Using Your Universal Translator
A Sermon by Kadyn Frawley
Watch this terrific pastoral message from Summer Seminary graduate Kayden Frawley, preached to her congregation on January 29, 2017.
Using Your Universal Translator - Transcript
Good morning! I’m going to ask you all some questions. You don’t need to raise your hand when you agree, just think the answer to yourself.
Question 1. How many of you have either that one relative or group of relatives who ALWAYS like to bring up religion at times where you feel it’s completely inappropriate?
Question 2. When getting ready to visit with this particular person or group of people, do you have to mentally prepare in advance what you are going to say when they bring up religion or how to behave appropriately?
Question 3. Do you have a predetermined means of escape from such a conversation like suddenly needing to help make dinner or an already downloaded video of an adorable cat playing piano to distract them because… everybody likes cat videos, right???
I’m assuming that most of you are like me and can think up numerous occasions in which you have lived these exact scenarios. I certainly have become accustomed to listening to the aggressively-argued-for religious views of some of my family members and disappointingly have found very few escape plans as my family members are not the cat video type.
Let me tell you my most memorable terrible familial encounter. A few years ago my grandparents came to my house for Thanksgiving. I have always loved my grandparents to pieces but they have also been the source of many disgruntled nods and “uh huhs” and speeches along the lines of “I know you’re secretly ashamed of my liberal and atypical religious practices, sorry I don’t know how to say grace…” you get the picture.
Within 2 hours of being at my house my grandfather, in a well-meaning and non-hostile way asks me “why are you a democrat? What do democrats support?” Not knowing what to do, with both of my parents and my grandmother awkwardly awaiting my response, I tell him the first thing that pops into my head, the thing I find least arguable. “The right for gay people to marry” I say passive aggressively.
Most of us can assume, given my asking of all the questions about hostile and unwarranted religious arguments that my grandfather went on a rather long tangent attacking the LGBTQ community that eventually led to me fleeing the room in tears.
An hour later, still fuming, my grandmother sits down next to me alone in my living room. “I’m sorry your grandfather upset you so much, it wasn’t intentional”. I was angry beyond belief. Without thinking I sputtered “I’m gay. My friends are gay, my colleagues are gay. I’m mad!”
Now again, remembering the questions I asked before, can you think of what my utterly shocked grandmother’s response was?
She softly and bewilderedly responds: “Everyone has their own sins.”
Rewind for a moment. Often such uncomfortable conversations as these end with exceptionally uncomforting answers from family, friends or whomever you’re carrying on a conversation with. Being told by my grandmother that “everyone has their own sins” after telling her that religion is not a reason to discriminate against other people felt like a ton of bricks on my chest. Not only was I being discriminated against in my own home but I wasn’t receiving the apology I felt I disserved.
This feeling of disturbance and anger was anchored in my belief that at the end of such an argument, she had to think the exact same way as me, which meant dropping 100 percent of her religiously or culturally based stigma. This is where we, as UUs are flawed.
When thinking of ourselves as practitioners of the Unitarian Universalist faith, we have similar goals in mind. 1. Reduce stigma. 2. Promote acceptance. 3. Find a common ground.
It’s the third goal we have so many struggles with. Finding a common ground.
While attending Summer Seminary one of my powerful mentors and sources of guidance, Bart Frost, said something that struck me. He said “We,” meaning UUs, “we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.
What he meant by this, was that UUs are the ones that are ok with the uncomfortable and that we are the ones doing the comforting. Now I’m starting to think that this should be reversed. As UUs we try to help everyone we encounter reach similar basic morals. 1. Reduced stigma. 2. Heightened acceptance. 3. A sense of a common ground.
We go about doing this, in our churches and in our lives by using analogies and comparisons to things we believe everyone understands collectively. We often stray from only using language that we prefer to using 6, 7, 8 different words that could be synonymous as to not offend those around us.
This is relevant to our use of what is called “God Language”.
For those who haven’t encountered this term, God Language is any word relating or expressing certain religious or spiritual connotations. Examples could be God, holy, divine, blessed, Spirit, the list goes on. This list also includes any religious figures that are often specific to one faith, such as Jesus and Buddha.
Think about this: many of us are more comfortable saying the name Jesus in a scholarly sense, say in a Hebrew monotheistic study group, than in a blessing or prayer of our own in front of other UUs who may or may not use the terminology. Say I, when practicing at home, use the term Spirit of Life regularly and prefer it over other words. I might later feel ashamed or cautionary to saying Spirit of Life in an open group blessing.
Our inclusion I’m finding is often, dare I say: backwards! We’ve become a community who often silently dance around touchy subjects!
Again while at Summer Seminary, around 10 of us sat down to lunch and someone brought up the question: “what do you all spiritually believe in?” We went around the table and for some it was a simple question. Those people often answered along the lines of “I’m atheist and go to church for community” or “I’m humanist and find great spiritual meaning in group conversation and social justice”. For others, including myself, the question was far more difficult to answer, not because we were unsure, as most of us were fairly sure at the time, but rather because we didn’t want to step on any toes by using our forms of God Language.
We as UUs have, by trying to be more inclusive and use less God language, excluded UU Theists and Spiritualists from the conversation! Think about this: in my 18 years of devout Unitarian Universalism, I have only heard a choice few hymns that use God language out of the dozens we have available to us in Singing the Living Tradition. Why could this be true? Why, when in the order of worship most every week is there a time labeled “prayer/meditation/contemplation” yet we almost always hear spoken “a time for meditation and contemplation”? Where did the concept of prayer go? Why are we avoiding God language, an inherent part of many religions we claim to embrace?
This is A LOT to take in at once and I’m certain at least a few people are feeling guilty or concerned that they didn’t see this stigma within our community before. During my aforementioned lunch conversation I noticed this for the first time within myself and felt the same feelings.
This is where we will apply our new knowledge to our uncomfortable family arguments. We are now going to use what will be aptly titled our “Universal Translator”!
When you read the title of the service this morning on your order of worship you probably thought of some app akin to Google Translate that you could get on your phone, after all, you are being preached to by a teenager! Your Universal Translator is not available on your phone or computer for 3 easy payments of $19.95, I’m sorry to say! However, inside your amazing brain your Universal Translator comes with a few, easy to follow steps!
Step 1. To use your Universal Translator you must first have something to translate! This means, and I will say it slowly, USE. YOUR. GOD. LANGUAGE. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter, even if you yourself don’t use God Language then you can follow the second half of this step. Accept and promote others’ use of God Language, independent of what it is. That is how they choose to speak their truth, and especially within these walls we need to break down our barriers toward God language!
Step 2. To use your Universal Translator you must take a third party perspective on a situation in which God Language is being used. Like my terrible encounter with my grandmother, you must think of what the intention behind the God Language is. When my grandmother said “everyone has their own sins” she didn’t mean that all gay people are going to hell, what she meant was that everyone has their own obstacles and that she loved me regardless of what mine are.
Step 3. Step 3 is not always required, but could be helpful in times of extreme stress to your Universal Translator. Step 3 involves taking whatever God Language the other person is using, say the word “sins” in my example and in your head change it to language you understand or feel more comfortable using. For me, that’s translating “sins” into “struggles” or “obstacles”.
A word of caution when using your Universal Translator: don’t think that using it means you must agree with negative or discriminatory things people say. Rather, your Universal Translator is a tool for more compassionate and calm conversations and allows you to live and speak your values with a better chance of reaching the other person’s heart.
We are a prophet-hood of all believers. With that comes contradiction and struggle but without it we lose the diversity and overwhelming community we value so deeply. As you go about your week remind yourself to turn on your Universal Translator as we are the comfortable; now afflicted.
Kadyn Frawley is a life long Unitarian Universalist and Summer Seminary 2016 graduate. She loves to battle the societal boundaries of age. Serving as Countryside Church UU's first youth representative of the Board of Trustees, she embodies the power of youth involvement.