Back in May I had the opportunity to take two days and go out to the Christian Reformed Conference Grounds on the shore of Lake Michigan to participate in a listening retreat with a dozen other pastors. The experience made many of us realize just how much we have lost the ability to truly listen well—to listen to God, to listen to one another. It was a retreat that intentionally brought together pastors who represent a broad range of ministry contexts and positions. And it was admittedly a sort of experiment that the denomination is trying out to address what we all see and recognize as increasing polarized division in our culture.
At this retreat there were pastors from Classis Zeeland who represent churches and contexts that are very much traditional and conservative. There were also pastors from Classis Grand Rapids East who represent churches that are much more liberal and progressive. And then there were pastors like myself—admittedly a moderate centrist—representing churches like Fellowship, which has a mixed range of people that don’t all fit neatly into any one category. The twelve of us pastors at this retreat who spread across this range positions and postures on culturally divisive issues all came together and spent two days huddled with one another.
could we rediscover together what it means to be able to listen well to one another?
The real take away from this retreat was not any new learning about talking. We all knew how to present the cultural positions and postures we represent. The real take away had to do with listening. And that was the point of this retreat in the first place. Could we rediscover together what it means to be able to listen well to one another? At the end of the two days we didn’t arrive even one step closer to agreement on the cultural issues that divide us—but that was never the goal either. What we did arrive at was a greater understanding of the people who represent opposing points of view. We gained some better insight into seeing people who hold differing opinions as still being human—image-bearers of the God who created each of us. It is the faith practice of listening that got us there.
There are two passages I want us to see today. The first comes from the gospel of John and includes some words from Jesus about what it means to listen to the voice of God. And then I want to focus most of our attention today on a passage from the Psalms that also gives us a perspective on listening to the voice of God.
John 10:1–6 (NIV)
1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
listening involves some discernment | is it the voice of God or not?
Jesus uses the story of shepherds and sheep to illustrate the way God’s people know the voice of God and follow the voice of God. It is interesting in this story as well that Jesus draws attention to the way that even sheep are able to discern between the true voice of the shepherd and the voices of those who are not the shepherd. Listening involves some discernment. Is it the voice of God or not? This is where I want us to jump into the Psalms as a launch point for considering what the voice of the shepherd sounds like, and what it means for us to listen for the voice of God.
Psalm 19:1–6 (NIV)
1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. 3 They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. 4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. 5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. 6 It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.
health benefits of taking time to walk outdoors in nature
The American Journal of Psychology recently published an academic study which confirms the health benefits of taking time to walk outdoors in nature. There is something refreshing and rejuvenating that comes from simply spending time outdoors in the creation. Those of you who enjoy camping know something about this. There doesn’t seem to be a logical reason why anyone would leave all the comforts of home to go spend time in the woods without access to air conditioning, or bathrooms that contain full plumbing. Okay, I do recognize that there are at least some of you who camp in recreational vehicles which include all the comforts of home. And there are others of us here who would say to you, “that’s not really camping.” It is a debate I don’t think we need to open up here. But as someone who enjoyed backpacking in the mountains of Colorado, you might be able to guess which side of that debate I take.
To be out for days at a time in surroundings which are purely unspoiled nature as God has created it provides an experience which does not happen any other way. An experience. I could be more precise about what that is. It is listening. God speaks through his creation. God is always speaking through his creation. Most of the time, we just aren’t listening. God also speaks through his Word. We hear the voice of God in scripture. Yet, often we read the Bible for information or knowledge. That’s not the same as reading the Bible for listening—to listen for the Holy Spirit speaking through those words of scripture.
Here is what our church doctrines have to say about that in article 2 of the Belgic Confession.
We know God by two means:
First, by the creation, preservation, and government
of the universe,
since that universe is before our eyes
like a beautiful book
in which all creatures,
great and small,
are as letters
to make us ponder
the invisible things of God:
God’s eternal power and divinity,
as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20.
All these things are enough to convict humans
and to leave them without excuse.
Second, God makes himself known to us more clearly
by his holy and divine Word,
as much as we need in this life,
for God’s glory
and for our salvation.
Listening, then, is not just something that takes place because we happen to have ears. Listening is something that we can do better if we develop the habits and patterns of listening well. In other words, listening is a faith practice. It is a faith practice which can help us to become better disciples of Jesus. Unpack that a bit with me. I am going to be using themes that will show up throughout the week. If you are using the Faith Practices booklet or using the website resources that we provide, you will see these ideas reinforced in the week ahead as you try out different ways of listening to God over the coming week. Let’s center our attention today in two main areas. First, let’s pay attention about who we are listening to. And second, let’s pay attention to how we listen well.
To whom am I listening?
technology has brought constant noise into our lives
Who do you listen to? Technology has brought constant noise into our lives. The American Revolution as well as the French Revolution were both spurred on by the publishing of pamphlets and newspapers. It was the media at the time which could spread ideas and information to a mass audience. Later on came the invention of radio. It was radio that was used to spur on the uprising of ethnic violence in Rwanda in 1994 resulting in the near genocide of the Tutsi people in Rwanda. Television also became a means of mass communication. Then came the internet.
in today’s world I can hear only what I want to hear
Today, the streams of information and noise we receive have become a custom buffet that serves us exactly and exclusively what we want to hear. Instead of reading newspapers that present journalism on all sides of the news, we are pulled in by websites that only present what we want to read. Instead of television news programs that report evenly on events of the world, we have cable news channels that bend to the extremes of one side or the other. Instead of television channels that present a variety of programming to a variety of interests, we have streaming video services that allow us to dial in to exactly and only what we want to watch.
algorithms keep giving me what to hear next
Algorithms control all of this. The way that websites and streaming services and smartphone apps and podcasts make money is by getting you to stay engaged with their content. And the way they get you to stay engaged with their content is by always presenting you with the next video to watch, or the next news headline to click on, or the next podcast to listen to. They use algorithms to analyze what you are watching, and reading, and listening to. And then the algorithm keeps placing in front of you what to watch next, what to read next, and what to listen to next.
Don’t believe me? How else does Meijer know how to send me coupons in the mail that happen to be for exactly what I buy? How else does Facebook know how to put Amazon ads in the sidebar that happen to be for exactly what I shop for? All this content is controlled by algorithms.
answer: I am listening to an algorithm
So, let me ask the question again. Who do you listen to? If any one of us does not take the time to give serious thought and intentional discernment to that question, then I already know the answer. Who do you listen to? You listen to an algorithm. You listen to whatever the algorithm tells you to listen to. The faith practice of listening reorients us away from all the competing noise and clutter pulling at our attention.
admit that there are many other voices competing for my attention
Let me put us face-to-face with a moment of honesty. I would love to answer the question, “who do you listen to?” with an answer of, “I listen to God.” But I think a moment of honesty is most helpful. The gospel always confronts us with our need to repent and turn to Jesus. I suggest that the honest answer for each of us would have to include a moment of confession and repentance. Who do you listen to? I can honestly say that I truly want to listen to God above all else. I can truly say that it is my desire and intent to listen to God above all else. But here is where you and I need to be completely honest before God. I admit that there are a lot of other voices in my world competing for my attention. I confess that there are times when I allow the voice of God to be drowned out by other voices. It’s not that I reject the voice of God; it’s not like I turn my back on God or close off my ears to God. I just let the voice of God get shuffled and mixed in with all the other voices. I let the voice of God get lost and overshadowed by all the other voices.
the faith practice of listening teaches us to quiet the other voices so that God’s voice rises above all the rest
The faith practice of listening teaches us to quiet the other voices so that God’s voice rises above all the rest.
Psalm 19 shows us an algorithm
Let’s take it back to algorithms. Look again those first six verses from Psalm 19. It’s an algorithm. The Psalmist is pointing out that the creation itself is an algorithm. The point of algorithms on our computers and smartphones is to feed us information that keeps us clicking to what’s next. Those algorithms from Google and Facebook and TikTok are meant to pull you in and keep pushing you towards what to see next. That’s what King David sees when he writes in this Psalm about the creation. The heavens declare the glory of God. The creation itself points us towards the one who made the heavens. The creation itself is clickbait to draw us in towards the one who put the whole creation together.
Are there things in this world which can highlight and amplify the voice of God? Absolutely! That is precisely what David is saying in these verses from Psalm 19. You can absolutely be intentional to shut off the other noises and place yourself into spaces which crank up the volume of God’s voice.
let the algorithm of God’s creation open me up to seeing the creator who is at work within the creation
Take a walk in the woods; go for a drive in the country; take a trip out to the CRC Conference Grounds on the shores of Lake Michigan and just spend some time sitting there on one of the many benches overlooking the beach. Let the algorithm of God’s creation open you up to seeing the creator who is at work within the creation.
let the words of God in the Bible settle into my thoughts and meditations throughout the day
Keep scripture in front of you every day. Let the words of God in the Bible settle into your thoughts and meditations throughout the day. Nowhere is the voice of God more direct and abundant than in the words of the Bible. Every day scripture can show us more deeply who God is and who we are as his beloved, forgiven, and redeemed family. Listen to God speak that to you every day.
how do I listen well?
consistency, patience, and transformation are in the material provided for the coming week
How do we do that well? How do we listen well? As you work this week through the material provided in our booklet and on the website, you will notice a few suggestions to help answer this question. How do we listen well? We can be reminded of things like being consistent, being patient, and being transformed. I won’t say anything more here about consistency, patience, or transformation because you have all that information in the material provided for the coming week. Let me take a moment and mention a few additional strategies for being people who listen well.
reduce distractions — turn off other voices, we are not good multitaskers full attention — turn off my own voice, set aside my agenda and focus on the one to whom I am listening
Be present. Better yet, be fully present. As much as we like to think and say that we are people can multitask, we really cannot. We are not multitaskers. We do not do several things at once very well. And the task of listening is really something we cannot multitask. Good listening requires full attention. It requires me to be fully present. When someone else is trying to talk to me, I cannot really be listening if I am scrolling on my phone at the same time. I am not being fully present. Likewise, if I am always driven by an agenda of what I want to do, where I want to go, what I want to see accomplished, what I think should happen next, then I am not fully present. I cannot fully listen to what others need if I am only thinking about what I need. I cannot fully listen to what others desire if I am only thinking about my own desires. I cannot fully listen to the feelings of others if I cannot see past my own feelings.
Listening requires presence. It is true of listening to other people and it is true of listening to God. I cannot listen to what God wants for me if all I care about is what I want for me. Listening means I will not only turn off the other voices that draw for my attention, I will turn off my own voice as well so that I can be fully present to hear what God says.
ask clarifying questions — what am I not hearing that I should hear? consider new perspectives — what am I not understanding that I should understand?
Be curious. Those who know how to practice active listening skills know the importance of asking clarifying questions. The goal of good listening is trying to understand what someone else is communicating to the best of our abilities. Sometimes that means we cannot assume what they are trying to say, we have to ask questions to know better exactly what they are trying to say. In other words, good listening requires curiosity. What am I not hearing that I should hear? What am I not seeing that I should see? What am I not understanding that I should understand? These are questions that require honest curiosity.
the Bible is not meant to give us proof texts that confirm what we already want to believe is true — it is meant to form and shape us more into the image of Christ
It is this kind of curiosity which allows our listening to God to become transformative listening. It is the kind of listening that beckons us to be formed more and more into the image of Christ. And isn’t that what becoming a better disciple of Jesus is all about? The Bible is not there to give us proof texts that confirm what I already want to believe is true. That’s not listening. The Bible is there so that God’s word can form and shape us more and more into the image of Christ. That happens when we listen with curiosity to hear what we have not been hearing, to see what we have not been seeing, and to understand what we have not been understanding.
keep listening; and keep being formed more and more into the disciples of Jesus we are created, redeemed, called, and equipped to be
God is not silent. God is not hiding. God is not absent. Maybe there are times in life when it may feel that way. But it is not God who is distancing himself from us. Rather, it tends to be us who distance ourselves away from God. Sometimes this happens by our own doing. Sometimes this happens because we are caught in a fallen world which throws so much brokenness in our way that we have trouble seeing God. But God is still there. God is still speaking through his word and through his world. God still reveals himself in ways that remind us of his love and his faithfulness. Keep listening; and keep being formed more and more into the disciples of Jesus we are created, redeemed, called, and equipped to be.