When I became the vicar of Good Shepherd Mission in Navajo Nation, it was difficult to preach because of the way the elders of the church would listen. They would bow their heads, close their eyes and adopt a very serious face-not far from a frown. I learned that they did this because of the importance of the subject. Now, when I really want to hear, I adopt the same posture.
Today, most of us, regardless of where we come from, do not listen like elders. This can be seen in the way we listen to scripture. The scriptures are, for most of us, a place we go to find support for our already shaped opinions, whether we are conservative or liberal. We listen for confirmation or, quite often, ammunition. We are most often not aware that we are doing it.
This attitude toward scripture has deeply affected the quality of Christian worship. For many contemporary Christians, worship has become little more than inspirational entertainment. Without a renewal of listening and hearing the word of God, no amount of worship reform or renewal will provide a remedy.
The gathering of the Christian community in worship is designed to unveil the living word of God in creation, history and our daily experience. Among other things, it reveals the height and depth of God’s presence in the everyday world. The word challenges and liberates. In that word, you can hear the heartbeat of a new world.
In recent years, thoughts like these have inspired many indigenous communities to revive the way in which the elders listened for the word of God in times past. It has had a profound and exhilarating impact on our understanding of what it means to be a community of faith. But it is not always an easy thing to do. We must become a listening community in order to truly find hope, freedom and happiness. Not that we seek those things or anything else first. If we seek God, as someone recently said at one of our meetings, we will find all the other things that we need. Hearing the word of God, then, is as close as you can get to the heart of what it means to gather in worship. This word has always been the change agent, never tamed, never content to serve merely human desires. Its trajectory is planned by God for a new heaven and a new earth.
Mark MacDonald is national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.