"Images for Our Lives”

Laurel Hallman, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church of Dallas

Berry Street Essay, 2003

 

Delivered at the Ministerial Conference

June 26, 2003

Boston, Massachusetts

 

[The poems "First Lesson" by Philip Booth and "The Rowing Endeth" by Anne Sexton were quoted in full when the essay was originally delivered.  Copyright restrictions forbid reproducing the full text here, but the content has been summarized and a reference to the full text has been included in the footnote for each poem.]

 

            Thank you Mark, for that gracious introduction. And Ken Sawyer, and the other members of the Ministerial Conference in Berry Street Executive Committee, who have so seamlessly carried forward the Berry Street tradition in the midst of the illness and death of our scribe.

            I want to dedicate this essay to the memory of two men who died the same week in March. The first is Harry Scholefield, who was my mentor and friend and partner in the work of articulating a spiritual practice for religious liberals. The second, perhaps less known by many of you is Hardy Sanders, a layperson in my congregation in Dallas—a more passionate and devoted and generous UU I have not known. These two losses, and what these men stood for, in the midst of so much we have had to bear this year, have weighed heavily on me as I have prepared this essay.

            Each one was devoted to our faith. At the same time, Hardy felt that we were frittering away our message with petty diversions. And Harry felt that we, especially we UU ministers, ‘used’ poems and wisdom literature, without having lived them. In many ways their lives and concerns shape what I have to say today.

            I want to talk about imagination. About religious imagination, to be more specific. I want to say that we are in a crisis of language, (and I believe that we are), because we have forgotten what religious imagination is and does. The purpose of my essay today will be to remind us of the importance of religious imagination in all our varied ministries. In ministry itself.

            But first, let me go back to 1971.

            I was 28 years old, home with my then one-year-old toddler. (I had been a teacher and a curriculum consultant in my short career in education prior to that.) I was asked by Roy Phillips, who was the new Minister at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was a member, to join a committee he was forming to rewrite the Sunday School curriculum. He was gathering a group of members, mostly teachers, to talk about what was needed. Mary Anderson, who is here today as my guest, was a member of that group of seven. She is Lebanese, was raised a Muslim, is a devoted UU and helped us broaden our perspective significantly in those days, which now seem so long ago. Roy said that there was a felt need being expressed in the congregation for a religious education that centered on traditional religious themes—an education that would help the children to know themselves as religious people. Would I help?

            Needing a project with some challenge in those days, I said, "Yes.”  It is to a large degree why I stand before you today.

            Because you can ask a person what they believe, and they may tell you something halfway interesting. But if you ask them what should be taught to their children, you quickly get down to basics. We were about the gritty and difficult duty of deciding what would be taught our children, and how and why.

            The curriculum was called Images for Our Lives.

            That work, which took up four years of our lives, was long ago and far away. But I bring it up because I learned two important points that apply to what I want to say today.

            The first was our decision always to look for the "religious existential dimension” of the story we were teaching, whether the story was from the Judeo-Christian tradition (as we called it in those days), or from our own Unitarian Universalist Tradition, or from Other World Religions. (We gave each of those categories 12 weeks a year.)

            We actually devised a chart. I found it in an old file. It was called "Three Ways of Interpreting a Story”.  The first was the "Literal, Popular, Fundamentalist interpretation.”  The second was the "Rational, Critical, Historical interpretation.” And the third was the "Religious, Existential, Spiritual Interpretation.”

            I was familiar with the first one. I had been raised a fundamentalist. I knew my Bible, and I know the literal interpretations of the story. 

            And to some degree, we were familiar with the rational, critical, historical interpretations. Although Roy recounted once  that he had been taught in his Sunday School, in an attempt at a rational, interpretation,--he had been taught in his Unitarian Sunday School 50 years ago, that when it came to the story of Jesus walking on water, that he had really walked on sandbars.

            We had some sense of the new thought that had brought about biblical criticism, and it had more substance than sand bars, we knew. So we made a place in our chart for such interpretations.

            It was the third category that most interested us, though. The Religious, Existential, Spiritual interpretation.

             I’m not sure where that phrase came from. It wasn’t tied to Existentialism per se.  Roy says he used the dictionary definition at first: "grounded in existence or the experience of existence.” But after much discussion we decided that the "Religious Existential Dimension” of each story was to be the center of our work. We would try to find the part of each story which would allow the children to "take the story as an image of their own experience of life.”

            For example, the Noah story. The story of Noah became less a story about a god who wanted to start things over, and more, an incredible image of a tiny boat, built to specifications, but oh so small in that huge sea, and Noah, who had been so faithful, left for five months with no horizon, no contact, with nothing happening.

            That was something we could resonate with. And if our children couldn’t at the time, at least they would have it as a container for their life-experience in the future.

            At some point, we thought, if one of our children was in a life situation with no shore in sight, as if forgotten by their Mamas and their Papas, and even by God, we wanted them to remember Noah. We wanted them to be connected in a deep way to all those others who had felt forgotten until they sent out a dove and it returned with an olive branch. All those others who had to wait so long for hope to return.

            That is why we called it "Images for our Lives.” Every story we presented, whether Noah or Emerson or Kisogatami, was considered in its Religious Existential Dimension. As an image of existence, with image-i-nation, with the recall of an image with which our children could associate their life experiences.  Which brings me to the second point I learned while working on that curriculum. We called it the "piñata effect.”

            At one of our weekly meetings, we were going over a lesson. It was a good lesson educationally. The author was quite sophisticated in the development of curriculum, and had created an interesting and compelling lesson with a piñata at the center. (And who among us hasn’t had a piñata at some church event or other.)

            When we asked her what the "religious existential dimension” of the piñata lesson was, she couldn’t name it. It was interesting culturally, the children would have a great time, it might be group building, but it did not point to anything beyond itself, it could not be "grounded in the experience of existence”, at least in the imaginative way we were working. It was simply interesting. She agreed to throw the lesson out.

            From then on, whenever we were, however brilliantly, creating curriculum that strayed from our purpose of nurturing the religious existential and spiritual dimension of our material, we simply said "piñata” and out it went.

To this day, when I am writing a sermon, or preparing a lesson, the word "piñata” will rise up in my consciousness, and I will realize that no matter how eloquent, no matter how clever, it is not doing what I should be doing—which is to speak to the depth of human experience.

            Today I want to say that one of the reasons we are having a crisis of language among ourselves, is because we haven’t said "piñata” enough. It is because we have been charmed, sometimes by the sound of our own voices, sometimes by the brilliance of our own minds, speaking eloquently about this or that, but forgetting the foundation of our work in the world—the religious existential dimension of life. The communication from person to person and generation to generation of a kind of truth that is based on the reality--as Bernard Meland once said—it is a truth based on the reality "that we live more deeply than we think.”[1] We live more deeply than we think.

            If the Religious Existential Reality is "grounded in the experience of existence”, and "we live more deeply than we think”, then we had better find ways to say that which is deeper than we can speak. 

            Now I am keenly aware of my audience here today. Most of us are off the scale when it comes to our verbal abilities—after all, didn’t the Wall Street Journal recently tell us that the young people in our churches score the highest on the SAT’s in the Nation? (I assume that includes the Verbal SATs.)  We who are the leaders of perhaps the most educated group in the country—though we’re embarrassed to admit it—so often forget what we know when it comes to religious language. And we forget that it is our job to teach our congregations what we know.

            I recently spoke to our Adult Sunday School Class in Dallas on the topic "Why I am not a Theist”. They packed the room to hear what I had to say, because of course they thought I was. Why did they think I was a Theist? Because I use the word God. Because I pray in the midst of the worship service. I was embarrassed a bit myself, to find that I had failed to make the distinction that the use of metaphors and poetry and scripture has to do with religious imagination, and not with one theological category or another. We had a lively and productive discussion that day, as I spoke, as I am today, about religious language, and how it communicates the depths of experience, and that it isn’t always what it seems. 

            I remember years ago, when the Principles and Purposes were being formulated in meetings all across our continent, Peter Fleck, of beloved memory, who was on the committee to synthesize those formulations—Peter Fleck said that he had noticed a curious thing. When he asked individual UUs  where they stood theologically, he said, "They would juxtapose two seemingly opposite theological categories together. Like Christian-Humanist, or Agnostic-Christian, or Rational-Mystic refusing to align themselves with one distinct theology.” Peter was puzzled by this.

            I now think it was the beginning of our attempts to extricate ourselves from the hard theological boundaries within which we had closed ourselves off from one another and from our experience of religious imagination, and deep reality.

            When I arrived at Theological School, I found there were other languages of currency, other ways we were extricating ourselves from the boundaries of theological language and categories. These languages were mainly psychological and political. The psychological to give meaning and the political to give purpose. We learned the language of ethical discourse, and of course the languages of various theologies, as well. But the real categories of discussion among us were psychological and political. Gone were the earlier days of humanist/theist debates. In their place were struggles to integrate our ministries with the problems of the world and the pathologies of our lives.

            I was later to be intrigued by Harry Scholefield’s story of having undergone several years of Freudian Analysis in Philadelphia. He had been invited into the Psychoanalytic Institute, in a special program for people who were professionals in areas other than psychology. He ended up immersing himself in analysis. He told the story of the importance of his analysis to his ministry in a Berry Street Essay in 1962. He spoke then on the topic "Motivation in the Ministry” which was published as "Psychoanalysis and the Parish Ministry: Some Reflections on Unconscious Motivation in Preaching and Present Trends in Pastoral Counseling.” Harry could also speak the language of the political life of his times. He was a well known Peace and Fair Housing activist in San Francisco, where he was minister for the largest portion of his career.

I came, during my Theological Years and afterward, to respect deeply the power of psychological and political thought and action and language in the shaping of who we are and what we are to do in the world.

            And I also came to understand that pathology could not be the only focus for our inner work, and saw too many political activists who burned out because their activism was not grounded. There was something else that was needed to deepen our meaning and purpose. That something else was the language of religious imagination.

The problem with language is that those words, those simple individual words are slippery little devils. They don’t stay put.

            I remember my shock, as a Jr. High Student, when I used the word "queer” thinking it meant "odd” and discovering to my dismay that it was a pejorative label used to mean a homosexual.

            I was horrified. Partly because I was in Jr. High. Partly because I didn’t mean what people thought I meant. But I was most horrified that the word didn’t mean what I thought it did.

            Until that point I had assumed that words meant what they meant. That words stood still. They stood firm against all the vicissitudes of life. And in that moment, my faith in language was shaken. Words could add meaning, they could change meaning, they could turn on you. I was shocked. (I should also add that at that time in my life I was a Religious Fundamentalist, as well. It may have been that more than my faith in words was shaken that day.)

            And then I was to discover,—then I was to discover that the word, for example "God”, could become the victim of what Whitehead called "Misplaced Concreteness”. Words, over time, could lose their rich, metaphorical, living depth, and become concrete—rigidified and lifeless. The imaginative vitality could ebb away. Theword "God” could die.

            So if words don’t stand still, if they are subject, over time to misplaced concreteness. If they don’t necessarily represent one theology or another. If they are inadequate, even when they serve political and psychological purposes, even when they give us some meaning and purpose--. If words need to point to the depths of lived experience, (the religious existential dimension of life). If we live more deeply than we can think.  If we are currently in a crisis of language (which I believe we are). If we are truly to minister in the fields of human need, what will save us from ourselves?

 

            My answer is Poetry.

            Now if that answer disappoints you, I will only ask that you stick with me. If verbal though we all are, poetry was an add-on in High School, a linguistic burden in college, and another complex system of signs and symbols to learn in graduate school—let me quickly explain that by poetry I mean words and phrases, even whole narrative stories that point beyond themselves to the depth of human experience. I believe that poetry is scripture. I believe that scripture is poetry. I believe that poetry is the way deep truth is transmitted person to person and generation to generation. I believe that when Emily Dickinson said, "Tell the truth/but tell it slant” she was speaking of metaphorical truth, the poetic truth that nourishes the heart, and opens the mind, and communicates to the depths. By poetry I mean the products of the religious imagination.

            First, let me say that I am keenly aware that there are many products of the imagination that are not centered in words. So if poetry seems an extraordinarily limited focus for all the possibilities of metaphorical truth that can communicate the depth—I will admit it is. But again, I want to remember where I am, and who we are, and what we do week after week after week. I know there are many different ministries represented here—and I hope you’ll bear with me if I narrow my scope and talk about words and their uses between and among us, acknowledging that the music and art and even the silences of the soul are more profound than I could speak today. But speaking I am, and so we’re going for Religious Imagination, the verbal expression of the depth of human experience.

            Second, let me say that by Religious Imagination, I am not speaking only of the products of the imagination that have explicit religious references.

            Consider these few lines as representative of Philip Booth’s wonderful poem, First Lesson, about teaching his daughter to swim:

                                                           

            Lie back, daughter, let your head 

            be tipped back in the cup of my hand.

…lie back, and the sea will hold you.[2]

                       

 The entire poem has not one traditional religious word in it, as you will see if you read it whole. And yet it associates to deep realities beyond itself and across generations of human experience.

            For a time I thought this would be enough. There are certainly enough images and stories out there to take us to the heights and depths of human experience without having to bother with traditional religious language. These poems and narratives would have to fulfill certain criteria, of course. They would have to take on associative meeting, they would have to break concrete meanings open, they would have to be relational, they would have to name experience in a way that takes us beyond ourselves, and even beyond the experience itself. Surely there is enough spoken and written in the literature of humankind to be able to speak to human experience without having to evoke a God, or think about Prayer, or use any of the words that have specifically religious associative meanings—those meanings that are so encumbered as to be almost impossible to use. Or so it seemed to me at the time.

            First Lesson should be enough.

            But then I heard a simple explanation about a Russian Orthodox Icon. The Priest explained that the value given the icon was in its ability to teach the people who sat with it. "They didn’t analyze it. It taught them,” he said.  ("Not very American,” he added.) Being from a more plain tradition, I never pursued iconography, and have always worried about idolatry, but that simple explanation changed how I thought about the traditional words of Western religion. I couldn’t drop them. They had evoked too much for  too many people, over too long a time, and I needed to stay connected to the human struggles, the human understandings they represented, if only to inform my own. The "word” God might have become concretized. The "word” God might even have died. But I could not ignore all that it represented before it was rigidified into a state of rigor mortis.

            Suzanne Langer, in her book Philosophy in a New Key, was also helpful on this point. She says,

            "This tendency is comprehensible enough if we consider the preeminence with which a named element holds the kaleidoscopic flow of sheer sense and feeling.  For as soon as an object is denoted, it can be held, so that anything else that is experienced at the same time, instead of crowding it out, is experienced with it, in contrast or in unison or in some other way. . . A word fixes something in experience, and makes it the nucleus of memory, an available conception. Other impressions group themselves round the denoted thing and are associatively recalled when it is named. "[3]

            Who was I, to drop these words which had meant so much to our very own spiritual ancestors, as well as generations of human seekers, even if the associations might be complex. And perhaps the word "God” wasn’t as dead as I had thought.

            Interestingly, I remembered, too, that Harry Scholefield had called his Freudian analysis, "The relentless practice of association.” He said that whatever associated to the topic at hand in analysis, had to be faced. It was a difficult practice, he said. And one that took years to fully embrace.

            Later in his life, Harry was to move his "relentless practice of association” into his meditative times, waiting for the words of poets and scribes to associate with each other, and with his lived experiences. "Sometimes,” he said, "Walt (that would be Walt Whitman) would arrive, and have a comment or two, and then Emily (that would be Emily Dickinson) would join in.”  And he said, "Sometimes I had a sense of Presence, of being encompassed about by something larger than I was in those moments, perhaps through the word of a Psalmist, and we would all have a conversation..”

            Language is a relational system, Suzanne Langer says. A word, especially one of depth of experience, has many associations, and our job is to be open to those associations, because they take us deeper than we can think. Because we are not observers. We are participating in the conversation with our very lives.

            The best example I know of this is by Anne Sexton, in The Rowing Endeth fromThe Awful Rowing Toward God.  I can’t quote the whole here, but it starts out like this: 

                        I’m mooring my rowboat

                        at the dock of the island called God.[4]  

 

The poet describes a card game with God as the dealer in which she holds a royal straight flush and wins but God—playing with a wildcard—also wins with five aces!  You really must read the poem yourself to get it whole. 

 

I didn’t play cards when I was a Fundamentalist, and for sure God didn’t!  The God I knew, even with all His spoken and unspoken associations, concretized as Hewas, is broken open into a dealer who deals, not the plan for my life, but a wild card—untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha and lucky love.

            How could I not welcome such an intrusion into my solidified vision?

            If, as Langer asserts, language is a relational system, with associations forming themselves around a more concretized concept, then it is hubris for us to even believe that we can cut out some words, and put others on the back burner, for they will find their way back into consciousness, often in surprising ways.

            As Harry used to say, "They just put up a hand, saying, "Wait, I have something to say.” 

            What we need to do then, is to break open these concretized words, to juxtapose them with words that create cognitive dissonance. For it is in the spaces between the juxtaposition that new associations are created.

            The first inkling I had of that was when we began to use the pronoun "She”—"God/She”. People laughed nervously, when they heard those words for the first time.  You might not have been there—but it is true. People laughed. It was so strange. So odd.

            The idea that metaphors which have suffered "misplaced concreteness” can be brought to life by simply juxtaposing them in surprising ways, is almost too simple.

            It creates a cognitive dissonance in the listener that breaks them open—not to newdefinitions of God, or whatever element of mystery you are attempting to point toward, but to a small portion of reality that they have experienced.  Remember, we’re talking about the religious existential dimension of life, not definitions. We’re talking about the products of the imagination here.  We’re pointing, not positing.

            I want to talk about another element of our linguistic crisis:  that is the language of yearning. It’s not only that, but let’s start there.

            Early in my ministry I began to question why people were coming to see me. The problems and issues they brought into my study were posed in psychological terms. I knew that there were enough therapists in town to cover the needs of my whole congregation. "Why were they coming to me?” I asked. Perhaps, I told myself, it was because I was a minister. They didn’t have the language to speak it, but they had the depth to feel it. They needed spiritual counsel.

            One day, feeling rather bold, I asked a person who was in my office if she had prayed about her situation. Without hesitation, she said, "Yes. I feel like a child again, but I can’t help myself.”

            It gave me some traction, some place to minister. "Shall we pray about it now?” I asked, not sure of what I would say.

            She said "yes” and we did.

            I can’t say it was transformative for her. Although I had the keen sense that she, at some level expected that’s what we’d do.

            But I will say that it changed my understanding about why people were coming to me. It was because I was a minister! They expected me to ask them about things like prayer. They expected me to take them somewhere beyond that childhood version of prayer they remembered.

            I have learned always to ask.

            I remember once visiting a woman who did not have long to live. She was a firm skeptic. I knew that. But I thought, perhaps, in this tender moment, she might want her minister to pray her through.

            I asked, "Would she like me to pray?” She was so forceful in her "no” that I actually thought I might have given her a renewed reason to live!

            So I want you to know that I’m not advocating one path, or one way. These are products of the imagination, not definitions of ministerial methods.

            With that caveat, I will say that I am convinced that our congregations need a vocabulary of yearning. And that is prayer. They need an opportunity to name their their relationship with Life in relational words, in poetry, in metaphor. They need to pray.

            I was fortunate that when I went to Dallas that prayer was already part of the service. Slowly, I introduced relational words. Slowly I directed the prayer to "God of many names, and mystery beyond all our naming. . . " Slowly I began to ask for help and comfort and wisdom and strength. Slowly I began to name individuals who needed our prayer, and with whom we were celebrating. I gave thanks for new babies, and grieved over lost loved ones—naming Fathers and Mothers, and Sisters and Brothers who had died. I prayed our inadequacy to face the pain of our days.

            This is not a rational posit to a responding deity. It is not a posture of groveling. It is an expression of our yearning, our grief, our gratitude. It has become an expression of our congregation as a whole.

            Every once in awhile someone asks me "Who” I think I’m praying to. . . I recall the good advice from 12 step programs. "Just take care of your side of the street” that sage wisdom goes. And that’s what I do with prayer. I take care of my side of the street, with my gratitude and amazement and praise, and fear and anger and hurt. And as well the side of the street that my congregation is on. I figure the other side of the street can take care of itself and we can save the theological discussions for later.  

            I was lucky enough to inherit from Bob Raible’s ministry in the Dallas church, the closing to the prayer, which I commend to you. People, including Hardy Sanders, who I mentioned at the beginning of my essay—people have said that they wept when they first heard the words:

            We pray in the names of all those, known and unknown, present and absent, remembered and forgotten. We pray in the names of all the helpers of humankind.

            Thisis language that opens up rather than shutting off.

            This is language that points beyond rather than positing definitions.

            This is language that connects us with the yearning of humankind, of all sorts and kinds, rather than setting us apart as literal in our rejection, closed in our disdain, set apart in our determination to reject language that will not imagine anything beyond what we see and know. Remember, "we do live more deeply than we think.” We must, as religious leaders, point through our thinking, connecting to the depths of life, where our people live.

            I once was taken with the idea put forth by two therapists about the importance of having a "richness of model.” They said that when people came with this or that difficulty, they found that their ability to overcome their problem was largely based in their "richness of model.”  If one had a thin model of life and its possibilities, they would have little probability of finding new ways of living which would improve their relationships. If their model of life was varied and open, with many possibilities envisioned, they would have a much higher probability of adapting to new ways of being.[5]

            "What is it,” we might ask, "that would contribute to a person’s ‘richness of model?’”  I wouldn’t want to limit such a discussion among us—but I am convinced that before education, before life experience, before even the quality of our relationships which have brought us along—I would say, one of the possible contributing factors to a person’s ‘richness of model’ is religious imagination.

            For that is where we name our experience, that is where we forge our relationship to what is, that is where we know who we are, what we are living for, and where our yearning is.

            For what is the poetic, but an attempt to name experience in a relational way?

            I can hear Walt (that would be Whitman) saying

            You air that serves me with breath to speak!

            You objects that call from diffusion and give

                        them shape!

            You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable

                        showers

            You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!

            I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so

                        dear to me. . . [6]

            Religious imagination opens us to an encompassing "You” of life that takes on a complexity of relationship (a richness of model) we can nurture and cultivate, for ourselves, and for those with whom we minister.

            But then there is Harry Scholefield raising a hand and saying, "Wait I have something to say.” This isn’t about preaching, or counseling, or the various ways we speak in our ministries—it is about our own depth as ministers. It is about living into the language of our ministries.”

            "How’s your meditative life,” he would say to me.

            ”You talk about Images for Our Lives. You mean Images for Our Lives.Yours and mine. For how can we speak to the depths, if we are living in the shallows of busyness, where more than a few of us abide.

            Late in Harry’s ministry he significantly changed the way he worked, trying to have his ministry arise more from the depths of his experience, than from the demands of the moment. He had always memorized poetry, and so he increasingly turned to the poetry he had memorized as a kind of mantra for meditation.

            He said that the more he leaned into wisdom words from scripture and poets, and even such prose as the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural—the more he sat with those words, the more they began to associate—with other poems, with experiences in his life, with creative realities entering into the conversation.

            What Langer had said about the associative properties of language suddenly became substantive in a person whose life and practice I could see. Here was a man who might have called himself a Religious Humanist. He certainly wasn’t a Christian, or a Theist. He worried over the use of the word God—and yet found solace in the 139th Psalm, found grounding for his activism in the words of the Prophets, especially Amos, and found his inner life peopled with Rumi and Rilke.

            Here was Associative Devotional Practice.

            Juxtaposing images in a sermon, or using the words God/she to break open the concretizing tendency of language and refresh meaning, are less tools of the trade, and more sources for the soul—certainly where our  ministries have to originate if we are to do any good. Memorizing scripture and poetry and prose has become a spiritual practice for me, and a way into the spiritual lives of the very real people with whom I minister.

            In other words, juxtaposing words and images began to arise from within my own being, out of my own spiritual practice,” having their own conversation,” Harry might have said—but to my mind, creating the kind of cognitive dissonances that keeps my life open and fresh.

            Some of us have "found” poetry. We certainly have enough inspirational writing to keep us going for the next century. But at the end of the poem with which we begin a board or program council meeting—when we all pause for an appropriately  thoughtful moment before plunging into the business of the evening—at that moment, where is the "living word?” Where is the word of our lives, of our hearts? Harry was right. It’s where we live. And unless our lives are expressed in those words of inspiration—they will go the way of all concretized words, into the hardened blocks of calcified religion, of no living use or help in the pains and joys of our lives.

            I don’t know about your congregation, but mine has within it the full range of human joy and despair. I learned in my years at a church in a University town, that the people didn’t come to church to have an Adjunct to the University. They came to church to nourish their spiritual natures, to give voice to their hopes and their despair, to speak depth to depth with others, finding their natures beyond psychological language, and their purpose beyond political categories—to find meaning, purpose, and understanding in the religious language of the centuries, of necessity broken open yet one more time through association, through cognitive dissonance, through the naming of common yearnings and hopes, as well as failures. Challenging dogma wherever it occurs, in others and in ourselves. And taking religious language back from the fundamentalists, from the literalists who claim it as if it had always been their own. Seeing poetry and metaphor and some amazing examples of prose that serve as a scripture for our time, as much as the scriptures which have spoken to generations before us, before they were calcified and solidified by the process of concretization and allowed to die.

            We not only need to invite poets into the rooms of our hearts, but we need to invite our spiritual ancestors as well. They are raising a hand or two, wanting to be heard. If we say, "We’ll listen but don’t use any words that have become solidified in the meantime, no matter how fulsome they were for you”—we will have cut ourselves off, not only from our spiritual DNA, but from one part of the conversation that we desperately need to have.

            Our President has called us to a language of reverence. We need a language of reverence. We need a language of forgiveness. We need a language of reconciliation. A language of hope. A language that gives voice to despair. To name a few. That language for centuries, and in countless cultures has been metaphorical, it has pointed beyond itself to something much deeper than it could name. It is our turn to keep such language alive, hold it to our hearts, and speak to the depths of those who so desperately need our good word.

 


[1] Meland, Fallible Forms and Symbols, p. 184.

[2] Booth, Letter from a Distant Land: Poems by Philip Booth. p. 60; may be available at http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/first-lesson/

[3] Langer, Philosophy in a New Key p. 100.

[4] Sexton, An Awful Rowing Toward God,  p. 85-86; may be available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_23_120/ai_111114163

[5] Richard Bandler and John Grinder. The Structure of Magic: Language and Therapy. Also referenced in Roy Phillip’s essay "Preaching as a Sacramental Event” in Transforming Words, William Schulz, ed. p. 25

[6] Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road, (Stanza 3A) Leaves of Grass, p. 137