Saturday, January 14, 2012

Listening for God...

Oh, I'm sorry, were you saying something?

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening." Then the Lord said to Samuel, "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever."
Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, "Samuel, my son." He said, "Here I am." Eli said, "What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you." So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, "It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him."
As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. 

1 Corinthians 6:12-20
"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything. "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food," and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh." But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

John 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you come to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

This is the Word of the Lord.
I have some bad news. You have a listening problem. No, not a “hearing” problem, a listening problem. Don’t feel too bad, though, I have it too. We all do.

People who study this kind of thing say that the human brain processes speech at about 400 words per minute, yet the average human speaks at only about 140 to 160 words per minute!

Think about a conversation you’ve had recently where the other person has been talking, and, maybe just for a moment, you were distracted by a thought – did I leave the iron on? What’s for dinner? I wonder when “Big Bang Theory comes on again… And you missed part of what was being said – perhaps an important part. What did you do? Did you ask the person to repeat themselves? Act like nothing was out of the ordinary? Maybe you had, without realizing it, already finished their sentence for them and already decided what you were going to say next, so whatever it was you missed really didn’t matter? It works out to a kind of intentional, selective deafness, if you will, because our brains, having picked out the high points and decided the proper course of response, has gone on to more pressing matters.

This kind of listening has been called “lazy listening,” and although it is completely natural, it serves to hurt relationships, to deepen misunderstandings, and it can cause a lot of arguments. The reason I know so much about this, by the way, is not because I am an expert in communication, but because I really, really stink at listening. I cannot tell you how many times over the years my wife has asked, “John, are you listening to me?” and the honest (though unspoken) answer has been… “You were talking?”

Thankfully, there are disciplines that we can practice which, over time can improve how well we listen. Maintaining eye contact with the other person, practicing an attentive posture, paying attention not only to what they say but how they say it, what kind of body language are they using, reflecting back what they’ve said to ensure clarity…

In our readings today, Samuel and Nathaniel have a similar kind of listening problem. Only their difficulty isn’t with listening to what another person was saying, but with hearing the call of God, and the problem they have is at opposite ends of a spectrum that we in twenty-first century America will find all too familiar.

Samuel’s problem is that, despite the fact that he spends his days surrounded by the sacrifices and psalm-singing and ritual, literally immersed in the culture of the worship of the living God, and despite the fact that he is sleeping in the same room as the Ark of the Covenant, which represents the very Presence of God, he has no earthly idea what God sounds like. The fact is that Eli’s sons, who were supposed to take over the priestly duties from Eli, used the priestly office as their personal playground and, in short, made a royal mess of things. So there hasn’t been a lot of listening to God going on for the past few years. People have gotten in the habit of going through the motions, acting properly at the proper times, doing and saying and thinking the right things at the right times, and they have gotten out of the habit of listening for what God is saying to them personally and to the nation of Israel. So when God called to Samuel, he ran off in the opposite direction! Three times!
Nathaniel, on the other hand, knows all about everything. He’s a faithful follower of God, and is fully informed on the strengths and weaknesses of his fellow believers, and he knows that the idea of anyone or anything good coming out of a place like Nazareth – especially the Messiah, for crying out loud! – is utterly ridiculous. I mean, come on – you know the kinds of people that live in Nazareth. Those people.

Kind of the way I expect people in New York City or L.A. think of Alabama. Phillip says, “We’ve found the Messiah, and he’s from Cullman!” “He’s from WHERE???”

Nathaniel has carefully guarded ideas about where, when, and through whom God speaks and works, and evidence to the contrary will be ridiculed and, if necessary, ignored, thank you very much.

Samuel doesn’t know how to hear God, and Nathaniel can’t be bothered to believe that God would speak from a place like Nazareth. If these kinds of handicaps to hearing the call of God sound familiar, it’s because very little has changed.

We humans live what Father Henri Nouwen called “absurd lives.” The root of the word “absurd” is the Latin “surdus,” and it means “deaf” or “muffled.” It makes sense from a Calvinistic or Reformed approach: Calvin’s doctrine of Total Depravity, after all, says that we are so separated from God that we not only cannot hear or reach out to God; we aren’t at all interested in anything about God in the first place. We don’t need God, after all: we have stuff! We have projects and possessions and things to do and be and strive for and listen to and watch and buy…

And as our lives get crowded with things to do and things to buy and shows to watch and Internet pages to browse, the definition of our lives becomes “utterly or obviously senseless, illogical, or untrue; contrary to all reason or common sense; laughably foolish or false.” Absurd.

As Christians, we know better, but we start from the same place of ignorance as everyone else on earth. The voice of God is unfamiliar, because there hasn’t been a lot of that kind of thing going on lately. Learning to listen for God is like learning to listen in a conversation: it takes practice. Father Nouwen put it like this: “A spiritual discipline is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow his guidance.”

Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking. Prayer involves becoming silent, and being silent, and waiting until God is heard.” I hope the process of listening in prayer is a part of your day Monday through Saturday already; if not, now is a great time to start.

In listening for God, we Christians have three other indispensible resources at hand as well. First, of course, we have the Scriptures. 

Hearing the Word of the Living God flows from knowing the Word of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, through the Word of God written, the Scriptures. Second, we have the Holy Spirit of God, who teaches and guides and speaks the Word of God to each of us. On top of all of that, third, we have one another: fellow Christians who are at different places in our faith journey, who can help us to hear and understand what God is saying to us.

Because hearing from God, having conversations with God, these are tricky things. Our absurdity of life means that sometimes what we think is God speaking to us is not God at all, but our own desires, or even worse someone else’s desires thrust upon us.

Having other Christians around us can help us filter out other voices, other calls, other motivations. Informed by Scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit, and supported by fellow Christians – these are the keys to letting go of our absurd lives and hearing God’s call clearly.

Because make no mistake, God is speaking. God is speaking whether we recognize God’s voice or not. God is speaking even if we don’t like the way or the person God uses to speak to us. God is speaking.

Samuel learned to listen. Nathaniel got over himself long enough to come and meet Jesus. We, too, must let go of our absurdity and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!”

1 comment:

  1. ...and I have declared to him that I am judging his house -- to the age, for the iniquity which he hath known, for his sons are making themselves vile, and he hath not restrained them (1 Samuel 3:13 YLT) I just wanted to point out that in the Young's Literal, the word "forever" is instead translated "to the age". I'm so glad I can rest in the assurance that God does not punish "forever", because there can be no love in a punishment that has no end. And it seems Samuel understands that too, because if I was just told God was going to endlessly punish my children, I don't think I could say, "Let him do what seems good to him".