Sunday, January 18, 2009

Listening to Obama and listening to God

It's just amazing. For the entire weekend CNN has devoted most of its programming to cover the Obama pre-inauguration activities. Such is the hype surrounding the next President of the USA, as it appears that all of America is waiting with bated breath to hear his utterances, his next words of wisdom and his next inspiring speech. Perhaps they might as well declare Tuesday January 20th a public holiday also, following the one on Monday when Martin Luther King day will be celebrated. In fact, if the reports are accurate, perhaps most of the western world will take time out to listen to Obama's inaugural speech as the next President of the USA. Amazing stuff. In fact I can well recall hearing Obama's speech, played in its entirely on a local radio station, Nationwidenews, when he won his first primary in Iowa. I was driving to work, and tears came to my eyes and goosebumps covered my body as the soaring rhetoric and strong message of hope took hold of me in a way that had not happened for many a year. Such is the power of this man from whom , everybody wants to hear in these troubling times. Apart from Martin Luther King, who touched the souls of so many people around the world, very few modern leaders have been as inspiring as Barack Obama. We had a Prime Minister here in Jamaica many years ago, Michael Manley, who only had to stand and say , " Mr. Chairman" and everybody would go wild. But he was not in the same category as Obama. The point is though, are the American people really listening to what he is saying to them, as, the consistent undergirding theme, is his call for them to make some serious adjustments in their lifestyle? In their stewardship over the environment; in their approach to family life and care of their children; in the way they conduct their politics; in the way the capitalist model of running a economy has gone astray; in how they view and relate to others of different views and ethnic backgrounds within America and in the wider world and in their understanding of self and relationship to neighbour. Have they really been listening!
But as much as Obama's speeches have been closely followed by many, it was another, and much less celebrated woman, whose advice I heard on a local radio station - The Breakfast Club - which stayed with me all week. And whose words I have shared with a few other women this week.
They were discussing relationships and the do's and don't's which women, and men, should be aware of in the early stages, in order to better secure a successful long term union. At which point a local psychologist, with a strong focus on women, declared that , " women ought to learn to listen carefully to what men say in the first two weeks of a relationship. As this is the time that they are most vulnerable and will tell you all you need to know( in order for you to make a sound judgement). So if they turn up late for a date - that's saying something. If they treat the waiter at the restaurant with disrespect - that's saying something also". But, she went on to explain, that in her experience, women do not really listen carefully as they are either too busy chatting, or too emotionally caught up with the moment to listen. As a consequence, signals that a man sends out , and which really ought to raise 'red flags', go undetected , or ignored, and thus form the basis for much pain and grief later in the relationship.
All of this together with the spiritual lessons, which the Lord, who continues to amaze me with His timing, taught me this week, reinforced in my mind the critical importance of listening. Not just to man, but to the Creator of Heaven and Earth and all that is in it. In fact, one of my favourite theologians , from whom I have learnt much, John Stott, speaks clearly about the need for Christians to learn the art of, "Double Listening" - to the world around us and to God. In his own words he states in, " The Contemporary Christian" that ...." We listen to the Word in humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathize with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it".

So what did the Lord reveal to me about listening to Him this week, as the Obama hype threatened to drown out God's Word, and my sympathy with, and amazement at, women who do not listen, time and time again, with very sad consequences, occupied much of my thoughts.
First He led me to reflect on the well known story about the prophet Samuel and his first encounter with the Lord. " ........speak Lord for thy servant heareth". 1 Samuel 3:1-8. The OT lesson appointed in the Anglican church for this Sunday.
And how the Lord told Samuel that He was going to judge his master Eli's family "forever", for he had failed to restrain his sons from committing sins and making themselves " comtemptible", even though he knew about their corrupt practices. Then the Spirit of the Lord led me to Ezekiel and to these words.

"He said to me, " Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you..........Son of man I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, " This is what the Sovereign Lord says. And whether they listen or fail to listen - for they are a rebellious house - they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you son of man, do not be afraid of them and or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say, or be terrified by them, though are a rebellious house. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house....."
Ezekiel 2: 1-8 NIV

I have long held the view, and such thoughts are reflected in the prayer for this Internet Ministry, that my country, in particular, will not change for the better until the church is renewed.
" Lord renew thy church beginning with me. Lord renew thy church that the church may renew the nation", is the prayer.
Yes, there are issues of leadership, justice, economic management, family life and the kind of wisdom that we all should seek, as the twin realities of Obama and the unwise woman teach us. Lessons that life teaches us and which help us to hone our social economic and moral skills. But that experience, and those lessons, however well learnt, in and by themselves alone, will never help us to overcome the entrenched evil which is so pervasive in our island home. And manifest in the seemingly unstoppable " shottas" killing off our people and causing so much pain and grief in the nation.
Yes there is a role for the church to challenge the society and especially our political and business leaders as happens in Jamaica on the third Thursday of each New Year, when the church leaders organize a National Prayer Breakfast - whether they listen or fail to listen.
But for me, the key point in this week of lessons on the importance of listening, is the great need for the " New Israel" the present " Body of Christ", the church, to heed the call to repent of its rebellious ways. In the same way that young Samuel, after listening to God, was called to speak to Eli, and Ezekiel, in like manner, to speak to the children of Israel. And therefore the urgent need for us to look deep into our own souls and repent, and also to help one another along this road of repentance - whether they listen of fail to listen.
So it is not only that Jamaica, and indeed Jamaicans - and other countries too- are suffering because we have rebelled, heard but not listened and obeyed, against the ordained Word of God, and sought to follow "idols and gods who our fathers and mothers did not know", but equally so that church of God in Jamaica in need of renewal and cleansing. One of the most perplexing questions that we as Christians have to confront, about others who do not believe and for us who are always going astray and being disobedient is Why? Why do we believe in the Salvation offered on the Cross by the Lord Jesus and others do not - with disastrous consequences for the nation and for the individuals in due course? Why do we, who believe, and claim Christ, are so easily led astray into rank disobedience, time and time again, in little and serious sins - with equally disastrous consequences for the spiritual health of the nation?
And the Lord who knows everything in advance provided a reflection with some answers - this week.


" He who has ears to hear, let him hear". Luke 8:8

IN WORD Jesus uses this imperative fourteen times in the Gospels and Revelation. It is a common but curious command in His teachings. And it raises a lot of questions for us. Why, for example, would the One who was sent to seek and to save us seem so casual about who hears and obeys? Why is He not pleading with the obstinate to repent?
We may never know some of the intricacies of God's salvation --- why some believe while others don't. The reasons are mysterious to us. But one thing is clear: Jesus comes with the expectation that some will be ready to receive His message enthusiastically. And with that clear expectation comes the negative implication: Some will not. There are stubborn hearts in this world, listeners " without ears," and those who will not open themselves to the possibility of the truth of the Gospel. Even among believers, Jesus faced this resistance. many who accepted His claims could not --or simply would not --accept all of His teachings ( see john 6:60-66, for example). Then and now, we see a strange phenomenon --priceless, eternal truth is often not welcome in human hearts.

IN DEED This ability to hear has profound implications for unbelievers. rebellious souls cannot hear the words of Jesus -- really hear them -- until they recognize an acknowledge their won insufficiency. ( One of the great ironies of our age is that those who most often claim open-mindedness and the potentials of human enlightenment have completely shut their eyes to Jesus.) But this concept also has profound applications for us. We, too, must always be on our guard and aware of our insufficiency. Human nature gravitates towards rebellion and its inevitable result --deafness.
Jesus almost always uses this phrase after a difficult message. His hard teachings are often a stumbling block, but we can use them as a true test of the openness of our hearts. When Jesus' word grate against our natural inclinations, we must ask ourselves, " Do I have ears to hear?" How we respond will indicate the condition of our hearts.

Finally as I thought about the lessons for this week, a pastor at my church preached a sermon on " Christian Unity". And how much it is a "scandal" that there is so much division, competitiveness, and strained relationships in the " body of Christ". I thought about how so many churches get caught up in the "hype" of Christianity, listening a lot to songs like, " Jesus is my Redeemer - I love it too - but not being exposed to the deeper truths of the teachings of Christ. And therefore not really listening and not being renewed and not being truly effective disciples of Christ - falling away when temptations and trials come. I thought about all the attention being paid to Obama, "the leader of the free world", and how few are really listening to and being obedient to One God and Creator of all mankind, and whose promises will always come true. And as I write the wonderful words of an old hymn come into my heart:

Hark my soul! it is the Lord
Tis the Saviour, hear his word
Jesus speaks , and speaks to thee,
'Say poor sinner, lov'st thou me

I delivered thee when bound,
And when wounded, healed thy wound
Sought thee wondering, set thee right,
Turned thy darkness into light.......

Lord, it is my chief complaint
That my love is weak and faint;
But I love thee and adore;
O for grace to love thee more

I pray God that Obama will become an outstanding President. That people in America will listen carefully and respond to what he is actually saying. That women may learn to listen to men carefully before committing themselves to an intimate relationship. But most of all, I pray that we who have been created by God in His own image, and Redeemed, reconciled to Him by the blood of His own Son, may listen truly to Him and become obedient to His Son Jesus Christ and find true peace in this troubled world. O for grace to love and obey Him more. Amen