Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Speak Lord, for your servant is listening

“Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”[1] 

These are the words that the priest, Eli, taught his apprentice, Samuel, to pray. There are depths of meaning contained in this profoundly simple and beautiful teaching. Eli gives Samuel a wonderful gift.  It is a gift offered to each one of us, if we are willing to receive it.   It is the gift of a conscious relationship with the mystery we call “God.”

Samuel intuitively knows that Someone is communicating with him.  He has a sense of being addressed by that which transcends him, by a Word that persistently intrudes into his awareness.  He is in touch with this experience, but doesn’t know what to make of it. 

Samuel assumes that it must be Eli, his mentor, who is speaking to him.  Maybe, for Samuel, Eli’s voice had been the voice of God for him.   We all have people in our lives, people we admire, people we aspire to imitate, people who speak with authority.  We internalize their voice.   We can hear them speaking to us; even now, perhaps long after they have died.  These are important voices.  They are formative voices.  We need to listen to them.  But they are not God’s voice.

We know Eli is a good spiritual teacher because he helps Samuel differentiate between G-d’s voice and the voice of human authority.  Eli gently invites Samuel to let go of his need for direction from Eli, and trust that God desires to communicate with Samuel directly.   By affirming Samuel’s capacity to listen to God, Eli allows Samuel to grow up, to mature spiritually, and to take responsibility for his own conscious contact with God. 

No one can have a relationship with God for you. That is good news.  When we realize this, it can be a great relief, bringing a new sense of freedom and dignity.  God desires communion with you directly, unmediated by any other authority or institution.  That doesn’t mean that other people and institutions can’t support us in our spiritual growth.  In fact, as we grow in our own conscious relationship with God, we will likely be drawn to support others in this work.  It takes time and effort to sort out the voices in our head, to identify the deep desires of the heart that are congruent with God’s life and love.  We don’t have to do this work alone, but the fact remains that no one can do it for us.

The first and greatest gift is to affirm that God desires communion with me.  God loves me.  God sees me and addresses me, long before I even know what hit me.  This is the experience of Nathaniel with Jesus in today’s Gospel.  “Where did you get to know me?” he asks Jesus.[2]  It is not we who find God.  It is God who finds us.  We are discovered before we even realize we were lost, before we even acknowledge our hunger for that most intimate communion between the soul and God.

Are we even in touch with this deep hunger?  Do we allow it to come to awareness?  There is so much noise in our world, so much static in the system, that it can be difficult to tune into the voice of God.  We do a lot of reacting, but not necessarily a lot of listening.  Samuel must be taught how to listen for God’s voice.  It takes practice.  Like Nathaniel, we are cynical about the possibility that God could actually address us.  And then when it happens, unexpectedly, when we find ourselves tuned in:  Wow!  Just, wow!

Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.[3]  This is the language of the mystics, of a unified, nondual perception of reality, of conscious awareness of God.  Heaven and earth, divine and human, sacred and profane are all one unmediated direct reality.  The kingdom of God is here and now, within us and around us.  Just Wow.

Spiritual maturity is about growing into this mindful awareness, of seeing things as they are and not simply as we want them to be.  It is about growing in acceptance of what we cannot control and taking responsibility for what we can change.  “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  The Good News is that God is speaking.  The more challenging news, is that we must listen if we wish to align our will and our lives with our desire for God’s life and love.    

Genuine prayer operates in the middle voice, to borrow an analogy from grammar.  As Eugene Peterson notes,

When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: "I counsel my friend."  When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: "I am counseled by my friend."  When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: "I take counsel."  Most of our speech is divided between active and passive; either I act or I am acted upon.  But there are moments, and they are those in which we are most distinctively human, when such a contrast is not satisfactory:  two wills operate, neither to the exclusion of the other, neither canceling out the other, each respecting the other . . .

We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice).  We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice).  Prayer takes place in the middle voice.[4]

What Peterson says of the language of prayer is ideally how all our speech should operate: as a means of fostering relationships free of domination or submission.  Such speech is concerned with truth and not simply with power.  It must emerge from silence (however brief) such that the thread of the conversation or action that God has initiated can be joined.  It is a speaking-with-God that requires listening.  And listening takes time.

It is precisely this refusal to listen, the impatience of our speech, that is undermining the civility and truthfulness of discourse in our culture.  We use language to manipulate and divide rather than to con-verse, literally to be turned toward, live, or remain with another.   Genuine conversation, with God and others, requires deep, sustained, and humble listening.  It is from this place that we can then speak and act with integrity and respect for others.  

When we honor deep listening, we can hear and accept difficult truths.  When Samuel listens to the voice of God, he hears a message of judgment on Eli and his sons, who have corrupted the office of the priesthood in Israel.[5]  Eli’s sons have abused their power, and Eli has refused to hold them accountable.  Eli is powerless to change his sons, and must accept the consequences of their behavior.  This is a hard and painful truth to hear.  That Samuel and Eli can share such things together, speaks of a profound and tender intimacy, born of shared vulnerability and patient listening. 

It brings no joy to Samuel to share this news.  There is nothing of the gleeful delight in the suffering of others that marks so much “truth telling” in our culture today.  This isn’t about vengeance or scoring points.  It is about learning to live with the consequences of our choices and those of others.  It is about offering truth as a means of setting us free from vain imaginings and hopeless counsel.  Even when we are powerless, we are not helpless.   We can entrust ourselves to the care of God and one another.

Eli could have been defensive, he could have lashed out at Samuel or tried to silence him, fired off an angry tweet.  Instead, he listened.  It wasn’t about him.  There is a larger communion, a deeper pattern of healing and wholeness that encompasses his failings and his losses.   Eli was willing to suffer the truth in the service of growth and healing for his people.  The corruption had to end.  Samuel speaks to Eli as to one whom God already holds in communion too. 

What if we listened to one another, believing that God is speaking to each one of us, in one great continuous act of communion, and therefore honored one another by carefully and patiently seeking to speak the truth?    What if we believed that each time we spoke, we were picking up on the thread of an action or speech that is initiated by God?  Might we not listen with greater care before we spoke?  “Speak Lord, for our servant is listening.”  Amen.

[1] I Samuel 3:9.
[2] John 1:48.
[3] John 1:51.
[4] Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, pp. 103-104.
[5] I Samuel 3:11-14.

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