The Struggle to Listen to God's Voice
Last Sunday I worshiped at the Church of the Redeemer in Hyde Park where my wife has served as a priest for 14 years. It was her last Sunday on the staff. After a grace-filled 14 years, she had decided that it was time to move on. She is not retiring, and she is not moving on to another position. She is simply leaving behind one chapter of life and opening herself up to an unknown future because she believes that this is what God is calling her to do. The only specific plans she had prior to leaving was going on a retreat two days after her last Sunday and picking raspberries in her garden.
This decision has been at least two years in the making and a number of things stand out to me about the discernment process leading up to the decision.
First, it is important to have a conversation partner when you are pondering a new direction. I was Nancy’s primary conversation partner. We have breakfast together most of the time and those breakfasts became a time for her to express where she is. A younger Roger Greene would have tried to give her a lot of advice. All she needed was another human being to listen. Absent a conversation partner, it is often difficult to unpack what is going on inside.
Secondly, although it was important for Nancy to have a human conversation partner when discerning the way forward, her primary conversation partner was God. My role was simply to listen to her ongoing struggle to pay attention to what was going in her conversations with God. She also writes daily in a journal as a way to listen to what is going on in the depths of her soul.
Thirdly, it didn’t take long for her to realize that her conversation with God wasn’t going to bring a quick resolution to her discernment process. One day she would be convinced that it was time to move on; the next day she would have all sorts of reservations about leaving a ministry and people she loves. As the months passed, she was often frustrated and exhausted: “Why won’t God just tell me what to do?”
Of course, Nancy’s discernment process isn’t unique to her life, but is true for us as well. When we are trying to discern where God is calling us, we need a conversation partner. We need someone whose presence gives us the opportunity to try to express what is going on in our conversation with God. We need their listening ear, not their advice. Although our partner may impart some wisdom along the way, we usually don’t need advice. The danger with advice is that it distracts us from the primary voice, which of course is God’s. And as in the case of Nancy, we shouldn’t expect quick results. The longer the process goes on, the more we will be tempted to make a decision—any decision—just to have the whole thing over and done with. In this aspect of life, as with so many others, patience is essential. The psalmist begins her prayer, “I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to me and heard my cry (40:1).” How long did the psalmist wait? We don’t know. What we do know is that the psalmist didn’t say, “I asked God for help and everything was sorted out within a week.” May God give us the patience we need to wait for the Spirit to lead us.