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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak Through . . . a Donkey? (Numbers 22:22b-31)

While [Balaam] was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two servants, the Lord’s messenger stood in the road as his adversary. 23 The donkey saw the Lord’s messenger standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand, so the donkey turned from the road and went into the field. Balaam struck the donkey in order to turn him back onto the road. 24 Then the Lord’s messenger stood in the narrow path between vineyards with a stone wall on each side. 25 When the donkey saw the Lord’s messenger, it leaned against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he continued to beat it. 26 The Lord’s messenger persisted and crossed over and stood in a narrow place, where it wasn’t possible to turn either right or left. 27 The donkey saw the Lord’s messenger and lay down underneath Balaam. Balaam became angry and beat the donkey with the rod. 28 Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you’ve beaten me these three times?”

29 Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you’ve tormented me. If I had a sword in my hand, I’d kill you now.”

30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on whom you’ve often ridden to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”

Balaam said, “No.”

31 Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and Balaam saw the Lord’s messenger standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand. Then he bowed low and worshipped.


Martin Luther is undoubtedly best-known as the father of the Protestant Reformation.  He protested against what he perceived to be the excesses and missteps of the Catholic Church of his day, and his work eventually caused the division we still see today between Catholic and Protestant Christians, though, thankfully, relations between the two are warmer today than they were in his day.


What many people don’t know is that Martin Luther also had a sense of humor that was, perhaps, bawdier than what you might expect from a great church leader.  In particular, he had a great affinity for jokes and one-liners about flatulence, making him just as suited to be a middle school boys’ youth pastor as a great theologian.


Even in his own day, many people thought him vulgar and inappropriate, but Luther was quick to respond, “God once spoke through the mouth of an ass,” and the implication was clear: God could also speak through one like him.


What we have just read is one of the stranger and more peculiar stories found in Scripture.  To even begin understanding it, we desperately need some context.


The people of Israel have been on the move, and they are now encamped across from the kingdom of Moab.  The king of Moab is threatened by their presence, fearful that his kingdom will be overtaken.  He is looking for any advantage he can gain over them, and he decides to enlist the services of Balaam, the man we just read about.


Balaam is an entrepreneur of sorts, and what he sells are blessings and curses.  He’s not particularly religious himself, but is apparently well-studied and good at his job, because his blessings and curses seem to work whenever he invokes them.  The king of Moab, looking for some supernatural help, summons for Balaam to come and curse the people of Israel so they won’t overtake his kingdom, and offers a high price for Balaam’s service.


Initially, Balaam declines the contract, because God has appeared to him and told him not to go and curse the people of Israel.  But the king of Moab is persistent, he sends another delegation with a higher offer, and the deal is apparently too sweet for Balaam to resist – after all, business is business, money talks and his donkey walks, as it were – and so off he goes.


En route, an angel from God appears on the road with a sword drawn, visible only to the donkey.  Not once, but three times the donkey tries to change course – veering first into the field, then into a stone wall, crushing Balaam’s foot, and then finally, when there was nowhere else to go, lays down on the road and refuses to go further.


Each time, the donkey is rewarded with a beating from Balaam.  The donkey has had enough, and opens his mouth to speak.  I apologize in advance for not having a good Eddie Murphy impression so you could hear the voice of the donkey in its original form, so please forgive me.  The donkey says, “Dude!  (It doesn’t say, “Dude,” in the English, but it’s pretty close in the Hebrew)  Why do you keep beating me?  Have I not carried you for years?  Have I ever done this sort of thing before – no, I haven’t – and so maybe there’s a reason I keep changing course, and it might do you some good to find out why!”


Friends, that is one smart ass.


I used that word in a sermon in my last church, talking about Jesus riding that animal into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  One lady was quite perturbed by my use of that particular word, even when I told her that that word’s meaning is determined by the context in which it is used, and she just said, “Well, that word refers to a beast of burden and NOT to a particular part of the body!” and I just smiled and said, “You bet your beast of burden it does!”


Let’s go ahead and name the donkey in the room.  In our culture, the word, “donkey,” is often used as a euphemism for that other term that’s a little less polite.  There is no way to know if the word, “donkey,” had the same connotations as it does for us today, but there seems a certain fitness that sometimes it takes a donkey for us to realize what we’re doing, especially when we’re on the wrong path and need to change course.


When we are doggedly pursuing a project, and something comes along that is an interruption, an annoyance, a detour, or a roadblock altogether, we aren’t that pleased, either.  We will likely experience anything or anyone that stands in the way or delays our progress as a pain in the proverbial.


But I wonder how often we, like Balaam, find ourselves on a road we shouldn’t be on in the first place, and what seems like an interruption or a distraction or a detour is actually there for our benefit. 


I am a person who loves to find backroads and shortcuts.  I love to be on the road less travelled – perhaps to find a way that’s just a bit quicker than the beaten path, perhaps to feel like I have some sort of inside knowledge, I’m not sure.  When I lived in Boone, someone told me about an old road that led outside of town to the area where I lived.  I knew roughly where both ends of the road were, and decided I was going to try to find it one day.  I turned off the main road, and then off the side road, and then onto a windy, one-lane mud path.


I was sure I had found it – the secret, hidden road no one else travelled!  Today was the day I was going to conquer it!  I soon discovered why no one else travelled this particular road.  I pushed my Pontiac Vibe up the side of this mountain until I came to a place where a rockslide had covered the road, making it impassible, and I had a particular, colorful thought as I thought about what a pain that was!


I got out of the car and climbed over the rocks and walked a little further up the road, and as I went around a curve that started steeply back down, I saw down at the bottom of the slick, muddy incline that the road was washed away completely.  I realized, had the rocks not been there, I wouldn’t have stopped back there, and would have come around this curve and started down that muddy hill with probably no way to stop before I got to the spot where the road was washed out, and would have careened several hundred feet to the bottom of the mountain below.


When I first encountered those rocks, I thought, “What a pain in the proverbial.”  But those rocks kept me from going any further down the road toward something that was infinitely more dangerous.  It was an additional pain in the proverbial to back the car several hundred yards down that windy road to a spot where it was wide enough for me to turn around and return from whence I had come, but I’d rather have that frustration than what would have awaited me had I been able to keep going.


When it comes to what we experience as donkey-like people and situations, maybe that circumstance or that person is there to help put us on a different path, or at least to slow us down enough to think through what we’re doing and whether or not it’s a project worth pursuing.  Maybe we’re on a path of our desire and have given little regard to what God might want.  Maybe we’re on a road that goes nowhere, or is a dead-end, maybe even a road that leads to destruction.


Other times, it takes a donkey in our lives, someone or some situation who is an absolute pain in the proverbial, for us to realize how much a donkey we are making of ourselves.  For Balaam, it took his now-famous talking beast for him to realize how stubborn he was being, how headstrong and intent he was on his own plans rather than God’s, pursuing profit for himself while ignoring the directive of God.  By the end of it, Balaam has come to realize that he, not the beast, is the bigger donkey in the story.


Yes, it’s annoying when someone or something comes along that interrupts our plans, but if we’re on the wrong road to begin with, then maybe that pain in the proverbial is actually a blessing in disguise.


Remember, blessings and curses were Balaam’s business, and business was good.  Being called in by the King of Moab was likely one of the biggest contracts he had ever landed.  After Balaam’s donkey starts talking to him and he, too, sees the angel of the Lord on the road, he has a change of heart about offering blessings and curses on the spot for the highest bidder.


If you read on, you’ll see that he continues on to meet the King of Moab, but does not agree to curse the people of Israel, agreeing instead to only say what God permits him to say.  The King of Moab takes him to the top of four different mountains and orders him to curse the Israelites below.  Four times, Balaam refuses, only speaking oracles about God’s favor and blessing on the people.  The king sends Balaam home, furious that he has blessed the people rather than cursed them.


How many times have we found ourselves cursing others, when God has called us to bless others? 

In reality, what does it profit us when we make decisions out of our own greed and ignore God’s interest in the good of all?  How many times have we tried to bend God’s ways to suit our ways, asking God to bless the road we’re already on and what we’ve already made up our minds to do?  How many times have we put the bottom line ahead of common decency, to the point that the term “business ethics” is treated like an oxymoron?


From time to time, we all find ourselves on a road we probably don’t need to be on, and the correcting word of a friend or stranger – even who seems like a pain in the proverbial – might be what we need to realize what a donkey’s hind end we are being ourselves, and get ourselves on a better path.


As Martin Luther said, “God once spoke through an ass,” and the implication is clear: God can use and speak through anything and anyone – including us.  That reality doesn’t give us license to act like jerks, but neither should we be surprised when God shows up in unexpected ways and people and places.  If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey, God can certainly speak through ones like you and like me.


Let us pray.

God, we can get way too caught up in ourselves sometimes.  We are so interested in our desires, our plans, our hopes, that we lose sight of what you want.  We experience every distraction and detour as a real pain in the behind, and are often blind to the ways we’re acting like big old donkeys ourselves.  We pursue profit rather than you.  We put our ways ahead of yours.  We stick to our own path rather than seeking out yours.  We curse others rather than bless them.  Put your messengers on the road we travel, help us to see where we are in error, so we can better turn toward you.  Thank you for your many blessings in disguise.  Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak Through Dreams (1 Samuel 3:1-10)

You all know the feeling.  It is halfway through the sermon – not one of mine, certainly – and your eyes are starting to get heavy, and your head is starting to droop, and your chin is bobbing against your chest.  You’re falling asleep in church.  Maybe you were up all night with kids or sickness or just couldn’t sleep.  Maybe you just came in from work.  Maybe it’s gotten a little too warm in here and your seat is just a little too comfy and the preacher – again, not me – is a little boring or dry or monotone, and it’s all you can do not to drift off completely.


There is a little game I like to play from up here as I look around and see people with heads bowed and eyes closed – the name of the game is “Who’s Praying, Who’s Sleeping?”  One little girl was once asked why we should be quiet in church, and she thought for a minute and said, “Because, people are sleeping!”


The next time the person next to you falls asleep in church, you may be tempted to throw an elbow or wake them up.  But think twice, before you do.  You see, God has a long-standing and well-documented history of speaking to people in their dreams.  God speaks to us in our waking and in our sleeping, in our going out and our lying down.  God speaks to people when they take a rest, in their sleep, in trances, and through their dreams.


In fact, this was so well-known that people would go to the temple and intentionally fall asleep, in the hopes that God would speak to them in their dreams.  And so, when I look around and see you starting to nod off, I don’t take offense, I just assume that you are participating in a great Biblical tradition.  When the person next to you starts to nod off, let them sleep – God may have something to say to them as they dream.


We have already talked about how God speaks to us in silence – and how we need to intentionally turn off the noise and stop making noise so we can hear the still, small voice of God.  We have talked about how God speaks to us through other people – in the particularities of each and every voice, but always and consistently with the accent of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.


Hearing from God requires a simultaneous tuning out and tuning in.  Tuning out other distractions, tuning in to what God.  Given that, it should be no surprise that God might speak to us in a dream.  Dreams happen in our subconscious, with our eyes closed and parts of our mind taking a rest, perhaps the perfect place for God to get our attention when we might not have been paying attention, otherwise.


The Old Testament prophet, Samuel, is one whom God first called in his sleep.  Turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Samuel 3:1-10:


Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was.

The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.

Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.

Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”

(Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)

A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.

10 Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”


Samuel – Through dreams, God calls us to action

Samuel is a young boy, no more than 12.  He is drifting off to sleep, and a voice calls to him in the night: “Samuel!  Samuel!”  Obediently, if not somewhat begrudgingly, the boy jumps out of bed and says, “Here I am! You called me!” as he scurries into the room of Eli, the old, blind priest.  “Silly boy!  I didn’t call you!  Now quit bothering me and go back to bed!”


The scene is vaguely familiar to anyone with children in the home.  The adults are tired and the child won’t stay in bed.  In slapstick comic fashion, not once, not twice, but three times the child shows up in the adult’s room when he should be in bed.  But as the rusty gears in Eli’s brain finally engage, he remembers that the Lord sometimes does this sorta thing.  In verse 9, he says, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  Dottering old Eli’s eyes were almost dim, but not quite - there was still enough of a flicker of God’s Holy Spirit within him to help young Samuel hear the call of God.


When the word of the Lord is far too rare and where visions are not nearly widespread enough, it is not that God has ceased speaking, it’s that humans have stopped listening.  The absence of a word or vision from God has more to do with our human refusal to listen than with any divine reluctance to speak.  To hear from God, we, like Samuel, may need to lie down in the dark and be still, and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”


That drowsy, quiet place might be what God needs to get our attention, to speak our name, to make God’s dream our dream.  As God did with Samuel, God may use that dream to call us into action to bring God’s dream to fruition.  God may use a dream to call us into action.


The tricky part is that in order to have the time and space to dream, we need to take a break from the action.  A story is told of Henry Ford, some years after he began assembly line production on the Model T, he hired an efficiency expert to help him run the operation better.  They made a few tweaks to the assembly line itself, and how the workers did their work.  Then they came to the administrative office.  The efficiency expert said, “There’s a man down the hall – every time I pass his office, his feet are on the desk, he’s kicked back in his chair, and his hands are folded behind his head.  He’s wasting space here – you need to fire him.”


Henry Ford said, “He came up with an idea that saves me millions of dollars a year.  If I remember right, his hands and feet were in the same position, then.”


Having the time to dream is important, but in response, we’re then called to action.  A God-given dream that is never acted upon is a wasted dream.  God will always call us to action.  God is not one to say, “Well, what I want YOU to do about it, is absolutely nothing.” God’s dream is not for us to be lazy, comfortable, and contented.  That may be our dream, but it certainly isn’t God’s dream for us!  If you think the message you’re getting from God is “sit this one out,” then check again, because that most certainly is not a dream from God.  God uses a dream to call us into action.


Joseph – Through dreams, God shows us a preferred future

God also uses a dream to call us to show us a preferred future.  A famous example of this is Joseph, who had several famous dreams of his own, and who famously interpreted the dreams of others, including the king, the Pharaoh himself.  Let me read the story from Genesis 41:


15 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I had a dream, but no one could interpret it. Then I heard that when you hear a dream, you can interpret it.”

16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It’s not me. God will give Pharaoh a favorable response.”

17 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile. 18 In front of me, seven fattened, stout cows climbed up out of the Nile and grazed on the reeds. 19 Just then, seven other cows, weak and frail and thin, climbed up after them. I’ve never seen such awful cows in all the land of Egypt. 20 Then the thin, frail cows devoured the first seven, fattened cows. 21 But after they swallowed them whole, no one would have known it. They looked just as bad as they had before. Then I woke up.

25 Joseph said to Pharaoh, “26 The seven healthy cows are seven years, 27 The seven thin and frail cows, climbing up after them, are seven years.

29 Seven years of great abundance are now coming throughout the entire land of Egypt. 30 After them, seven years of famine will appear, and all of the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. The famine will devastate the land. 31 No one will remember the abundance in the land because the famine that follows will be so very severe.


Because of Joseph’s interpretation of that dream, he was put in charge of all the affairs of the country.  Sure enough, there were seven years of abundance, followed by seven years of famine.  But during those years of surplus, Joseph had the extra stored away in barns so that when the seven years of famine hit, they had saved up enough food to make it through.


Friends, God can speak through our dreams to prepare us for a preferred future.


God’s dream necessarily has a future component to it, the hope of something that is yet-to-be-fulfilled, but by the grace of God, can and will be.  God’s dream is rooted in the past, a testimony to the unfailing faithfulness of God, a witness to who God always has been and what God has always desired, but God’s dream is never to simply reset the clock and go back to the past.


No, God uses our dreams to show us a preferred future, and then to prepare for that future.  It’s one of the things that really excites me about where we are as a church right now.  In so many of my conversations with you, you are dreaming about our future, and I believe that God is the one giving you those dreams.  There is some beautiful synergy in your dreams, and the more I see what you express lining up and layering over each other, the more our God-given preferred future is revealed.  You see, if I talked to you and your hopes and dreams for the future of the church were all over the map, those might be our personal dreams, but when all the dreams start to hit the same page, it tells me we are getting very close to God’s dream.


Friends, if God gives us a dream, God will also provide every resource we need to fulfill that dream.  It doesn’t mean God will spoon-feed us – we may still have to use our God-given abilities to think and plan and strategize – but whatever resources we need, be they money or people or ministries or relationships or facilities or land or whatever it is as we move into God’s preferred future, but if God gives us the dream, and we catch it and move toward it, I know our God will provide.  Amen?


Further, no one gets the whole of God’s dream.  We each get a piece.  The prophet Joel said that when God’s Spirit is poured out on all people, our sons and daughters will prophecy.  The old will dream dreams, and the young will see visions.  To this day, anywhere God’s Holy Spirit is found among God’s people, there will be dreams and visions.


So to back it up, let’s be sure we’re praying to receive the Holy Spirit.  Praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured on us.  We pray to feel God’s presence in unmistakable and life-changing ways.  And then, where the Spirit is, there will be dreams, and there will be visions.  Visions and dreams from everyone – old and young, sons and daughters, newcomer and long-established.  Catching God’s dream requires us to listen to each other.  We need each other!  The dream of God’s preferred future is given to all of us, and we realize the fullness of God’s dream when we listen to and learn from each other – each of us bringing what we see, what we hope, what we envision.


Another aspect of God’s dream is that God’s dream is big.  As a kid, I remember taking a large portion of food when the dishes came around, and sometimes, not very often, but sometimes, not being able to finish it.  My mom would look at my dad and say, “Looks like somebody’s eyes were bigger than his stomach.”


When it comes to God’s dream, of seeing and preparing for a preferred future, we may be tempted to keep the dream manageable and only bite off as much as we can chew.  That’s a very reasonable, rational approach, and if we follow it, we will completely short change what God wants.  God’s dream is big, God-sized.  God’s dream is so big it will require faith beyond our own abilities and what we ourselves can manage.  If we’re dreaming of something we can accomplish with relative ease on our own, then our dream isn’t big enough.  And so, as we discern and act on God’s dream, let’s make sure we’re pursuing a big, God-size dream.  A big God gives big dreams.  What’s the thing that we’re pursuing that we will desperately have to rely upon God to accomplish?  What’s the thing that if God doesn’t show up, it’s never gonna happen?  What is the thing that makes us a bit queasy and sick to our stomachs to think about attempting it, the thing that pushes us further outside of our comfort zone than we’ve ever imagined – because that’s the kind of dream that comes from God.


Dreaming is not just for the pastor or the leaders or just for the folks who’ve always been here or just for the young people.  What any of us wants to do needs to take its place in light of what God wants us to do.  Yes, we are all called to dream, to dream God’s dream.  God’s dream is the most important one around here, and it’s the one we’ll follow.


The word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread, until Samuel laid down and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  It’s not lying down on the job.  It’s getting ourselves in a place to hear from God, to dream dreams and see visions.  It’s lying down, so we can do the job.


Remember, God has not called us to settle into cozy little cocoons of comfort and complacency.  That is not God’s dream.  God’s dream calls us to action, and it leads us into a preferred future.  God’s dream is God-sized.  Keep dreaming until yours is, too.


Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Duke Chapel: The Call to Prayer

This week, one of my alma maters, Duke University, made waves by announcing that the Muslim call to prayer would be allowed to sound each Friday at 1pm from the tower of Duke Chapel, the "great towering church" Mr. Duke envisioned at the center of the campus.

You can read more about that story here.

Many notable Christian leaders have decried the decision, including Franklin Graham, who is quoted in the article.

To me, this is a complicated and multi-faceted issue, my own feelings on the matter are mixed, and I'm not particularly looking to push a side or foster an argument.

The (perhaps A?) complicating factor is that Duke Chapel belongs both to the Christian tradition, and to the University.  Neither owner has "exclusive" rights to the use of the building.  Like co-owners of a business, there are times when they get along nicely.  There are other times when they are a bit at odds with each other.  Sometimes compromise comes easy, sometimes compromise is difficult, and sometimes there is downright hostility and resentment that extends far beyond the owners, as everyone who knows one or the other feels compelled to take a side.

On the one hand, Duke University has historic and ongoing ties with the United Methodist Church.  Duke Chapel is distinctly built and used as a building for Christian worship, and to this day, is the site for hundreds of services a year of Christian worship, including 52 Sundays.  The cruciform (cross-shaped) architecture, the symbols found throughout the building in glass, stone, and wood, the font, the altar, the pulpit - all inescapable reminders that you have entered a hallowed space with a distinctly Christian tradition.

On the other hand, Duke Chapel is not exclusively a Christian building.  It is not a United Methodist Church or the church of any denomination.  Duke Chapel serves as the spiritual center for a vibrant and multicultural University and the wider Durham community.  It is the campus home to a breadth of religious groups.  The Chapel is used by the University for services and occasions that are not particularly Christian, specifically, or religious, generally, even as many local churches similarly provide space for their community within their facilities.

A symbol is always open to interpretation.  A symbol with two owners is almost impossible to interpret.

Duke Chapel is a building and symbol both (to say nothing of a people, as in the non-denominational Congregation of Duke Chapel), a building and symbol belonging simultaneously to the Christian tradition and to the University.

Again, it's complicated, as both owners have their claims and interests.  I see the claim of both.

Franklin Graham and others are asking their friends and supporters to write letters to the University administration and withhold financial support.  Meanwhile, the Muslims are praying, no less than five times a day.  I've seen no Christian response that encourages the same fervency of prayer.

I find the Christian response ironic.  The Muslims are being called to prayer.  In response, the Christians are being called to protest.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak Through People (1 Peter 4:8-11)

Hearing God speak – it’s my hope and prayer that we will be the kind of people, the kind of church, who listens intently to hear God speaking.  That we have the expectation that God will speak to us, and then, that we respond simply by doing what God says to do.  How marvelous would that be?


Last week, we talked about Hearing God Speak in Silence.  Given that we live such busy, noisy, cluttered lives, we can miss God simply because we aren’t quiet enough for long enough to hear the still, small voice of God.  I encouraged you to intentionally seek some silence in your life so you could better hear from God.  To make and designate some quiet space in your home, to carve out some quiet time in your schedule, and to stop talking in order to practice listening for God.


That being said, you’ve got to be careful what you ask for – because sometimes you actually get it.  By now you know that my voice gave out halfway through the 11 o’clock service last week as some upper respiratory thing finally caught up with me, and I ended up sick at home for the next three days.  Did I mention that I was unable to speak?  Me – not talking for three days - oh, the humanity!


My house has never been quieter.  Three sick days for me, more like three vacation days for Ashley – finally some of the peace and quiet my introvert wife craves – all on the heels of my own sermon about seeking silence and speaking less.


So yes, God speaks through silence.  God also speaks through people.  On one hand, there is nothing too surprising or shocking about the idea that God would communicate through people.  Our faith tradition is filled with examples of this.  God spoke and is speaking through the human authors of Scripture.  God has spoken through prophets and priests and scholars.  God has spoken through Jesus and his apostles and leaders in the Church.  God speaks through pastors and teachers, authors and artists, poets and musicians – surely we can all think of some time we have been particularly moved or inspired through the great gift of some person who is using their gift to God’s glory.


However, we can get so accustomed to hearing from God through those with extraordinary and great gifts, that we don’t expect to hear from God through regular and ordinary people.  Jimmy Valvano said, “God must love ordinary people, because he made so many of us.  But every day, ordinary people do extraordinary things.”


Ordinary people doing extraordinary things – friends, that’s a good descriptor for what the Church can be at its best.  If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 Peter 4:8-11, which is a description of the community of faith when we are at our best:


Above all, show sincere love to each other, because love brings about the forgiveness of many sins. Open your homes to each other without complaining. 10 And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts. 11 Whoever speaks should do so as those who speak God’s word. Whoever serves should do so from the strength that God furnishes. Do this so that in everything God may be honored through Jesus Christ. To him be honor and power forever and always. Amen.


Whoever speaks should do so as those who speak God’s word.  Not only those who lead, not only those up front, whoever speaks to anyone about anything should do so as those who speak God’s word.  God is not only speaking to ordinary people – God is also speaking through them.  And with so many ordinary people in the world, including us, God has a lot to say.


I have always loved accents.  When it comes to regional accents, I never had a chance.  My mom was from Western Pennsylvania, and my Dad is from Northern Virginia, and believe me, both places have their own distinct sound.  I, myself was born in Oklahoma, and had the sweetest, most syrupy drawl you’ve ever heard by the time I was three and we moved to Western New York.  I stayed there another 19 years, and have been here in North Carolina for the last 12, and am now married to a Western North Carolina mountain girl.


Every one of those regions has some place in how I speak.  Depending where I am, who I’m with, characteristics of one place may come out over another.  I’ve got a little bit of all of those in me, I’m an accent mutt – not a purebred anything.  My Dad’s family in Northern Virginia, they all sound like they expect Mary and Robert E. Lee to drop by at any moment.  My friends in Western New York claim they have no accent at all – “We talk just like the people on TV” – which would be true if everyone on TV had raisins shoved up their noses!


No matter where I go, someone will always ask, “I can’t place your accent – where are you from anyway?” and none of the regions in which I have lived will claim me as their own because anywhere I go they all think I talk a little funny, and they may not know where I’m from, but they all know that I ain’t from around here, wherever “here” happens to be.


Did you ever wonder if God has an accent?  If God spoke, what would God sound like?  Sure, God may speak in pristine and proper King James English, with all the formalities of “thee” and “thine,” but God doesn’t speak only that way.  God comes to us in ways we can understand.


That’s what the birth of Jesus was about.  In Jesus, heaven comes to earth.  In Jesus, we see the fullness of God’s love in a face like our own.  God loves ordinary people and comes to us as an ordinary person.  This world is full of ordinary people whom God loves more than you can imagine, and so when God speaks, God does so in a way that ordinary people like us can understand.


So God does have accent?  You better believe it.  Whoever you are, and wherever you’re from, God has a way of speaking in a way we can recognize and understand, a way that’s familiar and comfortable to each of us, because God more often than not speaks through ordinary people.


God’s accent sounds like the person on your right or your left, and perhaps our familiarity with one another is what makes it difficult to hear from God.  We’re so used to hearing each other that we’re not even thinking about hearing from God through each other.


And the tricky thing is that not everything we say is from God.  Anyone here ever said something that you’re pretty sure wasn’t of God?  Anyone want to volunteer what you said?  The Scripture says that those who speak should do so as those who speak God’s word, and yet we all know that we all say things that aren’t from God.  We say cruel things, hurtful things, gossipy things (though in church we mask those as prayer requests), so how can we hear God speak through other people with all the rest that’s mixed in there?


Think of it this way.  Do you ever pick up someone else’s accent?  I’ve done that, in a sense, with all the influences on how I speak, but what I’m talking about is maybe that you’ve spent so much time with someone, that their ways are so familiar to you that you end up sounding a bit like they do?


So what if we picked up God’s accent?  Knowing who God is, that some of that rubs off on us, so that when we speak, it’s as if God is speaking through us?  That requires spending enough time with God, having enough familiarity with God that we can discern what is from God and what isn’t.  That familiarity is required both for the one who speaks as well as the one who hears, but that familiarity is what allows us to speak as those who speak God’s word, and to hear when God is speaking through others.


What does God’s accent sound like?  It sounds like consistency with what we know about the character of God.  God’s accent sounds like love – the unconditional love of a father.  It sounds like mercy and grace and forgiveness.  It sounds like a will that is ever-directed toward the good of all.  It sounds like words that build each other up rather than tear each other down.  God’s accent sounds like anything that allows the fruit of the Spirit to grow and flourish - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.


As people of faith, we are called to tune our ear so that we can recognize God’s accent when we hear it.  When you find people who speak in God’s accent, stay very close to them and learn everything you can from them.  Become so familiar with God’s accent that pick it up and start to sound a bit like God, so that as you have recognized God in others, others will be able to recognize God in you, that your words will have a ring of God in them, and even if people can’t place exactly where you’re from, they’ll be able to tell that you’ve been spending time with God.


Whenever you speak, no matter how formal or informal the setting, don’t underestimate the impact of what you say.  Don’t underestimate the power of your words.


Every time we open our mouths, we are giving God an opportunity to speak through us.  Let’s not miss those opportunities.  Let’s pick up the accent, and speak with the recognizable tones of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  Let the soil of our words be a fertile place for the Fruit of the Spirit to grow, a foundation upon which we build one another up as we pass by opportunities to tear one another down.  Would it be that when we speak, we do so as those who speak God’s word.


So, no need to be surprised when you hear God’s accent from the person on your right or on your left.  God has a distinct sound, and once you’ve gotten familiar enough with it, you’ll recognize it from friends and strangers alike.  Hopefully, they’ll recognize it in you, too.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak through Silence (1 Kings 19:11-13)

Centering Thought

This morning we kick off a new sermon series called "Say What?" God is still speaking, right now, to ordinary people - like us! But, how can we hear from God? How could our lives be different if we intentionally seek out the places God is speaking? What if we had the daily expectation that God has something to say to us?


Today our message will be “Hearing God Speak Through Silence.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of silence in my life.  There’s a lot of noise in my life, much of it generated by me.  Maybe we avoid silence.  Maybe we find silence awkward or uncomfortable.  Sometimes it is.  But today, let’s see how leaning into silence is a way to better hear from God.



Back before everyone carried a cell phone, we had this thing called a “landline” – a telephone that, somewhere in your house, was plugged into the wall, where it connected with a wire that ran over land and connected you with the outside world.


Back in the olden days, we also had this thing called “Dial-up Internet service.  I remember was getting kicked off the Internet when someone else in the house picked up the phone to make a call.  I also remember that when my parents were expecting an important call, we had to stay off the phone and stay off the computer, so the line would stay open for that call to come in.


In our faith, do we keep the line open to hear from God?  Is God important enough to us, is hearing from God important that we do what it takes to keep the line open?


In this new year, I want to be the kind of person who expects to hear from God.  I want us to be the kind of church who expects to hear from God.   There is no limit to the places and methods God uses to speak.  We won’t be paying much attention to the obvious places, but that doesn’t lessen the reality that yes, God still speaks to us through Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, through Scripture and prayer.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be paying attention to some of the less obvious ways that God speaks to us.  Because they’re less obvious, we’re more likely to miss them.  If God is trying to get through to me, I want to make sure all lines are open.


That’s the aim of the series of messages we’re beginning today – that we all expect to hear from God, that we keep all lines open, and are intentional to seek out those places where we can find God – both the obvious places, and the not-so-obvious places.


Turn with me in your Bibles to the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, Chapter 19, verses 11-13:


11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”


So here the prophet Elijah is told that God is about to pass by.  God has a history of showing up in the grandiose and spectacular, indeed, in things like fire, and smoke, and wind, and earthquakes.  We, too, look for God in awesome displays of power and grandeur.  Have your home damaged by an earthquake, fire, or storm, and the insurance company calls that, “an act of God.”  When asked to describe God, we offer superlatives like, “All-powerful,” “All-knowing, “All-present.”  What does God sound like?  Surely something deep and commanding like James Earl Jones in an echo chamber.


Our faith tradition witnesses to the reality of a God who is bigger, mightier, more awesome than our minds can fathom, and so we look for God in signs and wonders that are beyond our comprehension.  It’s easy to overlook that God is also found in stillness and quietness, in whispers and shadows, in movements imperceptible to the human eye and in silence indistinguishable to the human ear.


God spoke to Elijah, not in the power of the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in a still small voice. God often spoke to the prophets in the quietness of the day.


God still speaks in silence and stillness, indeed God speaks to us in the quietness of our days, yet how often do we miss it because our lives are too cluttered with other noise and distractions?


Several applicants were seeking a position as a ship's Morse Code operator. They gathered in a waiting room, which soon filled with the sounds of small talk between strangers.  Then another applicant comes in, sits alone, and waits quietly. Suddenly, she jumps up, walks into the private office, and after a few minutes, it was announced that the position had been filled.  The other applicants exclaim, "We were here first! Why did you hire her?" The captain replies, "Any of you could have gotten the job.  You see that intercom?” and points to a speaker on the counter.  “For the last twenty minutes, I’ve been transmitting a message in Morse Code through that intercom. If you had been quiet enough and paid attention, you would have heard the message, 'The first person who hears this message and comes directly into my office will get the job.’”


It’s often the same between us and God.  God is speaking to us all the time, but our ears may not be tuned to hear the message.  We are looking for God in the grand and mighty displays, the signs and wonders, the earthquake, wind, and fire, when all along God has been speaking quietly, almost imperceptibly, and for all the noise around us and within us, we miss it.


We are unfamiliar and unaccustomed to silence.  We find silence awkward and uncomfortable.  And yet, God is often speaking quietly in a still, small voice, so we need to become people who intentionally seek out silence.


How can we do that?  Well, first, each of us needs to talk less.  How much of the noise around us is self-generated?  We can all be more enamored with our own voice and opinion than is probably warranted, yet it’s very hard to hear God speaking if we never stop talking.  I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: we have one mouth and two ears for a reason; if we want to hear from God, we need to listen more than we speak.


Have you ever had a conversation with a person who talks non-stop and doesn’t let you say anything?  Or, a person who walks in, dumps their words all over you, and then walks out?  Or, a person who asks one question after another and never pauses long enough to hear the answer?  That’s frustrating, isn’t it?


I’ve often wondered if God experiences something of the same frustration in dealing with us.  How often is our prayer time a one-way conversation where we dial in, talk at God non-stop, and then dial back out?  Barraging God with our desires, our requests, our needs, our joys, our concerns.  I wonder if God says, “Hey, I’ve heard from you the whole time, which is great, but, can you take just a moment to listen to what I have to say?”


The first step in listening is to stop talking.  Friends, while we are bringing everything on our heart to God, can we also make space to hear what’s on God’s heart for us?


The second thing we can do, once we stop talking, is to turn off as much other noise as we can.  We live cluttered, busy, and noisy lives.  How often have I found myself working on something at home, laptop open, looking up something on my phone, Ashley showing me something on the iPad, TV on in the background.  Let’s assume God is trying to speak to me – how likely is it that I am going to hear God with all the rest of that going on?


To find some silence in order to hear that still, small voice in which God is constantly speaking, sometimes we need to simply turn off and put away some of the other distractions so we can focus on God.  The very definition of the word “focus” means to give our attention to one thing only, which means we are not giving attention to other things.  And so, focusing on God requires us to put other things away.


And then, after we’ve stopped talking so we can listen, after we’ve put other things away so we can focus, we may still need to seek a quiet place or create one.


That’s one of the things I love about our Wednesday night service at 5:30 – we’ve created that service as a place for some silence in the middle of the week.  Our Wednesday night service is completely different from what we do on Sunday – Sunday is often loud and celebratory, chatty, a bit chaotic sometimes.  Wednesday nights are simpler and quieter – where liturgy, Communion, prayer, and silence get center stage.  Silence isn’t popular – we rarely have more than a dozen people present each Wednesday – but for those few but faithful who do come, those 30 minutes of prayer and Communion and silence are an intimate experience of God’s presence that is far too rare in this busy, noisy world of ours.  Only when we are still and silent before God can we hear the faint, almost imperceptible whisper of his voice – a whisper that’s been there all along if we had only quieted down to hear it.


That’s a place we create a silent space as a church – silence that we can more intentionally and alertly draw into God’s presence.  Perhaps you also need to create some silence in your day – intentional silence where you practice hearing for the still, small voice of God.  A place where you can pause amidst the busy noise to not only pour out your heart to God, but where you also hear God speak, and show you what’s on God’s heart.


This week at home, I want you to prepare your own quiet place.  Some physical space – a room, a corner, a certain chair – where you will go for quiet and to hear from God.  Prepare some quiet space in your schedule – when during your day will you seek out that quiet place so you can hear from God?  Some people do that early in the morning, some late at night, some just after lunch or before dinner.  Remember, this is focused time, not while you’re doing some other task.  Not while you’re driving, not while you’re working out, not while you’re cooking.


And then, once you’ve prepared that quiet place – both physically and in your schedule – begin practicing being in silence.  If you’ve never done that before, start small with five minutes or ten minutes a day.  Sometimes it helps to keep a pad of paper nearby so you can jot down what you’re hearing from God.


God so often moves among us quietly and imperceptibly.  Silence doesn’t come to us naturally or easily, at least it doesn’t to me, I wonder how much of God I’ve missed over the years because I was making too much noise or paying too much attention to the noise around me.


Even so, it’s not too late to free up the line, because we are expecting to hear from someone important.  We’re expecting to hear from God.  Listen carefully to the silence.


Holy God, who speaks to us in the silences of our lives and invites us to listen closely for the Spirit's Presence, be with us as we continue to seek after you.  Forgive our noisy ways, reclothe us in a quieter mind.  Guide our hearts and open our eyes and ears so that we may gain new glimpses of you--trusting that there is deep faithfulness in listening deeply.  Teach us the gift of silence, that we may hear you, O still, small voice of calm and peace.  Amen.