Words Matter, Until They Don’t (Winton Boyd) 11.11.18

Earlier this year, I heard a story about baby boomer grandparents.  More than any other generation before them, baby boomers have resisted the term ‘grandpa or grandma, grandfather or grandmother.’

The author of the story remarked,

“however mightily my peers may pine for grandchildren and adore them when they arrive, some don’t want to acknowledge being old enough to be dubbed Grandpop or Granny.  Such names conjure up gray hair and orthopedic shoes, along with a status our society may honor in the abstract but few boomers actually welcome. We too often won’t use hearing aids, even if we need them. We may not claim the senior discount at the movie theater.  We don’t want these wondrous new creatures calling us names that signify old age, either.

Thus, I know a grandma who goes by Z.

And one who has zero Italian ancestors but nonetheless dubbed herself Nonny, a variant on Nonna, because it felt distinctive.

And a … woman named Suzanne Modigliani, whose daughter’s friends used to abbreviate that to SuMo. Now, she’s GranMo.

Me, I went retro and called dibs on Bubbe, the traditional Yiddish word for grandmother — though I never used it for my own grandmothers, in an era more disposed to assimilation.”  

It was a funny story, but was a reminder that words matter.  In more serious ways too.  In Java and Jesus the last couple of weeks, we’ve been listening to a podcast on the theme, “Christian.”  A fundamental question has been asked.  Do you identify yourself as a Christian?

It’s a good question.

Would you use the term Christian to define yourself?  If not, what term might you use?

Follower of Jesus?

A spiritual person?

A seeker?

A person of faith?

A progressive religious person?

A progressive evangelical?

At different times in my life here, I’ve used all those.

We know why this question is so hard.  Words help shape the world we know, the path we follow.  At a certain point, words that carry multiple and often conflicting meanings begin to feel limited and we seek other terms.

As protesters, Protestants, we exist within a tradition of the WORD.  Preaching is prominent in Protestant traditions because it is a reflection on the centrality of God’s word in our midst.  (Other traditions prioritize sacraments, music, etc.).   Locally, this congregation was organized around ‘word and sacrament’ several decades ago, designing a sanctuary around the communion table and the Bible and the Cross.

We have always seen ourselves as a church open to all.  In the early 90’s, we realized that the language of that welcome was super important.  In fact, the Open and Affirming movement across the UCC has been very specific to say that to be an official Open and Affirming church one must say MORE than all are welcome.  At first, it was language of welcome to Lesbian and Gay people.  But our language evolved – first to Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual; then to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender; then to all of that plus those of all Gender identities.    Soon, inviting us to include our preferred pronouns on our name tags will be the norm.  The spirit of the commitment has never changed – a welcome to all regardless of who you love.  The words we’ve use to express this has evolved.  Words matter.

We were organized as a community based mainline church, evolved into a Liberal Protestant church and now are most often referred to as a Progressive Christian church.  We continue to evolve in naming our identity both to ourselves and to the wider world.

  • Community and mainline indicated both not Catholic or Lutheran, but also a thoughtful approach to faith.
  • Liberal named that we are neither evangelical in they way it had become known, nor theologically conservative. It spoke of open minded, theologically flexible.
  • Progressive speaks to the open minded but adds an element of heart and ritual – a recognition that faith is not just about ideas, but is more embodied.  Again we’ve evolved, and we know that no one term is adequate.

Java and Jesus itself started because words matter.  In 2004 a group of us read the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg.  After reading that, we took on the writing of John Shelby Spong.  Both are theologians who reframed Christianity and some of its central beliefs in new language.  More importantly, their adaptation of traditional language gave our faith new energy.  New words were not only about language, but about helping us access the Holy.  They either gave us new words or redeemed old language for us. Christianity grounded in a belief system was presented as rooted in relationships.  Creeds and their attempts to articulate the faith were blown open.  The names and images for God multiplied enormously.

  • In light of this, we’ve explored all kinds of language for the prayer Jesus taught us.
  • We use a baptismal formula that lifts up the character of each person of the Trinity rather than simply using the traditional language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  More than just rebelling against male language, we’ve chosen a formula that speaks to how we understand the Holy in our lives.
  • We’ve expanded what we mean by “Sacred Text” to include non-biblical material.

And by and large, this is all fabulous. While imperfect, it helps us adapt our faith in ways that are lifegiving and soul stirring.

Until Christmas time when I usually get an earful because we sing a traditional carol with newly adapted language.  Inclusive language and expansive images for God are fine until

O Come let us adore him becomes O come in adoration. 

Language is good until it gets in the way.  (Sidebar – please remember more about this sermon than a defense of traditional Christmas carols!)

That visceral, passionate response speaks of a larger truth we would do well to explore all year.  We rail against updated Christmas carols and Biblical translations, I believe, because doing so impacts powerful and spiritually important memories, experiences and connections.

If we mine our own biblical tradition, of course, we remember that there is a difference between “words” and “your Word” or “The Word.”

  • Your word is a lamp unto to my feet.  A light unto my path.
  • In the beginning, was the Word.  The Word then became flesh and lived among us.

The Word is about life, it is a means of knowing God.  In Greek the word is LOGOS and it points to relationship.  In the Hebrew Bible it was shorthand for a deep affection, adoration and faithfulness to God.  In the New Testament it expands to include embodiment, enfleshment – as in Jesus.  As in all of us.  It is so much more than our spoken language, so much more than the words we use to describe ourselves or the world.

The inadequacy of language to capture our experiences is a reminder than even at its best it is a small window, sometimes a very small portal, to a much larger way of knowing.  It is for this reason that most of those who’ve had powerful religious experiences cannot describe them.  Most of us who’ve had a sense of transcendence in our life find it impossible to articulate.  We grow when we are in a community that doesn’t demand we name them, but DOES honor and make space for such heart felt, embodied experiences.  The Word become Flesh.

One of the dangers of prizing language our tradition (what did we call it, Progressive Christian?) is that in the process we forget this critical way of knowing that is beyond words.  We get so focused on correct language, we can lose sight of the faith, the passion, the yearning, and the longing beneath the words.

On our civil rights trip, we learned that the folks who risked life and limb to march from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote became known as ‘foot soldiers.”  I would never call myself a soldier.  Especially not an effort that was explicitly nonviolent.  But as one of our guest speakers said to us in Birmingham, for many people of color, this was, and still is, war.  Rather than focusing on the militaristic imagery that ‘bothers’ me, I think I’m being asked to pay attention to the experiences, and the way of knowing and being that give rise to that language, appreciating that no words would ever do justice for what those folks were willing to do because of their faith.  Words matter because they invite us into something much larger.

I have a book titled, “Naked Spirituality:  A Life with God in 12 simple Words.” I’ll never forget when our daughter Kythie saw it on the counter and asked, ‘if there are 12 simple words, why is the book 288 pages?”

That memory reminds that if this is a sermon about a faith expression in the world that is beyond words, I’d better at least slow down my talking soon:)  I’d like, in fact, to shift to a few pictures.  Pictures coupled with simple questions that I think help us explore how and why our words are limited to express the depth of our faith commitment.


Can language ever articulate our hopes for the next generation?


Can our rhetoric ever capture the hopes we have for this country.


If these hands could speak, what stories or memories would they share?

Minolta DSC

How does the language of the earth to speak to our soul?

How do you experience God?


Words matter,

Until they substitute for heart, for gut.

Until they become wall of safety behind which we hide.

Until we lose sight of the fact that the words are never the essence, but rather they point to the essence.

Until they become all that we have.

May we pursue the language of our faith diligently as we seek to honor the breadth of God’s love.

May we hold that language lightly as we open our hearts, our bodies, our souls to that love expressed in the world.



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