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.