Listening in Lent

Instead of giving something up this Lent, what if we chose to enter life more fully by listening — to the world, to our selves, to God?

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

We live in a sea of words. We may even say that we are drowning in this sea of words and sounds, surrounded by language that can become more noise than information or comfort.

And as we enter Lent, with its tradition of finding something to “give up” to focus on the solemn season and the coming death and resurrection of Christ, it’s tempting to try to withdraw from the world. And it’s easy. How many of us have given up social media for the 40 days leading to Easter? Lent can offer a bit of relief in myriad ways — and be good for our souls.

But perhaps some intentionality about entering Lent and following through with differing perspectives can be helpful. Suppose instead of eliminating a practice during Lent, we incorporated one, and one that might seem counterintuitive?

Suppose we listened?

Listen to the world

We can begin where we are, by listening to the world around us. We do this all the time, hearing the barrage of sounds and language that are our constant companions. But what if we were more intentional about listening to the world around us?

NatureWe can listen to nature. Mostly, we may take “nature” for granted. God’s created order surrounds us. It is “there” — day by day; night by night. But in what ways do we “listen” to nature — or let it speak to us of the glory of God our creator?

John Calvin spoke of “this magnificent theater of heaven and earth, crammed with innumerable miracles” (Institutes). The “works of God” in “this most beautiful theater” should speak to us. People of faith should “be mindful that wherever we cast our eyes, all things they meet are works of God, and at the same time to ponder with pious meditation to what end God created them.” Is this how we view and perceive “nature” around us?

The psalmist said, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Is this the way we consider nature? If the heavens are “telling” the glory of God and the firmament “proclaims” God’s handiwork — are we listening as the heavens “tell” and the world “proclaims”?

Nature is “alive” in the eyes of faith. Lent is a time to listen to nature as our surroundings take on the glorious display of God’s creative acts in nature’s “most beautiful theater”!

If the heavens are “telling” the glory of God and the firmament “proclaims” God’s handiwork — are we listening as the heavens “tell” and the world “proclaims”?

Voices of othersAs we listen to the world around us, we will also hear the voices of others. Those voices meet us in many ways and are saying many things to us.

During Lent, we can be intentional about listening to the voices of those who are in need. Traditionally, one of the historic disciplines the church wanted people to practice during Lent was to give alms – gifts, offerings, donations, assistance, monies – to the poor, to those in need. In our Lenten ears this year, let us seek to hear the voices of those in need. Jesus expressed what we are to do when we hear those voices in Matthew 25: provide food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, welcome for the stranger, clothing for the naked, care for the sick, visits for those in prison (25:31-46).

Listen to our self

From listening to the world, we can turn inward during Lent and we can ask: what is our “self” saying?

Frederick Buechner, the beloved writer and preacher, spoke of “listening to your life” (Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner). God can speak through all things. And God speaks, “I believe,” said Buechner, in words that are “incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys” (The Sacred Journey). For “God speaks into or out of the thick of our days” (Sacred Journey).

God speaks in our lives. It is for us to listen to our lives. During Lent, we can listen to our self and try to discern what God is saying. Calvin began his Institutes by saying: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” More succinctly, Calvin wrote the next year in his French version of Institutes (It was originally published in Latin, but French was his native language): “In knowing God, each of us also knows himself.” We want to know – and listen – to what God is saying to us so we come to know ourselves. If it is by knowing God that we truly know ourselves, then as people of faith in Lent, we need to listen to our lives, to our self, so we can know what God is saying to us in and through who we are as Christian people.

God speaks in our lives. It is for us to listen to our lives.

There are various ways we can listen to our self during Lent. Are there sins in our lives for which we need to repent and seek forgiveness? Are there relationships with others that need repair and reconciliation? Are there practices in our lives that need adjusting or abandoning? The Spirit helps us listen to our self as we consider what needs to be done within us and work through change, which can be difficult.

Listen to God

As we listen to the world and to our self, we will also specifically want to listen to God.

As people of faith, listening to the world and to our self is part of our larger process of listening to God. God works through our listening to the world – in nature and to those in need – as well as what the Spirit is saying within our lives as we listen to our life and our self. But God has also provided means to help us in our “listening.”

Scripture. The Bible is central to the church and our Christian lives. We call it “the Word of God” or the “unique and authoritative witness” to “the one sufficient revelation of God” in Jesus Christ, “the Word of God incarnate” (Book of Confessions). God’s “Word” means “God speaks.” And we listen.

Make time this Lent to energize your relationship with the Bible by reading Scripture expectantly, asking God to speak to you. Read Scripture personally, listening for what God is saying to you specifically and about the world around you.

PrayerWe typically think of prayer as our speaking to God. This is true. But prayer is, as Calvin said, an “intimate conversation” with God (Institutes). A conversation is a two-way street.

Energize your prayer life this Lent by listening to God in prayer. Say what needs to be said to God, then listen for God to respond. We will not likely hear a voice like Saul did on the road to Damascus. We listen to God through prayer when we recognize God’s answers or God speaking to us — even in times, places, or ways where we do not expect to hear the voice of the Lord! Be open to listening to God through your prayers.

Church. A third means of grace through which we can listen to God is the church itself. The richness of “church” in its various forms and practices is a means by which God’s Spirit works to help us hear what God is saying to us — in Lent; and in all seasons.

The church is a koinonia, a fellowship. We listen to God when we hear God speak to us through other people, other “saints.” In the church, we all support each other. The church is a “fellowship of love” through which we “minister” and are “ministered” unto. In those ministries – through other people – God can speak to us, in unexpected ways, if we are open to it.

We listen to God when we hear God speak to us through other people, other “saints.”

Theological understandings. As a theologian, I would be remiss if I did not mention we can listen to God through the church as we study and learn about the church’s theological beliefs and doctrines. I’ve spent my life trying to be a “church theologian” in making our Reformed and Presbyterian beliefs known and understood. A “bumper sticker” of St. Augustine in the fourth century was “faith leads to understanding.” I believe in order to understand. Our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior is most basic for us, but from our basic confession of faith in Christ comes our quest and desire to understand. We want to understand more and more fully what God has revealed to us and what the universal church, as well as our own Reformed theological tradition, believes about Christian faith and life.

This Lent, we can listen to our church’s theological understandings so we can grow in our faith. Study scripture. Study our Book of Confessions. Study theological books that will enhance your knowledge and growth in faith. Listen to God through the church’s theological wisdom. Find your faith strengthened as you “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Enter Lent ready to listen this year! The world has much to say to us. Let’s listen. Listen to your life, day by day. Listen to God and “make diligent use of the means of grace.” This Lent, let God’s Spirit move you from where you are to where God wants you to be!