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Worship Service for Excellence In RE Conference

Misunderstanding and Meaning: Children and the Language of Faith

Clara Barton District
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Chalice Lighting words

(These words were written by a 9-year-old child in one of the congregations I served)

This is our symbol of freedom: the chalice
It brings us together.
Happiness, sadness, we share it here.
We come here to rest, to gain thoughts
We come here to remember loved ones and births.
The chalice is our bond.

Meditation (from a very old Celtic prayer)

I weave a silence onto my lips
I weave a silence into my mind
I weave a silence within my heart
I close my ears to distractions
I close my eyes to attractions…
Let me be calm
Let me be still
Let all tumult within me cease
Let me be enfolded in peace.

In the peace of morning, and before we have too far begun this day of work and learning and engagement and busyness, let’s sit in quiet and rest our minds. Pray your own prayers, if that is your way, or remember your loved ones and births, or simply breathe and listen to the sounds of morning.

Silence, followed by meditation bell.

Sermon: Misunderstanding and Meaning: Children and the Language of Faith

The poet David Whyte writes about the limitations of words in one of his poems. It is a bit ironic that a poet should write about the limits of words, perhaps, because of course a poet’s work is all about the strength and usefulness and beauty of words. But I think Whyte is trying to say something about how the very power of words is in their ability to move us to a place beyond words, a place of breathing and being, a place where our hearts and our lives can be opened to something beyond words. He writes:

Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life we have refused
Again and again
Until now. Until now.
(from the poem, Loaves and Fishes, by David Whyte)

Several years ago we had a visitor to the church I serve in Groton. She was looking for a new congregation and after the service came and introduced herself to me. She said she liked the words of the service quite a lot, she liked my sermon, she liked everything except the children. “Are you planning on doing anything about them?” she asked. I suspected I knew what she meant, but in these moments I find it is better not to assume; also, if the other person is going to make an unkind or prejudicial statement I think it is important for them to be the one to actually say the unkind words, not me. So I simply asked, “What were you hoping I would do about the children?” “Make them be quiet,” she said without hesitation, “or send them to children’s church. I loved all your words, but the kids ruined it for me.”

She presented an interesting dilemma: is there room in our congregation for someone who doesn’t want to be around children, to hear the sounds of children (though in our children’s defense, I must add that our kids are not particularly loud, at least in my opinion. They seem to me to be pretty good at doing church right alongside the grownups.) I believe that there is absolutely room for her but I don’t believe there is room in our congregations for prejudice against children, in the same way there is not room for homophobia or racism, unless she can hold those thoughts quietly and not act on them.

I told her, gently I hope, that I wasn’t planning on doing anything about our children. “You could come to church half an hour late, after the kids leave for church school classes.” She didn’t return, but her visit and the way she phrased her discontent, I loved your words but the kids ruined it, presumably the noise of the children took something important away from the words, this raised questions for me, concerns really, about our Unitarian Universalist love of words.

I wonder, sometimes, about our reliance on words. Does our passion for words, our attachment to words, our worship services so very full of words help us deepen in our spiritual lives? I suspect that silence often serves us better than words, in fact, silence and breathing or singing or dancing or painting - all these things which move us to a place beyond words. I suspect you know this already, which is perhaps why you are here today, to learn about nurturing the spirits and hearts of children. What I didn’t say to the visitor, was that perhaps what she came come to church seeking, the presence of something holy and sacred, was actually to be found in the presence of the children. Maybe my words were a distraction from that sacred presence and not the other way around.

One of the great troubles and in my mind hilarious curiosities of words is that the words of religion are so easily misunderstood. I am fascinated by how children make meaning of what they don’t understand about religion and about how children fill in the gaps in their understanding with meanings of their own. A good example of this is a parent who recently reported to me that her child wanted to know why everyone in the congregation wanted her to go to the bathroom. The mother was totally perplexed until the child specified: They all sing to me, “Go now and pee, Go now and pee.” We don’t, of course, but we do sing “Go now in peace” when the children leave the sanctuary for church school. These misunderstandings are not just true for Unitarian Universalism, but for all religions of course. An informal survey of friends and members of my congregation revealed some startling examples:

The Lord’s Prayer has been the source of numerous and varied misunderstandings beginning with Our Father, Howard be thy name. Other variations on this part of the Lord’s Prayer I heard about include Our Father who art in heaven, horrid by thy name; Harold be thy name and the particularly odd and scary, hollow bees thy name. The person who thought the prayer was about hollow bees never understood what God had to do with hollow bees except that maybe God did something to the bees to make them hollow and she thinks this is why she has always been deathly afraid of bees.

The end of the Lord’s Prayer also presented problems to many as children. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil has been misunderstood as deliver us from eagles; deliver us from weevils; and the decidedly modern misinterpretation, deliver us some email.

Christmas carols are another cause of much confusion, with their arcane phrasing and unfamiliar words. Of course there is the inevitable sleep now in heavenly peas. One member of my congregation said he always used to wonder about the relationship between the baby Jesus and well water because he thought the hymn the First Noel went: no well, no well, born is the king of Israel.

Sometimes these misunderstandings persist well into adulthood because we don’t think to question what we already think we understand. One recent Christmas, a member of my family asked me “Where is Orientar anyway? I have always wondered about that.”

Sometimes the problem with religious language is that it is too symbolic for literal minded children to possibly grasp. Like the child who threw up in the collection box at the back of her church marked, “for the sick,” it can be hard to explain abstract religious concepts in a way that makes sense to children.

My first year in ministry, I blithely told the children of my congregation that their dreams were inside of them. Then I handed them little sealed tubes of sparkly glitter and stupidly said something like, these are like your dreams, all sparkly inside of you. That afternoon one of the younger kids went to her mother holding up the glitter tube and asked, “How should I get the dreams inside me, should I swallow the whole thing or just eat the glitter?” Thank goodness she asked and I learned something, needless to say, about the dangers of metaphor.

But still, I love these linguistic confusions. I love the quirky and often poetic and hilarious turns of phrase that change the meaning of something so drastically. These twists of language are such vivid reminders of the limits of our language when speaking about things of faith. They also remind me of the wonderful ingenuity and persistence of children in creating coherence out of things they don’t understand. A child in our congregation recently visited a Catholic church for the first time to attend a funeral mass and was unprepared for the sight of the crucifix hanging over the altar. “Daddy, he asked with alarm, “why is that man hanging on a plus sign?” So Jesus on the cross becomes a man on a plus sign. We sing our children to the bathroom before church school. Making meaning is what the spiritual journey is all about and the misunderstandings remind us that meaning making is always a creative process and language is not the only medium of our creativity.

Misunderstandings can also remind us that religious truth lies deeper than the language we have to describe it. Our language is so limited when it comes to describing awe, mystery. It is hard to put into words what happens in those fleeting moments when the world stands still, when we really see something or someone’s beauty, when we feel a connection to one another and to the universe, when something shifts inside us, when our hearts open in some way that they were closed before.

The language of faith can be complicated for those of who are struggling to find new definitions and metaphors and images than the ones we may have learned as children. For some of us, certain words, words such as God, sin, salvation, evil, Lord, Savior, become impossible to use and even difficult to hear. Certain words become loaded with the power to confuse and hurt and alienate. We may crave a language that is inclusive of our ideas and beliefs, a language that welcomes and reflects our many different understandings of the holy. On the one hand, the effort to find new religious language is a very good thing. Our understanding is deepened and expanded when we come to see that the word God is a name and that the name is not the thing. New language can help us question and shift and transform the ideas or images we have associated with God. Speaking of God as Mother, for example, is a jolt to the ear of those who have imagined God as male. New language can surprise us into thinking about things in a new way, re-defining things we have always assumed we understood.

I am sure you have all heard the joke that Unitarian Universalists are poor singers because everyone is always reading ahead to make sure they agree with the words so we are too busy to actually sing the hymn. And with many such jokes, there is probably a tiny bit of truth to this. Unitarian Universalists are in general a people very concerned that the language used in our worship services reflects the diversity of our belief and experience. We think it is very important that our language is inclusive and our images diverse. But my caution for us is that we do not get stuck in our need for a perfect language. My caution for us is that we need to remember that our language will never be perfect and if we are so busy translating all the time, we forget to sing, and then we miss the joy that singing can bring.

I did not grow up in a religious tradition but for most of my childhood I attended Christmas Eve services with my best childhood friend, who was Episcopalian. I remember one year when I was home from college I attended the Christmas Eve service as I had always done and the language of the service was the same as it ever was. But I, having just finished my first women and religion class, was different. I was intensely bothered by the masculine language used to describe God and all the patriarchal references (I had just learned the word patriarchy) to God as king and ruler and sovereign lord. I did spend most of that service reading ahead and trying to translate the language into something I found more acceptable, changing pronouns where I could, substituting humankind for mankind and remaining silent when I couldn’t figure out another way to say things fast enough. I was working so hard on my personal translation of the Episcopal prayer book that it became impossible for me to participate - to take in anything of what was happening in the service. The peace and beauty and holiness of the candlelight service, despite its imperfect language, was completely lost to me that night.

My own journey with language has continued to move and change. Along with my peers, I was forced to wrestle mightily with the language of faith the summer I did my hospital chaplaincy training and was regularly asked to pray with patients. How to pray? To whom to address those prayers? In whose name should I pray? Our supervisors told us all repeatedly when we got caught up in hot theological debates about language (debates which are probably endemic to graduate students everywhere), “You are not praying with patients for your own edification and enlightenment. You are praying for them. They are sick or facing surgery. They are afraid and in pain. They do not need to enter into theological discussions with seminary students about why God the Father or in the Name of Jesus Christ is not inclusive enough. Forget yourself. Use their language. Pray with and for the patients.”

It was good advice. Now many years later, I have become much more relaxed about religious language. I do not cringe inwardly when I am confronted with language that does not include my beliefs or represent my understandings. I notice, but I feel more and more sure that my understanding of God, of holiness is so small compared to what that holiness actually is. I have a growing sense, a sense that grows stronger the longer I am a minister, that I actually know so little of the vastness that is the mystery and awe of God that I don’t worry so much about the language I hear or the language I speak. We all see a small part of the whole and we can only try to name the parts that we know, with the words that are available to us. It isn’t really enough. And then again, it is.

Because words are important. Words are what we have. We also have music and silence and painting and dance but we have chosen words as one of the primary ways we communicate to one another and teach our children about what is sacred to us. And words can be powerful and beautiful and words can move us closer to the holy ground upon which we yearn to stand, even as we are already there. We are a people of the word. Most of us need words to express our inward experiences of what is divine and life-changing and wrenching and joyful and transformative. We use words to understand each other. We use words to reach across the gap that separates us from one another. We use words to connect us to each other and to the larger mystery.

I am going to end today by sharing some of my favorite words about the language of faith. This is a story from a book I love called Undercurrents: A Therapist’s Reckoning With Her Own Depression by Martha Manning, a clinical psychologist. It is a journal record, both very painful and very beautiful, of the author’s experience of depression and healing. Manning writes:

August 10, 1991 A six year old named Ben is referred to me. He is preoccupied with his infant brother Stephen, who died six months ago…Ben is a freckle faced redhead dressed in a baseball shirt and jeans. He looks the kind of kid who is probably harboring a member of the reptile family in one of his pockets. When I ask him what is on his mind, he tells me he is sad because he can’t stop thinking about his brother. I ask him how he pictures Stephen now.

He answers, “Mom and Dad think he’s in heaven with all the other kids that got dead.” He gets very quiet and stares that the floor. I let the silence surround us for a while. “But I don’t know about God and heaven. I can’t see it in my head.”

“So Mom and Dad’s picture doesn’t help you like it helps them,” I suggest. He looks ashamed and answers, “No.” We are both quiet for several seconds and I feel an aching sadness fill up the space between us. “Some people think that when you die you come back as other things,” he says. “Really?,” I ask, “like what?”

“Like animals and trees and flowers and stuff like that.” He smiles as he says it but then instantly pulls back and insists, “But of course I don’t believe that!” I smile mischievously and prod him, “Yeah but if you did, what would you come back as?”

“I’d come back as a bluejay…because I like the bird and I like the team.” And Mom” I ask, “What would she come back as?” A cardinal…and Dad would be an eagle, a bald one.” We laugh. Things get quiet again. “And Stephen,” I ask softly, “What would Stephen be?”

He things for a moment and replies, “Stephen would be the water that we all drink from.”

“The water? Like in a bird bath?” I ask.

“Yeah, but not just a birdbath. That would run out. Like the water in all the creeks and all the rivers and all the oceans. And the birds could drink from it and never run out…not never. Stephen could be the water.” (pp 182-183)

Words are what we have. Words are what we have to explain to our children and to allow our children to explain to us, the sorry and mystery and joy of our living. It is not enough. And, of course, it is.

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