As we’ve been in this spring series on prophetic living, we’ve talked about prophetic living as seeking best as we’re able to feel the feelings and think the thoughts of God in our day and age, and to live as if that matters.
In some circles, though, the word prophetic has a narrower meaning, which is drawn from the source of the prophets of the Bible’s insights, when they claimed to hear and speak the voice of God. The claim or hope to hear the voice of God has both been one of the more wonderful and awful aspects of faith experience and faith communities for me.
On the one hand, to practice prayer as if it isn’t just a one way street, as if God can stir my imagination, activate ideas and thoughts and words I don’t experience as coming from me but from God – well, that’s been one of the sweetest and most powerful aspects of a life of faith for me. To feel that I’m never alone, and that there is a personal, spiritual force is with me, that is responsive to me, that cares. And yet on the other hand, running in circles where people think God is speaking to them has also meant on occasion that I’ve heard people confidently speak for God when I thought they were only working out their own fears and resentments. More than once, I’ve had a religious person with this sense of the prophetic go out of their way to curse me, literally curse me – like pronouncing bad things God will do to me and the people and work I care about. And then they’ve told me that they were speaking on behalf of God against me, but you know they love me and will pray for me. Pastor life. Now I’ll say these experiences, which were odd and unpleasant didn’t seem to be of God at all for me.
I’ve also had people say wonderful things to me that they told me they thought God had spoken to them, encouraging things members of this church have shared with me. There was the time when I was 23 years old, and a stranger walked up to me and told me that when he saw me, he thought God spoke to him that I was to become a pastor. He was like 16 years early, but hey, it happened. That was cool.
But then on the other hand, I’ve had someone say to me, confidently, that God showed them that God was going to heal my hearing loss when they prayed for me, and they were wrong.
So, all to say, the talk about hearing God’s voice today has been mainly awesome for me, but it’s had its weird and uncomfortable sides too. How about for you, Michaiah? When did you come to this hope or faith or experience of people today feeling God was speaking to them?
Just to react and give voice to what I think some of us are thinking hearing your stories, is that some of those experiences you had sound yucky and yah, powerful too.
So when did I come to experience the feeling that God is speaking? If you will, I’d like to expand the term “hearing” from God before launching into my history and perspective, just because that word “hearing” lends us toward a sensory experience or particular mode of communication.
And I’d like to swap or replace that word with “experiencing God.” It’s not a perfect word either, but “experiencing”, or “perceiving” or “recognizing” the presence of God, will more broadly capture our various ways of knowing God.
When I was young, there were times when people told me that I could perceive things about people’s lives that I hadn’t been told. People told me that this ability to notice and detect an event or particular difficult situation in someone’s life such as a struggle with an addiction or an affliction, was a spiritual gift. I was told that I had “discernment” and more specifically a gift of “discerning spirits”.
What I wrestled with the most in my young adult years was in understanding what the purpose for me in knowing or perceiving the weight and troubles of others? What was I supposed to do with this gift? I didn’t always know.
I had a long standing regret that I carried for years because when as a teenager I didn’t follow this clear sense I had in my spirit to tell a drunken man in a trench coat that God wanted him to know that he was loved by God.
I’ve learned to ask my questions directly to God- “What is this for? Why are you showing me this? What do you want me to do right now?” and then to wait.
Regardless of the invitation God gives me for each circumstance, I think the big purpose for every moment that we perceive the presence of God is for drawing us further into relationship with God– to hang in the mystery and the uncertainty, and to curiously ask God- what’s this all about? Why am I thinking this? That’s what spiritual growth is all about- this learning to have an ongoing conversation with God.
It was pointed out to me early on that it was God who was communicating with me. Because I am sensitive to people’s personal experiences and struggles, that has built my confidence in seeing the world in a particular way. God speaks to me in the way that I know, and I know that I can access and talk to God through this way.
But the bottom line is that people don’t have to fit their round selves into a square hole- God knows how to communicate with all us- and it doesn’t look the same for all of us. So really the figuring out how God communicates with us is really important in having sustained communication or relationship with the One who knows us best.
Steve: So as I thought about the possibility of us hearing from God, or to honor the language you’re giving us, Michaiah, the possibility of us experiencing and perceiving a communicative God, I’m keenly aware that today in our services, we have people who feel this has been their experience, others who are entirely skeptical that a person could hear God speak, and others that feel curious but inexperienced.
And as I thought of that mix, this passage from the beginning of the work of the prophet Jeremiah, when early in his life Jeremiah also doesn’t find it realistic that any person – or at least not him – could speak for God. And we get this little dialogue…
Jeremiah 1:11-14 (CEB)
11 The Lord asked me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?”
I said, “A branch of an almond tree.”
12 The Lord then said, “You are right, for I’m watching over my word until it is fulfilled.” 13 The Lord asked me again, “What do you see?”
I said, “A pot boiling over from the north.”
14 The Lord said to me, “Trouble will erupt from the north against the people of this land.”
Jeremiah is a teenager, and he has this sense that’s he’s supposed to speak for God to his culture that is in huge turmoil and upheaval, but he’s not confident. So he has this training session of sorts, where he’s learning to experience and perceive the presence of God.
It starts with a play on words. My favorite hat was a gift made to me from two Uyghur friends in the Northwest Chinese province of Xinjiang. You may have been hearing of the inhumane treatment the Uyghurs have been going through over the past twenty years, and the past few years in particular. It’s heart-breaking, and personal to Grace and me.
Anyway, these friends gave me a hat with an almond embroidered on it, because they said the word for almond was very similar to a word for something like integrity, so the hat was an affirmation and a blessing as well.
Here Jeremiah is praying outdoors and he’s looking at this branch of an almond tree, and the word “watching over” or “tending” which sounds just like the word “almond” in Hebrew, comes to mind. And he realizes God is tending to God’s words, that they will come to pass. A rich image for him.
Now our very next verse moves on to something different, but we should remember that scrolls in ancient times were very expensive, and writing was kind of a specialty activity, so things get condensed. It’s OK to imaginatively read between the lines – in fact there’s a whole Jewish tradition of doing this called midrash.
Anyway, so I imagine that later that day, after Jeremiah was thinking over the almond/watching play on words, he’d perhaps cooked some stew for lunch, and as he’s looking at that boiling pot, and it looks menacing, and the thought pops into his mind – it’s coming, that army up in the North everyone is talking about. They’re coming to get us.
This passage is written like a dictation – Jeremiah sees this, God says this. But much more likely this is a shortened, simplified version of Jeremiah’s experience, recounted decades later… where he’s praying, sensing within this call to speak for God to his people, feeling inadequate and unclear, when he sees n front of him the branch of an almond tree, and another meaning comes to mind… and later, again, there’s a boiling pot and it comes to mean something more. Jeremiah is experiencing God communicating with him through the objects around him, as the word play and symbolism of those objects comes to life.
I think apart from the details of where Jeremiah is going, there is an invitation to us to imagine that God can speak to many people, and through many means….
Michaiah, I know that you spend some time actually teaching people, training people to try to discern the voice of God, to try to practice or learn God speaking to us? Can you tell us more how you do this, or specifically, how it is God can speak to us through many means?
Sure thing, Steve. The starting point of this conversation usually begins by naming or learning what God’s heart is toward us. We believe that by learning what God’s heart and concerns are we’ll recognize what God’s nature and character, maybe God’s personality and temperament as well.
Many of the stories in the Bible have been helpful to me because they capture qualities and attributes of God that resonate with my own experience with God.
These stories have shown me that God’s heart toward us is of -peace, love, to not leave us alone, God does not come to destroy us, God is for us and not against us, God cares and provides, and the cornerstone of our faith is that God is good.
The content of our various ways we perceive and experience God has the good fruit of – love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness… Even when God is sad, or correcting us…when we’ve turned against ourselves or another person or away from God in our hearts, the message won’t ever hold guilt, shame, or anxiety, but will have this message of deep and abiding love.
I heard before that you could read the Bible and learn God by asking two questions- “Who is God in this passage?” and “Who am I?” So if you read through the Bible asking those questions, you’d come out learning who God is and how God interacts with people.
Learning what God’s voice sounds like and how it’s distinguished from other voices is a good place to start when we’re talking about hearing or perceiving God.
Learning the method or manner in which God speaks to us, individually, is the fun part, because it involves some internal exploration. I read a line that said “Your personality may be a clue to unlocking how God speaks to you.” This is an art of uncovering your spiritual preference pathway, or spiritual personality type, or sacred pathway, or your spiritual wiring. There are many brilliant authors who have written books about this, which is where I get this language from.
Some of us are more relationally oriented, others of us are pragmatically oriented- knowing what your created language is might uncover how God relates or messages with you.
And just to say all of this is incredibly simplistic and if you’re like me you don’t fit into just one category. So a Thinking person- more analytical, theoretical, may be comfortable wrestling with text.Through their thoughts and knowledge from other sources (like books or podcasts or study…)may be their natural way of receiving God’s Spirit. A Feeling person-may experience God through their senses, sights, sounds, smells, images, pictures, metaphors. A Naturalist- may find God in more contemplative or outdoor spaces. They might encounter God in activities like gardening, or star gazing, or hiking or being in silence, or other meditative practices.
But you know many of us have been taught these painfully limited methods of knowing/perceiving/engaging with God. For example, I was taught that if I “read my Bible, pray every day, then I’ll grow, grow, grow”. And while these particular disciplines have been hugely helpful to me and many of our spiritual growth and development- It has also been short sighted in how and when and where our creator God can communicate this message of love to us. One of my favorite verses is Romans 1:20 that says, For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. This has been incredibly freeing to me to believe that God can communicate God’s message of love and existence without words.
I don’t think God only uses a landline phone to communicate. I think God communicates through land, water, sea, through creation, and other people, through dreams, spontaneously, like a lightning quick thought, glimmer. God isn’t limited to one method of transmission.
And figuring out how we receive that Word of life, and power, and love, is simply an act of discipline. Learning God is as important as learning yourself. So I’d suggest learn how to relate to God according to your unique self as opposed to relating to God through another.
STEVE – Michaiah, that is so freeing, so personal, so good. Thank you. As you describe many people learning to listen to God in different ways, I have to say that I used to have a sense that claiming to hear or experience God was for people who were especially faithful or especially crazy (I couldn’t always decide which!) but I’m reminded that our faith teaches otherwise…
Joel 2:28-29 (CEB)
28 After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
and your young men will see visions.
29 In those days, I will also pour out my
spirit on the male and female slaves.
STEVE – So Joel was a prophet from maybe the fifth century B.C. and in this section he’s hoping, imagining a future time when his nation is restored, there’s abundant food and drink, good harvests, military threats eliminated – all the great dreams of an agrarian society. But the hope goes way bigger and broader than that – that all of the earth will be drawn into this big redemption story, that God in mercy will reanimate and heal all people and cultures, in part through the inner renewal I just read about – God’s Spirit being poured out on all people.
There’s a radical expansion of the experience of the prophetic here, one that had been echoed in many other ancient prophets – that people, young and old, women and men, high and low status, even Jewish and not, could be filled with the Spirit of God and an experience of a good and communicative God. Never alone, never liable to despair or shame.
The early followers of Jesus believed that in Jesus, who they called the word made flesh – the communicative truth of God become a person, everyone around Jesus experienced God in this way. And that after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus released his spirit into the world in a new way, fulfilling this hope that God could be present to all people who seek God.
This notion of God present to us in a body, we call incarnational – from in-carnate, meaning in a body. And this experience of God present in Jesus, fully human and fully divine, gives us a pattern – an incarnational pattern – to understanding all experience of God that we can have. That it is all incarnational – fully human and fully divine. 100% us, even when it’s also 100% from God as well.
Michaiah, you’ve shared with me that you think of this process of listening to God as always fully human and fully divine – full of real experience of God, but very much full of our own selves. Can you say more about this?
Sure, yah. We can’t eliminate ourselves from the picture of hearing, interpreting, or even delivering any messages from God. As my friend Dorothy says, it’s never all you/it’s never all God. But you’re a big part of the equation.
This reminds me of a story that I love to tell from my days as youth pastor. I call it the “Hamburger story”. In youth group we had the practice of celebrating birthdays by giving a gift card to an ice cream spot and listening to God for words of encouragement for the birthday teen’s year ahead.
So here we are praying for LIzzy (we’ll call her), and Baron (we’ll call him) was asked to pray (because it was his birthday the previous month). The only thing that comes to his mind was hamburger. So, we’re not going to discount this word, “hamburger” is in fact God speaking. So we press and say, “ok. Hamburger. Okay. God. What else?”
Baron, is pressing in, He begins to describe the burger- “all I can think is juicy, lettuce, tomato, cheese…” Kids start chuckling. He says, “I’m probably thinking about that because we had burgers for dinner last night, and my dad was talking about this book “Dancing with Jesus” …”
All of a sudden LIzzy lights up, and says, “I COMPLETELY forgot- I have a dance recital this afternoon and I’m so nervous about it” (and she may have had a sprain or an injury as well).
LIzzy and I go WILD- completely blown away that we went from someone’s hamburger dinner to someone else’s very personal and very relevant experience. I was ecstatic that God didn’t disappoint. That we trusted that God was speaking through the word “hamburger” and kept asking God. “Okay. What else?”
This experience happens every single Sunday with the prayer team. Many times the team will get a wild hunch and we name it without discounting that it could be our own imagination, or psyches, or any number of things affecting us. We just voice what we get and our group mulls it over in their minds, we talk about it, we ask Holy Spirit to help us make meaning and develop this concept/word or drop it. One time one of us got 4 specific numbers that we shared up front. It ended up being a significant date for a few people, and it was someone’s pin number to their bank account…
We are constantly amazed at what appears like something our imaginations created, but turns into something significant for one of us sitting in service that day. And this team does not hear or read the sermon message before the service- so any parallel prayer words that we share after the sermon is given, we confidently believe that if it’s meaningful to someone sitting in service, that maybe God indeed is trying to get someone’s attention.
STEVE – Those are fun stories, even as they’re still kind of weird, which is what I guess we’d expect from experiences that are entirely us, but filled with something or someone spiritual outside of us as well, right? That our experience would be normal you and me, but with this weird extra truth or hope or presence that seems sort of more and better than what we’ve got just by ourselves.
But I have to say that for me this also begs the question of what God sounds like, what the voice of God is or isn’t, right? As we try to learn to listen to God, what can we chalk up to God, and what to toxic or unhelpful or false ideas of God. Or what’s just our own weird thoughts, all the garbage out there in the media, in the air, in society… And I think Jesus had hope that we’d have a sense for what God sounds like, that we’d learn that God sounds like Jesus… There’s this bit in the gospel of John:
John 10:4,14-15 (CEB)
4 Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice.
14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me,15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep.
STEVE: So Jesus has this analogy, that sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Like dogs know the voice of their owner, it’s apparently a thing. And he’s like that’s how it is with God, you really can recognize the voice of God. It sounds like me.
And for me, through years of this strange but beautiful thing of trying to cultivate a friendship with Jesus, this has become more and more real to me. Where I sit in silence, often thinking about the circumstances of my life – highs or lows – and ask Jesus where Jesus is in all this or if there is anything Jesus has to say to me. My experience of God has been really shaped by the gentle, provocative voice of Jesus. I’ve never read about any person in history or literature that is as deeply gentle and provocative as the Jesus of the four gospels. And the God I experience in friendship as I pray is like this too – asking me great questions, turning my proclivity to avoidance back on me by asking, “What do you think? What do you want, Steve?” This Jesus who speaks to me, the Jesus in my head or heart, the Jesus of my imagination, is just really gentle and more surprisingly true and surprisingly encouraging than I’ve tended to expect of God.
And – you’ll notice – I say the Jesus of history and the Jesus with me and the Jesus of my imagining all interchangeably, not because I don’t think Jesus is real, but because of this whole incarnation thing – that any experience of God we can have is both fully human and fully divine – totally of God and totally of me, so I don’t spend a lot of thought or worry on what parts I’m just imagining and what parts an external God is bringing to me from without, as long as it sounds like Jesus.
So that’s like a micro-taste of my own experience of God speaking to me.
But then sometimes, we want to listen to God when we want to help/pray for others. How does that work for you and for our prayer team, Michaiah?
Sure, now the practice of praying for others- begins first with the understanding that it’s not about the prayer team members prayers- this takes all the pressure off of our performance or perfectly making anything happen. As prayer ministers we are simply companions to the person asking for prayer and entering together into the presence of God, allowing ourselves to be loved by God- We are part of the equation, but really, it’s about the other person being able to experience God’s sweet and holy presence for themselves.
We normally invite the presence of God to come, and we wait expectantly.
God’s presence may come through a person’s thoughts, a memory or situation, physically, through a song, a phrase…….
In prayer team we try to be as invisible as possible so that whoever is receiving prayer can get what they need from God.
Now, sometimes praying for people requires a companion that intercedes on your behalf with God- joining the other person’s faith, or their hope, and praying to that effect.
Sometimes praying for people might jog a thought that we’ll share with the other person to see if it has any significance for the other person. But our prayer ministry trains with the understanding that the recipient is the final authority, or judge of the word. And as prayer team- we’re fine with that. We could be wrong with what we’re sensing.
Steve: One time, Michaiah, I was meeting with a person who’d visited our church a few times and loved it, but he asked me, “Steve, what’s with the body parts?” And I was like: “Um, no idea what you’re talking about.” And he said, “You know, every week, you say a couple of body parts that someone wants to pray for.” So I told him my answer, Michaiah, but what’s yours? What’s with the body parts?
HA! Well somewhere along my tenure on church staff, a coworker suggested a great way to generate faith in God is if we prayed and asked God for physical things that God wanted to bring attention to in order to heal or bring a message of love or freedom to in some way. So on prayer team we ask God if there are any body parts that God wants to heal, so that person will respond.
Steve: That’s great. And I know many of us have been encouraged by healing prayer for our emotions but also for our bodies. I was really helped too by the comments my friend Laurie made earlier this year when she and I gave a sermon on Disability and Grace. Laurie, who has lived with a life-long physical disability and also prayed with many people with physical disabilities, said that for some of us healing may involve changes to our physical condition, while others experience healing as God helps bring peace and acceptance to our physical limits and brokenness. That was really helpful for me.
Now as we wrap up, I guess I’ll share a final word and we’ll do a couple quick next steps.
I guess I make of all this that being open to a communicative God, a God who can teach us to listen and experience if we pay attention, a God who pours out the Spirit generously on all people, this is both really weird and an enormous gift. And everything we’re going to experience of God in this life is going to be both fully human – very much of us – and fully divine – very much of a real God, we trust as well.
So it reminds me that it’s worth being attentive and serious and interested in what we can taste and see of a living God while holding it all in good humility and good humor as well. There was a time when wanting to hear or experience God more was clouded by all kinds of anxiety for me – what if it doesn’t happen? What if someone else experience more? And what if I’m wrong when I think God’s saying or doing something? And now it’s more like: hey, there’s no such thing as getting this all right. It’s just that my good and sweet God is open to being a parent and a friend to us and encouraging and leading us into more and more life. We’ve got two final tips to go after this, but first Michaiah, tell us about an offering you have for people that want to learn more.
Michaiah: You can come to a Spirit and Power Class on Sunday, June 23rd right after the 10:30am service. We’ll go into depth on hearing the voice of God for others and praying for healing both physically and emotionally. We’ll offer the entire class again in the Fall- so if you’re interested write a note on your welcome card.
Great, and now our closing tips.
Most of humans, for most of human history, have considered this earth to be a god-soaked world, where the divine can be present to us in many places and many ways, and where questions of meaning and mattering and significance are a joyful and special part of what it means to be alive. So, this week, for our whole life flourishing tip, consider this question:
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
What is Jesus gently speaking to me through my life, world, and circumstances?
The purpose of this suggested practice is on intention and expectation.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Set aside time for a 1-on-1 with God. Invite the Holy Spirit to guide the time. Where will you go, what will you do together? Tell someone you trust about it. See if you can find more times to be generous to yourself and be with God.