On stage, the pastor paced back and forth, wearing a T-shirt and jeans and flip-flops like us college kids. In his drawl that came through his beard, he asked, “Do y’all think someone just wants to hear what you have to say all the time?”
I sat in the crowd while the pastor preached that we didn’t hear God because we weren’t listening. He said it would be a short video, but a long lesson. A screen behind him unfurled and then glowed blue.
Horizontal lines distorted the screen. A guy with a bleached buzzcut and square-framed glasses sat on a sofa, staring at the camera filming him. He held a remote in his hand. An aquamarine rectangle filled the bottom of the screen with the words:
Noise x 005 Rob Bell NOOMA.com
Traffic sounds and then sirens whirred through the windows behind Bell. Bell clicked his remote and the screen showed a digital green 73, 74, 75…. The channels sounded like a western’s twangy guitars and pistols firing, then a Looney Toons orchestra, and finally a talk show’s interrupting conversation.
Suddenly Bell, aware of being watched, said to the camera that there was a nature filmer who in 1968 had to record fifteen hours to get one hour of natural sound, without airplanes or cars or sirens. Today, that same guy has to record 2,000 hours just to get that same uninterrupted hour.
Bell segued into the story of the Jewish prophet Elijah, who was told by God to go to the top of a mountain so that he would hear Him. So, Elijah went to the mountaintop. A whirlwind rushed over, but God wasn’t in the wind. Next, an earthquake ripped through, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. Then a fire roared by, but God wasn’t in the fire. Finally, this still, small voice.
Bell said that translators debated if the voice was even an audible sound in Hebrew. God was in the sound of sheer silence. Bell clicked the remote again and the screen blacked out.
Sentences faded in:
Do you have a cell phone?
Do you have voice-mail?
Do you have a cell phone with voice-mail and e-mail?
Is there a connection between the amount of noise in our lives and our inability to hear God?
Again, the screen blacked out. The pastor stood back up. He said, “Tonight we’re going to try to hear God. Not talk to Him, but let Him talk to us. So, folks turn off your phones, close your Bibles, and sit—right here—in the sanctuary, and just listen.”
I didn’t know what to expect God to say. I closed my eyes. I heard the fluorescent bulbs humming overhead, denim scraping on chairs around me, and cars on the road outside skimming through a rain shower. It was going to take longer to get home in the rain. Also, I was kinda hungry and I wanted to eat something, and—
I tried again, but kept my eyes open. I looked around and spotted a girl bowing. She used her black hair to curtain her face. My hair had never been long enough to block out my sight—
I had let my mind wander. I kept trying, but I couldn’t concentrate, because whenever I tried to think of nothing I thought I’d already missed something. But I had been thinking about something the entire time if I was thinking about nothing!
The pastor clapped his hands together. “Welp,” he said. “I believe that was productive. Throughout the next couple of weeks, we’ll be going deeper with this and discovering what God wants us to hear and see. If you would like someone to pray with you, interns will be standing along the walls.”
I didn’t stick around to get prayed for.
Growing up, my parents prayed over everything, and always out loud. Before his morning laps, I’d find my father sitting at the table in his pajamas with a Bible cracked open. With his head bowed, eyes closed, and hands folded I would’ve thought he had fallen back to sleep in his chair if not for the slight whisper of prayer under his mustache. Before I would leave for the school bus my mother held my backpack’s strap, closed her eyes, and said, “I pray that Christopher will be a man after Your own heart and know true truth.”
Even though my parents prayed to Jesus, they never acknowledged hearing from Jesus. My folks said things like, “I felt that God [blank]” and “I believe that God [blank].” They never said, “Jesus said, ‘[blank].’” I didn’t grow up expecting God to answer out loud.
Until watching the NOOMA DVD, I hadn’t considered that the stories of Adam and Eve walking and talking with God in the Garden, Moses and the burning bush, Samuel hearing his name called out by God during the night, even Elijah and the whisper, and all the other times in the Old Testament that God literally verbally spoke to people still happened now. If God was Jesus in the New Testament, and Jesus was a man who lived and walked and ate, then didn’t He have a voice? Wouldn’t He still speak? If He didn’t say anything anymore, had He ever?
At another college service, the pastor had us pair up. I partnered with Matt who I knew from Sunday school classes back in high school. We were supposed to lay hands on each other and pray for the other person to see something they needed to see. The pastor told everyone to quiet our minds and open our hearts to God. Matt shut his eyes, while I set my hands on his hunched shoulders.
“Let Matt see, let Matt see,” I prayed over and over.
“Hold on,” Matt said. He put his hand up. “I see a circle. A bright circle. Like the sun.”
I wondered if Matt had just shut his eyes so hard that he saw static speckles of light converge together.
“And there’s a flatness,” he said.
I imagined it as his eyelid.
“And there’s a clump of trees.”
Matt still squeezed his eyes shut, but lifted an eyebrow as he said, “Maybe one.”
I thought, Eyelash, but I asked Matt, “Savanna?”
Matt guessed that maybe he was supposed to go on the summer mission trip to Africa. I didn’t say anything contradictory even though I doubted.
Then, it was my turn. I didn’t want to see something that could be interpreted as a call to a mission trip, but I wanted to see something. Some kind of true truth. I took a deep breath.
Darkness engulfed my sight. I focused on the spot between my eyes above the bridge of my nose. I felt I was looking up to my forehead, the place I think about when I think about thinking. I thought that I should have been feeling something in my chest near my heart, where I wanted to believe.
Before I could think any more, out of the darkness a swath of aquamarine filled my mind’s eye. It looked blurry, like my vision refocusing after getting out of my family’s pool. Blobs bobbed in this turquoise. The color flowed, like water. A river? And the blobs linked arms together. People were crossing this river, in the middle of its current. The person at the end of the link of people took their time, going slowly, purposefully. This last person held back. When the person stopped, I knew it was me. Then I let go.
I told Matt what I saw, except I didn’t say that I was the reluctant person at the end of the line. Matt had no idea what to make of it. We asked an intern what a river represented and he said that the flowing represented the Holy Spirit. Neither could say what the vision meant about me.
A part of me thought that I didn’t have the kind of faith necessary to cross over to something so extreme and another part of me thought that I didn’t know whether faith should be so extreme. Either way, I didn’t want to doubt. I wanted something definite—Mom’s prayer of true truth—or nothing at all. And so, I stopped going to the college ministry and any regular church service for the rest of college until my Aunt K, a retired United Methodist pastor, gave me a graduation gift of spending a week with her at Chautauqua.
The small town of Chautauqua featured a four-pillared institute of arts, education, religion, and recreation. Victorian houses with wrap-around porches lined the one-way roads. The sides of the townsquare featured a library, post office, bookstore, barbershop, and grocer along with a few cafés. At the end of the week, I ended up walking with Aunt K to a service.
Denominational houses stood with crucifixes on their roofs and black placards out front with announcements pieced together from white clip-on adjustable letters. Organ pipes puffed chords and warbling voices sung hymns that carried out the doors. Stain glass windows cast collages of color on the pathway.
Even though I didn’t know what I believed, if anything anymore, I couldn’t turn down Aunt K, because I felt like I owed her for the graduation gift and remembered enjoying my visits to her church as a kid.
I used to sit at Aunt K’s feet for children’s time. She had started one lesson with the question, “Who is the church?”
Most of the kids shouted, “Jesus!”
“Yes, He is, but…” Aunt K said, “Look at this.” She had the word CHURCH written on a piece of paper. “You, all you children and everyone in the seats—
your mothers and fathers and family members—make up the church.”
And so I figured maybe I didn’t need to do anything else other than go with Aunt K and be a part of church one last time. It helped that we weren’t going to a Methodist service, because then I didn’t have to feel guilty about not going for so long to my parents’ church or the college ministry. Instead, we were going to a Quaker service. I could just be a guest, and I thought it would just be a quiet hour listening to nothing.
Aunt K led me to a one-story octagonal building that looked like a one-room schoolhouse. Out front a blackboard easel, written in chalk, read Friends Meeting. At the door, a white-haired woman said, “Welcome to the Society of Friends. Even though there is no formal hierarchy in Quakerism, I will guide us through today’s meeting. How about we first get up and introduce ourselves to one another?”
Everyone in the building stood and shook hands. Each person said their first and last names and what city or town they were from and where they attended the so-and-so meeting. Since we were all standing, the non-leader woman then led us in a hymn.
“I didn’t expect this,” Aunt K whispered to me. She ruffled through her hymnal.
I turned to the same page without any expectation.
We sang along a cappella. I wasn’t used to that. I remembered the worship at one of the last services that I attended for a holiday at my parents’ church.
At the front doors the ushers had said the same greeting to me as they did to the person in front of me. They slid their hand into and out of my palm without a grip. Then ushers at the doors into the sanctuary handed out bulletins recycled from the service before. In front, one of the church leaders held a microphone and read through the announcements, welcomed everyone, and gave a reminder to silence cell phones.
When the leader said a short prayer, the praise band had gotten up on stage while the congregation had their heads bowed. The lead singer started clapping along to the beat from the drummer while the three-person guitar section strummed their opening riffs. The backup choir swelled pulling everyone into the song. On a Jumbotron screen lyrics scrolled down a PowerPoint slide with yellow blocky text with a nature-scene background. A tambourine jingled before the saxophone solo. Spinning strobe lights flared across the stage. Some people raised their open-palmed hands or clapped along to the beat. A sea of shoulders swayed as feet moved side to side.
After a few songs, the pastor climbed on stage. His mic clung to his ear like a hearing aid but extended out toward his mouth to free his hands for gestures. He asked everyone to pray with him as the band looped the same chords over and over.
Conversely, the Quaker meeting was just a meeting in a building. No aisles with hundreds of stackable chairs, just a dozen or so desk-chairs in a circle. No four-foot-high stage, just a broom-brushed wooden floor. No audio/visual systems, just non-amplified voices.
“Now, let us take the rest of our time to yield to God,” the non-leader woman said and sat down. She folded her hands in her lap and put her chin to her chest. She looked like she was going to take a nap.
The other Friends sat down. Aunt K settled into her seat and held her hands together in prayer. I listened to the room. The wooden floor creaked, the rusty hinges on the joints of the desk-chairs squeaked, the rustling of wafer-thin Bible pages flipped, someone occasionally coughed, another person brushed their sleeve up their arm, and a watch’s secondhand ticked.
Just as I thought we’d be sitting in silence the whole time, an old woman stood up. She wore a fleece vest over a long sleeve flannel shirt, jeans, and no-nonsense trail-boots. She looked like the kind of person who woke up before sunrise and hung a pair of binoculars around her neck and then hiked into the woods to go birding, waiting to hear the first glorious song of the day. This birder woman then sang like a bird. I don’t remember the words or the melody or anything other than the sound that wasn’t human. She ended as abruptly as she had started.
“God nudged me to sing,” the woman said. She shrugged her shoulders. “I needed to share that on this beautiful day,” she said and sat down.
Soon after, the meeting dispersed. Everyone got up and shook hands again. Aunt K and I exited the octagonal building. When it had been a school the room must have been filled with students echoing their teacher, memorizing lessons, and learning through repetition.
I still wasn’t sure what to believe, but I doubted that there was nothing. There had to be something beautiful to make that bird song. I had heard it and just listened to its grace and that was enough for then.
Aunt K and I walked back along the path. Yellow sunlight filtered through the trees’ green boughs. I spotted specks of dust swirling in the bluish glow.