When my son Oliver was five years old, his brain was in a particularly creative and expressive stage. He was constantly fizzing with ideas; he was endlessly curious about life, the universe, and, dare I say, everything.
One of my favourite moments of every day was when I would tuck him in at night and we would say bedtime prayers together. Far from the rote repetitive bedtime prayers I’d offer back when I was five (“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”), Oliver’s prayers were hilarious streams of consciousness in which he would just unload all of his thoughts in conversation with God.
A sticking point for Oliver though, was his disappointment that God didn’t speak back to him. Oh, we talked about how God speaks to us – in our hearts, through the love we receive through the people around us, through nature, through the Bible – but Oliver was just aching to hear the voice of God with his own ears.
One night he even tried to trick God into speaking out loud to him, with the strategy of asking God questions where the answers were SO obvious that he would be too embarrassed not to answer. “Dear God,” he prayed, “Do turtles fly? Is sugar alive? Do we wear boots on our head?”
He paused to give God a chance to show that he did indeed know the answers, but when the silence stretched for a few seconds, Oliver sighed in frustration. “No, God, the answer is NO. Everything NO. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
It was a funny moment, as his prayers so often were, but there was a deeper bittersweetness to it too. I remember the sound of Oliver’s sigh, and I remember it resonating with me. Yeah, kiddo, I also am aching to hear the voice of God. And it’s hard, it’s discouraging – sometimes even devastating – when we don’t.
Speak, Lord, for your servant is trying so hard to listen.
In John 10, Jesus shared the metaphor of the shepherd, whose sheep “follow him because they know his voice.” How beautiful. How my heart rises up to that, just like Oliver’s did, saying, “Yes, Jesus! I’m listening SO hard! I’m ready to hear you and follow you!”
And yet, that earnestness is also matched in my choir of inner-voices by a nearly-cynical skepticism. This inner voice is the one that rolls her eyes anytime someone says, “God told me…” Or even worse, “God told me that you should…”
In a time where people with completely opposing ideas and ideals claim that the foundation of their views is a clear revelation from God, how do we reconcile that? How do we find that John 10 unity of the flock when it seems like each sheep is just listening for confirmation to keep on going in the direction they feel like anyway? When we say “this is God speaking” or “God is leading me to do this”, are we simply crafting divine affirmation of what we already intended to do, creating a god in our own image?
Speak Lord, for your servant is trying so hard to discern.
Now, if you’ve ever seen sheep being herded, you’ll know that within the flock, the sheep are pretty much never facing in the exact same direction, let alone walking in the exact same direction. And yet, it works. The flock moves in mesmerizing swirls, some taking longer to get to the destination than others, but all ending up where the shepherd and sheepdogs are calling them. It’s not a system that expects or demands complete conformity from the flock (and one could argue it would be much less beautiful if it did). But it does require the sheep to listen, discern, and move.
Speak Lord, for your servant is trying so hard to move toward you.
An absolutely crucial part of all this listening and discerning and moving is Knowing. In the first 15 verses of John 10, Jesus repeats the word “know” six times. The sheep KNOW his voice. Jesus KNOWS his own and his own KNOW him. There’s a duality to Jesus’ statement in verse 5 that the sheep will not follow a stranger – sheep who know the shepherd will recognize his voice and follow him. And yet, what about those sheep that have not gotten to know the shepherd, and don’t know his voice? To them, he would be the stranger that they don’t follow, and they would miss out on the movement of the flock.
For me, I look to some later words written by John, when in what we call his first letter, he wrote this beautiful certainty. “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” This is the voice that I will listen for and recognize – the voice that calls me towards love.
Even though little Oliver was disappointed that he didn’t get to have an audible chat with the Almighty every night at bedtime, he remained completely certain that he would hear from God eventually. “When God does decide to talk to me, I will know it’s him for sure,” he told me one night as he squirmed into his blankets.
“Why is that, buddy?”
“Because I’ve been waiting so long for him to talk to me. I’ll know.”
May we all have the eager knowing of a five-year-old boy in conversation with his friend, the Good Shepherd. Speak, Lord.