Praying with your ears open – a practice for Lent

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Some things about the life of faith baffle me, especially if you really take the time to think about them. Prayer for one. Think about it. How can a person possibly “hear” the voice of a God who almost never makes a sound, much less speaks in a language anyone can understand; a God who is by definition almighty, invisible, and unknowable? A God who can never be fully understood (Job 36:26, Ecclesiastes 8:17)?

Yet we are told to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), to ask for what we need in prayer (Mark 11:24), and not to worry, but to let our requests be known to God in prayer (Philippians 4:6). And that God will answer us. As Jeremiah wrote: “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known” (Jeremiah 33:3).

So how do we listen in prayer? A lot of us can “speak” prayers, but “listening” is different. How do we listen for God’s “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12)? And how do we distinguish the voice of God from all the other voices in our lives? The culture we live in for example? Or the voice of my long dead grandmother that still echoes in my ears occasionally? Or, my own ego? Or my prejudice? Our foreparents, all the way back to Adam and Eve, have struggled with questions like these.

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Prayer has always been a mysterious process. Oh, there are some who claim to have heard God’s voice clearly, and perhaps they did. But what they really heard was God’s voice to them, not God’s voice to me, and there’s a big difference, because whatever else God does, God seems to deal with each of us as individuals.

For me the best answer involves learning how to listen to God more effectively. It’s called “listening prayer,” which involves less talking and more listening. Sounds simple, right? Actually, it’s not. Try being quiet for five minutes and you’ll see how hard it is to listen. But silence is the key, because I can’t really listen when I am also … talking, even in prayer. Silence is hard, too, because sometimes even when my mouth closes, my mind is still going a hundred miles an hour, and that, too, keeps me from listening.

So how might a person learn listening prayer? Fortunately, Jesus gives us a very good example in his own experience in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26). There, alone, he struggled to understand God’s will, voicing his concerns and listening for hours in the darkness. But how do we listen in prayer today? Well, you might try what I did some years ago. First find a quiet place and time in your busy life. Then sit in silence, or as Parker Palmer once said, “Sit under the silence.” Start small, maybe just a couple of minutes. Then gradually increase the time in silence. Just be quiet, sit in silence, and listen. Don’t listen for any particular thing, and try not to focus on any particular thing. If something comes to your mind that seems important, jot it down so you can get it out of your mind. Then listen. And listen some more.

Listening prayer takes practice, and patience, and persistence. It also takes courage to engage in this kind of prayer, because silence can seem strange and intimidating, hardly a holy place. It takes courage to learn that silence itself can be holy. Try it, maybe a little each day, increasing a bit over the 40 days of Lent. You may be surprised how you feel about listening prayer by the time Lent is over.

Listening prayer is not the only kind of prayer. Speaking is important, too. But sometimes listening prayer is really essential, as Jesus demonstrated in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26). Simone Weil once said, “Attention is the only faculty of the soul which gives us access to God.” Listening is a really important way to pay attention. As the psalmist said: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

– Pastor Dent Davis, Tryon Presbyterian Church