Listening and Speaking – Father Thomas Nsubuga

By Father Thomas Nsubuga

This morning, I would like to draw your attention to our first lesson in 1 Samuel 3. In his comments on this text, Dr. Luke Powery says that the prophet Samuel affirms that prayerful listening leads to prophetic proclamation, that our silence and service are intertwined and that we must always listen before we speak. Since the roots of social and civic engagement are listening skills, I thought we should reflect on the importance of listening in the life of faith.

The first lesson on listening is that God speaks. God speaks and calls Samuel four times, (vv. 4, 6, 8, 10), but three of those times, Samuel thinks it is the elder priest, Eli, who is calling him, suggesting how difficult it may be to discern the voice of God. If we don’t know God’s voice, we may run to the wrong people for advice and guidance. If we don’t know the voice of God, we may only hear our own voice and then confuse it with God’s voice. Sometimes, we can’t hear God because of all of the noise in our lives, “the jangling echoes of our turbulence” (Thurman, Meditations of the Heart). Or, maybe we just listen to the distorted voices that tell us that it is not worth it, we can’t do it, it will never change; voices of defeat that have nothing to do with serving the resurrected Christ; voices that drown out the truth that God is love. It may be difficult to discern God’s voice sometimes but God is patient, continuing to call us even when we don’t answer and even when we might be afraid of what he may ask us to do. It is not until the fourth time, after Eli tells Samuel that it is God calling, that Samuel responds to God’s call with “Speak, for your servant is listening” (v.10). He soon realizes that God is the foundation of his future prophetic work, implying that God is calling, wanting to give us our voice, our vocation. According to Frederick Buechner, “God speaks not just through the sounds we hear… but through events in all their complexity and variety, through the harmonies and disharmonies and counterpoint of all that happens” (Buechner, The Sacred Journey and Listening to Your Life).

In January 1956 God spoke. It was when Dr. Martin Luther King felt he could not continue with the civil rights movement. Recalling the event, he said “I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud, saying, ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ At that moment I experienced the presence of God as I had never before. It seemed as if I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. I was ready to face anything. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.” (King, The Soul of Leadership). I know that some of you have had a similar experience when God has spoken to you and you have found inner strength for outer action. God speaks at a kitchen table, in a living room, in a bedroom, in the car, here in the cathedral, even on a vacation trip; whenever you are tired, weak and worn. God speaks, revealing to us our mission in the world because if God doesn’t speak, we have nothing to say. If God doesn’t speak, we have nothing to do. God speaks, the question is “Are we listening?”

The second lesson on listening is that listening is the first task of a prophet. The term ‘prophet’ is thrown around in society and in the church and usually we think of speaking right away. But what we learn from this call story today is the priority of listening not only in the work of a prophet but also in our life and ministry. Because prayer is vital in listening to God, our prayer should be, “Silence in us any voices but your own, so that we may hear your Word and also do it; through Christ our Lord.” (Prayers for Illumination). Prophetic ministry and all other ministries are propelled by the posture of prayerful silence and listening and yet many of us are uncomfortable with silence. We find it hard to center down in silence because we may not like what we hear from God or our own hearts. Silence may be a corrective path to a word-centered spirituality that believes that the amount of words reveals how deep one’s spirituality really is. Perhaps we need an ear-centered theology that recognizes listening as much as speaking even as we read in scripture such verses as, “Hear, O Israel” (Deut.6:4) and “faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17).

When we listen, we show that we don’t have all the answers and need God’s guidance. Listening signifies our receptivity toward the voice of God that we might discover our own voices in the world; that we might discover what to speak and how to act. Listening is a form of love—we listen to those whom we love, and if we are not listening, we may not love like we think we do. If we are not listening we may not even recognize the voice of the one who loves us to death. Listening is not passive; it is active attention and it may be exactly what you need when the going gets tough rather than getting caught up in the noise of unfruitful activity of guessing.

We pray; we keep silence but there comes a time when we have to act – our third lesson on listening. Listening leads to speaking. We cannot be silent forever. God will call us to speak and “The calling to speak is often a vocation of agony” (King, Speech about Vietnam in 1967). What we may be called to say may not be easy to digest. We may not want to speak it. Others may not want to hear it. But God still calls us to say it and we must break the silence. What Samuel is called to do is not easy. He is called to speak during a time of change, turmoil and impending war (1 Sam 3:11-20). Samuel cannot lie down in the temple (vv.3, 5, 6, 9) forever, but must get up and act upon what he has heard and what he will say will make “the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” As servants and agents of God in the world we follow God’s agenda. Public servants do not just serve the public but God. In the case of Samuel, prophetic action is grounded not even in the wisdom of Eli, the seasoned priest but in God’s voice and direction. Therefore, to act justly in the world is to follow God’s ongoing activity in the world. But to know what God is doing, one has to listen prayerfully. The legacy of those who have been the voice of the voiceless reveals that their proclamations are rooted in theological obedience and prayerful listening to the call of a God of justice who says, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever‐flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). So, to be able to speak, one must pray like The Poet James Weldon Johnson and ask God to “pin [my] ear to the wisdom post” (Johnson, Listen, Lord: A Prayer) that like Isaiah (6:7) my mouth may be touched by the burning coals of God so that like Jeremiah (20:9) God’s word may be like fire shut up in my bones that I can’t help but speak what God desires me to declare. Speak and declare that “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Speak and declare, that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Speak and declare, that “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” We are to speak and declare that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and that “only love can drive out hate” (King).

My friends, listening requires prayer, silence and declaring the Word that we hear God speak. This Word is the incarnate Word that dwells among us, fleshed out in the every-day-ness of our own experience. It is possible that God is calling you for the nth time but you are still hesitant. I pray that today your response will be the prayer of Samuel— “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.

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