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Known and Loved

Psalm 139
1 Samuel 3:1-10

One of the joys of being in a close relationship is knowing another person well, but also being known by her or him. In a good relationship, there is no need to pretend. The other person is aware of faults and foibles- knows when one dislikes conversation first thing in the morning or has trouble being on time for appointments. But may also know strengths we might not be aware of ourselves. The other person knows these things and, because of the strength of the relationship, loves, warts and all.

Psalm 139 speaks, much more poetically and meditatively about this kind of imminent, intimate relationship with God. God, for the Psalmist, is the One in whom we live and move and have our being.

A seeker came to a teacher asking. “Where can I find God?” The teacher’s response? “That is like a fish swimming in the ocean, asking where to find the sea”.

The Psalmist speaks of God who knows the whole shape of our lives: who we have become in it, where we have journeyed, the decisions we have made; knows our actions, our thoughts, our questions; knows our missed journeys our lost opportunities, Indeed, the psalmist says, God knows us from before our birth and beyond death. Our bodies are wonderfully made by God, “knit together” in the womb.

The Psalmist continues, Creation is full of mystery. God’s thoughts are too weighty for us to grasp. Trying to understand God’s thoughts are like trying to know each grain of sand on a beach. How does a fish know how an ocean “thinks”?
This kind of humility would prevent fundamentalism in any religion. I wish there were more of it around these days. It is humbling and awemaking at the same time to acknowledge that we catch only a glimmer of God and God’s ways. We praise God, though we do not understand everything about God. People of faith, any faith get into real trouble when we project our ways onto God. It is limiting to God and leads to dangerous fundamentalism besides.

This affirmation that God knows and loves each person forms the background to the story from Samuel as well. Today in our Hebrew scripture we hear the call of Samuel, a story thirty centuries old. Long before it was ever written down, it was carefully crafted with symbolic resonances, by master storytellers down the years.

Samuel is the young apprentice of the seasoned priest Eli. Samuel is lying near the ark of the covenant. In case you don’t know what that is, it was the sacred box carried in the wilderness in which were the 10 Commandments given to Moses at Sinai. It was the most sacred object to the Hebrew community, and was kept in the temple at Shiloh with an eternal flame. Samuel the boy sleeps near the light, tending the light so that he can keep it burning all night. Eli the older priest, is sleeping “in his own place,” in a darkened room. Throughout the story, Samuel moves from the place of light to the place of shadows, one of the many layers of this story. The story teller hints at what is about to happen..

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days”, the storyteller says. “There was no frequent vision”. Anybody recognize those kinds of days? These were dim and barren times. There was poor political leadership. And Eli’s own sons, who should be taking over religious leadership, were out of hand, stealing from the sanctuary, no respect for tradition! The Philistines with their powerful military might, were threatening the tiny Israelite nomadic community. On many levels, it was a dark uncertain time. So maybe this story might just have something to say to us.

God’s call to Samuel happens in the night – a time when the unconscious is more open. As the story opens, the lamp is “not yet” out, and Samuel does “not yet” recognize the voice of God. It is between times. Night has not given way to dawn. Three times, Samuel awakens hearing a voice. Samuel assumes each time, that the central spiritual person in the temple is calling him.

Eli,the seasoned priest, hears nothing. Perhaps he had just become a bureaucrat of the sacred. Even in this sacred temple, it seems no one is expecting God to actually be alive with presence and call. Each time, Eli sent Samuel back to sleep. Now Eli might have been excused for hanging a “Do not disturb” sign on his door, but he did not. For all his shortcomings, Eli still proves to be the channel through which the boy’s consciousness is opened to the presence of the Holy. He paid attention, and he helped the child to listen too.

On the third time, Eli finally figures out that maybe this is God. He hadn’t quite forgotten everything he’d learned in theological college! He told Samuel to go back to bed and if it happened again to say. “Speak God, I’m listening”.

Guess what? It happened again…. Now we didn’t read this part of the story but
the child Samuel is not given a gentle word for a child. He’s to announce a condemnation of Eli’s family, and a message about a shift in power. It is very bad news for Eli. The boy Samuel is given the frightening task of announcing changing times….The story teller wants us to know that this story is about the beginning of a new era in the tradition of the Hebrew people. Samuel later called the nation to vocation. Samuel goes on to be the kingmaker, annointing new leadership just in time to save Israel from the Philistines. It is Samuel who annoints David as King.

So Samuel’s call is both personal and political.

We hear these great stories of biblical call. Yet, in my experience people in churches often relegate these stories to the past, hold them out there, something that happened then, to them. Many people I have worked with in ministry, have been reluctant or resistant to experience themselves as called by God, or known and loved by God. Calls are for other people. I wonder why this is?

I wonder if it is because, if we are really honest, we see God as a bit of a museum piece, kind of archaic, nice to visit sometimes, but not really alive in our NOW lives? We think it is our job to talk to God, just in case there might be something there, but not to listen for God. We live in times, that have forgotten how to listen for God. We find it easier to talk about God, to analyze the concept of God than to be in relationship with the Holy.

I find that it is often our way of seeing God, the image of God we hold in our heads that makes it impossible for us to imagine God encountering us? When I first had a sense of being drawn into ministry, I could not yet use the term call, It felt foreign to what I experienced as a tug, a blessed unsettling, an growing inner sense of knowing this is where I should be heading. I realized, that my experience of God had deepened and changed, but the language I used had not expanded with the experience. It’s where a lot of thinking, questioning people in the church find themselves at some point in their lives.

I needed to grow in my language, beyond my 3 tier universe image of God to begin to name and relate with the God of my experience. My experience was of Sacred Life alive in everything around me; whose breath was part of all creation. I experienced this Presence in my own deep places, in deep encounter with others, I experienced it in creation, in all systems of healing, and restoration, like a river of Holy life flowing through everything that is. As I began to read, I discovered this image of God very present in the scripture, witness Psalm 139 that we read today. But that wasn’t the language or the image of God I had heard in church back then.

Sometimes the ways we talk about God, or the ways we think about God, actually prevent us from recognizing our experience as Holy; the God we meet in the stillness of a cross-country ski trail, or in the garden, or in holding a newborn, or in sacred silence, or in moments of creativity, or in our dreams, or in our encounters as we listen to the soul space of another, or in the passion for justice we hear in those who cry for peace in our day, or justice for the poor, or healing for the planet, or an end to the sins of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. You know, I think there are lots of people who have these kinds of experiences but do not recognize or name what is happening to them as God’s calling precisely because they expected God’s call to be like something else. We think it’s supposed to be like a direct voice we hear, with a clear directing message.. And we know that sure doesn’t happen to us.

But what if we let go of these fixed ideas so that we can imagine call coming other ways? What if we learned to tune into the subtle, internal messages of our dreams, or listen to our intuitions, or the nudges in our souls. What if we really noticed our experience even the simple invitations and ordinary conversations with friends or colleagues. “What if we were to listen for God in our ordinary lives like that?

God calls in many ways, often subtle, and gentle, and unless our ears are tuned, we can, like Samuel, mistake it for something else. We can write off our dreams as a result of something we ate for dinner, or feel that the nudges in our intuition are just human imaginings. We need to learn to listen for God, to expect to encounter God, and to be on the lookout for the nudges of the soul that are God events. We need to develop a language to name our experience as holy so that we can share it with one another, and spread the word that God is alive among us, and calls each one of us to use of gifts and talents for Holy purpose.

And then, I think we also need to set aside our low self-esteem, our “Who do I think I am to think God is calling me?” kind of thinking? What if we were to risk knowing the God of our scriptures today who already knows us, knows us intimately… knows us by name…Knows our inward beings and is acquainted with all our ways? This One who might be calling us to be all that we are meant to be.


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