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My life is a listening, His is a speaking.
My salvation is to hear and respond.
IT WAS EARLY FALL, and it was late afternoon, and I was walking through old Carolina pines with a new friend.
We were near the ocean, near enough to hear the surf as we walked along a broad path through the forest.
I say I was with a new friend. I only spent five days with him, and I had never seen him before and have not seen him since. He and I were two of about sixty people at a retreat, and I was the speaker.
“I think I am being called to go to seminary,” my new friend said. “Do you think I am?”
He was wrestling with a question that almost always arises whenever questions of calling are being raised. He was hoping I could tell him if he was being called by God to do a particular thing or if he was wanting to do it for his own reasons and giving God the credit. (Or the blame, perhaps?) He wanted me to look into the future and tell him which choice would be the right one. He was hoping I was a lot more than a speaker; he was hoping I was a prophet.
For a while I did the wisest thing I know to do in such a situation, which is to keep my mouth shut and listen.
We walked for a bit longer, and he talked a little more, and I tried to pay careful attention to the story he was telling me. We stopped for a moment to watch the sea and to listen to the surf.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I cannot tell if it is God telling me this or if I am just talking to myself.”
We watched the sea for a while.
“Exactly what does God’s voice sound like?” I
asked him. “And how do you recognize that voice when you hear it?”
My new friend looked at me as though perhaps he should not be wasting his time with a guy who suddenly did not appear to be so prophetic after all.
I had clever follow-up questions too. “Does God sound like James Earl Jones or Helen Mirren? What if
God sounds like Judi Dench or George Burns? What if God’s voice is shrill and hard to listen to? What if
God sounds like Truman Capote? What if the voice sounds like your own voice?”
These were not unreasonable questions to me on that day and are still not on this day. My new friend looked at me as though I had gone from being not as smart as he had hoped to being a smart aleck instead.
But I had a reason for asking those questions.
People go away on spiritual retreat for all kinds of reasons.
I am one of those people. I think it is a good idea to go away for a while to listen for, and maybe even to,
It was my father who taught me to love going on retreat. He led so many of them that his father once asked him if he should not go on an advance for a change.
I think a retreat can be especially helpful when you are wrestling with some particular thing in your life.
Having a leader or a teacher or a speaker there is a nice bonus, but it is not always the point. As the years go by, I go to fewer and fewer retreats where there is a speaker. Sometimes it is easier to listen for the voice of
God if there is not someone else talking all the time.