Moses said to the people of Israel: Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
Deuteronomy 30: 11-14
As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
There’s a story in the Bible about a young boy, Samuel, whose mother had sent him to live with the priest of a nearby town, an old, wise and holy man by the name of Eli. One night, as both were sleeping, Samuel heard a voice calling him by name: “Samuel!” He got up, ran to Eli’s room, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli said, “I didn’t call you my son. Go back to sleep.” So Samuel went to his bed and fell back asleep. Later that night, he heard the voice again, “Samuel!” So he go up, went to Eli’s room again and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli said again. “I didn’t call you, Samuel. Go back to sleep.” When it happened a third time, Eli realized that something important was happening, that it was God speaking to Samuel in the night. So he said to Samuel, “Go back to sleep, and when you hear the voice call your name, don’t come to me. Stay put and say this: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
I have something to say to those being confirmed and received into the Episcopal Church today. But I’m also speaking to all who are here with you, and I’m also speaking, as I often must, to myself.
There is one thing you can do that has the power to change the course of your life for the better, to guide you through your most perplexing times, help ground you when life gets crazy busy, sustain you with strength when you need it most, validate your gifts and encourage you to take them seriously, give you assurance that you are not alone in this world, challenge you to be all that God created you to be, and to love others as God loves you.
This one thing is well within your capacity and mine. As we heard from the Book of Deuteronomy, “This is not too hard for you, nor is it far away.” It doesn’t require you to step out of your life as it is. If you forget or stop doing this one thing, it’s easy to get back on track, without a lot of unnecessary guilt or concern that you’re a bad person, because you’re not. You don’t have to be an expert at this one thing–in fact, there are few such experts, and I am not among them. And this one thing doesn’t take a lot of time.
Are you ready? Here it is:
Find a small bit of time each day to sit, or walk, or ride your bike, or drive in your car in silence. No ear buds. No radio or TV. No video games. No texting. No Facebook. Start with 10 minutes if you can. After a while, you’ll want more than 10, but 10 is a good place to start.
And in that 10 minutes–or 15 or 20–do two things.
First–empty your mind by saying out loud all the things that you’re thinking about, are worried about, that you want to have happen, wish were true, and are grateful for. Ask, specifically, for what you want or need. Ask for help. Ask for guidance.
This is the first step of an honest, open relationship with God–personal prayer. It’s important to be completely honest; there’s nothing to gained in trying to be more religious than you are. Nothing you say or do will be shocking to God. There is no topic that’s inappropriate in prayer. You don’t have to clean up your language, or pretend to be someone you’re not.
Nor does it matter if you aren’t sure that anyone is listening as you’re talking. In other words, you needn’t worry whether or not you happen to believe in God on a given day, or wonder, as all do sometimes, if God is for real. If you aren’t sure how to imagine what God is like, maybe I can help.
For those of us in the Christian faith, there are two images of God that Jesus wanted us to keep before us as we pray. The first image is the one he used when he went off to pray, which he did quite a bit, and that is as a loving parent: He addressed God in his language as “Abba,” which translates to something like “Papa,” or “Dad.” And he wanted us to think of this heavenly parent as one who always loves us, no matter what. I don’t think this means that God is a man, as your biological father is a man. So if it helps to think of God as a really kind and generous and unconditionally loving mom, that’s fine, too. Jesus used feminine images of God as well. Male or female, the image is simply one of someone who really, really, really loves you. And who is always willing to meet you way more than half way.
The second image Jesus wanted us to have when we talk to God is of himself, the one who gave his life for us. At supper for the last time with the disciples, he said to them, “You are my friends.” Think of me, he says, as you would a really good friend, one who always has your best interest at heart. After the resurrection he told them, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He is with us, too.
So again, in that first part of your quiet time, put to words what is on your heart and mind. If you’re feeling great about something, let God know, and offer thanks. If you’ve got a big decision to make and need guidance; if you’re feeling embarrassed or ashamed or foolish or worried, give voice to whatever is inside you.
Then–here’s the second part–stop and say your version of what Eli said to Samuel: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And wait.
If your experience is anything like mine, waiting in silence takes getting used to. You may not “hear” anything at all. You won’t often receive an immediate response, although it can happen. More often, what we hear comes over time. And “hearing” may not be the right word for the experience. It can be more like a sensation, a feeling, even a source of tension. Pay attention. Also, it may not come during your allotted quiet time, but later, while you’re doing something else. But whatever you feel or hear, whenever you feel or hear it, pay attention.
This “speak Lord, for your servant is listening” part of the conversation is also challenging, in my experience, because when I allow myself to be quiet, a lot voices in my head suddenly get very loud. Many of those voices are harsh and judgmental; some are self-justifying. Most are not positive, I have to say. Many are the fruit of anxiety. So I need help, sometimes, when determining which, if any, of the voices in my head are from God. I’ve learned that it’s good to talk with someone who is wise and experienced in these matters. Reverend Beverly could be that person for you, or anyone else who has walked the path of faith.
Here’s one thing that the wise people in my life consistently say to me that I’m happy to pass on to you: If the voice you hear is not one of love, then it’s not the voice of God. I repeat: If it’s not of love, it’s not of God. That doesn’t mean God is a pushover, or fooled by your self-deceptions and mine. But God’s voice, Jesus’ presence with us, will always be one of love. It will also call the best forth from us and will gently chastise us whenever we settle for a lesser version of ourselves. That happened to me just yesterday, when I heard myself, in conversation with someone, say something unkind about another person that we both know. What I said happens to be true, in my opinion, but when I said it, I heard a voice inside me say, “Was that kind? Was it necessary? How would you feel if that person heard what you said and the way you said it?” And I resolved to be more careful with my speech.
Something else you will hear in your quiet time, is what in religious language we describe as a call, not unlike Andrew and Peter heard Jesus’ call them. It feels more like a summons, Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Like for Andrew and Peter, it will be for you and for a particular call. There is nothing abstract or ambiguous about it. As you answer the call, it becomes the guiding light of your life. It is always explicitly religious in nature, and it can take many forms. Again, as an example from my life, last summer, at the worst possible time for me to leave work for 2 weeks, my mother got really sick, and there was no doubt in my mind where I was meant to be.
What I have been describing to you is a simple practice that doesn’t take a lot of time, but like most things that matter in life, what matters in this kind of prayer is consistency over time. It’s not so different from things like brushing your teeth: if you brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes, you will, by and large, have teeth to last a lifetime. You can skip a day or two, or even a week. Skip a year, and your teeth are at risk. Personal prayer is like that.
There will be times, whole seasons likely, when it will be impossible for you to find even 10 minutes a day. Or when you have the time but can’t bring yourself to sit still long. It is certainly true for me. What I know is that God understands, doesn’t judge, and will gladly meet us on the run. Most of my praying is prayer on the run. What you can do in those times is take what you’re already doing and make it your prayer time: you’re walking the dog; you’re driving to school; you’re practicing a sport or instrument. Offer that time as your prayer.
It’s not the only practice that informs a life with God, but it’s one of the most important, and the one we have most control over. It’s never too late to start or begin again. It will help you understand why a life of faith matters, why we do and say all that we do and say in church. Because you will have your own relationship with God, with Jesus, one that will grow and deepen over time. You will learn to recognize Jesus’ voice.
The reason I’m stressing for you, and for all of us, the power of personal prayer, is simply this: it has the power to change the course of your life for the better, to guide you through your most perplexing times, help ground you when life gets crazy busy, sustain you with strength when you need it most, validate your gifts and encourage you to take them seriously, give you assurance that you are not alone in this world, challenge you to be all that God created you to be, and to love others as God loves you.
I want that for you. As you say your words to confirm or reaffirm your faith, ask yourself if you might commit to this one thing. I hope you do. It will make a difference in ways you may never know, not only for you, but for everyone around you. You will become a robust, loving, spiritually grounded person, the kind of person others turn to for strength and courage, forgiveness and love. You will hear Jesus call you by name, as he called his first followers, and ask you to follow him. Then he will guide you on the path that is uniquely yours.