A Language of Reverence

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie‘s video recording of this reflection.

In June 2001, I was in Cleveland, Ohio, for General Assembly (our UU annual convention). It was the year I received preliminary fellowship as a UU minister. Four months later I was ordained. The 20-year anniversary of my ordination is this Thursday. In 2001, the Rev. Bill Sinkford won the election to be the first black President of the UUA. I remember being in Cleveland, sitting in the large ball room on the floor with hundreds of other UUs, waiting for him to come in and give his acceptance speech. He started with a prayer. And in that prayer, he used the word God. He prayed to God. I heard an audible gasp of shock from part of the crowd when he did that.

Praying wasn’t that uncommon for UUs back then, but directing one’s prayer to God was; naming God was.

Bill Sinkford, while still President of the UUA in 2003, preached a sermon called The Language of Faith. Like many a UU sermon before that one, what he had to say signified a bellwether moment in our history. Things had already begun to change before he preached that sermon. More and more women were being ordained. More and more pagans and those who called themselves earth-centered were present as members in UU congregations. Yet it was that sermon, once circulated, that seemed to most influence more words of reverence, more words indicative of a spiritual connection. References to God, or to grace or the spirit, had been stifled by forces that seemed determined to reject the use any kind of language of reverence, or what some called “God” language.   

After Sinkford’s sermon was heard and then read, it became more and more common for UU ministers and lay leaders to use many varying words and phrases for God, such as “the power beyond us,” or the “Spirit of Life,” or that force of love that many call God. 

Sinkford began his sermon by sharing about a time when he was called to his son’s side in an emergency room. His son survived the incident, but he could have died. In the hospital room at his son’s side, Sinkford was in what is called “liminal” space. That is the time between the “what was” and the “what is next.” It is a time of waiting and not knowing. And it is where all transformation takes place.

Neil Miller of the Boston Globe tells the story this way:  

Bill Sinkford had been at a luncheon meeting when a co-worker informed him that 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….”

The sermon makes the point that many of us, on our own deathbed or near a loved one’s, or at some other point of when our sense of stability and security is under duress, may feel the presence of something beyond us, something that may reassure us, or that we may be called out by, or call on. 

In those liminal spaces we will use whatever spiritual language we may know, even if it is language we’ve rejected for years.

It is a shame if our UU religion doesn’t offer language appropriate for whatever sense of the holy we may be experiencing. 

In Sinkford’s sermon, he quotes Walter Royal Jones (the person who chaired the committee that guided the process for writing and adopting the principles), who had at the time wondered aloud, “How likely is it that many of us would, on our deathbed, ask to have the Principles read to us for solace and support?

“It won’t be the principles we will be reciting to soothe our souls.”

Have you noticed that our principles don’t use any language that names the holy? 

Of course, they don’t. They were arrived at by a democratic process that found no consensus about “God language” among the UU Christians, humanists, atheists, and agnostics at the time. 

We don’t need to vote about it, but we do need a language of reverence.   

The need is implied in our first source, “the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder.” How do we talk about our direct experience without language? 

What do we mean by reverence?

Paul Woodruff, in the book Reverence: A Forgotten Virtue, defines reverence as “being linked to a sense that there is something larger than a human being, than self. It is accompanied by the capacity for awe, respect, what I would call humility.”

David 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.” The dictionary’s first definition of reverence is “a feeling of profound awe and respect and often of love.”

David Bumbaugh also says, “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.”

It is clear that some of us have experience of religious institutions that lost any evolving metaphorical depth of meaning and allowed religious language to become concrete—rigid and unchanging—religious words to become defined, boxed, packaged and as if owned by the “church.” It was good to reject those words, perhaps even to go through a time of cleanse. 

But now that we had we’ve had that time, we need not hold our imagination and creativity back any longer. And aren’t we collectively in a time of liminal space? A time of no longer that which was, but not yet what might be. I offer the way of religious humanism. That path involves accepting that an evolving language of reverence is part of being human, fully human. We need a way to speak about our awe and amazement, to call out beyond ourselves and to describe what it means to be called out to. And we need to own that human beings created language as a way to communicate, and if the old words aren’t working, create some new ones.

Reverence is that sense of amazement for the endless beautiful species in the world.

Reverence is that sense of wonder at how particle physics leads us to ask if the whole earth isn’t one living breathing conscious being. Reverence, a sense that there is something beyond the mere powers of humanity, something in which we live, and move and have our being.

Reverence is an experience that involves our whole self. We not only think about the possibilities of our existence, we not only imagine that the earth is a living sphere and we are mere elements of it, but we feel it. Reverence is a product of our wholeness, our mind, AND our gut intuitive feeling of connection—mind and feeling working together.

Our mind committing to humility, knowing that we don’t really know as much as we think we know, knowing that what we will soon know may give us a whole new understanding of the world, knowing that arrogance is the height of ignorance. Those are ways the mind approaches a state of reverence. But is it more than mind? Our whole being is involved in reverence. Our body conveys to us a reverential feeling in our chest and gut.

Reverence—to feel awe and gratitude for what lies outside our control—truth, beauty, life and death. As Paul Woodruff said in his book Reverence, “Simply put, reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.”

from A Language of Reverence by Rev. Peg Boyle Morgan

As I celebrate the twentieth anniversary of my ordination, I remember no mention of God or “the holy” at my ordination, except from the non-UU singer I knew from the church where I did my internship. I had asked him to come and offer a song. 

He didn’t tell me what he was going to sing until the last minute.

It was a spiritual about being in the belly of the whale, and by some undeserved grace being spit out. I loved it. I loved that his singing such a song shocked those there that day. I end with this poem:

The worst thing we ever did
was put God in the sky
out of reach
pulling the divinity
from the leaf,
sifting out the holy from our bones,
insisting God isn’t bursting dazzlement
through everything we’ve made
a hard commitment to see as ordinary,
stripping the sacred from everywhere
to put in a cloud man elsewhere,
prying closeness from your heart.

The worst thing we ever did
was take the dance and the song
out of prayer
made it sit up straight
and cross its legs
removed it of rejoicing
wiped clean its hip sway,
its questions,
its ecstatic yowl,
its tears.

The worst thing we ever did is pretend
God isn’t the easiest thing
in this Universe
available to every soul
in every breath

Chelan Harkin, from the book Susceptible to Light

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