Thursday, May 20, 2021

B-B-B-Betty in a Dress

Have you ever heard of a mondegreen?

That’s the technical word they give it when you listen to something, but you hear something different.

Apparently, people do it all the time when they’re listening to song lyrics, for example. There is some phrase that is sung, but their ear picks up something different, often with irrational results.

Want to see if you’ve ever mondegreened? Okay, if you have even a passing familiarity with popular music, you might be able to guess what famous songs produced the following mondegreens. (I’m guessing most of us are in middle age somewhere, so I’ll keep the examples a bit retro.)

Here we go:

“I’ll never leave your pizza burning.” (Rolling Stones)

“I get high, I get high …” (The Beatles)

“ ‘It was always burning,’ said the worst attorney.” (Billy Joel)

“There’s a bathroom on the right.” (CCR)

“Bring me a Tylenol.” (Steve Winwood)

If you know all of these (including the one that is the title: think Elton John), then I’m going to guess that you, like me, maybe had a bit of a misspent youth. Still, isn’t it funny how people can sing a song over and over without ever asking themselves why what they think the words say is such nonsense? It’s almost as though the words are just an extra instrument in the composition, and it’s their sound, not their sense, that does all the good stuff. So who worries if the message is blurred? The song still sounds so good.

Then there are the hymns. Never mind A Maze of Grapes. I wonder how many of us have sung about “Round John Virgin” at Christmas? And apparently even having the right sound-syllables doesn’t entirely cure this, judging by “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear”.

I think a lot of people have these kinds of experiences, and not just with songs and hymns. My wife tells me that when she was young she was amazed to hear the preacher tell us we are “butt-dust”. It seemed to her a touch indelicate to put it that way.

Why Does This Happen?

It seems that sometimes sound just takes over from sense. Apparently, this phenomenon, the mondegreen, happens almost instantly, as soon as the words hit the ear. The brain interprets the input according to whatever it considers the most plausible or meaningful clump of words already dwelling in its data bank and cranks out a result to the consciousness. If the consciousness does not come online to double-check, then the awareness of the listener just goes blissfully forward as if nothing’s wrong. And you end up singing — or thinking — nonsense.

Monding in the Greens

We human beings are aesthetic creatures, and we can often be lulled into a state of blissful unawareness by things that seems comfortable, beautiful or reassuring to us. I can’t tell you how many long sermons I’ve endured; but I’ve mastered the trick of letting the voice slide into the back of my awareness and become a mere drone, while my imagination does its own thing. When the message is done, I often couldn’t tell you more than a few words of it, and I’ll bet if I recounted what I heard, in many cases, the speaker himself would say, “I never said that!”

“Take care how you listen,” the Lord told us.

Not “Take care what you listen to” (though that’s probably good advice too), but rather, “Take care how you listen.” There are those, he said, who have ears, but have no “ears to hear”. That is, they listen, but they are not really in a mental disposition to submit to the authority of the message they are supposed to be receiving. They are letting words that are pointed to them slide by, as if they were directed to someone else. They might even be able to repeat the words verbatim: but they would not imagine that there was anything those words had to convey to them.

A Non-Prophet Organization

“To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear?” laments Jeremiah. “Behold, their ears are closed and they cannot listen.” Of course he could say the words to wayward Israel: he could never get them to hear, though. They weren’t in that frame of mind.

Still worse is the situation the Lord describes to Ezekiel:

“Behold, you are to them like a sensual song by one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; for they hear your words but they do not practice them.”

I suppose that Israel was happy to have a prophet among them. He spoke well, I would imagine. Maybe it was reassuring to hear him thunder, and encouraging to think that while there were surely no prophets among the nations, at least Israel had the goods.

But no part of the message struck them as a message for them — instead, it struck them as reassuring stuff they already knew, or new stuff that was not really applicable to them … but in any case, stuff about which they really did not need to bestir themselves.

They had a prophet, but no profit.

Taking it to Heart

We are responsible for what we have heard. We are not just responsible for doing what it told us to do, but we are responsible for it even if we didn’t really hear it. That is, even if we let the word slide past us, the way the Pharisees and ancient Israel so often did. It doesn’t even matter if we didn’t really hear the right sense; that too is our responsibility, to receive, think over and process the word of the Lord as it comes to us. If we do not, it is not God’s fault. It is assuredly our own, a clear indicator of the kind of obdurate, self-confident heart that takes no thought for the Lord or his will. In fact, when we listen to the word of the Lord, we ought to “tremble”.

Yep, that’s right: be scared. Because the minute the Lord speaks, you are responsible to do all that you have heard, even if you say you didn’t really “hear” it that way. No wonder the Israelites cried out to Moses, “Let not God speak to us, or we will die.” Yep, when God speaks you’d better listen; and when he’s done, the responsibility falls on you to obey. And I guess they thought they had to come up to a pretty high standard … one they knew they could not reach. So it was better not to hear at all.

Gracious Words

However, they were wrong, at least in one sense. The Lord is very gracious: it is enough for him that a person “trembles at his word”, and he says, “to this one I will look”. He looks out for “him who is humble and contrite of spirit”. He does not then leave the trembling hearer to work out how to obey all by himself; rather, the Lord will “fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, and this “so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him.” So we are not alone struggling to come up to the moral perfection of the word of God, expected to be perfect but armed only with our puny human strength. God is not so impatient as to demand us to be perfect right now, instantly, and not so uncaring as to leave us without power to be perfected, and not so weak that he cannot bring victory and glory out of our weakness. He can, and he will.

But we have to be on board with that. The desire for goodness and the work of faith has to start with us. We’ve got to want it. And wanting it means we have to listen to what he tells us to do to get it.

Get it?

His word to us is grace and life. His patience with us is vast, his love is immeasurable, and his power is limitless. But he calls on us to willingly listen, and having heard, to go and do the next step of what he wants us to do. We must walk the life, the life of faith, but we are all the time hand-in-hand with the Author and Perfecter of faith.

Now, Listen

When was the last time you heard God speak to you?

You heard me.

I don’t mean the last time a big, booming voice came out of heaven, nor the last time a feeling of ecstasy drove you to prophetic visions. I’m asking when was the last time you read the word of God or heard it preached, and said to yourself, “He’s talking to me; I’ve got to do that. I’ve got to change. I’ve been failing in this or that way, and I’ve got to stop it right now. I’ve got to do more. I’ve got to change my lifestyle. I’ve got to beg forgiveness for what I’ve failed to do so far, and now I’ve got to live my life differently from now on.

How many years has it been?


Has God stopped speaking, or have you stopped hearing?

Personal Confessions

I’ll tell you the truth: right now, I tremble to think of the number of salient exhortations from the Lord that I may have already let sail right by my ears. I’ve heard a lot of preaching; more than many people ever will, I suspect. And yet if I look at my life, I have to admit there isn’t as much to show for it as there should very likely be. God forgive me.

But maybe it’s time for me to do better. Maybe as I’m writing to you right now, this is God’s word coming home to me. And maybe it’s time I responded to God with the words Eli gave to Samuel …

“Speak, Lord; for your servant is listening.”

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