Prayer as Listening

March 7, 2021
Reverend Alexandra Mauney

Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

When you hear the opening words of the twenty-third psalm, do you feel your shoulders start to relax away from your ears? Do you feel your breath start to even out, and your heart rate start to settle? For many, many Christians, this text is an immediate comfort. If you were raised in a church context that values memorizing scripture, I bet you memorized it. If you’ve ever been in a church choir, I bet you’ve sung anthems related to the text. If you’re a person who loves hymns and church songs, I bet you’ve sung at least four different versions of the text set to different tunes. And if you’ve been to more than one funeral in your life, chances are, you’ve heard it there, too.

This psalm is so well-loved. It is wide open with images of comfort and generosity. Green fields of soft grass; babbling brooks of clean, clear water; gentle comfort, hospitality, overflowing cups, years of safety in God’s presence. It almost reads like a lullaby. The image of a shepherding God is somehow comforting to us, even as those who live in a totally different time and place from the shepherding context of the ancient world. We know that there is something deeply true and deeply comforting about a God who guides us along in our lives just as a skilled shepherd guides her flock. There is comfort in knowing that God provides for us, even when things are very hard. I can breathe a little more gently when I remember that God promises to journey alongside us even through the hardest parts of our lives, just as a shepherd journeys with the flock through and around difficult terrain. It is a comfort to hear that when we listen as a sheep listen to the shepherd, God hears us and guides us along – no matter what comes our way.

Because I don’t spend much time around sheep or animals besides my pet hamster, I paid a phone call to a friend this week who used to work on Oakleaf Mennonite Farm in East Atlanta. I remembered that she’d spent some time with sheep there, so I wondered what else she could share that might help us to dig deeper into this shepherding God image. And here’s what she had to say about the sheep she knew at Oakleaf Farm: sheep are deeply attuned to the wisdom and guidance of the shepherds. When a farm worker would begin walking toward the sheep in preparation for a meal or for some movement in one direction or another, the sheep moved right alongside her without any prompting or prodding. They trusted her without reservation, and they knew intimately what to expect from her.  My friend told me about a particular time when the shepherd wanted to show the sheep a new section of kudzu to snack on in the woods behind the farm. The shepherd began to walk slowly and leisurely towards the woods, and the sheep just slowly but deliberately all turned around and began following her. They knew, instinctually, that they could trust whatever was about to happen, and they followed. My friend describes that experience as a pretty astounding one. Sheep can be unruly creatures, and sometimes aggressive – ask me next time you see me to tell you the other story she shared, about some sheep and a beehive. But a flock’s trust for its shepherd is deep and instinctual, no matter the tendencies to wander or create mischief.

We hear this reality in what Jesus says in John 10, which we heard earlier. “The gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”  Sheep are, in essence, good listeners. They watch and observe and listen to their shepherd, knowing in their own special “sheep” way that the shepherd has their best interests at heart. And over time, that watching and listening turns to deep trust. It’s as if the older sheep, the ones who have been around the block a time or two, don’t even have to think before they follow. They know the voice of the shepherd, they have observed the shepherd’s trustworthiness, and they trust. And because the relationship is grounded in mutual love and respect, the shepherd knows how to listen to the sheep, and care for what they need.

This season of Lent at Westminster is “the listening season.” As it turns out, we learn a great deal about listening from the twenty-third psalm, and from all the Bible passages with God as shepherd. God is as trustworthy as a shepherd to her sheep. God’s love pursues us like a shepherd pursues the sheep who has wandered off. God does not abandon us in the midst of our “valley of the shadow of death.” In fact, God accompanies us there, and when we listen for God’s presence with us, God guides us through.

One person who has known this “valley of the shadow of death” intimately is author and theologian Kate Bowler. In 2015, 35 year old Kate Bowler found out that she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Kate was in a season of life that felt like she was living the dream that she’d always dreamed for herself – she had a tenure track position at Duke, she was married to a wonderful spouse, she had a beautiful newborn infant. Things were going well. And then she received that diagnosis – terminal illness. In a New York Times article she wrote several months after that diagnosis, Bowler describes the experience that you would expect from this kind of news – devastation and millions of questions and lots of hard conversations you never thought you’d have to have.

But Kate Bowler also describes in this article, with a trademark wry sense of humor, the irony of her situation. See, Kate Bowler is a scholar of the prosperity gospel movement. She is an academic expert in the field of that particularly American brand of Christianity that promises if you just pray hard enough, if you just tithe enough money, if you just submit enough of yourself to the life of faith, you will receive divine favor. #Blessed. The irony was not lost on Kate Bowler – she had studied the ins and outs of this religious movement, had discovered its shortcomings and the ways that it exploits people and takes advantage of vulnerability, and now she was living the very opposite of that #Blessed life.

And what she found out was that this prosperity gospel mentality has really seeped its way into our culture. She describes her well-meaning neighbor coming over to her house after they found out about her diagnosis and saying, voice drenched in pity, “everything happens for a reason.” She describes the well-meaning advice from friends convinced that kale smoothies or essential oils or acupuncture could cure her body from its illness. She describes the well-meaning Googling of her academic friends, certain that the answer to Kate’s suffering was out there on the internet somewhere just waiting to be discovered.

She describes this experience as one of finding out just how desperately we all want to believe we have control over our lives, to believe that our bodies are invincible and that there is some sense of cosmic order that explains away our suffering.

Kate Bowler has now made a career out of ever-so-gently dismantling those ideas. She published a book called “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved,” and she has a wonderful podcast where she talks to guests about what it means to live in our bodies and experience life fully with all its messy contingency and beauty. Kate’s story serves as a reminder that we live in a world that is extraordinarily uncomfortable with journeying through experiences of pain, either within ourselves or with those we’re in community with. We are uncomfortable with the kind of vulnerability required of us when we have to listen and not “fix.”

The psalmist from today’s scripture reading reminds us that with God, there is a better way. The psalmist proclaims that God has journeyed with the psalm writer through the valley of the shadow of death – not explained away the psalmist’s suffering, or questioned the psalmist’s commitment to God. God journeys alongside us, caring for us in the way that a shepherd cares for her sheep. This shepherding God is not the God of the “health and wealth,” #blessed gospel. This is the God of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who came into the world in his own messy flesh, and experienced his own vulnerability. This is the God of mutuality – the shepherd listens to the flock, and the flock listens to the shepherd. We belong to this God, a shepherding God, whose love for us extends to the end of our days, and beyond.

In the presence of such love, our task is to listen. In a world saturated by noise and words, we are to listen to the quiet and gentle ways that God might be guiding us. For some of us, listening to God comes easily – perhaps you spend regular time in intentional silence, or perhaps you have particular practices of prayer that ground you in your trust for God. For others of us, listening to God is a skill we get to work hard to cultivate.

I count myself in this camp – my Lenten practice has been to take a break from listening to podcasts, and to spend that time in silence or listening to music, in hopes that I would find new ways to listen to God in the spaces that I’d normally fill with noise. Easier said than done…for the first week, I just filled that podcast space with listening to public radio, and I suppose my punishment was that it also happened to be the week of the annual MPR pledge drive (ha, ha, ha). But I’m learning, slowly, as we all are, how to listen to God.

So in this listening season, I wonder how you can find ways to listen to God as a sheep listens to a shepherd. There is no “right” way to pray, no “right” way to encounter God in the midst of our lives, and it might take some creativity to find what helps you to listen well. If you’ve got little ones at home who have been part of our children’s ministry activities in the past month, I encourage you to ask them what they’ve learned about listening to God lately. Our Arts Month this year was all about listening, and the children made some amazing art that you’ll see as part of our Time with Children in upcoming weeks. And during Lent, we’re learning about different ways to pray. Matt Lewellyn-Otten showed us a “five-finger prayer” where each finger represents a different thing to pray for, and Marie Kruskop helped us pray a prayer of stillness based on a Psalm verse. There are so many ways to pray.

When we pray, we open ourselves up to the vulnerability of relationship and of true listening. We open ourselves up to the possibility that God will guide us down a new path that we might not have expected. We allow ourselves to feel those “holy nudges,” as my colleague Alanna calls them, that shift our perspective and nudge us toward God’s love and justice.

As Tim shared via Alanna earlier in the service, this is quite the week in the life of this community and in the life of the city – one year since we’ve all been together in person, and the start of the trial of the police officer charged with George Floyd’s murder. There is no better time than the present to find ways to listen to God, and to heed the “holy nudges” of a God who pursues each of us with abundant love and generous mercy. This is how we care for one another, and this is how we find better pathways forward than we ever knew existed. This week, may we listen to God. Amen.

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