I have always loved the story of God calling Samuel. It makes for great theater. There is the subtle dig at the faithfulness of God’s chosen people in the note that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” There is the mentor relationship of the old man, Eli, and the young prophet, Samuel. There is the prophecy of the destruction of the house of Eli, with words that make the ears of all who where them tingle (such a great line). What I find most appealing in the story, however, is the call itself.
Because of the strained relationship between God and Eli, Samuel hasn’t had much opportunity to experience the prophetic word. In fact, the author tells us that he “did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord was not yet known to him.” So, when Samuel, laying down in the Temple near the Ark of the Covenant, heard a voice calling him by name, he assumed it was Eli. Three times this happened, until Eli, with his eyes dim both literally and spiritually, realized what was going on. He sent him back, hopeful that Samuel might get a fourth chance to hear the voice of God. Eli’s advice is as simple as it is profound, “Say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'”
There is, as we all know well, a distinct difference between hearing and listening. This is true in interpersonal relationships, as well as in our relationship with God. In teaching about prayer, it is often said that we need to move beyond talking at God so that we can hear God’s voice. If we stop at simply hearing, we haven’t gone far enough. Samuel heard, but did not understand. It is only when we begin to listen, actively and carefully, that we can really begin to discern the will of God for our lives.
Listening isn’t easy. It requires us to give time and full attention to the one who is speaking, and in a world full of distractions and schedules full of commitments, it can be hard to move beyond a cursory hearing and into deep listening. I know this is true in my life, and I’m sure it is in yours as well. I also know that when I take the time to really listen, I am blessed. Even when the news is hard to hear, like it was for Samuel, it can be a blessing. So today, amidst of the fog of another late-night football game, I’m reminded to slow down, to move beyond hearing, and to listen for God.