What do you mean when you use the word “God,” if you use it at all? What do others hear?
I was preparing for a wedding I’d been asked to do in Sheridan, Wyo., this August. (How we are connected is another story.) Whatever premarital counseling I was going to do had to be over the phone and through emails until we met for some hours the day before the ceremony. At their request I sent the couple a copy of a wedding service suggested in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship.
Reading it over, I realized, not surprisingly, that the word “God” was used a lot. I wouldn’t have noticed that 20 years ago. Why? Because times and the meanings of words change. We can no longer assume, if we ever really could, that there is a consensus in our culture regarding the meaning of religious words. They suffer from literalism on the right and ridicule from the left.
One of the gifts/challenges of the secularization of our culture is that we with religious sensitivities and/or spiritual passions have the opportunity, no, the obligation, no, the imperative to find religious language, metaphors, poetry, art forms that are alive, that communicate what older religious language was alive to back then.
Many of us, maybe all of us at some level, long for spiritual experience and ways that speak of it; ways that excite, invite, set to flight souls dulled and drowning in the preoccupation with appearance and appetites that our consumer-oriented culture sells as worth.
My latest favorite book is Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss.” In it I’ve found a man of this post-Christian era who identifies what I have struggled with for too many years as preacher, pastor and writer, the fading spiritual fire in our religious language. Here is an excerpt:
“Does the decay of belief among educated people in the West precede the decay of language used to define and explore belief, or do we find the fire of belief fading in us only because the words are sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn? We need a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.”
Back to the couple in Wyoming and our conversation about the word “God”; they too were uncomfortable using the word.
It wasn’t that it didn’t have meaning for them. It was that they weren’t sure how to express it, nor were they sure what others would think when they used it. So we had a conversation, a great conversation, a 2½-hour conversation that seemed more like 30 minutes. We didn’t talk about doctrine as much as experiences, experiences we’ve had of insight, revelation, transformation, wonder, gratitude, conscience, forgiveness, mystery, grace.
Out of that soulful sharing we found our service. I was to begin with a call to a sacred ceremony with these words, “Love comes from God. Everyone who truly loves passes it on and shows themselves a child of God.”
Then I continued, “What do you think of when we use the word ‘God’? Sam, Kristi and I thought together and found these words that point to our understanding (always partial) of God. Some are Biblical; others come out of sacred moments in our lives: spirit, love, being, mystery, wilderness, Holy One, Father/Mother, suffering with us, Compassionate Creator, One Who Can Be Trusted, Resurrecting One, beauty, universe.
“We know that you have other words to add. You might want to edit our list, but whatever words you and we use, we believe that God is more than we can fully know yet is known to us. It is in the spirit of what these good words evoke that we greet you and it is the loving embrace of these words and the One behind them that the promises of this wedding are made.”
Many who attend the wedding said they found sacred meaning in the experience.
Another way to have the conversation about the word “God” is to talk about what the word doesn’t mean. We did a little of that too, but finding the spirit, the heart of what it did mean inspired the service and gave the couple words to use in future discussions of the meaning and foundation of their life together.
At least that is my prayer to God.
Bill Gregory can be reached at: