I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that many of the things we were taught and learned as small children stay with us for the rest of our lives. Drummed into our heads when we are five or six or seven or eight, they stay there.
One that will certainly never leave me is this: Stop, look, and listen. I heard it from my parents. I heard it from my teachers. I heard it from the principal of my school. Stop, look, and listen. We heard it and we were made to repeat it again and again like a mantra.
It’s about crossing the street, of course, and not getting hit by a car. In those times the world was a kinder place – so much more innocent and secure than today – and getting hit by a car was just about the only thing that was a threat to a child. We all walked to school, and crossing streets on the way, we were commanded to put into practice that which we had heard and repeated so often. Stop. Now look – to the right and to the left. And listen – is there a car coming from around a curve? Stop. Look. And listen. After that you can go.
I’m not sure how careful it made me as an eight- or nine-year-old, but it must have worked. I made it through childhood, and here I am. Good advice, it seems, to a kid on his way to school.
Good advice also to a Christian as he or she seeks to grow in their life with God.
Stop. This is the fourth commandment, isn’t it? “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” ( Exodus 20:8 ) For what is the Sabbath, if not a time when one stops and does no work? The Sabbath, as a day, was consecrated to God, but remember, as Jesus teaches, it was made for man. Made, indeed, that man might come to know God. And even though as Christians we no longer observe the Sabbath as did the ancient Jews, there must be Sabbath-time in our lives. There must be a time when we simply stop . . . and let be.
The spiritual life is about being: our being and our being-with-God. Doing is secondary; being is first and it is the foundation of the spiritual life. In fact, busy-ness, busy-ness, doing and doing and never stopping is a hindrance to, if not the end of one’s spiritual life. God commands Sabbath because man needs Sabbath. “Be still, then, and know that I am God.” ( Psalm 46:10 ) Be still then, and know that I am God – not you. For, of course, doing, busy-ness is egotistical. It is all about me. I am busy. This is what I do. And I must do it. So much depends on me. But when we stop, and there is Sabbath, the world does not end. It keeps on going, and I am put in my place. Very little depends on me; everything depends on God. “Be still then, and know that I am God” – not you.
There is an emptiness in all of us. A void which can only be filled by God. It is part of our glory as human creatures – that we can be fulfilled by nothing less than God. It is also part of our pain – that we are not complete, something is lacking, each one of us is unfinished and unfulfilled. This realization is the beginning of the spiritual life. Without it we are simply stuck. And all too often we are stuck in an endless round of doing and doing and busy-ness. We hope all that action will fill the void, and to be sure, it often obscures it, but the void is still there and we may well find ourselves exhausted, frustrated, not fulfilled – until we stop, until we are still with God and yearn to be with Him more and more. Until we acknowledge our emptiness and Sabbath-time puts us in our place.
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Stop, look, and listen. I remember another thing from childhood. If I was mopey or feeling sorry for myself or complaining, my mother would take me by the shoulders, look me in the eye, and say to me, “Young man, count your blessings.” There has never been a wiser admonition, and in fact there is a name for this in spiritual theology: recollection. And it means simply to look, to look back, to recollect how richly and how often God has blessed you. Look at what God has done for you. Look back at how faithful and loving and forgiving He has been, how His justice has always been tempered by His mercy. Look back on the gift of life itself and the abundance of your life (and each of us here today lives in an abundance which most cannot imagine). Look back on the times when God has supported you – gotten you through, when things were difficult or dangerous. Look back on the times when God has prevented you from doing something stupid or destructive. The times when God seems to have thwarted the just and logical consequences of your willful ego. Look back at how He has accepted you as you are and offered you the grace to become better. Look back at the Cross where God gave His Son for you, Himself, to bring you back to Him. Look. For the faithfulness and love of God in times to come is assured by His faithfulness and love in times that are past.
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Stop, look, and listen. Remember the story. ( II Kings 19:9 – 12 ) The prophet Elijah was alone and everyone was after him and against him. “They seek my life, to take it away,” he cried out to God. He fled to the desert and hid in a cave and prayed that he might die. And then there was an earthquake. There was a wind, and there was a manifestation of fire. Big, loud, noisy things, that demanded attention. Things often identified with God. But this time God was not in them and He did not speak through them. Finally, there was a still small voice. And it was in the stillness that God spoke, and it was through the stillness that Elijah heard.
The world is a noisy place, my brothers and sisters. Cares, concerns, responsibilities, successes, failures – all these are a distracting clamor which can deafen us spiritually and drown out the voice of God. God speaks to us – He does – but often we cannot hear Him for the noise. God speaks to us – He does – but often we do not recognize His voice . . . unless we stop and create a Sabbath-time in our lives; unless we cease from doing and doing, so noisy in itself, and rest in the stillness of our being; unless we rest in our being-with-God.
God speaks to us, but we cannot hear Him or we do not recognize His voice . . . unless we look and count the many blessing which have been His words to us. Life itself, abundance in life, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, the grace to grow. God’s blessings are His words to us and His language is the language of love. We need to hear those words now and always; deep in our souls we need to learn the gracious and grace-filled words of God’s speech.