Years ago, I heard Gardner Taylor, that great African-American preacher, say from a pulpit, "I am for anything that can help a person get through the night." How about you? Are you having trouble sleeping through the night? You're not alone. Most of the world does. And, certainly, Samuel did. He tossed and turned like some preachers I know whose sermons finally come to them in the middle of the night. Have you seen the commercial for one of the sleep aids that shows the husband flicking on the light and saying, "Honey? Are you awake?" And his wife replies, "I am now!" Young Samuel keeps tossing and turning all night, then getting up and running to old Eli saying, "Are you awake?" And all Eli can say is, "I am now! Go back to sleep, kid, you're hearing things!"
For some people the real problem is their dreams. We dream about all kinds of things, sometimes waking up in a cold sweat. Some of the dreams are terrifying. Some are about things you'd never dream of actually doing. Other times you are frustrated because you can't remember all the details like the cartoon about a minister on a psychiatrist's couch saying, "I have a recurring dream in which I have all the members of my church board pleading for mercy; but when I wake up, I can never remember how!" Is that what Samuel was doing that night, dreaming about the way things could be because religion in his time had taken a turn for the worse? After all, says the biblical writer, "The word of the Lord was rare in those days." Maybe Samuel was the only one who could dream because "there was no frequent vision." People had lost their way and their connection with God.
Some say dreams are like visions, and as such become a source of creativity, an answer to present problems and difficulties. Apparently this was the case for Isaac Merritt Singer who invented the Singer sewing machine. As the story goes, his creditors had given him a couple of weeks to complete his invention or they would pull their financial support. So he went to sleep that night with great anxiety and dreamed about being out in a jungle surrounded by cannibals. The boiling pot was ready. His hands were tied. As they came toward him with the faces of his creditors, they held up their spears ready to finish him off when suddenly he saw holes in the points of their spears, and awakened with the answer of how to complete the Singer sewing machine!
Sometimes dreams are a source of great creativity. Look at Joseph interpreting dreams in Pharaoh's court and Jacob wrestling with the angel at the Jabbok River and Ezekiel watching the dead, dry bones of Israel spring back to life. What about the carpenter, Joseph, dreaming of the danger of Herod then fleeing to safety in Egypt? Sometimes our dreams can be frightening as we come face to face with our shadow selves. We toss and turn in the night, groping for God. Sometimes it's a bad dream that seems all too real. In the 1880's, a seven year old boy cried himself to sleep every night terrified of the fact that if he died he might go to hell. His solicitous mother, out of patience that the fearful teachings of the age brought such apparitions to his mind, was trying in vain to comfort him. Fifty years later that little boy named Harry Emerson Fosdick, now grown up, stood as the preacher before the congregation of Riverside Church in New York City. Even great preachers toss and turn in the middle of the night.
So Samuel woke up in a cold sweat amidst this ancient nocturnal bar mitzvah and ran to Eli thinking Eli had called. "Here I am, Lord," he said running to old Eli who stumbled out of bed and grumbled, "Go back to sleep, kid, you're hearing things," which is pretty much what the church always says to the dreamers, isn't it? "Go back to sleep Moses, you're dreaming. Go back to sleep Gandhi, you're dreaming. Go back to sleep, Martin Luther King, Jr., you're dreaming. Go back to sleep, Mother Teresa, you're hearing things!"
Maybe the dreamers of our world really do hear God speaking to them. Rabbi Burt Visotsky, in the Bill Moyers' PBS discussion on Genesis, at one point says, "You know, I'm actually surprised to be surrounded by people who so readily hear voices. I'm a praying Jew, so I talk to God all the time, but I don't usually hear answers. It's a much more subtle process with me. God may tell Abraham and Sarah to get up and go and change everything about their lives. But nobody ever says that to me. If I hear God at all, it's somewhere between the lines of a page I've been studying for hours when I am reading Torah, and all I ever hear is, 'Burt, turn the page.'"
Young Samuel wakes up in a cold sweat and says, "Here I am, Lord!" But he didn't know who was calling or why because he didn't really know who he was as a child of God. When God first calls us in the middle of the night, the most you can know is you are a broken human being, and admitting that to yourself is the first step toward wholeness and health and peace in your life. Some people toss and turn and finally cry out, "O.K. I give up. Here I am, I'm in trouble, I'm hurting, I am even hurting other people. Yes, I admit it. I'm a mess!" What do you mean when you say, "Here I am" in the middle of the night? People say it in different ways. "Here I am envious of others who have more than I do, who are smarter and faster and get more attention." Listen to Shel Silverstein's "Prayer of the Selfish Child":
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my toys to break,
So none of the other kids can use 'em...Amen.(1)
You and I have to face up to ourselves and this self-revelation often occurs in the middle of the night as it did for Samuel. Until we do that we will never really hear God calling our names and leading us into new ministries and new lives. We will never hear God's redeeming and cleansing word of grace. Samuel didn't hear it the first time or the second time or the third. Maybe he was having a hard time hearing it because no one else was hearing it in those days. Eli certainly wasn't because "the Word of the Lord was rare in the land."
Maybe it's hard for us to say "Here I am" that openly because we aren't really ready for God to come into our bedrooms and our dreams peeking into our innermost selves. Oh sure, Lord, we scrub up and come to church on Sundays, but don't ever call on us in the middle of the night or in our businesses or our marriages or our friendships. Please, Lord, we're not ready for that. Here we are hiding our secret sins in a room that not even God can enter, or so we think. We say casually, "Here I am, Lord. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." But are we really all that ready for God to come in? Not that room, Lord. Any room but that one!
Jesus knew what it meant to say, "Here I am." At the temptation, he said, "Here I am, torn with ambition." At the tomb of Lazarus, he said, "Here I am, broken and weeping." At the Mount of Olives, he said, "Here I am, wanting this cup to pass from me." Even his last night, tossing and turning, unable to sleep, he prays for God's guidance. Even on the cross during the worst nightmare of all--he was torn, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" But at the very end he was at one with the Father, at peace. Picture him there praying that old Jewish prayer that a child would say the last thing before dropping off to sleep, "Into thy hands I commit my spirit." "Here I am, Lord. I am yours completely and fully."
Having trouble sleeping through the night? Quit playing games with yourself, others and God. Take the first step toward wholeness and peace. Say, "Here I am, Lord. I am yours now and for the rest of my life."
Having trouble sleeping through the night? Perhaps God is calling you to new life. Of course, I wouldn't know because a thing like that is between you and God. God bless you all.
Let us pray.
Now, Lord, into thy hands we commit our spirits, heart, mind and soul. Toss and turn us until you make us into the people you want us to be. In thy holy name we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(1) Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), p. 15.