Psalm 116 verse 1 is my starting place for today. “I Love that God listens to my voice”.
Did Easter make any difference to us after all? This seems a good time to examine what we are now to do this side of the resurrection. And Psalm 116 may be a very good place to begin. It is a delightful and rich psalm of thanksgiving, a heartfelt call to God, thanking God for all those many things that have been done for us. The psalm begins in a truly memorable way; let me share a quite literal translation of the first two verses:
I love that YHWH listens to my voice, my requests for grace.
Clearly, God has inclined the divine ear to me when in my days I call.
There is such intimacy when the psalmist begins with that simple, “I love that YHWH listens.” In our present cultural climate to think that God actually listens to us is a matter of some contention. We Quakers spend a lot of time considering how we listen to God, but this is quite the reverse. How can we know that God listens to us when out of our distress we call, when we implore of God aid in our troubles, or when we thank God for favors we believe we have received from the divine hand?
It’s notable that the psalmist isn’t asking us to believe nor is he trying to prove something. What he does is ask us is to listen to a story. It goes something like this: “The snares (or cords) of death encompassed me.” Has the psalmist has suffered a dangerous illness and has recovered? A similar phrase is found in Psalm 18:5 in the context of the fear of battle. So, the precise content of the “snares of death” isn’t as important as the Psalmist belief that death is imminent and inevitable; the next two lines emphasize the terror suffered by the psalmist: “the pangs of Sheol (the very place of death) laid hold of me (literally ‘found me’); I suffered (again the verb ‘found’) distress and anguish” (v. 3). The repetitious use of the verb “to find” suggests that the psalmist was convinced that death was not just awaiting him, but was actively seeking to snatch him out of the land of the living. But then a new possibility of hope and renewed life began to unfold when “I called on the name of YHWH, ‘O YHWH, I pray, save my life'” (v. 4). The psalmist acknowledges that life was no longer manageable, and YHWH, the psalmist is convinced, came through! Verses 5-9 announce the conviction that because of YHWH’s “righteousness” and “mercy” (v. 5), the very “life” (“soul” in the NRSV) of the author may now “return to its rest” (v. 7).
We read of many answered prayers in Scripture. God heard the cry of Ishmael when he and his mother were without water in the desert. God heard Rachel’s prayer for a child, and Joseph and Benjamin were born (Genesis 30:22-24). God heard the cries of the Israelites in Egyptian slavery. Because of Hezekiah’s fervent prayer God changed His mind. What’s that verse from James 5: “The effective fervent prayer of the righteous avails much. We should pray fervently because God is influenced by our prayers.
Ryan McKeen, in the Connecticut Law Blog told about a small security deposit dispute between a landlord and tenant. Using his best mediation skills, he spent half an hour negotiating a fair proposal and avoid a hearing. It all fell on his clients deaf ears and the reason simply was : “I paid my filing fee, I want the judge to hear this.” The plaintiff asserted her fundamental right to be heard. So, he said,” we went into court and tried the case”.
Someone who has been wronged needs someone to validate the claim, but they will often settle for being heard. Most of the time the only thing that matters is that the person listens and is neutral. His proposed settlement was slightly ($23) more generous than what the magistrate ordered in the plaintiff’s favor. While he hadn’t spoken with the plaintiff since they left court that day he concluded his story by saying: “I’m willing to bet the plaintiff would tell me that the $23 that it cost her to have the hearing was money well spent.”
A student told folks on the internet that for a health and social care course he was needing to explain why people need to be heard and understood. One person responded by writing: “It’s important for people to be understood and heard so that new insight can be obtained in a given situation. Being understood and heard is receiving feedback so that some action can be taken to help improve a situation.
So I wondered how it is that just being heard provides ‘feed back’?
When it comes to listening, we’ve got that great phrase in English “Pay Attention.” When someone listens to us, it costs them something. That someone cares enough to really listen to me allows me to feel that I actually have some value. I am not merely sucking up precious air and nutrients. And a step further, to know that another understands what it is that is of great importance to me tells me that I am alive. I can actually make ripples in a pond. I can change things. I have potency.
I started thinking about how God listens when compared with the nine classic core skills of listening. The very idea of us needing to train God to listen the way we listen is rather foolish. Most of those core skills like maintaining an upright and relaxed position, maintaining eye contact, nodding one’s head every so often, leaning forward and using appropriate facial expressions, and especially using verbal encouragements like “OK”, “so”, “then”, “And”, “uh huh”, “Tell me more”, “Umm-humm”, “Mmm?” etc., to help the person you are listening too to know you are hearing what they have to say, well they just stretch our imaginations too far. But, looking into the first three I think could be fruitful, especially if we think that the person who is wanting to be heard
bears some of the responsibility for the conversation.
Take #1 for example: it says that one should position their self toward the other, focusing attention on them, not wandering off in another direction. It strikes me that if someone, especially should that someone is God, is willing to listen, we should at least have the common courtesy to consciously engage in the conversation. I don’t know about you, but the very idea of being the focus of God attention is a bit disconcerting.
#2 says that the listener should sit or stand relatively close and by way of explanation says that to be too far apart the interaction can feel distant or aloof and disconnected. But is also says that if you are too close, the other person can feel intimidated. This idea of sitting or standing relatively close has a huge history in Biblical theology. It is about whether God is imminent or transcendent, near-by or far away, engaged are disengaged. In the 116th Psalm it says “Because he inclined his ear to me”. That suggests that God is close, intentionally close. What this says to me is that if we want God to hear us we need to acknowledge God’s presence
The third one opens up the subject in a whole different direction. Number three tells us to have nothing that will form a barrier between the two parties. What might you have in your life that you think might serve as a barrier between you and God? I’ve got a bit of good news for you about that. It is John 5:22. “…the Father does not judge anyone, but has given full jurisdiction to the Son;” This one who gladdened the Psalmist heart because he listens isn’t in the judgment business. Whatever might stand as a barrier between you and God is what you drag into the relationship. Things we said or done that have been hurtful to another, opportunities to serve where we knew what God wanted us to do – those things, our guilt, shame our failures are all our baggage that already stand forgiven, if we allow it. The problem may be that we choose to live like the proverbial bag lady with our grocery cart piled full of smelly stuff and we don’t want to let go of it.
I’m still caught on the thought that woman shared with the student about how being heard actually provides feed back, new insight to situations in life. It strikes me if we focus on God, acknowledge God’s presence and shed all the baggage that can become barriers to God hearing us – then as we bring to God the cares of our hearts that we want God to hear and understand: like the hungry and homeless of our community, like the violence that grabs at us, like our loved ones and difficulties in their lives and the relationships in ours, what we discover is that out of them will come direction that will answer that first question we raised, which was now that we are this side of the resurrection what is it that we should be about.
Paul offers a great conclusion for this celebration of a God who hears and understands us – it goes: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6,7).