When I was a preschooler, sometimes I would stay at my grandparents’ house while my parents went out on a date. I’d bring along pajamas and take a bath with a little scoop of my grandmother’s bathsalts, and I’d curl up in bed, but I wouldn’t always fall asleep. Often I would lie awake, listening for my parent’s voices, knowing they would be coming to get me soon.
More than once I would think I heard my mom’s voice and jump out of bed, excited to greet my parents, only to be disappointed. It turns out my mom and her two younger sisters sound really similar—it’s almost impossible to distinguish between them on the phone. But even though they sounded the same from behind the closed door of that bedroom, I usually didn’t even get far enough to see my aunt talking with my grandparents before I realized my mistake. I knew my mom’s voice. Once I was out in the hallways and could begin to make out the words I knew whether it was really my mom, or not. And it wasn’t because I was unusually attuned, or anything. Recent studies say that children can distinguish between their mother’s voice and other people’s voices before they are even born.
That kind of recognition—that kind of familiarity is at the heart of this image cluster that Jesus presents us with. He is talking about a relationship—not an idea, which is probably just as well. If he was trying to communicate a particular idea, this meandering succession of images would confuse the issue. If I had written a passage like this when I was in school, one of my teachers would have knocked me down a couple grades for mixing metaphors…more than once. But this is the way John’s gospel works—images and ideas float around in clusters—it is not clear-cut analogy, or even self-contained parables like we find in the other three gospels. John is all about saturating us in images.
Sheep, gates, imposters and thieves, shepherds. Thieves don’t take the gate. I am the gate. The sheep don’t listen to thieves—they don’t know the voice. Sheep know the voice of the shepherd. I am the good shepherd. I have other sheep in a different place who know my voice, too. The images of sheep and sheepfolds and shepherds and gates and thieves all swirl together, leaving us more with an impression than with understanding. Rather than being able to nail down what Jesus means, we walk away associating Jesus with security and familiarity.
The sheep know the shepherd’s voice. Are we familiar with Jesus’ voice? Recognizing Jesus’ voice today—listening for the voice of God in our midst is no small task, but you could say that it is the primary purpose of spirituality. Earlier this week, as he was reflecting on a sermon by Bishop Desmond Tutu, my husband Barrett began to think of those moment in life when he was confident that God was present, and powerful, and good. Brilliant sunsets and moments of staggering beauty came to mind. Those moments, he decided, were moments of God shouting to get his attention, while the goal of spiritual development is to learn how to be ready to listen when God is whispering.
So how do we go about this? How do we train our ears to recognize God’s voice? An anthropologist named T.M. Luhrmann recently published a book called “When God Talks Back,” outlining her research in a handful of Christians communities. She spent time in Vineyard churches, which is one of the more influential Pentecostal traditions in North America, and she also visited a number of other retreat centers and communities that practice other traditions of listening prayer, like the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Her goal was to examine from an anthropolical perspective, how it was that these communities trained their members to distinguish thoughts that they would attribute to God from other thoughts in their minds.
While I haven’t had the chance to read her study, there are some great interviews and lectures online where she summarizes some of her observations. For instance, in talking about the Vineyard churches, she explains that “They have a sense of God being wise and good and loving, and they talk to God in their minds and talk about their problems, and then they are seeking to experience themselves as seeing [that problem] from the perspective of a loving God who then reflects back on their anxieties and interprets them differently.”
This different perspective is accessed through imaginative exercises, and part of what leads the community to identify it as a God-given perspective is how well it lines up with the goodness, wisdom and unconditional love they believe characterize God.
I believe this is one of the real strengths of the Pentecostal or Charismatic tradition in the church—the expectation that we can recognize God’s voice—that we can become familiar enough with God’s voice, God’s tone, God’s character—that we can access life-transforming insights. That God is not just some ancient character we learn about in a book called the Bible, but that God can speak into our present life circumstances in a meaningful way. Of course, there are dangers of speaking on behalf of God, or claiming a divine origin for opinions that are really our own. But that can happen even when we’re not actively trying to listen for God’s voice. The author Anne Lamott reminds us that “You know you’ve made God in your own image when she hates that same people you hate.”
My experience is that God’s voice sounds most familiar when the insight I gain is least expected. When Barrett and I, both raised in traditions that claimed homosexuality was a sin, began having experiences that challenged that assumption, we spent a lot of time praying. He began imagining God saying things like “Love my gay and lesbian children.” I started looking at colleagues an mentors—pastors who were in same sex relationships and I felt like I could see God’s fingerprints in their lives and their ministries. God was there—blessing them and blessing people through them.
Barrett and I were both using spiritual tools of our childhood, methods of listening to and looking for God that we learned in evangelical settings, but this spiritual quest was leading us in places that deviated from the doctrines we were taught, and as we began to talk about it, we realized that the process itself sounded a lot like the Jesus who turned everything upside down. It looked a lot like the Jesus who sought out the outcasts and upset religious leaders. It all felt uncomfortably familiar.
Kind of like Jesus in this passage, describing himself not only as the shepherd who the sheep follow because of his familiar voice, but describing himself also as the shepherd who is calling other sheep—strange sheep from a different sheepfold, who will also recognize his voice and follow him until eventually there will be one new flock. Again, we shouldn’t get caught up speculating about what this means—is Jesus talking about including Gentiles, or people of other religious traditions, or followers from a different village? The more important thing is that we are left with an impression—a feeling about Jesus, who is both familiar and unpredictable—both ours—our shepherd—and more-than-ours—a shepherd with other sheep we don’t know and can’t anticipate.
Actively trying to listen for God is both wonderfully familiar and wonderfully uncomfortable. God does not leave us to flounder alone, which is a comfort, but God also does not leave us to our own devices—God calls us to take risks, to follow into dangerous territory, to turn things upside down. Ultimately, that’s what Jesus is conveying to his disciples through all these image about sheep and shepherds. Remember, the passage also talks about the shepherd sacrificing his life for the sheep. Jesus is filling the disciples heads with images that will help them make sense of his impending arrest and crucifixion—images that will give that senseless violence a frame of meaning. Maybe these words even helped the disciples recognize Jesus after the resurrection—when he appeared in the most unexpected way of all. It would have been easy to be frightened—to wonder if he was an imposter, but here Jesus is assuring them that they will recognize his voice.
Being, or becoming familiar with God’s voice gives us the resources we need to travel through the trials and suffering of life, and it gives us the courage we need to follow Jesus into uncharted territory, to take risks, to love boldly.
So, how are you listening for God? What are some of those moments when you’ve experienced God shouting to get your attention? When God is whispering, do you catch it? If you want to practice listening for God’s voice—if you want to learn some of these Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, or imaginative processes, come on Monday nights at 7:30. That’s what the prayer hour is for—learning to listen to God, better. So come give it a try!