The Barrel by John H. Pavelko

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Are You Listening?

John 10:11-18

 With Half a Brain

The results of the scientific study did not surprise many women, that it took a group of brain surgeons to determine that men only listen with half of their brain did.The scientists took images of the brain while the volunteers listened to an audiocassette version of John Grisham's novel The Partner played forward, then played backward.The brain scans of the 10 men indicated that they only listened with the left side of the brain.The left hemisphere is associated with language.The scans of the 10 women indicated brain activity on both sides of the brain.The scientists cautioned against concluding that the study verified that women are better listeners than men but then again, the researchers were all men.[1]
Laying aside the temptation to use this research in the battle of the sexes, I almost long for a spiritual MRI to detect brain activity during my spiritual conversations with God?If we knew how much of the brain or which side, we are using when speaking to God and when God is speaking to us, maybe all of us, male and female, would become better listeners to the voice of the divine?

 The Context of the Passage

The lectionary has catapulted us back to an earlier time in the ministry of Jesus.The passage follows the healing of a man blind since birth.The Pharisees are very upset.Such a demonstration of miraculous power would validity his prophetic message.They threatened the man’s parents and put pressure on the former blind man hoping to encourage him to credit another source for the miracle.Jesus becomes thoroughly disgusted with them and likens them to thieves who threaten to destroy a flock of sheep.The use of the image of sheep to refer to the nation of Israel, and its leaders as shepherds has its source in the Old Testament from which David drew for his famous psalm.While his message is designed to serve as a warning to the people about the selfish motives of the Pharisees, it also tells us something about discipleship.One of the characteristics of sheep that belong to Jesus is their ability to hear and obey his voice.
Every person in the audience that day would have known exactly what Jesus was talking about.They would have known that sheep have an uncanny ability to discern the voice of their shepherd.They would have seen flocks merge together along a country lane, a grassy hillside, or in the market square.In the confusion, the untrained eye would not have been able to tell one animal from another.But when a shepherd decided to separate his animals from the others, he would let out a call and start walking in a specific direction.Each animal would know the tone of his master’s voice and dutifully follow, that one voice alone. 

I believe that since the creation of the first woman and man, humanity was destined not only to recognize the voice of their God but also to enjoy an ongoing, dare I say conversational relationship with God.Using the imagery of the personal care between a shepherd and sheep, a parent and child and a lover and beloved, Scripture tells us of God’s intent to develop an intimate relationship with his people.The tragic realty is that few do.We talk about having a personal relationship but few enjoy anything more than a casual acquaintance, similar to that shared with the neighbor with whom we exchange friendly waves on the way to work.We sometimes feel like an ancient tracker walking through the forest.We see a disturbance of leaves, an overturned rock along the bank of stream, and a broken twig.Signs telling us that he traveled that same path only a day before.But our meeting seems so elusive. 

The challenge before us is, how do we deepen the relationship?How do we develop the ability to listen to the voice of God? 

I would like to propose a few guidelines that will help us deepen that friendship and move it beyond the casual.

 Guidelines for Listening

First, we must overcome the awkwardness of the subject.We live in an age of paradox when it comes to conversing with God.According to a study by Newsweek, 78% of all Americans pray at least once a week.More of us will pray than will go to work, exercise, or have sexual relationships.And a majority of us will pray at least once a day.Even one in five atheists and agnostics offer a prayer during the day.These studies have found that most people understand that prayer is both speaking and listening to the Divine.But paradoxically, few will admit that they have had a direction communication from God.The comedian Lilly Tomlin captured our hesitation when she asked, “Why is it when we speak to God, we are said to be praying but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?”[2]
The problem appears to be due to the extreme.While we know of mature, thoughtful believers who have heard the voice of God, we also have heard too many stories of people who have justified murderous behavior, by claiming to have heard the Divine voice.We also have witnessed religious leaders manipulate their followers by claiming divine guidance.The bizarre behavior of the deranged and the brazen antics of the unscrupulous cause us mere mortals to quiver in uncertainty.We hesitate to claim or explore the issue of divine guidance and lack the skills and gifts to properly discern the voice of God.

Secondly, we should adjust our perspective of God from one who merely cares for his people to include one who seeks intimate fellowship.We are constantly tempted in the spiritual life to overemphasis certain Scriptures at the expense of others.The 23rd psalm is a prime example.The psalm can be both comforting and limiting.It comforts us to envision a God who provides for are daily needs; who is always looking out for our best interests; who is willing to defend us with his life.It limits us when we isolate our relationship with God to that one role.God seeks to be more than our shepherd, a pastoral butler, or personal assistant.

Robert had moved from Oklahoma to California and began an insurance business.After many years, he had a disastrous misunderstanding with a business associate.To salvage his investment, he had to take control of the agency.It required him to work, many long and difficult days.After three years, the strain was taking a heavy toll on him.He sought guidance at a local church but his conversion only brought, temporary relief. 

One spring morning, the painful memories of the cause of his financial difficulties, the continual threat of failure, and the futility of his efforts overwhelmed him.An urge to turn left and drive out of town and just disappear seized him.But into the midst of his inner chaos came a voice, “Pull over to the curb.”He yielded to the voice and stopped the car.After the car stopped, he sat quietly for a moment and then he heard the words, “My Son had strains that you will never know, and when he had those strains heturned to me, and that’s what you should do.”[3]

Robert sat in his car for a long time sobbing before he drove to the office.Once there he faced twenty-two major business decisions—clients remaining with the agency, outstanding bills, company disagreements and late premiums.By the end of the day, each problem was resolved, not by magic, but by the man who heard and obeyed the voice of God.The Divine seeks to build a friendship with us that includes one-on-one communication. 

The third guideline I offer this morning is that we must actively seek time alone with God.The flock cannot discern the shepherd voice in a crowded market amidst all the other voices vying to be heard, unless the shepherd has spoken to the animals in quieter moments.

Dallas Willard writes that he once noticed a book for sale entitled, The Lazy Man’s Guide to Riches. He states that a misunderstanding standing about the spiritual life has caused some to treat the Bible as if it were The Lazy Person’s Guide to Getting Into Heaven or perhaps The Passive Person’s Path to Paradise. 

There are no short cuts in the spiritual life.There are no magic keys, or six easy steps that somehow allows the couch potato to experience heavenly visions for hear voices of rapture.The spiritual life requires time.It requires a heart that seeks God and is willing to put aside certain activities so that the person may devote their attention to spiritual matters.God may speak to you while you read a novel or watch TV or play golf or water ski, but your conversations will not go deeper, until you set-aside time in the closet along.Jesus endured the Cross because he spent time in the garden praying to his Father, not because of the time he spent watching the NHL Playoffs 

During my bone marrow transplant, I memorized Psalm 63.The poem begins with these words: 

O God, you are my God, 

My soul thirsts for you, 

My body longs for you in a dry and weary land, 

Where there is no water 

Until those words become the words of our heart, God’s voice will most likely remain muted by the layers of noise and activity of our lives. 

The fourth guideline I would suggest is found in the words of our Lord—my sheep hear my voice and obey.Once we have sought guidance and direction, God reveals his plan for us not only through the still small, audible voice that Robert heard but also through situations, events, people, and the Scriptures.The challenge before us is not discerning that voice but obeying it.

Let’s suppose we hear that a friend’s mother is ill but she lives in a distant city.Our friend cannot afford the airplane ticket to visit his sick mother but we have the financial resources to purchase the ticket.Is the problem, discerning God’s voice, or our reluctance to sacrifice for a friend?Or, let us suppose a friend is struggling with depression.The reason does not matter.What matters is that we know that our friend should not spend the day alone or the emotional depression just gets worse.Then we discover that we have an afternoon free.Why does it take handwriting on the wall to convince us that God wants us to visit our friend?Could our hesitation be due more to a desire to enjoy the afternoon shopping or playing golf?

Thinking back to my childhood, I am so grateful to know that my mother never had to seek special guidance by waiting for the handwriting on the wall or an audible to direct her to feed, clothe, or love my sister and me.God had spoken to her through our birth and she faithfully obeyed.When the audible voice is not present God still speaks. 

For those of you seeking God’s guidance and direction, your prayers have been answered even while I speak.He has placed the names of persons, opportunities for ministry, situations into your thoughts.He has told you during this worship service, what he wants us to do.He has spoken to us through those impression, desires, and inclinations.The challenge before us is, are we willing to obey? 

Whether we listen to God with half our brain or our whole brain ultimately should not matter in the spiritual life.God intends to communicate with his flock to lead them to green pastures, drink from quite refreshing waters and lead them along paths of righteousness.The ultimate challenge before us is are we willing to hear his voice and obey!

[1] Todd Goodman, “Do men really listen with just half a brain?Research sheds some light.” CNN, Online:, November 28, 2000
[2] Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 18, 19 citing “Talking to God: An Intimate Look at how we Pray,” Newsweek, January 6, 1992 and Lilly Tomlin from an unknown source.
[3] Dallas Willard, Hearing God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press,1999) 23, 24.

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