(God calls and invites, but does not force. And it's through those who respond with openness, humility and surrender that the kingdom of God takes shape.)
“Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.”
It’s what old Eli the priest in the dying years of his ministry taught young Samuel to say when he heard the voice of God calling his name in the darkness.
It’s also the title of a little book by Rosalind Rinker – a simple instruction book on prayer that was one of the first books I remember owning. I think someone gave it to me as a gift.
Being taught, teaching others, and helping one another along the way to pray – to listen to God as servants listen to a Master or a Lady for direction, seems pretty fundamental to our being a faithful church and an honest community of faith – let alone to our being faithful and honest Christians and persons of faith in our own lives.
I wonder, though, how easy it is.
“Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.” I wonder how much I might yet learn from that book today. Because do I really trust God, love God, open myself to God that fully and that habitually?
In my job, with all the talking I do, do I really listen as much? My education and training have given me a Master of Divinity degree – and sometimes it seems that’s what I try to be and to do. Personally, I’m obsessive-compulsive enough to think it’s my job to know the answers more than sit with the questions. And practically, I like to know ahead, to not be blind-sided, and not have plans upset mid-stream.
So how often do I honestly say, “Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.”
On Friday the on-line daily meditation that I read from Fr. Richard Rohr kind of hit me between the eyes.
“To begin to really see,” he says, “we must observe – and usually be humiliated by – the habitual way we encounter each and every moment. It is humiliating because we will see that we are well-practiced in just a few predictable responses. Not many of our responses are original, fresh, or naturally respectful of what is right in front of us. The most common human responses are about trying to be in control of the data instead of allowing the moment to get some control over us – and teach us something new!
“To let the moment – and God as God is in that moment, teach us, we must allow ourselves to be at least slightly stunned by it until it draws us inward and upward, toward a subtle experience of wonder. We normally need a moment of awe to get us started, and then the spiritual journey is a constant interplay between moments of awe followed by a process of surrender to that moment. This is the great inner dialogue we call prayer. We humans resist both the awe and, even more, the surrender. But both are vital, and so we must practice.”
Thomas Merton puts it this way:
“Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in their soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because we are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love” – the kind of freedom, spontaneity and love of God and all that God loves that honestly and readily says, “Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.”
It makes me think that the kingdom of God – that realm and that way of living in which we know ourselves living in God’s care, doing God’s will, and sharing God’s love is by invitation only – and that the problem – the reason we sometimes don’t feel part of it, or feel left out, or that it’s somehow beyond us, is not that only some are invited, or that only a few invitations are given, but that while invitations to all of us abound every day, we somehow learn to ignore them, throw them in the garbage or the blue box like so much junk mail, or tell ourselves that a lot of the calls from God that come to us must be from a telemarketer or be a wrong number intended for someone else.
I have – I think we all have, so many ways of staying in control of the calls we take, and of screening and predetermining the invitations we accept.
In my first pastoral charge – back in the early 80’s I was already feeling spiritual dry-ness. I was just a year or two out of theology school, in my first pastoral charge finally doing what I had dreamed of doing, felt called to be doing, and had trained to be doing for all those years. And already I was feeling empty, depleted and more than a little anxious about it.
That’s when I looked through the brochure for the fall and winter offerings of the Toronto School of Theology School of Continuing Education, and I saw the title of a week-long course at Regis College – the Jesuit School in TS T. “Deepening the Spiritual Life Through Prayer.” I sent in my registration and thought I’d found the answer to my prayer – so to speak.
I showed up at the course and no more than a few minutes into the orientation session I knew this was not what I had signed up for. Rather than a week-long session of lectures and talks about prayer, and maybe a few discussion groups, from which I could take notes and learn a few tips and maybe a few new strategies and perspectives that I could try to put into practice once I got back to the safety of home, it quickly was clear this was a full-fledged Roman Catholic prayer retreat – a directed retreat, at which instead of “learning about” prayer I would be assigned a spiritual director for the week, would be given some passages each day to meditate on and pray with, and would meet once a day with my director to tell him or her what I was feeling and hearing and what my praying was actually like, and get further direction about how to open myself to God maybe even more.
My first thought was to wait for the coffee break, slip out, pack my bag and go home. Not because it was too Roman Catholic. Rather, because it would mean not being in charge, but being intimately and openly connected, under someone else’s direction, open to their gaze, and having no way of hiding.
It was like the time maybe 25 years ago when I first answered a call to volunteer for a while at Wesley Urban Ministries when they still operated an over-night shelter. I was there Thursday nights, showing up around 10 when the doors of the shelter opened and I helped serve soup and sandwiches from behind the kitchen window. But once that was done, from around 10:30 or 11 to midnight or a bit later when the lights went out, I was directed to go out and mingle – chat with the patrons, spend time with them, get to know them, play euchre with them. That was the scary part – because that was the part without a role, a mask and a title, and without a protective barrier against the call to be there becoming more than I felt ready for.
But I did it. At the overnight shelter once the soup and sandwiches part was done, I mixed and mingled, spent time at the tables with the patrons, got to know them a little, played euchre, and received back from them something I never imagined would be part of the bargain, something I never knew I needed, but which once they gave it to me I realized was maybe one of the reasons God called me there when God did. It was their acceptance – a gift you sometimes don’t really know you’re missing until someone gives it to you.
And so it was with the prayer retreat. I had signed up and I was there. Something had convinced me this would be an answer to prayers I didn’t even know how to say. So I stayed. I remember still how momentous and big a decision that was for me to make at that time.
The director I was assigned was a little – and I mean little, old Irish nun named Maeve on a three-month sabbatical from her order in Ireland, and through the course of that week I experienced grace I had not known before.
I believe God called me there through my need and restlessness, and it was there I received what God knew I most needed.
And that’s how it is when we honestly open ourselves to God as a ready and willing servant. The invitations to God’s feast of grace don’t always look like what we think we need, or want, or are praying for. But God is always inviting us to come and see.