I know that you know that scripture often uses repetition to emphasize something important. If the same word or phrase appears several times in a row…pay attention. It turns out the same thing is true in life. If something keeps coming up repeatedly, I’ve learned to pay attention. It may be a coincidence. Or not. Right now I keep tripping over the word, practice and call to listen. Specifically, to listen to God. I know, I know, elementary stuff. Baby food. Humor me.
It started in May with our church elders’ (Session) meeting, and reading a chapter from Henri Nouwen’s book All Things New. Nouwen notes that we often become deaf, unable to hear when God calls us and unable to understand in which direction he calls us. Thus our lives become absurd. He uses absurd, because it comes from a Latin word surdus, which means ‘deaf.’ So a life without listening to God is an absurd one. On the other hand a good life, Nouwen continues, requires that we listen to God, who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear. When we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives. Nouwen uses that word, obedient, because it comes from the Latin audire (audio, etc), which means ‘listening.’ So not listening (deaf) leads to an absurd life, but listening leads to an obedient one.
At that point, we stopped our Session meeting, and went on a half-hour practicum. Thirty minutes of walking the neighborhood, sitting in silence or anything that would assist in listening for an answer to “God, what are you saying to me?” After the silent time, we had a rich group conversation about the exercise, things people heard, and how to discern God’s voice amongst others.
I’ve had a number of significant moments in my life of hearing God. Often, of course, it’s through scripture or people or circumstances, but also in times of prayer. Call me a charismatic crazy, but I believe God communicates directly with us–though we both miss and abuse this gift constantly. There’s good Biblical precedent, of course. God spoke directly to Moses and Abraham and Jacob and Hagar and Samuel and David and Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Peter and Paul and so on. I don’t think God is done speaking to us. For me, sometimes those moments have involved listening for life-changing directions about jobs or moves. At other times they were small nudges about something fairly routine. During our Session half-hour, this is what kept coming to me: “It pleases me that you want more.” It seemed to relate to a growing desire I’ve sensed in myself lately to go deeper with God. I know there’s more.
In the past when I’ve sensed God’s voice, it’s usually somewhat imperative: “Do this!” or “Don’t do that!” More rarely has it been conversational or affirming like “It pleases me…” The thought strikes me that perhaps this is because of the questions I ask. Usually I’m seeking help on a decision: “Should I do this?” Rarely do I simply pray “Lord, what are you saying to me?” It’s the difference between asking a yes or no question, and having a conversation.
God often repeats things we need to notice. The emphasis listening continued the next week. I flew up to Seattle on a Monday night, and got up early Tuesday to drive to Missoula, MT and my annual meeting with a group of younger-than-me pastors. I used to call them my group of young pastors…until some of them hit 50 years old and it didn’t seem like “young” really fit anymore. This group has met since 2009 and it’s always a joy to spend time with them. I could have caught a connecting flight somewhere and then flown into Missoula, but I actually relish long drives. This one was about 7 1/2 hours on I-90.
Lengthy solo driving feeds my soul. Sometimes I listen to music or get on a phone call, but mostly I’m quiet. I keep a blank tablet and pen on the passenger seat, because I occasionally think of or hear something I want to come back to later, and I jot a word down to remind me. This drive was no exception. Over Snoqualmie Pass, across the Columbia River, through rural Eastern Washington and Spokane, into Idaho and past Lake Coeur d’Alene, up and down Lookout Pass into wide open Montana. The sheer beauty and long silence made it easier to listen.
Once in Missoula, our group schedule included a three-hour block of silent time to…listen. Some people hiked, others sat, one person rode a bike. The only assignment was to ask that same question: “God, what are you saying to me?” And when our minds inevitably wandered, the instruction was to gently return to the question, and keep listening. I walked a few miles on a trail next to the Clark Fork River. The thing I seemed to hear was God saying “I’m a long way from done with you.” I don’t yet know exactly what that means, but sensing God’s involvement in my life was profoundly meaningful. Holy ground.
So what’s my encouragement? All of you who read this letter are pastors, elders or leaders of various kinds. You are busy, like me, planning and scheduling, pastoring and speaking, building churches and building up people, casting vision and discipling and all sorts of other things. Very, very important things. But behind all of it, the foundation for everything, seems to be this question: “Lord, what are you saying to me?” Are we asking it? And are we carving out space to listen if an answer comes? If we’re not, we’re just spinning our wheels, or moving on our own strength.
God often repeats things we need to notice. So this week I picked up Isaiah 55 and found him saying this:
“Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good…Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.”
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as Secretary on The Fellowship Community Board.