A Language of Reverence

From Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael, Senior Co-Minister

The vocabulary of reverence allows us “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 rest of the religious community.” – Rev. Dr. David Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalist Minister and Professor

In the mid 1990’s prior to his rise to the presidency of our Unitarian Universalist Association in 2001, Bill Sinkford had a spiritual experience. Bill sat at the bedside of his 13-year-old son, in a hospital emergency room in Boston, Massachusetts.  

 The following is quoted from an article by Neil Miller of the Boston Globe:  

“Bill Sinkford had been at a luncheon meeting when a co-worker informed him that his son was in a Boston, Massachusetts hospital emergency room of a drug overdose.   Sinkford rushed to the hospital. His wife and daughter were there also.  Like many parents in that kind of situation, he was going over in his mind, “If only I had …” But soon fear and self-blame evolved into something far more profound. Sinkford had what he calls “an experience of the holy”; he felt the presence of God. “I don’t consider myself a Christian,” he says, as he recalls that night. “I have no systematic theology. But I believe there is a spirit of life, a presence. That night, I had the experience of being held by God. I had the sense that we don’t have to walk this path alone, that there is a love that has never broken faith with us.” 

The next morning it was clear his son, Billy, would live.  Sinkford explained to the Boston Globe reporter, that since then, his spiritual life had shifted. “I am spending more time being thankful, being grateful,” he says. “My personal pattern had been to worry about what I was entitled to, rather than what I had been given.” 

You will hear Rev. Scott and I use a Language of Reverence. You might hear us say “Spirit of Life,” or “God of our understanding and beyond our describing.” My life experiences do not parallel those of Bill Sinkford but I too have, in moments of deep grief and brokenness, as well as moments of profound awe, felt that I was not alone. The presence I understand is at once, indescribable, but demanding of description. My humility asks me to remember that there are mysteries that I may never plumb – not with the strictures of science nor the fancies of faith – mysteries that will remain, calling me, not to certainty, but to reverence. This indescribable presence, which is of ultimate importance to me, is one of those mysteries.

The work I employ in interfaith settings is not wholly different that the work we can employ in Unitarian Universalist settings. When I hear my Muslim, my Christian, my Sikh colleagues speak the name of a God I do not understand, I do the work of spiritual translation. I listen for the reverence in their praise and recitations. It is the reverence I can connect to, even when their image of the holy is different than my own. I can feel their commitment, connection, and relationship to that which is of ultimate importance to them. I can also challenge their notions of holiness when I feel they fall below what should be of ultimate importance. I can only do this using a language that we share. 

An atheist Unitarian Universalist congregant once told me, when you say “God” I hear “Universe.” A Christian Unitarian Universalist congregant once told me, when you say “Hope,” I hear “God.” The work of spiritual translation and the language of reverence can be forces that draw us together in community, conversation, and shared sympathy. May it be so.