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Week 1 of Lent
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Intro: Today we begin the 40 day journey through the season of Lent. Actually, Lent began with Ash Wednesday, the day that believers are reminded that we have been created out of the dust, and will one day return to dust, and so, we must redeem the time we have. Lent is a time for introspection. It is a time to think about the mission of God and to examine our own relationships. This year during Lent, I want to invite you on a journey of examination. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ by connecting people to God, to one another and to our deepest selves so that we might be whole. And so we will examine our connection to God, to others and to our deepest selves in several areas.
What characterizes a connected disciple? I believe it is a disciple who Listens and a disciple who Loves. And when we listen we will learn and when we love we will serve. So how are we doing in our connections in these areas? Is our discipleship moving ahead? Are we treading water? Are we sinking? As we walk with Jesus through this season, let’s each look at our connections through these lenses.
On the Mount of Transfiguration God spoke to those gathered on the mountain and said, “This is my beloved Son, I am pleased with him. Listen to Him!”
Listen! We all know that listening is far different from hearing. We are in the middle of the Great Backyard Bird Count. During these 4 days from Friday until tomorrow, every one of us who go outside will hear the same sounds. But those birdwatchers who are joining together to identify backyard birds will not simply be hearing sounds they will be listening for the calls of the birds. Hearing is a passive process of the ears, but listening is an active process of the mind. To listen is to tune your ears to detect and understand the voice of another.
Listen to God (Sheep know voice) –
As disciples of Jesus, the way we find direction and the way we are sustained is by listening to God. There are many voices calling for our attention. If you watch 30 minutes of television, you will see an average of 7 minutes and 39 seconds of commercials or 24 commercials. Each one is hoping to grab your attention and change your behavior. And to be truthful, product placement within programs means you are receiving many more messages than that. When you go online, a simple news story will have 8 or more ads. Billboards, text messages, tweets, snaps and politicians all call for immediate attention. So how do we negotiate the sea of voices so that we can hear the voice of God?
First, I would suggest that we hear the voice of God, when we turn to the scriptures and read them through the lense of Jesus. It is not enough to simply read a verse feel you have listened to God. If we are going to listen to God through the scriptures, we must read them in both the literary and historic context in which they were written. When the Psalmist wrote, “there is no god” what is the literary context? When Moses commanded that men must not cut the corners of their heads, what was the historic context? As we read the Bible, we are to listen FOR the voice of God, for God will speak to us, though it requires active listening. Where do you begin in that process of listening? Jesus told us where to begin, he said the first commandment is to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you want a filter so that you can listen to God, begin with that simple command.
Second, we can learn to listen to the voice of God as we interact with the Body of Christ. God may use a sermon, or a song, or prayer, or a word of encouragement to speak into our lives. As we spend time with other believers we will learn to tune our ears to the voice of God.
Jesus said, My sheep hear my voice and they know me.
In Palestine today, it is still possible to witness a scene that Jesus almost certainly saw two thousand years ago, that of Bedouin shepherds bringing their flocks home from the various pastures they have grazed during the day. Often those flocks will end up at the same watering hole around dusk, so that they get all mixed up together—eight or nine small flocks turning into a convention of thirsty sheep. Their shepherds do not worry about the mix-up, however. When it is time to go home, each one issues his or her own distinctive call—a special trill or whistle, or a particular tune on a particular reed pipe, and that shepherd’s sheep withdraw from the crowd to follow their shepherd home. They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd’s voice, and it is the only one they will follow.
And third, if we would listen for God and listen to God, we must quiet the other voices around us. I have found the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, or praying the scriptures to be very helpful in this. The practice involves opening your time with relaxing breaths and a prayer to open your heart to the voice of God. Then you read the text slowly 3 times asking God to give you a word or phrase that you can use in your day. There are many resources to help you in this practice, but one of the most helpful, for me, has been a website where a gentle guide leads you through a 20 minutes experience of praying the scriptures. That site is on the back of the card in your bulletin.
Are we tuning our hearts to not simply hear, but to listen for God’s voice?
Listen to one another
Every day, all day, people make bids for our attention. People want to connect with one another. A number of years ago, in a study of 130 marriages, researcher John Gottman noticed that throughout the day married partners made requests for connection, what Gottman calls bids. If a husband is a birdwatcher, he may say, “Look at those Mourning Doves!” In pointing them out, he is not simply noticing the birds, rather he is making a bid for attention from his partner. He’s requesting a response—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
Now, his partner has a choice, she can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband. Though the bird-bid might seem minor, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the marriage. The bird was important for the husband and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that. People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who turned away responded minimally, ignored the bid, or expressed contempt, as in “That’s stupid” or “Stop bothering me.” These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.” These couples were not merely hearing each other, they were listening with their hearts.
The way we respond to bids for our attention, will impact relationships throughout our lives. Whether we are interacting with children craving attention, or older neighbors who are lonely, or overworked friends who need a ear, or some the opportunity to whine, the way we respond will either build the relationship, or tear it apart.
Now I will be the first to admit that there are many times I have turned away, rather toward a bid for attention, Sheryl can testify to that. However, as we grow as connected disciples, more and more we will turn toward those seeking connections.
On Thursday I spoke to a counselor about listening. She told me of a workshop she went to where they did a listening exercise. In pairs, one person was to be the speaker and the other the listener. The speaker was to talk about an issue that had been a roadblock in their lives and the listener was to communicate that they were listening only with their face. They could not respond verbally, they just listen and use facial expressions to demonstrate they were listening. After the exercise they shared about the experience and my friend’s speaking partner told her that the experience had been a breakthrough for her. And my friend had said nothing, she only made it evident that she was listening!
This is what James means when he says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.”
Listen to our deepest selves (Looking in a mirror and forgetting)
But a connected disciple does not listen just to God and others, but she will listen to herself as well. James tells us “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”
Hearing ourselves can be a very dangerous proposition if we listen casually. The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that the heart is deceitful above all else. As we try to listen often what we hear are our inner voices, we sometimes hear words of condemnation such as, “You are so stupid!” “Why won’t you work up to your potential?” Maybe it is the word, “You are an embarrassment,” or even “You are the greatest and anyone who disagrees is wrong.” These words come, not from God, but from those who have influenced us in the past. When we are only hearing ourselves these inner voices are what we hear.
When I speak of listening to our deepest selves, I don’t mean the words that come, they will deceive us. Rather, listen to ourselves, we must learn to listen to our bodies and our spirits. As a child of God, your deepest self wants to be used of God to guide you into wholeness. Our bodies respond to stress, both good and bad in predictable ways, as we listen to our bodies and our spirit, God will lead into places of peace. In your bulletin there is an exercise designed to help you listen to your body, I urge you to take time this week to work the exercise a couple times.
Listen: This is the word of the Lord, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” How are you doing when it comes to listening to God, to others and to yourself? Another piece in your bulletin is a self-evaluation. We are going to take a few moments right now and prayerfully identify where we are on a scale of seldom hearing, to actively listening.