Hungry for God’s Word

by Talitha Arnold

What are you hungry for? Chocolate? Ice cream? A big juicy steak? Grilled veggies?

Long ago, the Prophet Amos proclaimed a different kind of hunger, one for the word of God. He said his people were in the midst of a famine in their land. “Not a famine of bread or a thirst for water,” he said, but a famine of the hearing of the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:4-6, 11-12)

Amos could have been talking about our time, our land, and our world. Perhaps like you, after the last two weeks of news from Turkey and France, Dallas and Baton Rouge, and all the other violence-racked places of our world, I am hungry for God’s word–

God’s word of peace that this world seems incapable of offering.
God’s word of love that can overcome all the hate and fear.
God’s word of hope that pushes back the despair.
God’s word of courage to trust that peace, hope, and even love are still possible.

How do we hear that word? Turning off the news, at least for a while, is one way. The world and its news will still be there when you turn it back on.

Joining with others in worship to give thanks and raise our voices in song is another way. So is taking time for prayer, on Sunday mornings and throughout the other days of the week as well.

But how to pray in such a time? Here’s a prayer from the United Church of Christ Book of Worship to get started:

Jesus said, “You ought always to pray and not faint.”
God of heaven and earth, help us not to pray for easy lives;
But pray to be stronger women and men.
Help us not to pray for tasks equal to our powers,
But for power equal to our tasks and your work.
So that the doing of your work in our world will be no miracle—
But our openness to you and your power will be the miracle.
And every day we will wonder at ourselves and the richness of life
That has come to us by the grace of God. Amen.

Another one:

Dear Lord,
We pray for all the children entrusted to our care
and those throughout the world. Be good to them.

The sea is so big,
and their boat is so small.

When we don’t have the words to pray, when we can’t will ourselves not to worry, when we are famished for God’s word, the prayers of others can feed our deep hungers. I hope you’re hungry enough to join in worship and prayer tomorrow. And if you can’t be there, I hope you will take time to offer these or other prayers for our time. Lord knows this hungry world needs them.

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.


by Amos Smith

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” –John 1:5

This is the first week of Advent!

Church of the Painted Hills UCC put out an “Advent Meditations” booklet this year. It is wonderful to read people’s varied Advent reflections and stories. It makes Advent personal.

The essence of Advent and Christmas for me is the affirmation that against all odds, in the midst of darkness of global terrorism, in the midst of the darkness of massive environmental degradation, and all of our adult struggles, there is a Light in this world. This Light shined in the most obscure of places–in a backwater of the Roman Empire that no one knew about called Judea. In that backwater on a speck of planet in an average sized galaxy called the Milky Way came a brilliant Light. This Light was so brilliant that it transformed and healed everything around it and spawned a faith that eventually spread to over one-third of the world’s population.

We need to know that there is a Light in this world that participates in the Light that shown at the beginning of time (Genesis 1:3)… A Light that spoke a word into the shadowy chaotic deep… A Word that created order and beauty and meaning out of chaos (poetically rendered in Genesis 1).

When our lives are plunged into chaos after the death of a loved one, a car accident, a random act of violence, a divorce… It is in those times of darkness that we most need to know that there is a Light.

That Light of Christ is the reason for the Advent and Christmas seasons. It is the reason we lift up our hearts and voices every Sunday. In that spacious Light, in that primordial freedom, we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Advent blessings!

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.