Words Made Flesh

God’s Word and words made flesh in preaching and worship matter.

Communication and not the noise of slogans or the repetition of cliches is becoming more and more difficult. . . speech is in danger of perishing or being perverted in the amplified noise of beasts. . . .There is therefore it seems to me every reason why we should attempt to cry out to one another and comfort one another insofar as this may be possible, with the truth of Christ.

Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction (1964)

Donna Giver-Johnston frames many of the chapters of Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart (Fortress Press, 2021) with quotes like this one from Thomas Merton. As I prepare to teach a worship and preaching course to divinity school students this fall, I am reflecting on the noisiness and wordiness of today’s world. What Merton observed in the 1960s rings true today. Life-giving communication does indeed seem to be “in danger of perishing or being perverted.”

How do we listen through and in the noise for God’s voice, the divine voice that in beginning spoke light into the night and whispered life into human souls? And how do we speak words of Gospel comfort and truth that stir people’s weary hearts and heal their sound-fatigued spirits?

While Merton’s insights about the looming danger of his time magnify the importance of clear and authentic preaching for ours, this is not my primary reason for teaching worship and preaching in 2022. I am energized about exploring preaching and worship with my students because I cherish the sacred opportunity to hear the tone and timbre of God’s voice in their voices as they preach for the first time or explore new aspects of their proclaiming vocalizations. I also delight in the persistent beauty and power of homiletical and liturgical embodiments of God’s Word to heal, inspire, and transform.

God’s Word and words made flesh in preaching and worship matter.

This is the mysterious wonder of worship as a ritual act of hearing and embodying God’s Word proclaimed. In worship, we hear God’s Word spoken. We also encounter God’s Word come to vivid life through color, texture, movement, sound, smell, and taste. God’s Word comes alive to worshipers in everyday-sacred actions bread-breaking, blessing, baptizing, and anointing. Through worship and preaching—as it happens in churches and on social media platforms and in hospices and at bedsides and gravesides and countless other unexpectedly sacred places—we “cry out to one another and comfort one another. . . with the truth of Christ.

And that truth—that Gospel speech–sings through the noise to change hearts and worlds.

Words Made Flesh

In us.

God’s love
made skin and bones
muscle and marrow
hands and hearts
God’s words.
In us.

No more speeches or spin doctors,
debates or diatribes—no–
God’s nouns and adjectives and verbs
made alive
incarnating belonging
in us.

Words made matter,
planted in salvaged soil
savored and saving
in us.



God’s Hands, Our Hands: A Holy Week Reflection

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  Luke 23:46

So many people across the globe have been on my mind throughout this Lenten season. One image haunts me even as it steadies my thoughts. Hands. God’s hands and our hands. Jesus’ hands. The hands of mothers and fathers and children in Ukraine. The hands of health care providers in places near and far. Hands that have the power to harm and destroy. Hands that break bread on Maundy Thursday. Hands that bless.

I offer these words as a liturgical reflection on hands during Holy Week 2022. The reflection explores various meanings of the word “commend” in Luke 23.

The realities of our lives—
All that we read about in the news or see happening around us:
To what
To whom
do we commit these things?

“Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.”

The things we value—love—hold dear
To whose hands do we entrust these things.

It is a part of life. We hand in
Hand over
Hand on
Hand off
“Put your hand in the hand of the one…”

Jesus—as he is dying—commends himself—his soul—the marrow of his bones– into God’s hands.
The hands of the One who delivered from the womb of creation
dolphins and dandelions, marsupials and marigolds
The hands of the One who ripped apart seas
to make a freedom way.
The hands of the One who scooped up mud from the river:
“We are the clay; you are the potter. We are all the work of your hands.”

What if God’s work—continues on beyond crucifixion
in our hands?

Gentle hands that have put Hello Kitty band aids on skinned knees. Arthritic hands that knit or build or garden through pain. Large hands that have held tiny hands as first steps were taken. Hands that set music free from pianos or organs or guitars. Hands that calm with a touch or write with a flair or feed with a fierce desire that none will go hungry. Hands that serve or wash or repair. Hands that resist with everything in them other hands that with clenched fist or the stroke of a pen or the push of a button mark the world with violence and hatred—

God, the potter.
We, the clay.
Our hands—the work of God’s hands.

“Father, into your hands, I commend my Spirit.”

Do we?
our lives—our well-being—our thoughts and feelings and wildest imaginings
Do we commend
our contingent existence
the whole of our lives in their radical temporariness–
Do we commend all of it—into God’s hands?

Too many too soon forget this—
the uncompromising impermanence of human living.
Or perhaps we—they—are all too aware of it—
So they—we—live in fear.
React to others with fear.
Soak faith in the bitter herbs of fear.
Cling to what little postmortem knowledge we have
with clenched hands animated by a redacted hermeneutic of fear.

But Jesus—in the end—
After splashing up out of Jordan’s waters
After calming seas and eating with tax collectors
But Jesus—in the end–
After refusing to be made king
After holding children in his arms
After breaking and blessing and giving
Here—Jesus—crucified—dying—even here:

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

“And having said this, he breathed his last.”
Jesus died. A childhood prayer on his lips.
Words of his mama’s faith—
Words learned as sun was setting on growing up days of laughter and play
now slipping from his pain-ridden body.
Psalm 31: “Into your hands I commend my Spirit.”
Last words.
Intimate words.
Breathed out to the One who breathed into him the breath of life.
Breathed out to the One who breathed into all creation—into you and me
the breath of life.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Do we?

Will we?


A Widow’s Mi(gh)te

I have been wandering a writing wilderness. My human dustiness has fogged my brain and smudged my creative vision for many months now.

A few weeks ago I experienced an unexpected stirring of my imagination. Some friends and I were gathered together near a park in my city. A wonderful water feature, a fountain with a pool, was within sight. One of my friends offered an aside about the fountain, a bit of wisdom she carries with her from her mother. “To steal coins from the fountain is to steal someone else’s wish.”

Transformed by a Tale of Radical Generosity

I didn’t think too much about her comment at the time. It resurfaced later for me during a church book study. My study group is reading Amy Jill-Levine’s book, Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week.  She devotes a chapter in that book to the story we often refer to as “the widow’s mite” (Luke 21 and Mark 12). A powerful feature of this story emerges in the way Jesus asks the disciples to see the widow and not look away.

The ancient story is infused with radical generosity and hospitality. It calls us to see and acknowledge the woman who gives what she has. The story also calls us to treat her with dignity and honor her worth in a soul-depleting society.

Emerging from the Wilderness

Reading this story through the lenses of Holy Week, as Jill-Levine does, and then hearing my friend’s inherited proverb about coins in a fountain lulled me out of my writing wilderness. Reading and hearing from a different perspective also nudged me to think anew about our rituals of giving and receiving what is given within our worship and communal contexts. We all have gifts to share as well as wisdom to receive as we continue to grow together into what it means to be God’s Beloved Community.

I offer this desert-dusty poem as one outcome of my reflection on “the widow’s mite,” and I invite all of us to emerge from whatever wildernesses we are in to share what we can and receive from each other with open hearts, minds, and hands. Sometimes, it seems, we have wishes to share together, standing side by side, and that requires of us love and grace.

a widow’s mi(gh)te

“don’t take those coins”
mama says in her scolding voice
as the girl dips into the wishing fountain
toward a sun-polished silver orb
the girl jerks her hand back
hides it in her jeans pocket
peers side-eyed into the sparkling water

“you don’t want to steal the wishes
folks whispered into that old pocket change
if only alice would get well if only
raymond knew i love him if only
a nickel for passing tomorrow’s
math test a silver dollar to see daddy
one last time a dime for snow this
christmas a quarter for the violence
all of the violence all of the violence
to end and who wants to
carry any of that home”

the girl squints at the magical water-spray
and then just over there where silver curls
feather in the march wind but the woman
seems not to notice as she searches through
a well-used black purse “she looks lonely”

the girl stuffs her hands deep in her pockets
digs out a blue lego the yellow eraser she
found in her desk in mrs harvey’s 2nd grade
reading class grandpas old car key a piece
of red yarn and two old brown pennies

she reaches out to the woman
“one for me and one for you and we can
wish at the same time mama always says
be careful what you wish for” and
the two of them old and young pitch
a single cent
each coin somersaulting
into the water slipping
through the surface down
down on top of
nickels dimes quarters
woman and girl watch
till the ripples quiet enough to
mirror their faces
side by side


Writing Prayers Together: Mercy Embraced and Grace Discovered

. . . out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.

Matthew 12:34b

God spoke life and beauty into being in the beginning. Through psalm-singers and shepherds on hillsides, through prophesying women and dreaming men, through a teenager in Nazareth and an angel in Joseph’s ear, through prophets, priests, princes, and kings, God spoke wisdom and truth to and with God’s people.

And in Jesus? God’s Word became flesh. Earthy, earthly matter. Human flesh speaking human words. Human matter speaking and embodying words that matter.

Now? God speaks life and beauty into existence through the earthy matter that is you and me. God speaks God’s wisdom into being through the sometimes soaring, sometimes stumbling, sometimes everyday-ordinary words that we speak. God speaks hope and grace into concrete reality with words that vibrate through our bodies and flow out through us into the world.

Mercy Embraced and Grace Discovered

I am teaching a course to ministry students this semester called “Spiritualities for Religious Leaders.” In one of the modules, I asked students to write a prayer and share their words with our course learning community through a discussion board. They wrote words of lament and celebration, of yearning and gratitude, of mercy embraced and grace discovered. Their prayers provided a gift of sacred speech amid the swarm of words I encounter each day. My soul inhaled holy air as I lingered with their prayers.

Crafting a Prayer or Poem

I invite you who are reading this blog to connect with each other by crafting a brief prayer or sacred poem and sharing it in the comment section of this post. Here are some questions to guide you as you listen to your heart for words of wisdom on this day.

  • Take a walk outside. What do you smell and see? What do you hear?
  • City streets, restaurants, boardrooms, classrooms, kitchens–all of these places and more are full of words. I invite you to lean in and listen for holy sounds in unexpected places.
  • What words can we write and speak that will help others hear and imagine God’s Word in their own soundscapes?

For those who seek guidance for crafting your prayer or poem, I offer these suggestions:

  • I invite you to grab a pen and some paper and spend 3-4 minutes writing down all of the sights, sounds, smells, and textures you encountered as you walked outside or as you look out your window.
  • Now, ask yourself how what you are encountering connects to a particular concern you have, to God’s presence, or to both. Spend another few minutes writing down whatever comes to your mind. I encourage you to write without stopping. Don’t edit or revise or crique. Just write and let God’s wisdom within you emerge.
  • Read what you have written. Does a particular phrase or image stand out for you? Circle or underline that phrase or image. Consider letting that phrase or image guide your prayer.
  • Write the prayer. Experiment with using vivid nouns and active verbs.
    • Choose how you want to call out to God in this prayer. Perhaps the way you name God connects to the phrase or image you underlined. 
    • Offer a word of praise. 
    • Share what you feel yourself yearning for God to be or do.
    • Conclude the prayer with a word of promise or hope that emerges out of who you know God to be. 
  • Read what you have written. Is there a phrase or focal image that you want to use as a repeated refrain in your prayer? What is the tone and rhythm of the prayer? Are there revisions you can make to emphasize that tone or rhythm? Are different or additional words you can include to enliven the rhythm, flow, and content of your prayer?
  • Pray your prayer.
  • Share it with others. One way to do that is by putting it in the comments section of this post.

Listening to Cries and Whispers of Our Hearts

Crafting prayers can be a way of listening to the cries and whispers of our hearts and lives and being present to the deepest parts of ourselves. It can also be a way of letting sacred words arise from those places within us. The theology that lives there—quivers in wordless places in our souls—holds valuable wisdom about God, humanity, and life.

Thank you for joining me for these moments of praying together.

Note: Portions of this post are excerpted from The Writing Work of the People: Liturgical Writing as Spiritual, Theological, and Prophetic Work (Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021). Cover photo for this post by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.



Some Stones, a Little Oil, and a Good Night’s Sleep

I teach worship and liturgical theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. After many months of “Zoom worship,” we returned to our beloved chapel on campus several weeks ago. I had the honor of serving as the proclaimer for the August 31 chapel service, our second service of the semester. The text for the day was Genesis 28:10-19. I stepped into the pulpit with more than my usual amount of fear and trembling. I hope these words, proclaimed from the perspective of a liturgical theologian, invited worshipers to consider the sacred rhythms of this new academic season. I tried to capture in this printed version some of the sermon’s embodied pulse. (We all wore face coverings as we worshiped, another new liturgical accouterment for our worship space.)

Jacob slept—with his head on a rock.

Jacob slept?

You know, it says something about a person, this business of traveling until the sun sets and then “stumbling upon no particular place” to sleep with your head—on a rock. It says something about the place too. This place where Jacob ended up was no Comfort Inn. Probably not much sleep to be had there.

Jacob slept—with his head on a rock.

Then there’s the dream Jacob has with that extreme-extension ladder stretching out between him and heaven. And the angels, busy flash-mob angels who materialize in that place to cascade up and down the ladder, swirling all around Jacob.

Of course, this is a busy story overall because Jacob is a busy man. Busy running away from the brother he swindled. Busy running away from himself. Busy even in his sleep. Dreaming. Dreaming about God promising Jacob all the things Jacob has been bamboozling others—straining, striving, longing, aching—to achieve, acquire, accomplish. . .

Jacob slept—with his head on a rock.

And in the midst of all of this, God blesses Jacob and promises to “keep” Jacob in all the places where Jacob goes.

Now, I have to confess. I have a hard time liking Jacob. Maybe you recall the back-story. Jacob so desires his father’s blessing he concocts a mean-spirited plan to get what he wants. No wonder he’s on the run. I am dismayed that God doesn’t at least say “Jacob, turn your life around, and I’ll bless you.”

Instead—well, do any of you remember a children’s board game called Chutes and Ladders? Some players roll the dice, get the “right” number, and land on a long, long ladder that carries them directly to the top and the finish line without having to take multiple turns and travel the winding road. That is Jacob in this story. He lands on the lucky space and is whisked away to God’s blessing.

Of course, I too easily forget that Jacob was scrambling to find his identity within a complicated economic and family system. How many of us can relate to that?

And what about that ladder? We humans have made a destructive assumption across our history: if we want to ascend to the realm of angels, we have to climb—Jacob’s-Ladder-striving, straining up. But Jacob isn’t asked to climb the ladder in this story. Maybe that is what this story is telling us. It’s not in the view from the top of a ladder we’ve strained to ascend that we see God. The blessing—and the Spirit-sight—is in how God’s promises to come to us in earthy things. God promises to reveal Godself in the dust of intersecting places. God in an uncertain place. God in a stone—rolling away. God in you. God in me.

Jacob wakes up after his stony sabbath and worries: “Surely God is in this place—and I did not know it.” Jacob didn’t expect this. Not in a strange-to-him place. (By the way, this text invites us to be aware—other people already called that place home and gave it a name—Luz. What was unfamiliar to Jacob was home to someone else.) Yet, this not-home-place becomes God’s “certain place.” This stony-ground-better wear thick-soled shoes place becomes a sacred, shoes-off, bare your soul place. Jacob—surprised by God’s presence—anoints that stony pillow with oil and names it “Bethel.” God’s house. This place—God’s place.

My favorite part of the story? Because the sun had set, Jacob rested. Because the day had ended. Because of the rhythms of creation. Jacob rested.

In this story? God does God’s work—once Jacob stops concocting, racing and running. Talk about finding God in unlikely places! Even when we sleep—head on a rock—God’s work and blessing do not depend on our constant striving. Yes, God calls us to do justice. Yes, God calls us not to grow weary in doing good. Yes, God also calls us–to sleep. Jacob sleeps in a place. God appears in that place. God promises. God blesses—in that place.

So, here we are in a world of sleep-disturbing nightmares come to life. Here we are with our dreams and a promise. God is with us—in certain and uncertain places. So, as we go? Maybe we should have some stones on hand and a little oil too. To anoint some unlikely places and some unlikely people.

Jacob is like some people we meet. Jacob is us.

We sleep—with our heads on a rock.

We run from some things. We are sometimes—maybe even often—unsaintly. We are flawed. Wounded. Real.

And blessed by God.

That is Gospel grace. God resides in us and blesses us. And because we are blessed, we can—are called—to anoint, care for, seek justice for, open our hearts to—others. When we do? What if we begin to see unlikely-to-us places and people as holy ground intersections of heaven and earth?

And at the end of the day, when the sun sets—we should rest. For even in our rest—God might just do the profound thing, the revolutionary thing—and turn our stony pillows into pillars of promise and hope. We are Bethel. Surely, God is in this place—by the power of God’s Spirit. Amen.

*Photo by Briesha Bell on Unsplash