Listening to God's Will
November 11, 2007
Now the boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days, the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.
Samuel answered, "Here I am." And he ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
But Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." So he went and lay down.
Again the Lord called, "Samuel!"
And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
But he said, "I did not call, my son. Go back and lie down." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
The Lord called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!"
Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
(1 Samuel 3:1-10)
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.
We all know the difference between listening and l-i-s-t-e-n-i-n-g. We use the first type when we are getting ready in the morning for work: listening to the radio or the TV, maybe conversing with our partner, while perhaps making breakfast or getting dressed . . . or all of the above! But then there's the other type, when we really listen. We find ourselves focused in the moment and empathetic with the feelings of another.
The tragedy of September 11th, 2001, is a good example of how we found ourselves listening with the fullness of ourselves. We felt the pain and loss either directly or indirectly, and experienced it in our bodies. When we listen with full awareness in the moment, the quality of listening becomes a quality of loving. And when we listen to God, or more specifically, listen to God's will for us, we can cultivate a more satisfying and loving experience of life.
Often when we think of God's will, we capitalize the word "Will" and put it out of reach on a pedestal. For example, we're familiar with the words from our Lord's prayer, "Thy will be done." But perhaps we are not sure exactly what this "Will" is that we are asking to be done? The opposite of this involves belittling God's will, when we expect God to align his will with our will. You might have come across someone who was saying something like, "Oh God, help me win the lottery! . . . Please!"
What I would like to explore is neither of these, but instead a type of listening that is more intimate and connecting. By cultivating a deeper listening attitude, we can experience our own will in a more intimate and pure way. And it is in this way that we can connect with God's will.
Saying it more directly, God's will is our most authentic expression of love and truth in every moment of our lives. How can it be anything else? First of all, how can God wish anything for us but God's own divine qualities of love and truth? And second, how can God wish for us something different than who we are, different than our own character? His will is in line with our most authentic understanding that we each believe ourselves to be. We can be sure that when we are expressing our most loving and truthful actions, we are expressing God's will.
I found a wonderful expression of this idea from Jeffrey Gaines, who is the president of Spiritual Directors International. He writes: "God will [not] give us what we want, like some genie in a lamp. No, God does not work this way. But when we are attentive to what makes our soul shimmer and our spirit dance, we are actually doing God's will for us--which is our heart's desire, for it is God's desire for us."
What makes your spirit dance? What makes you feel alive or more intimately connected with who you authentically believe yourself to be? How about in your work? In your relationships? In my previous career, my work as a communications engineer may have paid me well, but it left my spirit feeling starved. Now, in my unfolding path as a dreamworker and stay-at-home father, my spirit has truly begun to sing.
Listening to what makes our hearts sing includes a combination of presence and patience. It requires giving our full awareness to the subtle feelings and intuitions that stir within. You may already have ways in which you listen to God, which might include time while you are praying, meditating, or contemplating; Or maybe other ways such as writing in a journal, walking in nature, reading Scripture, talking with a spiritual director, or listening to your dreams. Emanuel Swedenborg writes that everything is but a portal into the Divine. Well then, this is our opportunity to find the portal through which we each personally connect with God. One of Swedenborg's portals was through his dreams. His work with his dreams reveals how he wanted to discern his authentic desires and intuitive guidance. Of course, dreams happen at a time when God can speak with us unhindered.
Generally, during our waking hours our minds endlessly chase thought after thought, feeling after feeling. We rarely spend the time to quiet our minds and listen to what God might want to say to us. Listening to God requires us to be present with where we are in the moment, to become aware of what we are thinking and feeling, and then, in a way, to rise above them.
When I was a kid, I would pray by bringing my hands together and talking to God. There's nothing wrong with that. However, as an adult, I no longer want to petition God but to commune with God. In other words, after talking with God I find it important to listen with an open heart to any way that God wants to be with me. Even if I don't "hear" or intuit anything during this time, he is there. God knows I am honoring this time with him. Perhaps he wants me to enjoy the blessedness of peace and quiet, an inner room of silence away from my busy life.
As we find in the New Testament reading from the Book of Revelation, Christ is knocking at our door. My door . . . your door . . . President Bush's door . . . Osama bin Laden's door . . . . The Lord is calling each of us to open the door to our hearts and our minds. Can we let go of how we judge others and, more importantly, how we judge ourselves? Can we fuel the fire that warms our hearts and spirits? If we choose to open the door, God will make himself at home inside our hearts. God's presence will help us discern truth more clearly, and express love more sensitively and courageously in our lives. That's God's desire, and that's our heart's deepest desire.
I recently came across a good example of deep listening through contemplation. I was watching a PBS program in which Bill Moyers was talking with Sister Wendy, the famous British connoisseur of fine art. She shared with him her way of opening up and sensitively listening to a painting. It's a way that we can similarly use to intuitively listen for that which makes our spirits dance.
Sister Wendy spends the necessary time deeply contemplating each painting she wants to experience. For example, if she wants to contemplate a painting by Paul Cézanne, who is one of her favorite artists, and who she feels created sacred art, she will start by looking at the painting for a small period of time, say twenty minutes or more. She will listen to her inner reactions coming up from within.
At first she says she might see her ego, like her thoughts and feelings about Cézanne's life history. She promptly lets go of these because they are responses of habit and conditioning. Then she goes away and returns later, possibly hours or days, to look at the painting again. She repeats this until she senses her most authentic and most pure reaction emerging. Eventually she experiences the most beautiful feeling emanating from her heart, and she knows the authenticity of it. Opening up this portal to the Divine involves letting herself become as open as an innocent child, while including her wisdom as an adult. This requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to be honest, and to be changed.
This is a wonderful example of how we, too, can listen deeply. For example, if we have a problem with a family member, we can hold the person in our heart, contemplate a photo of the person, or write our thoughts and feelings down in a journal. When we do this, it is important to take the necessary time to listen quietly to the responses inside. As we see our reacting feelings and thoughts, we need to be honest and ask ourselves if they convey our deepest authenticity as loving and truthful persons. Being honest requires letting go of what is oftentimes the ego's desire for control, power, fame, or fortune. Let go of these, and by waiting patiently for more authentic feelings to emerge, you can find God's will and your will meeting in your heart. You will simply "know" it; your intuition will confirm it.
Swedenborg frequently identifies why we must discern with our minds and hearts together. Love and truth are needed conjointly. Otherwise, if we neglect the quality of love or compassion, we can rationalize the truth of anything we want. The ecological state of our earth is an example of how our culture's over-reliance on rationality, which is a limited and distilled form of truth, helped to separate individuals from the consequences of their actions upon other living beings and systems. And in the reverse situations of love over truth, a relationship in which a woman chooses to be with a man because she loves him, even though she is aware of his verbal or physical abuse, may reveal the woman's neglect of her inner truth of wanting to be treated with respect and love. When held mutually, love and truth bring about an intuitive understanding that confirms the choices and actions we make in our lives.
Another example of listening comes from one of the most insightful scientists of the last century: Albert Einstein. He said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." Here is a man who would often take time to experience the mysterious on long walks in nature. He was fond of these walks, and used them to relax and to let his mind wander into the realm of the mysterious through his imagination, sparking insights like the one that led to his theory of relativity. These were fun experiences for him, and relate an important aspect of listening to God.
When we make time to listen to God, are we feeling playful? Or are we doing it out of habit, perhaps even a little bored with it, maybe wanting instead to be about our responsibilities? God is always with us whenever we make time--and even when we don't. Let our time with God be light, much like a picnic with our favorite food.
I'd like to share with you a personal example that conveys the notion of listening with presence, patience, and even some lightness. A few years ago my employer asked me to go out to a customer's site to learn how to administer some new telephone equipment, and then to train the customer on doing it. However, my company did not want the customer to know that I had never used this equipment before. I accepted, thinking it would be easy enough, given my familiarity with similar gear.
Unfortunately, when I went onsite a few hours early, I saw that very little was prepared. As I attempted to set it up, the customer continually asked my assistance in other areas, which slowly ate away the time. It came down to the last hour, and I began to panic. So I began to pray. I communicated to the Lord my highest intention for both the customer and myself, and then I let it go. Oddly enough, I didn't feel concerned about the outcome, and I felt a peaceful sense of being present. Whenever I felt myself starting to worry, I just repeated my prayer, and released it into God's hands, knowing that I was doing the best I could.
And then something happened. With about half an hour left, the customer representative came rushing up to me asking if it would be okay to postpone the training to the following hour. Apparently, one of their critical servers had crashed, and they were working feverishly to get it back up. That gave me enough time to learn what I needed.
Now, did God have a hand in the server crashing? Who knows? If not the server, maybe it would have been an urgent conference call with the boss, or maybe an unforeseen schedule conflict, or maybe . . . nothing at all. If it all came to a head and I fell flat on my face with embarrassment, I was ready for that too. We just don't know--and that's part of trusting God. I was listening as best I could in that moment, but my will to control the situation was stressing me out. Trusting in God's will, however, allowed me to relax in the present, and allowed for both our wills to come together.
Sometimes when we are doing our best to listen, we may still be feeling frustrated in a personal or professional situation. We may be trying too hard. Here is a quote from a book by James Finley that expresses this beautifully. He writes:
How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun. A small green apple cannot ripen in the night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes, and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. . . . The birth of the true self takes place in God's time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us.
This ripening of an apple is a wonderful metaphor for letting go and trusting God when we feel we aren't getting clarity in our lives, even when we're doing our best to listen. It requires patience and trust.
Some of us heard a clear idea of this in a sermon that was delivered in this church by the late Dr. Wilson Van Dusen, who was a psychologist, a Swedenborgian scholar, and a mystic. He shared that sometimes after asking a deep spiritual question of the Divine, he would not get an answer for several days or longer. He explained that during this time he knew he was being realigned internally by God; that he was not able to receive an answer given his understanding at the time. He had learned to trust this process--that he could wait patiently and sensitively, and the clarity of an answer would eventually come.
Maybe while we are waiting patiently for months, or even years, God is realigning us. There may be times when we think we cannot discern our highest will. Or we may not be happy with the outcome of the decisions we initially thought were best for us. In these cases, we must honestly ask ourselves what we are or were expecting. These hopes may be the source of frustration that blocks our clarity and willingness to be changed. We all have limits to our patience. But again and again, God will ask us to let go of our fears and our expectations.
Whenever you feel impatient, take time to relax, to listen, and to discern your most authentic intention. And when you eventually recognize the voice of the Lord behind the knocking door, call out in your heart like Samuel, saying, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." Amen.
O God of all, help us to commune more and more deeply with your presence within us. Open our spiritual ears to hear the divine voice that comes to us both in our times of quiet listening and in our times of active service. And when we hear your voice, give us the will to follow, as you lead us to our deepest self. Amen.