Saturday, March 12, 2011

Devotional for the Third Day of Lent

O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! 
For he is our God, we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
O that today you would listen to his voice! (Psalm 95:6-7)

He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). (John 1:42)

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Political drama and radio talk shows are examples of how mouths and ears become disconnected. In those contexts, there is much talking but very little listening. In general, the art of listening is a rare expression.

There have been many times in my postures of prayer and worship that I have informed God about issues of concern, or spoken back to him musical doctrines and descriptions of himself that may or may not be accurate. Then I get on with my business or go to lunch. I suspect that God has a high tolerance for this, since he knows how we human beings can be. I can easily be all mouth and no ears.

The psalmist calls us to the place of worship, but also pleads for listening. In the rest of the text he recounts Israel’s past failures in this regard and the consequences that came about because of their refusal to listen to God. Worship is described here as a receptive posture, a place of readiness, where ears trump mouths.

In the gospels, Peter is regularly portrayed as a brash, mouthy, lout. He has his good moments, but he is quick to speak and react, only to get reigned in later on. His first encounter with Jesus, however, required that he listen. In that moment of listening, Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter. Jesus affirms that he knows who Peter is, but he describes in a name who Peter will become.

Jesus’ counsel about prayer in Matthew 6 seems to include brevity (although, his prayer in John 17 takes up a whole chapter). The Lord’s Prayer is fairly short, and in the prelude to the prayer Jesus speaks of the folly of heaping up “empty phrases.” I wonder if Jesus is advising us to use our mouths sparingly (after all, he says, our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask), because the most significant part of our prayer and worship is listening.

I’m not particularly good at listening for the voice of God, but I’m working on it. It’s not that difficult, really. It just involves being quiet and attentive. There are no magic steps to listening, except to move into the posture of worship, and be quiet. The ears are there for a reason. We don’t have to do anything to them to make them work.

The only risk with listening to God is that he might tell us something that changes us, like the way Simon was changed to Peter. Most of us resist change, even from God. But the posture of worship is one of vulnerability, and resistance to change closes the ears and results in self-protection. To not allow God to speak change into our lives is to grasp a former identity without receiving the word about what we will be.

Listening to God is not a passive process. When God speaks, it usually comes with a summons to trust and follow him into unknown territory. But when God speaks, our response brings life to that good word.

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