God Speaks: are you listening?

God Speaks: are you listening?

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”  (John 10:27)

Does God really speak to us?

Is it possible to hear, recognize, and comprehend, the voice of God?

Jesus says we can.  “My sheep listen to my voice.” 

Throughout the Bible, God spoke…

  • God spoke to Adam and Eve, face-to-face.
  • God told Noah to build a big boat.
  • God told Abram and Sarai they would become parents in their old age.
  • God spoke to Joseph in dreams.
  • God spoke to Moses via a burning bush.
  • God spoke to and through the Prophets.
  • God spoke to Elijah in a “still, small voice.”
  • God spoke to Mary and Joseph through an angel.
  • God spoke, and the “Word became flesh, and lived among us.”
  • God spoke, through Jesus, to the multitudes.

“For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.”  (John 12:49)

If God speaks, and if it’s possible to recognize God’s voice, inevitably the question is, “how?”  How do we hear and recognize the voice of God?

I suppose the different ways God might speak to a person are innumerable.  Sometimes, God might provide a literal “sign.”  I have a small sign, that sits on a shelf in my office, that says, “If you’re looking for a sign, this is it.”  It’s funny – but, probably not the sign most are looking for!

Sometimes God speaks through a person.  Pastors call that “incarnational” ministry: when we become the human vessels through which Divine speaks or acts.

Sometimes God speaks through a painting, a song, a line from a book, a billboard, a dream, a movie, a TV show, a Social Media post, a “coincidence” – you name it.  The possibilities are endless!

But, a word of caution is needed.  Even the most experienced, godly, spiritually-gifted “listeners” hear God incorrectly, sometimes.  Your “signs” might be from God, or they might just be wishful thinking!  Your “signs’ might be from God, but you may not be very good at interpreting the signs.  After all, we’re all biased by our hopes, desires, fears, and limited by what we don’t know or understand.  If we want a sign badly enough, we will likely see one, whether it’s from God or not.

If and when you believe you’ve heard from God, before acting on what you think you’ve heard, I suggest the following…

  • Pray more, and wait on the Lord for further confirmation, clarity, or instruction.
  • Read the Bible.  Is what you heard consistent with Scripture?  God never contradicts his Word!
  • Seek “wise counsel.”  Go to the godliest people you know, share what you think you’ve heard, and be open to their feedback.  Hopefully, they won’t just affirm what they think you want to hear!
  • Consult with a Spiritual Director: someone who has training and the spiritual gifting to help you discern God’s voice.
  • In seminary, a nun taught me to apply the Great Commandment to what I think I’ve heard God say.  Does acting on what I think I’ve heard cause me to love God and my neighbor more, or less.  “If more,” she said, “do it.”  If an action fulfills the Great Commandment, we should act, whether God told us to, or not!  Of course, if it doesn’t, don’t.
  • One of my dearest friends always asks, “Is it the brave thing to do?”  Often, God challenges us to move past our fears, doubts, insecurities, and complacency, requiring bravery to act.
  • Pray and listen some more – it never hurts.

Like I said, God speaks, and may speak to anyone at any given moment.  But, if you want to become more familiar with God’s voice, and to hear God’s voice more frequently, and with greater clarity… well, that takes faith, practice, time, and trial and error.

I begin every day (almost) with God.  Sundays are a bit of an exception, as I’m preparing to preach (I consider this God-time too – it’s just different).  Every other day, my morning routine begins with God-time.

Though my exact routine varies from day-to-day, most days begin with Scripture and devotional reading.  Sometimes, I believe God speaks directly through Scripture, as a particular word or phrase seems to “leap” from the page, drawing my focus and attention.  The same happens in my devotional reading.

I usually spend some time in relaxed silence.  Silence can be hard for some people.  Internal and external noise can be a distraction.  For some, repeating a word like “love” or “peace” can be a helpful aid to focus – sort of like a mantra.

Throughout my silence, my primary focus is on God’s presence.  Because I believe God is both intimate (within me, through the Holy Spirit) and transcendent (greater, higher, mysterious, ineffable), I focus my attention on God’s loving presence in me, and all around me.  Usually, as I do this, I feel a gentle weight in the center of my chest.  I don’t know why, but that’s what happens.

Then, I move into a time of listening.  I simply ask God, “Is there anything you want to say to me?  Please help me hear your voice.”  Sometimes, I ask specific questions, or bring up issues I’m praying about.  Then, I listen.  I find that using a journal helps.    I write down what I bring to God.  Then, as I sense a voice, other than my own, speaking within me, I write down what I “hear” (this is rarely audible – more of an impression).

Let me be clear about this.  Just because I sense God speaking, and just because I write it down, doesn’t mean I am 100% confident God has spoken.  But, I do write down what I “hear.”  I simply trust – by faith – that God is speaking.  Time will tell if God actually has, or not.  To me, the important thing is having sufficient faith to believe God DOES speak, and sufficient humility to recognize my limited ability to listen.

There have been a few, rare times I’ve heard an audible voice, that I believe was God’s.  I can’t prove it.  For the most part, I’ve not sought those occasions.  Rather, it’s seemed I needed to hear a particular a word from God, that I didn’t know I needed.  More often than not, what I’ve heard has been quite humbling, and usually uncomfortably challenging.

My personal belief is, God is constantly speaking to anyone who will listen.  As God is essentially relational, and desires a relationship with each of his children, and relationship requires communication, it only makes since God is constantly striving to initiate a conversation with each of us.

The challenge is, God rarely shouts or screams.  God is far more subtle.  In my experience, God mostly whispers.  So, while any of us could hear from God, at any given moment, most of us aren’t paying attention.

One of the questions I wrestled with, following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was, “If God speaks – which I believe – why didn’t God warn anyone about Nikolas Cruz?  How could family, peers, teachers, administration, DCF, FBI, and law enforcement all miss it?  Wasn’t God speaking to any of them?”   I obviously don’t know the answers to those questions.  But, I’ve come to believe God was speaking – because God is always speaking.  Perhaps no one was listening.  How tragic is that?

I try to listen for God’s voice, every day.  I’m not a prayer expert, or a super-spiritual mystic.  I just believe God speaks, and I don’t want to miss out, if God has something to say to me today.

Are you listening?

 

 

To love and be loved…

To love and be loved…

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”   St. Augustine of Hippo

As I was praying, this morning, I sensed God saying, “Your calling is to love and be loved.”

When I “hear” things from the Lord, in prayer, I’ve learned to simply receive, as humbly and gratefully as possible, without too much skepticism, over-confidence, or over-analysis.  I try to be equally open to the possibility God has actually spoken to me, and that I might just be talking to myself.  I try to pay attention, listen, and receive.  Time tends to reveal what is of God, and what isn’t.

But, this morning’s word, “Your calling is to love and be loved,” feels like something God would say.  I wasn’t praying about “my calling.”  The words just came.  When a word comes, that clearly lines up with Scripture and Truth – like the Great Commandment, say – why wouldn’t I accept the possibility God has spoken?

But, God took it further.  As I heard it and received it, I first assumed God was talking about people – love and be loved, by people.  Let’s be honest, that’s not always easy.  Some people are easier to love than others!  And, some days, I don’t feel very loving.  But, God wasn’t talking about people.  He was talking about my relationship with him.

My calling is to love God, and be loved by God.

That probably sounds pretty obvious.  Truth usually does!

My calling is my vocation, my life’s purpose, my destiny.  My calling is how I am to use my time, energy, talents and abilities.  My calling is giving all I am to all God has given me to be and to do.  My calling is my first priority.

So is your’s.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.”  (Matthew 22:37-38)

I think it’s easy to forget that.  If we care about love, and I think we all do, I suspect most of us focus more on how much, or how little, we love or feel loved by others.  And, if we don’t love, or feel loved, by people, we might assume God doesn’t love us much either.

We might wonder why certain people don’t, or can’t, love us.  We might show love to others, and feel rejected when they don’t love us in return.  We might try as hard as we can to love certain people, and feel like failures when we don’t.

But, if our first love is God, and we allow ourselves to be loved by God, the degree to which others do or don’t love us becomes less important.  If we can grasp how much God really loves us, that’s enough.  Thankfully, others – some others – will love us, too.  And, that’s wonderful.  And, I truly believe God often loves us through the people who really love us.  But, dare I say human love is just a bonus, if we already know how much God love us?

And, if I really love God, in return – with all of my heart, soul, and mind – am I not more capable of loving the people God loves?  Do I not have a greater capacity to love as God loves, even if they are hard to love, or don’t love me in return?

If my first task is to love God, and be loved by God, and I am faithful to that task, won’t my heart gradually become more and more like God’s?

As I pastor, I think about my calling a lot.  Calling is a pastor’s modus operandi.  But, I tend to associate my calling, primarily, with a particular role, or place, or mission, or set of pastoral tasks.  Those are not insignificant.  They are part of how one responds to a particular calling.  But, I am realizing they are secondary.

My primary calling is to love God, and be loved God.

St. Augustine writes,“To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” 

I suspect love is your calling, too.

 

 

God is seldom in charge…

God is seldom in charge…

“I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me”

Pinocchio

Of course, God is in charge.  I know God is sovereign, in control of his creation, and his plans will ultimately prevail.

But, I also believe in free will and the freedom God gives us to make our own choices and decisions – either in alignment with his will, or not.  God is NOT a puppet master, controlling our every move.  God let’s us choose, even when our choices are catastrophic.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

The primary question I’ve wrestled with, since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has been, “How do I reconcile the belief that God seems to work in the lives of some (including myself), but didn’t get involved in the life of anyone who could have averted Nicholas Cruz from his murderous plans?”  Or, more personally, “How can I believe God leads me, if there’s no evidence of God leading the dozens of ‘authorities’ in Nicholas Cruz’s life, who failed to see his brokenness and intent to do harm?” 

The root of the word “question” is “quest” – “a long or arduous search for something.”  Sometimes, we’re content to just lazily pose questions, without bothering to find the answers.  Not me.  Not this time.  My questions have led me on a difficult, arduous quest for answers.  I’ve sought wise counsel from friends and mentors.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve searched Scripture.  I’ve wrestled with my own beliefs.  I’ve read.  I’ve written, you may have noticed, as a way of processing what I’m thinking and feeling.

Today, I stumbled across the best answer I’ve found thus far, in Richard Rohr’s, Job and the Mystery of Suffering“God is very seldom in charge, it seems to me.  Only in the lives of saints, only in people who know themselves and love the Lord and one another is God possibly in charge.  In the rest of us, God is in charge maybe a few moments a day.”

While I still believe God is ultimately in charge, is it possible God only controls the events of this world to the degree we align our wills to his’?  Is it possible, we can only align ourselves, collectively, with God if we are truly seeking to know his’ will, and live accordingly?  Is it possibly God only controls the events of this world to the degree we relinquish control to him?  Is it possible our individual and collective pride, self-determinism, pettiness, busy-ness, and self-interest make us deaf and blind to much of what God wants us to see, hear, and do?

Could it be the Church’s fault?  Is it possible the Church is failing to shape and form disciples who actively and intentionally “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), through listening prayer, through self-surrender, and through sacrificial love and service?

Is it possible God was screaming in the ears of countless guardians, teachers, peers, mentors, investigators, neighbors, and law enforcement that Nickolas Cruz was a lethal bomb about to explode, but no one was listening?  Is it possible God is warning us about the next Nickolas Cruz, but no one is listening now, either?

Why did God allow this to happen?  Why did we allow this to happen!?!

“God is seldom in charge…”  How much more would God be in charge, if we actually wanted him to be?

What if?

What if?

What if we were kinder, and more respectful of each other?

What if we prayed more?

What if we really loved each other?

What if we were less materialistic?

What if we laughed more?

What if we cried more?

What if we were more civil to each other?

What if we invested more in friendship?

What if we were less self-focused?

What if we talked to strangers?

What of we said “thank you” more?

What if we “judged people by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin?”

What if we sang and danced more?

What if we spent less time pursuing happiness, and more time pursuing joy?

What if we were more careful about what we say?

What if we doodled in the margins more?

What if we looked more deeply in each other’s eyes?

What if listened more than we talk?

What if we were less defensive?

What if were less critical?

What if we smiled more?

What if we were neighborly, and not just neighbors?

What if we dreamed bigger dreams?

What if we were more compassionate?

What if we were less picky?

What if we actually lived by faith?

What if we stopped complaining?

What if we stopped to smell the roses more?

What if we told more jokes?

What if we stopped cussing?

What if we gave more compliments?

What if we hugged more?

What if we asked for help more?

What if we could not be so opinionated?

What if we could be less critical?

What if we could be more vulnerable?

What if we did more “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty?”

What if we got more rest?

What if we practiced the Golden Rule?

What if we enjoyed every bite of food we eat?

What if we were more grateful, even for the little things?

What if we considered each and every day a gift?

What if we were more adventurous?

What if anything is possible?

What if…?

What’s your “What if…?”

 

Why do we pray?

Why do we pray?

“What’s the point of prayer?”  I’ve been asked this question more times than I can remember.  Lately, I’ve asked it, myself.

People of faith pray.  It’s what we do.  Even people, claiming no faith, sometimes find themselves praying in difficult situations.

Often, we pray for wants or needs.  Often, we pray for the people we’re concerned about.  Sometimes, we ask others to pray for us.

But, what’s the point?  If God already knows what we need, why pray?  Does God need convincing?  And, why do we ask others to pray for us?  Do more, or other’s, prayers motivate God more?

What about when prayers go unanswered?  Did I pray the wrong prayer, or did I not pray long enough, or fervently enough, or say the right words, or ask enough others to pray with me?

These are hard questions.  But, these are questions many ask.  We pray.  But, why?

C.S. Lewis said, “I don’t pray to change God.  I pray to change me.”  Is that the point of prayer?  Maybe.

Sometimes, though not often enough, we offer prayers of thanks.  Sometimes, we pray to worship.  Sometimes, we pray to repent.  Sometimes, we pray just to be with God.  Sometimes, we pray to listen.

Sometimes, we lament.

Do I believe there’s value in prayer?  Yes, of course.  Do I believe God answers prayer?  Yes, but…  Do I believe there’s value to praying for others, or asking others to pray for me?  Yes, but not for the sake of ganging-up on God.

Increasingly, I’m thinking of prayer as connection, and less about the requests I may or may not make.  Just as an electronic device needs to be connected to an electrical outlet to function, I’m thinking of prayer as connection to the “Source.”

Sometimes the connection may lead to answers and outcomes.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes, God might speak.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes, I might feel something – peace, or forgiveness, or refreshment.  Sometimes, not.

But, regardless of the outcome, I need the connection anyway.  I need the connection, because I need God.

Maybe it’s like the conversations I have with my wife.  Though we certainly talk about all kinds of things – from basic information like the grocery list, to decisions we need to make, to sharing our hearts – the main reason for our talking is connection.  If we just need to pass information or make requests, we could leave each other notes, or send each other texts.  But, we need more than that.  We need to hear each other’s voices.  We need to look into each other’s eyes.  We need to see the joy or concern on each other’s faces.  We need to connect.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t bring our requests to God, or that we shouldn’t pray for others.  I’m not suggesting God doesn’t answer prayer.

I’m saying the specific outcomes of prayer aren’t the point, at least not to me.  Connection is the point – connection with the God who created the universe, the God who became human to redeem a fallen world, the God who is love, the God in whom I live, and move, and have my being.

The point is connection.

What follows your “but”?

What follows your “but”?

Somewhere, along the way, I started thinking of the word “but” as an erasure.  Add “but” to any statement, and everything before it disappears…

“I think you’re really great, but...”

“I really appreciate the gesture, but…”

“Thanks for the kind offer, but…”

“I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but…”

“I’m sorry, but…”

Often, as soon as the “but” shows up, you know the jab is coming…

“…, but you’re just not my type.”

“…, but it’s just not good enough.”

“…, but I’m not interested.”

“… but I think you’re a jerk.”

“… but you deserved it.”

Etc., etc., etc.  “But” always seems to be followed by criticism, complaint, or rejection.

I need to confess, I’ve been saying a lot of “but” prayers lately.

“Lord, I know you are good, but…”

“Lord, I know you are in control, but…”

“Lord, I know I should trust you, but…”

It occurred to me, this morning, that the Biblical writers often reversed the “but.”  Often, in Scripture, the “but” follows the negative, instead of the positive.  Throughout the Psalms, for example, the negative precedes the “but,” followed by hope and trust in God…

“My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.  But I trust in your unfailing love.” (Psalm 13:4-5)

“Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

“For I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side!’  They conspire against me and plot to take my life.  But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.'” (Psalm 31:13-14)

“Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” (Psalm 32:10)

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  (Psalm 73:26)

I’ve always appreciated that Scripture allows for lament.  Lament is a raw, honest, human form of prayer.  Lament cries out to God in anger, pain, anguish and despair.  Lament, often, is a complaint to God, against God, about perceived unfairness.  Lament, sometimes, even blames God for the complaint.

There are times, we all need to lament.  I’m thankful God is graciously willing and able to receive our laments, even when they are less than kind, respectful, or faith-filled, without holding our complaints against us.

In the wake of recent events, I’ve been lamenting a lot.  “But,” my laments have been mostly ranting and raving, without a lot of faith or hope.  What my laments have been missing is the properly placed “but.”

“…, but I will trust in you.”

I’m a 9

I’m a 9

I’ve recently become fascinated with the Enneagram.  The Enneagram is a tool for understanding yourself and others, based on nine different personality typologies.  The Enneagram is not scientific.  Rather, it seems to have evolved from the wisdom of several ancient traditions.

One place to learn more about the Enneagram, and which of the nine types you are, is iancron.com.  There are many such sites, but I particularly like this one.

Admittedly, I am a junky when it comes to personality assessments.  I’m an INFP on the Myers Briggs.  I am an S on the DISC.  I’m a “quick start” on the Kolby.  I’m a blue on the True Colors.  I’m in the house of Ravenclaw on Pottermore – but, that’s totally different.

What I like about the Enneagram, is that it helps you understand your personality when you’re healthy and when you’re unhealthy.  The Enneagram reveals how you likely react to stress, and who you can become when you’re healthy and growing.  And, the Enneagram provides a path for personal growth and development.

If you know me, and are wondering, I’m a Nine on the Enneagram, which means I’m a “Peacemaker,” and my primary weakness is “sloth.”  According to the website integrative9.com, “Enneagram Nines are motivated by a need to be settled and in harmony with the world and, as a result, being accommodating and accepting will be important to them. They strive for a peaceful existence and appreciate stability, preferring to avoid conflict. At their best, Nines are experienced as self-aware and vibrant. They offer the gift of right, sustainable action to themselves and the world around them. Less-healthy Nines may be experienced as procrastinating, stubborn and self-denying. This stems from a pattern of going along to get along with others and the eventual discomfort that arises when this strategy is not satisfying.”

As a nine, when I’m unhealthy, I tend to withdraw, avoid conflict, suppress anger, and may become passive-agressive (though, I really hope not!).  When I’m healthy, I’m able to to see the strengths of multiple perspectives, and may be able to build bridges.  My primary growth opportunity is to set goals, to communicate my passions, and to act.

The Enneagram isn’t the Bible.  It doesn’t say everything about every variation of every personality type.  It doesn’t explain why I enjoy riding a motorcycle, or perusing antique shops, or growing bonsai trees, or watching super-hero movies.  It can’t explain, fully, how or why I’m the person I am, with the complicated assortment of strengths and struggles I possess.  But, it is a helpful tool.

Just like a hammer can’t fix every home repair, the Enneagram has its limits.  But, just like a hammer is great for hammering, I’m finding the Enneagram to be very helpful in gaining a deep understanding into myself, and how I can work on growing and becoming a healthier version of me.  I encourage you to explore the Enneagram for yourself.

For those who are interested, two excellent books on the Enneagram are…

Richard Rohr’s, The Enneagram: a Christian Perspective

and

Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile’s, The Road Back to you; An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery