In today’s gospel reading from the Gospel according to John, Jesus says that his followers are like sheep who follow the sound of his voice, to eternal life. John also describes Jesus as in unity with the Father, so that anyone who is in union with Jesus is also already in union with the Father.
It’s worth asking what it means to hear the sound of the Lord’s voice. How do we know what God’s voice sounds like? Scripture offers one way. We can consider the kind of person that Jesus was, as reported in the Gospels, and how he embodies what it means to be fully human. Jesus was humble, humble enough to describe himself as akin to a shepherd, and his friends as akin to sheep! Clearly, he wants us to feel comfortable with our “creatureliness,” too—we who are a mix of gift and talent and also weakness and limits. Jesus is loving and compassionate, interested in healing and reconciliation. He is willing to cross borders to go to those who are socially marginalized (women, Samaritans, lepers). He is willing to challenge religious authority, and to affirm faith in unlikely people and places.
Jesus also remains close to his Father in prayer, and often goes off for a bit to pray in the midst of his busy days of ministry. I constantly need this reminder as an academic–this week I have been grading finals, and it helps to remember that even Jesus needed a respite to sit in silence and connect to God and to others in a different way! Along with Scripture, we also can hear the sound of Jesus’ voice in our own prayer, in moments of consolation that bring a sense of peace, freedom, hope, love and joy–and sometimes challenge.
A long time ago, a friend of mine told me that he thought gratitude is at the heart of prayer. Over the years, I have come to understand how true this is, despite the simplicity of the idea. When we are grateful for what we already have, in the present moment, God is also speaking to us and becomes present in and through our relationships, nature, and all the blessings that we enjoy.
Of course, in practice, this is not always easy. My friend, Faith, was at the prison retreat that I referenced in last week’s blog post. I told her about what the day before, Saturday, had looked like, and she suggested it was worthy of a blog post. (Thanks, Faith!) Last Saturday morning, I checked my checking account online, only to find that a medical copay for 25 dollars had been cashed by the recipient’s ATM machine in the amount of 2500, thus clearing out all the funds from that particular account, and also charging me a 39 dollar bank fee! After clearing up that issue by phone, I decided to let go of it, and go to enjoy playing bridge at a friend of a friend’s house. It was a lot of fun, but when I left the apartment, the dog there inexplicably became aggressive as I was leaving, and attacked my leg and bit me through my jeans. So then I had to take care of the puncture wound, call my doctor, and check on the rabies vaccine. After that, I took my car in for regular maintenance only to be told that I needed a repair that this place did not do, but that it was urgent as if the piece (an inner tie rod) broke completely, I would lose control of all the steering. So I went, at 6 pm, to another mechanic, who then reported that they were out of this part, and so was their supplier.
Everyone has days like this, or weeks or months with exceptional stresses. Some events are out of our control, whether smaller examples like these, or larger losses such as death or serious illness. However, even in these moments, we can attempt to find places to feel gratitude. For example, I was grateful that I was wearing jeans when the dog bit me, and that the bite really did not hurt much in comparison to other pains I’ve experienced (eg, childbirth). The mechanic at the last place was extremely kind to me and called around to make sure that he could find the part and complete the work for me. My friend, Faith, was a sympathetic ear: sometimes it just helps to be able to express in words our difficulties to others, so that we can feel heard and then move on.
In my (limited) experience, Jesus’ voice always draws us back to the present, and to gratitude for the good gifts that we have been given. Life is not perfect, but even in those events and relationships that are not perfect, there is a lot for which to be grateful. Gratitude fosters interior peace and tranquility. Gratitude cultivates love and reconciliation between individuals and communities. Gratitude helps us to “find God in all things” and to discover that Jesus’ voice is very much present in the moment at hand—not the past or future, but our lives today—calling to us to follow him into relationships of greater love, justice, and peace.