Date: January 18, 2009
Texts: I Sam 3:1-20; Jn 1:43-51
Author: Isaac Villegas
“In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me,
of God not being God, of God not really existing.”
“If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of darkness.”
— Mother Teresa
I want to tell you three stories, three stories about the voice of God. These stories may sound completely foreign to your experience. And that’s ok. God doesn’t speak to everyone in the same way. But God does speak. And sometimes the best we can do is overhear what God has said to someone else, and take that word from God as our own.
Christians are great at eavesdropping. That’s what we do when we read the Bible. This is a compilation of letters and books written to other people—some are history books for the Jews, some are stories for particular churches in the 1st century (to help them remember Jesus), and some parts of the bible are other peoples’ mail (Paul’s letters, for example). And in all of it, we find God speaking to us as well.
For example, in our passage from John, we hear Jesus offering an invitation to Philip. He says, “Follow me.” It is the call of discipleship, the call to be a Christian. And we take it as an invitation to us as well. We overhear Jesus saying “Follow me” to Philip and we take it as a word to us as well. The voice of God continually echoes through history, through others, and reaches us as personally as it was first spoken.
That’s what I’m hoping for in telling you these stories. Listen for echoes of God’s voice through these three lives. Their biographies become God’s speech to us. You don’t have to have shared their same experience. All you need to do is overhear God’s voice. Take it as your own. Hear God’s voice, God’s invitation, reach out to you in these stories.
Story number 1: MLK
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is quite extraordinary. Pastors usually don’t get national holidays in their honor. Presidents of the United States, yes. But pastors? That’s remarkable. So I figured I should make the best of it, for the sake of that class of people called, “the pastor.”
Martin King frequently said this about himself: “In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.” That makes sense. His pastoral identity came naturally to him. King really didn’t have a choice one way or the other. He was born a Baptist preacher; it was in his lineage, written in stars. His father and his grandfather were both pastors. So, King grew up at the center of attention in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The role of pastor was familiar to him.
But he lacked one thing, a requirement for ministry in the Baptist church: a call from the Lord, the voice from heaven. Every Baptist minister has to have a call. You don’t become a pastor because it’s convenient or it comes naturally to you or even if you demonstrate pastoral gifts. None of that is primary for the Baptist churches King wanted to serve. No. You do it because God tells you to; and you better have a good testimony ready for the congregation when they ask about your calling—something similar to the story of Samuel that we just heard.
Well, King didn’t have one of those experiences. Here’s what he said: “My call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something, on the contrary it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity.” —An inner urge to serve humanity. Sounds like a weak substitute for a voice from heaven. But it turned out to be good enough. He was ordained on February 25th, 1948, without hearing a call like Samuel’s call.
But something happened in his kitchen in January of 1956. At the time, he was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which had gone on much longer than anyone expected. The whole city, it seemed, was raging with anger—and King was the focus of their anger since he was the leader of the boycott. At one point, he was getting 40 phone calls a day at his house, death threats for him and his family.
One night, after a boycott strategy session, Martin King got home, around midnight. He was in despair. King realized he wasn’t a very good leader. He had no idea what to do. He was in over his head. He was just a pastor who got pushed into this community leadership position and he didn’t want to be there anymore.
He couldn’t sleep. He sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. The phone rang. He picked it up. Another death threat: If you want to live, the voice said, if you want your family to live, you better leave Montgomery tonight. Click.
That was the last straw. He couldn’t handle it anymore. King slumped back into his chair and started to give up. Let me read his account of that night: “I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward…”
King was devastated and exhausted, at the end of his rope. Then a voice called out to him: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for Truth.” —The voice of God. His call. God came and spoke to him.
And what happened after God visits with him in the kitchen? Three days later he and his family woke up to an explosion. Someone bombed their house. Miraculously, he and his family were not harmed. And exactly a year (to the day) after God spoke to him, King heard a noise outside. He opened the door and found a bundle of dynamite; the fuse was light but went out. He was spared, at least for a few more years, so he could do a little more work.
Story number 2: Samuel
The story opens with a statement about God’s voice. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days” (I Sam 3:1). Some time had passed without a word from God. Years of silence. No one heard the voice of God in those days… until one night. The boy Samuel was sound asleep, lying in bed. “Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me. But Eli said, ‘I did not call; lie down again’” (vv. 4-5).
This happens again and again, three times. Samuel hears a voice and thinks it’s the priest Eli. But when he goes to Eli, Eli tells him to go back to sleep. Maybe it was a dream. Finally, Eli figures out that something strange is going on. Could it be God? Maybe. No one knew what God’s voice sounded like anymore. It had been too long. Eli wondered if God’s voice might be heard again; for some reason, God may be speaking to this boy. Eli told Samuel what to say when he heard the voice again: “if he calls you again, you shall say: ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening’” (v. 10).
Samuel did what he was told. He returned to bed and heard God’s voice one more time. Samuel let God know that he was ready to listen. And so he heard and received a word from the Lord—the voice of God returned to the people.
I don’t want to say too much about this episode in Samuel’s life because I want you to make connections with these three stories. But I can’t help but make a couple observations. First: the young Samuel hears God’s voice, but doesn’t know it until the wise old Eli tells him what to do. The old teach the young how to hear what God says. We don’t know how to listen to God on our own. Someone must teach us.
Second: the most important detail in this story is that God speaks. But notice what God says. God brings terrible news: God will punish Eli and his sons. It is a word of judgment. I’m sure Samuel wished God didn’t end up speaking to him. If you hear God’s voice, beware! The road may be difficult after that. And it’s probably because you’re walking in the way of Jesus, and that way leads to the cross.
Story number 3: Mother Teresa
In an interview many years ago, Dan Rather asked Mother Teresa about her prayer life. He asked, “Mother Teresa, you are a woman of prayer; what is it that you say to God when you pray?” She answered: “Well, I don’t say anything; I just listen.” Dan Rather followed with another question: “What is it that God says to you during prayer?” Mother Teresa thought for a moment: “He doesn’t say anything. He just listens.”
Teresa and God, sitting together in silence, enjoying each other’s presence… a beautiful image.
In 2007 one of Mother Teresa’s spiritual directors published a book of her personal and confidential letters. The book caused quite a controversy. Not because this priest waited until her death so he could violate her trust and make public what was supposed to be private. But because, in the letters, Mother Teresa wrestles with God’s silence. Who knew that such a holy person didn’t hear God’s voice for so long? 50 years of silence, 50 years of doubt, 50 years of feeling abandoned by God.
But she did hear God’s voice… once: September 10, 1946, on a train in Calcutta. Jesus spoke to her; Teresa tells us what she heard: “I want Indian nuns, Missionaries of Charity, who would be my fire of love amongst the poor, the sick, the dying, and the little children… Wouldst thou not help?” She said yes and spent the rest of her life in the slums of Calcutta– a fire of God’s love among the poor, the sick, the dying, the little children.
She obeyed the voice of God until she died in 1997. And over those 50 years God offered her only his silence. As our passage from First Samuel says, the word of the Lord was rare in those days.
How did she do it? How could she go on with such difficult work without the voice of God continually speaking life in the midst of so much death? Half a century without reassurance: no second word to affirm the first, to keep it fresh, to convince her that it really was God who spoke to her.
It’s a miracle that she never gave up. We call that miracle, faith—the God-given ability to press on in the midst of the experience of abandonment. She continued to have faith, despite the reality of death all around. Mother Teresa never let go of her faith, despite her 50-year experience of doubt. She never abandoned the God who seemed to have abandoned her; instead she abandoned herself to God all the more.
Even though she never again heard the voice of God, Teresa knew God’s presence, even when her feelings said that God was absent. Feelings aren’t always trustworthy; experience can be deceptive. She knew that. That’s where faith kicks in. Faith is a journey, a life-long abandonment to God. And that’s exactly what Mother Teresa did.
We like to turn her into an example of someone who knew how to serve the poor. She embodied selfless sacrifice and giving. But that’s not how Teresa saw her own life. She didn’t talk about the need to serve the poor. No. She talked about the adoration of Christ.
Now, this language is foreign to us—the Adoration of Christ. But it’s necessary if you want to understand Mother Teresa. The Adoration of Christ is an ancient practice (St. Francis, 13th century) where people spent hours in the presence of the Eucharist, focusing their contemplation on the bread, and so sat in the silent presence of Christ. They called it, The Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Mother Teresa urged her fellow sisters of Charity to engage in this contemplative practice. But she also said that their presence with the dying lepers—as they washed them and cared for them—that was also their Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. They didn’t take care of the dying and the poor because they felt the need to serve the less fortunate. No. Teresa and her sisters tended to the poor of Calcutta’s slums because that was their Adoration of Christ.
With the dying, they sat in the presence of God. And sometimes, with contemplative patience, they were able to hear God’s voice, sometimes just a whisper, sometimes in the silence of a breath without words—God’s voice echoing in a sigh. That’s where she sat in the presence of God, that’s where she heard God’s silent voice. The adoration of Christ.
The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Is that true today? Maybe so. Or maybe it’s just true for you. But you still hear echoes. You’ve heard echoes of God’s voice in these three stories. Maybe the word of God is indeed rare, but that also means it is precious—something to hold onto, to remember, and to follow.
For more on the “darkness” of Mother Teresa, follow these links:
James Martin, “A Saint’s Dark Night,” The New York Times.