From a message given at Durham Friends Meeting, February 3, 2019
In the Bible, Samuel is a boy who has been apprenticed to old Eli, the priest at Shiloh. One night Samuel hears a voice calling him, and he goes to Eli, but Eli hadn’t called him. It happens again, and again. Finally Eli tells Samuel it is the Lord calling him, and Samuel says ““Speak, for your servant is listening.”
The story is presented to us in a way that says God spoke to Samuel. God did not speak to Eli or to his wicked sons. But I’m not sure that’s how we should hear it.
Here’s another story, one especially important to Quakers. 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:”
“Learn with and from one another how to listen and probe and wait ;
“Help each other to be faithful to leadings;
“Bear with one another’s confusions and shortcomings;
“Persist in expecting the best from one another;
“Practice speaking the truth in love.”