When we imagine a person who is mature in Christ we think of someone persistent in action and filled with spiritual wisdom. We think of the words they say or the work they do. We associate that person with love, joy, patience, kindness, and other virtues. Only in rare cases do we think of the person who listens.
But listening is the ground and starting point for the development of the person who is spiritually wise and mature.
In A Spirituality of Listening: Living What We Hear (IVP Formatio, 2016), Keith Anderson argues for the practice of listening. We live in an age of distraction, overpopulated with words and filled with frenetic activity. We live at a time when people long for a word from God. There is restlessness and anxiety in both world and church.
But God has spoken. God is speaking. We have failed to listen. “Be still,” the psalmist writes, “and know that I am God.”
Hearing a word from God is often associated with esoteric religious experiences. But Anderson argues for a different account of the spiritual life and a different reading of the Bible. Anderson writes, “My claim is simple: spirituality is grounded in ordinary life experiences. We need to learn to listen to rhythms of life, narratives and creation. I also make a more complex claim: Jesus learned to know God through biblical forms still available to us.”
Anderson merges two ideas. We encounter God in the everyday, and Jesus is the one who shows us how to listen. It is through Jesus-style listening that we come to know God.
Biblical spirituality says there is still a source that reveals the voice of the living God. It asserts that God is not done with the business of revelation and creation but instead continues to have something to say and something yet to be accomplished in the very culture that isn't sure if God is done speaking.
Anderson writes of the creation, the commonplace, the Bible, and specifically the Psalms as locations where God is revealing himself. Anderson writes about Hebrew spirituality and Israel’s call to listen, found in Deuteronomy 6:4. He explores the prophetic voice, the cry of lament, and the example of Jesus as crucial points of investigation that help us become attuned to God’s manner of speaking.
In his final chapter, Anderson explores otherness, community, and God’s diverse vehicles for bringing a word. Anderson states, “We aren't much good at listening to otherness--different languages, worldviews, ages, genders, sexualities, abilities, demographics, religions or philosophies.” It is not easy to listen to those who are different.
Anderson sees our differences as akin to accent. He writes, “Learning to listen to God also means learning to listen to those who listen to God in ways that are unfamiliar or just different than my way.” I am from East Texas. I am well versed in sounding funny. And there are plenty of Christians (and people, for that matter) who sound like Yankees to me.
Learning to listen to those who are different, those who are other, is one of the great challenges of Anderson’s book.
Another challenge concerns God’s manner of speaking and how we come to listen to God’s voice. Anderson writes much of the commonplace as the domain of God’s revelation. There is truth in that claim. God teaches us within the context of our lives as they are lived today.
But there is also the Bible. And therein lies the tension. Learning to hear God in the commonplace is best conducted when the experiences of everyday life are filtered through the biblical narrative. How God speaks to us in and through the Bible is a matter of theological debate. But it is through the words of Scripture that God has spoken and is speaking; it is as though an eternal, timeless voice echoes through the ages and comes to us as a word presently spoken.
Listening is indispensable for spiritual formation in Christ. We cannot become mature Christians without learning how to listen. Jesus not only is our Savior, he is also our Teacher. Teachers instruct by example, but also through words. He is the Good Shepherd. Hearing his call to “come” is accompanied by his invitation to “follow.” In the words of the old hymn:
Take up thy cross and follow me,
I heard my Master say.
I gave my life to ransom thee,
Surrender your all today.
But first, as Anderson reminds us, we must listen.
The Baptist Standard caught my attention this past week with this article, published August 8, 2016: Baptist Ministers Join Call to Halt Execution.
I urge you to read the article, investigate the case of Jeff Wood, and act according to conscience. The article concerns the scheduled execution of Jeff Wood, which will take place on August 24th, 2016, unless Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles choose to intervene.
I have chosen to write the Governor's office and request clemency in the case of Jeff Wood. If you would like a copy of my letter, email me. In cases like these, mailed letters have the greatest impact. The Governor's office also receives petitions by email and fax.
For more information on the case of Jeff Wood, visit this website, maintained by Mr. Wood's family. The website includes sample letters for those choosing to write Governor Abbott and/or the Board.
You may also conduct an Internet search for more information.
I urge you to join me in advocating for mercy in the case of Jeff Wood.
Over the course of my seminary studies I heard classmates say that God had become “homework,” the focus of a task or assignment given by professors.
The result was discouragement, a waning love for God, a tepid Christian spirituality, or all of the above. God had become something to look at, not someone to look to.
Ministers are prone to the same malady, reading the Bible only in preparation for a sermon or class, praying only when called upon to serve as a religious functionary, etc. “God” becomes associated with the tasks of ministry, rather than the calling of the minister.
I suppose this is a potential pitfall for any congregant. Established routines of devotion become stale, and reliable ways of engaging the Bible, serving others, or practicing prayer no longer warm affections for God as they once did. Bewilderment and confusion follow.
Reframing might help. In the case of the seminarian, the minister, and the congregant the practice of completing assignments about God or tasks for God can replace being in relationship with God. God becomes an object rather than a subject.
But if we can remember that the God revealed in Scripture is always personal and always working, it becomes increasingly difficult to relegate God to the domain of an assignment, a task, or a religious duty. God is not something we can control. God is someone we serve.
If we remember that God is God and we are mortal, we will cease our efforts to control God through the machinations of achievement, duty, or piety. Our most skillfully argued thesis, our most diligently prepared sermon, or our most consistent practices of devotion are given as a free response to God rather than a means by which we might define, distribute, or control God.
We can also remember that God, being a person and not a task, may feel distant despite being near. This happens often in human relationships. It is often the case that in these seasons, we learn new ways to love. We also discover new things about ourselves.
We remain with those to whom we have pledged our steadfast love. We carry out our duties and remain within our routines. We maintain attentiveness and offer the gift of presence. We help and provide.
Passions can wax and wane in all relationships, yet steadfastness binds us one to another, and the fruit borne is in keeping with love. All the while, we do not fulfill our tasks and duties in order to receive a feeling, a positive affirmation, or a grade. Instead, we continue to act in keeping with our commitment to relationship as an evidence of our love.
And because God has loved us first, and called us first, and claimed us first, and redeemed us first, we can be confident that God has not abandoned us or removed his presence from us. Perhaps, instead, God has given us the distance we need to grow, to learn new ways of loving, and to discover new things about ourselves. Good parents give their children room to breathe. God is no different.
God has given us the gift of time, wherein we may discover our own selfishness and wrong-headed assumptions. God has given us the opportunity to long for the experience of God’s presence and the overflow of divine love. God has also given us the opportunity to repent, and to ask for the grace we need if we are to ever become all that God has created us to be.
Any attempt to depersonalize God leads to idolatry and works-righteousness. God is not an assignment, a duty, or a feeling. God is Trinity, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Person, not thing.
Subject, not object.