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.” 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.”
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.”
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.” 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.
 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
 T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Vintage, 2012) xiii.
 Ibid., 132.
 Ibid., xv.