“The Language and Practice of Reverence”
OCTOBER 16, 2005
Prairie UU Society      Madison, Wisconsin
The Rev. Jody Whelden
            In recent years Unitarian Universalism has engaged the question, "Can we reclaim the language and practice of reverence without regaining old paradigms of religious thought that do not inspire us?" Today's reflections will integrate the ideas of this topic and the practice of reverence in a freethinker's life.
            Unitarian Universalist Association President Bill Sinkford had an experience in the mid 1990's, prior to his current tenure as UUA President.  This experience has reverberated throughout all the UU.   Bill sat at the bedside of his 13-year-old son, in a hospital emergency room in Boston, Massachusetts. As Bill sat through the long night, his own life was transformed.  Here is the story.
            I quote from an article by Neil Miller of the Boston Globe.  “ Bill Sinkford had been at a luncheon meeting when a co-worker informed him his son was in a Boston, Massachusetts hospital emergency room of a drug overdose.   Sinkford rushed to the  hospital. His wife and daughter were there, also.
            Like many parents in that kind of situation, he was going over in his mind, "If only I had ..." But soon fear and self-blame evolved into something far more profound. Sinkford had what he calls "an experience of the holy"; he felt the presence of God. "I don't consider myself a Christian," he says, as he recalls that night. "I have no systematic theology. But I believe there is a spirit of life, a presence. That night, I had the experience of being held by God. I had the sense that we don't have to walk this path alone, that there is a love that has never broken faith with us." 
The next morning it was clear his son, Billy, would live.
            The article continued saying that Sinkford says that since then, his spiritual life has shifted. "I am spending more time being thankful, being grateful," he says. "My personal pattern had been to worry about what I was entitled to, rather than what I had been given."  endquote
            When Sinkford became President of the UUA in 2001, he initiated a discussion on the language of reverence.  The ideas caused a flutter, but in the following January there was a famous incident, which was like an earthquake.  Bruce Lierman, a colleague, describes what happened next….
 “ President Sinkford gave a sermon on the language of reverence in Fort Worth, Texas.  His words were immediately taken out of context, and for a very brief period of time, our religion was front page and evening news. 
            The controversy ensued from inaccurate press reports that Bill had called for a rewriting the UU purposes and principles to include more “God “ talk.  In fact, he had noted that the term God was completely absent from the purposes and principles, and that this fact might warrant more discussion and reflection among us as a denomination.  He had asked, "Would someone reading or hearing our purposes and principles, understand what we hold reverent, or indeed that we hold anything in reverence?”(endquote)  As they say, any publicity is good news.  This topic was now an association wide discussion.
            This morning we will step into this stream of discussion which is currently still going. The question we are exploring is, "Can we reclaim the language and practice of reverence without regaining old paradigms of religious  thought that do not inspire us?" We will consider the ideas of this topic and the practice of reverence in a freethinker's life.
            Many people - lay and ministry alike - welcome this discussion and feel encouraged to discuss the topics of prayer, God, worship, holy experiences,  forgiveness, spirit, and other language which has been in and out of favor in UU circles.   The  dialogue necessarily calls forth a response from UU Humanists.   Two of the leading UU Humanist Ministers, both of whom I know and have deep respect for, are the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, Senior Minister of First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis and Rev. David Bumbaugh, Professor of Preaching and Worship at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago.
            It is clear that David and Kendyl both agree that our faith needs a language of reverence....  Their difference revolves around the actual words. 
            Professor Bumbaugh describes the vocabulary of reverence as “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 rest of the religious community.”
            In an article written for the UUA website by Dan Harper, Bumbaugh is quoted as saying, "We used to think we lived in an increasingly secular world, but if we look carefully around we might discover we are living in a post-secular world." He asserted that as a result "faith is subtly 'commodified,' and there is "a steady trivialization of traditional religious language."   In Bumbaugh's opinion, using traditional religious language "is to ask us to employ a tongue so corrupted and exploited" that it is no longer useful.  "Do we need a new language of reverence? Yes," he said. "The old language has been captured and enslaved."
            Continuing to quote the UUA website….. “In searching for a direction for a possible new language of reverence, Bumbaugh said he finds this in an encounter with the natural world. He mentioned the flocks of green monk parakeets flying over Chicago in the neighborhood of Meadville/Lombard, descendants of escaped pets, "who are thriving in their new and improbable environment." A new language of reverence, true to our times and rooted in our own experience, "reminds us that we are a vulnerable and precious part of a vulnerable and precious world.... An invitation to reverence is all around us."
            Like Bumbaugh, Humanist Rev. Kendyl Gibbons wants to have language with which to articulate reverence, while she acknowledges "the exclusively human quality of that response." However, she took issue with him in one important respect.  She is willing to use the older languages of reverence from the great religions of the world, while not necessarily taking those older languages literally. She does not believe we can invent such a language out of whole cloth, but said she prefers using the accumulated wisdom of our forebears.  Indeed, she feels that using accumulated human wisdom is a central part of the humanist stance.  According to Gibbons, getting rid of all traditional religious language could amount to an act of "adolescent hubris….that is, arrogance." (endquote)
            For myself, I am clear that we are members of a liberal religion that can be described as Bruce Lierman as the paradox of personal faith and shared religion.   For example, some us study Buddhism, some of us study Humanist thought, some of us are inspired by the parables of Jesus,  and yet we all share the UU faith. It is a challenge to all of us who claim that we are in a faith that allows for individual exploration of thought and consciousness without the dictates of one approach dominating the other.  It takes a great deal of maturity, on all sides of the discussion, to remain respectful and accepting.  At the core of this conversation is the practice of the UU First Principle - living out a respect and honoring of the inherent worth and dignity of each person.  
            The situation we find ourselves in could be phrased as, “How do we be a part (from) and apart (of) the religious discourse of the day.”  To me the answer to that is simple to find, although not simple to live.  And, as much as I love the exchange of interesting ideas, it is not an intellectual exercise.  It is looking into our everyday lives, seeing what reverence  means to us - and sharing our revelation with each other.   It is sorting through words and practices of reverence -historical and modern and adapting ones which work for us.  Some will bridge to other parts.  This morning I have chosen 3 experiences of reverence to explore - holy experiences, forgiveness and prayer.
            Personally, I resonate with Bill Sinkford's experience of having a holy experience.  I have had several experiences, which sound like this to me. The one I want to share this morning happened in the 1980's, when I returned to my parents' house after my father had had a stroke.  He and I had been estranged for a while and rather than stay at thier house. I stayed in the hotel in town. 
            After settling in at the hotel I stopped at the local market for some food.   While I shopped I was thinking about my anxiety about seeing them and how they would feel about my return and my own fears. As I went to get in the parked car,  a fire engine came through town, with whistles blowing.  In that moment I felt a presence with me which was very unusual. 
            I literally heard words being spoken, as if to my heart---- to realize the terrible experience my parents had been through with the ambulance getting to the hospital.   The message was to ask about them and express my concern for their great ordeal first thing when I got to the house.   How would I explain it? How does one label a feeling of being talked to from outside of oneself in a most intimate message?  I still don't know.  But, I do know that I was convinced.   I was totally disoriented, because I had been thinking about myself, but, the experience was so remarkable, I really had no choice.
            As I went up the familiar garage stairs to the kitchen door, my mother opening it for me, words of compassion tumble out of me.  They both responded with soft hearts and talked about what had happened.  I was so grateful for what I would call a holy experience.  I do not try to explain it, just to say it was real.  I had an experience unique in my life experience.  This message probably made possible a transformation in the pain of my parents relationship with me at the time.  Our estrangement ended and life picked up for many good years that followed.
            I think one can practice such an experience by simply being open to it.  It is not something one can orchestrate, but one can be willing to receive such an experience without cutting it off or denying it.  One can, at least, hold it in one's heart, if one is not waiting to talk about it. I believe this experience reflects Sinkford's sense that we are held in a force greater than ourselves - whatever one might call it.--- deserving of an attitude of reverence.
            A second experience of reverence for us to consider is reflected in our responsive reading this morning - the  aspect of forgiveness.   The Jewish people have just completed Rosh Hashanah, which marks the Jewish New Year.  Rosh Hashanah began this WEDS.  October 5th and culminated on this coming Thursday, on a day called Yom Kippur. This 10-day festival is known as the “Ten Days of Repentance.”  These are the most solemn days in the Jewish religion - and although solemn and serious, they are not somber.  For as a season of repentance, it is also a season the Jewish faith  which says that God accepts and forgives.
            Forgiveness is necessary sometimes for a person's life to go on - I read this sad, yet hopeful, story to you as a dramatic example.  It is reported by Dorothy Bass in her book, “Practicing Our Faith.”
            The third practice of reverence we are exploring this morning is prayer.  Each Sunday we have a time for meditation or prayer.  Many UU's do pray - although we don't talk about it.  Let's talk about it today.  Perhaps prayer need not be to a man with a white beard, but an opening in our heart to receive from the spirit of life.  Practicing prayer can be very simple - just like this Grandfather taught his grandson in our children's story.  Prayer begins not in the intellect or head or depending on an invisible person to take care of us…But, it can be how we use our hearts. Our heart center is in the middle of our chest is the place where we receive and this where we pray.
             One way to practice prayer is to hold our question or dilemma in our heart - in the middle of our chest.  Think about the issue you have by resting it on your heart, breathe and wait for a feeling, or picture or words, which give you a response to your.  We can also pray by thinking about compassionate intention.  We can hold compassion at our hearts and say inside our minds, or out loud, the intention of healing and good thoughts for someone.
            I read of one congregation which had a congregational book of prayer - tell story.
            The language and practice of reverence has much potential for definitions and practices, for freethinkers.   I actually think we have opened up the room to be on the cutting edge of noncreedal practices of reverence.   I hope you will explore more of them in the future months.   This exploration can follow actual experiences people have.  Like with Bill Sinkford, he had a real experience he could not deny..and he has let it transform his life and the lives of many others as he has lived his ministry.
            Bill has said, “The task on the Unitarian side of our faith is to find our own relationship to the divine..or to God.  The task on our Universalist side is to view that God as a loving God.” 
No one will say one will experience what others will call God..but whatever we each experience is welcome at the table, in a joint reflection on the nature of the interdependent web.
            I hope we will share the experiences of reverence which we have, to help each other and to strengthen our own willingness to be transformed and nurtured in a world where we need it so badly - in our individual lives and in our congregational life.
BLESSED BE.  Shalom.  Salaam. Namaste. AMEN. Ho.