Listen . . .
Rev. Dr. Marlene Kropf
Sunday, 18 January, 2015
Even though he might not have known it, the child Samuel came from a long line of people who knew how to listen to God.
There was Noah, who built an ark, using God’s specifications;
Abraham and Sarah, who left their home and family and traveled to a far country;
Jacob and Joseph, who recognized God’s voice in dreams;
Miriam, who discerned what to say when her baby brother, who was hidden in a basket, was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter;
Moses, who stopped to notice and heed a burning bush;
Hannah, Samuel’s own mother, who cried out to God for the gift of a child, received apromise that her desire would be fulfilled, and trusted God’s word to her.
And there were many others.
It shouldn’t surprise us then that when the child Samuel heard the voice of God, he responded, “Here I am.” His people had been doing that for many generations.
Like many of us, though, Samuel didn’t recognize that it was God calling the first time it happened. We live in a culture and a time that doesn’t readily pass on such knowledge — how to hear and recognize God’s voice.
Some years ago I led a congregational retreat at a church camp. On the first evening, as we sat around a campfire, the focus of the weekend was introduced: “Listening to God.”
As a way to get people started thinking and talking about the theme, I invited them to pair off in 2’s to talk about a time when they had heard God’s voice speaking to them or had some sense of being addressed by the Divine.
The man whom I was paired with was about 40 years old. He was a well-known church leader, worked for a church agency, had been a Christian from his youth.
“What about you?” I asked. “Tell me about a time when God spoke to you.”
He sat silent by the fire.
After a while, he said, “I don’t think I have ever heard God’s voice; I’ve never been personally addressed by God.”
He sounded sad, wistful.
I’ve never forgotten his sadness and have pondered it many times.
When we talk about listening to God, it matters, of course, who we think God is, and how we understand that humans relate to God. So what does it mean to say that God speaks to us?
Today’s psalm (Psalm 139) portrays one image of God: a very relational God who is the initiator of the divine-human relationship. Whether you think of God in more abstract terms — as dynamic energy, a process-at-work-in-reality, or whether you think of God more personally, as the psalmist does, the God of scripture is a God who wants to be made known to us and longs for our response.
The psalmist’s God is intimately acquainted with human creatures: God knows our ways, our thoughts, our desires; knits us together in the womb; is present every moment in our lives –behind us, before us, beside us, beneath us, above us, within us.
I like the way one theologian describes this relationship: our God is not neutral; nor is God against us. God is bent toward us in love and mercy. [i]
The second bit of embedded theology in today’s texts is that we can know God and respond to God. This is a two-way relationship – not unilateral. So how do we respond to God?
We respond by doing just as Eli instructed Samuel: listening, noticing, paying attention – not just to dreams or external voices or handwriting on the wall, but also to intuitions and events and a song or a movie or a book or nature or conversations with other people – ordinary stuff. God speaks to us everywhere, always. Usually quietly.
We all know that the biggest communication problem among human beings is that we don’t listen very well; and when we do listen, we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply, to make our voice heard, to push our agenda.
The same barrier exists with God. We usually don’t need to talk to God nearly as much as we need to listen to God.
And here is an amazing truth: God speaks in our language and reveals the Divine self in ways we can understand. Isn’t that astonishing? The Maker of the Universe enters into relationship with us in the very ways and means that make sense to us, that are intelligible to us.
BUT — such listening does require silence. Even though God speaks in our language, we may miss the communication if we can’t quiet ourselves to hear it or recognize it.
Gunilla Norris says:
Silence is the source of all that exists,
the unfathomable stillness where vibration began
— the first oscillation, the first word,
from which life emerged.
Silence is our deepest nature,
our home, our common ground, our peace.[ii]
So the human spirit requires silence, just as much as the body needs food and oxygen.
And when we avoid silence or run from silence, we are actually running from God and from our deepest selves, our truest selves. In silence we perceive the depth of reality, which is God, and we discover that we are intimately connected with God.
And then: here is something even more wonderful.
Silence can transform us.
Most of us come to adulthood with well-worn paths in our brains. We’ve learned habitual ways of responding to stimuli: fight or flight; bracing or clinging or pushing. Instead of receiving reality just as it is, instead of being at peace with ourselves or our world, we run away or we grab our weapons. And in so doing we mess up our lives and other people’s lives.
But there is another way: the path of silence. Brain researchers tell us surprising things about the effects of silent meditation. Silent meditation carves different neural pathways in our brains, making it possible for us to perceive God, to partake of a higher Wisdom, and to make creative, life-giving choices.
How does that happen? Silence strengthens a unique neural circuit that specifically enhances our connections to others and develops our capacity for empathy. Ultimately silence makes it possible for us to love God and others and ourselves.[iii]
Contemplation and silence nip the ego and its negative patterns in the bud by teaching us how to observe our habits, but from a place of love, and not from judgment.[iv]
And that’s the secret of transformation: love and not judgment.
To open ourselves to the way of love, to re-program our brains, most of us need a contemplative practice – a pathway into the mystery.
And that is where we may need teachers. Just as the child Samuel needed the guidance of Eli, the priest, so we may need spiritual guides along the way.
I remember my first teacher of contemplative silence. I was in my early 30’s, seeking a more vital connection with God. I registered for a weekend retreat, most of which would be guided silence – and then I panicked. What if I couldn’t do this? Though I am an introvert by nature, I was frightened by the idea of 48+ hours of silence, of being alone with myself.
What I didn’t know in advance was how silence would become a wide and welcoming doorway into God’s gracious, loving presence. I had such a profound experience of welcome that weekend that my teacher told me, “Now go home and practice silent meditation for six months before you talk to anyone about it.”
It was wise counsel because I needed to get to know this new terrain and begin to experience the transformation it produces. I had entered a doorway that weekend,
I had begun to retrieve my soul, but I hadn’t yet experienced the intimate connection between inner silence and outer fruitfulness.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, says:
The two correctives of all spirituality are silence and service.
If either of those is missing, it is not true, healthy spirituality.[v]
And I believe he is right. Absolutely right. For us to be healthy, growing Christians, we need a contemplative practice that grounds us in God, but we also need a way for our hearts and hands to share the love God pours out in our hearts. The path of transformation is not complete until it leads us to our neighbors, our friends, our families, and even our enemies.
So this week, let us pause to listen to the silence. Let’s turn off the television and the radio and the phones; and while we’re at it, we can turn off the inner clatter too so we can hear God’s voice calling us: and then, like the child Samuel, we can respond, Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.
Let’s take a moment now to begin. Please join me in some moments of silence.
Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.
[i] Patrick D. Miller, Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 680.
[ii] Gunilla Norris, Inviting Silence: Universal Principles of Meditation (New York, NY: BlueBridge, 2004), 8.
[iii] For an intriguing discussion of current brain research and its implications for prayer and meditation, see How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist by Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman (New York City, New York: Ballantine Books, 2010).
[iv] This insight comes from a blog, “Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation.”