4 Easter: A voice without self-interest

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Text for Preaching This Week: John 10:1-10 and “Flock” by Billy Collins

I knew a bishop once
who would proudly announce,
every time there was a procession
of diocesan clergy
bedecked in their liturgical finery and splendor, and lined up waiting for the opening hymn
so they could enter the church,
that the reason he, the bishop,
was the last one in procession
was because the shepherd
always walked behind his flock.
His job was to prod and guide them,”
he would add.

Then, at one such event, unexpectedly,
the voice of a new young priest piped up:
“But Bishop,” he said,
“just think about what those shepherds
had to walk through following those sheep.”

Time is the sleeve
and memory the arm slipping through it.
So reach back now into your childhood.
Was there a voice,
an innate companion
that called you by name?

Was there ever,
in any time of your life,
a voice that called you by name?
in a dream;
when you were all alone,
in a crowd,
when you were lost –
was there a voice
that called you by name?

It may not have been an actual voice you heard.
It may simply have been that somehow,
you didn’t know how,
but you knew what you needed to know
when you needed to know it;
and that was enough
to make a difference,
or make a necessary change,
or maybe even save a life –
maybe even your own.

Or maybe, if you are like me,
there were times you did not listen
to what you heard
or what you knew
or what you should have done.
Maybe you didn’t listen
because you didn’t believe it.
Or maybe because you thought is was something
other than it was
even though it knew your name.
We may not be able to retrieve
an actual memory of God from childhood.

If ever we talked out loud about that voice,
or that something we couldn’t name,
to another person,
or mentioned the dream
or the vision
or the whisper,
we soon discovered such talk
is not taken seriously.

Hearing the still small voice within,
let alone a voice that knows us by name,
is not something that rational,
mature, sensible adults
talk out loud about in our world.
If we ever did talk about such things as a child,
we were told it was something
other than what it was.

It would have been dismissed
as a child’s “pretend”
or simply ignored like a bad smell
as children’s insights and visions often are.

We learned from the way adults responded to us,
that the holy is like Santa Claus:
talked about by adults
in that voice we use for children,
but never heard in the voice
adults use with one another.

We learned
that anyone who talks out loud
about hearing the voice of God is crazy.

We learned
through the modeling of adults around us,
to turn off our sensitivity to the holy
in the same way boys are taught not to cry.

We learned
from listening to the adults around us,
and watching their reactions
to those considered too religious,
that an encounter with God
is not something normal people talk about.

So we learned
to close off those faculties,
the ones that allow us to tune-in
to that dimension of life
around us
and within us
that some of us call the holy.

We learned
to ignore the voice of the holy
within and around us
until we stopped hearing it at all together.

We put that part of ourselves,
and those memories,
to sleep.

The holy is not a voice we hear,
or a language we speak,
or a sound we know,
except through memories that call to us
from the other end of that long sleeve of time.

That’s a problem,
and right now in this stage of human history,
it is an acute problem.

Human beings are in crisis.
Especially in the Global West,
which is now saturated with,
and dominated by, economic culture –
by which I mean the social matrix binding us together is predominantly ruled by
the values and ideas of economics.
We are in crisis, you and I,
because we have mostly lost the ability to hear
the voice of the one who knows us each by name.

At the same time, the voices we can hear,
the ones cooing or shouting or hawking at us
to follow them and trust them,
are not trustworthy voices at all.

Here is just one easy example.

We know that our atmosphere
and the environmental balance
of Earth’s ecosystems
are in grave danger.
But we also know that even as our shepherds
talk-the-talk of environmentalism,
or proclaim it is not a problem of our own making,
they nevertheless walk-the-walk of corporations
that bestow wealth upon those who continue
to degrade the environment.

We hear the voices of our cultural shepherds,
and we see in their actions
they cannot be trusted.

That is just one low-hanging example
that points to the crisis of trust
that is eating away
at the fabric of communal hope.

Who can we trust?

What happens when
no matter how hard we listen,
we cannot hear a voice we can trust?

In religion,
in war,
in health care,
in education,
in technology

we know we cannot trust the shepherds
because their first interest
is their own self-interest.

If ever we meet someone
who is not guided primarily
by his or her own self-interest,

it is enormously compelling
and we want to know them
and have them know us.
I hope you know someone like that;
someone who,
when it comes to your relationship,
you can sense is not guided exclusively,
or even primarily by their own self-interest.

But we are in crisis
because the voices we can hear
cannot be trusted,
while the voice we can trust
cannot be heard.
We are in crisis
because we walk
through the valley of the shadow of death
but we cannot hear the voice
of the one who knows us each by name.
In the valley of death
we are surrounded by the voices
we know are guided by their own self-interest.

There is no easy answer to this crisis,
no single, silver bullet.
But I have an idea about what to do.
It is not THE answer, only one small idea.

Our deafness to the holy
has been learned over many years
and is not easily reversed.
And when it comes to being shaped over time,
in unnatural ways,
I often go back to an important lesson
I had to unlearn as an adult.
I have mentioned it to you before.

In our culture, as in many cultures,
we teach boys not to cry.
Teaching boys not to cry
is of course a horrendous disservice to men –
and therefore to women.
It makes us emotionally crippled.
Its negative impact on the culture at large
can be observed and encountered everywhere.

Children know how to cry
and most of them cry easily,
so we teach them to cry appropriately
in order to manage their tears.
That makes a certain amount of sense,
so long as we are not teaching one another
to shut down the capacity to cry altogether.
But that is what boys are instructed to do
under the bludgeon of humiliation.

I learned how to cry again as an adult,
in an acting class in college.
I didn’t know at the time
that was what I was doing,
nor how important it would be to me later,
but that is where I learned it.

It came about because I had a role in a play
that called for me to break down in tears
and my professor would not allow me to act
he insisted that I learn to cry.
No fake crying, but real sobs and tears –
that, he said, is the difference between drama
and acting.

I had to learn to make myself cry,
first by acting as if I was crying.
Then I had to put myself in touch
with the memories of what hurt inside
until the tears I evoked
were real tears.
I had to act as if
I was crying
until I learned to allow myself to cry.
You see the methodology?

What I want to suggest
is that learning to hear the voice of the holy
begins with acting as if we can hear it.
Even before we actually can hear it,
we need to act as if we can hear it.

Then we need to do something

that is counter-intuitive:
We need to practice listening for the holy
in the midst of our fears and our hurts
because that is where
we feel the greatest need for God.

One of the glaring perversities of human nature
is that we learn and change
in the midst of dissatisfaction and need,
while under the spell of satiation and balance
we put ourselves to sleep.

It is walking through the valley
of the shadow of death
where we are most acutely aware
of both the crisis
and our need
for a power greater than ourselves.

So listening within,
listening within to our fears and to our wounds,
is where we begin to hear the voice
of the one who knows us each by name.

What is it we fear?
Which of our hurts is most enduring?

If we will listen hard
and listen well
to that chamber of our heart,
we will begin to hear a new voice –
one we instinctively know
we can trust.

In that innermost chamber of our heart,

where few if any have ever been allowed to peek,
only the presence of someone or something
we know is not guided by self-interest,
can be tolerated.

Because we could only allow
such a trustworthy presence as that,
into our place of tenderness deep inside,
it feels like a lonely place
and we are hesitant to go there.

And yet, that is where our gold is stored.

There are treasures
in the very place we fear to look
just waiting for us to behold.
Among those treasures,
in that place,
is a memory so tender,
so sacred, and so dear,
we hold it like fragile glass.

Going there,
and listening for the one without self-interest –
acting as if it knows us by name,
acting as if it cared for us personally,
and acting as if we were able to hear its voice –
will allow us to re-gain our hearing.

That which resides
in the inner most chamber of our heart,
among the tenderness of our
fears and hurts and wounds,
is also God’s voice echoing our name.
Even if we fear it, listen.
Listen quietly and intently,
and hear the voice of the holy
where it is freshest.

It is possible to hear the voice of God again
even as we heard it all those years ago
at the other end of the long sleeve of time.

The voice of the one who knows us each by name,
calls to us
out of the innermost chamber of our heart,
also whispers to us
in the midst of what is both
precious and fearsome.

If we will practice listening
we will hear it again.

In a time of crisis
is when we most need to hone our listening skill,
to recover our ability to hear
the voice of the one we can trust;
the one that will lead us and guide us
without self-interest.

So the punch line is: keep listening.
practice-listen as if there is
a power greater than yourself
who speaks to you without self-interest.

in that place at the center of your being,
where resides both fear and hurt.
Go there, expecting loneliness
but discovering a presence
both healing and trustworthy.

Practice, as if you will hear.