As a boy, I remember opening a brand-new pair of "walkie talkies," and after getting several double AA batteries, my brother and I ran immediately to opposite sides of the house. One of us found a door to hide behind, and the other ducked down behind a chair. We turned on the "walkie talkies," imagining we were on some sort of secret mission to save the world.
My brother might have said, "This is Eagle 1. This is Eagle 1. Can you hear me? Over! Apparently, you have to have a really good nickname when you are using a "walkie talkie." I said, "T.J. this is Tripp...I mean...Eagle1, this is Tiger by the Tail. I can hear you Eagle 1. Over!" He said, "Tiger by the Tail is too long of a name, pick something different." I said, "No, it's not. Over!" We spent the remainder of the afternoon, running around the house, hiding behind furniture, and talking to one another on those "walkie talkies."
I remember you had to be close enough to each other and not too far away in order to get a good signal; but even when you were close enough, you could not scream into the "walkie talkies." Simply talking louder did not mean the other person would hear you. If you spoke too loud, the other person only heard static. You had to slow down and talk softly in order to be heard.
When you were the person listening, you also had to be still and ignore all of your surroundings. You could not run from behind the door to behind the chair and still hear what was said. You had to slow down, and you had to focus solely on the voice on the other end of the call.
Part of the work of the church is to teach us to listen in a world that only wants to speak. I sat down recently with a group of children in order to read them a story from the Bible. They all sat down in a circle on the carpet. On each square of the carpet, there were letters of the alphabet, and each child was assigned a particular letter on which to sit. I pulled up a small red chair and asked the children if I could read them a story. They were all excited!
I started to read them the story about Jesus feeding the five thousand. It begins, "When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself."[i] Before I could keep reading the next sentence, some of them started to shout, "Who is John?" Then someone grabbed my shoestring, pulling it to get my attention, so I looked down, and she said, "I sit on letter M." I tried to keep reading, suggesting, "Imagine Jesus sitting in this boat, going off by himself." They leaned in a little bit closer to listen. Then one of them said, "I don't want to read a story anymore." When we finished reading, we talked about the love of Jesus in this story and how God loves all people; but in looking back, it was also important that we were learning to listen.
We learn to listen, not just for information; but also for discernment, sifting through the questions of life. We learn to listen, not to react quickly to every dilemma, but to respond thoughtfully and prayerfully. We learn to listen not only to speak, but so we can speak truthfully, kindly, and compassionately.
Listening is found at the heart of the church. When we gather for worship on Sunday, we are merely pausing long enough to listen. When we sing, it is for our ears. When we read scripture, we are trying to hear what we have not heard before, or what we need to hear again. When we pray, we not only speak, but we also listen. In the place where I worship each week, we also pause for a time of silence because in the silence the only sound we hear is the presence of God.
As the psalmist says, "Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth." God calls us to listen because God is still speaking. God is speaking through parables and old sayings, opening our hearts to new ways of living shaped by the grace of God. But we live in a world that only wants to speak.
God is whispering to us, reminding us that we belong to God and to one another. In order to hear it though, we must listen. Too often, we are busy speaking at each other, past one another, over each other, or about each other. We are listening only because we are trying to think of what to say next.
Another popular children's gift, like the "walkie talkies," is a toy megaphone. If it is the first gift opened at a birthday party, it might also be the last gift opened because for the rest of the party, and for the rest of the day, the only thing the birthday boy wants to do is talk through the megaphone. It is quite the feeling, hearing your voice amplified, as the loudest voice in the room.
After the party is over and the decorations are coming down, the parents might ask the birthday boy what he wants for dinner, and through the megaphone he shouts, "I want a grilled cheese!" But as the boy turns around, he sees his parents hiding under the sink. It was so loud it was hard to hear. All they could do is take cover.
We are learning to distinguish God's voice amongst the others, which is rather difficult because God is speaking through us, for us, and to us. It is not the type of listening we use when we flip through the television channels, scroll through the songs on our phones, or play our favorite podcast, as we drive down the road. It is more like walking outside at dusk and hearing the chirping of the crickets all around us.
It is hearing something that makes us silent. It is when we can hear a pin drop, like when the choir finishes singing and the beauty of the song fills the room, and we do not have words to describe it. When we hear something sacred, all we can do is be quiet.
We are learning to recognize God's voice, which is the voice of love and justice, hope and healing. As we drive home from worship each week, there is a good chance we are all asking a similar question. On the way home, we might turn to one another and say, "What did you think of church today?" Perhaps a clearer way to ask that question is, "What did you hear?"
What did you hear in the songs, in the people, in the prayers, in the scripture reading, or in the silence? Did you hear whispers of forgiveness? Did you hear how everyone belongs? Did you hear the cries of others in need? We are learning to listen in the church, so we can better listen for those same things throughout the world, recognizing God's voice wherever kindness is spoken, wherever justice is needed, wherever humility is voiced, wherever mercy is given, or wherever community is formed.
In a book by Susan Cain, entitled Quiet, she tells the story of Rosa Parks, which most of us learn, while we are studying history in elementary school.[ii] Rosa Parks was a great civil rights leader, who spoke up and refused to move from her seat on the bus. In this sacred moment, she led other voices to speak up as well.
It was in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955 - sixty-two years ago; but her voice is still heard today. She got on the bus after a long day of work, standing on her feet and leaning over an ironing board. She sat down on the front row of what was called the "colored section" of the bus; but at each stop, more people got on until the "whites-only section" filled up. Then at the next bus stop more people got on, but there was no place to sit, so the driver ordered Rosa Parks to give her seat to a white passenger. She refused. Even when she was arrested, she refused to give up her seat, and when Rosa Parks spoke up, a boycott started of the bus system, and it lasted 381 days.
In many of the obituaries that were written about Rosa Parks, Cain noticed how she was often times described as timid, shy, and quiet. They are not the adjectives we might imagine after hearing her story. Apparently though, Rosa Parks was able to speak up because she first knew how to listen.
God continues to speak through us, for us, and to us in various ways. When we hear it, we become quiet, where we can hear a pin drop, but if we incline our ears to hear the voices of mercy and the need for justice, we will know how to speak up as well.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we are grateful that you continue to speak to a world that struggles to listen. Give us moments of silence, where we can be still, hearing what cannot be heard above the noise. Allow us to focus on your voice of mercy and justice, forgiveness and hope. Instill in us an awareness of your presence, as we listen for the needs of others, and when it is time to speak up, may we speak with your grace. Amen.
[i] Matthew 14:15, Common English Bible.
[ii] Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (New York: Broadway Books, 2012) 1-2.