Most of you will know Summit Park in Westmount. Westmount itself, of course, is one of the three small peaks that make up Mount Royal, such a defining feature of our city. And at the top of the third small peak of Westmount is Summit Park – a 57-acre urban woodland, a nature preserve, with towering trees and walking paths.
In the month of May each year, Summit Park is a favourite location for many of the birdwatchers in this city. May is a favoured month because at this time of year many warblers make the return to their North American breeding grounds – these tiny, brightly coloured, insect-eating birds are on their way back from Central and South America where they spend the winter. So, as the sun rises early in the morning, and as the trees and leaves are warmed in Summit Park, the warblers begin to sing and to feed – and the bird-watchers are there, trying to catch a glimpse of them.
So it was that this past Thursday morning at 6:00 a.m. I found myself out on a cool spring morning, at Summit Park – binoculars hanging around my neck. Four of us had gathered there to go bird-watching… Now I have to tell you that I am an absolute novice when it comes to bird-watching. But one of that group of four was Alain Goulet – who is of course, known to many of us. I don’t know if you can ever apply the word ‘professional’ to a bird-watcher, but Alain gets pretty close to deserving that title. Like other seasoned bird watchers, Alain is able to see things and hear things and recognize things that a novice like myself barely notices.
This morning I thought I’d begin by showing you a few of the birds we saw on Thursday – though these pictures are from the internet, not from Thursday. What did we see?
Well, we saw an American Redstart – that’s the bird already up on the screen – beautiful with its black and orange and red feathers.
We also saw this beautiful fellow with his strong yellow underside. It’s the Nashville warbler.
We also saw a Black and White Warbler. He creeps up tree trunks looking for insects.
A fourth bird – the black-throated blue warbler. Spends the winter in the Caribbean and then comes north for the summer.
Now, with such clear, close-up pictures, it’s fairly easy to identify these beautiful birds, even if you have to look through a bird book to do so. But imagine a woodland with leaves moving and the sun shining and a little bird flitting through the branches 30 meters away from you. For a novice like myself, it is not easy to pick out the birds, even with binoculars – it helps to have someone along to notice and then help identify the birds. It’s a skill of observation and recognition that is developed over time.
This morning we could add another layer of complexity to this bird-watching scenario. You see, it’s not only a matter of recognizing the birds by sight – it is often, also, a matter of hearing them and identifying them by sound. With a picture of a bird in one hand, and a bird book in the other, it is not too difficult to identify a bird. But to identify a bird by its song or by its call, adds another level of difficulty to the whole enterprise. On Thursday morning, one bird that Alain heard, to give an example, was the rose-breasted grosbeak.
Now the rose-breasted grosbeak has a song that is only slightly different from the American Robin – which we see all over our lawns these days. I’m going to take a moment to play first the song of the rose-breasted grosbeak, and then that of the Robin.
It takes some skill to see and, on sight, to recognize the various warblers, or other species in Summit Park this time of year. And when you add in the possibility of recognizing a bird by its song, you add a significant level of complexity. Given his familiarity with birds, when we were in Summit Park, Alain could say – oh, there’s a rose-breasted grosbeak. Oh, there’s a cowbird. Again, the capacity to hear a bird and to recognize it by its call is a skill that is developed over time – with patience, often learning from others.
Why do I begin with all of this today? Well, I begin with all of this today because that walk through Summit Park was, for me, a spiritual exercise. It was not only a spiritual experience because we were out in the creation that God gives as a gift – not only because I was walking through a beautiful forest with trilliums blanketing the ground in places – not only on account of the beautiful and remarkable birds.
But that walk in an urban woodland was a spiritual exercise because it was a moment in which I was learning to see and to listen. The spiritual life, within the Christian tradition, in so many respects, is precisely about learning to see and learning to listen. This morning we focus not on seeing part but on the listening part – a skill that takes much time and discipline to develop, whether we are talking about distinguishing the song of various birds or talking about distinguishing the voice of God.
Jesus said: “The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” In case it wasn’t clear to his listeners, Jesus adds: “I am the good shepherd.” The sheep hear Jesus’ voice. Those who are Jesus’ followers, they know Jesus’ voice – they recognize Jesus’ voice – they hear his voice, and he leads them. Do we know the voice of Jesus? Do we listen for him and to him? Are we taking the time to distinguish this spiritual skill of listening.
One of the great challenges of the Christian life is learning to hear the voice of the good shepherd, the voice of the risen Jesus, in a world so full of competing noises – so full of competing voices.
Walking through Summit Park, there were competing noises. There was the white noise of city traffic on every side. There was a dump truck making its morning pass on Summit Circle road – the sound of high pressured hydraulics crushing garbage. There were the tree branches rubbing against each other, in strange imitation of a bird’s call. There were the common calls of the chickadee and the crow, competing with the less common calls of the travelling birds. So many competing sounds, and in the midst of them the challenge was to listen for something new, for the sound of a warbler’s song or call.
In our world there are competing voices.
There are the shouting voices of corporations, flogging their wares and trying to convince us we are less than human if we don’t have their product.
There are sometimes voices from the past whispering in our ears, voices that might question our worth, or our decisions, or our identity.
There are the voices of those representing this philosophy of life, or that philosophy of life – the innumerable and often confused philosophies of the modern world
There are the voices of the everyday – have you done this yet – did you get that done – have you thought about this, yet.
So many competing voices, and in the midst of them the challenge is to listen for the voice of God, the sound of God speaking to us. “The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. They will not follow a stranger.” Jesus adds, in case we don’t realize it: “I am the good shepherd.”
What does it mean to listen for God’s voice? Perhaps the first thing to acknowledge is that listening for God’s voice, and hearing that voice, is not something that we easily or naturally accomplish. You can’t learn to distinguish the song of a rose-breasted grosbeak from the song of robin in a few minutes – you certainly cannot learn to distinguish the song of a black-throated blue warbler from the song of an American Redstart in a few minutes. It takes time to learn how to listen for God’s voice, to hear God speaking to us – and it is something we learn from, and in company with others. Hearing God’s voice, recognizing God’s voice, is something we learn in company with those who are spiritually mature, those who are practiced in listening for the voice of God, those who have learned how to hear Jesus call them by name. There were four of us out there in Summit Park – I was one of the novices – from those more experienced than I am I was learning to look and learning to listen – to see and hear and recognize.
In listening for God’s voice it is vital that we attend to the scriptures. Within the Christian tradition most broadly conceived, it is understood that God speaks to us uniquely through the scriptures of the Hebrew people and the scriptures of the first Christians. Above all, the written word of scripture points to the living Word, who is Jesus. The question is: How can we hear Jesus calling us – how can we distinguish his voice from all the competing voices – if we do know who he is? How can we know what Jesus is saying to us if we do not hear what he has said to his disciples? How can we know where the good shepherd might be leading us if we do not know where he has gone in the past?
It we want to listen to for God’s voice – if we want to hear him calling our name, this requires that we learn to listen to the narratives, the poetry, the letters, and the logic of scripture – through which God continues to speak even today. If we are not actively engaged in this way, if we are not actively listening, if we are not actively attending to God’s word, then maturity of faith, and intimacy with God remain far from our fingertips.
Henri Nouwen puts it this way: “To take the holy scriptures and read them is the first thing we have to do to open ourselves to hear God’s voice. Reading the scriptures is not as easy as it seems since in our academic world we tend to make anything and everything we read subject to analysis and discussion. But the word of God should lead us first of all to contemplation and meditation. Instead of taking the words apart, we should bring them together in our innermost being; instead of wondering if we agree or disagree, we should wonder which words are directly spoken to us and connect directly with our most personal story.”
Attending to God’s word, to the scriptures, is vital to our identity as Christians – as followers of the risen Jesus. At the same time, though, perhaps there is some room to hesitate over a single-minded focus on the written word. We Presbyterians have historically been a people of the word, and a people of words. The prophetic word. The word preached. The word read. This word is vital, but to have such a focus on the word can make it more difficult to hear the voice of God in our personal lives.
On Wednesday mornings here at KCKF, at morning prayer, one of the things we do is to take a few minutes of silence. It is a space in the middle of the week, not only to try and quell the cacophony that daily surrounds us, but a space to listen for God’s voice. The cultivation of such silence is vital to the spiritual life. Henri Nouwen, again, sounds just the right note, here:
“We simply need quiet time in the presence of God. Although we want to make all our time, time for God, we will never succeed if we do not reserve a minute, an hour, a morning, a day, a week, a month, or whatever period of time for God and him alone. This asks for much discipline and risk-taking because we always seem to have something more urgent to do and ‘just sitting there’ and ‘doing nothing’ often disturbs us more than it helps. But there is no way around this. Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer. In the beginning we often hear our own unruly inner noises more loudly than God’s voice. This is at times very hard to tolerate. But slowly, very slowly, we discover that the silent time makes us quiet and deepens our awareness of ourselves and God.”
To listen for Christ’s voice in the scriptures, and to listen for Christ’s voice in the silence of our everyday, is vital to the deepening of our faith – vital to the deepening of our relationship to God. There is no shortcut to maturity in this spiritual journey. It requires time, discipline, and perseverance – the good news of course, is that it is Jesus who speaks, and as he speaks he leads us into a life that is beautiful and good.
In the days and weeks ahead, may we have grace and strength to open our hearts and minds to listen for God’s voice – to hear Christ call us by name – that we might be drawn ever deeper into love and service with him.