Listening for Life
Of the many things back to school week represents a return to, more regular breakfasts with the kids is among them. Yesterday morning, the kids were poring over a calendar that mom had laid out on the table in an attempt to get our fall schedule coordinated as a family. Aside from the events that happen to pertain to them, the kids have always taken an interest in the various holidays that show up on the calendar.
Yesterday, they were curious what the little Star of David meant. After a brief reminder of the Passover story, C. remarked, “Wow, Moses was a really powerful guy.” N. quickly jumped in and said, “No, it was God. Moses was just using his power.” Tagging along (and being just perceptive enough to sense a teaching moment), I said, “that’s right—God uses ordinary people to get things done. Moses didn’t even really want to do what God was asking him, but God used him anyway. God uses ordinary people all the time.”
“Could God use me,” C. asked? “Of course,” I said. “But how?” she queried. “I don’t hear God and I don’t see a burning bush.
C.’s question is, of course, a variation of one that everyone who believes in a God who communicates with human beings faces. How do we hear God? How do we hear God accurately? How do we hear God well? How do we tell if what we’re hearing is the voice of God or indigestion or a cocktail of other voices and desires and influences we have picked up over our lives? Is the voice of God something we can ever say that we truly hear with confidence? Should we want to say this?
Our world is full of people, after all, who are quite confident that they hear God. Today is the day that Terry Jones was to mark the anniversary of 9/11 by burning copies of the Koran. Why? He heard the voice of God, of course. God told him to burn the Korans. Thankfully God has since, apparently, told Jones differently, but history is quite literally saturated with people and groups citing what “God told me/us” as a justification for everything from the most heinous violence to the most trivially mundane activities and decisions. Evidently God is either incredibly confused, divided, and unable to make up his mind (not to mention immoral), or, more parsimoniously, the voices we are “hearing” and obeying aren’t always—or even often—God’s.
Earlier this week I had coffee with a guy who works in addictions counseling. He was explaining to me how he approaches conversations with those who come to him for help. He began to draw a series of barely legible diagrams on the napkin in front of him. There was a semicircle making a canopy over a bunch of other words linked by arrows and other symbols. The word “love” was at the top. Underneath, amidst the scrawl were the words “Listen→Love→Lead.” The order is important he, said. Love is the overarching motivator for everything he does. But in order to love and therefore help lead his clients out of addiction the first and most important and time-consuming thing he had to do was listen. If he didn’t listen—if he just rushed in with solutions and steps and strategies—he would not be effective. Listening, he said, was the most important part of his job.
I wonder if the same thing could be said for us, in our attempts to hear and respond to the voice of God. If we learn anything from stories like Terry Jones (or any of the less obviously stupid and dangerous examples we come across every day) it’s that people are very eager to attach “God said” or “God told me” to a incredibly diverse and very often inconsistent collection of behaviours. We aren’t very good hearers, apparently. Maybe our inability to hear well is linked to our unwillingness to learn how to listen.
In the first chapter of James, we read these words: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” So often, whether in our relationship with others or in our relationship with God, we get this exactly backward. We are slow to listen and quick to speak. God and others become become little more than projections of what we would like to hear. There is much to be said for a renewed commitment to simple listening as an act of discipleship—an act of love.
I didn’t tell C. anything this comprehensive at breakfast yesterday. I just told her to keep listening. Sometimes the voice of God comes at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. Burning bushes are the exception, not the rule. God’s voice isn’t heard in the same way as your dad or your brother’s. God speaks in a variety of ways—through Scripture, through others, through our minds and our experiences. And we need to practice listening. It doesn’t always come easy. It can take a lifetime to learn how to listen well.
The Quakers, whose writings I have been reading lately, would say that hearing the voice of God requires habits of life and worship that involve long periods of silence. Out of this silence, this emptiness, a voice is discerned. It may feel like someone tapping you on the arm and saying, ‘this is the road you should take.’ Since it is easy for us to misunderstand God’s direction, the community can act as a sounding board, confirming what we have heard or asking us to wait further. Actually, the Quakers have a saying, ‘when in doubt, wait.’ They also admit, as you say at the end, that this listening is a process that takes a lifetime to learn.
Wise words, Chris. I think the Quakers have much to teach us in the area of choosing to embrace silence.
I very much like the idea of the community acting as a sounding board, but I wonder how often this works in practice. Too often, I fear, “community discernment” predictably degenerates into factions based on who thinks what about this or that issue or interpretation of Scripture. This certainly happens in the Mennonite world I am a part of—a world that claims to place a high priority on “community discernment.” Maybe this is simply evidence that we have listening work to do. Perhaps a community that has been disciplined, over a long period of time, by the practice of silence would provide a more healthy sounding board.
By the way, I think “when in doubt, wait” (or “remain silent”) is a pretty good approach to take in nearly every situation.
Yes, and September 11 would just be another day, if not for God telling a rather large group of Muslims to attack the United States and to crash airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and if they had been successful, into the Whitehouse. A very large number of people hear that same voice.
Personally, I think a God who tells someone to burn some books is not quite as bad as one who says “kill.” But they usually go together in one God.
Christians and Muslims have a rather long history of burning books and idols, as well as killing.
It is a rather bad day for those who believe God tells them anything, and for the rest of us. It is a good day to be an atheist, unless, of course, one is atheist in the book-burning, re-education, idol-smashing, murderous way the Marxists and the Nazis were in the twentieth century.
I would need to know more about the processes of community discernment… and probably need to know more about Quaker discernment too to make a real comparison. But I think there are as many differences as similarities. A key difference is that as I understand contemporary practices of communal discernment, they involve lots of words and talking; but Quaker discernment in its classic form rests on those long periods of individual and communal silence…. silence being not simply an environment you are in but also a state yourself… you are silent. In my limited observation, people today who talk about discernment, well, talk a lot. It’s not a silent thing. What I’m saying, I guess, is that the similarities may be superficial. But again, I would need to know more to say more.
And now… back to being silent.
Yes, it’s true. Our discernment involves lots of words. Words are necessary, of course, but wise and helpful ones are often nurtured in silence.