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“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
In the religious tradition of my childhood, a common phrase was “The Lord told me”. For the most part, this became code for “what I am about to do or say will need explaining or defending but I don’t have a good explanation or defense, so don’t ask me for one.” Or, it could mean, “what I’m about to say or do is entirely self-serving at the expense of everyone around me, and were it not for the Lord directing me, you might think it is utterly unconscionable.”
How I wish that the word of the Lord had been more rare in THOSE days! Much like Eli, the high priest, I grew weary of ever hearing the real thing again. And so I could understand why it was easy for Eli to ignore the voice that Samuel heard. Until, Samuel heard it the third time. Religious communities still use this pattern of discernment — the “three calls” — when interested persons approach them about joining up. After all, we are talking about “hearing God.” If that ability is at all similar to our ability to hear each other, the Bible ought to be bound in yellow caution tape.
Which is NOT to suggest that God doesn’t still communicate with us. But, wisdom says that we must recognize that, for as long as God has been communicating with us, we have become cynical about that communication and wary of folks putting words in God’s mouth. Some of that cynicism is apparent in Nathaniel’s response to Phillip’s saying that he’d “found the real thing” in Jesus.
“Is that so?”, asked Nathaniel. “When was the last time anything good came from Nazareth?!?” Choose your own disaster over the past 10 months. What I hear more than almost anything else from people I talk to is cynicism. We want to trust, and we are cautious about trusting. We want quick solutions, and we are suspicious about easy answers. We need, perhaps, to explore Samuel and Eli’s story to better understand our own.
Some quick background on each man. Samuel was, literally, an answer to prayer. The name in Hebrew means “God hears.” His mother Hannah released custody of him to the high priest Eli once he was weaned, so that Samuel could spend his entire life serving the Lord. But, for all that, Samuel had never actually “met” God.
Eli, the high priest, was something of a tragedy. He should have had a great life. He certainly had an admirable position in the religious life of the people. But, his parenting had failed, and his sons were notoriously not admirable. The light hadn’t completely gone out, but it had been a very long time since there was any religious energy in the tent of the tabernacle. Little wonder that the child handed over into his care had yet to actually learn anything about the God he was there to serve!
And, besides all of this, “visions were rare.” Oh, friends. We are in deep trouble when people are not only cynical, but when they quit seeing what is possible!
And so Samuel’s guileless obedience to what he thinks is Eli calling him manages over time to remind Eli that God is still there, and they are able to collaborate in the new era that opens. But the unfolding will not be without consequences for each man, now that the word of God can be heard once more and imagination has returned.
Religious life is a constant series of moments where guilelessness — not the same thing as gullibility — and cynicism meet in the practice of prayer which is our ground. Without prayer, the state of being without guile and being without hope can only produce a black hole that draws the life out of one’s soul.
But, by connecting the two points to the third point of prayer, constant, daily practice of prayer, in many different forms — from the psalter, to petitions, intercessions, praise, thanksgiving, lament — the two force fields aid each other and generate positive energy.
I have to remember that the dynamic between these three can sometimes move one’s universe in surprising directions. Following decades of corrupt judges who happened to be the sons of the priests, the people of Israel would eventually reject their present form of governance and insist that they be given a king like their neighbors. In the end, God basically charged Samuel with the task of anointing his replacement in consecrating Israel’s first king.
Learning more about our religious ancestors is important, because patterns have a way of repeating. And the sooner we prepare for the possibility that the word of the Lord may take us in a new direction, the better off we will be. Which, brings me back to my caution at the beginning when “hearing God” is language used too easily. Callously attributing the outrageous to God is to me “taking the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
Critical thinking has its place, along with guilelessness, as long as both are grounded in prayer. All roads to God lead to prayer, because prayer is the channel that connects us to the heart of God. This is why the Practice of Prayer is the first focus in our new School for Christian Practice. It is the foundation on which everything else rests securely, and the source of quiet thought.
Jesus doesn’t just talk about prayer. We are able to see him pray as he seeks the wisdom of God the Father, mourns the death of his friend Lazarus, offers thanksgiving for a few loaves and fishes, and laments over feeling abandoned at the hour of his death. As beautiful as Thomas Cranmer’s prayers are that we include in our prayer book, there is room for whatever ghastly awful sentiments we might have about life. For me, St. Paul’s encouragement to “pray at all times” means to pray in every circumstance, at a time of joy or a time of desperate fear, at any and all times. When I am able to do that, the entire span of my days and years takes on sacred significance, because I have opened every event to the Spirit’s presence.
So the question we leave here to ponder is this: Are we going to ground our being in prayer and allow that practice to keep our guilelessness from becoming gullibility and our cynicism from driving us to despair? Or, are we just going to follow our former pattern and drop in to pray from time to time when either our egos are bruised because someone has betrayed us, or when our egos are inflated because we have blown past our right size?
Hearing voices is not necessarily a sign of mental illness. A pattern of following the wrong voices, however, can be. St. Paul warned the Thessalonians to test everything. Chaos and noise are not new phenomena for the modern world. Always has it mattered how we ground ourselves in their midst.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 17, 2021