Tag Archives: listening

To retreat or not to retreat; that is the question!

The verb “retreat” is a bad word from a military perspective.  Military leaders don’t like to retreat, they always want to advance towards their goals.  Retreat often means defeat.   It means to fall back and give yourself a chance to regroup.

In civilian life, though, the noun “retreat” is a good one.  This summer you may have gone to a resort that is described as a “retreat”, a woodland oasis, away from the busy city.  As a church we have gone on a number of “retreats”, weekends where we go away as a community.   I wonder about how we can use the verb “retreat”.  Do you ever feel the need to retreat, to stop advancing?  Do you ever need the opportunity to regroup?

Jesus felt the need to retreat.  At numerous times throughout the gospels we see him taking time to retreat.  Sometimes it’s a mini-retreat, an evening on a lonely mountainside alone.  Other times it’s weeks of time in the wilderness, where he faces his deepest fears alone.  Sometimes his retreats away are chosen, but other times they are forced upon him.  He did not want to pray alone in the garden of Gethsemene, but the disciples could not watch and pray with him.  It was a lonely time, a time to listen to the voice of God.

This Sunday I want to challenge us all to think about retreats in the context of our lives.  What would a retreat look like for you?  Is worship a time of retreat?  Do you take the time to retreat alone, or are your alone times filled with busy activities and entertainments?  What would God reveal to you in a time of silence?

This week’s prayer:   Help us to hear your voice calling us to a quiet place, a place where we can better hear your voice.  Amen.

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A quick listener

Quick is a word we don’t usually associate with listening. Quick-tempered is an adjective, and we all know people who are always quick to say something. But a quick listener, not so much. Maybe because listening seems to have a passive element to it. You just sit there without moving a muscle and the sound waves hit your ear. How can that be quick?

But notice that it’s not hearing we are talking about here. Hearing is something that just happens to us from outside…we hear noises, we hear a voice. It’s a biological reaction…sound waves hitting the old ear drum. It’s not hearing we’re after here…it’s listening that we need to be quick at. Listening involves effort, it involves paying attention, it involves caring about what is being heard.

James, in the first chapter of his letter writes; “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger…” What would change in your life if you were a quick listener…an attentive listener? If you had listening skills that would allow you to always pick up not only the words but the meaning of the words people spoke to you?

I think I would be a better listener if I wasn’t thinking about what I wanted to say next. Because I am quick to speak, I often don’t have the space I need to be a quick listener. What is God trying to teach me here? If you listen you’ll hear more about this on Sunday.

This week’s prayer:  God, you fill the world with listening possibilities every day. Help us realize our listening potential!

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That rings a bell

In my silent retreat this week at a monastery in New York, the worship services began with a bell ringing. A big bell is a beautiful sound that draws your attention. It’s no surprise that many religious traditions begin services with the sound of a bell. But Mennonites are not bell ringers. Long ago we decided that we didn’t need fancy bells and whistles to get our attention. We will come to church without external calls to worship, and assemble on time for our services. We come to worship because we want to hear what God is saying to us.

One of the things that I particularly appreciate about First Mennonite is that people pay attention when I’m preaching. Having listened and worked hard to hear God’s good news message for our church, I appreciate that people are respectful and listening, even though I know that not every sermon speaks to everyone equally.

I would like to see the same sort of respect and attention given to the scripture that begins our service. God calls us through scripture, and each week the call to worship is like a bell that should draw and focus our attention. I wonder if you notice that I do not begin the service with some chitchat about how I am and what nice weather we’re having. If it was chitchatting, then it wouldn’t matter very much to me if people drifted in gradually and others buried their head in the bulletin reading the announcements.

The call to worship is proclamation. It is God’s word from scripture that sets the tone and theme of our worship service. Because it’s the first thing that we hear in a service, it’s strength and power has the potential to reverberate in us throughout the week.

To enable us to hear this call to worship, I am asking that if you are in the foyer when I reach the pulpit, please remain at the back of the church until people stand for the first song. You may think you are being inobtrusive, just slipping in. But I can assure you since I have a view of everyone’s eyes, many people’s heads and most people’s eyes are turning to watch you take your seat. So not only are you missing the call to worship because you are walking in late, you are distracting everyone else’s concentration.

I wonder whether part of this inattention has to do with preparation for worship; we aren’t quite tuned in at first. By the time the prayers of the people and the sermon come around we are more focussed. Perhaps we need to begin our preparations at home with this week’s prayer:

Dear God: You know I need good news this week; you have words that will touch the deepest longings I have. On Sunday morning as I get ready and come to church, give me an expectant and open heart so that I can hear all you have to say to me.

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Picturing God

The Lord is my Shepherd. It’s not surprising that this image came from a culture that herded sheep. The same goes for God as a rock, a fortress and a shade on my right hand. You can bet it wasn’t the Inuit culture picturing God as shade. People have always used what they are familiar with to describe characteristics of God.

The other week Phil Bender talked about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. Or salt. Or light. The Bible talks about it as a sower who went out to sow, or a bridegroom, or a banquet, or a vineyard. People tried to understand their faith using the things in their own two hands. They tried to use things they understood completely to help them understand a mystery that is incomplete.

So…what images do we use today to try to understand God? Thinking about God shouldn’t be frozen in the 1st century. What do we have in our own two hands? Well, some farmers in our church still understand vineyards and sheep. But what about the rest of us? How about power tools? Is there something about power tools that can help you describe God? What about a hypodermic needle? An apartment building? A computer? A shopping mall?  Plumbing?  Telephones?  What about a bicycle or car? When you’re driving or biking or doing whatever, ask yourself, “How does this relate to the way God is working in the world?”

We have all the ingredients around us to learn about God, we just have to pay attention, and listen. What is God cooking up in church life these days? Come this Sunday and together we’ll think about God the Master Chef.

This week’s prayer: Help me use the things around me to understand You better. Open my eyes to the way You are working in my life, in our world.

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Finding a voice

I remember the first time I spoke from a pulpit. It was in my last year of high school. It was a New Years Eve service, which traditionally was a sharing service. Anyone could get up and share something that God had done in their life. I remember the darkness of the building…it was very big, and even with the lights on it was sort of cavernous and shadowy. It was a smaller group than the normal Sunday service, and there was a feeling of joy in the meeting, which was memorable since most services were very solemn and serious. I don’t remember at all what I shared. I know that I had prepared something and took a piece of paper up with me. What I do remember very clearly are the rows of upturned faces. The quietness into which I spoke. The attentiveness. The respectful listening. I had something in my heart about God that I wanted to share, and these people were listening to me. They really listened.

I didn’t run out right then and there and aim to be a pastor. That took around 25 years. But that evening I learned that I was part of the community not just as a listener, but as someone with a voice.

I am thrilled that this Sunday the youth will be in charge of our worship service. I look forward to hearing their voices. I am thrilled when I hear the voice of a young person speak in a membership or church council meeting, when they get up in sharing time, or when they participate by reading scripture. It’s hard to do that sometimes, to get up and participate. I am thrilled because their voice is important, and they are finding their voice in our community.

What I also remember about that first time in the pulpit, is that afterwards people thanked me for sharing. Not just adults I knew, and talked to, like my youth sponsors, but people who had never talked to me before. Suddenly I felt that maybe there was a place for me in this community called the church.

Finding a voice is a two-way process. It’s looking inside and seeing something there that needs to be said, but it’s also looking outside and sensing that people are listening, and want to hear you. Let’s remember that this Sunday.

The Mute’s Testimony

I can’t pray aloud
My tongue flaps
but no sound takes shape.

Can a voiceless prayer
fly out
across space?

When I pray
an enormous ear strains to hear me

swallows in
my tiniest thought.

from “Jesus” by Yorifumi Yaguchi
translated by Ross Bender, Pinchpenny Press, 1989, pp. 21-22.

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The specialist in family drama

We all know Joseph, the guy with the coat and the big dreams. And we know about his brothers, the ones who hated their kid brother enough to throw him into a pit and then sell him as a slave to Egypt. They topped their violent act with lies and bloody fabric-ations.

It seems easy to see what went wrong in that story from Genesis 37. But as with so many stories in scripture, and in our lives, there is more to the story than meets the eye.

I invite you to come to church this Sunday with a story of your own in mind. Bring a story of a broken relationship; it doesn’t matter if that relationship has been healed or not. I can think of a number of broken relationships I’ve had, with friends or family members or ex-family members.

Part of being a Christian involves looking for God in the stories of our lives. Where is God working? Where are we turning away from God? God gives us eyes to see the grace in even the most painful of stories. Sometimes it takes a year or a decade or a lifetime to see clearly. Graceful stories are rarely simple stories, with one hero and one victim, one cause and one effect, one right and one wrong.

God can take the most messy family drama, with a cast of twelve brothers and one sister and one father and four mothers and a pharaoh, spread it over two countries and twenty years, throw in some hatred, deceit and vengeance…God can take even this story and find an ending which has some grace in it.

Maybe this Sunday we’ll find some of that in our own stories.

God, you’re a specialist in family dramas, in broken relationships of all kinds. Help us this week to be open to hearing old stories told in new ways.

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