Last week my son asked me a profound theological question: “Why did God make stinging bugs?” Stumped, I told him to talk directly to God about it. Pausing for just a moment to consider my inadequate answer, he countered, “You know I can’t talk to God; I’m not even dead yet!” In my son’s literal but complex eight-year-old mind, prayer does not qualify as “talking to God.” Thus, his many and variegated questions about the mysteries of the universe, the meaning of life, and the purpose of wasps and biting flies, will have to wait.
Truth be told, my son’s conclusion about “talking to God,” and more pertinent, God talking to us, is the conclusion most of us have. God doesn’t really talk to people, does he? And those mystical types who routinely say things like, “God spoke to me” or “I heard God say,” are we to take them seriously, or should they be scheduled for a mental health examination?
I remember a bizarre story from two decades ago about a Texas pastor who crashed his car while attempting to elude police. It was a bizarre story, first, because all twenty of the pastor’s parishioners were with him in his vehicle – fifteen adults and five children – in a single Pontiac. Second, and stranger by the details, the congregants were all naked. It seems the devil had cursed their clothing, God had told them, so the voodooed garments were cast off per divine instruction. And finally, the police were chasing the naked and mobile congregation because they had attempted to forcibly procure a parked RV, an RV that God said now belonged to them.
God gets blamed for a whole lot of the kookiness in this world, and stories like this one make me appreciate my son’s conclusion. If this is how God speaks, I’ll be happy to wait till I’m dead for such divine instruction. And let’s be honest; sometimes the stories are more tragic than comical. Some of history’s greatest atrocities have been committed because someone “heard God speak” to them.
Absurdity aside, I still believe God speaks. Now, I don’t believe God’s instructions ever include harming others, stealing their property, or committing violence. Such voices are patently inconsistent with the way and person of Christ. And no, I don’t think God’s voice arrives in our inboxes as an unalterable blueprint for life. Further, it’s not likely that many of us will find God standing at the foot of our bed some early morning with a heavenly telegram in his hand. Besides, if God did speak that clearly (and maybe he does), most of us would miss it anyway (maybe we have), for it seems God prefers communicating through quiet and stillness rather than through the pyrotechnics of signs, wonders, and naked-RV-stealing-hijinks. “God didn’t speak through the whirlwind, the earthquake, or the fire,” the prophet of old tells us. Instead, God spoke “in a still, small voice.”
It’s summed up by Dan Rather’s magnificent interview of Mother Teresa more than twenty years ago. Paraphrasing, he famously asked her, “What do you say to God when you pray?” She offered him a simple answer, “I don’t say anything. I just listen.” Rather then asked the obvious follow-up question: “Well, what does God say?” Mother Teresa gave Rather that crooked little smile of hers, and said, “God doesn’t say anything either. He just listens.”
Does such a wordless “conversation” sound as bizarre as a Pontiac filled with naked Pentecostals? Hardly. In a relationship of love and trust, being together is enough, and more is understood in the silence than when using all the words in the world. A great deal of religion, I fear, is built upon the desire for divine fireworks, megaphoned and crystal clear answers, God showing himself in flamboyant and undeniable style. Yet, God only requires the quiet and silent heart to quietly and silently speak. In other words, keep your shirt on. Getting quiet will do more to sharpen one’s perception of God than all the religious gymnastics in the world.