Friday, July 16, 2010

The Desire to Communicate

This was presented as a Sermon at the Marcellus and Wakelee United Methodist Churches on July 4, 2010. The text from the Revised Common Lectionary was 2 Kings 5:1-14 (Year C, Proper 9).

In these last few weeks as the lectionary has guided us through the history of Elijah and Elisha in the book of Kings, I’ve been struck by the important role of communication. We listened with Elijah for the still small voice, and we observed as Elijah and Elisha discussed what would happen when the Lord called the teacher to him. This week’s text is no exception.  Every step taken depends upon communication.  Servants, generals, kings and prophets use spoken and written words to act in the world.
I suppose that I’ve been paying so much attention to communication because it is my stock in trade. I write operations manuals that tell people how to use the machines they purchase. I interpret when English and Russian speakers want to communicate with each other. I teach English to speakers of other languages so that they can better communicate here in America. At home, my husband and I work hard to communicate with one another so that our disagreements don’t become fights. (And I’m proud to say that in 10 years of marriage, no one has had to sleep on the couch.)
Sometimes, like Naaman, though, I still have trouble communicating with God.  I don’t  understand his communication or I reject it because it is not the communication I was expecting. Part of the problem is that God does not communicate the same way that we do. We humans may be created in God’s image, but we are not the same kind of being. We are not divine. The thing is, I know how to talk to God, I know how to praise and thank and how to make requests. My problem is listening and understanding, and not rejecting the message like Naaman did. You see, when I talk to God, I talk the same way I talk to you, the way I’m talking right now. I speak English, I use my voice. But what voice does God have? I don’t know what to listen for.
In thinking about all of this, it occurred to me that in some ways, talking to God is like talking to a foreigner. It’s not that God doesn’t speak English, God uses a totally different mode of communication.
            When the students in my class are at their most frustrated with the patterns of English grammar and pronunciation, I tell them that the most important thing is the desire to communicate. Grammar and pronunciation rules are just the tools we agree to use to make communication easier, but they are not the most important thing. The desire is. If I want to express something to you, and you want to understand, we’ll find a way. If I speak only Russian, and you speak only Swahili, we’ll find a way. If I am blind and you are deaf, we’ll find a way. If you are divine and I am only human, we’ll find a way, as long as we both have the desire to communicate.
            There are four key things can help us find the way: attentiveness, patience, humility, and practice. I’ve noticed as a professor and as a traveler that if I’m not attentive when I try to communicate, it won’t work. Speaking English to another English speaker is easy. They have the same grammar and pronunciation tools. I know what to expect form them. But when communicating with a foreigner in English or in their language, I don’t know what to expect, and the mismatch of expectation and reality can sometimes lead to misunderstanding if I’m not paying close attention. I have to put down the other things that I am doing, face toward the speaker, and just listen to the words and discern the intended message. Attentiveness was part of Naaman’s problem in today’s text, too. God couldn’t get a message directly to Naaman because he didn’t know God. Naaman was an Aramite. So God uses the captive girl, who does know Him.
            This kind of attentiveness requires patience. We 21st century Americans are so used to doing many things at once, we rarely stop to just listen to one another. And we’re so used to quick, easy communication with one another, we don’t tolerate communication that requires us to listen patiently for each piece of the sentence or communication that makes us think about what the other person wants from us. When Elisha gives Naaman instructions about how to cure his leprosy, they are not what he expects. He hears, but he doesn’t understand, and he almost misses the communication.
            Communicating in a challenging situation also demands the humility to say, “Wait. Stop. I don’t understand. Can you explain it to me a different way?”  We have to be able to admit the failure to understand so that we can repair the communication and move forward, but failure is always a difficult thing to own.
            Practice helps. The more we practice attentiveness, patience, and humility in communication, the more easy they become. My students often tell me, “Teacher, it is so easy to talk to you, but it is so hard to talk to regular people.” Well, that’s because I have a lot of practice talking to non-native speakers of English. I have a lot of practice talking to God, as well, but I need to practice listening more.
So I think these are things we can practice to help our communication with God especially on the receiving end. We need to be attentive to God’s message and aware that it might come to us in a variety of ways: a still small voice, a gut feeling, the words of a friend. In addition, God’s message might not be at all what we expect it to be, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. We need to be prepared for God to present us with the unexpected.   We must also practice patience since God’s participation in our communication might not come when we want it to, and we might have to do some mental work to decipher the message. Humility is also a key to communicating with God, we need to be able to go back to God and ask again. The more we do this, the easier it will become.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Nurturing Life

These are food. Let’s get that straight from the beginning. They are babies and they are cute, but they are food. That is why the hatchery inseminated their mother, incubated their eggs, and shipped them to us as hatchlings. That is why my friend kept them in with her batch of new turkeys while we were abroad. That is why they are in my yard now. Their destinies are Thanksgiving, Christmas, St. Sylvester, and Easter.
But…They are not food yet. They’re not ready, so I have to take care of them. Furthermore, I don’t want them to become food for the fox, coyote, or raptors in the woods around my house, so I have to take care of them.

In some ways, they are like having four more chickens. They share the chicken coop, they eat from the same feeder and drink from the same water tank. Their instincts tell them to walk around and look for sustenance at their feet. In fact, these four are even better foragers than the chickens. The tom has already won several battles on our behalf in the War Against the Slugs. The chickens, though, came to us as adults, while these are still very young. At the farm that started them for us, they were in a pen in the garage with hay bales for sides, loose hay on the floor, and food and water in the corners. They ate and slept in this area. Here, though, they have to navigate the ramp of the Poultry Chalet to find safe sleep on the second story and good food on the first floor. They range free during the day and have to find their way back to the Chalet in the evening.

While the chickens tolerate their presence, the old biddies are in no way interested in fostering and caring for these young whipperschnappers. So, it falls to me. The first night they were here, they bedded down in a pile on the lower level of the Chalet, so husband and I fished them out and put them up top. The next morning, I had to nudge them down the ramp to find the food.

Generally, during the day, they are happy to wander and forage. They make a yippy cooey noise that helps them stay together, though the smallest female has a tendency to wander a bit from the group. Periodically, I hear a different noise. When I go to investigate this loud peeping, I find them standing together looking around rather than eating, often in the middle of the stone patio where there isn’t food anyway. I lead them back to a food source in the yard or back to the Chalet, and they are happy. As a break between other daily tasks, I mosey through the property listening for their soft music and looking for the way they make the tall grass sway until I find them, and sometimes they come looking for me. As I was beginning this post, they were particularly peepy and distressed, pulling me from the kitchen to the patio twice, so I brought the laptop out to the picnic table where they foraged at my feet for a bit before wandering off.

They are amazing creatures. They take good care of themselves, but, like all young, sometimes they just want to check in and make sure they are in the right place. Right now, their right place is here in my yard, foraging for their nourishment and peeping when they need a nurturing presence. Eventually, it will be their turn to nourish me and my family, and we will get back all the nurturing we have given them.