Message at Durham Friends Meeting, February 3, 2019
What is God asking of me today? Where is God leading me?
These days, such questions are very much on my mind. Especially these days, because it seems we live in such troubling times, where so much is not right. So much seems to need our attention. What should I be doing? What should we be doing together?
We have endless war. Even the shape of it seems hard to understand, let alone what could bring it to an end.
We have deep partisan anger, and distrust. Deceit. Dishonesty.
We have inequalities of wealth and of income that seem to be exploding. Too many ordinary people don’t seem to have reasonable opportunities for making a living or for caring for their families.
We have persistent discrimination and harm on the basis of race and sex and gender orientation.
And we humans have dramatically altered the climate of planet earth largely through burning coal and oil, with harmful consequences for all living things. We know this, and yet we are struggling to take even simple steps to reverse the damage.
I worry about these things – and I bet you do, too. What is God asking us to do about these? Where is God leading me? Where is God leading us?
Sometimes I feel a little passive, a little helpless waiting for something that feels right for me to do, some way to put my shoulder to the wheel.
All this has been making me think of the story of Samuel – or at least the beginning of his story. It’s on my mind because Samuel is one of the people in the Bible who does hear directly and unmistakably from God. (Like Adam and Eve, like Noah, like Moses. Like Paul. Like Jesus. A few others.)
Samuel, the Bible tells us, was born to Hannah and her husband Elkannah. They had been a barren couple for many years. Hannah prayed that if she was gave birth to a boy, she would give him back to God. She prayed and prayed. And, in kind of a miracle, she did give birth. And when the boy, Samuel, was very young, she took him to a holy place called Shiloh, and gave him in care to the old priest Eli. Samuel, I guess we might say, became apprenticed to Eli.
Eli was a decent man and a good servant of God though he didn’t hear much of anything from God. His father had been the priest at Shiloh before him, and his grandfather before that, and so on: all the priests had been from this one favored family.
So one of Eli’s sons would be the next priest, right? But (and this is harsh) the Bible tells us “Now the sons of Eli were corrupt. They did not know the Lord.” They did all kinds of bad things, and Eli knew this. But he didn’t do anything about it. He didn’t know what to do. Sound familiar? So here’s the part I’ve been thinking about, from 1 Samuel 3:1-10.
3 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions
2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called Samuel.
Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
6 Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”
7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
After that, Samuel became a great prophet. God spoke to him regularly, and He was listening. He did what God asked him to do, even if it sometimes puzzled him. Samuel heard directly from God. What Samuel heard were “Leadings.” (And we’re focusing a bit on leadings these first few months of 2019 here in Durham Friends Meeting.)
Who hears the voice of God? In this story, Eli did not. Samuel did. The story is presented to us in a way that says God spoke to Samuel. God did not speak to Eli. But I’m not sure that’s how we should hear it.
Leap ahead a few thousand years to another story. The times are troubling. There’s war, there is inequality, there is corruption and deceit. Sound familiar? A confused young man, let’s call him George, is trying to understand how to be a good person, how to know what God hopes he knows and how to do what God expects him to do. He asks a lot of wise people (let’s call them the Elis of this world) to help him figure this out, but they don’t prove much help.
Then one day George is out for a walk, a long walk, wondering, thinking, praying, and he hears a voice say to him “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” That George, of course, was George Fox. The year was 1647; Fox was 23. And so begins the movement, the spiritual revival we call Quakerism. We gather here today and every first day inspired by that Leading.
What Fox hears that day, what Fox realizes, is that God will speak to each and every one of us, if we still ourselves and listen.
This suggests a different slant on the Samuel story, I’m thinking. It is not that God spoke to Samuel and not to Eli and not to Eli’s wicked sons. It’s rather that Samuel heard what God was saying, and Eli and his sons did not. God is talking to all of us all the time. That is what George Fox realized.
We gather here each Sunday in that confidence, that God will speak to us if we still ourselves and listen. The question is, will we listen? Can we hear what God is saying?
How do we hear God’s call to us? It is clear we can miss it. That’s the main burden of the Samuel story. Samuel was in the best place, right there at Shiloh, but he was still confused at first. How do we prepare ourselves to hear God calling? Eli helped Samuel hear what God was saying.
Perhaps we can help one another.
My friend and mentor Paul Lacey wrote a wonderful Pendle Hill pamphlet on “Leading and Being Led.” He uses another example to understand leadings: the example of John Woolman. Woolman was an 18th century Quaker who was among the first to call attention to the evils of slavery and to press his fellow Quakers to renounce it as well. And Woolman made striking efforts to befriend the indigenous peoples of North America.
But after discussing Woolman’s efforts, Paul Lacey says “his example is instructive and inspiring, but ‘be like Woolman’ may not be helpful advice to those of us still struggling to be ourselves with integrity.”
That speaks to my condition. I am still struggling to “be myself with integrity.”
And then Lacey adds: “Perhaps more apposite advice is to be “like members of Woolman’s meeting:”
“Help each other to be faithful to leadings;
“Learn with and from one another how to listen and probe and wait ;
“Bear with one another’s confusions and shortcomings;
“Persist in expecting the best from one another;
“Practice speaking the truth in love.”