Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Bells, Ashes, and hearing the Voice of God

Written by: on February 15, 2018


I’m training my puppy how to jingle

The tinkle bells

to go outside.

And I also strain to hear

The voice of God

Speaking to me,

I wonder if


I’m losing my hearing.

Or maybe God isn’t even jingling the bells.

But sometimes it might be like

The confusion I have

When our bird rings the bell in his cage

And I think it’s the puppy at the door.

Perhaps it’s not even God’s voice I think I hear,

but a bird’s bell.



I think the first time I remember being frustrated with someone talk about hearing God speak to them, we were living in Kenya. More than one conversation was repeated that went something like this: “God is calling us back to the States to work.” We heard that especially when things were challenging in the work. Or, “God wants to use this money to build this [fill in the blank] project; we can’t not do it.” We’d hear that when a project didn’t fit with our team’s goals. My husband and I started thinking about comments such as these as “playing the God card.”[1] The “God card” would get played in such a way as to shut down a conversation, suggesting that “you can’t argue with God, so you might as well go along with what I want to do.”

I mention this in light of reading T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, not to critique her thesis, but to recognize that we continually wrestle with how to understand the way God interacts with us in the present time. Luhrmann herself relates that common theme—wrestling—in the story of Jacob wrestling and being re-named: “Christians of all ages have wrestled with the difficulty of believing that God is real for them in particular, for their own lives and every day, as if the promise of joy were true for other people—but not for themselves.”[2]

I’m quite intrigued by this book, but admit I’m not sure yet how I (personally, as well as our congregation) fit into her thesis. Luhrmann suggests that evangelical Christianity

“solves the problem of presence with specific faith practices. The problem of presence is that an immaterial God cannot be seen, heard, smelled or felt in an ordinary way, and so worshippers cannot know through their senses that God is real… a problem particularly acute for churches that encourage an intimate personal relationship with the divine. So churches like the Vineyard teach congregants to find God in their minds and to discern which thoughts, images, and sensations might be God’s word.”[3]

I will be candid here: I just don’t make a very good evangelical. I have never heard God speak to me. God never “called” us to or from Turkana. We went (and left) because we believed God could use our gifts in that place for the building up of the Kingdom of God. We were willing to go and sought to honor God with our service. We moved various places and took various jobs since then, not because God sent us places, or told us to go. We did not feel a peace (or lack thereof) in making these decisions. We went because we are willing servants who saw opportunities to serve God in those places. I have never heard or felt the voice or presence of God in my mind. And yet… do I believe God is present among us? Absolutely.

Like the subjects Luhrmann observed, I love to imagine the richness of scriptural narratives. And recognizing that I cannot see the Holy Spirit among us, I often use the concept of the creative thinking process of imagination to consider the possible ways the Holy Spirit might be at work in this place. But like the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem, our only conclusion would be “It seemed good to us” (Acts 15:28). Nicole Unice, author of “Playing the God Card,” (see link in footnotes) put it this way: “It was not an audible voice or handwriting in stone [leading the Jerusalem council]. It was imperfect people working together to find a compromise, to move forward in unity so that the gospel could be preached effectively.” I cannot discount the way that God works, especially in others. But neither can I presume to suggest that God speaks to me.

At this point, I want to suggest that young people are ready to relate to God in a different way, no longer (simply) in the mind. Luhrmann writes that “each generation meets God in its own manner.”[4] Perhaps the pendulum is swinging in a new/old way.

For instance, last night, our low-church Christian Church observed Ash Wednesday for the first time. In a darkened chapel, candles were lit. We prayed Psalm 51 as a prayer of repentance together. We knelt and said a prayer of confession together. We stood to receive ashes on our foreheads, and then offered the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper to one another. (For my mainline friends, I’d guess this all seems very ordinary). Surprising to some of my colleagues—we had double the number of attendees than expected, and the majority of them were young people, even dating couples who’d skipped a fancy holiday dinner to consider their mortality. I suggest that the younger generation is looking for a relationship with God that is experiential (like the evangelicals in Luhrmann’s tale); but they are looking for external signs, images, and stories to connect with God, rather than hearing him speak internally to them.

[1] I recognize we didn’t coin the term, as others have used it as well: https://www.christianitytoday.com/women-leaders/2010/september/playing-god-card.html?paging=off

[2] T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Vintage, 2012) xiii.

[3] Ibid., 132.

[4] Ibid., xv.

About the Author

Katy Drage Lines

In God’s good Kingdom, some minister like trees, long-standing, rooted in a community. They embody words of Wendell Berry, “stay years if you would know the genius of the place.” Others, however, are called to go. Katy is one of those pilgrims. A global nomad, Katy grew up as a fifth generation Colorado native, attended college & seminary and was ordained in Tennessee, married a guy from Pennsylvania, ministered for ten years in Kenya, worked as a children’s pastor in a small church in Kentucky, and served college students in a university library in Orange County, California. She recently moved to the heart of America, Indianapolis, and has joined the Englewood Christian Church community, serving with them as Pastor of Spiritual Formation. She & her husband Kip, have two delightful boys, a college junior and high school junior.

13 responses to “Bells, Ashes, and hearing the Voice of God”

  1. Jim Sabella says:

    What an excellent post, Katy. Oh yes… the “God” card! We’ve called it I-want-my-own-way-no-matter-what card. In the context of the God card, I think leadership has a role in determining what is and is not God’s voice. I also feel community has a role in understanding God’s voice (Acts 15). But I also know that leaders and the community can be wrong—at times very wrong, people get hurt and so does the cause of Christ. So there is a constant tension there one that I look at as working out my salvation.

    Maybe my expression that I have heard God speak to me —not audably— and your expression that you’ve never heard God speak to you are, in essence, based on the same deep faith in God. A faith that believes that God walks alongside, sometimes lead, sometimes push us, but always with us. It’s not evangelical, it’s a life of faith in God expressed in words in a different way. Thanks, Katy. Great post!

    • Katy Drage Lines says:

      Yes, Jim, I wholeheartedly agree. Just because I don’t hear God speaking in my head doesn’t mean I don’t see the work of God around me or believe God is present with me– kind of like how the Pevensie kids walked along the edge of a cliff all night, and only in the morning realized Aslan had been between them and the edge all night. Hearing God and trusting the present reality of God are two different things. I think we agree.

  2. Mary says:

    “We went because we are willing servants who saw opportunities to serve God in those places. ”
    Katy, I suspect that is the experience of most of us. I see the hand of God in simple things, a seed turning into a plant that reproduces hundreds more seeds. I wonder how much of “hearing God speak” is tied up with needing proof that He exists?
    Young people are returning to church, but my experience is that they want it to be REAL and different from what their parents have. The number of Protestants joining the Anglican or Catholic church also suggests what you have noticed – they are looking for external signs and stories to connect them to God.
    Thanks for the link to the “God card”. I know what that is but never heard the term before.

    • Katy Drage Lines says:

      Thanks Mary. Yes, I see the hand of God at work all around us, especially in the natural world (what a miracle it is to see seeds transform into plants and fruit, etc.!) Compost, I LOVE compost, how God uses something rotting to fertilize new life. I grew milkweed in my front yard in CA just to watch the monarch caterpillars transform into beautiful butterflies.

  3. Great post, Katy!
    One of the things that I appreciated about this book is that I felt like the author took great pains and was both careful and respectful about these religious experiences – making the point multiple times that she wasn’t saying these experiences weren’t ‘real’….. At the same time, I did at a few points think something along the lines of – it doesn’t have to be either or.
    And that is what I would say to you – I might (MIGHT!) argue that you have certainly heard God speak, just not in the way that is being talked about can’t God ‘speak’ to you very clearly through your wisdom, understanding and faithful study and that the guiding of the Holy Spirit through those things can be the voice of God in a real way. Can’t it?

    • Katy Drage Lines says:

      I would absolutely agree, Chip. Luhrmann did such a wonderful job of respecting the people she was observing and learning from. My argument (and what you say more clearly here than I did), is that that experience may not be the *only* way to hear God. As Mary noted above, I see and learn from God working in the world, as well as the ways you suggest. My guess is that most people who are situated in (or from ) churches like the Vineyard, would find Luhrmann describing them well (as Jen beautifully attests); I found that she wasn’t writing about me. Which is okay, because it helps me understand those who she does describe.

  4. Stu Cocanougher says:

    I think we all have a “God Card” story to tell.

    Like when I ask people in our church to join us on a mission trip to Asia or Africa and they tell me “I just don’t feel CALLED to that part of the world?”

    I sometimes hold back my tongue from saying “So did you feel CALLED to take that 10 day Caribbean Cruise last summer?

    Could it be that communicating our selfish will, while telling others “God is leading me…” , is a truer example of “taking the Lord’s name in vain” than cursing?

    • Katy Drage Lines says:

      “Could it be that communicating our selfish will, while telling others “God is leading me…” , is a truer example of “taking the Lord’s name in vain” than cursing?”— well placed knife, there, Stu, spot on.

  5. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Katy i appreciated your reflections on our reading. One place I would disagree with you on is the assumption that this generation is not looking to hear the voice of God. I have encountered many young people who have said “God talks to them” and I do not believe they are “playing the God” card ? I have felt God speak to me on many occasions some of which literally saved my life. I am grateful to be able to hear him in this manner. I believe God is speaking to us on a regular basis and uses many mediums to do so. Thank you for sharing your life experiences with us!

    • Katy Drage Lines says:

      Three things C–
      1. it’s refreshing to be disagreed with occasionally here; seriously.
      2. I want to be careful here, because I *do not* believe that everyone who hears God speak is playing “the God card.” I believe, most of the time, people are humble enough to question and tread carefully within a community when God speaks to them, and the majority of those who respond to God in this way do just that. My concern is with the folks that “speak the language” of that environment so well that they can use it to manipulate situations for their own benefit (a la Stu’s examples).
      3. Young people– maybe we could say (as Chip suggests above), “both/and”? That perhaps some seek that internal conversation, while others look to external signs (and other ways).

  6. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Oh jeez, the God Card…that has been the number one reason I have been uncomfortable speaking up when I hear God speak. People tend to throw it around like a magic bullet, as you say, ending the discussion because who can argue with God? Turns out, hearing God can be a solo thing, but it’s pretty arrogant to assume I am the only one God is speaking to. I believe that even my own life decisions – no matter how clearly I think I have heard God – must be made in community. If I’m the only one hearing something, I may not be hearing correctly!
    I will piggy back on what Chip said, though. I think you heard from God, just in a different way than was talked about in this book. Aligning your heart and will with God’s, and looking for the ways you can serve, is certainly one way of hearing from God. I think that may be why we are seeing young people return to the rituals and mysteries of the church. It’s not that they don’t hear God personally – I know they do – but they realize better than our generation that the best way to hear and obey is to be immersed in the community and communion.

  7. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Yep, the “God-card” is a popular tactic of individuals favoring avoidance in relationships. Shuts down all communication. How can you argue with that? “Na-uh, God didn’t tell you that,” just doesn’t work. Reminds me of a guy in college who with all sincerity after dating him for 2 months, said: “God told me to marry you.” All I could think to respond with was, “Well, God didn’t tell me, but I’ll let you know if He does.” I don’t think he was expecting that. Shortly thereafter, I broke up with him and he found a new divinely appointed wife. Made me wonder who he was listening too.

    Interesting about the youth attending Ash Wednesday services. As you suggested, I think there is a craving among our young people for the outward expressions of the sacred. Maybe it fits in with the “vintage” trend. What was old is now new, like having trendy farmsteads again instead of suburbian homes. It feels a bit like we have lost our way and we are returning to the rituals of our roots. Keep me posted on if the “vintage sacred rituals” becomes a trend.

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