What Matters to You
What sound or voice brings you great joy?
What sound or voice do you long to hear?
What are sounds or voices of God?
What are the sounds of God's realm breaking through?
Matters to Us
"If you think God's not finished with you yet, guess what? God's not even finished with God yet. God isn't finished with you, or finished with the church or our world, or even letting us know more about God's own compassion, justice, hope, and truth. If you are open, if you listen carefully, you'll discover what God is saying to this generation at this time in history. There's more good news to be heard!
This understanding of God's "revelation" is a central aspect of United Church of Christ faith. We believe that God was revealed in the past, but also in the present and the future. In the Bible, God was known through covenants with people and nations, through prophets and teachers, through conflicts and commandments, in visions and songs, and through the followers of Jesus and the church. God acted profoundly in the life and ministry, even in the death, of Christ. On Easter, God declared in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, "I'll never, never stop speaking. Alleluia!" Throughout history, in moments of compassion, justice, and peace, in our worship, sacraments, prayer, seeking, action, and silence, God continues to speak.
In the UCC, our Constitution reminds us that we are called "in each generation to make this faith our own." A recent UCC slogan conveys the call in another way: "Our faith is over 2000 years old. Our thinking is not." Now, we join with those who came before us in discerning God's voice for our own time.
You are encouraged to discover God speaking through the Bible. We believe we are called to be attentive to God's Word. The Word we discover there, however, is not frozen in time. "Indeed, the word of God is living and active" (Hebrews 4:12). If you explore the Bible and move from book to book, you may discover that God is revealed in different ways, sometimes even seemingly contradictory ways. At distinct moments in biblical history, God speaks in new ways about God's unchanging intent of love, justice, deliverance, community, reconciliation, and peace. God continues to shed more light and truth in our world. In a similar way, we are not limited by past understandings of scripture, but we seek new insights and help for living the faith today. God is not finished with us yet.
In 1975, the Reverend Oliver Powell stated, "Clearly the stance of the United Church is toward the world. All its doors and windows are open onto it. The church believes that God loves the world as much as [God] loves the church. . ." (LTH, Vol 7, 301-305). Because our doors and windows are open, we listen for God in a variety of places out in the world: in the arts, in political struggles, in the sciences, in media, in education, and especially in voices of those who are often ignored. For example, we are not a people who simply dismiss reason and science as an enemy of faith. We affirm that God, indeed, may work through the sciences. We have joined with other denominations who present evolution in a way that is not in opposition to faith, but rather considers science as another way of appreciating the beauty and complexity of God's creation.
We also cherish the arts. In 1977, at our 11th General Synod, we expressed how God speaks through the arts as prophetic and effective channels of God's judgment and grace. We said, "When we are drawn into a work of art, we experience its transforming power; the arts open us to new ways of understanding both personal and public life and give us insight and energy to act in love and justice for the sake of the Holy." (LTH, Vol 7, 274-277)
Amistad Chapel at the United Church of Christ
Church House, Cleveland, Ohio.
Today, God is especially speaking through a beautiful diversity of voices. God continues to form us through new people among us, offering a multiculturalmosaic that reflects all of creation. We also hear God's voice in public policy that advocates for those who are poor, hungry, or most vulnerable in our society. Consider, for example, how God is known through work in behalf ofchildren in the areas of public education, health, and policy.
We celebrate our common ground, while honoring our differences: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity." In covenant with one another, we prayerfully seek together as the church, the Body of Christ, to discern God's voice in the midst of so many voices. We are aware, at the same time, that God's voice may come in a lone voice, crying out in a world that does not listen.
Even without words at all, often as we wait in silence, we know God still comes.
One cannot worship at Amistad Chapel in Cleveland, Ohio, without seeing the world pass by the extensive windows alongside Prospect Avenue.
Likewise, if you're walking along Prospect Avenue, it's hard to miss anything that's going on in Amistad Chapel.
How might God be speaking through the architecture at the Amistad Chapel?
In what ways is God speaking to your community through your congregation?
What is God trying to say to your congregation through your surrounding community?
Matters to UCC Congregations
Saying "Yes" to the Still-speaking God
In what ways does First Congregational UCC seem to be open to the still-speaking God?
What inspires you about this congregation?
What is your prayer for them?
Formed in 1888, First Congregational Church UCC in Santa Rosa, California, delights in how God is speaking to them in 2006. "We've just begun saying "yes," having the courage to be inclusive without fully knowing where we will go," says pastor David Parks-Ramage, "and God's been busy."
In the past two years, the congregation has opened itself to new people, to a Samoan congregation, and to the neighborhood around them. By being committed to being open to God's revealing and to those whom God has sent their way, worship has grown and enlivened, fellowship has deepened, and outreach to the community has taken off.
"One day a neighborhood man came to visit me," says Parks-Ramage. "He said I'm George and I'm an atheist. I wanted to see what you're doing around here." The pastor responded, "Hi George, which god do you not believe in? Tell me what you have in mind?" From that moment, George and the pastor struck up a great conversation and friendship that led to improving the quality of the neighborhood. George would let the neighborhood know what was going on in the church in his local newsletter. Together, they worked to sponsor a neighborhood picnic involving the congregation and the entire neighborhood. The Santa Rosa Junior College neighborhood is fostering now a true sense of community. First Congregational UCC said "yes" to George and the community. God spoke, transforming them.
First Samoan Congregational Christian Church had been meeting in their building for quite a while. After the Samoan congregation loss their pastor, they came to First Congregational for a bit of pastoral leadership. Together, both congregations are hearing God's voice in new ways. They now share worship and Holy Communion once a month. Their Sunday Schools have combined increasing God's voice in the lives of both communities' children. The Samoan congregation even roasted two whole pigs at the community picnic! First Congregational said "yes" to the Samoan congregation. God spoke, transforming them.
In worship, Parks-Ramage invites persons to speak out in response to the sermon. The congregation sings praises to God in a variety of styles and voices. They organize themselves in "circles" where each month they hear from one another and share a meal or engage in service together. The outreach committee builds on the passion and calling of individual members—inviting each other to share work, for example, with a food pantry or the women's shelter. They have said "yes" to loving and challenging one another in community. God is speaking and transforming them.
God has spoken mightily since 1888. First Congregational United Church of Christ expresses God's still-speaking voice in their mission statement:
Warm and welcoming, dynamic and diverse,
We come together with open arms to
renew our spirits,
challenge our minds,
and celebrate Christ in our midst.
Excited and enlivened by the Holy Spirit,
we are transformed.
Reaching out, we become
what our hearts can see.
What difference does the belief "God is still speaking" seem to make in Marcus' life?
In what ways might God be speaking to you and your congregation through Marcus?
What is your prayer for Marcus?
If you listen carefully to twenty year old Marcus Lewis, you'll discover God profoundly speaking through his life. Listen. "Nojuke ga hingire. Hocak hit'e yakicga haje," Marcus continues to speak, "Nojuke is my name and I am speaking to you in my Ho-chunk language."
Half American Indian, half African American, Nojuke is Marcus Lewis' Ho-chunk name. Marcus insists that God speaks through all aspects of our lives. Through tough times as a child and youth, and now as he is about to graduate from University of Wisconsin, Stevens-Point, he insists, "God still speaks to each and every one of us, each and every day of our lives. The question is: are we ready to listen?"
Marcus has been able to hear God's voice through a difficult relationship with his mother: "God's messages are not always in the forms of words: many times they are in the form of challenges." From the age of 5, Marcus was raised by his grandparents because his mother suffers from the disease of alcoholism. "Alcoholism spreads through my family like wild fire," he points out. "I lost over ten family members during my life to the disease. God speaks to us in many ways, and we must not ignore the voice, even if it's hard. It's so hard to understand that during hard times, isn't it? I tell you right now that we cannot allow that to happen."
Marcus admits that his relationship with God has helped him understand alcoholism and given him strength to figure out his own faithful response to the use of alcohol. He does this, he says, in the midst of a culture where so many people his age "wield alcohol like it's nothing because they only see the humorous side."
Marcus listens for God in his personal life. "I have to remind myself to take the time to listen in the middle of school and rehearsals. Sometimes what really matters gets buried in my busy-ness." Marcus, however, also listens for God in both our history and the world around us. He believes God spoke when slavery ceased—"God smiled." But God also speaks in every act against racism today. He calls on us to listen carefully: 'We are constantly distracted by modern conveniences and balancing the checkbook that sometimes we forget to look at the world and see the good and lift up praises to God."
No matter what comes our way, Marcus insists we listen for God and take action.
Whenever the world looks tough or unkind, open your heart to God. Whenever the clouds begin to roll in, open your heart to God. If it seems that the odds are stacked against you, open your heart to God. When it seems that no one is by your side, open your heart, and realize that God is always with you. Open your heart in the morning; open your heart in the evening. We must always remember to open our hearts to God's message because God is not done with us yet, Oh no. God is still speaking and it's time for us to start listening.
(Source: A personal interview, April 13, 2006, and Marcus Lewis' sermon "Listening through the Ears of Our Hearts," August, 2004).
How do the stories express the still-speaking God?
In what ways do the stories challenge and affirm the ministry of your own congregation?
Robert Weir's painting Embarkation of the Pilgrims hangs in the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. It depicts John Robinson leading the Pilgrims in prayer before sailing to the New World.
One of the often quoted historical snippets in the UCC goes something like this: "there's still more light and truth breaking through." The originator of the phrase was the Reverend John Robinson, pastor to thePilgrims in Leiden, Holland, in 1620. These familiar words were offered by Robinson to inspire the Pilgrims on the eve of their departure from the familiar to the New World ahead of them.
Robinson hoped that the Pilgrims might continue, in a new and vital way, the Protestant Reformation that had swept Europe. Although Robinson would not leave with the Pilgrims, he called on them not to fear, but rather to be open to God's continuing revelation. God was present with them in their history. God was also ahead of them—in the new world speaking in new ways. Robinson's actual words were:
We are now erelong to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether I shall live ever to see your faces more. But whether the Lord hath appointed it or not, I charge you before God and His blessed angels to follow me no farther than I have followed Christ. If God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth of my ministry; for I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy word.
Can You Believe It? We Had a Heresy Trial about the Bible.
In 1880, by a vote of 47 to 9, Karl Otto, a Bible professor at Evangelical Seminary in Marthasville, Missouri, was "repudiated" for his method of teaching the Bible. That year at the General Conference of the Evangelical Synod, a committee investigated Dr. Otto's approach to the Bible and declared that he deviated from the doctrinal position of the church. They demanded, that in the future, Otto maintain "true doctrine."
Karl Otto was a bright scholar and pastor of German academic training. For him, God was speaking in a new way through study of the Bible that sought to uncover the original ancient context of scripture. The method was called "historical critical." He attempted to clearly distinguish what the Bible said in its original settings from the layers of church doctrine and tradition that had been heaped upon it. For him reason, science, and faith did not need to be pitted against each other.
Many pastors, however, were upset with the critical approach Otto took. They preferred traditional and devotional understandings of passages. Otto defended himself affirming both the authority of scripture and "liberty of conscience" that was part of the Evangelical's own 1848 confessional statement. Yet when the vote came up, it went against Otto, and he was dismissed from the synod. Otto went on to teach at Elmhurst College and write both fiction and historical novels.
Over time, Otto's scholarship and inquiry was increasingly admired by people of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. The historian, Carl Schneider, stated that Otto was vindicated not only by posterity, but by his contemporaries who refused to deny open dialog around biblical doctrine. At Otto's funeral, he was eulogized by Samuel D. Press, a student of Otto's. Press said that not only was Otto's theology centered in Christ, so was his life:
Through Otto's intellectual talents, God presented our church with one of his richest gifts . . . Otto was an untiring searcher for the truth . . . Otto had the courage to present his theological positions freely and openly, without concern for personal consequences.
Karl Otto, in his mind and heart, knew the still-speaking God and that still-speaking God spoke a challenging word through him.
Source: Lowell H. Zuck, "Evangelical Pietism and Biblical Criticism: The Story of Karl Emil Otto" in Barbara Brown Zikmund, Ed, Hidden Histories in the United Church of Christ 2 (New York: United Church Press, 1987) 66-79.
Through the Air Waves, Listening for God's Voice
It was a long struggle. From 1953 to 1979, folk struggled to hear the voices of African Americans on the air waves of Jackson, Mississippi. The United Church of Christ was instrumental throughout the battle.
When Jackson radio station WLBT went on the air in 1953, it had a policy not to allow any programming that dealt with racial integration. In 1955, Medgar Evers of the Mississippi NAACP first filed a complaint about the policies of the station. The station continued through 1964 working against racial integration. In spite of a horrendous racist record, their license was repeatedly renewed.
For over 20 years, radio station WLBT, Jackson, MS, was the sight of a struggle over the air waves—to hear the voices of African Americans. (UCC Archives United Church of Christ, OH)
In 1964, the UCC got on board to fight the good fight; initiated a study of the station's practices; and took the concern in 1969 all the way to the United States Court of Appeals. Voices of African Americans were finally heard and the result was awarding a license to African-American controlled TV channel 3.
Everett Parker, the director of the UCC Office of Communications called the decision "a resounding victory over deep-seated racial discrimination and a boon to minorities who have long been second class citizens in television and radio. At last we have a black-controlled network affiliate. We hope this is the first step toward establishing a strong minority influence in network television."
From the establishment of the first publishing press by the Pilgrims in 1621 to current battles with national television and cable networks about running the UCC's inclusive advertising, we have championed God's still-speaking voice through a wide range of media and communications.
Source: United Church of Christ Archives and Records United Church of Christ, Cleveland, OH. For more information, contact Mr. Edward Cade Assistant Archivist.
Be still, and know that I am God! (Psalm 46:10)
How do you listen for God's voice in the Bible? The following approach, drawing on Psalm 46 as an example, is one way to listen for God in scripture. Such listening is always enriched by joining with others. Invite others to gather with you for Bible reflection.
Enter in silence.
Spend some time in silence. Be aware of God's presence as you open yourself to the very real possibility that God may reveal a healing or challenging word to you and your community. Trust in God's presence.
(As an example, open yourself to God's voice speaking through Psalm 46:1-10).
Hear the Bible.
Read the passage aloud. In a group, ask one person to read the passage. Pause, and then hear another group member read the passage. Hearing the Bible read by different voices often draws your heart and imagination to new aspects of the passage. Also, different versions of the Bible will reveal different aspects.
(Read Psalm 46 aloud. Consider reading the version of the psalm found in The New Century Hymnal, page 652, or from The New Century Psalter, page 81).
Identify what comes to mind and heart.
What particular words or images linger after hearing the reading? What disturbs you, comforts you, surprises you? What do you wonder about? Then rest in silence again.
(Psalm 46 is full of imagery. It includes a wide range of emotions and insights. What lingers in your heart?)
Consider what others say about the passage.
Check out Bible commentaries and other sources about the passage. A great on-line site to lead you to commentaries and sources may be found at http://www.textweek.com/scripture.htm. What might God be saying through others who have studied and looked at the passage? If you are in a group, carefully listen to the insights of others about the passage. Following your research, rest quietly in God's presence.
(Read about Psalm 46. You may discover a view of the psalm that emphasizes God who speaks justly through and to creation, nations, and finally in the silence of the assembly gathered for worship. In this view, although God is revealed in particular places as "the city of God," but is not dependent on a particular place. God's very self is the only refuge. In silence, the faithful know God, but still are open to God's continuing mysterious revelation).
Open yourself to God's calling.
In prayer, consider new insight or reluctance within yourself from the engagement with the passage. Slowly read the passage one more time. Consider how God might touch you in both comforting and challenging ways. Perhaps God is calling you to do something in particular? Perhaps God wants you to change in some way? Perhaps God is leading you to speak or act with particular people and situations? What might be God's hope for you and your community?
(Read Psalm 46 again. In prayer, open yourself to God's calling).
Continue your prayer by thanking God for God's guidance and "living Word." Ask God continue to form you and your community through the scripture. Conclude by resting in silence.
(In light of Psalm 46, thank God for being a refuge. Then, be still, rest in the presence of God).
Praying the Serenity Prayer
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed;
courage to change the things that should be changed;
and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Are there prayers that you have learned by heart that capture your spiritual longing? Through the years, the popular "Serenity Prayer" has been such a prayer for many. The prayer is embraced by thousands of persons recovering from addictions, prayed through the Alcoholic Anonymous fellowships. The prayer holds before God both the longing for wisdom and the courage to act needed by those who suffer addictions.
The prayer in the form above, however, was first crafted by Reinhold Niebuhr, an Evangelical and Reformed Church/UCC pastor and ethics professor. He first used the prayer as part of his sermon in the summer of 1943 at Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts. The context of his prayer was a congregation's prayer, but it was also a prayer rooted in a particular time of social and global upheaval. Faced with the evil and violence of a World War, Niebuhr asked the question: "What does the gospel mean in this situation?" Is war ever just in the face of overwhelming evil? Is pacifism always a faithful response? Does God call for acceptance or for change?
The prayer trusts that God still speaks. The prayer calls on those who pray it to seek God's profound wisdom and then act. It is a prayer which keeps us praying no matter our current situation, personal or social.
Pray the prayer often. Then, listen in silence for the voice of God.
Introduce "more light and truth" to your congregation. Bring the words of John Robinson, described in Our History Matters, to life in your congregation's worship. Before or after reading scripture, at the time of the sermon, or following the benediction, sing the following version of Robinson's famous instructions. The song may also be used during times of personal or congregational discernment.
View the lyrics to "More Light" by Christopher Grundy
God's World Matters
As people of the still-speaking God, the UCC affirms and witnesses to the ways that God still moves through our world—opening new possibilities, bringing healing, reconciling places of violence and despair. As people of the Christ's resurrection, we are inheritors of Jesus' power to overcome violence, to be "more than conquerors." With God we can transform the dominating culture of death into a life-sustaining community of grace and peace.
God still leads us to places where hope, faith, forgiveness and justice have been abandoned. God points to places like our criminal justice system, which continues to emphasize a response of revenge and retribution to wrongful acts. It takes a powerful witness to a still-speaking God to try to see a new way. Among those seeking new way are faith-based advocates working to abolish the death penalty in the United States.
The United States remains one of only a handful of nations in the world to administer the death penalty, in the context of a criminal justice system that is not always just, but often taints justice with the bias of class and race. The death penalty closes off the possibility of redemption and reconciliation, it usurps the word of the still-speaking God.
Among those working for the abolition of the death penalty are members of a group called Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). The group includes people who have experienced the loss of a loved one through the violent act of another, yet wish to see the cycle of violence end.
Bud Welch, a member of MVFR, lost his daughter Julie in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He is a tireless advocate for abolishing the death penalty. He realized that a sentence of death for the perpetrators would not bring healing: "I finally realized it was an act of vengeance and rage if we killed Timothy McVeigh. That was why Julie and 167 other people were dead, because of vengeance and rage. It has to stop somewhere." The still-speaking God challenges us to think in new ways about our current criminal justice system. To learn more link towww.ucc.org/justice/criminal.htm.
What Matters is written by Sidney D. Fowler. Designed by Duy-Khuong Van (risingflare.com)
Copyright © 2005 - 2008 Congregational Vitality in the United Church of Christ.