Faith Matters: Understanding the words that define who we are

  • Barry Deitz of the Unitarian Church in Bernardston. October 17, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • Lay speaker Barry Deitz stands in front of the Unitarian Church in Bernardston. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • Barry Deitz of the Unitarian Church in Bernardston. October 17, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • Unitarian Church in Bernardston. July 16, 2017. Paul Franz

Lay speaker, Bernardston Unitarian Universalist Church
Published: 10/19/2018 3:25:04 PM

(Each Saturday, a faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email


In 1770, Captain James Cook arrived in Australia. As his sailors and scientists explored this strange new land, they asked the Aboriginal tribes about an animal they kept seeing. When they pointed to the creature, with its odd jumping movement and pouch, the natives replied, “Kangaroo.” That’s a kangaroo, is what the sailors heard. And so it is called to this day,

But many years later, a linguist studying the natives’ language discovered that kangaroo, translated from the aboriginal, means “I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

I love that story. It’s such a great reminder that sometimes when we think we are communicating, we are actually not understanding each other at all.

“We’re not speaking the same language anymore” is something I hear a lot these days. It’s distressing to think that when we use words crucial to our identity as Americans, words like freedom and justice and equality, we might not be talking about the same thing.

In a marvelous new collection of essays on American writers called “American Audacity,” William Giraldi puts it brilliantly. We are a nation, he says, that was written into existence.

Indeed, we are a nation of words. When we build statues of our founders, we enclose them in buildings that inscribe their words on the walls. Not their deeds or biography — their words. Our foundational art is wall-sized paintings of people signing documents!

Over the past several months, I’ve been doing a series of services at the Bernardston Unitarian church on some very old words. We’re looking again at those seven deadly sins and seven heavenly virtues and asking, Do words like prudence and temperance and charity mean anything today? Certainly, gluttony and sloth seems alive and well. I have come to realize that what the original church fathers sought in trying to define the attributes that lead one astray is that eternal quest for balance in our lives.

Those deadly sins are about being pulled off balance by greed, by envy, by anger. “I’m so angry,” a friend said to me recently. “I’ve got to stop reading the news. Everything just gets me more and more angry. And it’s not a good anger. It’s a BAD anger.”

I’ve though a lot about his words. Good anger and bad anger. It’s that endless struggle to let hope and charity and justice offset wrath and pride and envy. To find a balance. And as so often, it all comes down to the words you use and our understanding of what they mean to us today.

Six years after explorers on a strange island asked the natives about a funny-looking animal, Thomas Jefferson tried to find the words to describe a new vision of a nation. He used words like freedom and justice and equality and he believed that the hope for this new nation rested in a constant evaluation of those terms. In 1776, he helped write that nation into existence, but that dream was of a land of liberty and equality that did not yet exist.

It didn’t exist in 1876, either. But after four years of suffering and sacrifice in the Civil War, it was more free. It didn’t exist in 1976, either. But after the marches and sit-ins and blood on a balcony in Memphis, Tenn., it was more equal.

I don’t know where we are going to be in 2076, but I know the trajectory we were sent on almost 250 years ago. Our mission was to create a nation more free, more just, more equal than any that had ever existed on earth.

It’s there in the words. We lose those words at our peril.

Barry Deitz is from North Carolina and moved here five years ago. He travels across the state doing programs on history and literature, most recently a lecture on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at the Springfield Museums. Deitz has been a morning news anchor, librarian, high school teacher, documentary film maker, jazz radio dj, book reviewer and TV movie review host.

About Bernardston Unitarian Church

Services every Sunday:

11 a.m., coffee

11:30 a.m., service


Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


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