Listening for God

The National Parks Foundation is celebrating 100 years of service this August. Maybe you can visit one of the more than 400 national parks this summer. If you go southwest, you may see the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but there is more than one Grand Canyon on this continent.

Our nation is divided as deeply as the Grand Canyon. And so we pray. We ask God to change the hearts and minds of those who don’t agree with us. We pray that they might see the truth and change their ways.

Our global UMC stands divided as deeply as the Grand Canyon. And so we pray. We ask God to change the hearts and minds of those who don’t agree with us, so they might see the truth and change their ways.

Our families and friends may be divided as well with some splits as deep as the Grand Canyon And so we pray. We ask God to change the hearts and minds of those who don’t agree with us, so that they may see the truth and change their ways.

Or not.

Our nation is divided. The United Methodist church is divided. Our personal relationships may be divided as well. And prayer is a superb response to the human condition. However, as we begin this season of prayer; as we begin to discern how this church will move forward in integrity and faithfulness; as we have conversations with friends and families who may not see things just as we do during this election year, our first prayer is not to tell God how to fix others.

If we are trying to follow in the way of righteousness and holiness, if we are trying to figure out our course of action, if we are seeking to know what it is we need to know to live in The Way of justice and mercy and peace, our first prayer is to listen. Our first prayer is to risk asking God to change us.

We have a decision to make. We have many decisions to make—who to elect president—Lord help us. What to do regarding our denominational perpetual pause in full inclusivity—Lord help us. How to relate to friends, family, and enemies who disagree with us—Lord help us, indeed.

Prayer is seeking to bring change into the world, after first risking to be changed ourselves. Prayer is talking to God, and prayer begins by listening to God and listening for God. Listening for God to lead is a good thing.

I had the opportunity to see the play, The Christians, which was recently performed at Blue Barn Theater. The play provided several very powerful points beyond even the main story line of the play. Near the end of the play, the main character—who is the preacher of a megachurch—is reflecting on an experience that split his church as wide as the Grand Canyon and the ripples of brokenness that occurred from it. While pondering his fragile future, he remembers an earlier pivotal moment in his life, and he says, “I think back—to me in that moment, hearing a voice that sounded like God. —- But sometimes, sometimes it’s really hard to really know which voice is God and which one is your own wishful self”
( Lucas Hnath. The Christians. )

We hear many voices. Faithful people, wanting to hear a word of direction, seeking to follow an honorable path, longing to know God’s guidance, still wonder which is the voice of God.
Have you heard God’s voice so unmistakably clear that you knew it ?
Have you been so certain the voice was God and not your own wishful self?
Those pivotal moments in our lives when we know with all the fibers of our being that God is speaking are true treasures.

How can we help in discerning God’s voice from our own wishful self?
First, in discerning the Divine voice from all the other voices, we need a plumb line—a litmus test—a voice recognition software—something to measure a message for authenticity. I would suggest the plumb line of discerning God’s voice is a standard of LOVE. The voice of God doesn’t tell people to hurt each other, to harm family or anyone else. God’s voice always leads us into the Way of love, kindness, care. Secondly, if we already know the answer we want to hear, when we ask God to show us the way, it’s harder to hear God’s voice above our own wishful selves

If we truly want to hear Divine guidance, we have to truly become receptive and open which means we have to let go. We have to give up trying to control, which is not easy for some of us. We want to hear God’s guidance—but we might want to put strings on our willingness. “I’ll do what you show me God, but let it be this or that or within this range or without conflict or doesn’t cost too much…” or whatever our conditions happen to be. In my experiences, it’s hard to hear Ultimate voice of God—if our ask has “if, and, or but” attached.

When I was in seminary, most of my class was second career. We had left our professions to start new ones. Telling our call stories was part of daily life as we got to know each other. What made you come here? God. How’d that happen for you? Specifics varied, common themes ran through. I was talking to a fellow student who was a lawyer. We were having this call conversation. He surprised me by saying he wasn’t sure why he was in seminary. He wanted to follow God’s leading, but, “I still want to practice law” he said. He was still, ‘exploring his call.’ Which meant he had not yet made a commitment to it. He was standing on the fence and surveying the possibilities. He was dipping his toe in the water, but not ready to jump in. That’s part of the process; almost all had stood there at some point, for varied lengths of time. I shared with him a bit of my story. I spent months ‘exploring my call,’ wresting with God’s pull, standing on the fence and trying to see how it all could work out before stepping in. I told him for me—as long as I kept a part of me back—surveying the field—looking it over and trying to get the full plan and promise before deciding—I was never certain what to do. The answer never came. A five-year plan all mapped out in detail was never rolled out on a scroll before me. The night I finally said, “Ok God, I’ll do what you show me—whatever it is” and I truly let go—only then did I hear God’s voice loud and clear and certain.

If we want the Spirit of the Divine to lead us, we have to trust and give up our limitations. The scriptures are filled with characters experiencing God.

Elijah stood on the mountain in the fire and wind and storm listening for God. Instead, he heard God in the silence of the still small voice. (1 Kings 19: 9-13) Moses heard God in a shrub that glowed as if it were burning. His curiosity drew him near to hear the Great I AM. Joseph and Samuel, and Isaiah and Amos, and so many others heard God’s voice in dreams. Only when their own conscious voices were stilled, God’s voice was clear. The Psalmist heard God’s voice in the majestic mountain and the soaring eagle and the dear longing for a stream of water.

Jesus who announced that he dwelled in God and we in him and we in God also gave us the image of hearing and following a Divine voice.

2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Jesus used an image quite familiar to his audience. Sheep know who they belong to. They know their masters voice. They know to follow that one particular voice out of the shelter and across the wide spaces. They learn their shepherd’s voice because their shepherd lives with them, spends time with them, practices and teaches them, he calls to them over and over.

The way we learn to recognize our master’s voice is through practicing listening. As we listen to someone’s voice over and over, we become familiar with it. We recognize the voices of people that we know by listening to them. We come to know the voice of God as we gain familiarity with the Divine by listening often. By spending time just sitting in presence open to the holy—not expecting to hear anything—just becoming familiar with sound of Divine as near as our heartbeat.

Prayer is a true willingness to risk allowing God to change us. Before, instead of, anyone else getting fixed to our way of thinking, we listen, for change may have to come in us before it comes through us.

Prayer should come with a “caution” sign. “Warning, this behavior my change your life.” If our faith is about growing in relationship/awareness/expression of the divine—which I think it is—then these church words like REPENT, TRANSFORMATION, MADE NEW, or BORN AGAIN are about us—braving the quiet and stillness of our souls, listening to the whisper of God speaking to our hearts.

May it be so.

Psalm 16:-7-11
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.