Right after I graduated from college, I set off with a friend, Terry Saris, to backpack around Europe. We had no real plan, only that we were flying into Paris and would fly out of London six weeks later. We were a little naïve — actually, a LOT naïve, but it was an excellent adventure. We stayed mostly in youth hostels and we made our way through much of Europe using Eurail passes and spending only pennies a day. It was one of the best growing experiences of my life. In the midst of it, I remember we were sometimes frustrated, anxious and homesick. Most of our challenges came because we could not speak the language. When our tour ended in England, the familiar language made it feel like home compared with the rest of Europe. I had only mastered elementary German and Terry didn’t have much opportunity to speak Spanish. Because of this, we frequently got lost. We spent an entire day in the rain searching for the Jacque Cousteau museum on the French Riviera, only to discover it wasn’t the famous oceanographer who lived there, but Jean Cocteau, a French poet. We got stuck up on the top of an Austrian Alp because we couldn’t read the signs about the last lift of the day. We were taken advantage of — paying too much for something, or not receiving the correct change. We had trouble making ourselves understood too, and were often served strange foods because we couldn’t order what we wanted. Good communication makes life easier. How often are the problems we have with those we love (as well as those we don’t love) because one or the other is not communicating clearly? It happens all the time.
So I’ve been thinking about how God communicates. I’ve come to the conclusion that God doesn’t communicate all that clearly a lot of the time. Or at least, we haven’t figured out how to hear God’s Word clearly. That creates challenges and difficulties. I have often wished that God would provide a great, neon sign, pointing in the direction I should go. Or that the clouds would somehow spontaneously form into a brief message that would make everything clear (I’ve imagined this actually happens sometimes but because we’re too busy looking down at the ground and not up at the clouds, we miss them.) At any rate, God is not often in the business of doling out life-alerts or specific operating instructions.
Christian doctrine tells us that we have God’s Word in the Bible, and that’s all we need to know and discern God’s will for our lives. While I think this is mostly true, and the more familiar you are with the Bible as a whole, the closer you come to the heart of God, it is far from fool proof. Faithful, earnest people too often find themselves on opposite sides of a thorny issue, each supported by passages in bible. And for centuries people have abused scripture, using it as a sort of weapon to bludgeon others to bend to their will. So while the Bible might be a good and reliable way to hear from God, it’s often anything but clear.
We are sometimes able to discern a Word from God by listening carefully to one another. Many times, I’ve heard God’s Word from a friend, in the midst of a casual conversation. Preaching, I think, also falls into this category. As a preacher, I am always aware of the chutzpah it takes to stand in the pulpit and speak on behalf of God — that’s what we in the Reformed Tradition believe happens in preaching — the proclamation of God’s Word. I’ve heard some great sermons and often come away with the sense that I’ve heard from God. And it’s a high honor indeed when someone says to me after a sermon, “It felt like you were speaking directly to me.” I wasn’t — but I believe God was. How humbling that God could use me as an instrument in this way.
In an article from the late December issue of Christian Century, pastor-author Laura Sumner Truax writes:
As a child I was told that God had a wonderful plan for my life and wanted to let me in on every detail. I’d be told what job to take and at what salary, what car to buy and what church to attend. Down to the smallest details of our existence, I was to consult the Lord. It was like a divine Facebook page set up before the world.
It took me a long time to shake off the myth. Not that God wasn’t concerned with the details of my life, but a lot was being left up to me. I was responsible for reading the landscape and making some conclusions and decisions. Using the tools I had and with the broad understanding of what Jesus desired for the world and for me, I simply had to start moving.
So here I am, on my “Sabbath Pause” waiting for God’s Word for my life – and I want details: where to go, what to do, when to move, who to spend time with. And it all seems fairly fuzzy and unclear — no clear instructions, just a general new direction and posture to take into the future.
Once in my life, maybe twice, I believe heard directly from God. The first time was a word of comfort. It was a time of intense fear and anxiety just after my husband Carl was diagnosed with cancer. I was driving on a country road and I received this: “It will be alright.” I immediately felt the fear subside. But immediately I began to wonder… “What does ‘alright’ mean?” Did it mean that Carl would be cured? I think I knew even then that’s not what it meant. As I watched him go through four surgeries, two rounds of chemo and endless radiation treatments, I held tightly to those words. It wasn’t alright. Two years later, when he died, it still wasn’t alright. But ever so slowly, as the thick wall of grief started to come down around me, I discovered it was alright. I was alright, and Carl was alright too. God’s word can be hard.
The last time I heard God’s Word was in Israel – it was like the lifting of a veil; or a weight removed from my shoulders. “Wake up. It’s time to live again” was the message. So clear. But no specifics; no neon signs, no message in the clouds. God is leaving the details up to me.
A friend recently pointed out that birding for me, is like a form of centering prayer. It cleans out my head in such a way as to allow room for God. There is very little speaking...on my part or on God’s...and maybe that’s the key. When God speaks, perhaps it’s not in words — but intuitively, in movements and gestures, like the way a warbler forages for a worm, or a hawk circles in the thermals. It’s not as immediately obvious as a spoken word, but God speaks clearly in a language the heart understands.