Deep Listening

Margaret Benefiel

Text: I Samuel 3:1-18

“The word of the Lord was rare.”  The word of the Lord was rare when Samuel was a child.  This was a time of dry bones.  Eli had been Israel’s priest for many years.  Just before this passage, the author painted a picture of Eli’s sons’ unfaithfulness.  They, the priests, weren’t listening.  The people weren’t being offered God’s word.  In the I Samuel reading, Eli, who was rusty at listening to God, realizes at last (on God’s third try) that it is the Lord who is speaking to Samuel, and he tells Samuel how to respond.  In this passage, the mantle of God passes from Eli to Samuel when Samuel listens and responds faithfully.  The first message that God gives Samuel, immediately after this passage, is a word of rebuke to Eli and a prophecy of devastation to him and his family.  Samuel is afraid to speak the message.  What a challenging first message from God to have to deliver!   Rebuking and announcing devastation to your mentor and senior priest, when you are still a boy.  If I had been Samuel, I might have questioned whether this was the vocation I wanted.

Eli might be angry.  He might throw Samuel out.  He might try to have him killed (after all, Samuel had seen a thing or two being around the temple, and he knew what happened when people in power got angry).  Samuel was afraid.  But Samuel went ahead and spoke the word he had been given anyway. 

Samuel listened to God.  Samuel responded by delivering the message God gave him.

As time went on, Samuel continued to go to Shiloh, the place where God spoke to him, and listen to God’s messages to him.  Samuel continued to deliver God’s messages.  And Samuel grew in renown as a man of God.  He knew how to listen.  He chose to respond faithfully, no matter what the message.  Israel respected him as God’s messenger.  The dry bones came together and began to live again.

What is it to listen to God in our time and place?  How do we listen?  How does God speak?  What message might God be giving us to speak?

I’d like to share a situation from my own life in which I am learning to listen to God and learning to speak.

Almost five months ago now, when I learned the result of the Presidential election, I was devastated.  My candidate had lost, and to someone I thought was dangerous for my country and the world.

My stomach in knots, I talked with a friend and had a good cry.  I turned to wise leaders for a way forward.  Still wrestling with my emotions, I sought words of guidance and hope. 

I found those words of guidance and hope in several places: Constance Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Warren, Cynthia Bourgeault, and a colleague at work.  While the importance of standing up for those who are vulnerable in this present climate was reinforced, I also learned the importance of listening.  Listening for God’s voice in the midst of the many voices around me.  Listening for how God might be speaking through people with whom I disagree.  And I learned the importance of humility.  I’m learning to pray out of the depths, to wait on the Lord with my whole being, to put my trust in the Lord. 

For the past several months, I have been seeking to live into this wisdom.  It’s harder than I thought it would be.  It’s hard to listen.  Hard to listen to God.  Hard to listen for that of God in people with whom I disagree.  It’s hard to see self-righteousness in myself, and to let it go.  It’s hard to stand up for what I believe in the face of opposition.  It’s hard to wait on the Lord when I see the dismantling of so much that so many worked so hard to achieve in our nation.

The words of Steve Garnaas-Holmes resonate with me, as he reflects on how to turn swords into plowshares in this time:

I bear them into conversations, my swords.
I hide them in my dark.
I launch them at the news, these spears.
Find them among me, God of Peace.  Take them:
my bitterness, my defensiveness, my need to win.
Find the hidden swords, the secret spears I cling to.

Make them red hot in the furnace of your forgiveness.
Hold them in the tongs of your truth.
Beat them with the hammer of your love.

Take the hurt I mean to project, the defeat I wish others.
Free me of the swagger of hurtfulness.
Bend my righteous little swords into tools of life.

Let me stand before enemies with pure love,
prepared to break soil, to prune branches,
to do the hard work of growing peace.

For I will need stout tools to work this rough land well,
to bring fruits of justice out of this rocky earth,
to tend the muscular trees of mercy.

Can I get beneath the political views to hear another’s experiences?  Can I ask others, regardless of their political views, “What were your hopes when you voted for the candidate of your choice?  What are your hopes now?  What were your fears, and what are your fears now?”  And once I ask, can I listen deeply, really listen with curiosity, to the heart of the person speaking to me?  Can I listen for how God’s voice might be speaking to me through that person?

I know that there is much for me to learn in the weeks and months and years ahead.  And, more importantly, there is much for me to practice.  John Woolman, an eighteenth-century American Quaker, serves as a role model for me here.  As Woolman traveled the American colonies speaking out against slavery, he both stood strong in his beliefs and at the same time listened respectfully to others’ points of view.  He exhibited both great strength and great humility.  During the seventeenth century, quite a number of Quaker families held slaves.  Woolman traveled the colonies visiting Quaker slaveholders in their homes, talking with them about slavery, and why he believed it to be wrong.  He appealed to that of God in the slaveholders.  He believed that God lived within them as well as within himself.  He listened respectfully, and entered into dialogue with them.  His journal records his conversations and the deep dialogue that grew out of them.  Long before slavery was abolished in the US, Quakers no longer held slaves, largely due to the efforts of John Woolman. 

Woolman listened deeply for how God was moving, in himself and in others, and God accomplished great things through him.  He both stood firm in his beliefs and, at the same time, exhibited humility and open-heartedness.

I want to do the same.  In this time of bitter political division, how can I help bring healing?  Furthermore, when I see injustice, how can I speak out prophetically and at the same time, maintain a stance of humility and compassion? 

So, this is an example from my life in the realm of politics.  Practicing deep listening is also relevant in all aspects of my life.  At work, how do I speak my truth and at the same time listen open-heartedly to those who disagree with me?  At home, how do I maintain an open-hearted listening presence when my husband and I disagree?

As I learn to listen deeply to others, I learn to hear God’s voice through them, complementing the other ways in which I hear God’s voice, enriching and broadening my understanding.

Then I can be a more faithful messenger, when my message comes out of a richer, deeper, compassionate place. 

Being faithful messengers, trying to connect people with God’s wisdom is what we seek to do in our workplaces, our homes, and in the larger political realm.  It’s what the boy Samuel was called to do in today’s passage.  The age of Samuel in the story is part of the message to us: it was clear that the message he brought to Eli was noting of Samuel’s making.  When we’re clear that the message we bring is from God, it makes it easier, since we’re not responsible or to blame for the message itself.  And it makes it harder, since we have to hold ourselves apart from our role as messenger.  But as in all things, God gives us what we need to do God’s work.  The God who made the dry bones live, the God who raised Lazarus from the dead, is a God who is with us now.  The God who raised Christ from the dead gives life to us through the Holy Spirit. 

May we be faithful messengers.  May it not be said of us, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.  May it be said instead, “The word of God took root and flourished among them.  The dry bones lived.”