In a 2010 biblical commentary entitled The Africana Bible--Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora, published by Fortress Press, Dr. Randall C. Bailey, a noted Old Testament scholar from Atlanta, writes:
Traditionally, the book of Judges gets its name from the charismatic leaders who rescue the Israelites' from foreign oppression, such as Jephthah, Abimelech, and Gideon, who are called Major Judges. With a surface reading of the book and an appreciation for the patriarchal nature of the biblical materials, one would think that the book is designed to lift up new heroes for the people. The problem is that all of the male heroes are flawed. Othniel cannot speak up to get a good land allotment. Barak will not go to war without Deborah. Gideon keeps testing God. Ehud is left-handed (which parenthetically was regarded by the ancients as a defect). Manoah cannot get the angel to recognize his authority. Samson fails to free his people and fails to curtail his womanizing.
Bailey goes on to recommend that it may be time for another reading of the book.
Dr. Bailey's recommendation is not inconsistent with the words of a very dear family friend, now deceased, who invited my wife and me to her home for tea on a fall afternoon about 15 years ago. A devout Christian from Lebanon with a magnetic personality and the gift of hospitality, she served our tea on a silver platter and filled three fine porcelain cups with an aromatic Middle Eastern brew. As she poured, her eyes sparkled and she encouraged us to drink all of it so that when we finished she could read the leaves in the bottom of our cups.
Intrigued, my wife and I obliged--enjoying both conversation and crumpets as we sipped. Finally, when we were finished, our host gently took our cups and peered curiously into the bottom of each, glancing up at us occasionally with mischief in her eyes, but then quickly redirecting her gaze to the content of the cups. It was great fun; and though I must confess that I do not remember much about the content of her 'readings,' I do remember the wise words that followed. She said, "Always read thoroughly, lest you miss the most important part." Her words recall what the late Anthony DeMello, a well-known Jesuit priest, identified as an essential life skill--the ability to look ponderously at one's circumstances in order to bring meaning, purpose, and fulfillment to our lives.
The Bible offers a story of a pre-adolescent priest-to-be named Samuel. One cannot give adequate consideration to Samuel's legacy, though, without first considering his origins.
Samuel's birth is one of those unique cases in the Bible that signal the coming of one who is very special. Like the mothers of some other prominent figures in the Bible, Samuel's mother, Hannah, is childless when we first encounter her. She longs desperately for a son. She's vulnerable. She feels inadequate. Sometimes she is provoked by her husband's other wife--polygamy was common back then--a wife who does have children. She refuses to eat. If she does eat, she's crying in her soup! Once, her husband made a lame attempt to console her by saying, "What about me? At least you have me? Am I not worth more than ten sons?" No surprise that didn't work! She still wallowed in her sorrow and was in the words of singer Larry Gatlin, "a broken lady waiting to be mended."
This can be said of so many of us. Can't it? Day by day, for varied reasons, we cry in our soup. We're broken--many of us. Our bodies are broken. Our resolve is broken. Our hearts, our spirits, are broken. We feel like we've fallen and we can't get up.
Or can we?
About Hannah, 1 Samuel 1:9 says, "Once when they (she and her husband Elkanah) had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, she stood up." Yes, she stood up. After an indeterminate time of feeling depressed over her childless state, Hannah stood up. After enduring years of provocation from her husband's competing lover, Hannah stood up. After suffering the indignities culturally associated in her day with being childless, Hannah stood up. In spite of long held feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, Hannah stood up. In an age when all lives may have mattered, but women's lives mattered not quite as much, Hannah stood up.
It's not clear what prompted the change in her perspective. Perhaps she was offered some wisdom similar to that of current author Mandy Hale who wrote, "Strong women don't play victim, don't make themselves look pitiful, and don't point fingers. They stand and they deal."
Or, since they were in Shiloh, which was the seat and center of Hebrew worship at the time, maybe an encounter with the spirit of God is what plucked her from her pity party, gave her a fresh read and a new lease, and made her aware of the redemptive power of God and the resilience of the human spirit. Whatever, Hannah stood up. She prayed to the Lord. She and Elkanah conceived; she gave birth to a son and called him Samuel--a name memorializing the fact that her prayers were answered.
As I said earlier, our family's friend told us, "Read thoroughly, lest you miss the most important part." Perhaps a better way of saying it for this occasion simply is to use the word 'discern.' Indeed, what I'm describing, I pray not in vain, is the nature of discernment. Without it, our lives are deprived of their fullness and purpose.
Thanks in no small measure to his mother, Hannah, the art of discernment is firmly established in Samuel's spiritual DNA. Even so, because of his tender age as we see in this third chapter, he needs a little help with it.
As the story unfolds, Samuel is sleeping in the temple near the very presence of God when he was awakened by the sound of his own name being called out--"Samuel, Samuel." Unfamiliar, like the rest of us, with the sounding call of God, Samuel thinks his mentor Eli is calling him so he runs in to see what Eli wants; but Eli has not called. Samuel returns to his bed, goes back to sleep, and is awakened by a voice. He runs into Eli's room, but Eli has not called. The same thing happens a third time. Reading the circumstances more thoroughly this time, Eli advises the boy Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if you hear the voice again, say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening." Eli discerns that God is speaking to Samuel. He then teaches Samuel himself how to discern. His mastery of this one skill is perhaps the hallmark of his entire career and establishes him, as one commentator has said, as second only to Moses in his contribution to the vitality of the Israelites.
The word 'discern' is not prominent in today's American lexicon--and it shows.
An article from the Huffington Post published in January 2014 indicates that 250 million of the world's 650 million school-aged children cannot read. This statistic has dire consequences for global productivity and well-being.
I believe it has spiritual implications as well. Why?
Reading is an act of interpretation. It is not merely a recitation of words on a page; it's the act of interpreting the meaning behind combinations of words. If we are failing to teach basic reading to a third of our world's children (and mind you the statistics in the U.S. are not much better), how then will they pick up the more advanced skills of interpretation and discernment, skills such as how to learn from one's mistakes, how not to judge a book by its cover, how to give every human being a fair shake regardless of class, gender, orientation, religion, or racial-ethnic identity, how to be objective, how to be students of human behavior, how not to take it personally, how not to take oneself too seriously, how to look for the presence of the Divine in the expected and the unexpected places, how to hear a voice and be able to distinguish it as the very voice of God, how when you think you might be hearing the voice of God , to sit still long enough to hear what He has to say.
Recently, I was among a group of people that was asked to describe the kind of city we would want to create and live in. All kinds of answers sprung up in people's minds from cities with modern architecture and family friendly parks to cities shaped by a genuine quest for justice for all people. One respondent wrote, "As an African American male myself and as the father of two African-American male sons, I'm concerned about and am having a difficult time discerning what seems to be a perilous intersection between men of color in this country and law enforcement, rooted often it seems to me more in fictionalized identity and stereotype than in reality. I want to create and live in a city where difference is not feared, but welcomed. I want to create and live in a city where my brown-skinned children are as safe and as valued as any other child. I want to create and live in a city not where the superficial is important, but where the important is important." I listened to that respondent, and even now as those words ring, I hear the other voice, the voice of my friend, "Read thoroughly, lest you miss the most important part."
The great Clara Scott, a hymn writer from the Midwest, wrote what has become a standard among many congregations over the last 100 years. Open My Eyes, that I May See was written in 1895 not long before Clara's death, presumably at a time when her senses, her speech, her powers of discernment were growing feeble, not unlike the priest Eli. All the more reason, the words of this hymn carry great import for us even today:
Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth thou hast for me.
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free.
Open my ears that I may ear
Voices of truth thou sendest clear.
And while the wave notes fall on my ear
Everything false will disappear.
Open my mouth and let me bear
Gladly the warm truth everywhere.
Open my heart and let me prepare
Love with thy children thus to share.
Silently now I wait for three
Ready, my God, thou will to see.
Open my eyes, illumine me,
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.