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Hearing God

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A modified extract of a Seminar “Hearing God” given at 2013 Girl talk Conference, “Hope Wins” on Saturday 6th July 2013 - presented at SMAS on Sunday 2 July 2013

As Christians we believe that God speaks to the heart of each individual. But we will probably find it difficult to hear God's 'still small voice' if we fill our days with the noise of TVs, computers, phones, work and busyness of all kinds. Many people in today’s society are feeling an emptiness within and perhaps too many of us try to fill this emptiness within with busyness without. So, Is hearing God more of an issue today than in the past, with so much more background noise and clamour, busyness ..... ? I think the answer is probably, yes, and I believe that there is also a growing reaction against this as people seek to find an antidote to the ‘emptiness’ they feel.

There is undoubtedly a current upsurge of interest in finding silence, so, for example:-

  • there is whole raft of new books being written on silence, contemplation, the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers, and asceticism,
  • going on retreat is on the increase, and
  • TV programmes such as The Big Silence (set in St Bueno’s Retreat Centre) and The Monastery (about the Benedictine, Worth Abbey) gained unprecedented viewing figures for “religious” programmes and led to a renewed interest in monasticism and silent retreats.

But is it really easier to hear God in the silence? There is some biblical evidence to suggest there is - Elijah - when he ran away to the cave at Horeb he did not hear God in the wind, the earthquake or fire but in a sound of sheer silence, or in some translations in a still small voice. (1 Kings) Jesus set himself apart - Mark 1:35 “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”

I am not saying that God cannot “breakthrough” in a noisy environment or that we cannot hear Him except in silence - that would be ridiculous - God is capable of anything look what he did to Saul to grab his attention on the Damascus Road. But we don’t all have Damascus Road experiences or angels coming to deliver important messages!! I have heard God speak very clearly to me in the midst of worshipping with hundreds of people (loudly!!) but in that case I believe it was to do with worship bringing me into the presence of God in a very ‘real’ way All I am really saying is that I most often hear God in quiet times.

I need to just add a caveat here - we need to acknowledge that for some silence is very frightening. There is a type of silence that is enforced, malevolent, even evil as described in Simon and Garfunkel’s song ‘The Sound of Silence” - “silence like a cancer grows....”, and if someone has had such a bad experience, silence may be very hard for them. Also, there is the silence that is feared because of the worry that it may release bottled up feelings that have long been suppressed and kept under control. For these people they will need to ask for healing from God before they will be able to enjoy silence - but that is a subject for another seminar.

Before going any further let us look at the difference between hearing and listening - any teacher can tell you this!! We hear noise almost all the time but do we pay attention? We can have the radio on, we hear it but unless we are listening we don’t know what is playing or being said. To listen means to give one’s attention to sound, whereas to hear, means to perceive with the ear the sound made by someone or something. Jesus clearly understood this because in Matthew 13:13 he says, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.””

So hearing is not the same as listening - when we listen we give attention to. We would hope that friends or family do us the courtesy of switching off the radio, TV, computer, cooker etc so that they can listen to us - be attentive. And, conversely, I’m sure we all know what it feels like when people don’t listen to us - you know that glazed expression that can come over people's faces. It is hurtful, especially if what we are saying is important to us - is this how God feels when we speak at Him but don’t ‘listen’ to His answer.

Evelyn Glennie, the world renowned percussionist lost her hearing as a child and she has had to learn to “hear” in a new way. She has learned to feel vibration deep within her and interpret this feeling into music - she needs to be discerning, and she has learned to pick up and separate the music from other distractions around it. In other words she now listens in a new way. And in a similar way that is what we are constantly trying to do when we try to listen to God.........

But, How does God speak? So what is our experience of how he speaks? bible, prayer, words of knowledge, books, music, each other, circumstances or “God-incidences”, supernaturally, creation, angels ....

How can we listen to his voice and indeed how do we recognise it?

Some practical Points to help us with this:-

Benedictine monks, live lives grounded in the Rule of St Benedict which dates from the sixth century. The very first word of the Rule is “Listen”, “Listen with the ear of your heart”, and listening is the mark of a monk’s life. The monks of Douai Abbey say on their website that they "listen for God each day

  • in their daily round of liturgical worship;
  • in their spiritual reading of sacred scripture and wise spiritual guides;
  • in mutual interaction between the monks, especially with the Abbot;
  • in those who come to visit or stay at the monastery;
  • in their daily work, however humble.”

I think this has much to say to us too about God speaking to us in all aspects of our lives..... And the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th and 5th centuries can teach us much about a life of listening to God, through retreat and contemplation.

A couple of things I would like to add:-

1: We are most likely to hear if we are Present; Intentional; Attentive(PIA). This is well illustrated by the Chinese character for ‘to listen’ ........ chinese-character-for-listening

2: Special place - sometimes a physical space - chair in a room, bench, walking along, in a chapel, driving - making an ‘appointment’ can be good; sometimes it can be a place in our imagination, somewhere we have felt especially close to God - cliff sea view, walking behind Jesus.

3: We don’t always hear through words - it can be through a picture or someone's action, or urge to do something. e.g.I felt an almost tangible sense of God’s loving arms around me, giving me a sense of real peace when I cried out to God at the time of my Father’s death 25 years ago and still vividly remember now - a warmth and certainty that were not expressed in words. There is also the “God-incidence” thing - the sudden urge to knock on someone's door, give some flowers, send a card that doesn’t make very much sense until you obey and then all becomes obvious. These examples are still about hearing God even if our hearing is not through language.

4: I am going to use the acronym H.A.R.K. to help think about how we can approach listening to God:

Humble - not proud, not already got answers, own agenda, pre-conceived ideas

Attend - in the well known story of Mary and Martha, we see that both have desire to hear Jesus but Martha isn’t listening she is distracted, she is not giving her time and to pay attention to Jesus. Listening is about wanting to hear. Jesus says, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ and, the bible tells us that the ear is a channel to the heart; but it is in this channel that blockages can occur, often normal human preoccupations that can inhibit our listening. It seems the ‘one thing Martha lacked was her attention, caused by her busyness, in her desire to do everything Martha missed out on the most important thing. Do we know what our blockages are - what our ‘one thing’ is?

We need to be able to Recognise God’s voice - When Samuel is first called by God he doesn’t recognise the voice of the Lord - he needs help from Eli. Today we too may need help in learning to recognise God’s voice and indeed part of my role as a Spiritual Director is in this area, but the help can also come from a Christian friend. Then there’s the “red letter stuff”. The more we study and read the bible the easier it is to recognise His voice. But certainly, when we think we have heard God speak we need to test it - is it consistent with biblical teaching? is it affirmed by others or our circumstances? how does it make us feel? is it for the good? does it bring freedom or is it binding? A number of years ago we hand reared a lamb, “Faith” as she was called, learned to recognise our voices and even when she was released back into the flock, and for a long time, if I or my daughter called her she would come because she recognised our voices. Indeed, Jesus himself says in John 10, “My sheep will know my voice”.

and, linked to recognition is Knowing God. In Psalm 46 God invites us to "Be still and know that he is God". Getting to know God and his ways can help us recognise his voice. The better we know someone the easier it is to recognise their voice because we have spent time with them. So the more time we spend with God in prayer and worship the better we get to know Him, and this is heart knowledge not mind knowledge.

So, to conclude if we don’t listen for god, we are unlikely to hear what he has to say. There are many ways of praying developed over the centuries that can help us tune in to God and I would strongly recommend exploring some of them to discover ways that may help. Thirty years ago I began an exploration and practise of prayer which has transformed my life but perhaps that is a subject for another talk, but let me just suggest some to think about starting with.

Guided meditation - led by someone else, usually based on scripture, but often interspersed with questions or thoughts to ponder.

Imaginative contemplation - using our imagination to take ourselves into the setting and hear Jesus/God speaking directly to us, interact with the story, being able to ask Him questions, maybe ‘why?’ or to ask Him to give us understanding.

Lectio Divina - divine reading - savouring God’s word, chewing the cud, sucking all the sweetness out - all the meaning But maybe the best starting point is to take Eli’s advice to Samuel and start by saying “Speak Lord, your servant is listening”.

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