learn a common language a language of reverence, to communicate with each other, as well as the rest of the religious community.

I hope that by now you are wondering just what the Commission on Appraisal heard from UU's in their study of our theological diversity. Well, I can't and won't read you their whole book. First, for us as individuals, our unique experience matters most, even if we label this experience of depth in our lives in a wide variety of ways. God. Mystery. Spirit of Life. The Universe. We are open to possibilities, to the unknown and new and different. We strive to be good people, valuing education, and disciplines which foster character.

As communities, we work together for a more just and compassionate world. It is our religious communities that empower us to do this work. We believe that wisdom emerges from the process of dialoging across our differences. Our spiritual growth comes in part from our reflections on our dialogues. Our vision of a religious community is one that protects and respects individual freedom, one which fosters acceptance of each other through the differences, to find our common humanity. (135-136) This is the barest of summaries. I will refer to this study again on October 16 when I talk about "what we say 'Yes!' to."

The Commission on Appraisal had another comment I thought worth pondering. They say, "It is perhaps not a language of reverence that is needed, so much as a practice of reverence. It is not whether we call upon the Spirit of Life or God or Goddess and see that energy operative in our lives but what we offer to life. (107)

The first word that I want to introduce you to in our language of reverence is more a practice than an idea. I wrote about Radical Hospitality in my newsletter column. You did read it, didn't you?? What do I mean by "radical hospitality"? You may wonder if it's connected to the Welcoming Congregation Program we completed a while ago. For that, we spent quite a number of Sunday afternoons looking at the life experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people; it raised our consciousnesses about one group of folks we like to be there for. Even if we thought we knew a lot about LBGT folks, we learned more. More importantly perhaps, we learned about ourselves. In the dialogue, we recognized the common human thread, and being welcoming became so much easier.

At our last board meeting a couple of weeks ago, we read some quotations about Radical Hospitality. I want to share some of them with you.

"We are part of a web of life that makes us one with all humanity, one with all the universe." Frederick E. Gillis
"The ritual bond of host and guest contains the consummate religious encounter." Carolyn and Tom Owen-Towle
"As religious liberals, our particular vocation is to provide hospitality for the human spirit in a way that is open and gracious, that gives room both for the realities of human life and the mysteries of God." Rebecca Parker

After reading a few of these quotations, we the Board of Beacon Unitarian Church talked for a few minutes about the challenges we have had as individuals being welcomed, and being welcoming. I very much appreciated their openness. We have known times when we questioned our welcome. We have each had our moments when fear or anxiety trampled on our better desires to meet the particular stranger in front of us. And we have each had moments of triumph over those fears and anxieties, when we met the Stranger, and welcomed them into our life.

The Hindu greeting Namaste may be translated "the divine in me salutes the divine in You." It explicitly recognizes the common human thread, which I label divinity.

Consider for a moment the multiple myths of the stranger begging hospitality who turns out to be a god in disguise. They often bear good tidings or bring about good things to the folks who are able to be hospitable to them. The Roman poet Ovid, for example, tells the tale of Philemon and Baucis who welcomed strangers who turned out to be the Gods Jupiter and Mercury. They are rewarded for their hospitality. Their lives are saved in a flood when their village kinfolk are not, and they gain long life caring for the temple and die together, at their request.

When we speak of hospitality, we address issues of inclusion and exclusion. Who are we opening our lives to? Can we open our doors here at Beacon to the kinds of folk we don't usually see here? Who can we include in our community life? It's a challenge. We know, even if we don't like to admit it, that there are some Others, that word with a capital O, who are harder to like.

To be radically inclusive is not encouraged in our culture. There are obstacles all over the place. For a truly concrete example, ask anyone with mobility difficulties. There are curbs and stairs and steep ramps everywhere. Ask a teen who doesn't wear the right shoes. Ask a person of colour in New Orleans. Indeed, each of us has probably felt left out some time or other.

Our challenge is to rise above our fears about someone wearing the wrong kind of clothes, and our anxiety over how to welcome someone with a different accent. My answer is to relax, and be yourself. That may not be the whole answer, but it will get you off on the right foot. A smile begins the connection and the dialog can follow, in true Unitarian Universalist fashion. Radical hospitality is a practice of reverence, a practice we can offer to the Universe and to life. Hopefully, your vocabulary will include a language of reverence, and you won't need to be told to mind your mouth.

We are called forth to join our energies, our talents, our skills, our strength, to join our spirits, our souls in the life work of building the Beloved Community
Right here,
Right now,
Every day.
We are called to be chalices, flaming chalices burning with passion and compassion, chalices wide and deep enough to receive the pain and joy of all who hear and feel and respond to our call.
We are called to meet one another face to face, to tell the truth of our lives and to listen to theirs.

Lee Reid (Evensong 2, 42)

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