As I have reflected on my call to ministry, and in particular a calling to ordained ministry within The United Methodist Church, there is one constant theme – the prayers of my grandfather. When I was young my grandfather, Buell Bingham – a pastor, would take me on his knee and we would read through the bible together in his study. He would pray for me and my journey with Jesus Christ and tell me that God had a great purpose for me. It was all a little overwhelming … especially for a five or six-year old. My grandfather died when I was still in college completing my engineering degree and more than once I have told others: "My granddad had to die so that I could distinguish God's voice from my granddad's. Up until then, those voices were confused in my head."
In the season after the Baptism of Jesus, we pay attention in the lectionary readings from scripture to how God calls servants into ministry. Today we will talk about Samuel responding to a voice in the night. But first, we need to tell the beginning of the story.
Hannah and Elkanah from Ramah had no children, so Hannah traveled to the tabernacle in Shiloh to pray for a child. Eli, whose name means "my God," noticed Hannah's lips moving while she prayed, but no sound emerging from her mouth. For whatever reason he supposed her to be drunk and proceeded to throw her out of the tabernacle. We need to know that the drunken folks in the tabernacle were mostly Eli's own sons, who never received the treatment that Hannah was getting (much to God's disappointment). Hannah told Eli that she was not drunk, she only wanted a son. She then invited Eli to pray with her and made a promise. When my son is born I will bring him to you to raise as a servant of the most high God (perhaps she noticed how sorry Eli's sons were, but giving up your first-born child is no small sacrifice). And so it came to be that Samuel came to live with Eli. Here is how scripture tells the next step in the story:
- When God calls it helps to have an experience person to help you learn to respond, "speak Lord, your servant is listening." It can even be a person who's own listening skills seemed to have diminished across the years.
- When God speaks to us, the voice usually invites us to take on a great challenge (even offending the mentor who is teaching you a way of life).
- The best way to sharpen one's hearing is to respond in obedience to God's call. Samuel is just beginning to walk with God. Later he would identify Saul and David as Israel's first two kings at God's insistence, counsel when to make military moves, and speak the truth to power in saying to king David, "You are the man."