Standing on Holy Ground

by Talitha Arnold

The place on which you are standing is holy ground. – Exodus 3:5

Moses must have laughed out loud when the voice from the burning bush told him he was standing on “holy ground.” How could a desert wilderness be “holy ground”?

The same way a hospital room or a graveside can be sacred ground. When filled with prayer and the awareness of God’s presence, even the lonely and scary places of our lives can become holy and sacred.

Nest Sunday, September 10, is World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s also a National Day of Prayer for ‘Faith, Hope & Life,” sponsored by the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Across the nation, people of all faiths are invited to join in prayer for persons struggling with mental illnesses and suicide, and for those who love and care for them. As part of the Action Alliance Executive Committee and co-lead for the Faith Communities Task Force, I hope you and your church will also join in.

Depression, bipolar disorder, suicide, or other mental illnesses can make someone  feel cut off from others, including God. That isolation increases exponentially if one’s faith community is silent about such concerns. When a church offers no prayers for persons struggling with mental illness (as we do for those with physical illnesses), it’s hard to find the holy ground.

We can break that silence next Sunday.  On this National Day of Prayer, let us pray for persons living with mental illness or whose lives have been touched by suicide—and for their families, colleagues, therapists, pastors, and all who seek to help. (prayers, videos and other resources at www.faith-hope-life.org.) Let’s help create holy ground for others.

Prayer

God, as you came to Moses in the wilderness of his life, so you do the same for us. May our prayers remind others they are not alone and that you make all things holy.

Dance, Dance, Wherever You May Be

by Teresa Blythe

Lots of congregations sing “Lord of the Dance” on Sunday mornings, but really, what would most of them do if someone lost their inhibitions, took the song literally and began to “dance, dance,” right there in worship?

It is so rare to see a real outburst of spontaneous celebration of God’s Spirit in most established (especially white) churches that when it occurs we generally go in one of two directions. If we are inspired by it, we then want to control it ending up with predictable liturgical dancers—eyes and arms lifted toward heaven (in case we don’t understand that they are glorifying God)–or acceptable movement such as a little swaying and clapping. If we are embarrassed by it, we avert our eyes, ignore it and hope it goes away.

We could instead embrace it. Understand that we do not “have” bodies, we “are” bodies and sometimes those bodies want to move or otherwise express themselves in worship. We could, as they say, let the children, young adults and those with nothing to lose lead us toward a more embodied worship experience.

Embrace that Swing

Several years ago I had the privilege of working part-time at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson—one of the few multicultural progressive churches in Arizona. On this particular Sunday, children’s time had just ended, but, as was the custom at Southside, the children were not yet dismissed to their respective church school classrooms because the choir had not yet sung. With the children sitting on the flagstone floor of the Native American-style kiva sanctuary, the choir sang a rousing gospel rendition of the old favorite, “Love Lifted Me.”

In the middle of the song, with not a shred of inhibition, a six-year old girl leaps to her feet and starts free-form dancing. Now we’re all familiar with the one or two children in the church who enjoy making a scene during children’s time. But this little girl wasn’t in it for the attention. The motivation appeared to be pure adoration and praise. Most of the adults in the congregation were smiling—some had tears in their eyes—at the freedom the girl felt to “dance, dance, wherever she may be.”

When the song ended, the pastor, John Fife, stood to say, “That’s the difference between children and adults. She was inspired, so she got up and began dancing. Many of us were inspired as well, but we just sat there and let her dance all by herself!” Since then, when people at Southside feel so moved by the choir, they stand up and move.

That 6-year old dancer has a prophetic message for the larger church. On a base level, we have to understand how music moves the body and soul. I’m talking about music with full-bodied rhythm—and let’s be honest, most people just don’t feel like dancing to the pipe organ. Yes, saying that can start up a “worship war” in your congregation, but it doesn’t change the truth of the matter.

What this girl demonstrated was that if our churches want to be welcoming and attractive to people younger than your average church member, we had better be alive and ready for anything to happen in inspired worship.

(Which is why it thrilled me this past Sunday at First Congregational UCC Phoenix to turn around during a high-energy gospel song and see one of the young adults who was running the media center in the back moving and dancing to the music the way God intended! I only wish everyone there had turned around to see how much fun he was having at church.)

Embrace the Awkward Illustration

Sometimes spontaneity is thrust upon us by those who have long ago lost the usual societal inhibitions. I once visited a Presbyterian church in Albuquerque as a wild-haired, scruffy older man in a heavy coat had a burden to share in worship. Rising during announcement time, he proceeded to the pulpit to confess to a number of “sins of the flesh.” The young pastor appeared to know this man, and was not exactly surprised at the pop-up confession but was at a loss for what to do. So, he let the man speak.

As fate would have it, the sermon that morning—from the lectionary—was the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus saying that the one who “beat his breast” saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” was justified. What a brilliant sermon illustration! Unplanned and awkward, yes. But, frankly a bright spot in the liturgy.

Was this celebrated as a happy coincidence? Or even a Godly moment? Hardly. No mention is made of the event after the man is escorted away from the pulpit, because his interjection is seen as an embarrassing disturbance.

We’ll need to shed this self-consciousness and a desire to control if we want God’s spirit to blow around in worship. If something bizarre but meaningful happens in worship, let’s make the most of it. It sure beats the Easter Sunday I spent at a mainline church in the Bay area where I counted at least three people in their twenties fast asleep during the sermon.

Let’s embrace the crazy outburst as important data for discerning when and where God’s Spirit is moving within the congregation. How can we follow it more closely? How can we stay open to those times when worship goes slightly awry, seeing what those moments have to teach us? Savor them, in all their ickiness, and you’ll soon become more comfortable with the unusual, the ecstatic, the surprising.

Honoring the Body

Church leaders could start to honor the body in worship by incorporating call-and-response music, drums, incense and a variety of simple prayer postures. Make worship a feast of all five senses, not just the ear and eyes. Instead of bringing on the approved liturgical dancer why not go into the community and hire a professional contemporary dancer to do an original dance illustrating the theme of worship that day? Lift our eyes from the bulletin by posting what we need for worship on a screen or even an old-fashioned poster board up front. Leave us on the edge of our seats by writing sermons with cliff-hanger endings, like the serial dramas on TV do each week. Ask us to yell out “Amen” to your sermon when we feel it. And then entice us with God’s word so that we want to.

Making room for the spontaneous will not be easy for people set in their ways. It requires an attitude of hospitality that says whatever is done in authentic response to the Word or the Spirit is OK with us.

It requires being brave enough to admit that if our music, preaching and prayer aren’t filled with enough of God’s Spirit to move people in some pretty significant ways, we’re in trouble and need to plead for God’s mercy. Remember, boring people in worship is a sin.

The good news is that the Lord of the Dance is the one who saves us.

Gratitude

by Amanda Peterson

Gratitude is an important practice of anyone who wishes to walk with God. Seeing all things as gift can change one’s entire life. Expressing gratitude can literally change the world. Religious leaders, mystics and scientists all agree that those who practice gratitude attract a fuller and happier life. Those who dwell in negativity and lack attack more negative things into their lives.

Keeping a gratitude journal is a powerful practice. If you are experiencing hard times I highly encourage you to keep a gratitude journal that each day lists all that you can be grateful for. Even if it just states that the day is finally over!

There is an abundance of blessings in our lives, if we only look. Yet often there isn’t any discussion of gratitude and challenges. A grateful heart is not always a “happy” heart. That is why I believe it to be one of the most sacred spiritual practices. Gratitude lifts us into the Presence of the Holy. One can be grateful and grieve or grateful and overwhelmed and grateful and frustrated. This poem below addresses that. After you read it what are you thoughts about being gratitude and your spiritual walk? What are your reactions to the poem? Too simplistic or spot on? How does God and the comma connect with gratitude in all thing? This Thanksgiving, whether you are surrounded by an abundance of friends and family you love and/or avoid or you are alone, how can you let the day be one truly filled with gratitude?

Be Thankful

Be thankful that you don’t already have everything you desire,
If you did, what would there be to look forward to?

Be thankful when you don’t know something
For it gives you the opportunity to learn.

Be thankful for the difficult times.
During those times you grow.

Be thankful for your limitations
Because they give you opportunities for improvement.

Be thankful for each new challenge
Because it will build your strength and character.

Be thankful for your mistakes
They will teach you valuable lessons.

Be thankful when you’re tired and weary
Because it means you’ve made a difference.

It is easy to be thankful for the good things.
A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who are
also thankful for the setbacks.

GRATITUDE can turn a negative into a positive.
Find a way to be thankful for your troubles
and they can become your blessings.

Author Unknown

Running Barefoot and the Contemplative Life

by Amanda Peterson

When people find out I practice a contemplative life sometimes I get a dismissive look as if my practice is about keeping my eyes closed with no concern for what is happening in life.  Yet living a contemplative life is truly about connecting in a very real way.  I find is it like running barefoot.

Early one morning, as my radio turned on and I was half asleep listening to the news, a story come on about a runner who runs barefoot and how it is better for your body than running in shoes.  I was pretty sleepy, but the gist of the story was that the bare foot moves and balances better than the foot in a shoe.  The bare foot reacts to dangers in the path and helps the runner avoid them. Shoes can cause more damage to the foot and give the runner a false sense of security. And now there has been the creation of “barefoot shoes.”

This brought back thoughts of childhood and the process of toughening up our feet as summer began. We started each day by walking a few minutes barefoot on the hot cement.  Just a bit every day and before we knew it we were running around the entire neighborhood barefoot even at 100 degrees. There was freedom and connectedness as we felt the grass under our feet and the sound of our feet pounding on the cement. Even to this day I prefer being barefoot no matter where I live, hot or cold climate. I love the feel of the ground under my feet, the sounds they make. There is a sacred feeling in that connection.

Going barefoot also means there is the danger of getting hurt. As kids, we really had to pay attention to where we were going.  It took stepping on a nail to for me to learn that lesson.  Isn’t that like life?  We start out with abandon and then we get hurt causing us to rightly protect ourselves.  Yet the danger is not to create so much padding we lose our connection to life.  Life isn’t safe; at least that what I have come to understand.  I have a choice: hole up safe and protected or go out into the adventure paying attention, being aware, not expecting safety, but trusting God. That is the contemplative life.

Moses at the burning bush was asked to take off his shoes.  No insulation allowed on holy ground even if it seems like dangerous ground. God is saying, “Trust me, feel me from the very sole of your feet. I want you connected fully.”  Often in hospice situations I’ve wanted to take my shoes off at the door.  The level of grief, pain, joy and honoring in that room was truly holy and I instinctively wanted to be fully present.  No safety allowed.

In the walk with God there are times when the call is to take off our shoes  and really be vulnerable, trusting and aware.  The contemplative practice is one in which we look for the holy ground everywhere and are willing to be barefoot.  Even if it’s for a few moments.

Exercise

When was the last time you took off your shoes and enjoyed the feeling and potential danger of going barefoot? Where in your life is God calling you to become more connected to the Holy?   Look at your shoes.  What do they say about your journey?  Spend some time walking barefoot, indoors or out, and pray as though you are on holy ground.

The Vector of the Spirit

by Karen Richter

Vector: (mathematics) a quantity possessing both magnitude and direction.
Source: Dictionary.com

Faith communities can be very unpredictable places.  Take a look around your own spiritual home to see it with fresh eyes.

At the church I call home, we are often proud of the fast pace of happenings on our campus and their diversity.  Sometimes we even go so far as to say, “You just never know what’s going on around here!” or “We don’t have ‘regular Sundays’ here!”  And in a sense, these expressions are correct:  it’s sometimes a busy, wacky place to be.

But in another, deeper way, what goes on here and at other faith communities is entirely expected.  The Spirit of Life is at work.  And while the Spirit is unpredictable, her vector is always the same.  The Spirit moves in the direction of wholeness, peace, justice, grace, and love.  Where the wind of Spirit rises and blows is always a surprise to us.  The example during my own lifetime is clear:  I never would have predicted 20 years ago that marriage equality would begin to sweep the country.  The speed at which hearts and minds (and laws!) changed was a joy to observe.  The where and the how fast both surprised me.*

“The wind blows all around us as if it has a will of its own; we feel and hear it, but we do not understand where it has come from or where it will end up.  Life in the Spirit is as if it were the wind of God.”  John 3: 8 from The Voice New Testament

wind of the spirit - kr

We can imagine a weather map of the United States (pardon me for being ameri-centric, it’s the geography I know best). Imagine a wind that always blows from east to west. Sometimes a gentle breeze stirs on the Carolina coast from Wilmington to Charlotte around the issue of climate change and creation care and marine conservation. Sometimes a gale stirs the Great Plains from Des Moines to Lincoln around worker rights. Another day, a warm gust rises in El Paso and heads toward Phoenix, with energy and passion for humane immigration. Winds converge and create storms and new patterns. These winds can be different, but they blow always in the same direction: toward greater wholeness, peace, justice, grace and love.

So what do we do? How can we participate?

We care. Thankfully there are some true constants in a life of faith. Love God; Love one another; love ourselves. Everyday acts of kindness, service, and self-care stretch us and keep our hearts soft. So, when the wind around us begins to blow, our excitement can become greater than our fear.

We prepare. We ready ourselves for the new work that awaits us, with practices of silence and contemplation. We gather around ourselves others who are also preparing to join in and invest in relationships. We get some tools and supplies ready. Depending on the kind of wind we observe, we might need a kite or maybe a sail; prayer flags or perhaps flower seeds.

kites for spirit - kr

We watch. We study the horizon, looking for signs that God is at work. We become like spiritual meteorological Minutemen, ready to act at a moment’s notice when conditions change.

We harness. We join the Spirit at work, as our gifts indicate. The work gives us joy and purpose.

Unpredictable? Sometimes. But the holy vector is constant.

*Of course the pace has seemed slow to others, particularly those who were involved in this ministry of change. In some ways, this point of view reflects my own privilege and isn’t meant to denigrate or minimalize the hard work done by many.

Karen Richter is Director of Spiritual Formation at Shadow Rock UCC.  She has worked previously in a variety of educational and nonprofit settings.  Her interests include peaceful parenting, theology in pop culture, and adult/adolescent faith formation.  She is also active in Shadow Rock’s sanctuary ministry and Whole Life Center.  Karen lives in Anthem, Arizona with her husband, children, and tiny dog.

You may contact Karen at karen@shadowrockucc.org