Truly listening

Man uses an ear trumpet

Earlier this year Son #1 developed a stutter – it started with him stumbling over one or two words but rapidly progressed to a point where he was struggling immensely to get each word out of his mouth. While the stutter has slowly disappeared since then, at the time it was tough to see him struggle to get coherent sentences out. Especially given how relatively eloquent he was prior to the stutter.

In the midst of his stuttering, we recognised that in order to understand what he was saying we had to truly listen to him. This made me realise how often I only listen to him with half an ear – distracted.

It also challenged me to think how often this is also the case with God?

How often do I only listen with half an ear (or less!) to what God is saying to me? Distracted by the world around me so much that I don’t truly listen to the most important voice.

So what should truly listening to God look like?

It has to be centred on prayer. Liz Curtis Higgs writes (empahsis mine):

prayer is more about listening than it is about spilling out requests. David wrote, “I will listen to what God the Lord says” (Psalm 85:8). When God tells us to “pray without ceasing” (ASV), he’s also saying, “Listen to me all the time!”

I like the paraphrase she uses – listen to me all the time! I know I frequently fall into the trap of praying to God rather than praying with God – spending most of the time talking and not enough time listening. That’s not a great way to communicate with people and it’s certainly not a great way to communicate with God!

Allied to that is spending more time with God. In a sermon I listened to a few years ago Mick Duncan said on this topic:

I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to spend quality time with my lover – and yet some of us only spend five minutes! How can you greet such great love with the dregs of your day?

This challenged me then and still does today. Setting aside quality time to spend with God can be tricky, however I think this typically comes down to misplaced priorities. If God is the number one priority in my life, as he should be, then he needs to get the best of me, not brief snippets of the day when I can spare a moment. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t also love those brief snippets, however I think quality time is needed to truly listen.

Finally, another key aspect of truly listening to God is being open to what he has to say. In this regard I’m reminded of the story of Samuel who, as a young boy, was sleeping at the temple when God called out to him “Samuel!” At first Samuel thought this was Eli, the priest, calling him, however eventually Eli realised it was God, and sent Samuel back to bed with instructions on what to do if God called again. When he did, Samuel said “Speak, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).

This simple sentence sums up what it means to truly listen to God – Samuel is waiting on God and when God speaks, Samuel is open and willing to listen to what he has to say. It should be that easy, however I think we can often be a bit scared of what God is going to say (especially if he is calling us out of our comfort zone, as so frequently is the case), which causes us to either stop listening, give him only half an ear, or, in some situations, mishear what he is actually saying. I was listening to an excerpt from the 2015 Baptist Hui where someone described the latter situation, saying “Sometimes we become so familiar with hearing the voice of God that we finish his sentences for him

So what does truly listening to God look like in your life? Where do you get it right? Where do you struggle?

I know there are aspects of the way I listen to God that need improvement, however, just like when Son #1’s stuttering was at its worst, I will continue to persevere to ensure I am truly listening to what God has to say to me.

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Are you not entertained?

I must confess that I’ve never seen the movie Gladiator – I assume this means I’d probably have to hand in my man card if such a thing existed! However, despite not having seen the movie, there is a scene from it that I’m very familiar with as it regularly pops up as a meme on the Internet (see the clip above).

Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?

What an impactful scene; Maximus (Russell Crowe) forcefully questioning the crowd that has just witnessed his gruesome gladiatorial exploits. It may seem like an unusual connection, but the words he shouts frequently come back to me when I think about church – corporate Sunday services in particular.

Have you ever left a church service saying to yourself (or others) something like:

  • I didn’t like the songs we sang, or
  • I didn’t feel God today in the worship, or
  • I didn’t get anything out of that message.

Debate ensues about our experience of Sunday services, usually focusing on the singing (‘worship’) and sermon. I know I’m guilty of it myself.

How easy it is for the consumer culture of the world to infiltrate the church. For us to look at those up the front and expect them to entertain us – like Maximus we could almost see them saying at the end of the service: “Are you not entertained?” – although hopefully with a little less bloodshed!

Now I’m not saying entertainment is in itself a bad thing. If I want to be entertained I’ll go to a Foo Fighters concert or tune into a Warriors game (that’s the basketball team rather than league team, I’m not a masochist!). I just don’t believe that entertainment is what we should be aiming for as we gather on Sunday.

What should we be aiming for, you might ask? Let’s have a look…

The early Christian church in Acts is a good place to start. In Acts 2 we see the church in its infancy, with verse 46 saying “They worshiped together at the Temple each day…” Surely this is the ancient tradition we are continuing when we gather together as a church family on Sunday.

Worshiping together.

Just as this crowd of believers from different backgrounds gathered together two thousand years ago to worship God (and they would have been different – remember this was all happening at Pentecost – a Jewish holiday that saw people from many foreign lands gather in Jerusalem – from the get go the church was a group of very diverse people), so we gather together today to worship God.

So what does it look like to worship God together?

Worshiping God together includes not only singing praise (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19), which worship is often equated to, but also prayer (like the Acts church), listening and responding to teaching (Romans 15:16), the sacraments (baptism and communion), and the simple act of just gathering together.

Jesus’ key teaching on worship is when he is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:21-24. In verse 23 Jesus says “the time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way.” So worship is about glorifying God – the Father, the Son (aka ‘Truth’) and the Holy Spirit (aka ‘Spirit’).  Importantly, worship must be sincere:

“Worship without truth does nothing for us and God rejects worship that is not done in truth. Truth without the Spirit is a manmade worship so true worship must be in the Spirit and in truth. God is seeking those who will worship Him in this manner. ” (link)

So when we gather together on a Sunday we are doing so first and foremost to worship God, in Spirit and in Truth. However, as is so often the case, the prevailing culture of the world, in this case consumerism, has crept into how we worship together.

Mick Duncan, in a sermon titled Do I really have to be religious?, talks about the need to name modern gods in order to dethrone them. When it comes to worship, he says it is the god of self that needs to be dethroned, and God himself enthroned. He says that we often reduce worship to ourselves, it’s all about us and how it makes us feel. This is the complete opposite of what worship actually means – that is, to ascribe worth – it’s not about us, it’s about God.

Rachel Held Evans, in her book Searching for Sunday, touches on entertainment and the church from a millennials perspective. She writes (bold emphasis mine):

“We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.

Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus – the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.”

This consumer culture also places undue pressure on our pastors, worship leaders and others involved in the Sunday service, potentially transforming them into mere entertainers. Ben Sternke writes about this pressure, saying:

“It’s easy to look at your congregation on Sunday morning and feel like the pressure is on.

They got up early instead of sleeping in. They got the kids dressed and ready for church. You’d better show them it was worth it, or you won’t see them until Christmas.”

Ben also looks at the differences between worship and entertainment:

  • Entertainment depends on my skill. Worship depends on God’s presence.
  • Entertainment draws people to me. Worship draws people to Jesus.
  • Entertainment causes amazement in the talents of people. Worship causes awe in the love of God.
  • Entertainment leads to repeat visitors. Worship leads to discipleship.

This lines up with the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30 “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” True worship is about glorifying God, about bringing people to Jesus. If we approach Sunday mornings with a desire to be entertained (or to be an entertainer, for those up the front) then we’re only there for ourselves, not for Jesus.

So, if we are not here to be entertained, why are we here – what is the question we should be asking ourselves and others as we walk out of the church service on Sunday? I suggest it could be something like this:

“God, have you been glorified? Have you been glorified? Is this not why we are here?”