“Listening Prayer”

I SAMUEL 3:1-9: JOHN 16:12-13

MARCH 18, 2012




           Franklin Delano Roosevelt, like most presidents, often endured long receiving lines at the White House.  He complained one day that very few in the receiving line really paid any attention to what he said.  To prove his point he decided to try an experiment.  To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning."  The guests responded with phrases like, "Marvelous! Keep up the good work.  We are proud of you.  God bless you, sir."  It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard.  Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, "I'm sure she had it coming."

            I wonder if God ever feels a little like Franklin Roosevelt?  I wonder if God ever thinks most of us aren’t listening to him?  It’s got to be frustrating.  After all, God created us with two ears and one mouth so that we would listen twice as much as we talk, but how are we doing when it comes to listening, really listening to what God is saying to us? 

            We know from the Bible that God talks to us.  In the parable of the Good Shepherd Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me,”  and in the Upper Room Jesus makes a promise.  Listen to it. 


            I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear then now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.


            Picture the scene.  Think of it as “so much to say and so little time.”  It was the night of his arrest.  Jesus and the disciples just had their last meal together, and Jesus was trying to cover as much as he could before the end of his ministry.  He had so much to say, and yet, he was aware that the disciples were just not ready to take it all in.  They were still struggling to understand what he had been trying to tell them in the past.  They were still stumbling over the meaning of the parables.  Not only that, the disciples were also constantly bickering with each other, trying to get a more prominent place in the order of things, a little like first graders lining up at the water fountain at school.  For twelve grown men, you'd think that they would have been more sophisticated, but we have to remember that these were commoners, men of passions, used to living lives of intensity on fishing boats, on farms, in workshops, and in tax offices.  They were the blue-collar workers of their time, skilled and yet not educated, used to the basics, not interested in what the future might hold because they found life difficult enough in the present.

            Jesus wanted to speak to his disciples in a clear and direct manner, but how could he expect them to hear all that they needed to hear with so little time left?  So, he decided, enough is enough.  “I won’t be able to get it all in, so after my death I will give you the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who will speak on my behalf.”

            So, God speaks.  That’s a given.  The question is how well do we listen?

            A number of years ago, something revolutionized my prayer time.  I was reading through the scriptures, taking note of how much time, Jesus spent in prayer, and how he sometimes spent the whole night praying, and I wondered, “How did he do that?”  How can someone spend all night praying, or as Susannah Wesley suggested, four hours praying, or even spending an hour praying?  Then it hit me, they were spending that much time praying because they are listening as well as talking when they were praying.  At that moment, the light bulb went on.  It was an ah-ha moment.  Then the question became, how do we learn to listen when we pray?

            We’ve all heard the formula about how to speak when we pray, at least most of us have heard it.  It’s the ACTS formula.  When we talk to God we begin with Adoration, then move to Confession, then move to Thanksgiving, then to Supplication, bringing requests to God.  Many of us grew up with that formula, the ACTS formula, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.  But what about listening?  Is there a formula for that?

            Well, I haven’t found one, but here’s what I have done over the years in learning how to listen to God.  Here are some of the methods I have used.  One method is the Bible.  The Bible is a record of God speaking through the ages.  So, at times I use the Bible to listen.  I read a passage of Scripture, and then I stop and say, OK, God what do you want to say to me from this passage?  And then, I sit still for a minimum of five minutes.  No talking, just listening.  Sometimes something comes, and sometimes something doesn’t, but I’m listening.  If nothing else, even if God doesn’t speak, I saying to God, I want to understand, I want to hear what you have to say today.

            Of course, some of you may be wondering.  What about a wandering mind?  “What if your mind wanders?  Mine does.  What do you do with that?”  Well, I use it as a way God speaks to me.  When I’m silent I have a little pad of paper there, and if my mind begins to wander I write it down on the pad, and I say to myself, “I’ll get back to you later.  Right now I’m listening to God.”  Or, sometimes I use it.  I say to God, “I’m really trying hard to listen to you today, but I’m having difficulty focusing.  I’m thinking about that meeting I’m having later today.  Why is that on my mind, God?  Why am I thinking about that?” and I wait to see what God might say to me about that.  I call it giving my wandering mind to Christ.  So, if your mind wanders while trying to listen, jot the wandering down and get back to it, or simply use it, asking God why this is seemingly more important than listening to God.

            Another method I use is nature.  God created the universe.  God’s fingerprints are on the created order so I simply focus upon something from nature.  I learned this from a Quaker, a guy named Richard Foster.  In his book The Celebration of Discipline he suggested different ways to focus on God using the discipline of solitude, and one of those ways was meditating, focusing on an item from nature.  So I tried it.  At the time my office had a wonderful view, and it was fall and there was a beautiful tree in a yard across the street from my office, so I said to God, “OK, I’ve been reading this book by Richard Foster and he told me to listen to you through nature.  So I’m going to focus on this tree, and wait for you to tell me something as I focus my attention on this beautiful fall tree.”  The first day, nothing.  The second day, nothing.  Silence.  The third day, I could not see the tree.  It was an incredibly foggy day, and I said to God, “God, give me a break.  I’m trying to listen to you by focusing on this tree, and now I can’t even see it!  What gives?”  And I heard a voice in my head, which I’m convinced was God.  The voice said, “Is the tree still there?”  I said, “Of course, the tree is still there,” and God says, “So am I.”  He said, “Sometimes when you get busy or are under pressure, it seems to you like I’m not there.  But I am.  Just like that tree.” 

            Since that experience, I’ve sometimes used nature as a way to listen to God.  Other times, I’ve used a journal.  I got this from another Christian author, Morton Kelsey.    He used journaling as a way to listen to God, and it began one night.  Morton Kelsey was having difficulty sleeping, and he would get up and go into the kitchen and have a snack, and one night, frustrated from the lack of sleep, he blurted out to God, “Why am I having difficulty sleeping through the night?”  And God said to Kelsey, “Do you remember the story of Samuel when he was a little boy?  How his mother dedicated him to God and how Samuel when to live with the priest Eli and how Samuel would hear his name being called in the middle of the night ... Samuel ... Samuel ... Samuel ... and how he would get up thinking it was Eli, and going in and waking up Eli asking if he had called him, and then on the third night Eli saying to Samuel, “Samuel, it’s not me calling you.  Maybe it’s God.  Don’t wake me up any more.  Just ask God what he wants, and Samuel did.”  Well, it’s the same, your not being able to sleep is my way of getting you up so we can talk.”

            Then Kelsey said to God, “Well, I appreciate that, but why don’t you call me during the day time so I can sleep?”

            And God said to Kelsey, “I do but you are so busy you don’t listen so I have to get you up at night to get your attention.”

            So from that night on, whenever he gets up at night, Kelsey takes out a journal and begins with, “God I’m awake, what do you want to say to me?” and then he writes down what he hears from God.

            Of course, some of you may say, “How can we know it’s really God speaking?”  Well, I think of it this way.  A number of years ago, in a former life and a former church, we had a new member class that met downstairs, just below the church nursery, and young parents would come to the new member class and leave their children upstairs, and during the class, a baby would cry, and one set of the parents would look at one another.  Why did they look at one another?  The looked at one another because they recognized their baby’s cry.  I didn’t recognize it, but they did.  Over a few weeks or a few months they could distinguish their child’s cry from that of other children, and over a few weeks or months we will be able to distinguish God’s voice from our own or from Old Redleg’s voice.  And another thing we can do to make sure it’s God, is simply ask a mature, seasoned Christian friend.  Say to them, I been trying to listen to God, and the other day I heard God saying to me ... whatever you heard ... and ask them, “Does that resonate with you?  Did I hear God correctly?”

            Then one last suggestion to get the ball rolling when it comes to listening prayer.  Sit down someplace, close your eyes, and imagine Jesus pulling up a chair next to you, and the two of you carrying on a conversation.  Imagine Jesus coming up, sitting down and his asking you, “How are you doing today?  What do you want to talk about?”  And imagine the conversation that takes place between the two of you.  When I lived in Southern California, I loved going to the beach, and at sunset I would sit close to the surf, watch the sun go down, and imagine Jesus coming to sit next to me on the sand.  We would then strike up a conversation.  It’s the one and only thing, I take that back I miss the Dodgers as well, but going to the beach and watching the sun go down and having conversations with Jesus ... well, it doesn’t get much better than that. 

            Let’s wrap up for today.  Last week we talked about finding a place to pray and making prayer a regular rhythm of our lives.  Today, we talked about learning how to listen to God in prayer.  So, here our marching orders for the week.  In your quiet place of prayer, experiment with one of the ways I suggested we might learn to listen to God.  Remember them?  Scripture.  Nature.  Journaling.  Imagining a conversation with Jesus.  Experiment with one of those four ways of listening to God in prayer.

            The Book of Revelation has a great line.  It’s one of the few lines we can understand in the Book of Revelation and it goes like this:  “Let anyone who has an ear, listen.” 

            Let’s commit ourselves to listening to what God has to say to us, each and every day.  Amen.