Ulysses Burley III: Finding God’s Voice in Pandemic Noise

When I was a child I had a speech impediment. I stuttered profusely, so much so that I was embarrassed to speak and only did so when absolutely necessary.

In the process of not speaking, I became very proficient in listening.

I eventually worked through the stutter and grew to be a relatively strong public speaker, but what I’m most proud of is that in the process of strengthening my speaking abilities, I didn’t lose the excellent listening skills I had developed.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” It’s hard to be a good listener if you’re always “running your mouth,” as my aunt used to say. One of my most favorite proverbs, is an Arabic one: “Open your mouth only if what you are going to say is more beautiful than silence.” As people we like to talk a lot more than we listen, when it should probably be the other way around.

Jesus teaches us as much in the familiar story of the Good Shepherd, where listening is a central theme.

More specifically, the recognition of the shepherd's voice by the sheep. Of all the many characters and their characteristics in this parable, Jesus only attributes one characteristic to the sheep alone: their ability to recognize His voice through listening.

In order to identify and respond to a sound, one must first listen. If the link between Jesus and his flock is mediated by recognition of the Master's voice, what does that mean for the kind of spiritual listening involved in responding to Him? Spiritual listening is far more than merely hearing God; spiritual listening is also responding to what is heard.

Furthermore, the way in which we respond is a direct reflection of how we relate to the voice. Indeed, the parable of the Good Shepherd is a story about relationships, and relationships are essential in the listening process. This dynamic can be seen in perhaps the most intimate relationship within humanity, the bond between mother and child.

While some choose to pit science and religion against one another, as both a scientist and person of faith, I’m always exploring the ways in which the two affirm each other.

Medical research reveals that fetuses can identify sounds as early as 30 weeks in-utero. More specifically, fetuses actively listen to the mother’s voice in the last ten weeks of pregnancy. A study was done where 60 women in the final stage of pregnancy were tested, and all the moms’ voices were recorded as they recited a poem out loud. Then the mothers were separated into two groups, where half the fetuses heard the recordings of their own moms, while the other half heard another mother, but not their own.

In both instances, hearing the recitation of the poem caused a change in the baby’s heart rate. However, the heart rate sped up among those babies who heard their own mom’s voice, and slowed down among those who heard a voice other than their mother’s. Doctors explained the acceleration in heart rate is a result of excitement and joy in hearing a voice that’s familiar. Like, “Oh hey, I know who that is!”

On the other hand, deceleration of the heart rate signifies what’s referred to as an “attention mechanism.” That is, the heart beat among fetuses who heard an unfamiliar voice slowed down because they were paying close attention to discern a voice they did not recognize. In other words, they were trying to figure out who was talking because they knew it wasn’t their mom.

As people of faith we can learn a lot from this scientific discovery. What do you feel in your heart when you hear the voice of God or what you think is the voice of God? Does your heart speed up in excitement and joy of hearing a familiar voice? Or does it slow down because your attention mechanism has been activated as a result of hearing a voice unfamiliar and unrecognizable to your spiritual ear?

Has the noise of the last few months distorted the voice of God so much so that it no longer is discernible, or is God’s voice as clear as it’s ever been?

Regardless of where you might fall on the spectrum, there’s no doubt this pandemic has challenged our relationship with ourselves, each other, and God, and therefore likely compromised our spiritual listening skills at a time when so many different voices compete for our attention. Faith and science together affirm one way we can ensure the voices we hear are life-giving as we seek deeper connection with The Creator and each other.

Years ago, a show called American Idol took the country by storm. Who would be the next great vocal talent? Since then many other shows like it have emerged, the most recent show being, The Voice. I like The Voice because it is uniquely different from the other shows in that the judges begin with their backs turned toward the contestants, shedding them of all their biases and prejudices and pre-judgments. The judges are blind to the singer’s appearance and must make a decision to turn their chairs around in favor of a singer based only on what they hear. The singer then chooses who they’d like to build a relationship with to compete for the show’s top spot.

We sit in those chairs daily—also judging, with only what we can hear and blind faith. There have been many voices to choose from lately: The president, governors and local leadership, public health officials, employers, school boards, family and friends, faith leaders, church members, and hired hands alike. God can indeed speak through many different voices. At the same time, God has a clear singular voice in the midst of it all. It’s THE VOICE which desires to be in relationship with each and every one of us. We just have to be willing to do away with doubt, to cut out confusion and filter through fear, and turn our chairs around for The Voice of God that always speaks truth; The Voice that delivers comfort; The Voice that drips in mercy and grace.

Everything else is just noise.


Dr. Ulysses Burley III

Ulysses Burley III

Dr. Ulysses W. Burley III is the founder of UBtheCURE, LLC – a proprietary consulting company on the intersection of Faith, Health, and Human Rights. Ulysses served as a member of the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches as well as the United States Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) under the Obama Administration. He has been recognized by the National Minority Quality Forum as a top 40 under 40 Minority Health Leader for his work in faith and HIV in communities of color and serves on the NMQF Advisory Board. Ulysses is an internationally recognized speaker and award winning writer on topics including faith, HIV/AIDS policy, LGBTQIA, gender and racial justice, food security, and peace in the Middle East. He is a lay leader at St. Stephen’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago, IL.

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Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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