Sermon presented by Rev. Gabriele Parks
My daughter Mischa works at Costco. Her job title is “Sales Advisor.” Doesn’t that sound grand? Costco is doing a great job hiring individuals with developmental disabilities. What they do is hand out product samples to people. In the morning, they are told two or three sentences about the product, and where it is located. Customers who want to know more about the product, need to read the label.
Why call it something that it isn’t?
Maybe the intention is good. Maybe Costco thinks that the individuals will feel better if they have a fancy job title. But, to be honest, most people with mental retardation do not care very much about job titles. They care about the job, and about how people treat them. So that’s not a good reason to use this euphemism. Most likely it is part of a nationwide move towards grandiose job titles. You all have come across them, right?
We are really good in this country with disguising, upgrading, embellishing truth with fancy language, with euphemisms.
When you need to take care of certain bodily functions, you ask for the bathroom. But there is no bath in most bathrooms!
Why then do we call it that?
When a person dies, he is said to have passed on.
In armed conflict, when soldiers are accidentally killed by weapons from their own side, it’s called “friendly fire.”
What’s friendly about that?
And when enemy bombs kill innocent civilians, it’s called “collateral damage.”
Collateral for whom? Not the victims . . .
A person whop has a hard time controlling his or her anger is said to have “anger issues.”
It used to be called a “problem.” Why was it changed?
Genocide is now called “ethnic cleansing.”
Does anyone feel clean afterwards?
And we might hear in the news about the government using “unorthodox interrogation techniques” on “detainees.” We all know that that’s doublespeak for torturing people who are held without proper procedure.
When a company doesn’t do well, they say they experience “Zero growth.”
I have a problem with euphemisms! I’m with Shakespeare’s Juliet: a rose by any other name is still a rose! The only way I like euphemisms is in humor. For example, when I throw away paperwork, I might say I deposited them in the “circular file.” Or when I’m struggling with my palm pilot or my laptop, I call myself “technologically challenged.”
One of my favorite UU joke fits in this category, too: In this story, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say I am?” And behold, a Unitarian among them answered and said: “You are the kerygma behind all myth. You are the incarnate logos. You are of one substance and co-eternal with the Father or the Mother, as the case may be. You are the eruption of eternity into the space time!” And Jesus looked at the Unitarian and said, “What?!”
Now the counselor in my head asks: why do you have a problem? What’s wrong with euphemisms? After all, a euphemism is an expression intended by the speaker to be less offensive, disturbing, unpleasant or troubling to the listener that the word or phase it replaces. What’s wrong with making a concept more pleasing or acceptable to the listener? What’s wrong with replacing a word or a phrase with one that’s more neutral, vague or indirect?
The correct German in me wants to reply: “well, it’s a lie!” Or maybe it’s the self-righteous Catholic in me?
Probably a little bit of both; but there’s more to it. I have learned that trying to avoid a problem by re-naming it doesn’t make it go away. It actually makes the whole situation worse by giving us a wrong sense of security or correctness. Eventually the illusion crashes, and the resulting shock is a lot worse because of the initial denial.
Denial is at the root of most euphemisms,
The reason I’m devoting a whole sermon to this subject is that most often euphemisms are symptoms of an underlying problem. We all know and chuckle about the Victorians – Wikipedia calls them “everybody’s favorite prudes”- and their “unmentionables.” Certain body parts and undergarments associated with those body parts just couldn’t be talked about, thus they were re-named. This prude ness had as a result that women had to completely deny their femininity; it was used as a tool to suppress them. One remnant of it is still very much alive – the term “nursing” for breastfeeding. Another euphemism, and a good example for why I don’t like them. Because in this case it’s not only the word, but also the activity that it taboo – the most natural and normal activity of a mother feeding her young is banned to smelly “bathrooms.” With no bath near . . .
Another example from my own experience and from many, many grief counseling sessions is our attitude towards death. We don’t use the words “death” and “dying” a whole lot, especially not here in this country. The practice of using euphemisms for death is likely to have originated with the belief that to speak the word ‘death’ was to invite death. This so called “superstitious euphemism”is based on the belief (consciously or unconsciously) that words have the power to bring bad fortune. A sad consequence of this is that most of us are not at all prepared to deal with the subject – probably the only one that we ALL have to face sooner or later. Another example in this category is using the phrase “the big C” instead of using the word “cancer.” One unfortunate consequence of this kind of denial can be that the sick person denies the illness too long, and does not seek treatment early enough.
Similar to the superstitious type of euphemisms are religious euphemisms, which are based on the idea that some words are sacred, or that some words are spiritually imperiling (for example, not using the Lord’s name in vain/”swearing”) They give the words more power than they actually have.
Euphemisms for deities as well as for religious practices and artifacts date to the earliest of written records. Protection of sacred names, rituals, and concepts from the uninitiated has always given rise to euphemisms, whether it be for exclusion of outsiders or for the retention of power among select practitioners.
Euphemisms for hell, damnation, and the devil, on the other hand, are often used to avoid invoking the power of the adversary. The most famous in the latter category is the expression what the dickens and its variants, which does not refer to the famed British writer but instead was a popular euphemism for Satan in its time. In the Harry Potter books, the evil wizard Lord Voldemort is usually referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named” or “You-Know-Who”.
We can find a variation of the religious euphemism here in our UU churches, excuse me: fellowships; or societies, or congregations . . . The word “church” is dangerous for UU’s!
And so is the words “god”.” It’s just that with us, we do not worry about remaining in good favor with the deity, – no, we worry about the reaction of our community if we use such language. So we are using “euphemes” – not to be confused with euphemisms – to avoid the use of “God.”
The ”eupheme” was originally a word or phrase used in place of a religious word or phrase that should not be spoken aloud. By speaking only words favorable to the gods or spirits, the speaker attempted to procure good fortune by remaining in good favor with them. It’s just that it’s the other way around here . . . We avoid certain religious words in order to remain in good favour with the people sitting next to us in the sanctuary – excuse me – the “fellowship hall.”
Sometimes we are going too far.
Let me give you one example: please open your hymnals to #313. This is the hymn “Go Now In Peace.” It is used in hundreds of UU congregations to “sing the children to class.” Let us sing it together once. Listen to Margaret play it once, then join in. you may remain seated.
W e a l l s i n g
As I said, this is sung every Sunday in many, many congregations as the children leave for the RE classes. However, many of those congregations decided to slightly change the wording: instead of singing “may the love of God be with you” they sing “may the spirit of love be with you.” The problem with that in their zeal to avoid the G-word they neglected to ask the composer of the lyrics. When she found out, she was appalled; and she does not want to grant her permission for that change.
There’s actually a joke about UU’s and music and religious language:
Question: Why are UU’s such bad singers?
Answer: because they always have to read ahead to see whether they agree with the lyrics . . .
UUA president Bill Sinkford pointed out in a sermon a few years ago that “Unitarian Universalism is growing up. Growing out of a cranky and contentious adolescence into a more confident maturity. A maturity in which we can not only claim our Good News, the value we have found in this free faith, but also begin to offer that Good News to the world outside these beautiful sanctuary walls. There is a new willingness on our part to come in from the margins.”
Further down he expresses his surprise when he analyzed our Purposes and Principles in order to formulate an “elevator speech” about UU’ism. He said: “I realized that we have in our Principles an affirmation of our faith which uses not one single piece of religious language. Not one. Not even one word that would be considered 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.”
Just briefly for our guests and newer members: Our Seven Purposes and Principles (which you can find on the cover of the OOS) date to the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist movements in 1961, when the effort to find wording acceptable to all-Unitarian and Universalist, Humanist and Theist-nearly derailed the whole process.
Things have changed a little bit since then. Sinkford quotes the UU minister David Bumbaugh when he asks us to “cultivate calls a “vocabulary of reverence.”
It might surprise you that David is a Humanist. But he wrote: “Humanists, who once offered a serious challenge to liberal religion, now find [themselves] increasingly engaged in a monologue, largely because of a vocabulary inadequate to engage other people of faith. “We have manned the ramparts of reason and are prepared to defend the citadel of the mind,” Bumbaugh writes. “But in the process of defending, we have lost…the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language which would allow us to enter into critical dialogue with the religious community.”
Another famous UU minister, Forrest Church, has a slightly different spin on the subject:
“The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God,” he wrote. “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 un-nameable which I am now content to call my God.”
Like president Sinkford, I believe 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. UU’s do not need euphemisms! We know, as the headmaster of Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore said in the first Harry Potter book: “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself”.
I want to leave you with part of a poem by Tom Barrett:
What’s In The Temple?
In the quiet spaces of my mind a thought lies still, but ready to spring.
It begs me to open the door so it can walk about.
The poets speak in obscure terms pointing madly at the unsayable.
The sages say nothing, but walk ahead patting their thigh calling for us to follow.
The monk sits pen in hand poised to explain the cloud of unknowing.
The seeker seeks, just around the corner from the truth.
If she stands still it will catch up with her.
Pause with us here a while.
Put your ear to the wall of your heart.
Listen for the whisper of knowing there.
Love will touch you if you are very still.
If I say the word God, people run away.
They’ve been frightened–sat on ‘till the spirit cried “uncle.”
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can’t name.
They know he’s out there looking for them, and they want to be found,
But there is all this stuff in the way.
I can’t talk about God and make any sense,
And I can’t not talk about God and make any sense.
So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God.
I miss the old temples where you could hang out with God.
Still, we have pet pounds where you can feel love draped in warm fur,
And sense the whole tragedy of life and death.
You see there the consequences of carelessness,
And you feel there the yapping urgency of life that wants to be lived.
The only things lacking are the frankincense and myrrh.
We don’t build many temples anymore.
Maybe we learned that the sacred can’t be contained.
Or maybe it can’t be sustained inside a building.
It’s the spirit that lives on.
If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?
What would you bring to sacrifice?
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?
Go there now.