As I reflected last week, I said that there are things that we hear, and other things that pass over, or even through, our heads, that receive no recognition.
It seems to me that reading the Bible can be done in ways such that we hear some things and don’t hear others. Now some of that is understandable, because at points the Bible can be rather dense, and without a depth of appreciation for the social, cultural and historical background of the texts much can be puzzling. But there are other times when the message can seem pretty clear, and yet people hear very different things and arrive at quite different conclusions about those things.
This was of course true in Jesus’ day as well. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We have talked about this one ever since Jesus died and was resurrected. It seems pretty straightforward. And yet, as with the person who asked Jesus that famous question, “And who is my neighbor?”, we still seek after clarification in case we can be excused from reaching out in love to this person, or that person.
There is indeed much in the biblical texts that does present us with ambiguity in understanding and making choices in our lives. The challenge then is to hear not only what we expect to hear, and what we perhaps want to hear from the text, but to truly discern God speaking through the words that people recorded centuries ago.
The people who lived the events as recorded in the Bible, as well as the ones who wrote the stories down for us to inherit, I believe did their best to understand God and themselves and the world in which they lived. There are just some parts, such as the violent and vindictive God we read about in parts of the Hebrew scriptures, that I think they got wrong. They no doubt learned that such was the nature of God, and thus understood the world and events in that way. But that background, and their interpretations, don’t make it so.
It is not an easy task to discern the nature of God. Many times life itself, as well as interactions with God, can be puzzling. But if we truly listen, not with self-interested ears and hearts, but with a deep desire to know God and our role as people of God, then we will discover much about ourselves and about the God whom I believe does love us beyond full understanding.
Times have changed since the biblical texts were written down. We can still hear God speaking through those texts. It means though that we often can’t hurry the process. We have to take the time to really listen for that voice that will come. We have to listen for God’s voice and not just our own.
I mentioned two weeks ago that I was preparing to attend a graduation. This was at Bethany College, in West Virginia. Bethany is one of the schools that is affiliated with my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It was founded in 1840 by Alexander Campbell, one of the persons who played a significant role in the early years of our movement.
The graduation speaker was a retired Navy Admiral, Jonathan W. Greenert, who had served in his last years as the Chief of Naval Operations. He spoke about the characteristics that are important in life.
“What distinguishes us? What will distinguish you? There are three key factors that I observe that really distinguish us, your background, your moral foundation and your ability and willingness to commit,” stated Greenert. “These key characteristics, you are going to need professionally and you are going to need them personally throughout your adult journey is this world.”
“Professions need people that commit and see things through. Don’t quit, take risks and give people a second chance and if someone gives you a second chance, take it,” declared Greenert. (The quotations are taken from the Bethany College website.)
I have included these quotations in order to have you see what Admiral Greenert said, so that I can then talk about what was heard. Since I stated a couple of weeks ago that I don’t remember any of the speeches from my various graduation ceremonies, I was determined to capture and remember some part of this address at Bethany College. What I took away was the three key factors that he talked about – how our background influences us, how important integrity and ethics are in any field, and how critical it is to be able and willing to commit to whatever we choose in life. Three points – just like many sermons – and I got them. Even now I remember them, and truly without the help of the quotation. That was what I heard.
So then I asked the other people I was with, including the graduate I had traveled to see receive her diploma, what they had heard. Those who answered said that he had spoken about second chances, about giving people a second chance. Now, indeed, he did say that, as you can see in the second quotation. He even told several brief anecdotes about people, including himself, who had been given second chances and had succeeded because they were given that grace (my word). But no one mentioned the three key factors he had talked about.
I was sort of astonished that no one mentioned the three points. Of course, I hadn’t mentioned the part about second chances. And what I heard, in my mind, as I reflected upon all of this, was that we had each heard what we perhaps needed to hear. We had heard the part that spoke to our life, at least in those moments.
It is important to be aware of what we hear. Whether it is in a lecture, or an informal conversation, or a meeting at work, or even at a graduation ceremony, what we hear tells us something about who we are. But it is also important to open our ears and minds to ideas that we may not think have any relevance to us. In those words may be our true opportunity for growth.
It was as Jacob was running away, fearing for his life, that he stopped and slept in a place that he would later name Bethel. As he slept, with a stone for a pillow, he dreamt of angels ascending and descending on a ladder that reached to heaven. When he awoke, he said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” Then he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” He took the stone that had served as his pillow, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. Then he named the place Beth-El, which literally means, “The House of God.” (The story is found in Genesis 28:10-22)
As I wrote last week about the significance of place, I kept thinking of this story about Jacob and his sudden awareness of God’s presence in the place where he had slept. It was important to him to mark that place, and to name the place as well.
Though we don’t often think about it today, or at least I don’t, almost every place, every town, every city has been named for a reason, either because something happened there or a family with a particular name settled there.
Which leads me to wonder, if we could name the place where we live, or where we relax, or where we feel particularly close to God, what name would we give that place? How would we express the significance of that place to us?
I have to give some more thought to the names I would give to the places that hold significance for me. I invite you to do the same.
I recently attended a music program at the nearby Middle School since one of our members was playing in her first concert. It was a beautiful evening, from the music itself, to the fun of sharing the time with friends, to the joy of supporting a young musician who is learning about the wonder of that form of artistic expression.
As I sat waiting for the concert to begin, I reflected on the setting and mentioned to the others that this was the first time I had been in this place since I had graduated from Junior High School in that very auditorium. Yes, I still live and work close to my long ago home and school.
Now I couldn’t begin to tell you what transpired during my graduation ceremony those many years ago. But I do remember the place and walking down the aisle with the thrilling idea that I now got to move on to High School.
I have experienced four more graduation ceremonies, as the graduate, since that time in the Junior High auditorium. I remember almost nothing about what was said at any of the ceremonies, but I remember the places – Pauley Pavilion at UCLA (we had a large High School graduating class), Drake Stadium at UCLA, the campus of Pacific School of Religion, and the Washington National Cathedral. Each of those places, even today, brings back memories that are quite meaningful.
All of this was brought to mind as I prepare to attend a graduation and celebrate a milestone in the life of another one of our youth. There will be speeches I am sure. I will listen to the words, because sometimes really profound thoughts are shared at such events, but most likely I will be more influenced by simply being in the place itself.
Places are significant. Places help to shape who we are, and how we live our lives. There are certainly many other factors as well, but places touch us in profound ways.
Where are your significant places?
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