As I’m traveling myself I recruited Mark Nicklas, a pastor in Beaverton, Oregon, and good friend to share from his own heart for God. As you will read here, we once shared in a 4-month Bible read-through together, sharing with me the pleasure I always find there. I’m pleased to have him fill the post while I need to defer my own writing activities. His comments have been part of the Spreading Goodness conversation so many readers will know him already. Welcome, Mark!
At 38,000 feet over the North Sea, I am settling in for the long flight back to Portland from Amsterdam. Ron has long been asking me contribute to the blog, but until now, whenever I tried to write it felt forced. I am feeling inspired today and it’s a long flight, so I hope that I can bring some meaningful word to Ron’s readers in what I will share.
I want to talk about voices. I don’t think I am unusual in saying that I hear voices. The fact is, I’ve always heard voices – lots of them. The churning of thoughts and ideas within is a cacophony of voices. They come from outside, from inside and from somewhere else. There is a steady stream of them competing for my attention, often coming from points of confusion no different than my own.
Voices on the outside are easy enough to distinguish. Audible and attached to people, they comment, coax, console, comfort, confuse, confront, combat (apologies, though I will leave it in – it is the preacher’s curse – until the last two of these, I swear the alliteration was unintentional). The media wants to inform me, advertisers want to entice me, friends want to influence me, some even want to control me. There is never an end to the voices on the outside. Being audible, they are easier to resist, but their steady drumbeat does get inside until it too can take a place among the voices on the inside.
The voices on the inside have the greater influence. These tend to sound like me. They are accumulated from a life of internal conversations. And though I wish it weren’t so, these can often be the hardest voices to hear – they can be accusing, discouraging, cursing, suspicious and insecure. More than I want to admit, they breed an internal discontent that I would not want anyone else to ever see, leaving me with confused motives and conflicting desires. Even my parent’s voices find place in the things I mull over – left over phrases from long ago, encouraging here and admonishing there.
There are other voices as well. One set of these has a common theme – these are like voices on the inside, but seem to be from somewhere else. They play on the insecurities and fears that hide inside from a lifetime lived in a broken world. These voices rile up the things inside and can leave me despairing and hopeless. They mock things that are innocent – accusing such thoughts as naïve. They treat healthy altruism with cynicism, telling me to choose safe fearful responses rather than courageous and beautiful ones. But there is another amazing Voice…
In the Old Testament, shortly after the fall, Cain has a conversation with God. There is clarity – Cain knows to whom he is speaking and he listens to the voice of God. He doesn’t listen or trust, but he does hear. Was he any different than we are today? I believe that the voice of God is not so far away as some would propose. I further believe that He is always speaking to us, but that we have made room for louder voices and have forgotten what He sounds like. I hadn’t always listened to His voice, though as I’ve come to know it, I swear it was always there. In my own life, when I responded to His voice, I found myself hearing a voice that was very, very familiar; a voice I had learned to ignore.
Before I started writing this article, waiting at the gate to leave, I was listening to a song called Missed the Boat by Modest Mouse. Acknowledging that my interpretation could be a little off (the artist gets more say in this than the hearer, though I think I have this one right), it is a song that laments the writer’s involvement in religion. The title suggests that while he and others in his church community were trying to fake spirituality, they were missing the boat on life. The chorus of the song celebrates his emancipation from a belief system that focuses on rewards after death – the “end gong” – while missing “life’s sweet bells.”
Having come to Christ later in life, I can appreciate where he is coming from. If the voice of God were absent from faith, then adhering to it becomes an exercise in mind-over-will and faith an exercise in the suspense of reality. The religious experience of the songwriter, Isaac Brock, was devoid of real hearing, and so he rightfully challenges what it was based upon. In one particularly poignant phrase, after talking about how “our ideas held no water but we used ‘em like a dam,” he says this:
We were certainly uncertain; at least I’m pretty sure I am
Well we didn’t need the water, but we just built that good God dam
Oh and I know this for myself, I assume as much for other people
The voice of the artist captured something that I hear Christians say all the time, though not nearly so transparently. He is uncertain, he rejects the need for God (something that in his life was never confirmed by a direct revelation), and so he reduces belief in a good God as something that is used to hold back the tide of the kinds of ideas we fear. There was nothing real in his faith experience, which he assumes about others.
The past week in Holland I met a number of young people preparing to be missionaries. Surprisingly, they sounded similar to Isaac Brock. Quite a few of them were confused; they were listening to all the internal voices and not hearing God’s voice, though they were desperate for it. So far God has been silent. I wondered how many of them would walk away with the same sense of discouragement as the songwriter with the belief that God is ultimately a silent God – or no God.
It is the same problem I am seeing in the church in America. Churches, ever pursuing cultural relevance, search the cultures philosophies and discoveries and bring them to the pulpit – a place that should be for prophetic preaching of God’s Word. I have been through worship services where enthusiastic messages could be reduced to psychology, or motivation, or utilitarian 3-steps-to-something speeches. Where is spirit-led revelation from God’s Word? In an informal survey of young people, in addition to discontent with the church (especially those who have grown up in it) I find a low regard for the Word of God. They simply are not reading it – or worse yet, they have turned it into a kind of self-help text book – reading small amounts and trying to make meaningful applications to their daily struggles. They want to hear from God, but they don’t consider time in His Word as important. They are wandering thirsty in the rain.
Reading God’s word helps us to hear what He sounds like. Reading a lot of God’s word daily gives us a sense of His presence – we begin to hear His voice and to know what He sounds like. He is clear. He is close. He is compelling. I will be forever grateful to Ron for taking me through a 4-month read-through of the Bible. I have since taken others through the same thing and am watching them as they begin to hear the Spirit as Counselor. So… to quote Ron… make this the day.