Sunday January 25, 2004

First Unitarian Church of Alton, IL

The Rev Carol M Wolff



"Sharing the Good News" by The Rev William Sinkford, President, UUA

from The UU WORLD March/April 2003


I do not have a problem with religious language, but I do have a problem with UUs who have a problem with religious language.

It’s not that I don’t understand, I do. It’s that I can’t understand why they attend a church that they seem to care very much about but yet are unwilling to enter into its tradition and explore alternative meanings for terms a church ordinarily uses.

I understand most of us want to rename things that caused us grief in the past, I know I once did. I understand the need to be different to set ourselves apart from the mainstream and to not be misunderstood.

Words and language are a passion of mine so this is a topic that is dear to my heart.


The President of our Association of Member Churches, the UUA, Rev Bill Sinkford, who is the author of the Reading this morning admits his own journey through the minefields of religious language and comes out in favor of using traditional terms to describe our way of faith, even lamenting the lack of such language.

I tend to agree with him.

If we are to be a religious movement with clout and in order to be agents of change we have to be able to speak the language. We cannot invent new ways of being a religious movement to the point that no one outside our ranks can understand us or define us.

What we CAN do and MUST do is be willing and able to articulate the terms we use so that others can grasp what IS different about us even though we may use the same words.

Martin Buber says we have too much theology and not enough religion – he says theology is talking about God and religion is experiencing God. Another way of saying this is religion is the philosophy of the heart while philosophy is the religion of the mind.

We UUs are notorious for theologizing and philosophizing. I contend that we need to do this to satisfy our intellectual hunger for understanding. But what I, as a minister constantly seek to do is to find the words about God that will lead to an experience of God, to reconcile the philosophy of the heart with the religion of the mind.


For example – when I use the word God, a word I was not comfortable with for a long time, I ALWAYS say =Let me explain what I mean by God – it is THIS moment right here right now that we are sharing – it is a RELATIONAL concept that helps me define things that have no words or definition. To be able to communicate and share my mind and heart with another human being is sacred, holy and where God is for me.

I believe in a Universal Mind that is constantly calling to us to connect with it, I believe in the vastness and mystery of the ocean, I believe in LOVE – these are all metaphors for the word God when I use it.

I use the word God freely and without embarrassment and I do use it without chagrin or need for apology.

I also believe deeply in tradition – not the world’s religious tradition, OUR Unitarian Universalist religious tradition. I remember from whence we came – I honor and value the roots of our faith and want to uphold them so that they are not lost to future generations.

Because I do believe we have GOOD NEWS – we do have a message for the world that needs to be voiced in terms that can be embraced and understood by others.

President Sinkford tells this story in a recent column he wrote for Meadville- Lombard Theological School, a story common to many UU ministers, yours truly included:

I remember the first time I was asked to offer the prayer for an interfaith clergy gathering. It was interfaith, but I knew that most of the colleagues present would be Black Baptist ministers. I had spent a good deal of time at the Baptist seminary in Berkeley where I could be in relationship with Black clergy, yet I worried. At that point I didn’t have a regular prayer life. I hadn’t yet found a language of faith that was easy and satisfying even for me. In UU circles, I was fine. Our minimalist use of religious language saved me. But would whatever stumbling and complicated language I offered be acceptable to those who seemed to speak so easily and intimately with their God?

I agonized for days leading up to the event. But when I prayed, "Spirit of Life and Love, known by many names," grace happened. As a group, we entered the space of silence, of honesty, and of reverence. All I had to do was extend the invitation. The desire for prayer, and for them the habit, was far stronger than the differences in theology and language that had assumed such importance for me. Afterward, one minister said to me, "we’re closer than you feared and more respectful than you give us credit for."

I have had this same experience many times fearing that I would not be accepted as a real minister representing a real religion and yet I refused to use the words the other clergy normally would.

I bravely began my first prayer in an interfaith group with the same words Rev Sinkford used: Spirit of Life and Love" followed by "known and unknown living among and within us" – I was praised and complimented many times for this prayer and have been asked to give them at larger gatherings and conferences now that they know I won’t do anything too radical.

But right there we have a word that is a stumbling block- the word prayer itself. We don’t pray in our services – we meditate don’t we? Prayer is another word that requires definition for us to be comfortable with. And yet I contend that we all pray at some time or another – in the hospital, when there is a crisis or when we are in fear or dread of losing something we love.

You know the old adage "there are no atheists in foxholes" – I think that is a valid statement. There are times when the hardwiring of our brains draws us into the need for reaching out to something beyond. There are simply some things we cannot unlearn like riding a bike or swimming. Religious language is like that and even though it may be the root cause of some of our suffering and negative experiences,

it is still there because as children we were taught to use that language in fear or dread, or perhaps we were taught to use it in a loving and nurturing environment that we feel guilty about leaving behind.

All this old baggage about religious language weighs us down and when we come to a Unitarian church we long to rid ourselves of it – leave it outside the door pack it away in the attic of the past and start over.


But then we enter the sanctuary, we sit in pews, we sing hymns, we pray and meditate and listen to a sermon, all traditional religious terms. We may be uncomfortable for awhile with all of this – I know I was for awhile until we accept the reinterpretation of them and begin to see that if we are to be people of faith, we can be willing to live with the terms that define that way of faith.

We are free, but as the Opening Words describe, that freedom can sometimes lock us into a walled garden where no one but we ever get to enjoy.

Rev Sinkford says:

"We need to change our understanding of where we stand in our culture, to stop talking only to ourselves, to come in from the margins to the center of the conversation, to become more fully engaged in the pubic discourse….We are a dangerous movement because of the appeal of our message of individual affirmation and freedom and our commitment to making of justice."

But how to claim that place in the conversation? How do we extend the hand of love and freedom to those who have been told they cannot think about God or religion for themselves and need the authority of the church and its spokespersons to interpret and define their beliefs for them?

This is an historic dilemma for us – since our early history we have had to explain who what and why we are – identity has always been a problem for us because we have gone against the mainstream and chosen to do our religion differently. The earliest roots of our movement were Christian – liberal Christian and newly interpreted with Jesus as a human being and historic figure, separate from and apart from the holy spirit and father God, thus our heritage as anti-trinitarians.

As late as 1940 however some Unitarian churches were still stating a covenant that including the Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of Man – some things have to change! But I think the essence of that outdated language is what we are talking about today – there is an inherent reverence in the words we choose to use for things related to our most precious experiences –we want to hold them aside and use them only for that arena of our lives.

I think that is what Sinkford has in mind – to open the conversation to remind us all that we are a part of something worth getting right when we speak about it. To hold on our tongue and in our minds and hearts a tenderness and carefulness that deems it holy and sacred –set apart and revered.


We need to tell people that our theology is big hearted and vast as the ocean – that we see divinity – however we define it – as present in every human being and in the earth and Universe itself.

It will take doing a better job of keeping our visitors and offering newcomers a religious community that will serve to allay their fears, give them a loving community to belong to, open their hearts to intimate religious forums for sharing and giving.

But most of all, we need to be willing to use religious words and language so that our sanctuary is truly that – a place of refuge and acceptance, that our hymns are sung with hope and joy, our prayers and meditations spoken from the heart.

However, all of this is about semantics and leaves out the real path to religious understanding and freedom – and of course, that is acting on them, being open to experiencing them.

We can talk all we want to about what these words mean and how they can be interpreted and defined so that others understand us. But without action and commitment to a way of life that SHOWS others who we truly are, they are empty and void of meaning.

If we vote into the by-laws a statement about being a welcoming church to all ways of life regardless of color, sexual orientation and _________and are not willing or able to really DO that – extend the hand of fellowship to all, then our words are hardly sacred or religious. They are false witness to unbelief.

I am concerned about how we think about and talk about ourselves. We are afraid sometimes to tell the Good News we have in the elevator or grocery store because it goes against our tendency to be modest and non-evangelical. We fear having people misunderstand us if we use words they already have defined for themselves.

But without those words, we are a wishy washy amorphous group of church members who have no purpose or identity much less any legitimacy in the religious community of faith to which we belong and deserve entry.

I think Pres Sinkford is right – we need a language of reverence for Unitarian Universalism to be legitimate. Reverence means "honor or respect felt or shown."

I know you all honor and respect this church and its history – so reverent language should not be that difficult. We are not a group of people gathered together for any other purpose than to lift up what is holy and sacred to us as individuals – this church and its sanctuary is open to all who want to do that on a weekly basis. This is a religious place and our words need to reflect that sacredness.

I don’t think calling this time together anything other than worship is appropriate – I have given a sermon before about the meaning of worship and will not go into it here. We sing Hymns – we sing from a HYMNAL – this is the proper term. We take an Offering, not a collection and we call our quiet time Meditation but I consider what I do and say during that time prayer. I preach a Sermon, not give a talk or message or lecture.

Some words do not suffice to describe special times and experiences.

We need to be willing to "name the holy" – put a name to what you hold most dear and precious in your life. Honor it and bring it with you here to this sanctuary of peace and love where it can be acknowledged and recognized by others.

That to me, is the essence of what we are about, and as difficult as it is sometimes to talk about, we do need to talk about it – to spread this good news we have of freedom that is based on centuries of heresy in the face of traditional religion and its walls. And we need to use reverent language to describe it – holy and sacred words that are not used in any other milieu.

Open the gates and the doors to your heart and your mind so that others can see and hear what we are about – find the words that you can redefine and do not be afraid to use them. You part of an important liberal religious movement that may be lost unless we agree to reclaim some of this language and are willing to let go of the old baggage accompanying it.

Don’t confuse people on the elevator by trying to describe what we are not – we are a religious movement that values freedom of thought and believes all people are inherently good. We have no creed that we can spout off and answer to no higher authority than our own good conscience. That should do it – but don’t avoid telling people we gather in churches, seek to define God, sing Hymns and have Ministers who pray and give sermons. These words offer common ground and help us be a part of the conversation.

We are so often misunderstood and misinterpreted – it is up to all of us to change that..

We may be misinterpreted sometimes, but at least we believe we are free to interpret! – and that is one very important thing that truly sets us apart - what we need to practice is interpreting for others so that we can be heard . Most people close their ears when we start talking about things that sound too weird or out of the mainstream, just like we do when we listen to traditional religious language that assumes beliefs about a punishing omnipotent God and a Jesus who is the Christ.

Our future depends on being able to speak to all generations – which means we all have to be open and willing to change. Most twenty to thirty year olds coming into the large UU churches across the nation are looking for a language of reverence and are not afraid to hear it and use these words. One of these young people was quoted as saying "I would like for a Unitarian Universalist to be able to express, in inspirational language, what it is that moves and guides us through the world."

Can you do that – can you name, in inspirational language, what it is that moves you and helps you get through each day?

That is why we are here – to glean and share each others inspirational words and deeds that are brought into fellowship each week for worship. It is all worthy of special reverent expression. We need to use the best and highest words we can find to ascribe to these emotions that only we humans have and can express.

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