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Posts Tagged ‘listening’

A Listening God

Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer…If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:12a,b,14

There was a movie in the 1970’s starring George Burns and John Denver called, “Oh God!” George Burns was God, in the person of a spry, elderly, outspoken gentleman. John Denver was an inquisitive, young assistant manager in a supermarket with a lot of uncertainty about life, strife, and God’s role in the world. John Denver’s character, over the course of the movie, grew fond of God and gained new perspectives on life. As God walked away at the end of the movie, John Denver’s character called out, “Wait a minute, what if I want to just talk to you sometime?” God answered, “You talk, I’ll listen.” And then God disappeared.

The “You talk, I’ll listen” theme is one I suspect many of us experience when it comes to God. We can never be certain that God is listening, however, except by faith. We hope that is the case, although our prayers seem to be answered in such haphazard ways, it is difficult to know if God actually listens. Sometimes, when God answers our prayer in a way different from what we desire, we wonder if God’s hearing is faulty. The Israelites experienced the same uncertainty. Through the many challenges during their time of bondage in Egypt, through the exile, and even after they finally arrived in the Promised Land, they complained that God was not listening to their cries for help.

In 2 Chronicles, God sets out conditions for the Israelites under which God was willing to listen: humble themselves, pray, seek God, turn from their wicked ways. Rather than making pious demands, I suspect God was giving instructions for how to become sufficiently spiritually attuned to experience God working in the world. If the people remained arrogant, trusting in their own powers, living only for themselves, they simply would not be in a personal state to know God’s presence. It was not a matter of God withholding anything from them, but a matter of their ability to recognize what God was willingly offering them. Some things do not change over the centuries…

The “You talk, I’ll listen,” motif lays a solid foundation for many friendships, counseling sessions, and marriages. I must constantly remind myself that when someone shares something that is troubling him or her, that person seldom wants me to solve a problem for them. Many of us cannot gain clarity on what is bothering us until we talk it out. Once we have contained the problem in words, we sometimes find there is either no solution needed or that there is no actual problem after all. Often, allowing him or her to frame the issue verbally is all they need from me. Anything more is not only unhelpful, but it can be harmful to the relationship. The day my father died, my best friend came and sat with me as I wept. He did not say anything, because there was nothing worthwhile to be said. I did not need to hear that everything would be all right, that God must have needed my dad in heaven, that I would see him again in the afterlife, or that I would feel better in a few days or weeks. I needed to grieve. He listened as I talked and made sure I did not suffer alone.

Sometimes, what we most need is for someone to simply listen to us without judgement, without offering advice, and without trivializing what is weighing heavy on our minds. God always has a willing and ready listening ear.

Note: this is the 20th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 13: The Language of God is Silence

Be still, and know that I am God! Psalm 46:10a

Words encapsulate and narrow our lives. If we are not talking to someone, our internal dialogue is running rampant. If we are not interrupting the speaker, we are planning how to respond instead of listening with a mind open to learning something new. After we converse with another person, we often replay and analyze the dialogue. We may think of things we wish we had or had not said, or we may wonder what the other person meant by words they used or how they spoke them. The point is that immediately after an experience, we begin reshaping the experience with our words. The actual experience ends and the less-than-accurate description of the experience replaces it.

Words are symbols for things, not the things themselves. We describe, label, and categorize, but words themselves have no substance. We might describe this picture in detail, but the image in the hearer’s mind will still be very different from the actual picture. Such is the nature of a verbal description – it is not the reality. Our words always remove us a step or more from the experience. Thus, the biblical directive to “Be still.”

The early Jewish people did not believe the name of God should be spoken. When Moses met God at the burning bush, he asked God for a name to give the people. God said, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Once we have named something, we narrow our belief about its nature. If we say, “This is a maple tree,” we believe it is not a rock or a person. As soon as we begin describing God with words, we limit the possibilities of an otherwise limitless God. Our tendency toward naming and describing makes it easier for us to understand and process our experiences, but as our words remove us from those experiences, we substitute the words for the reality. Much beauty, depth, and meaning is forever lost in the process.

The Psalmist encourages us to still our minds. There are many ways to do this, all of which require focus and persistence. Yoga, meditation, centering or contemplative prayer are a few ways to silence our inner dialogue long enough to draw closer to God. God’s language appears silent to us because God does not speak as we do. In the creation story, God speaks the world into being. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) God’s voice itself provided the creative power. Similarly, in the first chapter of John, the Word of God became flesh in Jesus. God’s creative language does not interface with our spoken language, and we cannot experience it as long as our internal dialogue interrupts and interprets. As the Psalmist says, we must “be still” to know God.

The language of God is silence. How did I miss that?

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Dust to Dust

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:19

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. It lasts for 46 days and is a season of preparation for Easter. During Lent, Christians are encouraged to pray and fast. These are important practices because in order to prepare ourselves to receive the new life contained in Easter, we must first shake off the shackles of that which keeps us from receiving new life.

Fasting is sacrificing something that we will miss in order to remind us of something else of importance. Commonly, fasting is giving up a certain type of food, often dessert. Fasting, however, need not be limited to food. We can deprive ourselves of other desires in our lives, so that our deprivation reminds us throughout each day of the reason for our sacrifice.

Prayer is spending time with God. Most of the time, for most of us, praying is simply talking to God. We share our hopes and concerns; we pray for others having a difficult time. We express gratitude for the blessings of the day. One thing we often fail to do in prayer, however, is to listen. Lent is an opportunity for intense listening. When we listen with an open heart and mind, we open ourselves to transformation and rebirth.

Much of the time, we are narcissistic creatures. Our perception is that the world revolves around us, and we believe that our ego – the self-image that is formed by the world – is our true self. Unfortunately, when our ego has free rein to shape us how it will, we come more to resemble beings of earth than of spirit. Sometimes, I feel the need for an ego-fast. Some fear that by allowing our earthly egos to die or diminish we will become mindless, colorless clones. Instead, we become more complete expressions of the unique God-character we were created to become.

Lent, when experienced prayerfully, is a great equalizer. When we strip ourselves of earthly possessions – those transient, egoistic things that set us apart from others – we are truly one in the Spirit. We are not the same, but we are one. We are neither more nor less unique than our neighbors are. Lent encourages us to get back to our spiritual roots, back to the image of God from which we were created. Only when we release the need to set ourselves apart from others will we begin to manifest as the truly unique and precious expressions of God that we are. And we will notice and appreciate the God-expressions of others around us. As for our bodies, they come from dust, and to dust they will return.

Come home to church this Sunday. A little “dusting” may be in order.

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