Understanding the Voice
As stay at home orders have been lifted and we've gradually begun to resume interactions with people outside of our homes again, I have begun to see some family members who haven't seen us for several months since the stay at home orders began. Those family members often comment on how much my daughters have grown in those few months, how they seem so much older than the last time they saw the young children. Among the other indicators of my children's rapid growth, they refer to my youngest daughter beginning to talk. They comment on how much she is talking, and they can understand some of what she says. Other times, she chatters away and when she finishes they look at me for a translation. It seems I am able to understand what my daughter is saying when others are struggling to do so.
Let's do a little practice. See if you can figure out what my daughter is saying in this clip:
Did you catch it? We were sitting at the dinner table and my daughter said, "I want juicy, I drank all my milk." Here's another one to try:
Got it? It's some very helpful advice. She is telling you, "Hold on, not fall down." Who doesn't want to know a good way to not fall down? See if you can get this one:
What did you hear? What good is learning to talk if you can't brag about your accomplishments? She said, "Me got it! By myself!" Okay, there might have been a few extra syllables in the middle there, but even us parents can't decipher every word they say. Last time, here's a real tough one:
Need a hint? She was frantically shoving her hands in her mouth before saying this one. Still not sure? She said, "Hair is going in my mouth." I think we can all agree that's the worst!
I thought about the experience of understanding my daughter's voice when other people struggled to understand what she was saying as I read this: "The sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers" (John 10:4-5). If we are sheep following the Good Shepherd, then we must learn to recognize and understand God's voice. Just as parents carefully study every sound a child makes until they understand what she is saying, so must we carefully listen until we understand what God is saying to us. How do we study God's voice until we can understand it? I think there are a few lessons that can be learned by how I learned to understand my daughter's voice.
First, and perhaps most obviously, I understand my daughter's voice because of familiarity. I have been with her nearly every day of her life, and I have listened to the sounds she has made for years. The more time one spends listening to another, the better one will understand the other. The same is true for God's voice. The more time we spend praying, reading the Scripture, discussing faith with others, or reflecting on our interactions or thoughts, the more we will be able to recognize when God may be speaking to us through these experiences.
Second, psychologists tell us that a sound counts as a new word in a child's vocabulary if the child consistently makes the same sound to mean the same thing. That means that the child does not need to make the sound we're expecting for that meaning. For a long time my daughter called her pacifier her "shiny". I have no idea how she came to connect that sound with her pacifier, but parenting books would suggest we should count that as a word in her vocabulary. If I had ignored her pleas for "shiny", waiting for her to say "pacifier", I may have spent many more hours listening to her cry when I could have simply given her to the pacifier to, well, pacify her.
Similarly, sometimes God may speak to us in a way that is different than we expect. If we expect God to communicate with us in a specific way and never take the time to discern if God may be speaking to us in a different way, then we may miss out what God has to say to us. A well known example of someone listening for God's voice is in 1 Kings 19:11-12. "Here was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord - but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake - but the LORD was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire - but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound." If Elijah had expected the voice of God to be in the wind and he stood intently studying the wind, ignoring the earthquake, the fire, and the still small voice, then he would have missed out on God's message for him.
Another way I come to understand my daughter's voice is through repetition. When my daughter is trying to tell me something, if I'm not getting it then she will repeat herself. And she will repeat herself. And she will repeat herself. Again, and again, and again until I figure it out. A well known example of this is in 1 Samuel 3. God spoke to Samuel and he didn't get it. He went and replied to Eli instead. So God spoke to Samuel again. And again. And again, until finally Samuel understood that it was God's voice. God often speaks to us in repetition. When a song keeps getting stuck in your head, when you continue to feel an emotion and you're not sure why, when something you've done continues to nag at your conscience, when a person or experience repeatedly comes to mind, when you notice a Scripture passage that stays in your mind, these may be ways that God is trying to get your attention.
Samuel also came to understand God's voice because Eli helped him to recognize that it was God speaking. When I am struggling to understand what my daughter is saying, I will turn to my wife and sometimes she can figure it out. Likewise, when she is struggling to understand, she may turn to me for help. Discussing our experiences and reflections with trusted friends, family, priests, or spiritual directors can be a great way to help discern what God may be trying to say to us.
Another trick I've used to understand my daughter may be less obvious. Sometimes she'll rattle off a string of sounds and I have no idea what she is saying. Then I'll repeat back the sounds a few times, and like a game of Mad Gab, as I hear myself say the sounds I'll suddenly understand the words. This can be a good strategy for understanding God's voice as well. To understand my daughter, I needed to imitate her. To understand God, we can do what Jesus did. Act like Jesus acted. Pray like Jesus prayed. Say what Jesus said. Sometimes the Church's moral teachings might not make sense to us, but if we do it anyways then in the act of doing we might come to find greater understanding of how God is speaking through the Church's teachings.
Finally, I must admit that there are times when my daughter delivers a soliloquy and I am completely baffled. This is not cause to give up. Sometimes I will never understand what she is saying, but I keep listening and over time I understand more and more. There may be times when we struggle to hear God's voice or find it difficult to discern what God is calling us to do. Sometimes human thoughts and emotions get in the way. Sometimes the Mystery of God is just too great for our human minds to comprehend. We will never understand God perfectly all the time in this life, but we keep listening anyways. Just as I slowly understand more and more of what my daughter says, we will slowly understand more and more of what God says.
There's a new voice in my domestic church and I've been learning to understand that voice. Learning to understand my daughter's voice has given me a little more insight into how to understand God's voice. The best part of learning to understand my daughter's voice is the ear to ear smile that bursts on her face when I understand her and respond. When I understand God's voice and respond, sometimes I imagine God smiling ear to ear, and then I smile back.