Listening for God

  • Psalm 95
  • Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

For the past two years, I taught high religion at a college prep school on Chicago’s West Side. The pace for teachers and students was furious and frantic. From the end of August until May, with two weeks to breath in December, we crafted curriculum, graded grammar, pieced together projects. My classroom was filled with my lectures, the students’ voices, the scraping of pens taking notes, the squeak of chalk, and we were glad that this noise drown out the sirens outside reminding us of the rough realities of our neighborhood. At the bell, we all spilled into the hall where students had five minutes of blessed freedom to be teenagers—in other words, it was very noisy. And I gathered my thoughts for the next class. At the end of the day, I collapsed into an exhausted heap at my desk, and lugged files labeled “to be graded” to my car. I drove past my students walking home with backpacks stuffed to overflowing with books and homework, backpacks on wheels because of the weight of their work. This school’s motto is “the school that works.” And work we did.

After a year there, I knew that I was missing something as the religion teacher. I taught my kids about God, but I wanted them to know God. And we were just too busy with books and Bibles, pens and chalk, timelines and essays. We had to slow down. And so, with the nothing-short-of-inspirational support of my department chair, Fridays became prayer day. And one week, I decided it was time to try an experiment with my section of junior World Religions. We would just sit and be silent. For ten minutes. Friday came, and I was nervous. Ten minutes silence with teenagers? What was I thinking? This particular group of kids, the year before, had made it their personal, God-given calling to be my ministry-baptism-by-fire. But they were still more mature than my freshman classes.

We started with the usual bickering over who got to light the prayer candle in the front of the room, and a little tittering and note-passing while I said something about silence and listening for God. The quiet began; desks creaked while students settled in. About half put their heads on their desks. Eyes closed. I knew some of them slept, but I didn’t care: it was a sacred moment, even for the sleepy. We were all quiet, but unlike the quiet of a test or quiz, there was peace. I found room in the day to pray for these students. Ten minutes was too short. We were all hungry for more quiet. And for the rest of the semester, if Friday prayers didn’t involve silence, there was strong protest from my class.

But I’m not sure silence on Fridays were a success. I’m not sure we ever got the full hang of being silent. At least, I don’t know if we ever got around to listening. We talked about the silence sometimes, and we talked about listening for God, but none of us heard anything. No one ever offered a word that God spoke in their ear during those ten minutes.
Besides, I don’t know that I was the best person to teach my students about silence. I am a sound addict. It is a rare occasion when I do not have radio, music, or the TV running in my house. From my apartment, I can hear the hourly Metra train a block away, car horns and police sirens, my neighbors downstairs, all of that blended with the sound of my heating and the hum of my refrigerator. When I walk out of the door in the morning, I am plugged into my headphones, and at work I am surrounded by the noises of a busy church office.

And yet, like my students, like our entire culture, I hunger for silence, for a little space, a little peace and quiet, amid the noise and clamor of everyday life. Underneath the noise, I am sure I am missing something, and I am sure there is something I need to make room for. But when I am silent, it often seems like there is nothing there to hear, except my own thoughts creeping up on me.

I suspect it is partly the hunger for silence, for room, that brings many of us to church. It seems right and refreshing to be here as we stand on the edge, about to speed into another week of noise and busy-ness. This place is so different from what is beyond the doors, and if we can bring a bit of this space with us, hang onto just a piece of this hour, we hope the memory can create some space in our week, and that maybe, within that space, we might listen and hear just a whisper of the voice of God.

Psalm 95 is about creating space to listen to God. Many Christians know these words as an opening to prayer, an invitation into the worship service. Catholic priests say this Psalm each day before their morning prayers. But, most Christians only know the first seven verses of the Psalm. The next four are tricky and demanding, so we often leave them out. However, the journey of listening to God is incomplete without the end of the Psalm. The hardest part of the Psalm to hear is the part that urges us to open our ears to listen for God.

There is another word for listening that could help us think about this: meditation.

Richard Foster is a Quaker author who wrote a book about spirituality after experiencing his own spiritual burn-out. He says we often make the idea and practice of Christian meditation too complicated. Silence and meditation become something only the spiritual super-stars among us can accomplish. We imagine it involves the hard work of emptying our minds of everything, and that only the most elite religious types can pull it off. But the definition of Christian meditation is simple, according to Foster, and his definition of meditation and the path to it are not unlike the outline of Psalm 95.

Foster says that meditation is simply listening to and obeying God. As invitation to that place of listening and obedience, we look around in awe at this creation, and stagger awe-struck into the presence of the Creator. This Creator is the King of the Universe, whose hand orchestrates the thunder and wind, rain and snow, wind and fog in their dramatic shift from season to season. This is the One who owns the sandy depths of Lake Michigan and the clouds swirling around the Hancock Building. But this is also the One who traces the veins of each leaf on a tree, who carves the intricate print of each of our fingers. This is the One who is shepherd—who calls out to us as a shepherd to the sheep, who guides us with such care that the Psalmist calls us “the sheep of God’s hand.” The One who owns the heights and the depths calls us into relationship. And so, as the Psalmist invites us, we come into God’s presence and we sing praise. Even more, we worship and bow down. We make noise that is good and acceptable to God.

But this is no one-sided conversation. There is more than our noise, our voices. The Psalmist tells us to prepare for the voice of God. “O that you would listen to God’s voice.”

And then, the Psalmist reminds us why we are described as sheep.

My limited exposure to sheep involved an attempt to get a bunch to cozy up to me for a photo. It did not work out. Sheep do not always listen. It is no surprise that the Bible uses sheep as a metaphor for people. We are stubborn and slow to follow. Psalm 95 reminds us of the hard heartedness of Israel. Time after time as they traveled from Egypt to the promised land, they grumbled and balked, and turned in the other direction. They fret about water, they grumble about the boring taste of manna, they exaggerate the luxuries of their life as slaves under Pharaoh, and when they are finally so close to the promised land they can smell it, they refuse to listen to the God who tells them the land is theirs, and they turn back to wander for another generation.

But God bears with them, even when they do not listen to God.

Sheep do not always listen to their master, even if they know they can trust the shepherd. (If they did, a shepherd wouldn’t need a crook to guide them along the path.) But what does a good shepherd do if the sheep won’t follow her voice? She doesn’t just leave the flock sitting in the pasture and harumph down the down path in frustration. She goes back and gets every one of those sheep gathered in for the journey.

And in spite of God’s frustration with the wayward flock of humanity, God bears with us, even when we do not listen to God. In fact, God promises to take drastic action. Rather than leaving us to wander around lost, God promises to change our deaf ears and hard hearts.

Later in the story of the Old Testament, God makes this promise through the prophet Jeremiah:

I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
They will all know me,
from the least to the greatest.

God bears with us, even when we cannot listen. In fact, God promises to change us.
I cannot help but think about this change when I read stories of Jesus calling disciples. Jesus calls and people simply get up, leave what they are doing, and follow. The disciples recognize his voice, even though they have never seen him before, and even though they have no idea where they are going, they go. They listen and obey.

Somehow, we need to find ways to make space, to soften our hearts, to open our ears and listen for God. In worship, on weekends, and amidst the noise of the week, we need times of silence to wait and listen for God.

And yet, there is still this question: if we listen, even if our hearts are softened and our ears are opened, will we hear anything?

That is the question that remains with me after Friday prayer time with my students. We were silent, and it was still and peaceful, it restored us in some way, but we were never sure we heard anything. And in order to fulfill Richard Foster’s definition of meditation—to listen to God and obey—we need to hear something, don’t we? I could come up with explanations: perhaps we needed to be quiet longer, or in a different way. Maybe we did not pray enough to start out with, maybe none of us knew enough about God to begin with.

But our cultural hunger for silence suggests something else to me: it is not just that we are surrounded by noise, not just that we need a break from deafening sound, not just that we have become bad at listening. We are also aware that it can be very difficult to hear God, and we wonder if today, here and now, we live in a time and place where we don’t seem to hear much from God. We listen and listen, but our ears only ring with the silence.

Perhaps this is part of the mystery. This God, the Creator, who made sea and sky, who made us, and gathers us, who cares for us by hand and feeds us at this table, is sometimes more than we can handle, more than we can understand, more than we can hear. But we know that one word from God would be enough. One word would feed us and fill us and make us whole. One word would be enough.

And so the Psalmist reminds us to come into God’s presence, to bow down, to listen for God, to wait for one word. And while wait, we can only trust that God’s promises are already happening in us—that our hearts are softening, that Jesus our shepherd is good, that we remain securely in the palm of God’s hand.

We come to this table ready to listen, filled with faith and expectation—our hearts tend toward wandering, but God is faithful.

Come and listen for God, and trust that the King of the Universe who made you will come near enough to guide you.

Come and listen for God, and trust that your hearts are being softened through Jesus Christ.

Come and listen for God, and trust that the Holy Spirit is opening your ears and your heart to the voice of the Lord.

2 Responses to “Listening for God”

  1. Mary Says:

    Thanks, Erica! I needed that reminder again today! What is it about silence “amid the noise and haste” that we so hunger for but also avoid? In my oblate group we are studying the spiritually of John Cassian, and the search for silence has been our ongoing homework assignment. Turning off the outside sounds, focusing on God, learning to both listen to and turn away from our inner voice.

  2. Heidi Says:

    Hi, Erica… Thanks for a brilliant addition to my ever-growing file on what it means listen to God, to discern God’s voice, to discover our callings… In short, thanks for helping me do my job! And I prayed for you this morning – I’m not sure the exact date, but I know that you will be examined by the full presbytery – sometime around now.

    SO glad you have a website! Also – I loved your reflection on communion. I get to administer it this Sunday at our church (2nd time administering, first time at my own church!).

    Blessings, my friend!