Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Speak to Me

The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3.10)


The United Church of Christ has a terrific motto: “God is still speaking.” My heart skips a beat every time I see it displayed on a UCC edifice, publication, or Website. Yes! I say. Our deafness can’t break God’s will to speak. Though we muffle His voice with every kind of noise, He won’t be silent. At the same time, what He says is too sacred to be subjected to shouting matches. Only hearts and minds trained to tune out human racket will discern His voice. Unfortunately, the communication frenzy overtaking our lives further compounds the interference. It’s tough to quiet facts, gossip, and opinions dancing in our heads long enough to fall asleep. After being constantly assaulted by voices competing for our attention in all sorts of tones—from violently shrill to seductively dulcet—when we find we are able tune into God’s wavelength it’s easy to attribute His voice to another source. What we learn from Samuel’s story makes our chatty culture all the more lamentable. God’s voice has always been difficult to identify, even in primitive days of silence.

Samuel is a miracle baby, an answer to his mother, Hannah’s, prayers. After failing to conceive, she vows if God brings her a son, she’ll give him to Eli, the high priest, to train for ministry. So Samuel grows up studying by day and spending his nights at rest before the ark, the temple site reserved exclusively for God’s living presence. One night, with the elder priest bedded down elsewhere, a voice calls the lad’s name. “Here I am,” he answers, thinking Eli wants him. When Eli doesn’t respond, Samuel goes to ask what he needs. “It wasn’t I,” Eli says. “Lie back down.” The incident repeats itself twice. By the third time, Eli figures it out. (He’s always been a tad slow on the uptake. He mistook Hannah’s demonstrative prayers for a son as drunkenness, and has stupidly ignored God’s warning that his sons slated are criminally unfit for priesthood.) After Eli realizes Samuel is hearing God’s voice, he instructs the boy, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” (1 Samuel 3.9) Samuel does as he’s told. Once he confirms he’s on God’s wavelength, God speaks.

Open Ears

The story opens with this observation: “In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.” We’re challenged to wonder why that is. From Genesis to Joshua, barely a chapter ends without God talking to His people or sending word via visions, dreams, or angelic visitations. Why is God so noticeably silent in Samuel’s time? If we flip back to chapter 2, we discover God never stopped speaking. His word doesn’t reach His people because Eli and his sons are deaf to His voice. Verse 13 says, “Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD.” In a nutshell, they treated the sacraments with contempt and exploited their priestly office for sexual favors. When Eli confronts them with this, they blow the old man off. But worse than that, he continues to allow it. God sends a prophet to indict his apathy, asking, “Why do you honor your sons more than me?” The priest has no excuse, yet not even this moves him to get the situation under control. And so it is God calls to Samuel in the night, speaking to an innocent whose open ears are impervious to the taunts of corruption, greed, desire, and fear. Samuel’s purity places him in prime position to hear God clearly and accurately.

Lessons in Listening

This little story houses the pivotal moment in one of the Bible’s most influential figures. What Samuel experiences that night conditions him to stay attuned to God’s voice for the remainder of his life. And what a life it is! His listening skills supersede the duties of priest, lifting him to the highest station in Israel’s theocratic structure. He becomes God’s mouthpiece—the nation’s prophet extraordinaire who conveys what God says and wants to Israel’s kings. From this moment on, Samuel places himself at his Maker’s disposal and even when the country and its leaders stray from God’s will, he remains true. In return, God stays true to Samuel. Verse 19 of the third chapter tells us, “The LORD remained with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground.”

The story also provides us invaluable lessons in listening, offering explicit examples of what to emulate and what to avoid. Where Samuel first hears God speak cannot be overlooked. He’s as close as he can possibly get to God’s presence. Then, once he’s convinced the voice belongs to no one else, he answers, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (v10) This inexperienced child is in position to listen because he’s where he needs to be physically and spiritually. His thoughts, aspirations, and concerns aren’t impeded by what he wants to hear. His ears are wide open to everything God says.

God is still speaking—if not always audibly, most certainly by imparting His thoughts and direction via open channels in our hearts and minds. Our receptivity depends on how close we stay to His presence, how well we guard against interference from selfish and corrupting noise, and how willing we are to trust what He says. Once we reach the place where we’re confident and ready to hear Him, when He calls us by name, we can answer, “Speak to me. I’m listening.”

Proximity to God’s presence, clarity of thought, and willingness to trust are the keys to hearing Him speak to us.

(Tomorrow: Fresh Regard)

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