Friday, December 16, 2011

The Still Small Voice

It’s a blessing that believers both welcome and dread – that still, small voice that whispers in the ear or blazes in the heart – a sense of call too urgent and demanding to resist.  Hearing the voice of God speaking to us can be comforting and disturbing, challenging and disorienting.  It can bring a sense of deep calm or profound unease.  It can turn our lives upside down, or confirm the path on which we are already set.  We may respond with fear and trembling, with dig-in-the-heels resistance, with overwhelming gratitude – or maybe with a mix of all those emotions and more.
The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures testified regularly to their experiences of hearing God speak.  “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”  (Isaiah 6:8a)  “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’” (Jeremiah 1:4-5)  “At the end of seven days, the word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.”  (Ezekiel 3:16-17)
During the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, God’s words were frequently delivered by an angel, that is, a messenger of God.  An angel tells Zechariah that his wife will conceive and bear the child who grew up to be John the Baptist.  Mary is informed by an angel that she has been chosen to be Christ’s mother, and nine months later, when Jesus is born, a whole crowd of angels sings Gloria to tell the shepherds of the event.  After the Magi’s visit, an angel warns Joseph to flee with Mary and the baby into Egypt to escape the massacre that Herod is planning.  Clearly the voice of God was very present to the Holy Family and those surrounding them.
Today it is not uncommon to hear someone speak of a ministerial vocation as a specific call from God.  The call may be to ordained ministry, to mission work, to a leadership role in Christian education, or to one of the healing professions.  Others hear the voice of God calling them to a prophetic function, to speak out against cruelty and violence and injustice, to work on behalf of the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed.  It is not difficult to recognize God’s voice in the actions of the pastor comforting a parishioner who has just lost her husband; the public health worker instructing Kenyan villagers on AIDS prevention; the SOA Watch member praying and protesting the training of known human rights abusers at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Much more challenging is the task of discernment when we encounter political candidates who declare that God told them to run for office.  In recent months at least four Presidential candidates have claimed such a call.  While it is common to refer to elected officials as “public servants,” there are also temporal rewards of salary, power, and prestige that put service as President or Senator in an entirely different category from service as a nurse or pastor.  What, then, are we to make of such claims?
One thought that comes to mind is that, because God cares for every person and plays no favorites, God says Yes to anyone who asks, “Should I run for President?”  This would be in keeping with our understanding of God as loving parent, encouraging every child in her or his endeavors and aspirations.  While this may be a statement about God’s all-encompassing love, it doesn’t help us very much to evaluate the candidates’ claims.
Probing more deeply, we might inquire as to the candidates’ reasons for making public their assertion of call.  Is it spoken in humility, or is there a prideful attempt to convince potential voters that hearing God’s call somehow is equivalent to receiving God’s endorsement?  If the latter, the candidate may be following a dangerous course both Biblically and Constitutionally.  From the Biblical viewpoint, pride is one of the seven deadly sins.  Jesus repeatedly preached against the attitude of those who took pride in their righteousness, or perceived relationship with God. 
Article 6 of the United States Constitution provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  The claim of God’s call/endorsement by one or more of the candidates could well be construed as having imposed a kind of religious test on all the candidates, implying that those candidates so “endorsed” were thereby more qualified for office than the others.
When it comes to discerning choices, whether for presidential candidate or parish minister, it may be wise to heed Jesus’ advice, given in warning about false prophets: “You will know them by their fruits.”  (Matthew 7:16a)  And St. Paul helpfully lists the fruits for which we should look.  “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.”  (Galatians 5:22) 
Notice that Jesus and Paul are both talking about fruits, not just blossoms.  As any gardener can tell us, blossoms in spring time don’t necessarily yield good fruit by the time of harvest.  We might say that blossoms are promises and fruits are actions.  Just so, careful discernment involves examining what a person has done, not just what the person promises to do.
As of the date of writing this article (December 11), one of the four candidates claiming God’s call has suspended his campaign.  The other three are all polling in single digits.  I’m not going to begin to speculate on the theological implications of their status.  Nevertheless, as we move through the coming months of caucuses and primaries, heated debates and attack ads, I’m going to be looking hard for evidence of fruits of the Spirit.  I just hope I find some.

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