Opening Words, from Walt Whitman:
A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,
Were you thinking that those were the words, those
upright lines? Those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the ground and sea,
They are in the air, they are in you.
Were you thinking that those were the words, those
delicious sounds out of your friends’ mouths?
No, the real words are more delicious than they.
Air, soil, water, fire—those are words,
I myself am a word with them—my qualities interpenetrate
with theirs –
A healthy presence, a friendly or commanding gesture,
are words, sayings, meanings,
The charms that go with the mere looks of some men and
women, are sayings and meanings also.
The workmanship of souls is by those inaudible words of
The masters know the earth’s words and use them more than
I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.
I swear I will never henceforth have to do with the faith that tells the best,
I will have to do only with that faith that leaves the best untold.
Sermon: Bad Words
A good word works; it communicates clearly and precisely what the person using the word intended.
A bad word, as I’m using the term today, is a word that has the opposite effect as the person using the word intended. Bad words in the context of our Sunday services, or the other ways we communicate, is one that causes someone to feel confused, uncomfortable, unwelcome.
Words are powerful; they can be used creatively and they can be harmful or destructive.
Have you noticed how the Biblical creation myth, which informs the world-view of Jews, Christians and Muslims, says that God created everything out of nothing by using a word? This is a Truth story about us, the humans that have been evolving on this planet for millions of years. The Genesis story says:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
“And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness…
“And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters…and God called the firmament Heaven.”
God created everything from nothing simply by saying a word. God made humans, in his own image. The story says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Then God looked at everything he had made, and behold, it was very good, and on the seventh day he rested.
So says Genesis, chapter one, the first creation story.
Chapter two, the second, alternative story of creation, is different. After creating everything with a word each day for six days in chapter one, the first creation myth, chapter two has God decide to create humans out of the earth itself:
“Then the Lord God formed man of the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.”
You know what happens next: God puts man in a beautiful Garden in Eden and he speaks to the first man, giving instructions, as any good creator would do.
“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Then God creates some more: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field…”
He realized that the man was still lonely, so God puts man to sleep and takes a rib and makes a helpmate fit for him — a woman.
Along comes the serpent and uses words–he convinces the woman to eat the forbidden fruit, and the rest is history, or more accurately, the rest is mythology, with a little history mixed in.
Remember the line in the recent film and play, History Boys, when one of the boys is asked to define history: “It’s just one bloody thing after another.”
The Biblical version of history is filled with ‘one bloody thing after another;’ filled with conflict; all kinds of conflict, much of it bloody, much of it was the result of miscommunication—bad words.
In the first chapter of Genesis, words are used to create. The second chapter is more ‘earthy.’ God gets his hands dirty; he picks up some clay to form a man and he blows into ‘spirit of life’ into the man: “…and man became a living soul.”
Like the good parent he’s trying to be, he tells his children a little white lie, to try to protect them. He tells them not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ‘for on the day you eat of it you shall die.’
They don’t die, of course. The bold serpent told the truth: “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
This is an interesting characteristic that man shares with God, or the gods: to know good and evil is to be god-like; in the story, it’s what distinguishes both God and mankind…to know good and evil, to realize your own potential to create and to destroy life. To be ‘in the image of God,’ then, is to realize your own potential for good and evil.
“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.”
Then they did a very human-like thing: they tried to cover up – it was the first cover-up, lots to follow. They didn’t have the facility with language to devise a verbal cover up—that came a little later, when words were broadcast in newspapers, radio and television. The man and woman were ashamed, which is an interesting word that also describes what it means to be human—to be aware of one’s faults, failures and limitations; to be capable of feeling guilty. Anyone not capable of feeling guilty is referred to as a sociopath—something essential is missing.
So they try to hide from God, which is like a fish trying to hide from the water!
It’s such a human story, isn’t it. That’s what a myth is supposed to be. The creation myth never ceases to fascinate me. All the stories in the book of Genesis are captivating because they point to truths about what it means to be human. I like Joseph Campbell’s idea that a good myth is a Truth story, not a true story.
The original point, however, is that in the Biblical account God created everything with a word. First came the nouns and pronouns. Right away, on the heels of the nouns and pronouns, along come the verbs, and the adjectives and adverbs followed soon after.
Language can be creative, helping us to understand life, to appreciate what’s happening–helping us to understand our world and one another, helping us to form relationships, and to create religions; it’s all about words that have created all the hundreds of religions of the world which have done so much good in the world, and so much harm.
Words can be creative, helping us to live with one another; and words can be destructive, separating us from one another by having an in-group and an out-group, setting us against one another by claiming to be God’s favorite.
It happens in this sanctuary, our house of prayer, or God’s house, our church, where we come to worship on our Sabbath and to nurture our spirituality and deepen our faith, where we come to feed the soul in a sacred atmosphere in the spirit of Jesus; to light our chalice led by Reverend Margie, as we work out our salvation, helped by the angels that guide us, with sermons carefully crafted by an infallible preacher who inspires us to join together against the forces of evil.
Did you hear any bad words in that paragraph?
The words God, sanctuary, prayer, church, worship, Sabbath, spirituality, faith, soul, sacred, Jesus, chalice, Reverend, angels, sermons, infallible and evil, have all been labeled ‘bad words’ by people who have told me that one or more of those words ‘sticks in their craw.’
Good words can help us to create meaningful, authentic, caring and lasting relationships; bad words harm our relationships; they cause us to feel uncomfortable, excluded, upset, defensive and angry.
Words can destroy a relationship; a careless word here and there can cause serious problems. Words stimulate memories, some of which are conscious, some forgotten, and some with which we’re not aware until they get pushed up from that deep place, triggered by a particular word.
Some word are intended to be harmful and hurtful; racist words, sexist words, homophobic words like the vile word Ann Coulter used to describe John Edwards last week as a “faggot.”
Words can be used to heal the wounds of racism, sexism and homophobia; words can bring us together, bridging the gaps that separate us; and words can be used to turn us against one another, causing hurt feelings, arguments, disagreements, creating enemies, inciting violence, and ultimately leading us into wars.
It’s important for us to look at the various conflicts in the world today, conflicts caused by careless or hurtful words. We also need to be sensitive to the words we use right here in this sanctuary.
In addition to the failures of language to communicate clearly and effectively, each of us has words that click off something in us, causing us to feel uncomfortable, or causing an angry response, or a defensive response.
Most of us are here, in the Unitarian Universalist faith, because we took issue with things that we were told in the creeds, dogmas and doctrines of the religion of our childhood.
I try to use words carefully. Early on in my ministry I talked in a sermon about my dear grandmother who, I said, was ‘an angel,’ sitting on my shoulder, reassuring me that things were okay and I was okay, in spite of myself. I was, of course, talking about the ongoing influence my grandmother has on me, and my precious memories of the love that she loved into me.
After using the word ‘angel’ to describe my grandmother, an angry woman approached me and said, “I left the angels back in the Catholic church!” I responded, somewhat defensively, “Really! It sounds to me like you’re still carrying it.”
She helped me to be more aware of ‘bad words.’ She helped me to realize that I need to explain what I mean by certain words. “Truly speaking, it is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another soul,” says Emerson. Criticism that is heard without a defensive reaction can lead us into new insights. That’s exactly what this woman’s reaction to the word angels did for me, though admittedly my first response was more defensive than I wish.
In our order of service this morning I included the responsive reading from one of the founders of Unitarianism, way back in Transylvania in the 1500’s, Francis David, who said, Egy Az Isten: “God is indivisible. God is one.” Our Unitarian partner churches in Transylvania have carve this theological affirmation on the front of their pulpits.
Notice, Francis David didn’t say ‘there is one god.’ He said, “God is one.” Do you see the difference? To say ‘God is one,’ suggests to me that we are all part of the Great One-ness of this creation, the vast majority of which is and remains a mystery to us mortals; it reminds us of our need for humility in the face of the vastness of a universe we’ve only begun to understand.
Another tricky term is the word ‘faith.’ The great Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich wrote a book he called Dynamics of Faith; the introductory sentence says, “There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions and questionable definitions than the world ‘faith.’ It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men.”
Isn’t that a nice line: “It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men.”
You have your own list of what those terms are – terms that need healing before they can be used for healing: bad words.
Last week I was introduced to a woman who attended church for the first time and we chatted; it was her first experience in a Unitarian church. I asked about her background, and she said Catholic, her friend interrupted with a smile and said, “She’s a recovering Catholic.”
We chatted for a minute about her religious experience and I said, “It sounds to me like you’ve recovered.” She smiled and said, “Oh, yes, I’m not angry with the Catholic Church, I’ve just moved beyond what I saw as the confines of the church.”
We have to do three things: move beyond the wounded past, taking the best we found or discovering things we didn’t realize were gifts at the time; we have to live in the present in a healthful way, contributing something to the world, enhancing the quality of life of those with whom we’re sharing the planet; and we have to embrace an enthusiastic vision of the future.
Bad words get in the way of those three things; they cause problems unnecessarily. They get in the way of good, creative, caring relationships. They cause confusion, annoyance and anger.
The problem is that a bad word for you might be a good word for many of the other people in the room.
Someone asked if my sermon on ‘bad words’ would include George Carlin’s famous list. Carlin says, “I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I uh, I think is important. I love words…as I say, they’re my work, they’re my play, they’re my passion. Words are all we have really.
“We have thoughts, but thoughts are fluid. You know, [humming]. And, then we assign a word to a thought, [clicks tongue]. And we’re stuck with that word for that thought. So be careful with words. I like to think, yeah, the same words that hurt can heal. It’s a matter of how you pick them.
“There are some people that aren’t into all the words. There are some people who would have you not use certain words. Yeah, there are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them that you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is. 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous, to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you seven. Bad words. That’s what they told us they were, remember? ‘That’s a bad word.’ ‘Awwww.’ There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad Intentions.”
My list of bad words includes words that people have told me make them uncomfortable or confused; they either don’t work, as I’ve intended, or they work against us. People have told me that the words God, angels, prayer, sermon, church, faith, chalice, reverend, pledge, praise, sin, salvation, worship, and sanctuary belong on that list.
I could tell you what I mean by each of them, to justify my using them in the context of this community, but each of these words has triggered something to make someone uncomfortable. “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear,” Frank Lunz says as the subtitle of his book, Words That Work.
The word church presents a particularly challenging problem; it has been an insurmountable barrier to some who might otherwise become members of the congregation.
It’s not only people with Jewish background, who have felt the sting of anti-Semitism, but many with a Christian background that they left under uncomfortable circumstances who have a problem with it.
Some suggest that a solution to the problem with the word church in our name is to change our name, as many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations have done, calling themselves fellowships or society or simply the Unitarian Congregation in Westport.
Do you remember the encounter between Alice and Humpty Dumpty?
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’
Well, we all know what happened to poor old Humpty Dumpty – scrambled eggs!
Good words communicate clearly. Effectively. Good words create understanding, mutual respect. Trust. Good words help to create caring relationships.
Bad words are divisive. Some religious words cause problems, confusion, and trigger things we didn’t even realize were there.
It’s good for us to wrestle with some of those words, in part so we can understand one another, but at a deeper level we need to wrestle with some problematic words so we can understand ourselves and what’s making us tick, and why we get ticked off.
I asked what ‘bad words’ would you add to the list and had several responses.
Lucia Scott, for example, wrote; “I enjoyed reading your letter in Soundings (about troublesome words.) A word that immediately came to mind was “ministry” or the phrase to “minister to”. I refer to our Small Groups as Small Groups – and find myself avoiding the ministry word. I understand the intent – however the word, to me, is so loaded with religious, Christian, and charitable heaviness. To think of myself as “ministering” to another feels pompous, patronizing and out of character. I can help, support, but not minister. Some people choose to become (professional) Ministers. That is much different than having the word generally applied. I have tried to get over this particular word hang-up. The feelings attached must be very deep. I understand it intellectually but that’s not good enough. I don’t want to be involved in a “ministry”. I love the Small Group. Go figure.”
Several others responded with their list of bad words. Some sent lists of good words. We’ll continue to work to convert the bad words to good; that’s our missionary work!
We’ll close with those famous words Juliet spoke to her beloved Romeo:
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.