Friendship, Listening, and Empathy: A Prayer GuideTwo Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeSabbath Keeping FastingA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationPersonality Type in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Draw near: Praying for the ability to listen to unexpected voices

Lynne Baab • Tuesday March 21 2023

Draw near: Praying for the ability to listen to unexpected voices

My mother has a green thumb, and her home and garden are full of thriving plants. When she shows me a new plant, she’ll often say, “This plant is happy here,” meaning that the plant is thriving in the western sunlight of this particular window or the more diffuse light in the living room. Her plants tell her where they like to be.

I’ve read about sculptors who say that the stone tells them what it wants to be. In an article about her spring quilt, Avis Collins Robinson said, "I let the fabric’s colors and textures tell me how they want to fit together." As many of you know, about ten years ago I wrote a book on listening, as well as numerous articles, and I have to confess I wasn’t thinking about this kind of listening. I was focused entirely on the very important issue of how to listen to other people better, and how those skills might carry over into listening to God.

One of the most significant ways Christians are called to listen to the created world is described in Psalm 19.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
   and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
   their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
   and their words to the end of the world (verses 1-4).

In 1712, British politician Joseph Addison wrote his famous hymn, The Spacious Firmament on High, based on these verses from Psalm 19. Addison describes the sun, moon, and stars in eloquent poetic language and concludes the hymn by saying that these heavenly beings “utter forth a glorious voice, for ever singing as they shine, ‘The hand that made us is divine.’” Creation tells us that God created it — and us. In addition, creation seems to speak to gardeners, sculptors, and artists about the materials they are working with.

Even scientists sometimes hear the created world speak. Dr. Barbara McClintock was a botanist who earned the Nobel Prize in 1983, the first and, so far, only woman to win an unshared prize in Physiology or Medicine. She also won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Dr. McClintock discovered transposable elements in the genome, often called “jumping genes.” Her research focused on corn, and describing her work she said, “You let the material tell you where to go, and it tells you at every step what the next has to be.”

In reflecting on the Nobel Prize, she called it “an extraordinary honor. . . . It might seem unfair . . . to reward a person for having so much pleasure over the years, asking the maize plant to solve specific problems and then watching its responses.” [1]

When I read about Dr. McClintock, born in 1902, I was awed by her determination to be a scientist. She was so passionate and persistent that she simply didn’t let obstacles get in her way. The article in Smithsonian Magazine that these quotations came from captured the joy she experienced in her work. I wonder how much of that joy came from the fact that she experienced corn plants as her partners in the research.

I wonder how we might pray to listen to God’s creation more closely. I wonder if we are missing guidance for our lives because it seems a bit weird to ask God to help us hear plants or rocks speaking to us. My desk, where I write these blog posts, looks out at our back yard where three trees thrive. If I asked, I bet God would help me hear what the trees are trying to teach me about being rooted in rich soil waiting for the rain or about flowering after a cold winter. I wonder how God would answer if I prayed about what the clouds might teach me.

I don’t have to wonder what Mount Rainier might say because it (she?) speaks to me all the time. I’ve written in detail about Mount Rainier’s voice in my life (here and here). Reading about Dr. McClintock made me wonder how I can open myself to more of God’s voice to me in unexpected ways and places, and how I might pray for that.   

(Illustration by Dave Baab: Mount Rainier from the Columbia Tower in downtown Seattle. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under "subscribe.")

Some of my favorite posts in my series "Nature speaks about God":

[1] “A Life of Discovery” by Jennifer Doudna, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2023, page 25.

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