When I was in preschool, I would wait patiently to hear my Dad’s footsteps walking in the back door at around 11:30, as he rode his bike home from the church for lunch with my mom and me. While my mother was preparing our egg salad sandwiches, I often had my dad’s undivided attention and we’d wander into the living room for our noon-time confab (which as the parent of a four-year-old now, I realize was probably a tremendous relief for my stay at home Mom who had been trapped in the house all day with a child who could be a bit locquacious, not unlike her son is now). Each day Dad would ask about my morning. I’d ask about his day at the office. I’d tell him how many times the ping pong balls got dropped on the head of Captain Kangaroo that morning. He’d tell me which of the parishioners had stopped by to say hello and have a cup of coffee with him while he was working on his sermon. I’d put on a ten minute dance recital for him. He’d teach me that magic trick where a quarter came out of my ear. Most days this was our routine.
The story is told by my parents, that one day our routine was interrupted. It was, I believe, during the time of Richard Nixon’s resignation and the papers were filled with juicy tidbits and details. While my mother was putting lunch on the table, my father hunkered down in his reading chair with the newspaper, trying to catch up on the national news. This was not a normal day in my world, which revolved around only me. As many times as I would try to catch my father’s attention, he would answer from behind his Journal-Gazette with only a half-hearted, “hmmmmm…” or “oh, really?” I watched him expectantly with all the impatience and righteous indignation that a precocious preschooler can muster, and when I could stand it no further, I climbed onto his lap, scrunching the paper underneath my tiny body by sitting on it, and then took his two whiskered cheeks in my little hands. I turned his face toward me and put my nose mere inches from his and said, “Daddy, you must look at me when I talk to you! I need to know you’re listening!”
This morning, we’re going to talk about listening. And what it means to listen for the Word of God. So often in our media-saturated culture we hear so much spoken, chaos and cacophony. It is hard to know who we should listen to, but more than that, I fear we are forgetting how to listen. For the kingdom of God cannot be created in this world unless there are people there to listen to the Word. The theologian Nelle Morton talks of our life in faith as, “hearing one another into being.” We need to listen, to be faithful disciples as well.
The Gospel of Mark is a unique one. It is, by all accounts, the earliest written Gospel, and it is terse to the point of annoyance at times for a word-lover like me. It is the shortest of the four Gospels and it records fewer of the words that Jesus spoke as well. The Jesus that we discover in Mark is always busy. He’s always moving. He’s always acting. He’s always doing. He’s always on the go. Reading the book of Mark is like watching a movie on fast-forward. Jesus has these marathon days where he heals, teaches, prophesies, performs miracles, walks on water, argues with Pharisees, travels from town to town to town, feeds multitudes, makes disciples, welcomes children…[sigh]. And then lather, rinse, repeat. The next day starts and he does it all again without even breaking a sweat. Surely this Jesus could rub his tummy and pat his head at the same time while whistling Great is Thy Faithfulness and standing on one foot. He’s one of those kind of guys, a multi-tasker, an up and comer. In fact, Mark’s favorite word, used over 40 times in this short book, is the Greek word meaning, “immediately” or “at once.” Mark tells us over and over again, “First Jesus was here, and now look, immediately he did this.” “At once he was over there and then, voila, immediately he did something else.” That Jesus was an activist is not arguable here. But even in this account of Jesus’s life, we have glimpses of another aspect of Jesus, a more contemplative presence of this one who was himself the Word, of this one who knew how to listen with an inner knowing.
At several points in Mark’s account, Jesus finds ways to go away, whether it be with others, or by himself, to pray and listen for the voice of God. At critical points in his ministry, Jesus makes his way to quiet places to connect himself to the one who named him “the word.” In the midst of action, and there is a lot of action, it is clear that there also needed to be space made for some profound listening. (And those of you who are introverts in this sanctuary can’t tell me that that doesn’t allow you to breathe a sigh of relief…). One of Mark’s stories tells us that in the whirlwind days of Jesus’ early ministry, shortly after his baptism, and after recruiting some disciples, and teaching in the synagogue, and healing a friends-mother-in law, and then leading a rally to heal the sick, he found a place to sleep and in the midst of all this action, he awoke while it was still dark and went out to a deserted place to pray. And then there was another time, a time when after encouraging his disciples to practice some self-care and find some time and space for themselves to pray he realized that there were hungry crowds and after multiplying food and taking care of needs he insisted, yet again, that his disciples go out onto the water for some R&R. That way he could be alone to listen for God, and to pray. And let’s not forget that on the night he was betrayed, after the bread was broken and the cup was poured, after the disciples were excused from the table for their final meal together, Jesus went off by himself to pray. Jesus, the Word incarnate, doesn’t just speak. He listens.
And while this would seem like a simple task, to just listen. I would wager that we, the modern day disciples of Jesus aren’t as good at it as we think. I would wager that what most of us are doing is hearing, hearing the sounds around us, hearing the noise, but not taking part in that active task of connecting the sound with our soul, where we really listen. For there is a world of difference between those terms.
Several years ago I took a group of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders away for an overnight retreat experience at a nature preserve. We were talking about creation, the grandeur of God’s creation, and I wanted them to know the wonder of the world through all their senses. And so, the thirty or so of us, sat outside on a sunny June afternoon in Wabash county with our eyes closed and listened, really listened to what we heard. After several minutes of this listening, they were given papers and pencils and asked to write or draw the sounds they heard on the paper. I was amazed at the variety of noise which surrounded us. And I became aware of the noise which I simply filter out each day, or don’t consider. I sat under a tree that day and listened with new ears. I did more than merely hear. I noted bird coos, and airplane sounds, wind in pine trees, and the distant bark of a dog. Really listening opened me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.
And it led me to imagine how much more I could be listening for God.
I confess that I am not one who hears the voice of God on a regular basis. Or, um, ever for that matter. And that doesn’t mean I haven’t deeply desired that kind of response at times in my life. A simple, “Yes, do this,” or “No, absolutely not, no, no, no” in a deep booming bass voice would be so helpful at times of major decisions, wouldn’t they?
I shared this lament, this lament about not feeling as if God spoke to me, with a spiritual director at one point in my life. And her response was elegantly simple, “Christen, perhaps God doesn’t do that anymore in our culture because God doesn’t have to. Perhaps we’re capable of being attune enough to God, to listen well enough, that God can afford to be subtle.” I hated her for that response at the time, because I still would like yes or no responses, but I confess that her answer gives me a great deal of hope. Perhaps the Word of God in our lives are so subtle around us that when we stomp through them like a bulldozer we are missing the slightest nuances of grace. Perhaps our demand for definitive answers leaves us oblivious to the whispers of our Creator.
Sometimes I have a vision of God, standing like that preschool child that I was, impatiently tapping a foot and waiting, waiting for me to stop and pay attention. I imagine God, pulling away the newspaper of my daily routines, cradling my face and looking into my eyes and saying, “Christen, you must look at me when I talk to you. And you must listen!”
May we all.