Learning to Listen

I’ll never forget that crisp winter’s day. It was half past one in the afternoon.  I’d eaten lunch and tidied the kitchen. My track pants and polar fleece had been traded for a jumper, skirt and boots. I was heading to the shops on my way to collect our children from school. As I stood in our family room, mentally running through the list of all the errands I needed to do, some brown fragments on the carpet caught my eye – wood chips from the firewood that had been carried in that morning.

I grimaced. That kind of mess really annoyed me. I glanced at the clock. I’ll just quickly vacuum those up, I thought – a very small, everyday decision in a housewife’s world.

But as soon as the thought had run through my mind, something inside me shifted. It’s hard to explain. The peace I’d felt a moment earlier seemed to fade. I huffed and reasoned with myself. It’ll be all right. I’ve got time.  Surely two minutes of vacuuming won’t make much difference to the afternoon.

I strode to the cupboard and yanked out the vacuum cleaner then froze as two words boomed through me: NOT NOW. The words were stern and came with a strong sense of warning.

What should I do?

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It wasn’t always like this – this hearing God’s voice.

As a little girl, I was taught to pray each night, reciting words by rote as I drifted off to sleep: “Heavenly Father, help me be a child who’s kind and good . . .” The teens brought times when God seemed so close my heart pulsed with longing to know Him more – until I went to university, where cold, intellectual water was thrown on my desire. “It’s impossible to know Him,” the wise ones said. “He no longer speaks; we rely on our sanctified common sense now.”

Still my spirit yearned.

In my twenties, I met people who knew God – really knew Him – ones whose words and insights seemed to flow straight from His heart. My hunger burned once again. That’s what I wanted – to know Him like that. But could I?

The more I spent time with these people, the clearer it became: all the time I’d been craving God’s presence, He’d been right there – ready, waiting, eager to share His heart with me, if only I’d take time to listen.

So, I learned to sit – heart quiet, journal open and pen poised. At first I only sought God’s direction for the big things – the major life decisions. Was it a yes, or was it a no? A clear sense of peace often came, pointing me one way or the other.

Retreat time

Then, inspired by my husband’s example, I started seeking to hear God daily – taking time to read the Word, yes, but also to wait on Him and write down whatever He spoke. Gradually I learned to distinguish between His thoughts and mine by using His Word and His character as the measure.

Then a visiting preacher came to our church. “Jesus was very clear,” he told us. “He said, ‘I am the good shepherd and My sheep hear My voice.’ If you’re one of his sheep, you can expect to hear Him. He doesn’t have favourites. In order to hear Him, you need to function like a radio. Just as a radio tower is transmitting all the time, Jesus is speaking all the time. All we have to do is put up our aerial and tune in.”

Those words propelled me into a new level of listening. If Jesus was speaking all the time, then I could hear Him all the time. I became aware of the subtle nudges which punctuated my thoughts – go there, take this with you, say that. Many times I impulsively chose to ignore those prompts. Every time, in hindsight, I regretted my decision.

————————————————————————————————————————————–So on that June afternoon I decided to listen. Okay God. I don’t understand why I have to leave now but I know You do. The tension inside me evaporated as I put the vacuum cleaner back in the cupboard. I grabbed my handbag and water bottle and headed towards the front door.

As I drew closer a strange sound rang in my ears – like a very sick rooster trying to crow. Our chickens were kept in a run which sat just across the driveway from our front porch. We didn’t have any roosters but owned about a dozen hens, including three we were minding for a friend.

The strangled sound continued. Alarm flooded through me. Something was wrong!

I threw open the front door and sprinted towards our chicken run. Instantly I spotted our neighbour’s dog inside the fence with one of our hens clutched firmly between his teeth – by the neck. I watched, aghast, as he dropped her lifeless body on the ground and trotted back towards our henhouse, a little terrier following merrily on his heels.

Two more hens lay dead nearby, blood oozing from their throats.

Fuming with rage, I yanked the gate of the chicken run open and leapt for the larger dog. In one swift action I grabbed him by the collar and tail and threw him backwards out of the coop. Inside, three hens were crammed one on top of the other in a trembling mound. I turned and chased the dogs around the run, leaping over tussocks of grass in my skirt and boots, waving my arms and hollering wildly until they both made their way under the fence and headed home.

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It was out of His great kindness that God spoke to me that day. If I’d chosen to ignore Him, I’m certain all our chickens would’ve been killed. And perhaps, if I’d been quicker to listen, the first three hens could have been spared.

Sometimes the little decisions we make are far more significant than we think.

Chickens

If you were to ask me if I listen to God all the time now, honestly, I’d have to say no. My mind, like yours, is often fully focused on the tasks at hand. And sometimes I’m just too caught up in my own thoughts and feelings to stop and get quiet. But I am seeking to grow. This year, under God’s direction, I’m taking a few extra hours each week to ‘retreat’ with Him. Although it’s sometimes hard to carve out that block of time – it may end up being spread over a few days – that retreat has become something I crave, an anchor-point in the midst of this crazy season of transition.

I still have so much to learn but there is one vital truth that draws me on: When God speaks to us, it’s because He wants to do us (and others) good. What He says won’t always be easy to hear – or to obey – but we can trust that it will ultimately be for the best.

On the same day Jesus described Himself as the good shepherd He explained that, unlike a thief, He came to give His people life – in all its fullness. Not a half-life but the best possible life they could live.

That’s got to make walking in step with Him the best possible ambition to have – whatever the cost.

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10

Journal cover

Snapshots

I’m so excited.
No, not about moving house, if that’s what you guessed, though we are right in the thick of that process. I’m excited about a gift I’ll receive in just a few weeks. At the end of this month I’m having a special birthday so I figured this was my opportunity to make a special request.
I asked for a camera – a good one.
This may not seem like a very big deal to you but it is to me. The thought of being able to capture fleeting moments in crisp detail thrills me. With the departure from our home of ten years almost upon us I’m aware of how much we’ll rely on pictures to remind us of all the special experiences we shared here.
But there’s another aspect to photography I’m just starting to recognise – it’s in the process of taking a picture that we more fully appreciate the moment we’re in.
Sometimes our lives can be nothing more than a frenzied series of activities, all blurred together as we hurry through our days, distracted and oblivious to the detail. But when we stop to take a picture – when we study light and shadow, colour and expression – we notice new dimensions in the world around us. . . and we savour.
On Mother’s Day my husband had to go out for the afternoon on an urgent errand. Our oldest son was needed at work. Our oldest daughter wasn’t feeling well so she retreated to the bedroom. Suddenly, with little warning, our family of six had shrunk to a meagre three, counting me. Mother’s Day was starting to feel a little mellow.
With a deep breath, I invited the two remaining children to join me in playing Finska, an outdoor tossing game. As an afterthought I snatched my phone off the bench on my way out of the kitchen, thinking maybe I could use it to take some pictures. I stepped outside and my mood instantly lifted. Rather than feeling deprived, I noticed the rich, gold tones in the afternoon sky. I gazed in wonder at the brilliant green of the grass beneath my feet.  We were surrounded by beauty – and I’d almost missed it.

FinskaFinska cheering
Our laughter and cheering seemed to echo in my heart as we played that afternoon. Each time I stepped back to take a picture I recognised afresh how blessed I was. Everything may not have been as I’d wished it that day, but I had much to be thankful for. By the end of our games – and a scenic walk with my girls – my heart was full to bursting.

Mother's day walk 2018Girls with horse Mother's day walk
Often it’s the little things that bring us the most pleasure – if we take time to notice them.
Perhaps that’s why our Father tells us to slow down. Wait, He says. Be still. Lift up your eyes. Set your mind on good things. Give thanks. So often we struggle and fight, insistent that there isn’t time.
But look what we’re missing.
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My thoughts were recently drawn to one particular line of Psalm 23 and I noticed something I’d never seen before. It says, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Did you see that? He makes me. It’s not an optional extra to lie down, to be still. It’s a command from God. And the purpose of that lying down?

A restored soul.

How can we refuse that?

Letting Go

The girls were barely out the door, heading off to school, before tears began falling. I padded through the empty house, my anguished sobs echoing in the silence. Worship songs played through my mind, reminding me that God was my rescuer, the one who sent His Son to die for me.

Yet, at that moment He was asking me to face a kind of death.

Bleak, grey clouds hung suspended over our paddock and the sky wept freely. I pulled a door wide open and breathed deep. The air pressed cool and moist against my skin, thick with the fragrance of grass and animals and a million happy memories.

God, does it have to be this way?

Like drops of rain, my words of protest fell, silenced, to the ground. Already I knew the answer. It was time to let go.

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“I think God wants us to move,” my husband had said. “To Sydney.”

Sydney. The place of my birth, of schooldays and family celebrations, mild winters and long, hot summers. Sydney, where I’d spent the first twenty five years of my life – till God had led me to the remote island of Tasmania to study. For two years, I had thought. Just two.

But two had stretched into more than twenty. And slowly my shallow roots had lengthened and spread till my soul was firmly embedded in the rich loam of this land and my heart was knit with its people – some who I counted as ‘family’.

Now, once more and despite my resistance, God was pulling me away.

At first I discounted my husband’s thoughts but a vivid dream came later that evening. God spoke to me clearly, confirming His direction and infusing me with inexplicable confidence and joy. This move was His plan – for all of us, for our good.

Over the following five weeks He continued to assure us, even in the most unlikely ways – yes, a new season was imminent and we would be richer for it.

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Words of challenge flowed steadily in those weeks as well. He spoke of surrender, of being uprooted and pushed out of the nest to free-fall. Part of me felt like wildly flapping, yet my heart was strangely at rest. He would catch us.

Then came the leaflet – a printed page dropped in our mailbox by a family seeking a home in our area. A home just like ours. Couldn’t I have more time, God? Yet again He nudged me in a direction I didn’t want to go. In a mere ten days, the deal was sealed. Our house would soon have new owners.  Instantly the tone of life switched from earnest prayer and contemplation to gathering boxes and sorting treasures. Oh, what a time of sifting!

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There are days in the midst of this season when faith soars and images of exciting new ventures fill my mind. And there are times – like this – when the pain of separation seems unbearable, even impossible to endure. That’s when I draw near to my Father once again and listen to His whisper.

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You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.

Later.

Later I will understand why He sold our house so swiftly.

Later I will see why we had to leave so much – and so many – behind.

Later I will be glad we took the risk and followed His directions, for we will be savouring the new life He has given us.

With red ink I recorded His words in my journal, adding them to the many revelations He’d been giving. As I put down my pen He draped a new layer of hope over my heart.

Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

I cannot see all that will unfold in the months ahead. But one thing I’ve learned from the  past – God can be trusted. Though this is a time of grief and pain, we will rejoice again. Perhaps, like sunrise after an especially dark night, joy will burst forth sooner than I think.

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Credit for first photo – Shaun Morrison.
Watercolour painting by E Brown, 2016.