Linger and Listen

“Those who linger are the ones who hear”

This Sunday’s lectionary readings include one of my favorite stories from childhood: God calling the boy Samuel in the night. It’s a potent story, laden with details and possibilities. Even a subtle invitation. A reminder of hope — that even in dark times when God seems distant, God is still lingering in the background, not too far away, waiting for someone who listens.

We’re told in the text that the eyes of the old priest Eli “had grown dim so that he could barely see,” while the lamp of God, the oil-burning menorah, was flickering but “had not yet gone out.” I’m also struck by the description of Eli sleeping in one room in the tabernacle, while it was young Samuel, the acolyte, who slept in the the same room as the Ark of the LORD, the tangible representation of the presence of God. It’s another graphic detail written by the scribe to tell us something. Eli had grown distant. He had become callous to the presence of God. Details perhaps explaining the introductory comments that “in those days, the word of the LORD was rare, and there were not many visions.”

So much novelistic detail here packed in a few lines, cramming the truth into our ears. Divine messages and visions were diminishing, and the priest charged with representing the presence of God was faltering. Preceding chapters tell us that Eli was an indulgent father, letting his sons take advantage of the religious system, enriching themselves and even sexually exploiting those seeking God. It’s a picture of decadence and decline; an invitation for judgment, yes, but also a hint of something new about to happen. Meanwhile, Samuel is soaking in the divine presence, sleeping in the same room as the Ark of the Lord, and then God calls to him in the night.

If you know the story, you know that God is insistent. He calls to young Samuel three times, and each time Samuel thinks it’s Eli who is calling him. Finally, it dawns on the old priest that it must be God calling the boy, so he instructs Samuel to answer next time, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”

I think this is where we’re all pretty much at these days. So much chaos spinning around us. Culture wars, political corruption, partisan animosity, and promises of vengeance and retribution. Fear runs rampant on all sides, stirring the pot even more. And the religious system — many American churches — are complicit in it, feeding the frenzy.

Small wonder people have been abandoning the Church for decades and turning to other forms of spirituality, other ways of reaching God, the Universe, Ultimate Reality. So many of the public voices of religion, those tasked with representing the Presence, like Eli, have become decadent and corrupt.

Here’s the thing, tho. A glimmer of hope in this darkness. “The lamp of God has not yet gone out.” It is still flickering. And the Voice still speaks to those who listen.

I think there’s something to be said for the detail about Samuel sleeping near the Ark while the old priest is in another room. I think the implication is that those who consistently “draw close,” those who consistently “seek,” who linger, are the ones who hear. And they become the representatives of that Voice, of the Presence, for the next generation.

The lamp may be flickering, but it hasn’t gone out. And the Voice may be “rare in these days,” but it is still present. There is still a call — maybe even a three-time insistent call — for a new generation of spiritually hungry people who will raise their voices for justice and mercy in the name of Ultimate Truth. And they just might turn the wave of darkness that threatens to overwhelm us in another direction.

But I’m pretty sure it will not be those who seek to get rich or gain power exploiting the system. It will be those who sit — even sleep — in the Presence. It will be those who linger and listen.


Ref: 1 Samuel 3:1-20
Photo of stained glass, “Samuel and Eli,” by Lawrence OP, Flickr.