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Listening and the conversion of St Paul

Five years ago today, on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, I was consecrated Bishop of Sheffield.  It was on a freezing cold Sunday morning in York Minster with over 2,000 people present in that great church from all over the Diocese of Sheffield and from different points of connection in my own life.  It was an unforgettable day and one I will remember for the rest of my days.

The past five years have been rich, deep, demanding and humbling.  It’s taken me some time to grow into the ministry and the role.  As I’ve said on other occasions, I’ve found throughout my ministry that stepping into a new role is rather like putting on a coat which is several sizes too big.  When I was a child, it was always the case that a new school blazer had sleeves that were much too long.  I had to grow into them and then out of them before there could be a new one.

The story of the conversion of Paul is connected to Psalm 95 by the theme of hearing God’s voice.  It’s not impossible that both Saul and Ananias had read Psalm 95 in the days before the encounter on the Damascus Road.  Saul hears the voice of the risen Lord speaking to him (though those travelling with him hear nothing).  The voice confronts and shakes Saul to his core.  His whole life is turned around.  The persecutor of the Way becomes its greatest advocate.  The one who seeks to murder others will in time die for his faith.  The voice of God overcomes the hardness of Saul’s heart, he turns from his rebellion, he follows in the Way.

Saul’s conversion is a reminder that the second half of the Psalm, like the first, is not addressed only to those who are already part of God’s people.  The call to come and worship the Lord is addressed to the whole world.  The invitation to listen to his voice is similarly a call not just to the worshippers but to every person God has made to listen, to come into a relationship of love and obedience and to find the source of life.

But what happens to Saul is only part of the story. Fully half of the account in Acts 9 is about another person who listens to the voice of God.  Ananias is listening to God that day.  He hears the call to go and seek out Saul.  He has not hardened his heart to what God may be doing even in this persecutor of the faith.  Listening means obedience.  Because Ananias heard and obeyed, Saul is brought to faith and baptized and begins his ministry.

Pray today and through this coming year that many who are like Saul in your community would hear the voice of God speaking to them as they travel about their business and be transformed.  Pray today and through the coming year that you and I (and many in the church) would hear God’s word to us to welcome specific people into the life of God’s church.I am very thankful that I will be spending the fifth anniversary of my consecration with 200 young people from across the Diocese at our first young people’s development day.  Please pray for us and for me as God helps me to keep growing into the role.

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year

Uncomfortable words

“Harden not your hearts”

The Psalm now commends to us something we need to avoid if we are to hear God’s voice today as we attend to scripture in private prayer and public worship.  Something more than stillness and attention is required.

We are not to harden our hearts: we are to be open to receiving what God would say to us.

The heart in the Hebrew bible is not the centre of romantic love and emotion but the centre of our will: the centre of our being and the place where decisions are made.

To listen without hardening our hearts is to come open to acting on what we hear.  This is not simply listening with a view to saying :”That’s interesting or comforting”.  This is listening with a view to saying: “Now I must do something in response”.  This is listening which is prepared to say: “Here I am, send me”.

One of the images underlying the idea of hard hearts is the picture taken from agriculture.  God tells us through the prophets to “plough up our unploughed ground” within (Jeremiah 4.3 and Hosea 10.12).  Before the seed is sown in the spring, the soil is broken up with the plough. One of the key parts of this operation is breaking up the deeper levels of soil.  Unless this happens the seed lies on the surface and is snatched away (as in the parable of the sower).

Hearts become hard through disobedience (as we shall see in the next verse).  Hearts become hard through pride, thinking too much of ourselves.  Hearts become hard through comfort and overconsumption.

These are the words of Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel”:

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor, God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt and the desire to do good fades” (2).

Earlier generations who preached the gospel in Britain knew and understood that a vital part of that preaching of the gospel was to call the Church to repent of their hardness of heart towards God and towards others and to hear God’s voice afresh and in such a way as their own lives would change.  Evangelism is about far more than methods or techniques: it is about the Church becoming absorbed again with the holiness of God.

Repentance for the state of our hearts is therefore part of our response to Psalm 95 and part of our response to the Lord who came and preached in Galilee: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Repentance in Greek is “metanoia”: a change of heart and mind.

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year