When our children lived at home with us, mornings were filled with preparations for school and work – breakfast, a search for clean jeans, the readying of the backpacks, the yell from one sibling to the other that it was time to leave, and the last minute touching base between all of us. Even though it was pure chaos at times, I wouldn’t have given up those beautiful sounds for anything. But one morning, everyone had left the house but me, and I heard a bird singing a stunningly beautiful song. I just sat and listened. I was sure this wasn’t really a new occurrence; after all, birds are everywhere. 350 species of birds can be found in Arkansas, and around 145 actually nest here. It was just that on this particular morning, I heard the bird song that I suspect was always there but usually covered up by louder noises and my own distraction.
Today’s reading from the book of Acts is all about listening, not just the Ethiopian eunuch who listens to Philip explain the scriptures but also the listening that Philip himself does in this passage. An angel comes to Philip (a newly minted deacon in the early church) and tells him to “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Philip does and finds a traveler who works for the Queen of Ethiopia sitting in his chariot. The Holy Spirit tells Philip to “Go over to this chariot and join it.” Once again Philip obeys. As he gets closer he hears the Ethiopian reading from the book of Isaiah, and Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading. The man replies, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” So Philip explains the passage from Isaiah in light of the redemptive actions of Jesus, the Ethiopian asks to be baptized, and Philip baptizes him. The Spirit of the Lord snatches Philip up and that’s the last we hear in scripture of the Ethiopian traveler. But it isn’t the last we hear of him in the Christian tradition. Later Christians believed that this man returned to Africa and became the first Christian missionary there, spreading the gospel and bearing much fruit.
We might consider the Holy Spirit and angel speaking to Philip to be a miracle, but the bigger miracle might just be that Philip actually heard them, especially if life in the early Church was anything like life in the Church today. It’s easy to understand why God’s call sometimes goes unheard especially among those of us who claim to be God’s people. We get so busy doing what we think is God’s will for us that sometimes we forget to slow down and actually listen. The institution and the work we do in it takes on a life of its own, while the mystery that is the Body of Christ goes untended.
Of course, it isn’t just noise within the Church that drowns out the voice of God. In a culture where we rarely get time to eat dinner as a family, where we think our importance is measured by the limited number of open slots on our calendar, and where we value multitasking over single-minded focus, it’s no wonder we can’t hear the Holy Spirit.
Maybe we’d be better at sorting through all the noise to hear the Spirit leading us if we were more familiar with the Spirit’s voice, if we practiced listening a little more than most of us do. Take parents, for example. A parent spends a lot of time with their child – and he or she learns to pick out the child’s cry or laugh or coo from among a nursery full of infants, and the parent learns what that sound means. Familiarity triggers recognition. We have to learn how to listen for the promptings of God in our heart, mind, and soul by spending time in prayerful silence so that when we hear that voice in the midst of all the busyness of life, we can pick it out.
To be totally honest, though, it’s not always a lack of recognition that causes us to miss what God is trying to tell us. Sometimes we don’t hear the divine voice because we don’t want to. If, like Philip, we get up and go when we hear the voice of an angel or of the Holy Spirit, if we answer God’s call to us and start down the path to where God is leading us, then there will other paths that we don’t get to take. Our lives will undergo a pruning or shaping at the hands of the vinegrower that might be painful, that might entail loss, that might lead us places we don’t particularly want to go. Sometimes it’s easier to put in earphones and begin to hum so we can block out the voice of God that keeps ever so gently breaking into our chosen reality.
But even if we get rid of our earphones and turn down all the other noise in our lives, even if we practice our listening skills and spend time in prayer with God so that God’s voice might become more familiar to us than that of our closest friend, even then there is the possibility that we might not be able to decipher what God is calling us to do. We might hear the voice of God, feel the prompting of the Spirit, and have the most steadfast intentions of obeying, and yet still not understand exactly what it is God is calling us to do or where it is we’re being led. It’s frustrating, it’s scary, and it’s easy to become afraid that what we think God is calling us to do might not really be what God wants from us. A friend of mine tells a joke about a monk sorting through old volumes in the basement of the monastery only to find that somewhere along the way one of the monks accidently transcribed the word celebrate as celibate – changing the way his brothers would live for generations to come. I think sometimes we aren’t sure what God is saying to us, and afraid of getting it wrong we remain paralyzed, doing nothing instead of risking doing the wrong thing.
There are two things that are helpful to remember when this happens to us – I say “when” instead of “if” because it is inevitable. The mind of God is not always, if ever, going to be completely within our grasp. So first, when we’re unsure about what we’re hearing, we rely on our church family to help us discern what God is calling us to do. That’s why we read scripture as a community (as Philip and the Ethiopian read it together); it’s why we pray together and listen together; it’s why we discern someone’s call to ordain ministry as a community and not as an individualistic Road to Damascus kind of event.
Second, we trust God to lead us where God wants us to go – as I’ve said before, to write straight with the crooked lines of our lives and to redeem our path when we take a wrong turn. Thomas Merton captures the gentle and redemptive hand of God in this beautiful prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Words to live by during times when the way forward isn’t crystal clear.
The bottom line is this: Listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, to the voice of God through angels or circumstances or moments of grace or the voices of those around us, isn’t an exact science. But there are practices that can help us hear: seek out silence, practice the art of listening prayer, be willing and be open to the work of God in our lives, discern in community, and trust God. Perhaps then we, like Philip and the Ethiopian who listened with open hearts, might bear much fruit.