Bring Many Names: The Welcome of Metaphor

Rev. Lisa Ward

Delivered on January 2, 2005
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County

"Bring many names, beautiful and good, celebrate in parable and story" — so goes hymn #23 in our hymnal, "holiness and glory, living, loving God, hail and hosanna, bring many names...."

Our invite to those who enter here is to carry what you know to be good and true about life through our doors and share it with others. Our invite is to welcome your doubt and struggles, your joys and knowing and bring it into the life of this community. We, as Unitarian Universalists, encourage you to believe that in searching you will find and in your intention to create good you will know the way. We, as Unitarian Universalists, don't tell you the way, we affirm there is a way within your sense of things that will praise Life's essence, Life's worth, Life's meaning. We trust there is an essence, a unifying reality, a transcendent wisdom that comes alive in our witness of each other and our own actions with and for one another.

We, as Unitarian Universalists, don't tell you how to believe, or even specifically what to believe, we draw out that divine spark within you so that you can give it life in the world. We do this by welcoming your journey and dwelling in the challenge of community with you.

We may not use the word form "God" for what we do and why we do it. Some do, some don't. We may use other names, other symbols, other praises to bring about a sense of the living, loving divinity that dwells in us and amongst us. It is troubling to some who come through our doors that we do not use the word "God" necessarily, but what we do in worship and welcome is honor the universal essence and source of Life that calls us to the greater good. We reach for, communicate and praise this essence in its vibrant and humbling diversity.

In order to get ourselves to that place of community where we can honor many names and countless journeys yet trust greater unity in which all dwell is through the welcome of metaphor.

What is metaphor? Metaphor is the transferring the meaning of one word (or notion) to the sense of another. Metaphor is saying one thing while pointing to a larger meaning that is best captured through an image, a suggestion of relationship. The writer Shakespeare's phrase — "All the world's a stage ... and all the men and women merely players" uses an idea to express another, to imply a likeness, to give in the connection a larger meaning. What is expressed, then is something altogether different — a little of both meanings, creating a connection that expands possibility of more connection and of seeing a unity beyond words.

I've shared with many of you that one of my favorite routines at Union Seminary, now some 15 years ago, was to attend the daily chapel service at noon. Students, classes or denominational groups within the student body were invited to lead a half hour service for the Seminary community. I learned a great deal about the varieties of Christian expression within this liberal Christian Seminary and had abundant opportunity to train myself in the welcoming of metaphor. I was fortunate as a born and bred Unitarian Universalist not to have any of the baggage of dogma attached to my religious studies. No text nor content was off limits to me for respectful probing.

Having come from a theatre background I already had experience in approaching truth from many angles, honoring images, metaphors and story to convey meaning. To translate this work to faith understanding I began by applying Unitarian Universalism's first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This helped me open myself to religious language that was alien to me, sometimes surprisingly moving and other times offensive. I would trust that that which moved my school mates came from the same yearning that brought me there to connect to the nature of all things. I would honor what I witnessed as a reaching toward an inner truth. I would remind myself that we are all navigating wisdom and distortion within our lives, that we juggle ego need and humility in our hopes for wholeness. Sometimes I was sure that I did not believe what was being said, which was an opportunity to ask myself, what, then, did I believe? Sometimes I was moved to tears by a simple connection that I would not have found on my own and I would realize again that the essence of life, named as "god" by many, moves in mysterious ways beyond my sphere of understanding and yet is attainable by me. Metaphor, symbols and story can often bring us to that place of knowing more readily than any dogma.

My self training to welcome metaphor was sometimes supported by focusing on the intention of the other. I would ask myself as I listened, again honoring the other as one who sought to connect: What is it that you want to say and how does it touch you? In what way does it touch me? Why does this imagery move you, compel you into a way of living and being? What's the story, what's the hook? What motivates you to believe this? What is of value here? Where is the "yes", the holy dimension, the transcendent truth? Does it call to a "yes" in me, does it call to my depth dimension?

"Depth dimension" is a phrase that was used by 20th century theologian Paul Tillich in his discussion of faith understanding. Tillich was known for using new phrases for religious pursuits to open up the path of wonder beyond traditional language. He coined the phrase "Ultimate Concern" as a focus for religion and spoke of "God" as the "ground of our being." Our depth dimension, then, is the place we can connect to the ground of our being. Our depth dimension is our sacred knowing, our sense of ultimate concern ... the dwelling of God within....

As Unitarian Universalists we believe that no one person or humanly devised system has all the answers, in fact each one of us is part of the whole. We can learn from anyone, if only, at the very least, how not to be. All of us, at one time or another has been an example of a bad life choice ... even then we are teaching and learning and growing. As we believe in inherent worth, we believe that each signature of creation that is us has its own unique contribution and importance within the whole. Our task is to find who we deeply are, express life's worth in our ways and walking and encourage the potential of others toward their knowledge of the ground of being. This may be done in a way that we do not understand, but there's room enough for us all in the spectrum of thought, love, forgiveness and celebration of life.

The essence of our ability to dialogue within difference is the principle of the interdependent web — we need one another to gain understanding of who we are and what there is and how it all relates as one holy network of being. We are seeking a connectedness and mutual wisdom that gives us hope, acceptance and a desire to participate in the way of things.

We have some work as a faith, however, in attaining that resilient and nurturing interdependent web. We need some work in hearing one another wherever they are on their journey — and to embrace someone far different than ourselves. This is most seen in the intolerance and sometimes taboo of classic religious language. The most classic word in Western culture, of course, is "God."

Unitarians and Universalists have wrestled with images of God since their beginnings. God imaging is open for discussion ... that's one of the practices of our faith. This does not mean a lack of belief in a connecting mystery beyond our lives, but an understanding that no one person or system can fully express the meaning of the universe. Wrestling with our expressions of ultimate concern keep the dialogue vibrant and keep us applying what we are seeking to describe in the living of our lives. If we are open to ways of seeing, ways of entering the depth of our lives, we can then welcome the world in and bless it with our wonder.

Some Unitarian Universalists have been deeply wounded within their personal histories in the name of God and others have witnessed the use of God imaging to legitimize oppressive and destructive behavior. I am in agreement with much of the cynicism surrounding the enforced word "God" which has caused so much anguish, disillusionment, stifling of creativity and repression of healthy doubt. I understand the hesitation toward faith language which has been co-opted by politicians, created between neighbors, caused mean-spirited and combative slogans on billboards and bumper stickers and encouraged coercive, intrusive behavior in civil life and civil law.

And we all know how the imaging of god can lead to war and to the readiness to die and kill for a projection of god's will.

The word "God" is troublesome because of all the baggage attached to it and because of the limited imagery given it and because of the dangerous assumptions of power that stem from it. However, that is not the fault of the word, or the presence, or the yearning for ultimate meaning. It's the fault of those who claim to name it for others and the fault of those who let that naming happen. No one can take another's sense of the Eternal away without that person's permission. No one owns our language. No one owns meaning. And certainly no one else is in charge of our soul's journey.

But the intolerance towards God imagery that has crept into our faith tradition from time to time is counterproductive to the fundamental concept of freedom of religious expression. Stifling the "g" word from those who choose to journey with it keeps us from true interfaith dialogue. This condition in our dialogue also discourages testing new ground, finding new images and ways of expressing our deepest cherished being.

We start our exploring from a known place, we start our dialogue with the language that first gave us grounding. This is the springboard that helps us leap into the tender and vulnerable reaching for who we truly are. What is important is that we invite people to articulate their resources for hope, courage, beauty, transcendence and joy. If we present a language test to the dialogue we lose the opportunity to venture into the mystery with another. If we mock or dismiss that sharing, we miss out on sharing the search for truth and meaning in community. And it is in community, in our relating, that our response to life and its meaning has being.

We sabotage our dialogue when we forget that the closest we can come to expressing that which unifies us is through metaphor, symbols and story.

Psychologist Ann Ulanov writes in her book Picturing God: [God] images, whether personal or shared, are important; they are alive and real...but they must be retained as images. If not, we will perpetuate a kind of religious bullying and theological sadism because unconsciously we will be equating our symbol for God with God and expecting others to agree. If they do not sign on and take this equation as the real thing, then we will exclude them.... We push our neighbor to adopt what is real to us without looking to see what is real to our neighbor...." (p.170-171)

Stuck in our Fellowship's front door recently was what I consider a misguided love offering from an anonymous zealous neighbor. Two or three times a year we receive a note in some form of great concern by an unknown author. We now receive e-mails as well, and I predict they will increase. This note was written on an advertisement for the movie, The Passion. It reads: "Please see and know the truth. We pray for you all. Jesus is the only true God! There are not many ways to Heaven. Only one way. He is the only way, truth and life."

What is ironic, is the choice of Biblical reference. It comes from the book of John, chapter 14, which also includes the phrase, "In my Father's house there are many rooms," a phrase widely interpreted as an affirmation of many paths to God. Jesus, in this part of the gospel, is talking to Thomas, whose own gospel revealed the dynamic hearing of the words: "I am the way and the truth and the life." Jesus was modeling this way of being and seeing oneself, he was not claiming exclusive ownership of this sense of grace. Jesus was showing a way for us all to come to the place of knowing that we can be the way the truth and the life.

This is not something I will rush to discuss with the earnest anonymous self appointed prophet. There are times when who we are and what we believe must be protected from those who are not presently open to truly seeing the other. I acknowledge, however, the true concern and wish this traveler peace.

One primary quality of our faith is the belief in freedom of inquiry. Doubting, questioning, exploring, explaining, reforming, refueling our beliefs with the help of others, our own experience and the lives we observe is what cultivates a deeper understanding of the lives we are capable of living. Allowing for metaphor can surprise us out of our stuck places and limited assumptions. We can be renewed by a different perspective which taps us into our "yes" our "depth dimension" our sense of the light and the life.

The potential we seek to nurture as Unitarian Universalists is the potential of our actions to bring about justice, compassion, peace and wisdom. Through our intentional inquiry and welcome of diversity, we learn how to confront the destructive powers of ignorance, fear, greed and mistrust. Through the sharing of our lives and the belief in our responsibility to the world in which we live we are bound to seek ways to dismantle hate, bigotry, violence and abuse. We are equally bound to see beauty, be surprised by wonder and opened to love beyond boundaries.

Questioning the answers given to us merely calls us to engage our individual lives in deeper understanding and reverence for what can be learned. Sometimes people come up with the same answers — but this time the answers are personally known and believed — the answers have come to life. This means we must take the risk of being an active part in what happens to us and in the choices we make. It means believing in evolving truth, ongoing creation, which learns and teaches as each new life enters the world.

We are a religion of choice and of challenge with a history that spans 500 years, martyrs have died for the freedom we now enjoy, prophetic women and men who have kept our hope alive and spurred us on to greater commitment to live out the love and wisdom we were born to claim and name in many ways.

How, then, can we honor and perpetuate this tradition at its best especially as religious rhetoric increases in public and becomes less and less tolerant? As religious minorities, it is important for us to hold onto our own dignity. There will be times when our openness to mystery will be met with closed doors. At times our willingness for a variety of expressions will be countered by dismissal and mockery. In our outward affection for Life, there will be some who would brand us akin to the devil and death.

If folk will not hear you, one wise teacher, namely Jesus, advised that you move on to the next door. Let the diversity be, as it challenges our own integrity. And if we are met with disrespect it is that person's loss, not only in dishonoring a neighbor but in missing out on new insights. Neither we nor anyone else is the master of another's journey. We can only lead by example. We can only welcome when we have cared first for our own sense of home.

We can make sure that we are a part of the greater dialogue, a stronger part, indeed, than we are now, so that we can give spiritual hope to those who would choose our approach. Keep in mind that for every dismissal there are those who would benefit from our faith message. This is not a time to keep this faith of the free to ourselves, neither is it a time to lose the sense of ourselves in competition or negativity towards others.

So whatever you may name, describe or image that which calls you forth to seek beauty, increase your wisdom, deepen your love and nourish your community, may it fit in to the shaping of your life. May you always feel its presence. May you feel free to share it with others as you welcome their wonder.

Sing your song, however it emerges, however it sustains you and others. Know that it is in harmony with the song of the universe.

Blessed Be. Amen.

Copyright © 2005 Lisa Ward. All Rights Reserved.
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