Remembering Who We Are: Samuel
1 Samuel 3:1-11; 19-21
If you remember anything at all about the Old Testament character of Samuel, it may be in relation to his mother Hannah, and the event that preceded his birth. This one has become something of a heroine of Mother's Day sermons, because she fervently prayed for a child and then when he was born, gave him back to the Lord to be raised at the tabernacle in Shiloh. I do not mean to be iconoclastic here, but I do think Hannah has been overpraised when you get right down to the particulars of the situation.
You see, she was married to a prominent man from Ramah named Elkanah, and she had not been able to bear him any children. The problem of infertility was regarded very differently back then than it is today. Ironically, in light of what we know now, all the blame was placed on the woman, and her very worth as a human was measured by her capacity in this area. Here is another manifestation of one of humanity's oldest problems; namely, making some form of productiveness the basis of human worth. I was talking recently to a group of parents about getting the relation of "being" and "doing" and "having" straight in our minds. When the gift of being from God is seen as primal and foundational, the creative "doing" and responsible "having" grow out of such a base. But when we turn reality upside down and make "doing" and "having" the basis of "being", that leads to anxiety and distortion of the worst kind. Then one has to produce or else, and that is frightening. This is where Hannah found herself—a female unable to bear children and thus ridiculed by society, and in desperation she went to the shrine at Shiloh to seek a religious solution to her problem. Notice carefully the shape of her prayer. In effect, she proposed a bargain with God. If God would open her womb and enable her to do what a woman in that day had to do in order to be accepted, then she would give the child back to God, and allow him to come to Shiloh to live and work in that shrine.
Such a proposal may have a very holy ring on the surface, but deeper down you find a lot of what C.S. Lewis calls "need-love." Hannah was concerned for Hannah here, and her status in the eyes of her husband and the community. The goal here was not so much that God might have another servant on earth as it was that her womanhood be vindicated. Instead of going to Shiloh and asking God for strength to make the world a better place; that is, overturning this notion that a certain kind of doing is the basis for being, she went seeking simply a better place for herself in the world as it was. "Help me to be a success as the world defines success," was her plea, not: "Transform my sense of what authentic success really is." What I am saying is that all the Mother's Day sermons that glorify Hannah's prayer are at best naive and superficial. Religion for her was a means to certain culturally defined ends, rather than a process of understanding the true ends of life and becoming a means to that. This is a very common temptation indeed, and who of us has not done the very same thing over and over again? We establish a goal, or more often let society establish a goal for us, and our praying consists of bargaining with God to help us accomplish this. Biblical religion at its highest is something quite different—letting God help us establish the ends, and then offer ourselves as the means. None of us have the right to throw stones at Hannah, for we have all done the same thing. Nonetheless, I simply want to point out that this is infantile religion at best. It is where we all begin. Hopefully, it is not where Hannah or any of us end up.
However, the beautiful thing about this story is that God took Hannah's situation—selfishness and all, and once again brought something good out of the less-than-perfect. God met Hannah where she was in her cultured captivity and brought forth one of the truly great individuals of all the Old Testament. After all, God never has the luxury of pure motives with which to work as far as human beings are concerned. Varying mixtures of good and evil are all God ever has at God's disposal, and the wonder to me is that God could take an anxious conformist like Hannah and bring the likes of a Samuel out of her. Does not this offer a basis of hope—for all of us—that God can take just about anything and do just about everything with it?
To Hannah's credit, let it be said she did keep her side of the bargain once Samuel had been born into the world. We are not told how hard or how easy such an act of relinquishment was for Hannah. After all, she had accomplished her goal and shed the shame of barrenness. Now she took Samuel when he was old enough to wean to the tabernacle in Shiloh and turned him over to Eli, the priest, that he might become the servant of the Lord. It was there, under Eli, and sleeping in the same room with the Ark of the Covenant, that Samuel grew up and got the bulk of his significant training; and it was from that place that he moved to become one of the finest characters in the annals of the Old Testament. Less negative is said about Samuel than any other major figure in this whole document. He became the spiritual leader of his people for over forty years, presiding over their feasts, interceding for them before God, and serving as a judge and arbitrator in practical affairs.
An interesting phrase is used to describe Samuel as a young man. It was said that "the Lord did not allow any of His words to fall to the ground." This means that what he said was wise and full of insight and able to go out and accomplish what it was supposed to accomplish. This image is symbolic of Samuel's whole life; it had real substance and focus from beginning to end. He was much more than a child who was prayed for and given back to God by his mother Hannah. In this birth, the Lord accomplished more than giving Hannah the status she so desperately craved. He began a life that can be a model for us if we have the wisdom to receive it. There are two things in particular that I find instructive about the life of Samuel.
One is the way he developed religiously. Here is a classic example of evolutionary rather than revolutionary religious experience. From the beginning. Samuel was exposed to intense religious conditioning, but it "took" and Samuel responded positively. As Harry Emerson Fosdick once put it, "He crossed the stream at the narrowest place." His life with God was one of continuity and steady growth rather than one upheaval and crisis. This is important to note, for what could be called "the Damascus Road syndrome" is far more colorful and gets a lot more attention. If we are not careful, it can get elevated into the single norm of all Christian experience.
The way that Samuel grew into God is a good corrective at this point, for he began encountering the Mystery early in his pilgrimage and starting to say "yes" and thus did not need the kind of radical "about face" that someone like the prodigal son in Jesus' parable had to undergo. This is not to imply that there was anything mechanical or automatic about Samuel's religious life. He did have to decide for himself at each juncture. When the still small voice of God impinged upon his consciousness, it was Samuel and not Eli who had to answer back, but that answer was affirmative—"Speak, Lord, for your servant heareth." This became the pattern of Samuel's whole life, which is undoubtedly why his efforts counted for so much and none of his words "fell to the ground."
A fine Christian woman came to me years ago after a high-powered evangelist had just been in our community. He had a dramatic conversion from alcoholism late in life, and this one was questioning the validity of her experience because nothing like that had happened to her. She told me of growing up in a warm and healthy Christian family. She could not remember when Christ and His way were not important to her. She had moved step by step with Him in conscious commitment, and I could see as Carlyle Marney once said of a person: "A Jesus had been around somewhere in the shaping of this life." I suggested to her that if she could see what she would be like at that moment had she not developed with Christ across the years, then the difference the evangelist was talking about would be apparent. She, like Samuel, had "crossed the stream at the narrowest place," and had experienced God's transforming power gradually, but nonetheless authentically. The evangelist, on the other hand, had waited until the island of his life had drifted far away from the continent of God. No wonder, then, that in getting back across, the journey had been more violent. We need to recognize the validity of both types of experiences, and not establish either one as an exclusive norm. Samuel is an example of a host of people who early on were given an invitation to the banquet of God, and had the good wisdom to sit down quickly and start making the most of it. While part of the Good News is the assertion that it's never too late to come back, another part of the Good News is the fact that it is never too early to begin to take one's place and start to grow. Let's face it, one of the reasons Samuel's words did not "fall to the ground" lies in the fact that he wasted so little of his life at cross-purposes with reality. He was able to accomplish all that he did because he turned early toward the light and walked increasingly into more and more of it. Samuel's pilgrimage was one of steady continuity. It is never too late to start saying "yes" to God; but then it is never too early either.
The other thing that I find instructive about Samuel is the way he handled the process of change at the end of his life. He found himself having to live through one of those "hinge-eras" in the life of his nation. The children of Israel had lived for two hundred years in Palestine in a loosely organized fashion, but gradually the Philistines developed into a monarchy and discovered weapons of iron and thus threatened to put the Hebrews right back into the slave situation from which they had fled out of Egypt. The political structure of Israel was no match for this new challenge, anymore than scattered native Americans in this country were a match for organized Westerners, and so the possibility of Israel moving into a monarchial form of government was raised. At first Samuel was offended by such an idea. It amounted to a rejection of his own leadership and a departure from that direct dependence on God that had been so central to Israel's life. Samuel's initial reaction was a negative, conservative one, but here is what I admire about him—he did not stop there. He recognized that the genuinely new had emerged, and try as he would to look back, he realized that the simpler structures of old simply were not adequate for the challenge of the new. So, through genuine struggle, Samuel is depicted as doing an awesome thing—he changed his mind, reluctantly letting go the beloved "old ways" and "embraced the new" voluntarily. We all have witnessed this sort of thing happening in the South, as a certain way of doing life had to give way to another. There are always extremists on both sides of such a process—those who refuse to budge an inch and those who have so little sense of any value to conserve that they would change everything neurotically. What I like most about Samuel was that he was not an extremist in either direction. He loved the old ways, as well he should have, but he also saw where history was moving and what had to be done lest everything be lost.
A minister friend of mine once lived through the experience of a tornado striking his town, and he learned a lesson from it that was telling indeed. The only things that managed to survive had two qualities: roots and flexibility. If there were no secure grounding or connection with the earth, the structure blew away. By the same token, if there was no give, that is, if something were utterly rigid; that was fatal also in a high wind. He went on to say that the same qualities are essential for both the people and the institutions who are called to live amid the high winds of change, and this is exactly what I see Samuel doing so well—he had firm rootage in the past, but he was flexible as well. If you and I are going to survive in the kind of world in which we live, neither absolute conservatism or total radicalism is likely to work. "Roots and flexibility"—these are the crucial qualities, and the way Samuel handled the last challenge of his life is as impressive as the way he began and grew.
There is much then to learn from our ancestor Samuel. He came into this world, not through a perfect instrument at all, but amid self-serving conformity and a lot else. But look what God can do with the less-than-perfect—a man whose "words did not fall to the ground"—who early on said "yes" to God and kept on saying it, who knew when to let go of an ancient good and embrace what had promise for the future. He had roots and flexibility—would that we could all learn from him and be like him as well.
John R. Claypool Birmingham, AL