Graciousness in our Language

Part of my morning routine is to read a daily devotion from Father Richard Rohr.  One devotion in particular, featuring excepts from Howard Thurman, has stuck with me.  Thurman was an African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. As a prominent religious figure, he played a leading role in many social justice movements and organizations of the twentieth century.

What I found most enlightening amid the very thought provoking writing, was a footnote.  It read:

A note on language from Thurman’s editors: “We realize that inclusive language is noticeably absent in Howard Thurman’s writings. As gifted and prophetic as he was, Thurman was also a product of his times, and inclusive language was not a part of the social consciousness. Regardless of language, the substance of Thurman’s work is inclusive. His life and theology were inclusive, and if he were writing today his language would more accurately reflect this worldview.”  While his masculine words might suggest that Thurman didn’t consider other perspectives, he did see many women in his life (for example, his mentor Mary McLeod Bethune and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman) as peers and leaders. We must grant this same sympathy to all those who write with sincerity in previous times and various cultures.

I have pondered this footnote several times since that first reading.  I think the language we use is very important.  Words do hurt us, despite the playground saying.  Stretching ourselves to break old habits and phrases shows much more about our willingness to grow and walk in solidarity with our neighbor than it does about their desire to be called by names that uplift rather than demean.  I have had to correct myself multiple times when words I have used for years are no longer appropriate – but I want to keep trying!  And I ask forgiveness for those times when I get it wrong or was unaware of my error.

You will find that I am careful about using inclusive and expansive language for God.  Rarely will you hear me refer to God in the male pronoun (or the female!)  Unlike Jesus, who will be he/him/his, and the Spirit which we often refer to as she/her/hers, God will be God, or the Almighty, or the Creator, or Yahweh, or the Source of our Being, or Our Rock, or ….  I also address God as Father, but often under my breath I say Abba/Imma – which is Aramaic for Papa/Mama – a phrase I learned while at Holden Village.  I recognize for some people, Father language is not comforting, and I wish to appreciate their need as well.

Years from now, should any of my words be read by my great-great-grandchildren, I would hope they will afford me the same courtesy Thurman’s editors are asking.  Likely things will have evolved and there will be a new appreciation for what is most inclusive.  After all, we no longer do services in Latin!

I hope our collective language seeks to help all people feel valued and loved.  I hope each person can be bold enough, while still being kind, to gently correct one another as we seek to grow.  I also hope that we all give grace to one another when we “mess it up”.

Blessings on your journey!

Deacon Heidi

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