May 16th, 2019
"A Lifestyle of Listening"
From: "The Walk: The Life-Changing Journey of Two Friends"
Whenever an awestruck student would ask Dr. Lane how he approached Scripture, he would answer, "I listen to the text." His consistent prayer was that God would allow him to hear the Word and be made wise by His wisdom.
Bill repeated a few phrases again and again. They were his special discoveries, made over a lifetime of listening to his own life, and he repeated them endlessly, it seemed to me. "Timing is of the Lord," was his response, among many others, to my agonized questions about whom I would marry and when.
"Let it simmer on the back burner of your mind," he would say when we would talk about some prospective topic for a paper. I found, indeed, that his advice was true. When I was perplexed by some exegetical problem, I would often go to sleep with it "simmering," only to wake with the solution.
An idea from one of his phrases is still simmering on the back burner of my mind. "You must ask God for a listening heart," he would often say when we would speak about some difficulty I was having with some person or situation. We must listen to theWord, to the silence of prayer, and to the poem of our own lives, for in all these God is speaking. And if God is speaking, then nothing else matters but listening.
Listening to the Word
When it comes to listening to God speak, we must always begin with the Word of God, His clearest and most authoritative voice. But, as in all listening, we must learn to allow the other Person to speak. This may sound oversimplified, but in fact it can be a major task. When we find ourselves trying to listen to those whose speech is slow or deliberate, the great temptation is to finish their sentences for them. The same is often the case when we listen to God's Word, particularly to familiar passages. Adopting a listening stance before the Word means keeping your mind as quiet as possible and letting the Bible finish its own sentences and stories. Allowing the Bible to speak for itself means listening with as few presuppositions as possible.
Often we fail in listening when we read only for theological or doctrinal affirmation. The baptism of Jesus becomes a proof text for immersion and not a scene to which we are transported by our imagination. The crucifixion becomes a necessary piece of the puzzle for redemption, the obligatory final step in a long heilsgeschechte ("holy history"), and not a heartbreaking moment of transformation. Parables and visions become codes to break, sponges to squeeze dry and then leave behind. Sometimes my own temptation is to merely use the Bible as fodder for lyrics.
In all these ways and more, we effectively plug our ears to the voice of Scripture. The simple act (which is sometimes not so simple) of quieting your mind and heart and allowing the Bible to speak in its own voice to you will transform your time with theWord. Be quiet, be patient, and let Scripture say what it has to say!
Bill loved to remind us that in the ancient world all reading was done out loud. "This is how everyone was taught to read," he would say. Even when one was alone, reading was done audibly. That is how Philip knew from what section of the Old Testament the Ethiopian eunuch was reading in Acts 8. He came upon the eunuch sitting on his chariot, reading aloud to himself from the book of the prophet Isaiah.
Keep in mind that the Scriptures were read from the beginning in this way and were no doubt written with this in mind. So try reading them out loud to yourself. There is no way to estimate the impact of hearing the sound of your own voice speak thewords of Scripture.
Listening to the Silence of Prayer
Prayer teaches us that we must learn to listen not only to words but also to the silence, for, as Mother Teresa said, "God speaks in the silence of the heart."
While I was at Western I attended a seminar with Bill in which Eberhard Bethge, the great friend and biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shared a story of their days in the underground seminary (Hitler had closed all the seminaries). When the young men whom Bonhoeffer was discipling in their clandestine seminary complained to him that their minds were wandering during the mandatory two-hour-long silent prayer sessions, he told them not to fight the distractions.
"Follow your mind wherever it goes," Bonhoeffer said. "Follow your thoughts until they stop, and then wherever they stop, make that person or problem a matter for prayer. Fighting it may only lead to more noise and inner turmoil."
We must learn to allow the Other to speak in prayer. We all have friends who dominate the conversation. Are we that sort of friend to God? Who has the more worthwhile things to say?
As in Bible reading, sometimes it is helpful to break old habits. If your prayers seem long, simply pray the Lord's Prayer. Thesimplicity of it will be refreshing, and more time will be left for listening. Remember Jesus gave this prayer in response to therequest, "Lord, teach us to pray."
Our physical attitude during prayer is also important. Some find it best to kneel. I've heard it said that the discomfort from kneeling on a hard floor helps some people to focus. (Bill preferred to sit comfortably upright in a chair.) Jesus' brother James was said to have knees like a camel from all the time he spent in prayer. Some sit upright, some walk, some drive, some lie facedown. The focus is not the posture or some gimmick; the focus is solely upon the voice of the One who speaks in thesilence of the heart, and we must come quiet, faithful, and courteous listeners.
God speaks through the words of Scripture, through the silence of prayer, and also through the poem of our lives.
Listening to the Poem of Our Lives
Your life is a poem, a song, a parable. In essence, Paul told the Ephesians, "We are God's masterpieces, God's poems..." (2:10). The Bible gives abundant examples of lives that were living parables:
Abraham offered his son to God, a parable of God's offering His own Son for us (Genesis 22:1-18).
Jacob wrestled with God, a parable of the struggle we all have in finding faith (Genesis 32:22-31).
Job suffered enormous losses, a parable of discovering the truth that God doesn't always give us answers, but He always gives us Himself (see book of Job).
The best way to learn to listen to the parable of your life is to examine the parable of Jesus and learn how to listen to them.
Bill believed that the parable is not simply one form of communication among many. He taught us that it is the paradigm for communication. It is an extended metaphor that, through extension, has come to life with characters and a story. A metaphor simply says, "This is like that."
But as a parable is able to enlarge the statement: This is how this is like that; This is what that means or can mean; This is what this means for you. The extension of the metaphor into parable allows you and me to become characters in the story since we tend to identify with one or another character in the parable. You are the boy who strayed off with the family riches. I am theolder jealous son whose teeth were set on edge by the return of the Prodigal. Perhaps you are the woman who was on her hands and knees all day, searching for the treasure of a single lost coin. The parable draws us in, forcing us to participate or get out altogether. It is just the same with our lives.
The parable of Jesus often lack closure. By this I do not mean that they don't have endings in and of themselves. The boy returns home, the judge finally listens to the widow, the pearl is found. But what is often left silent in Jesus' parables is themoral, the summation, and the conclusion. Within the freedom of the form of the parable, Jesus leaves the "Aha!" to us. Themoment of realization is ours to savor. That is the parable's greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. Thetranscendent moment when the eyes of the heart are opened is left for you to experience alone with the Spirit.
Like parables, our lives also often lack closure. But this should not be seen as a frustration; rather, it should be understood as an invitation to listen! For it is still Jesus who is creating the story as you live day by day. Like the parables, you are allowed not only to be one character in the story; more important, you are invited to identify with the other characters in the parable that is your life. And through identification with others, you experience to the fullest all that your parable means. The moral, theexplanation, is left to us to discover by listening to Scripture and prayer.
We must develop a lifestyle of listening. All around and through and especially in us, God speaks. If God is speaking, then nothing else matters but listening!