Cacophony is defined as “a harsh discordant mixture of sounds.” I’m embarrassed to say that my initial introduction to the word was from early Monday Night Football personality Howard Cosell in describing the loud sound of a game-night crowd.
Cacophony. It’s probably a good descriptor for our world today, don’t you think? Good Lord. Acrimony and outrage and shouting are in, civility and listening are out. The discordant sounds come from all directions–web, news, social media, in-person. How on earth does a follower of Jesus turn down the volume button enough to listen for God? How does a leader in the Church protect those precious hours when we can listen to God in prayer and scripture instead of simply meeting every situation with our best thoughts in the moment? Those thoughts certainly have value, but what about the listening-to-God part?
For the last nine months I’ve been enrolled in a spiritual renewal cohort program for Christian leaders in churches, non-profits and businesses. It includes small group interaction, teaching and encouragement, worship, time to journal and reflect, and a monthly spiritual meeting with a spiritual director. It’s been outstanding. I live in Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco, and the monthly program meeting is in Menlo Park, just south of San Francisco. So once a month, I’ve driven roughly 1 ½ hours each way by myself.
I admit, when I signed on for the program, I didn’t give much thought to the 3-hour round-trip drive. I enjoy driving, so that was no great sacrifice. For the first two months, I used the time in the car to catch up on the Mars Hill podcasts that so many people were listening to. Since I once lived and pastored in Seattle just a mile or two away from Mars Hill, and had a number of overlapping experiences, the podcasts had my full attention. When I finished those, I spent the next couple of drives listening to good music at a high volume that isn’t always possible inside our house: The Avett Brothers, Mipso, The Head and the Heart, Johnnyswim and the timeless classics from my college years like Elton John and James Taylor and Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac. Oh, and after viewing the recent documentary footage compiled by Peter Jackson, lots of The Beatles. All quite enjoyable.
And yet. At some point, perhaps because of the nurturing my soul was getting through the other elements of the renewal program, I found myself longing for…less noise. I tried some classical music. Finally, on about my fifth drive, I did what should have seemed obvious all along–I just turned everything off. It was me, a cup of coffee and some uninterrupted hours. Those road trips quickly turned into holy ground. I thought and prayed and reflected and enjoyed God’s presence. Several times, I received “a word” that I recorded on my phone so I wouldn’t forget about it later. Unrequested material for sermons and articles came to mind. I had leisurely prayer time for the people on my prayer list. I had ideas for things to do with our session or congregation. And a number of times I was simply encountered by the Holy Spirit. Presence. Listening. Receiving. It was rich and deep and good.
So here’s the secret: I didn’t do anything. I don’t have a formula to give you or a set of instructions to follow. I won’t be writing my next (well, first) book about my experiences. The only thing I can take credit for is turning off the cacophony. And even that took a long time. But the payoff was immense: hours without podcasts, music or phone conversations. No exterior noise. Radical.
I realize now, that as wonderful as the cohort program has been, the very best thing about it in these nine months…has been the drives. 1 ½ hours down. 1 ½ hours back. Here’s the two things that have stayed with me:
- Reflection..takes time. It was the 20th century philosopher and educator John Dewey who said “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” I think I’m finding that true. Experiences themselves can be revealing and exhilarating, but my deepest learning takes place when I reflect on what happened and why, what it means or could mean. We learn from reflecting, and reflecting…takes time.
- Listening for God’s voice…takes quiet. When Eugene Peterson was asked in an interview about prayer, he said “one of the best teachers for me has been Karl Barth. He’s just adamant about when you pray you don’t ask God for things. You pray to listen, and then when you’ve listened, you can hear God speak, and take you into paths you never thought about.” It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever make requests of God. But it does mean that without listening, you might not even know what to ask. And listening…takes quiet.
The more our culture surrounds us with cacophony–outrage and words and sounds–the more important it is to act intentionally to break that spell. Otherwise, we will be left with only our own wisdom or decision-making, which is not nearly enough to even live a life of vitality…let along be a leader in the Church. Maybe you are super disciplined at getting on your knees in the morning, or breaking up the day with a walk, or reading scripture merely to listen for God. But if you’re not…or even if you are…try going for a nice, long (quiet) drive.
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.