Speaking Your Word-Language and Changing Our World

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Introduction- Trevor Malkinson

Isaiah 43:19 “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

The following is a sermon that Rhian Walker preached at Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver, BC, on April 10th, 2011. The regular minister Rev. Bruce Sanguin was away on sabbatical, and both Rhian and myself- who have just entered seminary at the Vancouver School of Theology- were asked to preach (the first time for both of us!) in the guest series while he was away. My sermon was previously published on Beams under the title It's Time to Go Home- A Sermon on Exile and Return.

I just wanted to offer a few words of context for the following piece, which I feel is a solid representation of an emerging post-postmodern Christian voice. Rhian and I met at the University of Victoria while doing our undergraduate degrees in philosophy, and we were both impacted by the work of the great Canadian philosopher Jan Zwicky (my hero and mentor). Zwicky was a formidable thinker and a powerful defender of the environment, something Rhian and I were also passionate about. We both left to do graduate degrees in philosophy, and I lost touch with Rhian for many years. Then one day I was sitting in a church (not something I'd done before) listening to this 'progressive' minister I'd heard about, Bruce Sanguin. I looked over and there was Rhian. In some ways this is not entirely surprising as Bruce is a leader in the field of ecological Christianity, and it makes sense that we'd be mutually attracted to his work (if I recall Rhian had heard an interview with him on CBC radio).

Bruce Sanguin is also a leader in the field of evolutionary Christianity, an emergent movement that's on the rise. It was in the rich field of Bruce's church that Rhian and I both contacted the call to go into ministry. And it's an interesting time for us to be going into the United Church of Canada; a recent National Post article wrote that the United Church "is undergoing one of the most precipitous slides in modern religious history". So going into ministry right now in the United Church is either madness, or the perfect opportunity for rebirth, renewal and resurrection. Only time will tell I guess. But if what's arising amidst the ashes of decline is the kind of evolutionary, action-oriented preaching found in Rhian's sermon below, Spirit just might indeed be up to something new. I look forward to more of her work and to future synergies between us in the future.



Sermon- Rhian Walker

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 1-5

 May the Spirit who dwells in all living things quiet our minds now and open us, so we may listen to what the Universe is telling us.

John 1: 1-5 is probably one of the most recognizable passages from the Bible, even to those who have neverword_main read a single page of it. It’s so familiar, that it's easy to skim over it and not register its complexity.

Here in our community and in other United Churches, this passage is not interpreted literally. We are blessed to live in a time where science and rational thought enriches our understanding of how our world came into being and how it operates on a biological, chemical or physical level. We don’t look for those answers in the Bible.

But the scholar Marcus Borg reminds us that looking beyond the literal interpretation of the Bible does not mean we get rid of the whole text. Freed from the literal, we can explore the metaphorical meaning of this passage. So what could this metaphor be telling us? This morning I invite us to meditate on what the spiritual use of language, or using our Word, might be.

If you have sat through a first year philosophy class, you’ve likely had a discussion on “what is consciousness?” Why do we seem to be aware of not only our surroundings and our bodies, but also our perceptions about the world, of others, and of ourselves? Why can we think and reflect on ourselves? Or more simply: why are we aware of what we know, instead of just, well, knowing it.

Those of you who have not had your morning coffee will be relieved to know that I won’t be walking us through a rousing lecture on the nature of consciousness. While there are many aspects that define human consciousness, one of the areas that that is unique to humans is our tremendous capacity for language. It lang-800wihas evolved in our species to such a degree that we have created somewhere between 3,000-8,000 different languages.

The emergence of language marks a critical turning point in our evolutionary journey, both as a species and as individuals. Wired for language as infants, we develop this faculty over time through interacting with our environment and the relationships we form with others within it. These perceptions about our world, ourselves and other people don’t spring from a vacuum but from our very bodies interacting with the soil, the air, the water, and all life.

We then create a view of the world, one that is coloured by our own experiences and perceptions, which we then express through language. But what we are expressing are not factual statements about objects. We are in fact using language to create the very reality we are experiencing.

Let me give you an example. When you call someone “your true love”, or “your rival”, when you talk about “your challenging work”, or “your beautiful home” you are engaged in an act of creating and putting meaning onto objects and the world. Or, for those of you who have children, think back on what happens when a child starts to name the world around them. It’s a really radical shift, when they start to call something “mine”, my blanket, my teddy, that object, once named, becomes unique and part of their world in a whole new way. It you want to test that, just try taking it away from them and substituting it with another. It doesn’t work so well.

Now, this all may seem really obvious, that we are creating a world everyday, but think of what an amazing phenomena this is. Every moment of every day, we have within us the power to shape the world around usMountainsOfCreation with our words, our language. What the passage from John could mean is that very act of speaking, of using the Word, is in and of itself a Divine act of creation, one that is creating the lives that we are leading.

And if that is so, then I can’t help but wonder that if we make room for it, perhaps we can transform our current reality, the one that is full of wars and conflict, by making way for Spirit or the Divine to come through our words.

But let’s actually try to feel the creative power of language in shaping our reality for a moment. Please join me in a meditation. I’m going to give us two words to reflect on. I’d like us to shut our eyes and see what the world feels like when we reflect on these words. Pay attention to what you see, think about and how your body feels. The first word is “Violent”.   Now empty your mind, you may want to gently give your shoulders a shake and try this word, “Peaceful”.

We can now open our eyes. Thank you. Did you notice how your mood and perception of the world shifted or changed when you reflected on the two words? How your reality of the world was different in those two spaces?

So what has this got to do with us? One of the aspects of Christianity that really drew me was that in this tradition, our spiritual call requires action. It's not enough as a Christian or, I believe, as any spiritual person, to just reflect and listen. Part of our calling as human beings is to care for and to take action in the world. So reading the passage from John with an evolutionary lens gives us a hint of what we might be called to do as spiritual actors in the world.

If language holds the possibility of letting the Divine creative force to come through and transform our world and ourselves, then how do we let that Spirit out? How do we make sure that our own ego gets out of the way and we speak instead from a place of Spirit? Because without this speaking up, without this type of action, there is no new life or new way of being coming for us, and I know many of us here don’t want to keep living in a world full of violence, hatred, and environmental destruction.

I’ll share with you an example of how I was recently transformed by someone speaking their Word.

CBC’s the Current ran a documentary on Muslim Albanians who sheltered Jews during the Second World War. The Albanians took Jews into their homes and hid them by passing them off as part of their family, telling the Nazis that they were their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and so forth when they came to their homes. In one home, a doctor with one son took in a young Jewish man and passed him off as his second child. One day the Nazis came to his home, looking for the Jewish man. They accused the father of harbouring a Jew and demanded that the young man step forward and identify himself immediately. The father turned to his biological son and said in a quiet voice “Now is our time to show who we are.” His own son stepped forward. I wish I could say that it ended well for him but it did not.

When I heard this story I was driving and had to pull over. It is not only the immense sense of loss I felt as a fellow parent, or the incredible bravery of that family, but also a deep sense that they had responded to a christgreater calling.

What the family did through their words and actions was bring another reality into being. They did not do what most of us likely would have done. I doubt very much I could have done it. They did not try to protect what they loved most of all, their child or their lives, but instead stood up to a greater evil, a violence that was being committed to all of humankind through the war. They must have believed in the possibility of a world without that kind of violence, where human life was valued regardless of race or religion, and were willing to speak and embody the truth of that belief. In this way they brought light out of the darkness, they opened up the possibility of saying no to violence, even in the face of impossible odds. And while their loss was terrible, their story has the power to change us and perhaps bring about a different world, one where we truly understand the cost of our own violence.

I don’t share this story this morning to depress us. I share it to let us all potentially transform too, to hear the call of the Spirit in both these words and the brave actions that followed. Maybe if we do, we can avoid anyone having to make such a sacrifice again.

Friends, this morning, I am asking us to Be our Word. To live our Word in the world. If we believe in the possibility of peace, then it is important that we not be silent now. That we match our actions and our words seamlessly and transform the world we are living in today. That we do the work we each need to do to end the violence within us, and then around us.

This is a huge challenge for most of us. When I speak, I hide from the Word, telling white lies and half truths, hiding behind my fear, all this without any real threat at my back except for my image of myself, of how I want to be seen or not seen. I am often blind or unwilling to admit to my own violence that I bring about on others everyday.

So how can we live our Word? What can we do as our spiritual practice to live our Word and let the Divine creative force of Spirit out into the world through us? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this but here are some practices that may be helpful:

1)    Take time to sit in silence every day. If we don’t make time to listen to that still small voice within us, we cannot speak from the place of Spirit.

2)    Think before we speak. I know my own ego is like a yappy dog, just waiting to get the first word out before I have had time to reflect on it. Can we take a moment to rein that in a bit and instead choose our words more carefully, to see if we are speaking from a place of compassion, a place that encourages the life and blossoming of others?

3)    Overcome the fear to speak up about the change we want to see in the world. I don’t necessarily mean go out and protest, but using Christ as an example, let’s not lack the energy to try to bring about change in the world.

4)    Speak up for those who cannot do so themselves. We are so fortunate to live in this place and time, so let’s try to help others find their voice amid their challenges.

In this life, there are many obstacles, and it can seem overwhelming to change any of it. But our words and actions truly can shift the world. Our life can be a testament to creation.

Friends, may your light shine in the darkness, and may the darkness not overcome it. Amen.


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  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 13 June 2011 21:14 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Nice sermon.

    I was wondering if you might elaborate more on the relationship (as you see it) between The Word (made flesh) spoken of in John's Gospel and our Word?

  • Comment Link Rhian Walker Thursday, 16 June 2011 21:11 posted by Rhian Walker

    Great question, and answered with the caveat that I am new to the study so this is just a humble offering from a place that needs more wisdom. But looking at the tradition, I think you get a sense of what the Divine behaves like in the world in this passage. The Word is creative, active, dynamic, not passive, or inert. It is shining light onto the world, illuminating what is there. And so I think this is a suggestion or a guide as to what Divine action is for us as human beings: to create and seek out wisdom. Making wisdom "in the flesh" however is a radical statement, one that perhaps answers a critique that Christianity takes one out of the world, looking for meaning and value in the ether. Making Wisdom flesh through Jesus, embodying it, places our spiritual responsibility and territory firmly here on the planet. It also tells us it is incarnational, meaning we can be or become this, it can be a bodily experience. So Jesus becomes, in this passage, a map of how we can embody the Divine.

  • Comment Link OV Sunday, 19 June 2011 02:33 posted by OV

    "The emergence of language marks a critical turning point in our evolutionary journey, both as a species and as individuals. Wired for language as infants, we develop this faculty over time through interacting with our environment and the relationships we form with others within it."

    Rhian I have a few questions on the origin of language and was wondering if you might have some leads so I can explore this more fully. Is language possible because our brains are hardwired to accommodate language, or does our brain become hardwired as infants because we are in an environment that contains language? Or to rephrase this, would the physical structure of the brain be different in a person born today but who had never been exposed to language? The second question is, have you run across any hypothesis concerning the original social/cultural conditions that would have been required for the physical evolution of the brain to accommodate language?

    I wrote a poem once on the word as the initiating act of creation and thought you might find it interesting.


  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Sunday, 19 June 2011 19:02 posted by TJ Dawe

    Hey Rhiann - this piece reminds me of some remarks Alan Moore - the Shakespeare of comic books - said in an interview - something I might quote at more length in Bricolage at some point:

    "the actual word itself, language itself, to me seems to be the primal technology.

    I mean, when people talk about computers, or video games, or the latest sort of piece of hardware that's available, they'll talk about it as new technology. Those things are fruits of technology. Technology is actually writings about a body of knowledge, or technique; that's the 'logy' part of the word, which comes from the Greek 'logos.' Basically, it says to me that language is the initial technology upon which everything else is based. I think you could probably make a good argument, and many people have made it, that consciousness itself can't actually happen without language. That we need words - words such as I, me, myself - before we can have thoughts that are of an use to us. Yes, we have awareness before that point, we'll be aware of pain and pleasure, but we won't really have any way of talking about those sensations until we have words for them, until we have words for our self.

    So it seems to me that all culture is probably predicated upon language. I don't think it's technology that we completely understand. I think that there are mysteries in language and consciousness which would preoccupy us for hundreds of years, but which we really pay very little attention to."

    The subject of the origin and significance of language has fascinated me for a long time. But there's certainly the danger of overidentifying with the words and letting ourselves refrain from acting on them. A step I'd suggest in addition to the ones you list is to regularly examine oneself and see if we're, as Gandhi describes it, being the change we want to see in the world. Are we living the principles we espouse? Do we ever let ourselves take comfort in knowing something really well, but not doing something about it?

  • Comment Link Rhian Walker Wednesday, 22 June 2011 17:16 posted by Rhian Walker

    Hi OV,

    It is a fascinating area isn't it? I'm not sure I can direct to you to any definitive articles on that topic, but this is a good site that publishes some great papers on brain structures, brain systems and language development. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/310/5749/815.short My neuroscience friends would say you can't separate that question out: that our brains, which have evolved over time, now have the structures/systems in place for language, because we have developed in an auditory world. So even if you were to raise an infant in a silent world, the brain has the structures to make language regardless. I'll email a few other folks to see if I can some other articles for you. Thanks for the poem, I'll check that out tonight, along with your blog.

  • Comment Link OV Thursday, 23 June 2011 05:22 posted by OV

    Thanks for the info Rhian. The sciencemag site requires a subscription so I think I'll hold off a bit. Good to know the authors name though. Perhaps if I get a library card from the university this fall I will be able to access this for free.

    I've heard mixed opinions on the brain language wiring. I think it might be a bit of both, with a use it or lose it type action going on. I've read a few reports of abused children that were locked in the basement from birth and basically isolated from the world. When they were finally rescued by health services it took a long time to socialize them and then the language was very limited. Sorry, but I can't remember the sources/authors but stories like this have a way of lodging in your memory.

    Here is where I am coming on this issue, and still in the initial stages of this. I'm looking at the differences between a survival consciousness/culture and one that is thriving. Survival trades long term benefit for short term, (because if you're dead long term doesn't matter much) and is based on fear and domination. Any dominator system is in survival mode because fear and the amgydala shunt all brain activity to its lowest levels of consciousness (and the more highly evolved and sophisticated levels like post-modern and beyond are no exception). Thrival mode however engages the frontal cortex and involves creativity but it requires that needs are first met. We have examples of thrival in some individuals and in some small communities but not in a larger culture as of yet. My hypothesis is that prior to our patriarchal systems of dominance (red through ultraviolet) there was a thriving culture and that this state of collective consciousness was able to develop language.

  • Comment Link Rhian Walker Monday, 27 June 2011 19:23 posted by Rhian Walker

    Hi TJ, Marshall Mcluhan would certainly agree with your thoughts on language as technology. And I agree, I think it is little understood, though we can see what happens to us as language shifts over time. In the positive, at least to me, sense, when we see more "inclusive" language appearing in our work and schools, I do think that performs a radical act of re-orienting people to include or incorporate "others" into "us". And that is huge, for peace, for sustainability and so forth.

    As for over-identification, I actually think this is a huge problem from people who are in the left-leaning or progressive movements. The message becomes so seductive that the action fails to initialize. It seems that part of awareness is naming things. Great first step, but useless if that is all we do. If I keep telling you that I am prone to scathing outbursts when you cross me, that I am aware of that and acknowledge that, but then do nothing to alter this behaviour, what has changed?

  • Comment Link Rhian Walker Monday, 27 June 2011 19:28 posted by Rhian Walker

    hello OV, a good reminder to be more clear with my language! sorry, while I said that the structures are still in the brain for language, I should have included that yes, without the interaction with the world, they won't occur (though basic mimicry does, even the children in the basement had sounds, just not language as we know it. Oh, heartbreaking and horrible idea to think of those children). I don't pretend to have an anthropological background but that certainly makes intuitive sense as to when/why cultures develop language. I know that historically cultures that have their needs met (Haida, Iran pre-wars, Egypt, etc) have tended to have huge explosions of art, poetry, narrative, architecture, etc during those peaceful, satiated periods.

  • Comment Link OV Tuesday, 28 June 2011 17:45 posted by OV

    Dr. Pjotr Garajajev was mentioned this morning on one of the blogs I check so I googled his name and the following link was at the top of the list. I wasn't even looking for this but it came my way anyway. The key to this language mystery may lay in the DNA rather than the brain.


    " This research was led by Dr. Pjotr Garjajev, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences as well as the Academy of Sciences in New York. The Russian research was taking a wide angle and held an open view in their studies. The research team included bio physicists, molecular biologists, embryologists and even linguistic experts. Their research revealed that the supposed junk DNA that has been completely neglected and forgotten by western mainstream science, was no redundant leftover of evolution at all. Linguistic studies revealed that the sequencing of the codons of the non-coding DNA follow the rules of some basic syntax. There is a definite structure and logic in the sequence of these triplets, like some biological language. Research further revealed that the codons actually form words and sentences just like our ordinary human language follows grammar rules.

    Scientists have conducted much research on the origins of human languages and the origins of the grammatical rules that are so essential to all human languages; however they have always failed to find the source. But now for the first time in history the origins of language may be surprisingly attributed to DNA. The language of the genes is much, much older than any human language that was ever uttered on this globe. It is even conceivable that the DNA grammar itself served as the blueprint for the development of human speech."

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