“A bell sounds …” Bells sound less often these days. In days gone by the sound of a bell could come from any one of a number of things: the approach of a fire engine, police car or ambulance, for example, would be heralded by a ringing bell. It said, ‘this is urgent; don’t hold me up.’ Wherever it was heard, the sound of a bell carried a message.
And, of course, there was the telephone … the name of its inventor almost dictated that an incoming call should be announced by the sounding of a bell. Where we say today, ‘I’ll call him’, or ‘I’ll text him’, the expression then would have been ‘I’ll give him a ring’: we spoke specifically of ‘ringing’ someone.
Just look at your smart phone. Think for a moment how many different ways it enables us to communicate with each other. One little instrument incorporates telephone, e-mail, facilities for more instant written communication like SMS or Messenger and many ways of contacting lots of people at once, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
Communication is something we take for granted. It’s so familiar that we probably don’t actually consider that it is a two-way business. In the old sense, it involved a speaker and a listener, who alternate those roles. And today, if you send an e-mail or a text, think how frustrating it can be if – for whatever reason – you don’t get a reply, at least within the hour!
Prayer, too, is two-way. It is, after all, just a special word to mean communication with God so, of course, it’s two-way just like any other communication. It’s easy to think of it as us spelling out our feelings or wants – usually wants – to God, but how often do we actually think of waiting – listening! – for an answer. More often than not, we come to the end of our list, say ‘Amen’, and wait for things to happen, while we get on with the rest of our lives.
But a few minutes’ silent reflection about what we’ve been asking for gives God a chance to respond. At the very least, it can open our minds to be aware of something expressing God’s reply: maybe something very direct that we can’t miss; maybe a relevant comment from someone we meet later in the day. The nature of His responses varies, but inevitably God does answer our prayers, even if not by granting our every desire!
Psalm 95 reminds us of the importance of listening to God and trusting that he will hear and respond: “Today, if only you would hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me;” (Ps. 95:7-9). This refers to the time when the Israelites complained that they had no water (Exodus 17:7). They were so convinced that God couldn’t deliver them that they lost faith in Him completely. Instead, they wanted Moses to take them back to Egypt, to the ‘devil they knew’. Their hardened hearts eventually led to God’s rejection of them completely.
Some people speak of ‘keeping short accounts with God’ If you’ve upset someone, it’s easier to apologise immediately than to return a week later to put things right; by then a firm reluctance to do anything about it has already taken hold. The same is true with God. It is so very easy to let sin build up, and as it does so, a barrier grows, separating us from God’s grace. In another Psalm, we can read of the joy of someone who cried out to God instead of letting sin build up in his heart (Psalm 66:16-20).
Even if you aren’t good at remembering Bible verses, this one should be easy. It’s God’s ‘phone number’: Jeremiah 33:3, “Call to me and I will answer you.” In the ensuing verses, the prophet explains how God will heal His people and give them peace and security … if only they will turn to Him. He longs for us to keep in touch and, in the case of God, the way we do that is by prayer: talking and listening.