Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Lord, Lord, Lord

Some of ya'll asked me why I go around cheerfully using LORD language.

I wish I had a wonderful hand-out given me some years ago by my dear friend Scott Wells, which I believe was called "What Should We Do With the LORD?" It was a cool etymological breakdown of the term and I always thought it would make for good sermon fodder. I believe it's tucked away at home in my "Sermon Fodder" folder number 167B, which is filed carefully on the floor of my office with folders 1-166. Drat.

For now, from the 20th floor of a condo building in beautiful Chicago, let me just say that I use the LORD because it's bombastic and majestic, powerful and evocative. I love how in certain Bibles the word is always capitalized, so I always use caps, too. The word is a rough translation of the unspeakable name of HaShem (The Name), which we write in the Hebrew letters YHVH and say as "Yaweh" or sometimes "Jehovah." We should always remember that for Jews, the Name was never spoken except by the high priest on the High Holy Days.

For those of us who adore Micah's question, "What doth the LORD require of thee" and try to live by its answer ("do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God") or who hold to their heart Jesus' teaching to love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength, "LORD" becomes a word we like to hear roll around in our mouths, rumble like thunder in our mortal bellies, and sound like drums in our heads.

"LORD" is an invocation. I use it as a UU because it is for me the most powerful, Charles Heston-ish name for the holy that the Western world has produced, and I'll be god-damned if I let the Pat Robertsons of the world use it as a whipping rod against those you and I are called to love and to speak up for, least of all ourselves.

My tradition -- the Unitarian and the Universalist ones, that is - boldy claim that the LORD is a mighty advocate for the poor, a shepherd who wants to make of the warring human nations one people, and a lover who calls us to intimate and even erotic relationship with this world. The LORD makes demands and will not be mocked.

I don't have a personal God in the way that all this LORD stuff would suggest, but I certainly do believe in some impersonal force of moral imperative, by whatever name. I have said many times and in many places that my own sense of what God might be wavers and changes and gets lost on many days. I turn, on those days and on every other day, to Jesus' understanding of the nature of God, and when I can't figure it out, I go by my teacher. Since he uses LORD language, it works for me too.

Of course there was a time when the mere term "God" or "Lord" gave me the hives, almost literally.


Blogger Mystical Seeker said...

Well, since you brought it up :), I have to admit that I am one of those people who believes in God but who really, really, really, really doesn't like the word "Lord". For me--and this is just my take on it--"Lord" has too many other meanings in the English language that makes it too hard not to associate it with when you use it to describe the Divine.

One example--the word for me conjurs of a male image (e.g., the Lord of the manor is male, as opposed to the Lady of the manor), and I don't like or have interest in a conception of God as male. Also, as one who is deeply influenced by process theology, the idea of a "Lord" just has too many connotations that run counter to my conception of God--a Lord is one who reigns (and my God doesn't "reign"), who "lords over" us, etc. This is anathema to my panentheist conception of God.

The fact that it is an English translation of a Hebrew word doesn't really justify its use in my mind in the English language. Why was this word chosen as the translation? Is it perhaps because it reflected a certain theology about God that led to the choice of that word? I found this etymology from the site

M.E. laverd, loverd (13c.), from O.E. hlaford "master of a household, ruler, superior," also "God" (translating L. Dominus, though O.E. drihten was used more often), earlier hlafweard, lit. "one who guards the loaves," from hlaf "bread, loaf" + weard "keeper, guardian, ward." Cf. lady, and O.E. hlafæta "household servant," lit. "loaf-eater." Modern monosyllabic form emerged 14c. The verb meaning "to play the lord, domineer" is from 1377; to lord it is from 1579. Interjection Lordy first attested 1853, Amer.Eng. Lord of the Flies translates Beelzebub (q.v.) and was name of 1954 book by William Golding.

Here we have the concept of "domineering". God is not to me a master, a ruler, or a domineering male figure. As a panentheist, I reject that conception, and instead believe that God is what which is within us.

I don't necessarily have a problem with others who choose to use that terminology for themselves. But for those who use it, they have to realize that it is going to provoke a strong reaction from some other liberal religionists who believe in God. I realize that the word is useful for other people's theology--but I just don't like it at all.

Blogger Philocrites said...

I don't choke on the word "Lord" anymore (at least in my own Unipalian household) because I've come to recognize it as a symbol for the fact that my ideas, my loyalties, and my identities are not ultimate. I pledge a conditional or limited allegiance to the flag, you might say, and to my church: Neither my country nor my president nor my denomination nor my job nor my race nor my class nor my own head full of stuffing is Lord. My deepest allegiance belongs somewhere deeper.

I guess I work with the idea of God and the idea that God is Lord in a kind of backward way: They symbolize that I'm not God and that nothing mundane deserves my ultimate loyalty, certainly including me. That's what I think about when I come across "lord language" in scripture and in church.

I have a different sense when it comes to talking about Jesus. Personally, in a way that has almost nothing to do with being a Unitarian Universalist, I do think about and approach Jesus as "lord and savior," but I must admit I don't have a well-developed sense of what that means. But I do think of myself as a disciple, so "lord" symbolizes the role I recognize in Jesus' ministry for me. He focuses things for me. It is not a cosmic claim, though, and I do separate it in my own mind from the idea of God as lord.

I have also stopped trying to integrate this sense into Unitarian Universalism. Or let me put this another way: I maintain a mildly bifurcated spiritual life in which certain deeply meaningful parts of my faith are almost never engaged by Unitarian Universalism. When I'm singing Taize songs or worshiping with my wife in her church, I'm perfectly happy with these symbols, and they mean a great deal to me. But I also feel wonderfully connected to the humanist default setting of many UU churches, and find those services moving, too.

For reasons that grieve me but that I do not expect to change, symbols that are very much alive for me are dead for many other religious liberals. I think I have simply come to accept this as how it is. I'm not sure these symbols can simply come back without a lot of attenuation in a UU setting, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing. But the humility that I think the symbols point to is something I think Unitarian Universalism (and Christianity!) could use a lot more of. We aren't God; our ideas and causes aren't, either.

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Didn't Jesus favor Abba? And doesn't that mean something more like Daddy--the nurturer, not the authority? In the list of things Jesus said we shouldn't call other people because the word should apply to God, he included "teacher," and I much prefer that to "master" when describing God, because so far as I can tell, God doesn't force any of us to do anything. But if we listen, God teaches.

Blogger tinythinker said...

Yeah, but still, you gotta (well not really I suppose) love Micah 6:8. I think the two preceeding verses should be included more often, though, as they further extend the case against the more legalistic elements that so often afflict the more literalist forms of extreme fundamentalism...

Micah 6:6-8

With what shall I come before the
LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

I suppose a modern version might look this this...

With what shall I come before the
LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him in expensive suits or dresses, in my Sunday best?

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of dollars spent on building mega-churches, with a million Chick tracts? Shall I offer my unquestioned dogma for my transgression, the symbols of piety for the sin of my soul?

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Blogger ms. kitty said...

"O Lord, My God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made...."----one of my favorite old songs.

I never use the word Lord in worship these days, but I don't object to it for the reasons others have mentioned. In fact, I like what you said about it, PB. THE LORD kinda kicks ass! (In a noncompetitive, nonviolent way, of course)

Blogger chutney said...

I prefer the lower-case "god" myself. Seems to remove a lot of the bad connotations of the upper-case version, and, after all, it's a general term, not a name or title.

It seems like Yahweh or Yhwh would be the best translation, not LORD, which seems a relic of pre-democratic history. (What does "I am who I am" have to do with Lordship anyway?) From Harold Bloom and Jack Miles I learned that Yahweh is a very specific god with a unique history and personality. By using "Yahweh" everyone knows which god you're talking about.

I read Jesus as endorsing the name "Abba/Father," not LORD. Jesus taught the radical Abba-hood of Yahweh, a rather univeralistic message. Abba's kingdom that Jesus taught seems a rather un-Lordly. Jesus, and Abba, seem to me to be un-Lords or even anti-Lords, or at least to embrace anti-Lord-ism.

I don't think LORD appears anywhere (or rarely) in the Gospels, since LORD is a translation of the Hebrew "Yhwh." ("Lord" in the NT is a Greek political title, not a translation of the Hebrew name for Yahweh. I believe it's Paul who uses the term so often.) "Lord"---as opposed to "LORD"---in the OT, iirc, is a translation of the Hebrew "Adonai." So it would seem we have three lords in the mix here: Yahweh, Adonai, and the more generic term "master."

Which "Lord" are you referring to?

Blogger chutney said...

Looks like "Adonai" is sort of a plural "lords," like Elohim is sort of a plural "gods."

Blogger fausto said...

Etymology can be a slippery slope.

Domineering (from the Latin dominus, "God") isn't bad in itself. Whether domineering is good or bad depends on whether the dominant party is good or bad, doesn't it? For those of us who hold some concept of God, do we believe the essential character of God is good or bad? If we believe God is essentially good, aren't we wrong to ascribe a connotation of oppression and injustice to "domineering"?

The opposite of domineering is submission. Should we be unwilling to submit our selves to the archetype of all goodness -- an ideal that is infinitely more good than we could ever hope to be ourselves? What does it mean to place the self in rebellion against such superior goodness?

Blogger Peregrinato said...

This is a quick and perhaps scattered response.

FYI, "Lord" appears numerous times in the Gospels, both in reference to God and to Jesus. The Greek is kurion, lord, master. It appears in the Greek NT roughly 700 times (I don't have a Gospel vs. others breakdown), but kurios is translated as Lord, Master, and even sir in some occasions. Obviously some are merely conversational ("Sir, you have no bucket..." Jn 4:11). Paul does seem to dominate its usage, but it is not absent from the Gospels.

Jesus uses it when referencing God; e.g., Luke 4:8, Jesus answered him, "It is written, worship the Lord your God." but in this case at least he is quoting Deuteronomy."

I don't have my Septuagint handy, but a quick Google confirms that the Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures --used by Jews in Alexandria and environs--did in fact use Lord where Adonai was used. So in Greek Jewish literature (and thus also early Christian), the Greek "Lord" has a direct tie into Adonai. Even though Jesus taught the Abba-hood of God, he did not reject the terms known by His own tradition.

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Reposting this message and deleting the previous version to correct a typo:

Pretty much what Chutney said. YHWH is a name, not a title. Jews do pronounce it when it's part of a person's name; consider Netenyahu, Mattityahu, Eliyahu, etc. My pet theory is the name became HaShem to discourage people from thinking about the different traditions of YHWH, El, Elohim, Adonai, etc.

I like the great mystery of what might be meant by "God." Can't say I have much use for lords of any sort.

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Tinythinker, I also love that bit of Micah. I checked scripturetext. Micah uses YHWH, not Adonai; he wants to walk with Yahu/Yahweh/Jehovah, not a lord.

Blogger Rev. Sean said...

Everyone's said everything I would have I will just chime in to say that "lord" or "LORD" seems too saturated with an acceptance of imperialism as a good thing, inequality as "just the way it is," and that darned hierarchy of creation. I just have no need for any of that in my image of God.

Blogger tinythinker said...

It was my understanding that in the OT when one saw 'LORD' it was, in fact, referring to Yahweh, but I really wasn't trying to make a statement about the terms or what they are supposed to mean or not mean. I just copied the text from a site using the New International Edition of the Bible, and it used 'LORD'. *shrug*

Blogger fausto said...

I looked it up and must correct myself: dominus in Latin is "lord" or "master", not "God". I think my point about domineering still stands, though.

Blogger Philocrites said...

For the record, I can deal with the word "Lord" when I encounter it in scripture, worship, and hymns, but I am even happier to find better and more legitimate ways to get at the key point. Which is that there is Something "whose service is perfect freedom," and that the strange task of faith is to try to discern the nature of that service and that freedom without thinking that I own or control it.

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Tinythinker, you're right about the use of "the LORD" in most translations of the Bible, but that useage seems dishonest to me; it comes from people creating a Bible that would please a king. I think I'll pop over to my blog now and write a little more about this.

Blogger chutney said...


I don't doubt that Kyrios/Lord is all over the NT, but I was talking about Yhwh/LORD. The Deut quote seems to be a rare exception.

And in any case, translating Yhwh as "LORD" seems antiquated for all the reasons others have listed.

Blogger Peregrinato said...

I am suggesting that Kurios as Lord is congruent with Alexandrian Judaism, and thus is relevent for LORD in the NT. Even if not quoted often, it was still part of the tradition which Christianity emerged from.

And as far as other comments, I realize I'm in the minority, but I do not have any problems with the usage of Lord for God--it may be antiquated and hierarchic and all sorts of things frowned upon, but I am content recognizing the sovereignty of God and myself as a servant. "Lord, have mercy" is still part of my prayers.

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Peregrinato and Peacebang and anyone else who likes "Lord" for the G-Bomb, apologies if I seem to be disparaging your use. There's much that's admirable in submitting to a truth that's greater than your wish.

Blogger ms. kitty said...

Wowee, PeaceBomb, you sure know how to stir up a good ruckus.

Blogger fausto said...

And in any case, translating Yhwh as "LORD" seems antiquated for all the reasons others have listed.

Except that where the Hebrew original reads YHWH, Jewish tradition is to speak it as 'Adonai', even today. It's the authentic tradition of rendering YHWH as 'Adonai' in spoken Hebrew that is reflected in the convention of rendering it 'LORD' (in small caps) in written English translations.

I also think longstanding custom in and of itself contributes its own measure of authority. Yes, we UUs are terribly clever, and well practiced in dissent, and able to tease out obscure and abrasive meanings from this word and many others, but the reality is is that those jarring meanings simply are not the ones invoked or even implied by customary usage.

We pointyheads love to make everything more complicated than it needs to be, and we have great fun doing it, but sometimes we just end up confusing ourselves. Perhaps we should listen more closely and more often to the advice of the Shakers:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be....

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed....

Blogger boyinthebands said...

The little article PB refers to me writing still exists online at

But I am quite comfortable with referring to God as Lord and confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It starts with the proposition that I'm not God, and neither is anything else under heaven. And the Lord's way is not easily or definitively known by mortals. A not so bad place to begin if one values humility, a plurality of religious opinions, and a strong confession.

I stick with Lord because I've not come across a community of people who reject traditional theological language that hasn't gotten wobbly in their applied convictions. Yes, I include Unitarian Universalist, but hardly stop there. Rather looking for the perfect word becomes "the work" or a large piece of it, it creates new divisions, and diverts attention. That's one reason I wasn't glad to see the Presbyterians experiment with Trinitarian language. I predict preciousness and vagueness will be the result -- and probably some doubtful baptisms.

Blogger chutney said...

But what if the traditional Adonai substitution for Yahweh is wrong? Or, just not right? Or, what if it causes harm?

I don't see what it being customary has to do with it. And I don't see what being clever has to do with it.

I'm all for people embracing a spirituality of dependence/submission if they find that helpful, but I don't see how a spirituality of dependence necessitates use of "Lord." (I don't embrace a spirituality of dependence myself, and a large part of that came from what I saw as biblical support for the un-Lordly view several of us have outlined here, a view that was first pointed out to me by charismatics.)

The history of "Lord" is problematic. It isn't pointyheaded to point that out and ask what it means for us as UUs.

Blogger Doug Muder said...

Words do what they do. They're not good or bad, they're just tools.

In a ritual/prayer context, you pick a word because you want the effect that the word evokes. Dictionaries and histories matter when you're writing a treatise, not when you're doing a ritual.

Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

I also think longstanding custom in and of itself contributes its own measure of authority.

Authority, maybe. Accuracy, not necessarily at all.

Blogger Roger Kuhrt, PhD said...

PB wrote, "I don't have a personal God in the way that all this LORD stuff would suggest, but I certainly do believe in some impersonal force of moral imperative, by whatever name. I have said many times and in many places that my own sense of what God might be wavers and changes and gets lost on many days. I turn, on those days and on every other day, to Jesus' understanding of the nature of God, and when I can't figure it out,"

Well, my dear PB--you have certainly created/generated a HOT Blog (congrats.--though I know that was hnot your intent) I suspect you have much wide council here.

Given your OWN statement above about YOUR beliefs--I wonder from an old Xian perspective--are you not creating stumbling blocks for your brothers and sisters?

Cheerfully, ROK
PS: I would also refer readers to Peter Berger's books: The Divine
(Sacred Canopy) (???) and the Heretical Imperative).

Blogger Adam Tierney-Eliot said...!

I have nothing to add except to say that this is, once again, a lovely and informative conversation. PB, you should be proud!

I also wish that I was in Chicago today! Go do something cool for me...

Blogger SC Universalist said...

I think the problem for many of us is that some of us think of the term "Lord" as someone who only due to their birth is placed in power over the rest of us. A "lord" doesnt have to be smarter, nicer, better - just born to the right parents. If the term only meant someone/thing that is really superior to us, then that would be easier to accept (or tolerate -grin-).
"Master" the word carries some of the same problems.

Blogger Manchego said...

For me, "LORD" - though I seldom speak it outloud, and UTTERLY understand the imperialistic connotations - has everything to do with gratitude and submission, which I think are rather worthy spiritual values. I just think it's extraordinarily important that we choose very carefully to what Great Power exactly we are willing to submit our hearts and minds and souls. Choose life, you know?

But enough about such a heady theological concept...what I want to hear about, Peacebang, is your absolute favorite tapas dish at Mirasol.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

I think I have some of the same issues with the term as SC Universalist.


Blogger Mama G said...

PB, I just discovered your blog this morning and I was so moved by what you've been posting. (I'm piggy-backing onto this current post even though my comments aren't limited to the Lord issue.) Your comments on the post a couple of posts back about how you feel hurt a lot of time for feeling "outside" of UUism because of your desire to proclaim your love of God rings so true to me. I've been struggling with this very thing a lot lately. Anyway, I just wanted to introduce myself. My blog has gotten off to a slow start, but I did post and link back to your blog today. I am at

Blogger Ron said...

I am tempted to just say that if Paul uses the term Lord then it is good enough for me :) as some of my fellow UU travelers know of my passion for Paul and the New Paul Perspective scholarship.

But that's not good enough for this rich discussion...(btw we have had and continue to have a lot of this same discussion over the past 10 years online through the public UUCF-L email list that BITB set up, and I think you can access most of the archives for that still).

Just want to say that for me, as for Paul, using the term Lord is at its heart and soul deeply anti-Imperialistic (see the anthology Paul and Empire for one take, or Crossan's latest on Paul). That is why he used it; to set aside Jesus and the God of Israel from Caeser. As others have said here, I find it increasingly important to remind me of the many Caesers in my life.

And like PB, thirty years plus ago as a UU with cross cringe I would have found it hard to take or imagine its central place in my spiritual life, so understand where others are coming from; just thank the Lord that others within our tradition were still using it then and have continued today so it is just one of the many rich words in our UU lexicon.

Blogger Rev. Sean said...

SC Universalist sums it up for me. Lord implies ascribed superiority, not true goodness. That's what "God" does for me. God is God. I am not. It's an ontological thing.

My mother-in-law, the rabbi, says that Adonai is just a convention to avoid saying the name of God. Perhaps at some point, the Hebrews meant to invoke all the meanings of "Lord," but now it is hardly ever used that way at all. I mean, YHVH not only lets the Jews argue, but win! Hardly the kind of "Lord" the word invokes now.

It's complex, and I guess that's part of what makes it beautiful.

Blogger SC Universalist said...

Im bringing this thought "back home" to here.

The current thinking in cognitive therapy is indeed about the power of words - and how certain words can effect our current thinking (and I cant resist: "effect our affect").
I've read over the various other blogs dealing with "What do do About the Lord" - From Will S.'s interesting view that the translation should be "Dad" instead; to folks thinking that I (as someone with reservations about that L word) am trying to forbid them from ever saying it.
Hmmm... I have to be honest, someone saying "Lord" doesnt really push my button at all. They're welcome to that word. However it doesnt ring my chimes either. And I confess: "Dad" doesnt either. Although I do respect Dad alot more than I do Lord.

Sure Jesus didnt say "Lord", he didnt speak English (at least not that Ive heard about) and he didnt say "Dad" either - so what was the message that he was trying to say?

My personal desire is to find a suitable word or phrase that works - so I can understand the meaning, in a way that the writer intended it. Not to force anyone else to saying "Dad" or "Wonderous Spritual Parent"; but so I can hear the real meaning of the word... and easily move to hearing the next words.....

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

SC, for the sake of anyone reading this out of context, I wasn't proposing Dad as a translation of YHWH or Elohim, only as a way to understand Abba. As I dig deeper into translations, I begin to think there are words that shouldn't be translated, that we would do better to simply say Yahu/Yahweh or Adonai or Abba in order to avoid all the associations that come with Lord and Father.

Hmm. I should probably put a note to that effect on my blog now, too.


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