- Published: 01 June 2016
Introduction: These words are recorded in the gospel of John as words Jesus offered to his followers just before his death.
And “Abba God” will give you an Advocate to be with you forever, that spirit of truth…and I will not leave you as orphans, I will come back to you. In a short time, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me because I live and you will live…I have said these things to you while still with you, but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you. Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give, a peace…this is my gift for you.
Introduction: The closing scenes of the gospel of Luke tell a story where a resurrected and rising Jesus, after the crucifixion and empty grave, takes final leave of this earth.
Then the Jesus said to them “This is what I meant when I said that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms had to be fulfilled.” Jesus continued to open their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that in the name of Christ repentance for the forgiveness of wrongdoing and sin would be proclaimed to all the nations. You are witnesses of this. And now I am sending down to you what God has promised so stay in the city until you are clothed with the power from on high.
These are stories from our ancestors in the faith
So why do we use inclusive language and follow a church year?
The events the “rising Jesus” predicted in the reading just read is described in the story at the beginning of the book of Acts, when this “clothing with a power from on high” happens. The writer describes these same followers being filled with the Holy Spirit and beginning to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech.
This gift of speech was a gift of inclusive language.
The story tells us that devout persons from around the world living in Jerusalem at the time, when they heard those rushing winds of heaven, went to see what was happening. They were amazed and astonished and bewildered to hear the followers of Jesus speaking their own language. Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia as well as Pontus and Asia. There were people from Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome not to mention Cretans and Arabs, all hearing in their own language about the marvels of God.
Such diversity of language and no one who was there was left out. There was an inclusive language.
What is identified as the birth of the Christian community is rooted in inclusive language and so this is why we use inclusive language, Jesus told us to, the Holy Spirit made it happen, case closed, end of reflection.
I wish it were that easy.
Unfortunately, in telling you the story I made some slight adjustments. In the original text, it was not devout persons but devout men who went to see what was happening. Apparently, there were no devout women, in fact, just from reading the story in the original language, one might wonder if there were any women in Jerusalem at all, it seems to be a city filled with men. Highly unlikely and given that it was women who were the first spokespersons and witnesses of the empty tomb, it seems unlikely that there were not women gathered for prayer. But there are not women named in the original story.
Given the integral part women played in the early Christian community and given that the Pentecost story itself continues by describing an early spokesperson declaring to the “men of Jerusalem” that the Christ energy, that the Spirit alive in the Christ will be poured out on all peoples, daughters and sons, women and men, slaves and free, there is a definite inclusion in the original intent of the story even though the language of the story itself is cloaked in language which excludes.
Here at First United, we make a conscious choice to change original language to reflect the original intention in keeping with the inclusive Spirit that dances in our core Christian story. We “edit” for inclusion in our commitment to tell the story of inclusion which is often eclipsed and lost because original stories use a language of exclusion
While there are some challenges that come with this choice, those challenges are minuscule when compared with the devastating impact of not using inclusive language.
Inclusive language matters for two primary reasons.
First, inclusive language matters because inclusive language ensures that everyone sees and hears themselves in the story and that everyone understands they belong. It is crucially important because it impacts social imagination, and language that names the “privileged” and ignores the “non-privileged” is limiting and an affront to God’s inclusive creation.
Today, I acknowledge the huge debt of gratitude I feel towards women who named the lack of honour that exists with collective catch-all phrases like “men” and “man” and “mankind” to speak of all humanity. They named that assumed presence is not an acceptable substitution for named presence. Assumed presence is not only denigrating, but results in being overlooked, set aside, patronized, and robs us of vital and necessary perspective and experience.
If the intention is to include all persons, we have no choice but use language to reflect this intent with clarity, and I would dare to suggest, that for Christians, that if we don’t use inclusive language then we are unfaithful to the spirit alive in the Christ energy of Jesus.
This is not a matter of “political correctness” it is a matter of faithfulness to the Christ energy.
For this reason, I have no hesitancy in updating language to reflect original intention and we do it every Sunday when we prepare our collective worship, consider our prayers and hymns and anthems as well as our Scripture readings where we pay attention to the use of inclusive language and make changes as needed. I “edit” the bible for inclusive language and admit doing so with an unabashed delight.
Now I have discovered something in the many years of following this exercise. Inclusive language goes beyond men and women.
Let me illustrate. In my previous church, a man came up to me and simply noted, “Brian, you really don’t like winter do you”. I asked “what do you mean”. Well he said, “often when I come to church I hear about the dead of winter and its spiritual barrenness, and that our spiritual hope exists in winter’s end and the return to the glory of summer”. He continued, “for me, I am most spiritually alive in winter, I love a beautiful snowfall, a cold, cold crisp winter morning with its brilliant blue sky. You can have your humid, muggy, oppressive summer heat, I’ll take winter any day. You need to be nicer to winter.”
I was stunned as I was confronted with my prejudice against winter, a prejudice reflected in my language, a prejudice at times bolstered by common imagery, but prejudice nonetheless.
There are other prejudices that have been inculcated into our language. Darkness and light that relates to black and white that relates to evil and good. There are clear racial impacts in how those images are perceived and heard and experienced.
And on it goes. Think of our use of the language around seeing and the denigration of “blindedness” as one example of where the “temporarily abled” define those living with physical limit as “less than” or ones with “less value” and don’t really belong.
And on and on it goes. The feminist movement awakened us to the way our language makes assumptions about who belongs in our world and who is overlooked, how it bolsters the “privileged” and relegates the “non-privileged” to non-existence.
This use of language needs a “rethink” in the same way that Jesus invited his followers to rethink and reinterpret the Scriptures as described in our Biblical readings. This rethink and attention to language impacts sexual orientation and gender identity and family makeup, impacts how we refer to those with mental health issues and challenges to religious domination through words like “pagan” and “sinner”. These are all aspects of “inclusive language”. Inclusive language is broad and significant and I find myself constantly learning.
While we all know of instances when political correctness can go amuck, inclusive language really is about caring, caring and valuing all persons, ensuring that our community life and story allow everyone to see and hear themselves. Remember, Jesus promised his followers not to leave them as orphans, but to send an Advocate. This advocate is an advocate demands the truthfulness of inclusion as an advocate for the forgotten and overlooked
This is why we make that commitment here at First United, a spirit commitment to inclusive language, a commitment we endeavour to live with an ethical and scholarly integrity that maintains original intent and deep wisdom in the stories of our ancestors in the faith.
It is challenging though and I name two challenges.
One challenge is to avoid using language that becomes devoid of image and passion, becoming vague and non-direct and lacking rootedness. I was confronted with this challenge when Isabel and I conducted a church meeting together. It was a hard meeting because we were explaining to a congregation why the Presbytery had removed their minister. I spoke first indicating that the Presbytery concluded that there was a disjuncture between the minister’s actions and behaviours. People were outraged, disjuncture, is no reason to remove a minister. Isabel came to the rescue. She simply said, your minister lied and is still lying. That was understood.
Those of us who are advocates for inclusive language need to ensure that there is clarity, and lack of clarity is part of the push back that exists against inclusive language. We also need to recognize the evolution of language as identified communities reclaim words in the way that the “queer community” has reclaimed the word “queer”.
That being said, I would prefer the challenges of finding language that is caring rather then simply reverting to a prejudicial language that harms and divides because I am afraid of being labeled "politically correct". Remember the advocate offers a gift of peace, and inclusive language embodies care with an intent draw people together in a realized and honest engagement.
There is another challenge. Many of you have heard the story of the journey of our recent J2A youth class to Montreal where they were graciously hosted by a congregation in downtown Montreal. Our youth joined them for worship, singing in the choir, reading the Scriptures, and having a marvelous time. Afterwards, the youth gathered to reflect on the experiences and they noted that they were really surprised when this congregation prayed the prayer that Jesus taught and took out “mother”.
Some youth have exclusively attending First United and have only ever heard, “Our mother and our father…” Sheepishly, yet joyously, we explained that we add “mother”.
So while I have no hesitancy in using inclusive language in the way we operate publically, we do have an obligation of integrity, to communicate and educate that we make changes and celebrate our reasons behind the changes.
This story from our youth lifts up the second reason why we use inclusive language. We use inclusive language so that the images of God and community truly embrace the breadth and wonder of the god-experience.
It appears that the historical Jesus, that Jesus of Nazareth experienced the sacred in terms of a loving parent. This is reflected in language credited to Jesus where Jesus refers to God personified as “daddy” or “abba” or “father”. Whether Jesus actually used this way of referring to God, we don’t know for sure but it is likely, and this way of referring to God is definitely reflected as a dominant image by the gospel writers.
But there are other images that exist. For example, personified wisdom or Sophia. These references are less frequent, but powerfully present such that it is reasonable to believe that they were part of the language of the historical Jesus and certainly had to be part of the early Christian community
The Scriptures, while dominated by male images for the sacred, are also infused with feminine images and non-gendered images and even non-personified images of God. Once again, our own scripture tradition demands that we include these other images or we are unfaithful. In my mind, inclusive images of God are non-optional, and demands a vigilance in this effort as a community of faith because we need to ensure that we authentically reflect the inclusive nature of our Christian story, a story where many of us initially experienced as an exclusive story and is still erroneously understood by many as exclusive.
We need to reclaim the inclusive nature of the Christian story because this speaks to the breadth of the god-experience that pulsates within this very room. If we do not have a commitment to inclusive language, then we limit ourselves, rob ourselves of a fulsome spirit experience.
The language of Pentecost is not only inclusive, is not only caring advocacy, but the language of Pentecost is also empowering. Pentecost, in the Christian story, is the moment of realization that the Sophia wisdom in Jesus, that the Christ energy in Jesus, has been, is, and always will be. The Sophia wisdom and Christ energy is with us as a community and with us as individuals, and the Spirit dancing within this story will be with us through the seasons of our lives.
This is why, not only do we use inclusive language, but we follow the church year as a way of naming the empowerment of sacred spirit in all the experiences of life. The church year provides a rhythm to acknowledge and embody and include the breadth of human experience.
There are the seasons of beginning, or beginning again, which are named in advent. There are the seasons of birth that are honoured in Christmas. There are the seasons of epiphany, those new learnings and realizations that keep happening again and again and again no matter how old we get. Epiphany is followed by ordinary time, lots of ordinary time, because much of life is ordinary.
Yet there are also those non-ordinary times. Lent recognizes wilderness experiences, experiences that are sometimes extended and long, times when we feel lost and experience loss, where we encounter suffering and feel a listlessness within. This happens and Lent honours these experiences.
Through this honouring, the church year also invites and even promises that these seasons end. Renewal and resurrecting life come again. Easter follows Lent, an Easter rooted in a Holy Week that names both ecstasy and death, names both justice and injustice. The passion of this week proclaims that love is stronger than anything.
The season of Easter, just a week or two longer than the season of Lent, 40 days verses 50, and thus accents resurrection over wilderness. Easter leads to the moment of Pentecost, to the moment we name today. Pentecost is a celebration of empowerment where the energies of nature in wind and fire infuse our spirit lives and where the energy of an emerging community of faith speaks up, gives voice to inclusion, to advocacy and peace.
Pentecost opens the gate, opens the mind to the return of a long journey of life in a reflective spirited way, which is then followed by lots of ordinary time, or as better named by Jack Kornfield in his book “After the Ecstasy, the laundry”. There is lots and lots of ordinary time, until the ordinary is thrown into chaos as apocalypse happens. The ordinary gets shaken up, a shaking that happens in our lives again and again as apocalypse happens in changing jobs, changes in relationships, deaths and births. We find ourselves renegotiating life, and fortunately another church years starts, a cycle that is really a spiral that widens and deepens.
Though our own experiences don’t’ always reflect the calendar of the church year, some of us know wilderness in Easter or joy in Lent, the rhythm reminds us of the Spirit continually spiraling in our lives, dancing us into a deeper faith experience. This is the Sophia wisdom and Christ energy alive in this cycle which gives meaning and depth to our lives. The church year is a cycle where through repetition we deepen practices so that we can continually have a deepening and even resurrecting faith where we proclaim again and again and again, that we rise again. This is why we follow the church year.
Empowerment is embodied in a Pentecost language, a language that is inclusive, a language where everyone can hear and see themselves in the story, a language that includes all gender identities, all races and cultures, all orientations and types of families, that includes a diversity of sacred experiences, Empowerment is embodied in a language that is caring, a language that reminds us that the Sacred does not leave us “orphaned” but is an Advocate, an Advocate that speaks to us truthfully in a language, an inclusive language, we understand.