In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Some of you may remember a film that came out 20 years ago, Jerry Maguire. Tom Cruise played the title character, a selfish, driven man. There’s a scene at end when Jerry Maguire comes to his senses and goes to his estranged wife’s house on Christmas Eve and begs her to take him back. He walks into the house as his wife, played by Renée Zellweger, is hosting several of her women friends. They’re all drinking wine, some commenting on how Christmas Eve can be so depressing and trying to convince Zellweger’s character that men are all losers. Jerry Maguire walks in, says hello. No one hears him. He says again, “Hello. I’m looking for my wife.” His wife stands up and he proceed with an obviously rehearsed speech, saying how much he loves, needs her, how she completes him, on and on, until finally she says, “Shut up!” Do you remember what she said after that? “You had me at hello.”
A Jesuit priest named Gregory Boyle has worked for 30 years in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles helping gang members and young people returning from prison to create new lives. He tells of a time, early in his ministry, when the parish he served wanted to start an alternative school for middle school–aged gang members.
They were wreaking havoc in the projects, and no other school would have them,” he writes. “Our parish convent occupied the entire third floor above our parochial school. I gather the six Belgian nuns in their living room. Their accents were thick and their hearts brilliant. “Hey,” I ask, “Would you mind. . . you know . . . moving out . . . and we could turn the convent into a school for gang members?” They looked at me, then at each other, and said simply, “Sure.” That was the entirety of their discernment process. (Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018))
Let it be with me according to your word.
Anyone who has ever read the gospel story of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel is rightly struck by how quickly she says yes. He invites her to bear the Son of God. She ponders for a moment, asks a question for clarification, ponders a bit more, and then responds, “Let it me with me according to your word.”
The exchange between Gabriel and Mary may not have transpired as quickly as Luke reports, but then again, it might have. Have you ever been invited to be part of something that spoke to you so deeply you knew immediately your answer was yes?
For Joseph, Mary’s fiánce, things unfold a bit differently. To learn Joseph’s side of the story, we need to read the first chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. Mary is the one who first tells Joseph the news, as all women must when a baby is involved. He doesn’t believe her story about the angel’s visitation, and he sets out to break off their engagement quietly, as any righteous man of his time would have at the news that his betrothed was pregnant with another man’s child.
But then Joseph has a dream, and in the dream a voice speaks: “Don’t be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary as your wife. The child is, indeed, holy. You are to raise him as your son.” It’s the first of several dreams that will guide Joseph on his path of parenthood, dreams that speak to him at decisive moments, telling him exactly what to do. And for reasons known to Joseph alone, he, too, says yes, every time, as soon as he wakes up from his dreams.
Angels and dreams: the stuff of fairytales, perhaps. But what Joseph and Mary share with every other human being is the experience of being faced with something far bigger than they could possibly have anticipated. Their task was to make sense of what was before them, incredible as it was, and respond, rather quickly, as it turns out. There wasn’t a lot of time.The place they went to do that work of sense-making was inside themselves. Mary pondered in her heart; Joseph listened to his dreams to guide him. They both trusted their intuition, and said yes.
I’d like to simply hover over that inner experience for a moment and consider with you the mystery of our inner life, the place inside where we go to process new ideas, unforeseen possibilities, extravagant invitations and determine our response. And to consider the daring proposition in that space, wherever it is inside us, God sometimes speaks to us with astonishing clarity.
There’s a story in the Jewish Bible about a prophet named Elijah who was fleeing for his life. He found himself standing alone on a mountain, desperate to hear a word from God. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord,” the text tells us, “but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” (I Kings 9:4-13) It was in the silence that God spoke, in what another translation describes as a “still small voice.”
Mark Batterson, pastor of National Community Church here in Washington, has recently written a book on the ways God speaks to us, entitled, Whisper. He points out that the natural phenomena Elijah experienced were impressive. “God has an outside voice and isn’t afraid to use it,” he observes,” but more often than not God prefers to speak to us in a whisper.” And why is that?
When someone speaks in a whisper, you have to get very close to hear. In fact, you have to put your ear near the person’s mouth. We lean toward a whisper, and that’s what God wants. The goal of hearing the heavenly Father’s voice isn’t just hearing His voice; it’s intimacy with Him. That’s why He speaks in a whisper. He wants to be as close to us as is divinely possible. (Mark Batterson, Whisper: How to Hear the Voice of God. (New York: Random House, 2018))
As with all practices, the one of inner listening is not uniquely Christian. What distinguishes this inner work for Christians is the intentional invitation to God and expectation that God will address us internally if we make space to listen. It’s not as easy as it may sound, but it’s also not as difficult as we make it to be. What God needs and what we need is a bit of time and space for pondering; what God needs and what we need is our openness to the unexpected insight that comes seemingly from nowhere and a willingness to trust that insight may be of God.
So how do we go about this discerning, interpretive task? What do we do when we’re pondering? We can do many things. For some, the work is quiet and still, a daily practice of sitting and paying attention to all that comes into consciousness. Others, like Joseph, pay attention to their dreams. For others, to ponder means requires movement—a walk or a run, anything that engages both body and mind. During his 8 years in office President Obama spent a lot of time playing basketball, pondering as he took shots. As my husband will tell you, I am one who putters around the house as I ponder. It doesn’t really matter what I do, but I need to be active and quiet at the same time, to allow my brain to sort things out and be open to the voice of God. I don’t mean to imply that other people aren’t helpful in the discerning process. Hearing ourselves speak the issues we’re carrying can be clarifying, as can hearing the perspectives of others. In the end, though, there’s something solitary about this process, as we hear the voice speak, or feel the nudge, and decide how we will respond.
Sometimes, as with Mary, Joseph, and Renée Zellweger’s character in Jerry Maguire or the nuns deciding the fate of a middle school, the answer comes to us right away. Other times, the sorting and listening happens in a much slower way, over time. Pull the lens back from anyone who seems to have made a quick decision, and we often see months, if not years of preparation. There’s a practice of pondering, a discipline of inner listening that has preceded the moment when the angel appears, or someone knocks on your door, or asks if they can take over a floor of your house.
The other thing to say about that incredible moment of clarity is that you can’t fake it. If you don’t feel it, it doesn’t help to pretend that you do. It’s better to wait until the clarity comes. If you read the Bible often enough, it dawns on you that most of the stories are about people waiting for clarity and direction, preparing for the moments when God speaks. The moments themselves are relatively rare but then they are remembered as the guiding lights that they were, and are again food for pondering as a new generation waits its word from God.
One of the more helpful practices of pondering and preparation that I have been taught is best described in a small book entitled, Sleeping With Bread. The title comes from a true story told about children left orphaned and starving during the Second World War. When at last they were given food in refugee camps, they couldn’t trust that there would be more later on, so they ate themselves sick at every meal. Their caregivers’ solution was to give the children a loaf of bread as they went to bed, so that the children could sleep with confidence that there would be food for them in the morning. Inspired by this image of children holding their loaves of bread as they sleep, the authors describe a simple practice of holding onto what gives us life, especially in times of uncertainty and transition.
The practice is this: at the end of each day take a few moments to reflect, asking two questions: For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment am I least grateful? There are many ways to ask the same questions: When did I feel the most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me? When did I give and receive the most love? When did I give and receive the least? This practice, exercised over time, heightens our awareness of moments we might have otherwise passed by as insignificant, moments that can ultimately give direction for our lives. It helps to write our reflections down, a few sentences each day, so that we might watch for patterns at they emerge over time.
When at a particular crossroad, or when striving to discern a particular path, when the ground beneath us shifts, a simple practice of reflection of what gives us life and what takes life away from us, can serve as a source of guidance and consolation. For the spiritual assumption behind this practice is that God’s desire for us is greater life, not less. And should we discern that a costly, difficult road is ours to take, we can do so equipped with a greater reservoir of what sustains us in lean times.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I believe it’s possible through these practices to receive complete clarity about how we are to make our way in this life. I don’t believe that, and I have never myself attained it. But I tell you, a little bit of clarity goes a long way. A little bit goes a long way in helping us sift through the endless demands and focus on what matters most; a little bit goes a long way in helping us say no to the many worthwhile tasks in order to say yes to the few tasks we are called to; a little bit of clarity helps us to let go of what is no longer compatible with our lives and reach for what our heart desires, because at last we know something about it. And if by grace, we are invited, as Mary and Joseph were, to do something truly amazing for the world, we will have the capacity and spiritual strength to say yes.
Years ago I met an Episcopal priest who served as the director of a camp and retreat center. At the time we met, he was leaving his position to work in a residential program for troubled teenagers. What he said to me about that move I’ve never forgotten. He said, “I have been preparing all my life for this job.”
I had the sense that he was telling a lot about himself in that one sentence—about his own childhood, perhaps, and his own acquaintance with trouble; about times of vocational uncertainty, no doubt a failure here and there. He was telling me about his passion and repertoire of gifts, and that he felt himself to be moving to a place of great potential to exercise those gifts. This was clearly not a set up on any ladder of vocational advancement. But it was, for him, what his entire life had been preparing him to do. And he was ready. When the invitation came, he said yes.
He was about 20 years ahead of me in life and ministry, and I remember envying him for his clarity and freedom to embrace a new life so completely. I also had the sense that the clarity he had attained requires time and work, a lot of listening and interpreting of life as we make our way. That’s what the inner life of a Christian is for—to help us live comfortably and joyfully in our own skin and ready to say yes should the angel appear or the voice speak.
Let me wrap this up by asking,is there an invitation before you now? Or is this a season to cultivate a practice of quietly listening so that when God speaks to you in a whisper, you will be able to hear? Don’t let the busyness and distractions of this life rob you of the richness of you inner world, that place inside you where God speaks, sometimes, when we’re paying attention, with astonishing clarity.
Will you pray with me?
Lord, we know how many voices clamor for our attention every day, how much noise we are surrounded by, and surround ourselves with, as a way of avoiding the sound of sheer silence. In these last days before Christmas, help us to find moments of quiet and to listen for your voice. Thank you for the examples of those who said yes to your invitation as soon as they heard it; help us to hear, and to respond, as they did. Let it be to us according to your word. Amen.