A good question: How does God speak?
‘When we ask about the kind of person Jesus was’
In a thousand ways. Through the colours of creation and the company of friends. In our prayers and in our pains. Amid our temptations, tragedies and tears. When promise rises from the dust, and hope breathes through disappointment and distress. God speaks at many times and in many tones.
So, is there one voice, one note, to give sense and centre to it all? For me there is – in Jesus as God’s word. Word taking our flesh. Word speaking with a human voice. Word meeting us amid the scenes and sorrows of our living, entering the rhythm of our days, embracing our weakness, sharing grief and death, and rising to meet us in hope and life.
WWJD. What would Jesus do? It’s wristband theology, compact, portable and everyday, and by no means a bad question to put to the difficulties and dilemmas we meet. WDJS is another version of the same question: what did Jesus say? Or taking a slightly wider view, what might God have been saying in the life of Jesus?
How did Jesus learn – from earth, from heaven, from Scripture, from experience? How did Jesus meet people – friends, strangers, enemies, those who needed help, and those who wanted to help him? What did he challenge, and what did he teach? What was he willing to bear, for God’s sake? And what vision did he have for the way the world could be?..
John Proctor is General Secretary of the United Reformed Church
‘He never stops’
In the Catholic Church, we are commonly encouraged to hear God’s voice in the sacraments, the Church’s teachings and the scriptures. In Christian spirituality more generally, it is often said that in order to hear God speak we must cultivate a practice of silence, interior listening and withdrawal.
Vital though these practices are, the constant encouragement to access God in these ways can generate some problems. It invites us to think of life, probably subconsciously (because consciously we all know otherwise) in terms of compartments. There is the religious bit and the normal or everyday bit; the sacred or holy part and the secular or profane part. There is church (spiritual) and then there is filling your car with petrol (secular); there is prayerfully reading the Bible during personal prayer time (spiritual) and there is arguing with the kids (secular); there is sitting silently and withdrawing into oneself (spiritual) and there is struggling with the coffee machine at work (secular). The implicit expectation is that the first category of activities is where we can expect to hear God’s voice. The second is, at best, opportunities to practice what we have heard; at worst, fillers in between those times.
The problem with all this is that as soon as we have divided our life, even subconsciously, into “religious” or “spiritual’ activities and everything else, then no matter how much we try to bring them together, we are going to think of God as part of our experience rather than in some way our experience altogether.
Thomas Merton said that there is no such thing as “having” a spiritual life. Either your whole life is spiritual, or none of it is. He was very far from criticising reading the Bible, going to church, or practicing silent prayer. But if those things function subtly to create a special zone in my life where God speaks (in church, inside myself) then I have confined God to being just another thing in my life, along with my family, my friends, my job and so on. But God isn’t “another” thing. God is the infinitely intimate source of every millisecond of my life, every particle of this world…
Carmody Grey is a columnist for The Tablet
‘Trust the nudges’
Again, I felt an urgency: “Pick up the phone and dial 999!” It seemed a crazy thing to do. I had just had an apparently normal conversation with a young mum in our church requesting that I collect and care for her daughter after school, but as soon as I replaced the handset I felt an alarm that she was planning to commit suicide. In the end I made the emergency call and then phoned my husband at the church office and asked him to go to this mum’s flat. He arrived just as the emergency services were breaking down the door to find her lying unconscious with an empty bottle of pills and vodka on the floor beside her. The paramedics exclaimed: “This one’s lucky! Fifteen minutes more and we couldn’t have helped her – this was a lethal cocktail!” Never have I been so grateful that I listened to the urgent nudge and responded.
Unfortunately, I am not always so diligent but I have come to realise that most of my good ideas tend to be God ideas trying to attract my attention and direct my actions.
Learning to hear the voice of God takes practice. It is like turning on a radio and learning the voices of the producers until you know you have the right programme. In John 10:4 we read: “After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice.” God has created us with a “God receptor” within our being so we can know his voice….
Rachel Hickson is Founding Director of Heartcry for Change
‘God is in the exquisite marriage of mind and soul’
Louis Finkelstein, a respected scholar and teacher of rabbinic texts, would say: “When I pray, I speak to God; when I learn [Torah], God speaks to me.” Jews see themselves as part of a tradition that emphasises deed over creed: we do, we talk, we eat, we think and we argue. We see ourselves embedded in a great tradition, often likened to an ocean, in which we immerse ourselves. Like an ocean, we experience this tradition not only as deep but also embrace the many moods of its waters – be they calming or churning. Our collective name, “Yisrael”, given to Jacob on the bank of the river Jabbok, translates as “Godwrestler”. Our relationship with God is seen through the lens of text, questioning and action.
Few stories are more illustrative than the story of the oven of Akhnai, from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia 59a-b. The story opens with a prosaic discussion of whether an oven is ritually fit for use or not. One rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer disagrees with the majority opinion and tries to present every conceivable argument in his favour. Noticing that he is not able to persuade his colleagues through reason, he resorts to supernatural powers of persuasion: “If the Halachah (Jewish law) agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!” he exclaims, whereupon the trees moved many cubits. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” the other rabbis retorted. Rabbi Eliezer brings further miraculous proof – he gets streams of water to flow backwards and walls to cave in – but his colleagues do not relent…
Esther Hugenholtz is Assistant Rabbi at Sinai Synagogue in Leeds
This is an extract from the June 2016 edition of Reform.