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To Dare or Not to Dare? Reclaiming Language

Service Leader: Jo-Anne Elder-Gomes

November 5, 2006

Opening Words

Chalice Lighting: To Dare to Be Religious...
Breath of the divine, light a flame of reflection in all that we do.
Breath of creation, light a flame of connection in our circle of care.
Breath of wonder, light a flame of inspiration to cultivate participation.
Breath of fear, light a flame of courage to be who we are: sentient, vulnerable, and diverse.
Breath of this moment, light a flame of celebration - for our future unfolds the covenant of this day.
--- By Janet Vickers

Souffle du divin, donnez vie a la flamme de la reflexion pour decouvrir le sens profond de nos actes
Souffle de la creation, donnez vie a la flamme de la compassion pour creer des liens qui nous unissent
Souffle de l'emerveillement, donnez vie a la flamme de l'inspiration pour nous inciter a la participation active de tout notre etre.
Souffle de la peur, donnez vie a la flamme du courage pour etre qui nous sommes : consciencieux, vulnerables et diversifies.
Souffle du moment, donnez vie a la flamme de la celebration pour que notre avenir puisse se deployer grace a notre engagement d'aujourd'hui
--- Jo-Anne Elder-Gomes, with Lucie-Marie Castonguay-Bowers and Gilles Marchildon

Hymn #123: Spirit of Life

Story: Those Words

Joys and Sorrows
Based on the words of Rev. Brian Kiely:

"How can we care for one another if we don't know each other's stories? We need to know . . . that it is acceptable to HAVE a personal story, whether you share it publicly, privately or not at all. We are all flawed beings moving through a flawed world. We all encounter challenges at some point in our lives that seem too much to bear. This Joys and Sorrows ritual is our weekly reminder to those who are sad, that wonderful things can and do happen everyday. And it equally a reminder to the happy and healthy, that others need their support and friendship when they are able to give it." I invite you to share your personal stories of joy or sorrow.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
T. S. Eliot

Dorothy Smith: "Every utterance contains the speaker/writer's creative struggle to make a language that is pre-given and determines how she can mean, mean what she wants in the actual local settings in which she speaks or writes."

"I am looking for a way of speaking and writing of the power that brings us to life and keeps us going, the power that holds up when we can't imagine how we are managing not to collapse. ...

This root of justice, where is it in our lives? How do we experience the sacred, that which will liberate us from lives that do not connect in mutually empowering ways? To whom do we turn for help?" Carter Heyward, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God

From Rev. Charles Eddis: "The question is not, does God exist? The question is, how is faith in God possible? And what sort of God? Faith is not belief. It is a quality that involves relationship, a relationship of trust. Well did Martin Luther say, `Whatever thy heart clings to and relies upon, that properly is thy God.' "

"Each of us is here now because in one way or another we share a commitment to language and to the power of language, and to the reclaiming of that language which has been made to work against us. In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation." Audre Lorde, "The transformation of silence into Language and Action," in Sister Outsider

Forms, colors, sensuous relationships, rhythms, textures, tones, transmutations of energy, all belong to the natural world. Before humans arrived, their power was there; they were nameless yet not powerless. To touch their power, humans had to name them.

The revolutionary artist, the re-layer of possibility, draws on such powers. The revolutionary poet loves people, rivers, other creatures, stones, trees inseparably from art, is not ashamed of any of these loves, and for them conjures a language that is public, intimate, inviting, terrifying, and beloved. Adrienne Rich, "The Revolutionary Poet," What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics

Talk: To Dare or Not to Dare?

From CanU: Appreciative Inquiry Summary

Define: Before the board retreat, Mary Bennett devised several questions for the board asking, "What's the best of what we already do?" The board's purpose was to determine common goals for the coming year as well as build synergy between newcomers and veterans in the group.

Discover: Board members (and several staff) interviewed each other in pairs, trying to discover the times when each person felt our religion is at its best.

Dream: The interview results were shared with the whole board, and they tried to imagine what the cuc would look like if the best things were commonplace instead of exceptional.

Design: The large group summarized their findings in four propositions, then took them back to small groups to devise action steps.

Deliver (or Do It): The board will use the action steps in its decisionmaking over the coming year.

The Board's four Provocative Propositions:

  1. Dare to be religious in all that we do (spirituality)
  2. Inspire participation (teamwork)
  3. Create connections (communication)
  4. Risk diversity (outreach)

1. Dare to be religious
The first of the Board's propositions for the cuc relates to spirituality: dare to be religious in all that we do. Nora Prosser of Hamilton observes that she has "noticed a hunger for spirituality in our congregations." Jean Armstrong of Portage La Prairie thinks there's a simple way to inject spirituality into our practices, at least at denominational events like the cuc annual conference. "I think our professional ministers should play a larger role, since they're trained in theology and contemplate these things every week."

At the U.U.A. G.A. in Montreal, on the day after the vote to have the CUC take responsibility to deliver services to Canadian congregations, Rev. Ray Drennan spoke about the challenges facing all faith groups at the dawn of this new century: "Religious loyalty and tradition, for tradition's sake, may be a thing of the past. If a significant number of the members of Generations X, Y, and Z ever choose to walk through our Unitarian doors, if they ever choose to become more involved, and if we dare to listen to them and even dare to follow their dreams and desires for our religious community, then they will lead us to change radically in ways which we cannot even dream of today." His suggestions, which ask us to consider leaving Christianity sociologically (that is in our practices of how we "do" church) as we have left them theologically, is consistent with much of the literature we have on children's religious education. For instance, we need to leave the language of "Sunday School", "classes" and "teachers" behind, and with them our concepts of knowledge and roles. Those of you who are involved in student-centred learning, collaborative learning, communicative approaches to second-language teaching, or women's or other interdisciplinary studies will be familiar with these ideas. Ray Drennan invites U*U Congregations to be "Collective Kitchens of the Spirit. What a picnic it would be if, in our congregations as a weekly and daily diet, we had more dynamic collective-kitchens of the spirit preparing wholesome authentic Unitarian foods of the Pagan, Cosmic, Humanist, Theist, Christian or Buddhist variety. What a picnic it would be if each Sunday morning we dared to reach across the table and try foods that were new to our pallet? Oh what a picnic that would be!"

And I, for my part, would invite us to become learners together, supporting each other to grow and learn. Our roles would be to accompany the spiritual growth of the others in our community.

Wayne Arnasson speaks about the same situation, but uses the God-language some of us struggle with. Here are his words: "We see many more newcomers to our congregation with little or no religious background in their lives, nothing they feel they have to rebel against. They are open to the language of spirituality and they search us out because they understand there must be other definitions of God, salvation, and faith beyond those that flood the radio and television airwaves.

"In our congregation, we perceive a lack of trust among the congregation's founders and long time supporters that the new generation coming in will truly be their religious companions, and that the church they want to create will be the same one that they have supported for many years. Those who are humanists fear that their perspective on religion might be crowded out. Those who have long held to a naturalistic theism have trouble with pagans who want to embody that into non-traditional liturgies. Those who saw religious action in terms of social service and justice work have a hard time accepting that daily spiritual practice might also be religious action that informs and strengthens our capacity to make a difference in the world." Wayne Arnasson

Philip Hewett has written an excellent article summarizing the history of the Canadian U*U movement, which can be found at

I'm going to be drawing heavily on this article and on some Unitarian ministers' sermons in this talk.

One of Hewett's insights relates to the need for modernizing and Canadianizing the language of Unitarianism. Hewett points to religious thinkers who, in his words, are "following the paths marked out by artists and literary figures." Perhaps it is for this reason that our U*U tradition is so rich in poetry. Our holy book may be the great human poetic text to which all writers contribute, a text which would include but not be limited to the Holy Bible, the universal story that is told in the words of our individual yearnings. Poetry, I believe, is truly the language of worship.

The Canadian contributions to this text, the expressions of a Canadian imagination and mythos, are, writes Philip Hewett, "provocative." He speaks of the idea of a Canadian contextual theology - a project now taken up by Rev. Carole Martignaccio, as a way of identifying the distinctive goals and contributions that Canada might bring to an international U*U community: the goals of building bridges, of establishing firm foundations of trust, of living on the "edge of empire" as Douglas Hall writes.

According to Philip Hewett, the dominant theology among Canadian Unitarians has shifted in recent decades. The theology upon which societies were founded in the nineteenth century, imported by men like John Cordner and William Hincks, continued to predominate in the first four decades of the twentieth century. This was a liberal Christian version of Unitarianism, sometimes imported from the England, Ireland and Europe. Transcendentalism and the Free Religious movement in the U.S. were introduced only after the Second World War, where Canadians formed a closer connection with American Unitarian thinking. The outlook then shifted, remarkably quickly and smoothly, from liberal Christianity to secular humanism. This was reinforced by social movements emphasizing the progress of human civilization through the use of reason, as exemplified in the economic boom and in medical advances, as well as the existential disillusionment with divine power. Then, writes Hewett, came "the crash. Terrifying and unforeseen side-effects of the human efforts to dominate and control the environment... there were limits to our attempts to play God." In some societies, the founding members "held on to their [humanist] vision of a rational re-ordering of the world..." In larger congregations, those who share a humanist or a theist philosophy form small groups that consider themselves in the congenial company of like-minded people and may feel distanced from the congregation or the movement as a whole, minoritized.

Many members who joined in the twentieth centuries, however, came to this religion by choice, from another one, just as they or their ancestors came to Canada. Philip Hewett comments: "We have gained from this process, but we have also lost a great deal." He suggests that "we can learn from those who have maintained a continuity with their historic faith notwithstanding their openness to the contemporary world," as well as a keen commitment to the land and people around them. These people are at home with the warm ancestral fires that burn on in them, as well as with the endless season of snow that teach them to cope effectively with the tragedies and the struggles of life.

"Unity in diversity," writes Hewett, "always requires a greater effort to maintain the unity than to see the diversity." Identifying common needs and developing common visions in community is more difficult for us than affirming individual freedom of thought or belief. Pluralism and inclusivity can lead to cultural relativism and the lack of a strong, expressive language. Certainly, liberal Christians involved in the Social Gospel movement had more in common with the shared humanist view of personal rationality and social progress, in terms of providing a unity of vision. As Philip Hewett asserts: "Where there is no vision the people perish - or at least, they remain uninspired."

Like the Canadian identity, our Unitarian identity is often expressed in negative language. We are not fundamentalists, we have no dogma or creed, we are against oppression or globalization. The next step is to affirm what we are and we have in common. I find our decision to become a Welcoming Congregation interesting in this respect as well, since not only was it affirming our identity - yesterday, Wilfred Langmaid made reference to this central concern as part of our being - but we were also standing up "for" same-sex marriage, equal marriage rights and so on. My favourite slogan in that campaign remains "Unitarians standing on the side of love." No one, I don't think, would want to protest against love, but for me to articulate the importance of love along with the obvious need to combat hatred is empowering. I want our religious community to stand for love, for peace, for social justice. This is in keeping with the appreciative inquiry approach I increasingly use in my workshops and my teaching.

Some of us find it challenging to accept any religious language, although we draw constantly from religious sources in our services. Our readings come from diverse roots, but the history of our movement is one that can be related to such Judeo-Christian events as the Protestant Reformation. Let me say that another way: The history of our movement is one that can be related to such Judeo-Christian events as the Protestant Reformation, but our readings come from diverse roots. Can you hear the difference? But let's make a simple, even more radical shift rather than simply inversing the terms: Our readings come from diverse roots, and the history of our movement is one that can be related to such Judeo-Christian events as the Protestant Reformation. In other words, we don't have to be either / or, we can be both / and.

But more than the use of readings from one tradition or another, the real challenge we have is that of using intentionally religious language. I remember being surprised when I heard a Canadian U*U minister reminded us that "after all, we're a religion, not a community group." That wasn't obvious to me at the time, which was ... 2001. What words is it that we should hesitate to use? What words is it that cause problems?

If we decide to avoid all words that relate to religion or any other religion, what is the purpose of our coming together? Are we a political or a social movement? That would mean, of course, choosing common causes and parties. Everyone who isn't NDP or pro-choice would be either bored by the discussion or shunned. Or we could choose a common ideology. Feminism seems like a good possibility. However, I'm afraid we may be in even greater danger of losing young adults from our pews... I mean our chairs. The young women in my class are articulate and strong in their beliefs, and they hate labels the way Second-Wave feminists like me hate to be told what to do with our lives.

Moreover, this is the only place where I can go to engage in a particular kind of creative, community and intellectual activity, and that is an activity of a religious nature. I have my own spiritual practices, as a family we have strong spiritual roots and wings, but - I mean and - it is only here that I can come together with others who, whether or not they share my belief system, have committed, by their presence, to thinking together about the deeper concerns of human existence. Religion means the act of tying people together. The fact that we are committed to making decisions and to listening to music and to sitting in the same room together binds us. I believe we are linked as strongly by the words we speak to each other as we are by the acts we perform - acts of social justice, acts of caring and, for me, acts of faith. To me, as for my Baha'i friends, service is worship. I act out of what I believe in, and it is a way or remembering and trusting the very source of my being, something beyond who I am on the surface. Those of you here know me better than many people I see every day, and that is because we worship together. Worship means honouring that which is worthy - whether it is within us or outside of us doesn't really matter to me. What does matter is that we recognize what is important, that we state its importance.

Rev. Kiely has given a course as well as a service entitled "The Language of Reverence." He was responding to Rev. William Sinkford, President of the UUA., who was concerned about our reluctance to use religious or reverential language in describing ourselves. "I realized that we have in our Principles an affirmation of our faith that uses not one single piece of religious language. Not even one word that is traditionally religious. And that is a wonderment to me; I wonder whether this kind of language can adequately capture who we are and what we're about... UUs have no language that allows us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name that which is holy, and to talk about human agency in theological terms."."

Similarly, former UUA President Gene Pickett observed of our Principles, "they describe a process of approaching the religious depths but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves." Is that something we need to change?

Is avoiding the description of the depths in case someone has seen different things there a deference to the atheists or secular humanists that does not properly acknowledge the presence of the theists among us? In the language we choose to sing, to name our community, to use in our Sunday services, what do we do with theists, Universalists, God? Is this choice a compromise? If it is, then we need to seriously consider whether a compromise is all we can manage. Rev. Kiely speaks of the frustration that comes from compromising all the time, and of things that he has discovered about himself. Perhaps it is a refusal to settle that comes from greater experience with the depths, but - and -it may also be the willingness to take risks, to dare. For many years I believed that following the rules would keep me safe. Well, it didn't. So now I am more willing to risk following my heart. Carlos's illness taught me that being willing to risk everything, accepting the possibility that everything would be lost, brought with it great gifts of understanding and courage. Like Rev. Kiely, "personally profound turning points such as the deaths of my parents and the chance of gazing into my minutes old daughter's eyes taught me that... They taught me that what I had believed was inadequate to the task of explaining the experience. I found I needed something more, something beyond the merely and purely human. I can't say what it is exactly. I can't define it, give it limits, shape or colour. Nevertheless I can feel it, and I choose to call it God." U*U Minister Forrest Church writes: "God is not God's name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. Life force, spirit of life, ground of being, these too are names for the unnameable which I am now content to call my God."

One of the frustrations of compromise stems from the refusal to choose one action or another wholeheartedly. I think the way of overcoming the refusal to choose is to acknowledge the co-existence of two and more choices, as the little star between the two U's suggests. It's not just either / or; it is also both / and.

Another frustration comes from the sense of not being willing to go far enough. At this time in human history, as much or more so than in other difficult times, we need to find a language that makes it possible to speak to each other about what matters, to talk about things that seem incomprehensible. If we are going to think for ourselves, we need to learn more words, not fewer, to communicate with others. We need to dare to ask the hard questions, about genocide, the possible existence of evil, our complacency about the hunger of children and the mutilation of women's bodies. Perhaps that is where we need to call on the idea of something large than ourselves to sustain us in our very human struggle. We need to ask the important questions about the meaning of life, how to make ethical and principled decisions, what a fair and compassionate response would be to the tragedies.

We need to have words for these concepts of the greater good, the more human, and, if we sense the existence of something else, the beyond-ourselves, beyond-existence, or beyond-imagining, perhaps even more than we have to find words for all that which is seemingly inexplicable, unspeakably horrible. If we dare not speak, we also do not have any way to bear witness to what we have experienced in our spiritual journeys.

Rev. Kiely talks about our "donut" religion, in which we have people standing around a hole that might be called religion, and asks us: "If we are as open as we claim to be, can we not make room for a discussion of what we truly believe? In our radical tolerance are we so afraid of words like God, sacred, belief and faith? Or is there a place in our donut hole for those concepts too?"

I think we need to acknowledge the struggle we have with naming, and remember that it is even more appropriate here to live through the big questions, to live our way into the answers, as Rilke wrote. "What do we do with God?" is a question that engages our whole, free-thinking minds. We need to consider it worthy of our full intelligence and attention, and realize that when we stop asking that question we set limits on our ongoing discovery of meaning, as well as our acceptance of human mysteries. Brian Kiely's e-mail response from God on this question is: "The answer is as always. You'll invent me, dress me up, deny me, praise me, hate me, work with me, work against me, think creatively about me, and think about me not at all. You'll curse me and desperately call my name in foxholes . And through it all, I will remain distant and mysterious. And that's a good thing, for as much as you protest against them, you humans love a good mystery the same way a dog loves a bone. It gives you a spiritual thing to chew on."

Theists are not the only beings capable of chewing on this bone, though, or of employing a vocabulary of reverence: David Bambaugh writes: "Humanism...gave us a doctrine of incarnation which suggests not that the holy became human in one place at one time to convey a special message to a single chosen people, but that the universe itself is continually incarnating itself in microbes and maples, in hummingbirds and human beings, constantly inviting us to tease out the revelation contained in stars and atoms and every living thing." Truly a language of reverence, of poetry... perhaps the two are the same thing.

I would argue that simply using the language of reverence makes us more reverent towards the community in which we situate ourselves, that using the words that we hold in fear or disdain enables us to define them anew, to give them authentic meaning, and that taking the chance of calling what we do "worship" - worth-shaping, makes us better able to shape our practices into that which is exponentially more worthy through our active engagement with them. Thinking about this language, using this language, helps us to think religiously, reverently, ethically.

Rev. Sinkford stated that "My growing belief is that, as a religious community and as individuals, we may be secure enough, mature enough to find a language of reverence, a language that can acknowledge the presence of the holy in our lives. Perhaps we are ready. Perhaps this faith we love is ready to stop calling itself a movement and start calling itself a religion."

We are a people who dare to dream, who dare to make change possible. Our giving comes out of that attitude of generosity and faith. We dare to consider ourselves abundant people, and to consider this community worthy of our faith in it. We will now accept the offering.

Responsive Reading: "May We Dare" Rev. Anne Treadwell, Lucie-Marie Castonguay
May we recollect that everyone who has changed the world for the better has run the risk of failure. To be religious, which is to commit ourselves to a better way, in our relationships, our work, our society and even our leisure, is also to risk failure. May we dare to take such risks.


Sometimes, the most radical thing we can do is to introduce people to one another. We dare to believe that each of us can increase another's energy, inspire another's thinking, support another's courage. MAY WE DARE TO CREATE CONNECTIONS. PUISSIONS-NOUS OSER CREER DE NOUVELLES RELATIONS

It is tempting to remain apart from the affairs of the world, secure in our private world, but to be religious is to keep always in our consciousness that we are interdependent. We are inescapably part of all around us, but we must choose whether we will act in light of that reality. MAY WE DARE TO PARTICIPATE RATHER THAN WITHDRAW. PUISSIONS-NOUS OSER PARTICIPER PLUTOT QUE DE SE RETIRER

Not everyone is like us, however much we wish they were. It takes courage to recognize and deal with our differences, for it means adjusting our own ways of being. It takes courage to celebrate wholeheartedly the myriad human ways of believing and acting and being. MAY WE DARE TO RISK DIVERSITY. PUISSIONS-NOUS OSER ACCEPTER LE RISQUE DE LA DIVERSITE,


Rev. Anne Treadwell previously minister to the First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo French response by Lucie-Marie Castonguay-Bowers

Hymn #131 Love Will Guide Us

Call for Action
Declaration of Women's Groups on the occasion of the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Meeting of Ministers Responsible for the Status of Women

The five million dollar cut to Status of Women Canada causes deep concern for women's groups about the Canadian government's commitments to equality. These cuts are extremely worrisome. They are indicative of the orientation of this government. Our worry is much more than financial. Are we in the midst of a dismantling of Status of Women Canada? A dismantling of the very mechanisms dedicated to the advancement of women's equality?

Our concern has grown over recent months as the federal government has made several decisions that risk a widening of inequalities faced by women. It abolished the brand new national child care program, announced it would not support the adoption of proactive pay equality legislation, and it eliminated the Court Challenges Program.

Such measures risk undermining Canada's commitments to women's equality and lead to an erosion of rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international human rights obligations. During the last federal election campaign, Stephen Harper, in a letter to FAFIA, committed to taking concrete and immediate measures to ensure that Canada fully upholds its commitments to women. These cuts are not consistent with Mr. Harper's statement during the election.


Hymn One More Step

Closing Words:
Rev. Sinkford writes: "Put a name to what calls you, and ask yourself what it is to which you find yourself called. Do it often; you won't always necessarily come up with the same answer."

May we feel that we are called by name to do the work we have chosen to do, that we are given the words to speak our selves, that we can reclaim the language that has always been ours, just as we were born and deserve to live as whole beings, speaking our own minds with our own tongues. May it be so.