Listening for God’s Call

British philosopher, Onora O’Neill is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, a former President of the British Academy, held the Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. Until October 2006, she was the Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, and was in chair in the Equality and Human Rights Commission until April 2016. O’Neill presented a Ted Talk a few years ago in which she offered the idea that our society was suffering from a crisis of trust. Whether it be an individual, corporation, or at the government or educational level, she described a remarkable degree of cynicism in the manner in which we increasingly approach people and institutions with suspicion and mistrust. Baroness O’Neill furthers the idea that our trust level has plummeted shown by the emergence of the belief that people and institutions that we have looked to for protection, for security, for the general well-being, are more and more suspect and are in fact a disappointment. The Baroness explains that we feel mistrustful when we suspect that someone’s agenda has nothing to do with our agenda which causes us to feel powerless and out of control. Ultimately if/when I feel that I can trust you, I am in fact, more in control and that causes me to trust you even more. When we realize, however, that the other person is not looking out for us in the way that we feel that we deserve, then the wall of trust begins to show its first crack and it tends to take less and less before a full break in trust occurs. This happens when something that you or we wanted/needed/expected is compromised, then suddenly our life teeters out of control and we begin to doubt others in a manner in which the relationship is suddenly suspect. It was Stephen Covey who once said, “Trust is the glue of life. It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

Let me tell you a story in which trust is the most critical component and see how it not only affected the person who was struggling, but who caused others to lose their own confidence as well. We will call him Joe for now because to use his real name would color our ability to see his story from a new and different perspective. Joe was a hard-working guy who was handed a task that literally turned his stomach. In no way shape or form did he have the gumption to fulfill the task he had been asked to do. He just didn’t have the heart for it. In short, Joe was asked to travel to a new place that in itself was not the problem. He was asked to travel to a cultural and industrial center known for its progressive appeal. But the people. It’s always the people, isn’t it! Joe could not stand the people and although he lived a bit further from here to Calgary (approximately 730 km), he just could not stomach the challenge to go and work with a people that he detested. Although the city was great, culturally, the people were rude, immoral and hateful. Joe had no doubt about what would happen if he went and did the work that he had been asked to do. He never questioned that. What he was dead set against is in knowing the people would indeed make the changes that needed to be made, deep within he felt they deserved worse, much worse. They deserved to be the victims of their own rudeness, immorality and hatefulness.

What kind of people in your mind would you compare to the people Joe was asked to go and help? Are there those you might secretly wish would be the victims of their own hatred? You are seeing that language and attitude about an increasing number of people that we may feel are wrong. Hang them high. Let them face the destruction of their own behaviour. Perhaps, there are even individuals that you avoid because you detest their attitude and just cannot stand to be anywhere near. Then you understand where Joe was coming from when he received the work order and instead took the first ferry in the opposite direction. It makes sense. He would not be a party to anything good that might happen to those people. Notice that Joe never doubted himself. He never questioned the change process that he is asked to play a role in through the work that he is to do with these people. To the contrary, Joe knew that the opposite would happen and that the despised people would not face their own destruction that he so hoped for them. He thought the easiest solution would be for him alone to take a slow boat in the opposite direction. Isn’t that always best? Get away from people that offend us. Steer clear. Steering clear is what Joe tries to do, until his life becomes enmeshed in the lives and fates of those he encounters as he heads in the opposite direction. Consider it or not, whenever we are avoiding someone or something, refusing the truth about what that says about US more than what it says about the people we are trying to avoid. We can label the people “there” as the problem when deep within is a glaring boil that is waiting to rupture within our own heart.

As Joe ran in the opposite direction suddenly calamity met him and involved those who were accessories to his retreat. The lives of those innocently involved in Joe’s haste to head in the opposite direction almost met the same fate that Joe wished upon his actual enemies. Strange isn’t it, that the calamity that we want to avoid is often the very calamity that we stumble into unwittingly and tragically bring others into that calamity along with us.

At the deep underbelly of this story is a factor that we might not have immediately picked up on. Underlying it all is a question of trust. I have already suggested that Joe trusted himself but to arrive at the deeper issue of trust it is time for the big reveal of who Joe actually is and how his story has more to do with trust than we might have ever imagined. Joe, you see, is actually named Jonah and suddenly you see, if not already, the rest of the story has to do with a difficult choice that God asked Jonah to make. “Jonah, travel 750 km that way and work with the people whom you detest.” “No, God, I would rather take a slow boat in the opposite direction because “I knew that you would do exactly with these people the opposite of what I most wanted. I want their destruction. They need to be punished for their cruelty and sinfulness and I knew that you were too loving, gracious and kind to be down with their destruction.”

The bottom line for Joe (uh, Jonah) is that he just could not bring himself to trust God to move in the direction he wanted and instead chose to move, himself in the opposite direction. What does your movement in life reveal about who you trust? It’s often easiest to trust yourself, isn’t it? Remember the Baroness indicated that it is when we feel out of control and powerless that trust is at its lowest ebb. That crisis of trust breaks down when it reveals our lives are spinning out of control and we cannot trust that others will be there for us in the way that we expect them to be. Jonah’s life spun out of control when during the rest of the story the lives of the crewmen on the ship reasoned that the deadly storm had more to do with the stranger on board than with the expected weather forecast and their only option to save themselves was to sacrifice the preacher. Overboard with you and watch out for the hungry fish in the area. Jonah’s prayer over the next three days uttered in the depths of his destruction reveals that once and for all, he was forced to come to grips with his lack of trust. His movement away from God revealed that he actually did not trust God to do in his life and in the lives of those he most had issue with. Our movement from day to day reveals who we trust and who we actually do not. Obviously, it goes without saying that most of us trust ourselves the most. Why shouldn’t we? We know ourselves best. Our trust in ourselves means that we remain in control, often to the exclusion of being able to trust others and most often to trust that God knows us best, loves us most and will work out that love in our lives and in the lives of others not to our satisfaction but to His. That last statement may make you reserve a place on the next ferry headed in the opposite direction emotionally and spiritually. Often, we just cannot stomach the thought of anyone else (even God) working in our lives not to our satisfaction but to His. In whom do you trust? Do you really feel that you can trust God enough to work out the details of your life, to work in the lives of those with whom you disagree the most and even clear up some of the messes that we make as we move in the opposite direction of trust?

God is described by the Psalmist as the fortress in which we feel safe. He saves and honors us. The Psalmist quotes God when he says, “I heard God say two things: I am powerful, and I am very kind.” The message to us says much about our need to rebuild trust with one another – one at a time. The clue is to kill criticism in our lives. Be the product of God’s belief that He and He alone have the power to help us make the changes that we can rise above our own destruction. Jonah did not believe that change was warranted in the lives of his enemies, so he was determined to not invest once ounce of compassion in them. What about us? We can display sour attitudes in a caustic, and critical world and do nothing but heap more of the same on the heads of those that don’t live up to our expectations. One thing is sure – our ever being able to elicit change in anyone is impossible but our ability to dump shame and guilt on top of people who live nothing like their potential suggests is immeasurable.

Several years ago, Michael Lerner wrote a book called “The Politics of Meaning.” Lerner said that too often we give up on our deepest held values of compassion, caring and community because they do not seem practical in the real world. Instead, an ethos of selfishness and materialism prevails by default (the politics of distrust or mistrust, if you will). These are the values that we settle for when our deeper values seem out of reach. We may not be able to bring about racial reconciliation or even have the kind of relationships we want, but individualism tells us that we can pursue our own happiness. Ironically, these attitudes give us less freedom and power. Self-centeredness erodes community and makes puts trust at its lowest. Jonah’s way seems easier at first, but in the end, we will get thrown overboard and end up in as victims of the calamities of our own mistrust. Perhaps the story of this man and the recommendations we find in the Psalm indicate there is yet hope that trust can indeed be restored and reclaimed. It begins as we move in that direction – the direction where God will find us and call us His own. How might we move toward God in trust?