Listening and Acting

Samuel 3:1-10, 16-20; 2 Corinthians 4:6-7

A number of years ago, the United Church of Christ embarked on a theological public relations campaign, focusing on the affirmation “God is still speaking.” While it is a powerful affirmation, it provoked in many circles the question, “Is anyone listening?”

While many persons believe that God sets the world in motion and then gets out of the way, letting nature and human decision-making take their course, and never being involved in the details of our lives, the call of Samuel presents a different vision – God is at work in our lives, whispering in the night, giving us guidance, and awaiting our response. God speaks to a young boy, inviting him to go on adventure of faithful leadership.

The question of call or vocation is central to our lives. Dag Hammarksjold, whose spiritual diary “Markings” is one of my favorite inspirational texts tells of his own experience:

I don’t know Who – or what – put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and, that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal. From that moment I have known what it means “not to look back” and “to take no thought for the morrow.”

For Hammarskjold, this subtle and yet powerful inclination led him

to devote his life, as General Secretary of the United Nations, to the cause of world peace and justice. His faith was quiet, and few people realized the depth of his spiritualty, until his diary was discovered following his death.

Samuel is an unlikely person to receive a divine call to leadership. He is young and inexperienced. He’s just a helper in the Temple, and though Eli is mentoring him, he’s theologically unsophisticated. Yet, one night, he hears a call. Was it an audible voice? Or, a whisper in his ear? Could it have been a waking dream, or a deep sense of Presence coming from beyond his conscious mind?

Samuel listens, and races to Eli. “Did you call me?” Eli sends him back to be bed. The call comes a second and third time, and Eli finally realizes that God is involved in Samuel’s experience, and sends him back with the with guidance to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant listens.”

God’s call to Samuel was not dramatic. Perhaps, you’ve had a similar call, a sense of guidance, a quiet wisdom beyond your abilities, a deep inclination toward a certain action. It might have come as a turning point in your life or it might have occurred over a several year period, but something drew you forward in the midst of your daily life and relationships toward “something more,” toward a life work, a relationship that would change everything, a cause around which you would devote the rest of your life.

Now, I take my prayer life seriously, and I have used various types of contemplative prayer on daily basis since October 1970, when, as a college freshman, I learned Transcendental Meditation. But I must admit that most of the time, my spiritual insights are low temperature, barely noticeable and subtle; they come in the form of inclinations, or a sense of amazement, or the feeling that I am the right person at the right place and the right time.

Sometimes I envy those persons who have psychedelic call stories in which the heavens open up and God clearly speaks to them. But, I didn’t have a dramatic call to ministry or teaching, just a sense that it was the right path for me, that it was my gift. I first studied to be a theologian and philosopher of religion, then midway through graduate school, I had an inclination that haunted me over several months. I felt a call to give something back to the church that changed my life.

While I receive a sense of rightness in my work on a regular basis, my daily sense of call comes through my gifts and encounters, many of them involving you today. My dream was simply to be a college professor, but the call led me to a unique ministry that joins heart, head, and hands, that takes me from the hospital room to the study, the counseling session to research, responding to neighborhood controversies and teaching a class on prayer, sometimes in course of an afternoon.

In those moments, I feel like Eric Liddell of “Chariots of Fire,” the Flying Scot, who asserted, “God made me fast and when I run I feel God’s pleasure.”

Don’t let dramatic stories you read on the internet or from testimonies others stand in the way of listening to God’s voice in your life. When the prophet Elijah finds himself at crossroads, he discovers that God is not in the dramatic thunder and lightning, but in a still small voice. The apostle Paul, who had dramatic experiences of God, confessed that God’s Spirit is more active in quiet intercessions, guiding us gently, “in sighs too deep for words.”

God’s call to you may be as simple as a woman I once met at a Soup Kitchen in Washington DC. She treated everyone, tattered and smelly, sometimes unpleasant, with grace. When asked why she was so cheery, she responded, “One day Jesus is coming down the line and I want to treat him good!”

I believe that God is still speaking! That Samuel’s nocturnal experience is not exceptional but comes to us as we pick up a grandchild, reach out to a neighbor, read a devotional book, or feel the tug of care for a vulnerable person or a clear injustice.

I believe that God is still speaking to our church. We have this treasure, our gifts and history, and we have the needs of the world all around us. We know our treasure is in clay jars; we are for most part humble people, who know we don’t have all the answers. Yet, our prayerful visioning process is leading us toward embracing in our own unique and fallible way, God’s possibilities for our church at this time – a place of hospitality for all people, a beacon of hope for the vulnerable, a building where people can experience safety, healing, and inspiration, a home for children to know they are loved, they matter, and can explore their questions and gifts, a ministry that joins Sunday in the sanctuary with spirituality on the beach and Main Street, a place where people can explore their faith without fear or judgment.

One night, God came to Samuel, and today God comes to us. Perhaps, the only prerequisite for God’s hearing call is openness and the willingness to respond, “Speak Lord, I am listening” and then in the listening find the pathway, commitment, and courage to go forward toward horizons of grace.

I want to close with words of another great spiritual guide Albert Schweitzer, who joined theology with ministry and mission in Africa:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.