From The Echo Within
My life is a listening. His is a speaking.
My salvation is to hear and respond.
It was early fall, and it was late afternoon, and I was walking through old Carolina pines with a new friend. We were near the ocean, near enough to hear the surf as we walked along a broad path through the forest.
I saw I was with a new friend. I only spent five days with him, and I had never seen him before and have not seen him since. He and I were two of about sixty people at a retreat, and I was the speaker.
“I think I am being called to go to seminary,” my new friend said. “Do you think I am?”
He was wrestling with a question that almost always arises whenever questions of calling are being raised. He was hoping I could tell him if he was being called by God to do a particular thing or if he was wanting to do it for his own reasons and giving God the credit. (Or the blame, perhaps?) He wanted me to look into the future and tell him which choice would be the right one. He was hoping I was a lot more than a speaker; he was hoping I was a prophet.
For a while I did the wisest thing I know to do in such a situation, which is to keep my mouth shut and listen.
We walked for a bit longer, and he talked a little more, and I tried to pay careful attention to the story he was telling me. We stopped for a moment to watch the sea and to listen to the surf.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I cannot tell if it is God telling me this or if I am just talking to myself.”
We watched the sea for a while.
“Exactly what does God’s voice sound like?” I asked him. “And how do you recognize that voice when you hear it?”
My new friend looked at me as though perhaps he should not be wasting his time with a guy who suddenly did not appear to be so prophetic after all.
I had clever follow-up questions too. “Does God sound like James Earl Jones or Helen Mirren? What if God sounds like Judi Dench or George Burns? What if God’s voice is shrill and hard to listen to? What if God sounds like Truman Capote? What if the voice sounds like your own voice?”
These were not unreasonable questions to me on that day and are still not on this day. My new friend looked at me as though I had gone from being not as smart as he had hoped to being a smart aleck instead.
But I had a reason for asking those questions.
People go away on spiritual retreat for all kinds of reasons. I am one of those people. I think it is a good idea to go away for a while to listen for, and maybe even to, God.
It was my father who taught me to love going on retreat. He led so many of them that his father once asked him if he should not go on an advance for a change.
I think a retreat can be especially helpful when you are wrestling with some particular thing in your life. Having a leader or a teacher or a speaker there is a nice bonus, but it is not always the point. As the years go by, I go to fewer and fewer retreats where there is a speaker. Sometimes it is easier to listen for the voice of God if there is not someone else talking all the time.
I do not think I am necessarily right to think this way, but there it is. And I am glad everyone does not think this way, because I do like to go and be the speaker.
Some years ago I went away to become a member of the Academy for Spiritual Formation.
In simple terms the academy is a program you attend once a quarter for two years, spending a week each time with the same sixty or so people – a week devoted to study, prayer, silence, worship, and community. The academy is one part retreat, one part seminar, one part camp meeting, and one part small group.
That is why I have often said that in order to get the most out of the academy, a person should be one part monk, one part dogface recruit, one part student, and seven parts hungry to learn to pray. There are not many things in this world that turn out to be more than the sum of the parts; the academy is one of them.
The first week I listened carefully to everything as I was supposed to. Who I listened to most was a theologian and scholar named Robert Mulholland. And I have never gotten over one thing I remember from a whole week of listening to his lectures.
Dr. Mulholland is the one who introduced me to the Hebrew word dabhar, a word meaning, “God spoke.” Dabhar is the word used in Genesis, in the opening line of the beginning of the whole story of us all. The word is most often rendered as created in our English translations.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth” is the way the story has always begun for many of us. And when you say it that way, creating the heavens and the Earth sounds like the sort of thing one would do with his hands in the midst of the mother of all sandboxes.
I can imagine God down on holy knees somewhere in central Oklahoma scooping out the Mississippi until it gets to the Gulf of Mexico. Then God takes a handful or two of the extra dirt and pushes forward and to the right, and soon we have the Appalachians running all the way up to where Canada will be, once we need a place called Canada. The earth gives way under the left knee, and God decides the Rockies have a kind of majestic look to them after all of that flat land that is going to be Kansas. Kansas is going to be beautiful when all the grasses have been planted there and they have time to learn to go golden in the sun. Somebody will write songs about these flatlands someday, about amber waves of grain and purple mountains, once somebodies have been made, and once they have had time to learn to write songs.
Then there are oceans to be made and more mountains on the other side of the Earth. There are stars to be hung in the night sky, “God’s sweet lanterns,” as James Taylor once described them. And on and on. Thinking about the creation of the universe in this way makes me smile.
Here is another thing that makes me smile: after all of this time, we do not really understand the ways of God, do we? Not even after all of these years of telling each other this story and having people try and explain the story to us. All of our theology and scholarship and imagination notwithstanding, we do not even have a good handle on the way the whole thing started.
Saint Augustine once said to a group of people, “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, it is not God.”
We keep trying though. We keep trying to understand the mysterious ways of God. Which is why the word dabhar caught my attention and has never quite let it go. I am still trying to hold the wonder of the word and how the word itself has changed the way I have come to see the way we were made.
According to the people who told this story first, in the Hebrew language and not the king’s English, the making of the heavens and the Earth, and all that came to be, for that matter, was for God a thing done with the voice rather than the hands. Dabhar suggests an understanding of the way God creates that is very different from my vision of God in a sandbox.
Dabhar means we are more accurate if we say, “In the beginning God spoke the heavens and the Earth.” Dabhar means God spoke the mountains and the seas. God spoke the mornings and the trees and the streams and the songbirds. God spoke the stars, those sweet lanterns, and God spoke the plains and the amber waves of grain. God spoke the roses that climb up on the roof of my studio, and God spoke the breeze that tells me the rain is soon to come, the rain God spoke into being this morning when God said let there be light all over again.
In those days when I was listening to Bob Mulholland, I was also learning to pray the Psalms. I have not gotten over what the Psalmists said any more than I have gotten over what Bob Mulholland said.
In the ninety-fifth one, the Psalmist writes, “We will know your power and presence this day, if we will but listen for your voice.” I had always taken the phrase to mean we are to listen for the voice of the God without. And it is true. We are to listen for the way God speaks to us through the breeze and through the rain, through the voice of a friend and the laughter of a child, through the thousand other ways God speaks into our lives.
But we are to learn to listen for and to recognize the voice of God within us as well.
We are, said Bob Mulholland, “an incarnate word, spoken by God, still being spoken by God.” And because we are still being spoken, the questions we have about calling are, in part, questions about listening for the incarnate word being whispered into us. They are questions about learning to open up to and becoming the word that was whispered into us. And is still being whispered into us.
I was listening carefully to Psalm 139 in those days too: “We thank you that we are so marvelously made and that we were not hidden from you when we were being made in secret in the depths of the Earth. You knew us before we even were.”
With apologies to the Psalmist, I was not simply fearfully and wonderfully and marvelously made. I was fearfully and wonderfully and marvelously spoken into being. And so were you.
Somewhere deep inside of me, perhaps in the truest and most holy part of me – the part of me that is the most me there is or ever will be – there is an echo of the Voice that spoke me into being and is still speaking the incarnate word who is Robert.
If I can learn to recognize that Voice, I may also learn to trust it.