“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” —Mark 9:7
This article was originally written by Jack Bernard in January of 2001 for Church of the Sojourners. We had acknowledged that we were in a time of transition and that many of our previous ways of approaching life together as a church community would have to change. We understood that we needed to learn to listen to God in a deeper way than we had in the past if we were to do his will together rather than have a battle of individual wills between ourselves. Accordingly, we decided to let the year 2001 be a year of learning to listen.
However, we lacked any concrete forms for doing that. We recognized that whatever we did to open ourselves to listening would have to include some basic spiritual disciplines that we would do not only by individual preference but as an expression of a common spiritual life. A first step in that direction was to agree to pray at designated periods of the day using scriptures from the Office of the Hours. We also acknowledged that we needed to learn to listen to each other more deeply than we had been accustomed to doing. This article was written to facilitate our discussion of those things, but it also seems to have much broader application to the whole question of how Christians are to lead lives of listening to God.
Stop in order to listen
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 1:31-2:3)
The theme of God resting on the seventh day is taken up in the Ten Commandments. This is the one positive command in relationship to God himself. The other commands about God have to do with “You shall not.” Sabbath becomes the spiritual discipline of Israel and the foundation for spiritual disciplines for the people of God.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11NRSV)
The implications of sabbath are many and important, but, at the most basic level, sabbath means “stop.” “Stop” is the basic meaning of the Hebrew word “shabbat” which English translates into “sabbath.” Stopping was the most basic function of the sabbath day in Israel. Six days a week the people did all the doing they had to do. On the seventh day, they stopped.
We might wonder what was so important about stopping. Many reasons have been advanced for this. Surely there was a real health benefit in getting some rest, but that is not the primary biblical picture of sabbath. Sabbath was not a day set aside so people could rest in order to be able to work again. Quite the contrary. The sabbath was the day that was blessed, the day the other six pointed to. It was the end, not the means, of the weekly schedule. While the sabbath had real social value by limiting the work that could be demanded of people, that doesn’t seem to be the central motive for sabbath. The reason given for sabbath is that “God blessed it andconsecrated it.” The word the NRSV translates “consecrated” is the Hebrew word “qadash” which means “to make holy.” Stopping is the essential spiritual exercise.This stopping which God requires is where blessing and holiness are encountered.
Stopping is the foundational Christian spiritual discipline. I am not arguing that this conclusion springs neatly off the pages of Genesis and Exodus. I am calling attention to the fact that the need to stop our activity and pay attention to the goodness of God and the completeness of his work has deep roots in God’s revelation of himself and his relationship to humanity. Whether stopping consists in keeping the seventh day as sacred or stopping for five minutes at work to pray a psalm, the purpose is to acknowledge that God is God, and we are dependent creatures. Our stopping is an acknowledgment that we are recipients of his blessing and not the makers of our own blessing.
By nature, we humans busy ourselves rearranging God’s creation to suit our own needs and desires. Perhaps this inclination to be little creators is a part of the image of God in us. In any case, this busyness and rearranging of things isn’t inherently a bad thing. We are participating in the goodness of what God has made. A discipline of stopping is not an affirmation of passivity over activity. In fact, if we are to take the model of the creation account and subsequent sabbath commands seriously, it looks like our relationship to the rest of creation should be mostly active rather than passive. Mostly, but we must also stop. In stopping we join God in his holy completeness—in what he has completed for us. For the most part, Christians have not been sabbath keepers. In addition to the long controversy about whether Christians should set aside Saturday or Sunday, it is not obvious to most of us that we should pick up the sabbath commandments as though we were obligated by a Jewish understanding of the law. Historically, the church has sought to find ways to honor the intent of the sabbath rather than just declare it null and void. If anything, the Church has expanded this “stopping” to include everyday. In moving the special day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, the early church probably sought to distinguish themselves from the Jews, but at the same time they thought it important to stop the normal flow of their lives and pay attention to God in the spirit of “shabbat.” So Sunday became functionally a Christian sabbath. The practice of ceasing work on Sunday has been a standard Christian practice up until recent times. At present it would seem the practice of stopping to join God in his rest has given way to the demands of the consumer society.
Rather than reducing the importance of stopping to pay attention to God, the church has devised ways to extend it to include every day to some degree. The Liturgy of the Hours has been formulated with this intention. The Hours are little stops—specified times to stop and pray. They are markers in the day, times to stop creating our own lives and acknowledge the one who gives us life. These little “stoppings” serve to unify our whole lives, including our busyness, in the direction of God.
I recently read a book on prayer by a Japanese Christian1. He talked about prayer as stops that give unity to our lives. He uses the analogy of a bamboo shaft. Bamboo is an extremely strong wood. If you are familiar with bamboo, you know that it’s composed of small sections with joints or little disks that cut across the length of the fibrous tubes at their connecting point. Unlike so many other things in which the joints are the weak point, in bamboo the joints are what give it the strength and flexibility to resist breaking. And so it is that the many little stops of prayer are what give strength and unity to the rest of our lives to keep us growing up into Christ’s image.
Another image, used by the same writer, is that of a mountain stream. As a river runs down a canyon, it gains very little depth. The water just keeps moving over the rocks and out of the canyon. If a dam is built across the canyon, the water is stopped temporarily and becomes deep. Prayer functions as a dam to hold back the experiences of our lives and allow us to gain some depth. While these metaphors don’t prove anything, they do describe something of what I understand happens by making markers in the day and their importance in learning to listen to God. Their importance is not in having the right prayers to pray, but in stopping.
Why prescribed rather than spontaneous?
This stopping with God is not just any stopping we may choose for ourselves. In fact, when we choose how and when we are going to stop, our stopping has a way of becoming our own motion, the continuation of our own work. The command to keep the sabbath set aside for God was not just a suggestion that Israel set aside a day occasionally for God. That would have been to put God at their disposal. That we are at God’s disposal, not he at ours, is a part of what he is wanting us to grasp. The natural busyness we experience is a good thing, but if left unchecked, we easily get confused about our relationship to God’s creation. We carry on rearranging things as though we were little gods making ourselves a perfect world. We even try to rearrange God according to our desires.
Hopefully, we have some sense of concern for others and want to make the world perfect for them and not just ourselves. But even our best intentions are perverted by our suspicion that God’s goodness is insufficient to take care of the particular matters we are concerned about. You can stop for a moment. You can trust God to take care of things according to his good plan. Your stopping must not simply be a function of your sense that you are on top of things and can afford for you to take a little time off. In fact, stopping when you don’t think you can afford to is an essential part of the discipline. Stopping when it is not convenient is in itself an act of faith. Faith is what God really wants from you as your part in his plan to care for the world. Observing prescribed markers in the day rather than turning our attention to him only when we are naturally inclined to is an important exercise in learning to experience our lives as under his care and not our own.
What’s the best way for me?
For years I have prayed some version of the “Jesus Prayer.” The significance isn’t in getting the words just right, and I have felt free to change them. I used to put a lot of thought into formulating the words so they fit my thoughts and feelings. The basic form of the Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” At times when I really felt like a sinner, this felt quite natural. At other times, it seemed a little awkward. I would think, “Surely it would be more pleasing to God if I took a more upbeat posture toward him. After all, I am his beloved child. Does he want me to always sound like a groveling sinner?” My prayer would follow this thought process until I came to recognize that my prayer was no prayer at all. It was nothing but my own musings about myself and to myself. I am now learning to stop, and in learning to stop, I am learning to pray. Stopping means stopping my own thinking, reasoning, and evaluating for a time. I still think, reason, and evaluate, but I am learning to stop it at times in order to simply be in the presence of God. I am astonished at the questions I don’t need to ask and the points I don’t need to consider when I am consciously in the presence of God.
The point I am trying to make here is that it is important to take up some prescribed forms of prayer and enter into them without having to invent everything for ourselves. The notion that prayer has to be arranged to personally and individually fit us is just another manifestation of our incessant drive to fit the universe to ourselves. The attempt to conform the universe to ourselves is precisely what we must stop in order to pray.
Praying in order to listen
Praying with the Psalms
Stopping is the first and most essential act of prayer. Prayer begins with taking our attention off of ourselves, and what we are doing or must do, and giving our attention to God. We stop trying to conform the universe our own desires and make ourselves available to be conformed to God’s desires. The psalms offer us a way into this.
By praying with a psalm, we enter into a long established pattern of what God is doing with his people, and we step beyond our own doing. The grace offered here is to “enter into.” In praying with the psalms, we enter into a communion with God that already exists. God’s people have prayed with the psalms for generations. The Jews did it before the time of Jesus. Jesus himself would have prayed with the psalms as a faithful Jew, and he cited them freely to make his points. The early Church continued the practice of using the psalms, in prayer and liturgy, without hesitation. As we pray with a psalm, we enter into this ongoing prayer that rises into the presence of God.
Perhaps you have noticed that I have been saying that we “pray with a psalm.” That is different than saying that we “pray a psalm.” The psalms themselves are prayers offered by someone else long ago. The psalms are not so much to be our prayer as tocall forth our prayer. You may think I have just contradicted what I said earlier, that we need to get outside of ourselves and enter into something that already exists. Now I am saying that we need to pray our own prayer, not just pray the psalm. It’s easy to get lost in words on this subject, so let me make the essential point clear: by praying with the psalms, we are responding to God, not initiating with Him.Legitimate prayer is always a response to God, not initiating with him. In praying with the psalms, we enter into the ongoing dialogue between God and his people and take our own part in that conversation.
Some things from the psalms we can pray directly as our own prayers. For example, I can pray with the Psalmist: “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting2.” If I can’t say that it’s always true of myself, I can at least say that I sincerely want it to become true. The psalm calls forth my own prayer, “Oh please, please, make it true of me.” This prayer comes as a movement of my heart as I read the words of the psalm.
Many of the texts we read in the psalms are not this easy to get behind. For example, we will find passages like the following difficult: “to deal out vengeance to the nations and to punish all the people…to carry out the sentence pre-ordained; this honor is for all his faithful3.” Rather than longing to embrace it, I recoil from this text. My thoughts may go all kinds of directions, but my very recoiling is participation in the ongoing dialogue of God with his people. My recoiling is a response to God who himself recoiled from the idea of carrying out his own threats against his people4. Maybe the recoiling we feel in the moment of reading some texts is closer to the heart of God than our more carefully reasoned offerings. In some mysterious way, this unspoken, but real, prayer indicates we have been listening to God. We have entered into conversation with God through reading the psalms.
Reading other texts from the Bible
The psalms are unique in that they are not only prayers but poetry. By their form alone they are better suited to call forth our prayer rather than to convey information, and this is the way the church has used them for centuries. Most other scripture texts are better suited to conveying information that the psalms are, though even in texts such as Paul’s epistles, where information content is critical, the purpose is not simply to learn facts about God. The facts themselves are an invitation to pray and to seek God himself. The Gospels have occupied a special position in church’s understanding of scripture from the early centuries on. They offer a unique window into the life of Jesus. Conversation with Jesus through the lens of Gospel stories has been a central piece of the prayer life of most of the saints.
Listening to others in order to listen to God
Saying that we must listen to others in order to listen to God is important on two levels. First, God may voice his truth through anyone he chooses and this will at times (I am not saying usually) be through people who are not seen by the community as likely spokespersons for God.
Second, learning to listen to one another is a good exercise in learning to listen to anyone, including God. There is more to listening to one another than hearing the words. The kind of listening that will help us listen to God is the kind of listening that hears what is behind the words. That is a precarious thing to say, because our sinfulness will naturally skew it in the direction of trying to guess people’s motives in a way that actually blocks hearing rather than enhances it. Nevertheless, we must learn to listen to each other’s hearts and not settle for mere words. (This applies to God’s words in scripture also.) The only legitimate way to do this is to learn to listen to others through the earphone of God’s love. Either we hear through God’s love or we cannot hear. Learning to listen is, at core, learning to love. Listening through love means being interested in the other rather than self. We must learn to stop the noise of our self- interest in order to listen. This is, of course, what is involved in learning to listen to God as well.
I have just scratched the surface of the subject of listening to God. It may seem like a fairly superficial scratching at that. You may be thinking, “We need to learn to listen to God, so Jack is suggesting we pray a psalm three times a day?” Well, we need to start somewhere, and the actions and attitudes I have suggested are a real start if only a start. The weightier matter in learning to listen is learning to trust God completely. He will be giving us more exercises to help us learn trust together.
1 Augustine Ichiro Okumura, Awakening to Prayer.
2 Psalm 63:1
3 Psalm 149:7, 9. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re too enlightened or spiritual to pray such a prayer. Just note that your life situation and calling are very different.)
4 See Hosea chapter 11.