Prayer for Illumination (African-American Spiritual)
Hush! Hush! Somebody’s callin’ mah name.
Oh mah Lord, what shall I do?
1 Samuel 3:1-11
1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.
This time last Sunday, I was sitting quietly on the beach in Turks and Caicos, a 12-mile ribbon of white sand that arcs along the north shore of Providenciales, thinking of you – well, at least briefly. I was actually pondering how the body of water hugged by that beach got its name – Grace Bay. I wondered what might have been going on in the mind of the person who, hundreds of years ago, first looked out at that calm, turquoise water and thought, now that’s “grace” … what possible imagining was going on in the head and heart of the one who named that place? Was it the safety of dry land after a treacherous crossing of the Atlantic, or the sound of gentle waves lapping on the beach; or perhaps the protection of the coral reef that calms the ocean tide, or the embrace of the sun-warmed sand, or the bright colour of the water? I wonder what that sailor experienced when the word “grace” came to mind. “Yes, let’s call it Grace Bay.” I certainly remember what I was feeling – and Grace Bay is a most appropriate name. Alas, that was last Sunday’s reverie.
It often takes imagination to see grace in our midst, because (let’s be honest) it’s not always evident. Still, like the Holy One who offers grace as a sacred gift, it too is everywhere, all the time, if only our imagination can behold it. Many of us who grew up in the church were taught that the Bible was made up of two halves: the Old Testament where God gave the law and pronounced judgment on any who would not obey, and the New Testament when Jesus came showing us God’s love and offering grace to all. And too many of us jumped to the conclusion that the Old Testament was all about God’s judgment and condemnation, and the New Testament about God’s grace and goodness … as if God’s grace and goodness were absent from the Old and limited only to stories in the New … as if God’s gift was not everywhere and all the time … but it is, and it’s called Good News/Gospel and it’s as present and available now as it ever was, if only our imagination could behold it.
When I use my imagination I see plenty of God’s Good News in this Old Testament story about Samuel and Eli, and I suspect you do too. Oh, that’s not to say there aren’t rough moments in the story, but that’s just how life is. All of us have to deal with tough stuff from time to time, in one way or another … and all of us are given enough grace to do so. The way the Bible tells it here, is that this was a time when most people were not able to imagine God speaking to them or showing them the way – not even Eli the main priest. “God’s word was rare and visions of God were not widespread.” It’s possible to imagine that God was withholding sacred word and vision because folks were behaving badly, which they were (that would be a judgment approach to the situation). Yet from a grace perspective, what if God was continually speaking and showing goodness, but people’s imagination had grown stale and shallow, even the ones who had dedicated their lives to proclaiming it, like Eli, whose eyesight had grown dim and who could no longer see?
Then enters Samuel, a young boy offered to Eli as a servant, who was so naïve and innocent that he had yet to have any experience of God whatsoever … someone who you would least expect – until – until in the middle of the night the Lord whispers his name. At first, Samuel thought it was Eli and ran to his side. In fact, three times it happened, and that’s when a flicker of imagination is rekindled, not in Samuel (too young, too inexperienced), but in Eli. “What if God is speaking to him?” Eli imagined. “What if the boy is hearing God?” And Eli passes on to Samuel the greatest gift he can – “Use your sacred imagination, my child, and when you hear that voice again, answer: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And this, my friends, is a game changer for Samuel and for every believer in every generation.
Just before we left on holidays, Lynn and I went to see “The Imitation Game” about a gifted genius named Alan Turing, who lived most of his life as an awkward and alienated outcast, but who ultimately cracked the Nazi’s complex communication code, which turned the tide in WW2. Early in the film, during a highly vulnerable moment in Turing’s life, one of his very few friends, Joan Clarke, passes on to him the greatest gift she can – “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine.” These words of encouragement, like Eli’s words to Samuel, open up the possibilities for grace in the lives of those who can barely imagine that they have anything of true value to offer. But for those of us who follow Jesus, we appreciate the message as good news, as Gospel.
Sometimes it’s not easy to trust in our God-inspired imagination, to see God’s grace in the midst of difficult circumstances, to hear God’s invitation in the midst of hectic lifestyles, to experience God’s encouragement when we feel alone or unappreciated, to trust God’s goodness when the world seems overwhelmed with hatred and hurt. I wonder what it might feel like for you to risk imagining that God is calling your name. Does that seem foolish and unlikely? Does it seem unrealistic or irrational? What would it take for you to imagine that God has something worthwhile to say to you … always has … always will? What would it take for you to imagine that God has some unique act of grace to express through your life?
For those of us who once have heard our names in the middle of the night, who have experienced what we believe to be the whisper of God … and for those of us whose ears have tingled at some time in our faith journey, even if today we’re not hearing or seeing very clearly anymore … we want to encourage all of you [and each other] to try your sacred imagination and see what happens, even if you have convinced yourself that you’re someone no one would ever imagine anything of. Sometimes, by God’s grace, we are the ones who do the loving things no one can imagine of us. And it all begins by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” … and then making enough space to “hush … hush, somebody might be calling your name.”