God. Faith. Sacred. Jesus. Church. Prayer. Grace. Sin. Holy. Salvation. Amen. Are you triggered yet? I could go on – probably take up my whole time with word upon word. The landscape of religious language is vast. I know the feeling. Not so much a particular word, but a concept that rubs against what I have come to understand and believe. Maybe there is a tightness or a twisting in the gut, perhaps a slow tuning out of what is being said as a protection mechanism to ward off more words of a similar vein. We build a wall around our minds and hearts, hold tight to what we “know” to be “truth,” maybe avoid those who we have experienced as differently fluent than ourselves. But what are we really doing when this happens? There is this idea I have discovered in some settings, mostly educational, but I think it applies here as well. It is the invoking of a “trigger warning.” It gives the listeners a heads up that something is coming that might be hard to hear, possibly upsetting, bring up old painful memories of harmful or abusive situations. Things like – I was going to issue a trigger warning here in case you wanted to turn down the volume for a second while I shared examples – but I have thought better of it. We are all in touch with the kinds of things that create this in us, and I don’t want to lose you before I get started! There are at least two ways of looking at this, of course. On the one hand it creates a safer space when people are warned and they tend to feel acknowledged, heard, respected. It opens the door for deeper dialogue, some say, where a willingness to take greater risks and engage occurs. The flip side of this, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship article I explored, is that warnings are often requested not simply for trauma-inducing materials but are applied to a much broader range that includes topics which might be just discomfiting, challenging, or offensive to one’s beliefs. In this case the warning is a way of preventing one from engaging in uncomfortable conversations. And the idea that some topics or words are taboo potentially reduces meaningful discussion and debate, creating a sanitized reality that has less grounding in what is actually occurring around us. This does a great disservice to learning process. In other words, when it comes to religious language, unless one has fallen victim to a cult where only one way is taught or allowed under penalty of death or torture, are we just avoiding opportunities to expand our understandings by eschewing the use of terminology that is unlike our own chosen expressions? That expectation of comfort is associated with our privilege as a part of the dominant caste in our culture. The Sufi mystic poet Rumi suggests that our suffering is our treasure; that we are the veil that covers it. Could it be that in turning toward instead of from the uncomfortable we will discover hidden treasures in ourselves as we grow in spirit? I love my words – all of them! I love to dig into their definitions, recognizing with great delight the fact that almost every word in the dictionary has more than one meaning. I love that those meanings are applicable in a variety of ways. I have a well-worn thesaurus handy, although now I can just google synonyms, which offer an expansion of meaning in different contexts. And I love word origins because you can learn so much about meaning when you dig into the history of a word. I am a bit of a “word nerd!” When you begin to explore original intentions associated with religious language it can have the effect of taking the edge off in the case of troubling vernacular. For example, church was first
used to describe a group of people gathered around a common cause, often a political one. Faith is a high level of trust in someone or something. You don’t have to dig very deep in the list of meanings either – often the first one isn’t even religious or theological. When we refer to something as holy, we are saying that it is exalted or worthy of devotion. Salvation is deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss. You get the idea. There is more than one truth inherent in all of the words we employ. It is a matter of training one’s self to take that deeper dive. The triggered impulse we encounter upon hearing religious language is an invitation to, first of all, think about why we are so suddenly repulsed, naming what causes the reaction. Perhaps as a child you were told that certain behaviors were sinful – evil acts of thought, word or deed by definition, when you had no ill intention at all. I remember my mother insisting that if I attended a Protestant church, I would be committing a sin! I was just being curious, not evil! So, knowing the meaning of the word helps me to see that I am not so poorly behaved as mom might have thought, that she was imposing a belief on me that suited her need for me to follow along a certain path and I can then let go of the shame associated with my actions. I want to call our attention to the Sources from which we say, as Unitarian Universalists, that we draw meaning. Direct experience of mystery and wonder, moving through all the world and opening us to the upholding of life; the words and deeds of prophetic persons that challenge us to apply justice, compassion and love in our living; wisdom from all the world’s religions – Judaism, Christianity, Humanism, Buddhism, Paganism – the list goes on and on. And I want to say that this doesn’t tell us to pick one that feels easy and good and discard the rest! Our free and responsible search for truth and meaning asks us to keep on exploring, seeking, making meaning from all that we encounter; all that we are offered. All of these sources come with their own unique language – religious language. How open are we to all of them if we say you can only express your gift to the world in terms that are acceptable to me? We needn’t fall into a rut or worse, a hole with high walls where we shut out all that may have the potential to broaden and deepen our experience. If we can break through our initial anxiousness we are often gifted with extraordinary insight. African American author, feminist, professor and activist, bell hooks, suggests that when we “choose to love, we begin to move against domination, against oppression.” This choice moves us toward freedom, toward acting in ways that liberate both ourselves and others. She speaks of initially developing a love for self which then enables us to extend love outward. When we let go of fear, we are better able to draw near to people; to all of creation. There is something in this for us as Unitarian Universalists that I want to unpack. Elizabeth Ketcham touched on it also in our reading this morning. Can we be self-differentiated enough to love what is truly our own while simultaneously loving also what is truly another human being’s? To hold both our own thoughts and feelings while also connecting deeply to those of someone else? When we begin from such a place, we are freer ourselves and offer freedom to others without holding over them what we consider our truths to be. This need to be right is rooted in white supremacy, in a dominance centered culture, in the oppression of difference. We say we are open, welcoming, that we want to be inclusive. But at times I find that we are, at least implicitly, less so. When I hear people using a term like church to describe us here in
Chatham – we aren’t the only ones – I have heard it happening before in other places – but someone may say “church” in reference to us gathered here because to them, in their context and experience, that is what we are. And then, in an instant of apology, perhaps applying a little humor to soften the blow, they say, “I mean meeting house or fellowship or . . .,” trailing off or changing the subject. Quick to correct in order to be accepted, not ruffle any feathers, risk shunning because they have found at the same time a love here that indeed does welcome them. Just not all of them apparently. It is a subtle distinction I am asking you to notice. When we see people censoring themselves it should be a sign to us of a larger issue that we could be grappling with. If we are to be truly inclusive, we will need to develop a taste for the vast landscape of religious experience that people show up with. More than a taste, I would suggest, we need to take the time to slowly savor as we would an expansive feast that has been laid before us, because that is exactly what it is. Take it in, let it digest, name the beauty of it, inquire about the various flavors and their origins, ask for seconds! I am hungry just thinking about it! Can we cultivate that kind of a hunger for the expressed experience of this incredible storehouse of sources without the need to censor, instead exploring what a speaker means by what they are saying, why it is meaningful for them, what that may mean for us as an individual or for our community or our world? Can we let go of the power words hold over us which in turn causes us to maintain power over the treasured revelations that pour forth from other hearts and minds? This is an invitation on a journey of self-discovery. It is an invitation into the whole cloth of our Unitarian Universalist Sources; uncensored. It is an invitation into greater levels of inclusivity as we seek to thrive here on the hill in Chatham. May we be open in ways we have yet to find comfort in being, trusting in the love of this place and this people to hold us and journey with us. Blessed be and Amen.