In thirty-one years of preaching, I have never started a sermon by saying, “A funny thing happened to me while I was working on this sermon.” But, a funny thing happened to me while I was working on this sermon.
You see, on Monday, my husband and I had our hearing evaluated by an audiologist. That’s right. After more than two – well, maybe five -years of putting it off, I had my hearing checked the same week I am preaching on a passage about hearing the voice of God.
One of the things the audiologist told us was a fundamental piece of biology which I had not figured out before. “Everyone thinks we hear with our ears,” she said. “We don’t. We hear with our brains.”
That seems to be Samuel’s predicament. Samuel’s ears receive the sound of his name. But he cannot hear with his brain and certainly not with his spirit.
In fact, Samuel is confused by where the sound is coming from. That’s a classic sign of hearing problems. He doesn’t have the tools or the understanding to process the sounds.
Yet, it is to Samuel that God speaks. God knows Samuel by name, knows where to find him and God waits patiently while Samuel learns how to be in this new relationship, he didn’t even know to expect.
Samuel does have a resource to help him hear. Samuel has his mentor, Eli, who is responsible for his training in the priestly work.
Remember, at the beginning of the passage, we were told that the Lord’s word was rare at the time. Now, through Samuel and Eli – a collaboration of young and old – the community develops, and the voice of God is heard again and again throughout the people of Israel.
We might hear the voice of God anywhere. However, I’d suggest that the most likely place to hear God’s voice is in the church. The reason I say this is because the church is the place we are most likely to get the help we need to hear and understand God’s word. Samuel needed Eli’s help. Eli needed Samuel’s help. You and I need each other’s help to hear the voice of God.
This is what it means to be the church. We are the church, not just for ourselves, but for those who will come after, the young who are in our midst now and the young who have not been delivered – like Samuel – to the door of the sanctuary. And we – the people who are already here doing this work – won’t hear God’s word for us without them.
It’s in the religious institution, in the rhythm and ritual of worship, being immersed in word and spirit, in sacrifice and service, in the gathering of the faithful that we learn how to sort out what is chatter and clamor – without and within – and hear together the voice of God.
Our audiologist told us that old-style hearing aids simply made sounds louder. All sounds. New hearing aids are more nuanced. They minimize background noise, sounds that impede true hearing, and amplify the sounds – usually words – that should get our attention.
The anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann posits that the church teaches us to use our minds differently than we do in everyday life. She says the church trains people’s minds, much as people use weights to train their muscles. The church encourages people to tune into sounds, images, and feelings that are louder or more intense, more unfamiliar or more powerful and trains us to interpret which internal cues are consistent with the external voice of God.
In other words, the church helps us turn down the volume of all the other sounds that we don’t need to focus on and amplifies the essential so that we can hear the voice of God.
Now, Eli was old and represented an old and established religious institution. Not everyone who is in church is old, but the religious institution itself is old and established. Young Samuel was brought to old Eli at the temple, but Eli needed to consciously develop the relationship, in order for both of them hear. And we, in the old established church, need to consciously develop relationships with young people – both those inside the church and still outside our doors – so we can hear God’s word of correction and new life.
It is tempting to think that those who are young or those not in church aren’t interested in hearing the voice of God. We assume they are listening to other voices. They move too fast for ritual and talk too quickly for established routines. And, frankly, we don’t always understand them.
That’s the most significant concern I raised with the audiologist. I have trouble following the rapid speech patterns of young people – even my daughters. It is a fact that teenagers and twenty-somethings have a speech rate 30% faster than middle-aged people. It doesn’t help that one of the first things to slow down as we age is our verbal processing speed. They are faster, and we are slower.
It turns out there is an app for that. Audiologists have developed a system to train yourself to understand rapid speech patterns. I haven’t worked my way through all the modules, but I’ve gathered some of the advice.
Position yourself close to a young speaker. Ask them to face you when they speak. Focus on their face to help you hear. Keep up on current events and trends, so you understand references. Learn the idioms, expressions, and vocabulary of the young, so you are prepared to decipher what is said.
That’s all good advice for the church if we are going to develop relationships that will help young and old hear the voice of God. So much of our world is stratified by age until we almost never spend time with people older or younger than ourselves. The church is the rare place where generations mix. We cannot lose that impetus, or we will fail those who follow us, and we will fail to hear God’s word for us today.
The audiologist told us something else about our hearing that I didn’t know. Perhaps you do. She said that if we don’t treat hearing loss, our hearing gets worse. On the other hand, hearing nerves that are stimulated with training and amplification are more likely to continue working properly. Like so many things in life, she said, our hearing is “use it or lose it.”
God is still speaking. We listen best together – young and old. Turn down the chatter and lean in to focus on what is essential. We need to use it or we will lose it.
Here is our practice. Say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” in the presence of our neighbors young and old. Then, one night as you lay in bed unwinding, one morning, as you prepare to begin the day, or even one Sunday when you are sitting quietly in church, you will hear God’s calling your name and together we will listen.