Last in series: Preparing for Our Next Big Step
WHAT DOES GOD’S VOICE SOUND LIKE?
So I’ve been part of a monthly group mentoring and counseling meeting for the past year And its method for tackling the very real stresses and lifelong wounds all of us participants would bring into the room is a specific, patient approach to prayer In which I’d be encouraged to return in my mind to a strong, positive memory in my past of feeling connected, safe, loved, cared-for And then, with the help of a partner who acts as a sort of troubleshooter, I would suppose that Jesus was somewhere in that memory and, in my mind’s eye, try to find him And finally (here’s the most powerful part of this approach) in the process of finding Jesus in that past memory, I’d find myself perceiving Jesus in the present -- not just in the memory, but also with me in that room where I was praying with a partner And not a fleeting experience of “I think I can maybe feel something... kind of”, but a strong feeling of “wow I feel like Jesus is right next to me, I can interact with him” And so, at that point, I’d bring to Jesus what was stressing me out, and I’d feel like I was responded to powerfully, helpfully This strong experience has happened for me at every meeting of this group, and it is evidently happening for everyone else in the group too. The mentor-counselor, who is leading this group, will often stop and make comments during our meetings And he says, in his experience, when people have what to their own minds feels like an actual interaction with Jesus, the report is always the same: Jesus is so encouraging! So… not mean!
That’s not a terribly profound-sounding takeaway, I guess, but it kind of summarizes a decade and a half of my life.
You may know some of my story: that I didn’t grow up a praying person, and that my first ever experience of prayer, of interaction with God, was in the wake of losing my mom to cancer when I was a teenager.
During that experience one friend, older than me and who'd become a bit of a mentor to me read to me from the Bible’s Psalms - the poetry and song book of the Bible -- specifically Psalm 32 (it’s in your program) 1 Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 2 Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. 3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin. 6 Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them. 7 You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance. 8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you. 9 Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. 10 Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him. 11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!
I'm struck by the idea that the Bible is a God-inspired text, like God had a hand in its writing and has had a hand in its endurance through the years because it carries with it not just human voices but also God's voice - with a surprising power to speak to people.
That seemed to explain my experience: I didn't really "get" all of this psalm as my friend read it to me, but it felt like God was speaking to me through it… and some of it did really stand out:
surely when the mighty waters rise they will not reach them. 7 You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.
As a teenager who had no idea how to grieve the loss of a parent, this just hit home this message of "Vince, you are not crushed. Life is not over."
Years later, now a young man and very much a praying person ever since that experience as a teenager, I would be brought to that Psalm again as I was starting to immerse myself in the life of Jesus more than ever before - obviously Jesus had been playing a role in my prayer life before this (it was a church after all that my friends had connected me to) but in one sense it wasn't until this re-introduction to something in Psalm 32 that my life began to track toward "Jesus-centered" (a phrase we use to describe this church)
The line from Psalm 32 that was speaking to me this time?
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you. 9 Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle (that is: must be whipped and harnessed to stay on track)
By this time I'd clocked a hefty number of hours in church settings, in American church culture, and I was starting to realize, perhaps many of you have realized, there's some things about the environment of church in America that feel like being controlled by bit and bridle: communicating a message that the essence of faith is “stay on course so you don’t get whipped”... I was starting to feel a bit disenchanted.
But here is this ancient musing about the true God that says: totally Vince! Nobody should want any part of that! You want to be instructed and counseled - you want a trusting and interactive relationship with a loving guide, not a whip and a harness!
And as a result I was so drawn to the magnetic character of Jesus -- who was all loving instruction and counsel and not-at-all bit and bridle (in fact Jesus' criticism of his greatest rivals, the Pharisees of Judaism in that day, were that they were all bit and bridle)
And now, years later still, as I've experienced more life, and come to terms more with my many failures and flaws, I find myself most spoken to these days by the opening of psalm 32
1 Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 2 Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.
I hear consoling and understanding words. I feel God dialing down anxiety in me when I’m worried about what my limitations and mistakes and failures say about me as a person.
My experience with Psalm 32 over what has now been half my life -- and my continued experience like in this group mentoring and counseling -- has, I think, taught me what God's voice sounds like. God's voice sounds like comfort and hope -- it gives permission for challenging emotions like grief, sadness, anger, or fear God's voice sounds like loving instruction and counsel -- it has the character of Jesus, NOT the Pharisees (who whipped and yoked people into keeping up appearances) And God's voice sounds consoling and understanding -- it dials down our anxieties.
Those have been three extremely helpful guiding lights for me as my prayer life has grown over the years… And, along with my co-pastor Kyle’s similar experience, these have helped shape the ethos of this church
Because it’s the New Year, and Brown Line has just had this big transition back to the Davis, and as a community we’ve begun laying the groundwork for the next two years of this church (calling it Our Next Big Step), we’ve been in a “big picture, zooming out” sort of mood with our Sunday talks lately.
Today, for our final talk in this series, I want to talk about a key assumption behind everything we plan and do: The assumption that, like I’ve experienced, you can hear from God (every single one of you)... AND that (there’s probably a more punchy and profound way to state this but...) we think you’re going to like that
Our sense from Jesus and from the tradition of Jesus is that: Hearing from God is not an exclusive thing reserved for “once in a lifetime prophets” or for "insiders" or for “only the most holy” (or, depending on your perspective, "only the most corrupt and shameless” with the gall to say “God said to me...”) In fact, according to the tradition of Jesus, when “hearing from God” is paraded to be personally-elevating (like any of those ways), we can often be sure the one elevating his/herself is NOT actually hearing from God I think of countless sayings from the Bible’s book of Proverbs about how “pride or arrogance comes before a fall” I think of the great St. Paul, the author of most of the Bible’s New Testament, whose famous line about “hearing from God” in his first letter to the Corinthians was that we see imperfectly - as though “through a glass darkly” (or "like puzzling reflections in a mirror”) BUT, his point being, nonetheless, we can perceive something, so long as we’re humble! And this humble, imperfection-acknowledging brand of “hearing from God” is what grabs us
Kyle and I, when we are planning or writing for something for the church, have a little phrase we sometimes use to guide us: No matter who we are here (new to spirituality, a longtime veteran in spirituality, somewhere in between): we all will always need help we can’t give to ourselves None of us will ever out-grow that need (even when we have years and years of maturity under our belt) Because life is an ongoing thing, right? It requires regular re-fueling and maintenance — It’s not as though any of us (or anyone ever) will just crack the code and then it’s smooth sailing from then on Now the details of this for each of us will certainly vary based on our situations... And no doubt the more experience we've clocked building relationship with God, the better off we will be in working those details out in real time BUT when it comes down to it, perhaps that basic need - to receive help that we can't give ourselves - will always be our most basic need Because by definition, we can't master it You and I will never be able to give ourselves... the help we can't give ourselves... that's what is meant by "the help we can't give ourselves"
And so this morning, as with every gathering at BLV, you all before me represent tons of different places on the spectrum of faith (we love this about our church - it's something we intentionally make space for: diversity in religious starting points)... But maybe one thing we all have in common is: We all, each in our own ways, could benefit hugely by hearing God today (not just in general… but today... this moment)
Along these lines, here are my practical suggestions for us all this week...
First, for those of us who would regard ourselves as having less experience in our prayer lives I would point us back toward what Psalm 32 has taught me about what God’s voice sounds like God's voice sounds like comfort and hope God's voice sounds like loving instruction and counsel, it has the character of Jesus And God's voice sounds consoling and understanding, it dials down our anxieties. As I learned in my group mentoring and counseling: “Jesus is always encouraging, never discouraging” To be sure, "always encouraging, never discouraging" doesn't mean coddling or ego-stroking It can often mean destabilizing of our ego and comfort zone - But if that’s the case, we can be sure there’s a good and wise purpose behind that Now, the question we always get asked when we talk about hearing from God is… How do I know something in my mind is God and not just my own thoughts? An American writer on spirituality named Dallas Willard helped me with this question a lot He suggested that God speaks in many ways but by far the most common is through our own thoughts His idea being that our minds are like living rooms already furnished with thoughts, and God speaks by rearranging the furniture Or that our minds are like vast vaults of files, and God speaks by shining a flashlight on something specific This helps me because it says: the question of “is it God or me?” doesn't actually need to be answered - it can be both!
Alright, for those of us who would regard ourselves as having more experience in our prayer lives... I want to point us to that difference I mentioned between “you can hear God in general” and “you can hear God today/in this moment”. Don’t sleep on that difference! It’s SIGNIFICANT. Here’s what I mean: You being convinced in general of the possibility that you might at some point in the past have heard from God or you might someday in the future hear from God (because you believe that sort of thing happens) is a perfectly fine thing to be true of you BUT in the “day to day trenches of adult life” (as the writer David Foster Wallace called it)... What we believe in general rarely holds the weight we'd expect... And it can sometimes even run counter to what we are believing in the moment. For example: If someone asks you right now: do you believe you can hear from God? - you'd probably hear it asking an "in general" question and I’m guessing, if you're a person of faith, you'd answer yes. But say we’ve just been in conversation about the most pressing problem in your life right now and it's just been so persistent and there seems to be no end in sight and I ask you: do you believe you can hear from God right now, in the midst of this persistent problem? That's a different question right? It's not in general - it's circumstantial. It’s searching for a more honest response. Which may or may not be the same response as “what you believe in general” So my suggestion is to ask yourself: Is anything holding me back from embracing that I can hear from God RIGHT NOW? An honest response of “yes, it feels like there is something holding me back from believing I can hear from God right now!” will be way more helpful to you than endlessly spinning your wheels trying to remind yourself that “in general, I do believe I can hear from God… so why can’t I friggin’ hear God?” With this question, you’re gaining valuable information... It’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re not currently believing something you generally believe to be true!... So that’s the case, fine! Now you know! What I do then is shift my prayer to what I just learned: “So, God, I notice I’m not currently believing I can hear from you, and I think it’s because of X, Y, or Z” (this pressure at work or this outstanding conflict with so and so or this thing I’m just mad about or this unsolved problem in my life)... And, in my experience, that always breaks through the obstacle I find myself hearing God again, saying something like “Vince, you just think you can’t hear me because the volume on everything else is turned up so loud… let me turn all that ambient noise down for you” And that is just my experience then… quieter, calmer internal head space So, if that resonates with you, I submit for your consideration that personal reflection question: what’s holding me back from believing I can hear from God RIGHT NOW?
Alright, in a moment, I would love to lead us all in prayer
And after I finish, we’re going to enter into a time of song… something spiritual communities have done for centuries to slow down from the pace of life and encounter God at an emotional level.
You can engage in whatever way feels best to you. Maybe it is singing along (we’ll have the lyrics up on the screen here). Or maybe it is just sitting back and letting the music hit you.
And, as we are doing that, this morning’s prayer team will be in the back. Any of them would love to pray with you if you’re feeling any kind of sense that God might be speaking to you -- whether you’re feeling that right now or at any point while we’re singing together.
I really want to invite anyone who’s feeling something going on internally to take advantage of this! Powerful things often happen in our prayer times on Sundays. The people on our prayer team are trained and safe folks; no one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice, and everything you share is confidential.
Stand with me, if you would, and I’ll pray.