Faith Formation Focus: On Words

I didn’t make it to General Assembly this year so I went on the UUA website to meet our new (and first woman) UUA President, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray.  I was very impressed with some things she said and what I learned about her. I then listened to parts of some Ware Lectures (the keynote speakers of different assemblies.) So many were good but the one that resonated with me most was given in 2016 by Krista Tippett – the host of On Being.    


Tippett talked about how words matter. I’ve been thinking of this lately.  Even though my kids are grown, in our home this summer we had to re-declare zero tolerance for name calling for my son and daughter -with penalty of not driving (since they don’t own their own cars yet.)  We’ve also been going the rounds with my son on not swearing in certain conservative company (namely his extended family) because he believes that this sort of language only offends the judgmental and does not appreciate how it embarrasses his mom!

Words do matter.  Tippett talks of how words shape how we understand ourselves and treat others.  She talks of how the word “tolerance” which was a civic mandate in the 1960s is now too small a word for our dreams for this country.  “Tolerance” asked us to allow, endure, and indulge but not to engage and care about and learn from those who are in the minority.  Our country is in the midst of a reformation and the labels we use make a difference.


She also talks about how if we only employ words to advocate our strongly held convictions and leave no room for curiosity in listening to the other side we miss out.  In this age defined by division and disagreement we have to be willing to listen to the words of those who have different experiences than our own.  Finding the right questions, not necessarily answers, and listening to the experiences of others can at least begin to bridge the gap.  We cannot insist on common ground before we start sharing the questions, but if we come together with the common goal of gaining better understanding we can let good questions unite us.  African -American social activist Ruby Sales asked the simple question, “What hurts?”  That seems to me like a good place to start.


I liked the part where Tippett says, as it turns out, there is such a thing as a bad question. For example it is hard to meet a simplistic question with anything more than a simplistic answer.  She talks about how a direct, open, and honest question can be a “mighty form of words” and drive to the heart of a matter like nothing else can.   There is something redemptive and life giving about asking an honest question that encourages pondering and even higher wisdom than we might yet possess but gives us a place to, nevertheless, connect.   


Tippett ends by talking about how love is the greatest tool of reformation (the real superstar) and how we have to take love from the private sectors of our lives and bring it into the public realm with no apology.  She says, “Love’s audacity is to cross lines.  We have lived it as a feeling when love is really a way of being.” Our willingness to sacrifice and discipline ourselves to use virtues as tools for the art of living will give us the power to also use love as a change agent


I am grateful to belong to a faith that has long valued the power of a question and it seems to me that our leaders are not afraid to ask hard questions.  I think listening to the answers, especially of those who don’t agree with us, is an ongoing challenge but our church community gives us a place to practice and the courage to go out into the world to share our ideals with our words.  


Janen Wright, Director of Faith Formation