Coffee Shop Conversation: Language, Life, and Lattes by Kelly Kahlstrom, Southwest Conference Blog,

Coffee Shop Conversation: Language, Life, and Lattes

by Kelly Kahlstrom

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey, but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if we are to ever reach home at last.” – Fredrick Buechner

I would be the first to admit that I have trouble following through with New Year’s resolutions. However, in 2015, I did manage to keep a promise to myself. I had a will drawn up and a medical power of attorney completed. It was not difficult to know whom to ask and my son somewhat hesitantly agreed to this responsibility. Congratulating myself for the follow-through, I failed to realize that more needed to be communicated to him about my wishes; precisely, in the messiness of the moment, the parameters I would like him to use in making what could be a horrific and heart-wrenching decision.

On a recent trip to San Francisco as my son and I were taking in the sights and sounds of the holiday, we stepped into a cozy neighborhood coffee shop for a quick pick-me-up. As we settled in with our lattes, the conversation turned to matters of importance. This was not an unusual event for us. Hours of his high school years were spent in the car together driving to various lessons and church functions. We would listen to music, discuss what we were learning in school, and debate his future. He wanted to pursue music in college, I wanted him to get real about that idea. (For the record, Eric won). Like so many conversations before, this one moved towards that which we held close to our hearts. My son was facing a job change with two divergent but equally appealing prospects, but it was saying goodbye to his current congregation that occupied his thoughts that day. I took this occasion to specifically state my wishes in the event he had to make a medical decision on my behalf. The parameters centered on my expected capacity for language.

For me, I often encounter the mystery of God through language. I wish I were a poet because I am acutely aware that a linear telling of a Pentecost moment does not communicate the depth of the experience well. It is more than an encounter with something bigger than myself. Time stands still. A veil is lifted just long enough for “the God in me to recognize the God in you”. I feel fully alive and acutely aware that “who I am” is not “what I think” or “how I present”.  And while I may not remember exactly what was said, I vividly recall the people present and the environment we were in. And I am left with wanting more of these experiences. If only those “grace chip” moments were up to me…

We have just completed the season of Christmas. In the Prologue to the gospel of John the writer makes anew the case for Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the One through which all things are made as divine.

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 all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1-5 NRSV)

The marks of Hellenistic Judaism are evident in the need to reconcile imperfect matter with perfect form to address the gap between God and the material world, this time in the form of a person, Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a dazzling Christmas read!!

However, Logos is not a monolithic concept. I want to switch lenses for a moment and look at another interpretation of Word as Logos. First used by Heraclitus in the 6th century BCE and continued through the Classical Greek Era, Philo of Alexandria, St. Augustine and beyond, is the understanding of Logos as speech. In the beginning was Language, and  Language was with God and Language was God….Philosophically, Logos from the Greek verb “to speak” is to reason, to create an account of, discourse, to speak intelligibly, to make a sound argument.  Theologically, for the ancients, Logos as speech is the creative word of God, the Revelation of Divine reason or Wisdom, the mediating principle between God and the world. Speech then is a creative force that imitates God when God spoke the universe into existence.  Arie Uittenbogaard, in his blog Abarim Publications writes:

Writing was, in the ancient world, rightly regarded as a holy enterprise. Writing (and before that: speaking) allowed an unprecedented exchange of ideas and with that a furtherance of mankind’s understanding of creation and its ultimate purpose. But possibly even more important: a speech-based society forces its members into a state of perpetual review of what people are saying, and by wanting to respond, a continuous state of creativity.

The ancients understood Logos as language is a dual process. It’s a collection, both of thoughts in the mind, and the words by which these thoughts are expressed, although St Augustine compares the Word of God, “not to the word spoken by the lips, but to the interior speech of the soul, whereby we may in some measure grasp the Divine mystery.”   Following this understanding, in order for speech to be intelligible, an argument sound, or to engage in discourse, a reverence for communication must first be established. Jesus as Logos, as mediator of the sacred, spent many an hour in contemplative prayer to quiet his heart before God prior to speaking to the gathered crowds. Without this practice, speech is, to use Heidegger’s turn of phrase, nothing more than “idle chatter”.

This is what I explained to my son in the coffee shop over lattes. After a few questions, a few tears, and a fervent hope that he would never need to make such a decision on my behalf, the parameters for Eric were clear. The decision rests upon not the absence of speech per se (I could learn to sign or blink morse code) but the absence of the creative forces for thought that would diminish my relationship with all that is Divine and Holy. And he agreed.

We are in the midst of getting 2016 off the ground, in a particularly divisive election cycle. May we, like Jesus, quiet our hearts before the still-speaking God and contemplate the possibility of letting language use us, so that we create more than idle chatter in a world desperate for God’s hope and love.  Perhaps it is not too late to make this a New Year’s goal we can keep.