This is the assignment for the Spirituality and the Senses class I'm auditing at George Fox Evangelical Seminary: Where is God in Our Sense of Hearing.
The river was quiet and the night cool. From my vantage point standing in the back of the boat, I peered through the darkness trying to spot any trees or rocks poking above the surface — clues there was far more hazardous material lurking underneath needing to be avoided. During a night practice, it is not an easy task. Though the lights of the city illuminate the slough to some degree, it’s not enough to make the dangers obvious. But that is my job, my sole responsibility: to keep the twenty paddlers and caller safe. Though for this reason the authority on the boat is ultimately mine, I only give commands when I have to. Most of the time, I watch and listen. Some people may wonder why I largely gave up paddling to till but the truth is, looking around at the river and the sky, hearing the birds and the breeze, I have the best seat in the house. During this particular night, we were paddling in the slough and my ears were tuned to the noises of the night. That’s when I heard the owls. They were soft and gentle and hearing them “whooo” from the trees was magical for me. I asked the paddlers in front of me if they had heard the owls’ call but they had not. I was the only person who heard them because I was the only person who was listening. Hearing the owls has since been a living reminder to me to listen deeply, to appreciate what may not be heard right away.
When choosing what kind of hearing experience to try, I decided to focus on what would be the most stretching for me and what I finally came up with was to sit quietly for a long period of time. As ironic as I know this is being part of the Friends’ church, I have a horrible time sitting quietly. When traveling around among unprogrammed Friends, I can only be quiet for so long before silently writing in my journal. I would much rather move and discuss than sit in a silent room — too polite to leave yet not polite enough to leave my journal in my bag. Even on the boat I have a job to do, a till to guide through the water. Knowing how busy my life is, I do take at least fifteen minutes in the morning to sit silently with God in my favorite chair. There’s no music, no journal — just God and I having a talk or sitting in each other’s company. It’s a needed time to just be. For this experience, I decided to stretch the fifteen minutes to an hour and to try it two ways: once with music and once without. Both were hard.
The first night I tried it with music. Knowing intuitively I needed something more meditative, I used a CD from the library called “Wolf Song”. It starts out with forest sounds — birds, a river, trees creaking, and wolves howling. Having just gone backpacking at an open sided shelter deep in the wilderness the weekend before, the sound of the wolves sent shivers up my chest. The thought of having such power so nearby and me being so vulnerable was frightening and thrilling at the same time. Wolves are humbling. Such intelligent creatures and yet so fearsome. This is how God also is – immensely powerful, uncontrollable, ready to strike in ways we may not like and this scares us.
Along with the wolves’ howl, the sounds were interspersed with musical interludes laid over the forest sounds. First there was a focus on the wolves, then the music, then the wolves again. I tend to focus on the musical side of God – thrilling and heart-soaring, enriching and beautiful, full of color and life, comforting to the soul. But there is also this other side to God – this wolf howling at the moon side I too often neglect to see. This haunting illustration of the fearsome dominance of God chills the heart in its tracks and makes one forget all shallow pretensions before God’s awesome show of power. Staring into the eyes of a wolf, one is both caught in the wonder of the moment so rare and yet also scared out of their mind at what the wolf could do. The angels in the Bible had to keep telling people to “Fear not!” Encounters with the true God, not an image, leave people trembling from head to toe.
One of my favorite books on the images of God is Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos. In the book, the main character interacts with a wide variety of Jesus images until finally in the end, he meets the real Jesus but instead of being face-to-face with “I AM,” he is kneeling and Jesus comes up behind him and lays his hands on his head. He never sees Jesus’s face. He never captures a new image – it’s the silent power and the lack of an image that finally speaks the truth of who Jesus is. I’ve had so many images of God in my faith journey and they have each been valuable and taught me something in turn. They’ve been the musical interludes to my relationship with God, the comforting moments, the healing hands, the loving words. They’ve all been immensely valuable yet it’s been the times when God has stepped in without my asking – speaking my name, coming to me in a dream or reminding me how un-knowable he/she is, the times when God has howled like a wolf in the night that I tremble before this God I cannot control or truly begin to comprehend.
The question I come to is, “Can I truly trust God if I am constantly making up who he is?” Yes, it’s comforting to imagine God sitting up in a tree beside me talking things out or just enjoying the moment, but if I stay up in the tree with him/her, I’ll have missed much of the point of who God is. We can’t ultimately name God nor is an image of God ever going to be complete. I am slowly learning to let there be space between the images, to stop in the silences and hear the wolves howling in the shadows, feel the trembling vibrations in the blowing breeze and to go further inside myself past blood and bone into my soul where my deeper wisdom tells me I have knelt in the woods myself and howled along. This is the God I want to know – the one I can’t direct, can’t grasp, can’t begin to draw or paint. Yet, at the same time, I am driven to try. As a writer and artist, I am drawn to the musical interludes, the beautiful expanses of song coloring in who God is and I long to take up my own watercolor pencil set and sketch out a few pictures of my own. Perhaps we are allowed to do this as long as we respect the silences and know we must ultimately lay our pictures down to hear who God really is.
Laying the music down and embracing the silence was difficult in its own right. Instead of the music being a bit distracting, my thoughts stepped in with the grace of an orangutan playing a drum solo. Trying to calm and quiet myself in the midst of all this noise was slippery at best and downright impossible at worst. The waiting I have endured for several months is playing at a fevered pitch for two to three more weeks and I’m now having a hard time breathing. I know this is a time when I most need to sit quietly with God and, in fact, when I wrote about my struggles breathing as a conversation with God, they did ease a bit for a day. Even so, I laid down in God’s arms and got to talk with him about my fears and concerns about all these changes going on in my life. I told him I feel like I am suspended in mid-air unable to get down and unable to move on. I’m just hanging there. It was also hard to put down the to-do list yet a relief at the same time. I have often thought in the mornings that fifteen minutes is just not enough time with God and our time often does go over. I’m hoping with a different work schedule I can take more time in the mornings to sit with God.
Out of all five senses, hearing seems to me to be the most direct to God. Though I know God is closer to me than I am to myself, I have to remind myself everything I know with my other four senses is, in fact, God present. But with hearing, whether inwardly or outwardly, I hear God and I know it’s him. You can’t mistake that voice – not when you’re standing on a beach and hear your name or you’re standing on the back of a boat gliding through the dark and hear a whisper. There are times I question if it was God and there are other times I just know. It’s at those times my body shivers for I’ve come face to face with a power unfathomably beyond myself, a love far more ferocious than I’ve ever felt, and a voice far more addicting than any other I’ve ever heard. Though I cannot tell from whence it comes, it speaks, and it speaks to me. This wild wolf howl of God echoing in the woods comes from somewhere and everywhere and invites us to set aside our preconceived notions and listen anew.