Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Words Matter: NCC conversation in Chicago August 9-11 considered how we speak about each other and God

photo by David Skidmore on Ann Tiemeyers camera

Words Matter: by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

“For slightly less than half my life I was an intentionally de-churched person. Although the faith of my childhood had been a source of great comfort to me I also found that church to hold a very narrow view of God. My own prayer life suggested to me that God was much more expansive than the church was teaching me. And so while I left the institutional church when I was 15, not to return until I was 31, I never left my relationship with God, or at least I never left my pursuit of a life of faith. “

“A few years after I became de-churched, sometime around the year 1975, I found myself, and my college roommates on a pursuit for enlightenment. By the early 1980’s I’d wandered through a variety of new age pursuits, crystals and yoga, and meditation. One day, while meditating it occurred to me that I still celebrated Christmas and Easter. And not just in a social way, for the gifts and the parties, but in a sacred way. Christmas and Easter were, for me, holy days, even if I didn’t go to church. And with that thought I realized I was still a Christian. I didn’t fully understand then, what it meant to maintain a belief in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and the transformational potential....”

So began my reflection offered at the recent “Words Matter” conference hosted by the National Council of Churches and its Justice for Women Working Group Expansive Language subcommittee. The group, formed more intentionally last fall, began in earnest in December, 2009 pondering ways to expand the initial concept and ongoing conversation begun by the subcommittee some years ago. Focused on developing a variety of conversations around the language we use to talk about human beings and God, the Expansive Language group planned and orchestrated a conference in Chicago, August 9-11.

The stories told by the group called us to expand contextual cultural attentiveness—understanding that language speaks differently in different contexts. NaKeisha S. Blount, joint staff of the United Church of Christ and the National Council of Churches, who is affiliated with the American Baptist and Progressive National Baptist Churches, described the huge cultural difference she often moves between, calling for more understanding of one another’s contexts. “Truth be told, there are those who are opposed to language like ‘God the Father’ because they never had a father, or they had a distant or abusive father,” Blount said, using a common example in discussions of language. “But truth be told,” she continued, “there are those who would deeply grieve the loss of ‘God the Father’ because they never had a father, or they had a distant or abusive father.”

The stories told by the group showed us that in an environment created through respectful intentional listening, compliance to rules about specific words was not as helpful as commitment to understanding the impact of the power of language. “There was no list of forbidden words created; rather, we pursued a consciousness of how language shapes our own experience as well as the experience of others – precious wisdom,” remarked Inez Torres-Davis, Director for Justice of Women of the ELCA.

This kind of commitment can lead to real, meaningful analysis of systems of power that oppose the Gospel; extending a life-affirming hospitality within the church and community. Sue Hedahl, Professor at Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary, characterized campus discussion around language there as revolving around the difference between “compliance” and “commitment,” and agrees that understanding what it at stake in the language we use is more valuable than simply following a list of rules.

The stories told by the group also called us to spread this conversation to as many different places as possible. In beginning to think about how to spread these conversations, the participants acknowledged the need for a variety of methods that might include listening, dialogue, liturgy and hymnody, humor, story-telling, art, and social media networks.

The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, Chair of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific said this, “While the Episcopal Church has been at work on expansive language texts for over two decades, the extent of their use varies. I’m delighted that a new resource is being created to encourage dialogue about this important topic.”

What was learned at this gathering will be shared with the NCC Justice for Women Working Group to discern the next steps to spread these conversations as broadly as possible. Participants were invited to be an ongoing part of the process. Inez Davis, also a member of the working group, said, “Our hope is to have such conversations occur in congregations, pericope studies, classrooms, forums, Sunday schools, pulpits, and so forth…The scholarship on expanding language has been done, including liberation, mujerista, womanist, feminist, GLBT, ableist, patriarchal, and other analyses of power within the faith and within those who hold the faith. It is now time to begin applying this knowledge.”

The story I shared concluded with a reflection on making bread, in part because I was member of the planning team for this event and co-organizer for our worship time at the event. But also because for me bread making is a symbol for Christ, for the body of Christ gathered, for God active in the world. I wrote, “I've been thinking about bread lately in part because I had to decide if I was going to make bread or buy ready-made bread for our final worship service. It would have been much easier to just buy four or five loaves of bread. But somehow store bought bread just didn't seem right. Making bread for this worship represents, for me, the coming together of many separate and distinct ingredients and creating a whole. Considering what we are hoping to create in and from this gathering making the bread just seemed right. We are after all considering the words, images, and symbols that speak to us about Christ, about God, about faith, about community. For me bread is a symbol, an image, and a word that speaks to those elements we are considering.”

“The bread I made is intended to represent diversity too. I made a gluten free loaf that is white and crumbly, a white/whole wheat blend that is caramel colored and slightly sweet, a whole wheat that is a warm brown, and a rye/bulgur blend that is dark and earthy. Our final worship will have breads of different flavors, colors, and textures. The bread will not be consecrated with the words that, in some traditions, my own included, make it holy, make it the Body of Christ. But the bread holds the prayers I prayed while making it, prayers for a grace filled conversation. The bread will receive our prayers and thoughts as we prepare to consume it. And somehow, by the generosity of the Spirit, present with us in this gathering, I hope the bread is for us, as it is for me, a symbol, an image, of the Incarnation, of the Resurrection, of the presence of Christ, of the Body of Christ, of you and me, of community.”

Among the 25 participants, 8 were men, 6 were under 30, 3 openly identified as LGBT, 8 were clergy, 9 were lay, 5 were seminary professors, 3 were seminarians, PhD candidates or recent grads. 3 participants identified as Latino/a, 7 as African American, 3 as Asian, 1 as Native American, 8 as Caucasian, and 3 as mixed/bi-racial.

Participants came from the following communions: The African Methodist Episcopal Church, The American Baptist Church, The Episcopal Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Orthodox Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., The Roman Catholic Church, The United Church of Christ, and The United Methodist Church.

Portions of this article were excerpted with permission from an article written by Megan Manas and published on the: NCC Justice for Women website.


Anonymous said...

Finally something on Language that makes sense to me. Not being really a feminist much of the difficulty with God the Father passes me by and living in a world where people with white skins are persecuted because of the colour of their skin I have learned about racism in quite another way. But your language here opens the doors wider and takes us away from common usage and brings in those whose experience may be on the periphery.

Much as my reading of Jesus words in the Gospel.

Thank you and those who participated for having this discussion and opening your conclusions to the wider world.

Sherry Peyton said...

I'm reading an anthology of women's voices on theology, the bible, liturgy, justice, etc., and am finding that I am in a transitional place, questioning where I am and why, finding some things too complacent, to easy. Just wandering, and frankly feeling quite peaceful about it all. Words matter indeed, and I find that I change scripture without thinking now, to reflect a more inclusive way of thinking. Thanks for a lovely post.

Rebecca Ramsey said...

I love your analogy of bread making to choosing language that includes everyone.
This is truly beautiful.

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