Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: Hearing God in Conversation by Samuel C. Williamson

Prayer is not a one-way street with us shouting petitions to God, and Scripture is not a one-way street of God broadcasting his commands at us. Both prayer and Scripture involve both hearing and speaking. We are participants, not spectators; dancers on the floor, not observers at the tables; actors on the stage, not onlookers in the theater. We are involved in a divine dialogue. - Samuel C. Williamson, Hearing God in Conversation

Let's be honest about something. There are a lot of books in the world about discerning God's will, listening for God's direction, and striving to hear God's voice in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It could be said that my own book fits into this category.

I recall that one of the first such books I read was one titled The Bush Won't Burn and I'm All Out of Matches, a reference to Moses' spectacular experience of hearing God speak through a burning bush, which kicked off his lifelong journey of leading the Israelites out from Egypt and toward the promised land. The idea as I recall was that we often seek a blatant, brilliant, or mystical experience of God's presence and speaking to us when God is much more often found in unexpected and subtle happenings, if anything even "happens" at all. There are many books that say these sorts of things, too.

So the question for every new book covering this topic is how it is unique. What new angle is the latest work exploring how to discern God's will going to tackle?

That was the question I had as I began reading Hearing God in Conversation by Samuel C. Williamson. Would he emphasize being open to the strange and mystical? Would he encourage readers not to look so hard for burning bushes and accept that God can move in the mundane? Would he suggest some combination of the two, or something else entirely? How would this book differentiate itself?

In a nutshell, the answer is in the book's title, which Williamson states early on: "The best relationship with God is conversational. Yes, he wants our petitions and praises, but mostly he just want stop talk with us. Don't worry, he'll always provide the guidance we need as well. But mostly we need a conversational relationship with him" (p. 41). Williamson's basic thesis is that a relationship with God involves both speaking and listening to God, not just one or the other.

From there, Williamson explores various ways we may be able to "hear" God's voice. In brief chapters, he provides an overview of how God may speak through the likes of scripture, prayer practices such as meditation, and the insight of others. Williamson's treatment of these topics are a little more evangelical in nature (the exclusively male language for God being a strong indicator), but he handles them with care and at times acknowledges that God speaking through scripture, for instance, may not necessarily mean a literal reading.

In fact, while Williamson doesn't use or express knowledge of the terminology, his proposed method for praying with scripture is a form of lectio divina, where he encourages the reader to read through a series of texts and then come back to a passage, phrase, or word that seemed to resonate. One of his proposed tactics for meditation sounds very similar to how Ignatius of Loyola encouraged people making the Spiritual Exercises to envision possibilities and see themselves as part of what God is doing.

There is a certain danger of false expectations that some of Williamson's anecdotes could raise with readers. While he often cautions people to be discerning about whether a perceived message is from God, he shares many instances of personal encounters where he believes he really heard God's voice in some way, resulting in his taking on an action that produced an amazing result. In one instance, he approaches a complete stranger and shares that God said he was stealing money, with the two of them sharing a time of prayer and confession. I am not one to deny others such experiences because I believe that they are really possible and do occur, but there were points in the book where it seemed as if Williamson lifts these up as being the typical way God communicates.

Perhaps Williamson comes from a tradition where such encounters are more the accepted norm. And that makes me wonder about the appeal of the book to people with Christian backgrounds that are less charismatic. Maybe this will be an opening for some to consider that such messages from God are possible or maybe it will be a roadblock to his overall message of being in regular conversation with God.

Regardless, the central metaphor of conversation is, I thought, a good one, and does end up distinguishing this book from others I've read. Whether having a conversation with God should be taken literally or in more metaphorical ways through the regular practices he presents is ultimately up to the reader. There is room for both; a discerning conversation with this book is just as important as it would be with God.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)