What's Tony Thinking

God Spoke To Me


As moderns of western culture (as in Western Europe and North America), we tend to regard someone who says, “God spoke to me,” as suspect or weird. Why is that?

A couple reasons. One, some of the people who say that are weird, or they are on an ego trip, or they are trying to manipulate people by claiming special access to the divine. A certain skepticism makes sense.

But such claims also get ruled out, or looked at askance, because it is the nature of modernity to seek control. We reduce reality to what can be measured, tested, analyzed and explained by the logic of cause and effect. A word from God isn’t something we control. So it can’t really happen. So someone who says, “God spoke to me,” is ruled out of order and referred for psychiatric evaluation.

A third reason, this can be considered problematic, even among people who are regulars at a church or other religious community, goes something like this: “Maybe back in Biblical times God spoke to people, but that no longer happens.” A surprising (to me) number of Christians today think along such lines, ruling out the idea of God speaking today and to us. A lot of modernist sermons seized upon a particular Biblical story where God is said to speak “in a still, small voice,” to say that “if God still speaks, it is in such a ‘still, small voice,’ or God speaks “in silence.”

That’s poetic and surely God can speak in or out of the silence (even if silence is vanishingly rare in today’s world), but it’s also convenient, as in, “Maybe God used to speak to people, but not so much any more. We’re on our own here. It’s up to us.” That is just a hop-skip-and-jump to modernity’s claim that, “we’re in charge here,” which takes us back to the attempt to bring everything under human control, thus making life manageable and predictable. (Ring the Dr. Phil question, “How’s that working out for you?” Answer: “Maybe not so good.”)

Consider this: lots of people would say something like, “That movie (play, book, poem, painting, photograph) really spoke to me.” In other words, with reference to these other experiences we use the words “spoke to me” metaphorically, not literally. We do not mean, when we say this of a poem or painting that we necessarily had an auditory experience in which a painting said, “Hey you, wake up, I’m talking to you.” We generally mean, “Something about that painting touches me, moves me, speaks to me.”

Might we mean something similar in saying, “God spoke” or “God spoke to me”?

Okay, so there’s a difference. A painting or poem, a play or movie, has a physical, visible reality that we don’t ascribe to God. And yet, in the world of church, God “speaks” in all sorts of mediated ways. Preachers are called to speak “God’s word.” I still like the old usage, the question to a preacher, “Is there a word from the Lord?” I always thought my job as a preacher was to listen for that, for a word from the Lord. Still do think that. So preaching is one way in which we may experience God speaking to us.

Of course, if your preacher doesn’t think “God speaks,” and is content to tell you what the NYT says, or what Tucker says, or to blather on about themselves, you got a different problem.

But preaching isn’t the only way God can and does speak to us. Preachers work, or should, from the Bible, which is God’s story. God is the Bible’s main character. Scripture discloses the ways of God, the patterns of God’s activity in the world, and God’s message to us. So hearing or reading the Bible can be a way God “speaks” to us today. It is the general practice of the ecumenical and orthodox church to read the Bible in community and so to “test” what we understand to be God’s message within the community of faith. Do you hear what I hear?

But preaching and Scripture don’t exhaust the ways God speaks to us today. There are the sacraments, there’s prayer (listening is a part of prayer, maybe the biggest part), and there is the music of the church.

Beyond all that, God speaks to us through other people. Again, such experiences should be tested, not swallowed whole or naively. But still, I have had — and I suspect you too have had — experiences when someone says something to us that feels like an epiphany or a revelation, a word from God. Someone says something, whether your grandmother or a child or a stranger, that grabs you or zaps you. They “speak to you” with clarity and power, a word you needed to hear.

For many of us God speaks through God’s creation. The natural world of trees, bugs, birds, clouds and rainbows, some describe, as “God’s second book.” Second, because the first book, the Bible, interprets or frames “nature” as “creation,” not in itself God, but God’s good gift. We don’t worship nature per se, but God can and does speak to us through God’s creation, through the natural world.

But most of all God’s word to us, who are the church, is Jesus Christ, “the Word made flesh who dwelt among us, among us full of grace and truth.”  “Listen to him,” says God of his chosen one.

So, God is still speaking. Are we listening?


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