One of the most powerful stories some people have is how they got the name they have today, how they wish to be called by others today. And there are all kinds of ways to get a name. Many of us here today received our names as a type of inheritance. Perhaps a relative had our name first. In some families it is a part of their religious beliefs to name a child by the name of the most recently deceased close relative of the same gender. That is a beautiful way to honor the cycles of our lives together.
But I think some of the most interesting names come according to the convention of making a child’s middle name the surname of their mother, who changed her surname when she became married. These lead to some of the most fun middle names I know. A good friend of mine inherited the middle name of Fox in this way. I always liked that. Also he was a handsome guy, so the ladies in our high school really delighted in learning he was literally a fox. But this convention didn’t work out as well for another friend of mine.
This friend from grade school was embarrassed about his middle name. He swore, swore me to secrecy about what his middle name was. He was worried he’d be made fun of…and he was probably right. It was fifth grade. We made fun of everything. I knew that we were really friends when he finally told me his middle name. It’s likely he’s matured enough now to know it is an awesome middle name: Knight, like with a K. But in honor of our decades-old pact, it’s best not to reveal his full name to you, I think, lest any of us have a moment of fifth grade mocking descend upon us.
How we get our names. That’s an important story for a lot of us, too. The reason naming a person or anything else is important, though, has to do with something we don’t always think about when we name things: power.
Throughout many of the world’s faiths and beliefs, in stories told in ages past and in the pages of stories we read today, out from something deep in our own knowledge, we know, the power that comes from naming something is profound. In some faiths it is the act of a god. In some of the earth centered beliefs, it can give you power over a spirit or other entity. Almost anywhere we look, sources of wisdom contain at least one story about wielding the power of knowing the true name of something or someone.
In some of my favorite stories of the past century—stories by Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin (side note, if you haven’t read her yet, get busy and you’re welcome)—even in contemporary stories, this naming power is deployed to control or otherwise influence creatures of immense power. In truth, for both Tolkien and Le Guin we’re sometimes talking about the power to control, well…dragons. But that only goes to show how powerful naming really is, right? Even in Game of Thrones, it is only the Mother of Dragons who calls dragons by their given names, names that she gave them. But I suppose we also see the power of names and of naming things other than dragons, right?
We recognize our favorite brand of detergent from among all the others in the detergent labyrinth in most stores. We can utter a single phrase at the coffee counter and, boom, a concoction or brew with multiple ingredients, heated or cooled or frozen to our liking, magically appears at the other end of the bar. Frappachino! Machiato! Some of us can even say the name of our operating system into our phones, and the phones magically come to life…waiting to attend to our every need. And these are only some of the ways that the power of naming still works in our lives every day. But like all power, in order to wield it, a price has to be paid. No, not fighting or tricking a dragon. Not giving over your child to Rumpelstiltskin. The power of naming really is not that different from any other power. And where to we turn to really understand power? Physics!
I bet someone here knows what power is. Or how the measure of power is expressed, right? Power is literally the measure of doing work over a period of time. So, by giving something a name or by using a name, what happens? It shortens the time we need to do any work truly understanding something. And by shrinking the denominator in a fraction, you increase the value of what that fraction represents. Yes, yes, I look forward to the emails correcting my physics or explaining how my fractions are off. But if the power of naming in the deep old beliefs, or any number of sacred texts, or contemporary fantasy fiction doesn’t sway you, maybe physics has. However we look at it, naming something is powerful.
So take a look around you. Where are we all gathered today? At First Unitarian Church. Good. And First Unitarian Church is what kind of church? A Unitarian Universalist church…fellowship…congregation…society, depending on whom you ask. Good. Then those who are attending this church, those people can all be called Unitarian Universalists, right? No? Well, would we be more comfortable being called UUs? We could do that, but then when we’re talking to most people outside of church we have to explain what UU means and then what Unitarian Universalist means.
Do any of us just say, I’m Unitarian? I do sometimes. It makes sense, especially since it’s the name of this church, right? And it’s also the first word in the name of the tradition. But…if I’m being really honest…it’s also just kind of cool. I like saying Unitarian because of all the cool people who were also Unitarian. But I know that there are more than a few people here who do not identify as UU, or Unitarian Universalist, or Unitarian, or Universalist, or whatever. And as powerful as a name can be when it names you correctly, when we are called the wrong name or by a name that doesn’t feel right, then we can really feel the power in a name.
I mean, what is one of the most common tools of the schoolyard bully trade: name calling. Sometimes I still remember the look in my little friend’s fifth grade eyes, how scared my friend was of what the kids might have made out of his chivalrous middle name if others found out. And for better or worse, name calling is nothing new for Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists. Both the words “unitarian” and “universalist” were…shall we say…given names. They were spat at those first few who were called by these names, as epithets as insults as threats, really. In both cases, the larger, powerful, majority, institutional church used these words to identify heresies or incorrect beliefs about the faith everyone was supposed to agree upon. But for centuries, the way these words were used were not to name a person. You would not be called “a Unitarian” or “a Universalist.” They were used to name a belief.
If a person saw the trinity arranged differently than the accepted doctrine did; if a person thought that maybe Jesus and God were not the same person; if a person wondered whether the Holy Spirit is really one and the same as God; it didn’t matter. If a person thought anything like these things, if they believed anything other than the orthodox belief about the trinity, that belief was called a unitarian (small U) belief or a unitarian heresy. For centuries, unitarian was primarily an adjective, a modifier. It wasn’t a name.
But what about Universalists? Similar situation there. For centuries, if a belief started to approach the idea that maybe every single soul is actually saved; if you suggested that a loving, perfect God might have that much grace, then your belief would be called universalist. And this was almost exclusively in the Christian realm.
For centuries, and even today, you will often see the phrase “Christian universalist” and not Universalist all by itself unless you’re are talking about us. In fact, the term universalist is used much more in wider theological circles today than unitarian ever is. There is even a growing group of Christian preachers of recent note who have had deep spiritual experiences and embraced universal salvation, determining that a perfect God would not damn any part of creation to hell. These universalist preachers have lost jobs, lost congregations, lost nearly all of their pasts, for proclaiming this belief. There’s actually kind of a movement of these churches growing up again. It’s called the Christian Universalist Association. They just celebrated their tenth anniversary. And my oh my do I love them…because they arose, in some part, in response to Unitarian Universalism!
I guess it’s true. If you stick around long enough, you’ll give someone something to complain about! And they just might start a church about it. I feel like you’ve really arrived in the religion world when you’ve spawned a protestant group.
Today, for those of us here, at First Unitarian Church, part of the Unitarian Universalist Association, watching the birth of a kind of counter-movement has to raise some questions about what we call ourselves, right?
For many in this movement, the merger of the two strands of our faith in 1961 was a watershed moment. That merger was a day of a new beginning, when we shed the meanings and the theological tent poles of the individual traditions that merged—the name-calling names—and combined those words to make something freer, something greater, and more welcoming to all. We named ourselves proudly and that was powerful.
The hope in this act was that we would build a movement that allows its members to let past harmful allegiances and beliefs go and grasp only all good things in each of these traditions, and in so many other wisdoms the world has to share with us. Who wouldn’t want to have all the good things from a tradition and leave the rest? But if you think for a second that Unitarian Universalists are the first to think they could just keep all the good things about some traditions and jettison the more troubling things, you’re sorely mistaken. And we have learned many of the lessons in our short history that others trying this experiment learned centuries before us.
See, even this name Unitarian Universalist…is not an all around good thing for everyone. I even know some UU ministers in our tradition who dislike the name. I know some ministers who have wondered whether we should drop the Unitarian part of our name. And they have their reasons. And most of them come down to this: the power of a name includes what was done with that name over time.
We have discussed already that it’s an indispensible part of the equation for power. Because as we’ve said, power comes in naming because it instantly conjures up the work that has been done on behalf of that name over time. And the facts remain.
Some churches that called themselves unitarian were divided over the issue of slavery in this country, causing some churches in some places to split over the issue. And many of the churches that didn’t outright support the institution were silent on it, claiming it is a secular issue and not one for a church to consider.
Stepping a little farther back in our history, to the Revolutionary War, there is a UU church that supported the crown during the American Revolution.
And consider the even farther-reaching influence of the Puritan arrival on the shores of the mainland and then here as well. Twenty of the seventy or so churches in this county, who trace their founding back to the Pilgrims of the seventeenth century, the Puritans who arrived and staked out the moral landscape of this nation, twenty of those seventy churches that remain are Unitarian Universalist churches. They are in the UUA.
Imagine that. A name taken in defiance to name calling, a sign of pride and power in the face of opposition, now, for some in its embrace, does not fit any more. It’s a reminder of some of the most treacherous and painful adversaries people have faced in our history.
Now, I want to be clear. I’m not advocating that we need to change the name of our movement today. I’m not advocating that we change the name of this church today. I can just see it now:
“Hey, T. J., welcome back from study leave. Learn anything new?”
“Yes, we have to change the name of the church!!!”
That’s not what’s happening here.
What we are doing is considering and getting honest about where we are in the history of a name, in the history of a movement to hold on to all good things of a faith. But as we so often hear, “All good things…must come to an end.”
Many tell us that this proverb comes to us from a set of stories held in very high regard. It appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a work of fiction or retelling of stories from seven centuries ago. I venture that someone somewhere, long before a dead white guy put it in print, this simple wisdom was spoken into the world, perhaps in another place in another time out of mind. But Chaucer is one place where this wisdom appears. One implication in this is that things are only good when they have an ending. You can watch just about any movie or read any novel with an immortal character to know that this is true. Bemoaning the plodding and endless lives they lead, these characters, vampires, gods, mighty dragons, remind us how precious something is when it can and will end. All good things must end. True. And most human institutions do end at some point. But that is not the final word on the subject.
I prefer these words on good things: “All good things…are wild and free.” This is the voice of Henry David Thoreau. And I think when he wrote those words, he knew very well that he was responding to Chaucer. In this very language, Thoreau calls out that good things are free, that good things are wild. They are not bound to their history.
He says this more fully, “In short, all good things are wild and free. There is something in a strain of music, whether produced by an instrument or by the human voice—take the sound of a bugle in a summer night, for instance,—which by its wildness, to speak without satire, remind me of the cries emitted by wild beasts in their native forests. It is so much of their wildness as I can understand. Give me for my friends and neighbors wild [people], not tame ones. The wildness of [the wildest person] is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good [people] and lovers meet.”
Music, wild non-human animals, and wild human animals, and humans, shall we say, “gone wild”: he reveres the howls of the heart we cannot understand yet we know by the shivers down our spines, by the ear we lend to music, by the wild, untamed love we give to one another. I don’t know about you, but if that’s what we mean now by Unitarian, if real unbridled freedom is part of the story…sign me up.
See, I like to think of the Unitarian name we share as a reminder. It’s a reminder of those things that went before us, those things that want to trap us, want us under their giant clawed and scaly palm. First it was an institutional church that burned people alive for their unitarian beliefs. Then it was battles for freedom throughout these lands. Puritans who fled oppressors to worship freely…the founding of a nation dedicated to the pursuit of liberty…a horrific battle for the end to a shameful and sinful institution…Unitarians have been doing battle with the dragons of a painful and corrupt past for centuries.
But I hold to the truth that before all good things must end, all good things should be wild and free. Whether in our personal lives, or in the lives of our faith communities, whether we are Unitarian, Universalist, UU, or whatever, this month of justice we have considered in worship together turns our gaze to the dawn of this time when there are seemingly so many dragons to slay. And as the light of this new dawn glints on the armor we wear into the fray, knights around our committee tables, I pray that we might know so many of the truly good things in our lives. That we might know all good things, so that we may know wildness and freedom until all of it, for all that is our life, must end.
And may it ever be so.
 From Walking by Henry David Thoreau (1861), edited for appropriate language. The original text is this: In short, all good things are wild and free. There is something in a strain of music, whether produced by an instrument or by the human voice—take the sound of a bugle in a summer night, for instance, —which by its wildness, to speak without satire, remind me of the cries emitted by wild beasts in their native forests. It is so much of their wildness as I can understand. Give me for my friends and neighbors wild men, not tame ones. The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet.