preached on August 10th, 2014
But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.”
Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”
I spent the last week with 7 high school students from all over New Hampshire and Maine. We went between the two camps of the United Church of Christ up north: Pilgrim Lodge in Maine, and Horton Center in New Hampshire. At one point, the other group leader and I sat in a circle and invited them to share their experiences of faith and where they are on their faith journey up until this point.
Despite the team building, the emotional closeness, and the intentional community that we’d spent time creating, they were so hesitant to share! Even with two PK’s (Pastor’s Kids) in the group of only 7, they were fearful that their experiences of God and the world and religion would be judged. While they all had grown up in UCC churches, they still struggled HEAVILY with their own internalized reaction to what the greater Christian Picture presented in our culture at large dictates.
As much as we are so intentional about trying to articulate to our youth about what our faith is about, we don’t… we can’t… speak it enough. For 5 of the 7, they weren’t sure about God because they liked Science a whole lot. They were hesitant about talking about their faith because it was new for them– They weren’t sure about religion because they didn’t have a safe place to talk about it, anywhere. Articulating God-stuff was so overwhelming and confusing that they didn’t want to speak at all. Even in a church setting, there were echoes of they “oh, politics and religion, these are the things we don’t talk about around the table because: conflict.”
The language just wasn’t present for them in a way that was accessible to describe the feelings. The way in which their lives had gone, the language that they had been working with their entire lives, wasn’t adequate to describe the faith that they wanted, or experienced. They were afraid to speak, and speak “wrong.” Their experience is not unique for Christian teenagers.
Despite the fact that many of them have had experiences of feeling connected to God, each other, and their world, and especially at camp, they are hesitant to speak. They have had proverbial Mountain Top experiences to which they could point: places in the wilderness, perhaps atop the mountain, where they with their peers experienced the wholeness of creation as fully as they were able. Even this past week, on Wednesday when we hiked up to the top of Pine Mountain at Horton Center, we watched the sun set over the Mountains in the distance, Mt. Washington and the Presidentials to our left and the trail back down to camp site on our right… the view was breathtaking, and golden, the sun blazing through the trees and lighting up everything as though it were on fire.
Then, as we took off our shoes on this sacred ground, and rolled out our sleeping bags on the rock cliff, the holiness of the moment poured forth, washing the youth and counselors with spirit. The language wasn’t really there… they couldn’t speak… and yet still they knew they were in the presence of Holy.
It’s interesting– Language seems to slow us down sometimes between ourselves and God. What do we do when words overwhelm us? After his illumination by the bush afire, and in conversation with God, Moses flat out begged not to be used by God, holding up his stutter and lack of language as a deterrent to speaking his experience of God.
But God works in crazy ways and God still found a way. Using Moses’s brother Aaron, the messages still got to the people Israel, calling them to see God’s path before them. The words themselves don’t seem to matter much– Aaron helps with Moses’ eloquence. Like Moses, like the youth at camp this past week, words can slow us down, sometimes, it seems.
In participating in worship with Rabbinical Students at Hebrew College, I’ve always envied the art of prayer in wordless melody…. Niggun. To sing praise and ask for help from and give thanks to the divine for all of the things and all of the people and all of the ways. Sometimes in a joyous outburst of melody, …..sometimes a wordless lament, ….the music takes over and offers prayer instead of the words. There is a place to speak.
We all can stumble in articulation of God or prayer. The poet Mary Oliver writes:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
The disciples, too, wondered how to speak of God. When they implored Jesus what words to use, he imparted upon them the Lord’s Prayer… one we know so well that there are times when the words themselves cease to make meaning and the flow of the rhythm that we know so well takes over and allows a space for God to sneak in through the experience. It becomes so much a part of who we are that even when memory begins to slip away, the words of the prayer stay with us. Or even for those who have not been to church in decades or since their childhood, the words of the prayer allow the space to speak.
God empowers us to speak, even when we think we don’t have words. Last week, as the days went on, the youth I was with eventually felt safe enough to voice their doubts, their fears, their woundedness with religion, and also safe enough to open their hearts to the experience that the week at camp would bring, in a new way. Hearing the language articulated around them, the words that brought faith into action, people modeling and enacting a progressive theology that makes sense to teenagers where they are in the world now, subsequently gave them permission to speak their own truth.
God finds a new way to allow us to speak. Whether through others like Aaron, through wordless tunes enabling our feelings to pour forth, through poetry, prayers we already know so deeply and intimately, God can help our voices come through. And sometimes, even those who think they don’t have the words or the language can step up, empowered, and lead others in incredible ways, breaking spirit open and pouring forth the words.
Just as my hope and prayer for these youth was that they found a way to articulate what God and camp and community meant for them, I pray the same for us all. I pray that God grants us the words, helps us to speak the truth, empowers us to tell of the way in which God has transformed our lives every day: from the experience of the mountain top and the burning bush to the every day routine of being a human in the world. God finds a way to allow us to speak.
Oliver, Mary. Thirst. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.