Last year a handful of us on the team set up portable workspaces in our church sanctuary, spreading out around the room in a kind of physically distant communal office. We didn’t take that time together for granted, because even though the faces were repetitive, they were at least live faces! Of course, there did come times we needed to focus on things like online meetings and had to tune each other out, which is why some invested in noise-cancelling headphones. As you can imagine, getting someone’s attention across the room looked like handwaving or walking over, or even tossing the odd object in their direction. Sometimes we simply had to wait our turn before cluttering their world with our interjections. They had become true masters of noise cancellation.
Speaking of clutter, there’s been a fair amount of research done in recent years on noise pollution. I remember an article about a scientist who spent hours recording the soundscape of the deep wilderness only to discover how pervasive our urban commotion really was. Capturing even a few minutes of uninterrupted natural sound was rare because of airplanes and other distant yet resonant intrusions. And then of course there’s visual noise, the cacophony of images we’re bombarded with through advertisements or entertainment or social media, often all rolled into one. We’re only just beginning to take seriously the dangers of screen addiction and the need for healthy rhythms. Are we in danger of “amusing ourselves to death”[i] as some have argued? It seems we could all do with a little more noise cancellation now and then.
In the passage we heard earlier Paul tells his listeners he’s been praying that God would “give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding” so that their lives would be filled with good fruit, and they’d get to know God better. Paul doesn’t go into detail here about how we are filled with such wisdom and understanding, but we can look around in the rest of scripture for clues. And the sense is that the ways of being filled with God’s wisdom, or we could say the ways of listening to God, are distinct and yet interconnected. There’s not really an equation, so much as an invitation to let the voice of the Holy Spirit fill our entire lives through varied channels.
So what are postures to take in order to hear the guiding voice of the Holy Spirit? How can we hear so we’re filled with wisdom and understanding, producing fruit, getting to know God better and better?
As we look back through Christian history, I think there’s three recuring ways which stand out when hoping to hear the speech of the Holy Spirit both communally and personally, and they all have to do with giving our attention to a particular voice. We can give our attention to the voice of holy scripture, the voice of holy community, and the voice of holy silence.
Let’s take first the thought of giving our attention to the voice of holy scripture. For some God is a nice idea but not all that practical, as if we’ve been left to our own devices to sort God and ourselves out, and if we’re lucky now and then we’ll get mysterious nudge in this or that direction. But for Christians the ground of holy scripture stabilizes that shaky thinking. Jesus is the practical work of God, given to humanity to touch, see and handle (1 John 1). Jesus is the body language of God, leaving little doubt about who God is and how God lives. And we have holy scripture as historical witness to Jesus on whom all other scriptural histories hinge. So the first place to go to hear the voice of the Spirit is the the inspired scripture which centers on Jesus and points us toward God’s vision of human flourishing. Narrative, poetry, parable, instruction, even what scholars call “wisdom literature” – it’s all there to give voice to God’s history with humanity, heard definitively through the life of Jesus.
What does scripture show us to help in the moment? What do we need to take in in order to make a wise choice or deal with a challenge? What does scripture say in order to help us grow as human beings rather than shrink? We might not get explicit advice about which job to take, or partner to choose, or home to buy, but when a person or community needs direction, it helps a great deal to be as familiar as possible with Jesus and his words about wise living. That takes giving Jesus our attention through his word.
Many times hearing the voice of the Spirit and “God’s will” has more to do with how we do things than what things we do exactly. When faced with a decision or just hearing God daily, we don’t often need to be handed a kind of shopping list to tick off. Even if it can be daunting at times, we’re quite capable of getting on with life since God’s given us intelligence to put flesh on the bones. What we need really is the daily song of scripture in our ears, bringing us into tune with how to go about what we go about doing. We need to hear Jesus’ melodies about patience and kindness, about integrity and dignity, and non-condemnation. And when we open the scriptures together in a setting like this, or with our family or Life Group, or alone in a quiet moment, we’re giving our attention to the practical reality of God’s voice in human history, which sheds light on how to live today. And we’re told in scripture itself that what we’re handling isn’t sterile or unable to render in a digital age, but is in fact dynamic and sharp (Hebrews 4). Holy scripture cuts through the noise, and it can cut through us, if we’ll only give it our attention communally and personally. Quite simply, if we’re wondering what God would say to us about something today, it helps to start by asking “well, what has God said already?”
That leads to the second thought, giving our attention to the voice of holy community. One of the things a pandemic has taught us is that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. How grateful were we, prior to the pandemic, for the life of the community informing our personal lives? How dependent were we, without even knowing it, on the daily brushing up against one another, shaping and forming us? Another pastor in Fort Langley recently pointed out to me that we all have sharp edges and at times this year our distance from one another has filed those edges into blades. That really hit home as we’re noticing that we don’t just need one another beca. use it’s nice to sing or socialize, we need each other to round out those edges, or to show one another Jesus’ way when my way can so easily go off the rails.
In today’s hyper-individualistic climate, we can sometimes rate individual experience more highly than communal experience. But if our lives are tied up with Jesus and therefore tied up with Jesus’ body, that is with one another, we should put as much if not more stock in the voice of the Spirit in the community as we do our individual experiences. Listening back to Kirsten’s recent teaching on the gifts of the Spirit might remind us of this. This body has a voice, and part of hearing God is hearing from one another. What I mean by that, I think, is that when it comes to hearing the Spirit’s voice, for guidance, direction or even correction, the holy community of believers is present and able to speak for God. When we put it like that it’s clear how prayerful and careful we must be when speaking together.
If we’re not giving our attention to the voice of the community we may not hear God as fully, or dare I say sometimes even at all. As God said in Genesis about the first human being “It’s not good to be alone”. Very often we don’t need more solos from ourselves, we need a choir, filling out all the parts we don’t know how to sing. We could say that the holy community has the potential to voice Jesus in stereo, so that takes some turning up and tuning in on our part! That’s part of why we take the time to mark moments like International Refugee Day, or National Indigenous Day. At least part of being the church is listening to those around and among us with a story to share and asking what we think the Spirit is saying to us as we listen to one another. (Life Groups, hear God in stereo)
So we give our attention the voice of holy scripture, the voice of holy community and the voice of holy silence. That picture of noise cancellation again comes to mind. One of the most relatable things Jesus did was his habit of slipping away for a bit of peace and quiet to check in with his Father. It’s a mysterious rhythm and yet Jesus is often disappearing in the night or the early morning to “tune in” to a kind of frequency and be refreshed. And Christians for centuries have followed his example. What a picture for us today on Father’s Day.
It’s not complicated, but as anyone who’s taken personal prayer seriously can attest, it’s not often easy either. All we’re doing, however, is giving Jesus the chance to get at us. Turning down the volume of other voices, and laying our heads on Jesus’ chest to hear a heartbeat which brings us back into rhythm. In 2 Peter (3.8) we hear that with God a day is like a thousand years and thousand years is like a day. So even if we give God just a few moments while walking outside, or resting in a chair, or kneeling at our bedside, God might do a lot more with that time than we think is possible. I won’t tell you who, but one member of our pastor team spends time alone with God each morning in a hot tub (take your guess). I was speaking with a friend the other day who takes cold showers each morning and calls the shower his “prayer closet”. Well, whether we’re in hot water or cold, it’s in those simple moments we’re giving God the chance to refresh and resource us. The point is, silence is the voice we must go looking for, as Jesus did, and not worry too much about the other voices because we know they’ll come calling sooner or later.
What will we hear in the silence? It might take some nerve to say to ourselves, “enough from me for a few moments, I’m going to shut up now in order to hear something real, something true, something hopeful”.And we might not hear anything at all, which we shouldn’t be worried about. As we know about intimate relationships with each other, a lack of speaking doesn’t always mean a lack of intimacy. Sometimes shared silence is just about becoming present to the person we’re with. That’s what a good, long hug is. The longer it goes and the quieter it gets, the more we’re tempted to pull away and break the silence. Is that because we’re not very comfortable with that kind of present, quiet intimacy, where nothing needs to be said? Is there any way we could resist not pulling away or breaking the silence found in moments like that with Jesus?
Those are three prayerful ways we can hear the direction of the Holy Spirit both personally and communally.
What has God said already to help us today? How can we turn up and tune in to “Jesus in stereo” through the life of the church? And if silence is the voice we must go looking for, how can we prioritize “noise cancellation”?
As we re-enter our shared worlds more physically in the coming months, we’ve got a real chance to check in with those ways of giving our attention to Jesus. And when we do, I suspect we’ll be encouraged to find that Jesus’ attention is never something we have to compete for or try to attract. That’s the promise of Jesus’ to us all – his Spirit, God’s eternally undistracted presence in the depths of our beings. “No, I will not abandon you as orphans – I will come to you.” (John 14)
[i] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death