Inclusive Language, Pray First, Psalms, Revised Songbird Version

What we say

It's the fourth of January, and I'm working on the details of this Pray First thing. I asked the question on Twitter, if I pray right before I go to sleep, is that Praying First, prior to sleeping, or is it Praying Last, the last thing I do before passing out completely?

(Someone suggested being less linear, but of course that was someone who didn't know the context. Still, something to consider.)

It's troubling to me how often being prayerful leads to apparent unconsciousness. It happens to me at bedtime, for sure, but also as I drift in and out of the world around me in the dark of winter morning. 

And I'm interested in the word I mumble repeatedly, if mumbling is something you can do in the silence of your mind. I mumble, "Lord," and it happens a lot.

This is a word I've trained out of my liturgical writing. It's so Anglophile, so feudal, so unrelated to anything we know about in 21st century America.

But there it is, coming out of my metaphorical mouth, "Lord." And it doesn't feel like a literary reference. It feels like a personal way of talking to God, where "Oh, God" feels like something I would say in frustration or in formality. 

"Lord" feels intimate. 

Fifteen years ago, in the run-up to the first enormous transition of my adult life, I felt attached to the idea of God as Mother. I'm not sure I ever wanted to go with the idea of Goddess. That had other freight attached to it. Well, do did "mother." Serious, serious emotional, personal baggage weighed down the possibility of God as Mother for this bird. I had spent, gosh, probably seven or eight years wrestling with that word, ever since I came to Maine and was introduced to the idea of inclusive language.

Funny, do we ever think of calling God "Lady?" Father/Mother, we get that. But Lord/Lady? That pairing feels like an announcement at a Court Ball, not a set of words for prayer or hymns or liturgy. 

In the Psalm for this Sunday, which is 29, the NRSV gives us the marvelous word "Ascribe."

Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor. (That's Psalm 29:1-2, by the way.)

Ascribe means "to refer to a supposed cause, source, or author." In my preacher group this morning we looked it up, and we also looked up some other translations of the Psalm. "Give unto the Lord," says the King James Version, which in our 21st century cadence sounds like an old-fashioned way of saying we're giving the Lord glory and strength instead of acknowledging what God already has.

Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty, give unto the LORD glory and strength.
Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. (That's your KJV for 29:1-2.)

I love words, especially pretty ones. I love the way a different version makes me thing again about what people meant a long, long time ago and how obscure it sounds to American ears in this new year of the weird number. Is it Twenty-Eleven? Or Two Thousand Eleven? Whatever year it is, how do we say the Psalm, for it begs to be spoken aloud, in a way that makes sense to the people saying it, recognizing that God's ears already hear it in God's language?

Whatever that is.

Cedars I want to make the ideas accessible, while making the point that God's power is beyond our limited concepts of accessibility. If the Psalm speaks of the cedars of Lebanon and the wilderness of Kadesh, do I draw a parallel with the natural features we know in North Yarmouth and its surrounds, creating a comparison that might draw a snicker, or do I over-explain Lebanon and Kadesh after a show-off bluestocking trip to the Bible Dictionary?

I want the words we say to make some kind of sense without losing the rhythm of  poetry and the beauty of wonder.

Which brings me back to where I started. How do I figure out how to proceed?

Pray first.

Even if the first word out of my mouth or inside my puzzlingly retrograde head is "Lord." 

Put it into words, you angels: our Lord is a God of glory and strength.
Put it into words of prayer and praise; speak out loud the glory of God's name; worship our Lord in the irresistible wonder of holiness.  (That's your Revised Songbird Version.)

And if you find yourself feeling small and imperfect in the darkest hours of the morning, or worried and inconsequential before you lie down at night, and you want to say "Lord," I think it's okay. She'll forgive you, I feel certain of it.

(Image can be found here. And yes, I'm trying to get back to lectionary blogging. This week is Baptism of the Lord A.  See, it's everywhere!)

Inclusive Language, Living in This World

O Store Gud

How-great-thou-art O Mighty God. 

It's a hymn some people think must have been around since Jesus walked the dusty roads, based on a Swedish poem once set to a folk melody and actually translated into English by a British missionary in 1949. 

That's the way you probably know it, not actually ancient, but popularized by the Billy Graham Crusade and recorded by Elvis Presley.

When the United Church of Christ brought out its new hymnal fifteen years ago, amid the cries of outrage about the maiming of Christmas carols, there were also heard angry rebukes of the new version of this hymn. Like many others, it lost its "Thees" and "Thous." And in this case, the "Thou" resonated for people, because it was burned deep into their memories. 

But I looked into it. This was a translation of the poem by Carl Boberg, a poem written to express his experience of God on a rainy afternoon, with storm clouds and thunder and lightning. And it seemed just right to be singing it this morning in the midst of a weekend of the same kinds of storms. Boberg names the beauty and wonder of God's creation and also the ways we do not care for it well enough.

O Mighty God.

On the way home I said how much I enjoyed singing the hymn, and LP said, "I hated it!" For a moment I thought perhaps times and tastes have changed, but she quickly followed up, "I like the old words."

O Lord, My God…How Great Thou Art.

I went searching for as literal a translation as I could get and found this one when I had Google Chrome translate from the Swedish Cyberhymnal page:

Earth O great God, when I view the world,

As you create with your allmaktsord,

How where your life's wisdom lead wires,

And all beings saturate at your table.


When deficiencies soul into worship sound:

How Great Thou Art! How Great Thou Art!

When deficiencies soul into worship sound:

How Great Thou Art! How Great Thou Art!


Oh, my. Apparently some things defy translation, in either direction.

Yesterday, I spent more time watching news about the oil spill than I have been able to bring myself to do before. We've been too busy arguing over language to pay attention to what really matters, too determined to win to even consider doing what's right, too blind to beauty to see it clearly until we may lose it.

O mighty God, forgive us. We forgot How Great Thou Art, and how fragile are the things you made, and how important our role in caring for them. Help us to make amends. 

If we can.

Reidel spill

(The photo by Charles Reidel is from the New York Times, and I first saw it at Robin's blog, Metanoia.)

Inclusive Language, Psalms

God’s Steadfast Love Endures Forever

(Palm Sunday A    Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29)

In early March, 1992, a new pastor came to Large Church, where I was a member. I was excited because I had co-chaired the Search Committee and this was the culmination of our work. It happened that my mother was visiting the same weekend that the new pastor led his first worship service among us, and she knew how much it mattered to me. Although she had been to visit before, including for the baptism of my second child the year before, it seems to have been the first time she noticed the church's use of inclusive language. I believe she must have linked it to the arrival of the new pastor. Her assessment of the service included remarks like, "(audible sniff) I hope you weren't disappointed," and "Doesn't the language upset the men?"

Given that the new pastor was a tall white guy, it was a funny question, but it has remained with me. I know I wondered, too, why the use or non-use of a particular pronoun seemed to matter so much to people.

After fifteen years as a member at that church, I went to serve a smaller church where there had been no discussion about inclusive language. The longtime pastor had been a guy liberal in his own beliefs, but very orthodox in his practice, right down to using "thees and thous" in his prayer language. (He used them at my Installation service in 2003, so I have personal experience of hearing the words from his mouth.)

Old habits die hard. I gave a blessing at a church lunch on Sunday and after some words about Heifer Project, I found myself using a grace familiar from childhood, "Bless this food to our use, and us to thy loving service." I did a mental double-take! "Thy?" "Thy?"


I do it, too.

This is a long way around to the psalm, but anytime we are celebrating a day in the church year that has a lot of memories for people, we are at risk of working against their experience rather than with it. How does my own experience bias me? I want the palms at the beginning of the service, not the end. Last year I gave this instruction, upon request from the ushers, but they still held them back. Force of habit. This year I will know to be more explicit at the last minute. I hoped to see people waving their palms, especially since we were doing Palms only at the beginning and then moving into a special Passiontide presentation. By the end of the service, the palms were out-of-sync with the rest of us.

Yet, God's steadfast love endures forever, despite our screw-ups, our debates about how to say the words, our differences of opinion about when to distribute the palms and our local reasons for wanting things a certain way. A wise colleague suggested that Main Street Church might have a history of disputes over cleaning up the mess related to palms. More likely they once had a pastor who once had a pastor who grew up in a church where they handed them out at the end of the service.

Most of the time we have no idea why we are doing the things we are doing, but God's steadfast love endures forever. Thank goodness.