Sunday, October 7, 2007

Vertical Habit #4 - "I'm Listening"

Here's the sermon from this morning.
It is quite a bit rougher than usual. I didn't get the manuscript cleaned up before I preached it. And now it seems . . . too late. So imagine the transitions smoother and the connections tighter. OK?
The Scripture was I Samuel 3:1-11

Vertical Habits . . . phrases that we use to strengthen our connection with God.
I Love You; I’m Sorry; Why, God?.
This week the habit on which we will focus is the encapsulated in the phrase “I’m Listening” In our scripture story, we heard the remarkable story of the young man, Samuel, who was coached by the Old Priest, to say to God, “Speak, Lord. For your servant is listening.”
This idea that Samuel was coached in listening has made me realize that listening is one of the communication skills I have had the least training – yet am called on to use the most. I’ll bet that it true for you, too. I was very carefully taught to read in the days of “See Spot Run”. And I learned to write, even though I wasn’t very good at it at first. I traced letters over and over again. I struggled to stay within the lines. And cursive! What a challenge that was! I still remember Mrs. Bessler and Mrs. Quail’s lessons in cursive writing.
Later, I was trained in how to organize a 5 paragraph theme. And then essays of various lengths and purposes. And sermons. Sermon writing is an ongoing training ground.
I was formally trained in public speaking as well. My mother was my first teacher. Stand up straight. Project. Enunciate. Articulate. Debate and Speech in high school. Speech classes in Seminary. Princeton was, at that time, quite different from other seminaries They left whether we had something worthwhile to say to our Biblical studies and theology teachers. in that the speech department was made up, not of preachers, but of actors and acting teachers, who schooled us on techniques that made for good communication.
They even taught communication through body language. A Princeton grad never wipes her hands after she breaks the bread.
But, and I’ve really searched my transcripts as well as my memory. I never had a course in listening.
And listening is the communication skill that most of us use most frequently. Many of us spend 70-80% of our waking hours in some form of communication. (I guess the TV counts) Of that time, we spend about 9% writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking and 45% listening. Yet most of us are not very good listeners. (U of Missouri Extension – “Listening: Our Most Used Communication Skill)

On average, we retain only half of what we hear for a brief period, and only half of that do we remember a couple of days later. 75% of what we hear, we don’t really listen to. That’s pretty poor.
I wonder if poor listening skills had something to do with the reason that in the scripture we read this morning it says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. There weren’t a whole lot of people listening and paying attention to what God said. So maybe, he was speaking and nobody noticed. Like that puzzler, If a tree falls in a forest, does it make any noise? Maybe God’s voice had no ear in which to be received.
What is it that keeps us from listening for and hearing God’s voice?
It certainly isn’t that God is not speaking. One of our core beliefs as Presbyterians and as Christians is that God’s Word is alive and active. We believe that the Bible, God’s written word, speaks to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, communicating not only the story of God’s mighty deeds in the past, but conveying his love for us here and now.
One of the ways the Bible communicates that love is by assuring us that God is listening to us. Psalm after Psalm, like #18 affirms that “I called upon the Lord, and from his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.” Psalm 19 prays “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord.”
Psalm 139 – before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it already.
The New Testament, we are urged to approach the throne of grace with confidence as our prayers draw us near to the one who knows our needs before we even call his name.

Listening is a vertical habit – it is God’s habitual stance toward us.

So if God is speaking encouraging the conversation, how can we improve our vertical habit of listening in order to become better listeners for God.

Samuel – or Samuel’s listening coach Eli – gives the first clue: He says, to say you are interested. Say, Speak, Lord. I’m listening. That sounds so simple, you can’t believe it would make any difference. But there it is. And what the Bible tells us, studies by university communication researchers confirm: Saying that you are interested in something helps you to pay better attention and listen more effectively. Clearly, they didn’t do an experiment with God. But they did study what difference it made if listeners to human speakers expressed a willingness to listen and be interested. People who came to a speech with the attitude, “This is going to be dull” heard much less of what was said than those whose attitude was “Let’s see if there’s anything I can take away from this” They listened to the same speech. But listeners who said they’d listen found their time more interesting, and more useful.
Can we apply that to reading the Bible, or even, now I’m blue skying – sermons? Could we banish even the thought that “Boy, is this going to be dull!” And could we quit saying it to our children? That they’ll find church boring? Jesus said, Let children come to me and hinder them not. It might be that we are hindering them by conveying that they won’t get anything out of the service or worship. And by and large that is wrong.
Ask anyone whose cut their teeth on children’s worship. Jan Siders and I led chapel together for years. The kids did not expect it to be dull. And they were a fabulous congregation! You know why? Because kids listen better than adults. Yes, they do!
A University of Minnesota professor conducted an experiment which tested the attentiveness of students in grades 1-12. These showed that 90% of 1st and 2nd graders were listening attentively. By junior high, 44% of the students were paying attention at any given time. By the upper levels of high school, the average had dropped to 28%, which is almost as bad as the level of adults. Maybe that’s why Jesus says that we have to enter the kingdom like a little child. Cause they are the ones paying attention!!!
God’s Word is exciting. Life changing. Challenging. Surely it is not too much to ask that we open the Bible, and even listen to the sermon with the expectation that there will be something interesting for us there.

When he does speak to Samuel, God says, “I’m going to tell you something that’s going to make the whole country’s ears tingle.”
Which brings us to the second reason that it’s sometimes difficult to listen to God. Tingling ears doesn’t really sound all that good. God is going to say something difficult to Samuel. And God often says difficult things to us. It’s hard to listen when something difficult is being said.
This is what psychologists call becoming too stimulated. When we hear a speaker say something with which we disagree, we begin to use our active brain to develop counter arguments, so that we pay little attention to the next thing that is said. We are busy formulating questions we can ask to expose the error. Or formulating arguments to rebut what’s been said. In cases like this, our listening efficiency drops to near zero. (U of Missouri Extension, again).
I know this is true because I listened to sermons this way for years. I’d hear some mistake in Biblical scholarship, or some sloppy theology, and BOOM! My frustrated inner preacher would be going OFF. I’d never be mentally present for God to speak to through those services. What a waste!
The Bible is full of difficult passages. God rarely has easy answers for our personal problems, our church controversies, our real world dilemmas. The Word of God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. And we are going to be afflicted sometimes. The Word of God evokes not just thoughts, but emotions. And some of them are uncomfortable. It is an act of faith and a practice of self - discipline to note where you disagree, or want to argue, but then NOT TO DO IT! Listening coaches say, jot down the sticking point, but then listen to the rest before you start to figure out how to argue your case To keep listening, and postpone acceptance or rejection of the message until you really get the whole thing. Until you are sure that you understand, and have tried to figure out how what you have heard could possibly be. .
Samuel said “Speak, Lord” and then he didn’t say another word until he had heard God out. Is that easy? Not for me. But I’m going to try to get better at it, because I long to be a better listener. I want to strengthen this vertical habit.
But the real good news, the amazing thing about God that the story of Samuel tells us has little to do with developing our skills for listening to God. Hopefully we can express interest. Hopefully, we can learn to hear God out. But the best thing, the most important thing about this story is that God lovingly, insistently and repeatedly initiates the vertical contact with Samuel.
We worship a God who, not once, not twice, but over and over again speaks our name and calls out to us in the night. This is a God who does not give up when we misunderstand, or get up and go in the wrong direction. God patiently tries again and again to open a conversation, to hear and to be heard.
Today we celebrate, with Christians around the world, the meal in which Jesus Christ spoke to his disciples about the lengths to which we would go to show his love and his connection to us. He said, “This bread is my body, given for you. This cup is the new covenant poured out in my blood.” They didn’t understand. Not right away. And neither do we. But God just keeps inviting us to conversation with him, inviting us to the table, until finally by the grace of his Holy Spirit we respond, “Speak, Lord. Your servants are listening. We’re listening to You.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

World Communion Sunday - Oct. 7!

One of my favorite celebrations of the church year is World Communion Sunday.
In looking at worship resources, I ran across this photo essay. If you have 5 minutes, you gotta see this! It's called "What the World Eats" and you will be fascinated.,29307,1626519,00.html
My suggestion -
Use it as a devotional. Pray for these families and pray that, on Oct. 7, we might be blessed with a sense of belonging to one family as we eat at one table.

More thoughts on "Why?"

At the men's Tuesday morning coffee group, which includes several veterans, the talk turned to Ken Burn's PBS documentary on World War II. Apparently, the show is quite frank about the brutality and horrors of that conflict. One of the men said, And people never seem to learn! That's one of the "why?"s we have to ask God: "Why don't people learn? Why do we keep making war?"

Monday, October 1, 2007

Why? - The Lament Sermon - VH #3

Scripture: Psalm 137
(The Melodian’s Reggae arrangement)

Vertical Habits are about phrases that we use to strengthen our connection and communication with God. “I Love You” is the basis for our relationship. We need to hear this phrase and say it. “I’m Sorry” is what we say when we enter God’s presence. And we need to repent our faults and failings and receive his forgiveness and love.
Both those phrases are regular parts of the worship service – Praise and Confession. Look in your bulletin every week . . . .
This week we are going to examine a Vertical Habit that we often leave out of worship, and may even leave out of our private prayers. It is the habit of coming to God questioning “Why?”
Why, O God, have you let this horrible thing happen to me?
Why does my life suddenly seem so short?
Why do I feel so alone?
Why have the people I thought were my friends stabbed me in the back?
Why is there this suffering in the world?

The vertical habit of why is not the innocent child’s curiosity – Why is the sky blue? But the pain of country song “why do the stars keep on shining”
We call this “why” lament.
And though we do not practice this habit every time we gather for worship, when we look into God’s word, the Bible, and particularly at the Psalms, the Songbook for God’s people, we see that Why? is one of the primary ways people have addressed God and connected to God through the generations and the years. Anger, bewilderment, sorrow and grief, these are the feelings that get expressed in lament – in connecting to God through “Why?”

Maybe life is going well for you right now. I hope so. Maybe you didn’t come to church this morning with an ache in your heart so deep it fills your eyes with tears. Maybe you haven’t suffered the loss of a loved one. Maybe your social and emotional bank account is well in the black. Maybe your real bank account is nicely padded, too. Maybe you don’t watch the news, and Guantanemo, Anbar, Myanmar are just places that seem very far away. Maybe the subject of lament just seems like sort of a downer. Well. I’m glad if your conversation with God can be more upbeat right now. But you might want to file this away for some rainy day. Even if there’s not a cloud in your sky right now, storms do rise. They do rise.

One storm, in which lament is appropriate, is the storm of fear in the face of weakness and death. Hear how the Psalmist addresses God with that fear:

How long, O Lord?
How long must I bear this pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
put the light back in my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.

That’s Psalm 13.
There are circumstances in our lives which cause us to fear that the pain we feel is going to go on forever, that the heartache is going to blot out years of our lives. The first year of grief is often an unrelenting ordeal. Everytime the tide of sadness seems to ebb, another anniversary comes along, another holiday meal with an empty spot at the table, another reminder of what might have been. And it washes over everything again. How long must I bear this? We wonder. How long can we bear this?

And what if we can’t? Most times in our lives, the fact that it will be over someday doesn’t enter into our thinking. But when it does, doesn’t it sound like this: Psalm 22 expresses it this way:

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax, it is melted within me.
My strength is dried up like a broken piece of pottery,
And my tongue cleaves to my jaw; I have one foot in the grave.

Human weakness and fear are occasions for lament.

So is betrayal by enemies, or even worse, by those we love.

Psalm 3 says,
O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;
Psalm 55 is more graphic:
I am distraught by the noise of the enemy, for they bring trouble upon me.
And in anger they cherish enmity against me.

But that’s not the worst of it. The worse pain is what comes from someone we used to love. Again, Psalm 55:
If it were an enemy who taunted me, then I could bear it.
It is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him.
But it is my equal, my companion, my familiar friend.

And with the pain, there is anger:
We used to hold sweet conversations together
Within God’s house, even we walked in fellowship.
Let death come upon them! Let them go down to Sheol alive!
Let them die, screaming in terror!
Betrayal brings out the most primal response – an instinct for revenge and retribution. When you get betrayed, nobody tells you that’s coming. A person could wonder if they were going crazy, losing their mind or their heart, or their faith to think such malicious thoughts. But there it is – right there in the Good Book. It’s not evil or crazy or abnormal. It’s lament. It’s part of asking “Why?” to ask “Why is that two faced backstabber still walking around? Why don’t you strike him dead? Soon.”

Perhaps the most painful and difficult “Why?” to utter is the one we have to ask when we blame God for the bad things that befall us.
Psalm 88 –
Thou hast caused my companions to shun me;
Though hast made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;’
My eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon thee, O Lord, Do you want my ghost to praise you?
Am I supposed to declare your steadfast love from the grave?

“Raging at God is a part of the Hebrew tradition,” theologians Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson write, (All our Losses, All our Griefs) “The psalms of lament are filled with anger at God.”

Sometimes it is personal and individual, as it seems to be in Psalm 88 – “Why is this happening to me?” but often the question is asked with the whole people of God in mind. The Why question is “Why have bad things happened to people who did not deserve them?”

When the Psalms were being written and recorded, God’s people were often being attacked and sometimes conquered militarily and politically. Some of the Psalms reflect a lament about the world situation and what happens to those who lack power to defend themselves:

Psalm 129 – “Sorely have they afflicted Israel from its youth. The plowers plowed upon his back. Long and deep are their furrows.”

Lament is a way to speak with God about the many and tragic situations in the world in which deep wounds are being opened, and reopened like furrows under a plow, or earth cratered a bomb.

One of the most poignant and beautiful Psalms speaks in unbelievably current accents of the tragedy and lost- ness of those who have lost home and hope. How many refugees have been created by Katrina? How many more in Iraq. And Palestine. And Sudan.

Psalm 137 is a refugee song of lament: Listen to it.
By the river of Babylon, where we sat down
And there we wept when we remembered Zion
The wicked carried us away into captivity, and required of us a song
But how can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

It’s enough to break your heart, this lament business. But it doesn’t, does it? And that’s the amazingly graceful thing:

That weeping, shouting, raging at God with our “Why” questions does not damage or destroy our connection with God. We might expect that it would, for if we yelled and complained to each other in such stark terms, it would surely cause a rift. But, with God, the lament preserves and strengthens the bond between us.

One way that works is that honest expression draws us closer. In lament we do not attempt to hide any part of our lives from God, but we let it all come out, as naturally as a child expresses grief over a skinned knee or bruised feelings by crying in his Mother’s arms.

But there is more to it than that. And that is why we need to practice this vertical habit using the Psalms as our coach and guide. Because when we look to the Prayer book of God’s people we find that laments are hardly ever offered unalloyed complaint. If you’ll look back at any of the Psalms we’ve read this morning, you’ll find that, as Calvin Seminary’s John Witvliet writes, “Laments, to be sure begin with a cry against the painfulness of individual tragedy, a cry against the injustices of society. But laments almost never stay there. Having voiced our pain and struggle, laments then recite God’s mighty deeds on our behalf. Lament’s give voice to our pain but lead us out of that pain by God’s strength. This is the very pattern of our everyday living: from struggle to praise, from pain to remembering God’s faithful good ness, from injustice to awe and wonder at the divine majesty.” (The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, p. 32)

The connection to God isn’t accomplished by overwhelming the lament with the praise, drowning out the sad music with something more upbeat.
It is in practicing and acting out, until we finally believe in our hearts what we have spoken with our lips – that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus prayed Psalm 22 as he hung on a cross, who said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” just at the point he was demonstrating, even unto death, he would never forsake us.
To ask why of God is to find that God’s own being-with-us is itself the answer.