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The Power of a WhisperHearing God, Having the Guts to Respond
By Bill Hybels
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Bill Hybels
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSAMUEL'S EAR
I grew up in a Christian family and as a kid went to a Christian school, which admittedly had its advantages and its disadvantages. As an adult who now appreciates having received a sturdy spiritual foundation, I have greater appreciation for one of the clear plusses: Each day before recess, my classmates and I would have to sit and listen to our teacher read a short story from the Bible. The better we listened, the faster she read-and the faster she read the sooner we'd be out on the baseball fields. With that as my motivation, I was all ears every day.
One such day, when I was in the second grade of that school in Kalamazoo, Michigan, my teacher read a story from the Old Testament about a man named Eli-an older worker in the temple -and a young boy named Samuel, whom he mentored. As the story goes, one night after Samuel had gone to bed, he thought he heard Eli calling for him. He got out of bed, ran to where Eli was lying down and said, "I heard you call. Here I am."
Eli looked at young Samuel, confusion creasing the old man's forehead. "I didn't call you," Eli said. "Go back to bed."
Samuel, of course, complied. But moments later, he heard his name again. "Samuel!" the voice called. Samuel rose from his bed, hurried to Eli's side and said, "Here I am; you called me."
Again Eli told the boy he was wrong. Again Samuel returned to his bed.
When it happened a third time, the old man finally realized what was going on. "Samuel, maybe God is trying to get a message to you," Eli explained. "Go back and lie down. If the voice calls again, say, 'Speak, God. I am your servant, ready to listen.'"
And so, the text says, "Samuel returned to his bed," where soon thereafter he heard his name yet again. "Samuel! Samuel!" the Lord called, to which Samuel replied on cue, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
The message that the Lord then spoke to young Samuel was a prophetic promise that would radically impact an entire nation. But the content of that message is not what struck me as I sat in my wooden grade-school desk. What struck me was the fact that the content got conveyed through the ears and lips of a little boy!
The recess bell rang. Miss Van Solen stood, and my classmates made a rush for the room's single door. Typically I was the first kid on the field, picking teams and filling positions and generally organizing the sport of the day. But not today. Today I found myself glued to my seat. The story she'd read had leveled me for reasons I didn't fully understand.
When the room had emptied save for Miss Van Solen and me, I eased out of my desk, stuffed my hands deep in my pockets and walked up to my teacher.
"What is it, Billy?" she asked-probably fearing the worst, given that it was recess and I was still indoors.
"Miss Van Solen," I said as my throat began to choke up, "does God still speak to little boys?"
She smiled and let out a relieved sigh. Placing her two hands on my small shoulders, she looked me square in the eye.
"Oh, yes, Billy," she said. "He most certainly does. And if you learn to quiet yourself and listen, he even will speak to you. I am sure of it."
I felt a swell of release as I considered for the first time in my seven years of life that perhaps Christianity was more than ancient rules, creeds and other stiff-necked ways. Maybe God really did speak. And maybe he'd speak to me.
Satisfied by her answer, I turned to head out to the baseball fields. "Billy," Miss Van Solen called after me, "I have something for you." She reached into the top drawer of her desk. "For some reason I've kept this poem here, but I think you should have it now. It might help you, given what we talked about today." She slipped a folded piece of paper into my palm, and with her knowing nod I was dismissed.
As I pulled on my pajamas that night, my mind kept drifting back to the idea that maybe God would someday speak to me. I rummaged through the pockets of my school pants and pulled out the paper Miss Van Solen had given me. Opening its folds and flattening out its creases, I discovered a poem- words about having Samuel's ears to hear God, every single day. I read the poem and then read it again. I read it a third time, and then figured I might as well memorize the thing. And so I did.
The next day just before recess, Miss Van Solen read a Bible story that meant absolutely nothing to me. I faked attentiveness, knowing this would help my baseball game come sooner, and when the beloved bell finally sounded its alarm, I flew out of my desk and lunged for the classroom door.
"Not so fast, Billy," Miss Van Solen's singsong voice rang out. I felt my shirt collar caught in her grip. As my friends pushed past either side of me and headed out to recess, Miss Van Solen asked, "What did you think of the poem I gave you?"
"I really liked it," I said.
"You mean you actually read it?" she asked.
"I memorized it," I said with a straight face and a shrug.
"No way," she said, flabbergasted.
"Yes, way, I did," I countered.
She called my bluff. "Can you say it for me?"
I took up the dare.
"Oh, give me Samuel's ear," I said, "an open ear, O Lord, alive and quick to hear each whisper of Thy Word; like him to answer to Thy call, and to obey Thee first of all."
As I finished my recitation, I thought Miss Van Solen might faint dead away, right then and there. As a pride-infused smile beamed across her face, again I felt those two hands on my small frame: "You keep listening for God to speak, Billy," she said, "and I believe he will use your life in a very special way."
* * *
After that experience, I tried to listen for the whispers of God. I didn't do it well enough or often enough, but as I walked down the road of my young life and faced the right-or-wrong choices that all adolescent boys face, sometimes I'd recall that rhyming refrain.
Oh! give me Samuel's ear, An open ear, O Lord, Alive and quick to hear Each whisper of Thy Word; Like him to answer to Thy call And to obey Thee first of all.
Each time the plea for Samuel's ear floated through my mind, it was as if I could hear God cheering me on-at least as much as I understood "God" at the time. I'd be standing at the crossroads of the paths marked yes and no and would sense him say, "I'm rooting for you, Billy! Take the high road here; you'll never regret your yes." It shouldn't have surprised me that God's way would prove best. But each time I'd head off on the high road and feel the good feelings that his way always brings, I'd look heavenward and with a shake of my head think, "God, you were right again!"
As I grew into the teenaged version of myself, an insatiable craving for adventure grew inside me too. My dad had discerned a thrill-seeking temperament in me from an early age, and he knew that if he didn't do something to channel all that energy in a positive direction, I'd likely wind up wrecking my life. Before I was even ten, he sent me off all alone on a cross-country train bound for Aspen, Colorado. Evidently he wanted me to learn how to ski, which would have been fine had he actually been present on that trip to teach me. The real goal, I would later surmise, was learning how to navigate the big, blue world around me. And navigate it I would.
When I was sixteen, my admittedly eccentric father came home from work one day and announced, "Billy, I think you ought to see even more of the world." It was the middle of the school year, a reality I felt sure my incredulous expression conveyed. Reading my expression, he added with a grin, "Obviously, you must never allow school to interfere with your education."
Clearly we wouldn't want that.
The following week, I boarded a plane headed for Europe. For eight weeks straight-again, all by myself-I traipsed from Scandinavia to the Middle East, and then headed for Nairobi, Kenya.
Having no idea what else to do when I arrived in Nairobi, I decided to take a walk. It was a decision that-five minutes in-I deeply and desperately regretted. I began down a bustling dirt road, and as I rounded the first corner, I came face-to-face with a level of human suffering I hadn't known could exist. I peered down the street and took in scores upon scores of people leaning against broken-down, battered buildings. The effects of rampant disease and malnutrition were obvious; I breathed in the open-guttered stench; I felt the staleness, the thickness of the air, and I knew I'd never again be the same.
As I made my way around a row of gaunt, downcast faces, my stomach started to lurch. "I'm a Dutch kid from Kalamazoo, Michigan," I thought. "What am I doing here?"
Turning the next corner, I saw a boy about my age. The leprosy that racked this part of the city had found its way to this young kid. The bottom half of his arm was missing, and on the nub of his upper arm he'd rested a tiny tin cup. I took in his situation, trying not to be too obvious about it. Our eyes met, and he uttered a single word.
I thrust my hands in my pockets but discovered I had nothing for a situation like this. My fingers found the stiff, rounded corners of my dad's American Express card-useless to this kid-and then a wadded up stack of traveler's checks that were tucked around a folded airline ticket for wherever I was headed next.
"Sorry," I mumbled, showing him my empty hands. Embarrassed, I hurriedly stepped away.
When I was safely out of the young man's sight, I ran as fast as my legs could carry me back to my hotel. Rushing inside my room, I emptied my pockets, fell to my knees and buried my head in the rug. I began to pray, although I had little relationship with the One I was praying to-and no idea what to say. All I knew was that I had never before seen suffering like I'd seen on the streets that day, and the only person I figured would know what to do about it was the God I'd heard hates suffering too.
As I sat crouched there, tears streaming down my hot cheeks, I heard an inaudible whisper from God: "If you will allow me to guide your life, one day I will use you to relieve some of the pain you see."
I quickly sealed the pact. "That would be great," I said to the silence all around. "That would be absolutely fine with me."
* * *
The following summer, I surrendered my life to Christ. I had been going to a Christian camp in Wisconsin since I was in single digits, but it wasn't until I stood on its familiar hillside at age seventeen that I finally connected with God for real. In the perfect stillness of a late-night hour, the words of Titus 3:5-a verse that I'd been told to memorize as a boy in Sunday school-crept back into my consciousness. "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost." In a flash of divine insight, I heard God's still, small voice: "You will never earn your way to my approval, Bill, but it is yours without condition right now." His whisper reflected a depth and purity of love that was so rich and real, I wondered if I was making the whole experience up.
I rushed back to my cabin, awakened my friends and dragged them all out of bed. "I don't have language to describe what just happened in my heart," I panted, "but I took a step of faith and invited God into my life-for real. For good. He came in, and I feel different on the inside!"
My groggy cabin mates glared at me with eyes that said this was a no-good reason to interrupt their sleep, but I knew the truth in my heart. I hadn't made up that hilltop experience. The decision I'd made that night was undeniable, irreversible and good. I've never looked back.
Shortly after my late-night grace-attack, I began to wrestle with how seriously I was going to take my newfound faith. I grasped that Jesus had died for me on a cross, forgiven my sins and promised me a place in heaven. I even gathered that it would be a good thing to invest a few minutes a day reading my Bible, saying some prayers and perhaps getting involved with a church. But in the midst of all my low-balling, I kept hearing about people my age who were going all-out for God. Fully committed and truly devoted, they were allowing their faith to affect things like their morals, their relationships, their money management and in some cases even their career path, which seemed a little over-the-top to me.
God had whispered into my boyhood years, helping me learn to act on what is right. He had whispered again to me in a slum in Kenya, encouraging me to pay attention to suffering wherever I see it. He had whispered to me in Wisconsin, asking me to give him the whole of my life. On and on these whispers continued, and thankfully as God was speaking more regularly, I grew increasingly aware of my need for input from above.
I wanted to live wide open to God, but I couldn't reconcile my sin. The truth about me is that for as long as I can remember, I have possessed an awe-inspiring, southbound gravitational pull that makes me rationalize doing something that is wrong as though somehow it were right. I am prone to justify my behavior when I cross lines that clearly I should not cross. I want to stay put when God asks me to move, to go right when God suggests a left-hand turn, and to speak my mind when I sense silence would serve me better.
He prodded me toward being a young man of my word, toward releasing judgment and revenge-seeking. "Love your enemies," he'd whisper, just when things were heating up. "Never return evil for evil, but return evil with good."
"Seriously, God?" I wondered.
I worried that devoting myself more fully to God would only make battles such as these more intense. I had wanted to hear directly from heaven since the second grade, but now that such input was frequent-and often contrary to my reflexive reaction to things-I was second-guessing my childhood request.
About that time, an older Christian man approached me and offered to buy me dinner. As a teenage boy and a frugal Dutchman, I regarded his offer of a free meal as a no-brainer.
Five bites into my burger the man said, "So, Bill, all the signs seem to be pointing to you heading into your family's business. And while that's a fine choice to make, I have a question for you. What are you going to do with your life that will last forever?
"I have no doubts about your making money and racking up a ton of achievements," the man continued. "You're a bright kid who will probably set records in whatever you choose to do. I'm just curious what you'll do that will outlive you and all of those earthly accomplishments."
I made eye contact with the guy with each bite of burger, careful to chew thoroughly so that I wouldn't have to speak. How was I supposed to respond to an assessment like that? I was just a teenager, and teenage boys by definition are only concerned with three things: food, thrills and girls. And in my case, God too, but how much of God was still up for debate.
Undaunted, the man continued. "What are you going to do to serve people-because people are the only commodity that makes it to the next life, you know...."
Sensing the questions wouldn't stop until I offered some semblance of a response, I put together a few words to get this guy off my back. But the effects of that supposedly free dinner held me captive the rest of the night.
As I crawled into bed a few hours later, I had a strong sense of God's presence. It was as if he walked right into my room, sat on the edge of my mattress and in the sightless shadows of the night repeated the older man's words. "What are you going to do with your one and only life?" I sensed him whisper. "What difference will you make for eternity? Faster cars, more cash and toys-none of those will make it beyond your grave."
As I stared at the ceiling, I felt my thrill-seeking days slip through my fingers like sand. I was being asked to make a choice: Would I choose a future I could generate and control myself-or would I sign on for the vagaries of a God-guided life? I was not even sure what a "God-guided life" would look like, but I was fairly sure the fun factor would be dialed back further than my liking.
Excerpted from The Power of a Whisper by Bill Hybels Copyright © 2010 by Bill Hybels. Excerpted by permission.
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