It’s the middle of the night and you start hearing voices. So, you
a. Turn on the light
b. Check that the radio and any other devices are turned off
c. Vow to see a doctor as soon as possible
d. Tell the voices to shut up, roll over, and go back to sleep
“Thankfully, I don’t hear voices in the middle of the night,” I hear you say.
What about the times we wake up at 2 or 3 am and our mind starts working overtime? Our voices and those of everyone else who needs something from us, has criticised us, puzzles us, or reminds us of tasks not completed, all clamour for attention. When we get older, and we might find sleeping a little more difficult, we often mull things over and over in our minds. We can even ask quite searching questions about life and what it’s all been about. It has been said that when we have a headache at 2 pm we take an aspirin; when we have a headache at 2 am we ask what we’ve done to deserve it.
We can see the world in quite a negative light, in the dark. Everything we’ve ever done wrong and everything we still have to do piles in on top of us, threatening to overwhelm us. And so, the psalmist prays, “…under his wings you will find refuge…You will not fear the terror of the night.” Psalm 91.
From children’s story to adult understanding
The story of the call of Samuel is one that used to be fairly familiar. It was often read to children because of course it involved a boy hearing a call from the Lord. It was also popular at masses for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The more familiar passage is taken from the First Book of Samuel, chapter three, verses 2-10, and tells of the Lord continually calling Samuel in the middle of the night. Samuel thinks that it is his mentor Eli, but eventually Eli realises that it is the Lord and instructs Samuel how to respond.
When we read around the story, what happens before and after, we recognise that what is going on is much more than a charming little tale of how a boy is called to serve God. We read of the disgraceful behaviour of Eli’s family, who were supposed to be leaders and setting an example, and of how Eli admonishes them to no effect. The Lord withdraws his support from Eli’s family and after Samuel has ‘agreed’ to listen to God, he is let in on the terrible secret, that Eli’s family is to be destroyed. After he tries to avoid telling Eli what he has been told, Samuel under questioning by Eli ‘spills the beans’. Eli accepts the judgement of the Lord and Samuel is now the star of the show.
Samuel’s call comes in the middle of the night, and that just doesn’t refer to the time of day, but to the threat that Israel faces from within and from without. Its leaders have gone astray, the Philistines are threatening, and the fate of the nation will lie with a boy (and will again).
It is in the middle of the night that we often toss and turn, mulling over the problems we face. It is then that we seek God’s face more keenly; seek his light in the midst of our darkness. Samuel’s story reminds us that it is rarely when things are going well that God is calling, but precisely when our lives are in turmoil.
If we understand this, there is hope. If we don’t hear the call, we sometimes need the help of others like Eli, flawed though he and his family are, to respond. The challenge is to keep listening and sometimes the most unlikely of people can point us in the right direction.
However, even when we eventually hear the call, telling others can be an awkward business.
If you would like to reflect further on what this might mean for leadership, for example, then you could go on to our Education Website, www.teachingisbelieving.org and look at the personal development page.