Childhood, like life itself, is both particular and universal. With our life circumstances and experiences, we are unique individuals, but as human creatures in this world, we have inescapable commonalities written into our DNA and present in the forces of nature. While we may study our common characteristics in textbooks or watch about them in documentaries, the particulars of our lives are shared through story.
As a child, once I learned to read, my imagination was set free. Whether it was Bible stories or Richard Scarry, Nancy Drew or Little Women, I let myself immerse in the story as it was written, drawn to those who could bring a scene to life, pull me into the drama, and tune out the real world around me. There was a beginning and an end to the books that almost always ended with the character finding their way to joy, if not a “happily ever after.” That joy was a sense of fulfillment, of mission accomplished. Most of the stories I’ve read–and continue to read–are about triumph over obstacles, solving a mystery, some kind of goal achieved, no matter how trivial it might seem. At least one character in the story is going to come to a new awareness that makes them somehow different than they were at the beginning, and in the stories I’m drawn to, fiction and non-fiction alike, the transformation is going to be for the better, preferably not only for themselves but for everyone around them, too.
I know it dates myself a bit–too old for some, too young for others–but with cable t.v. and VCR’s, the stories I enjoyed weren’t only in my mind; I could watch them unfold on the screen in my home in movies. I cannot tell you how many times I watched The Neverending Story or even now how often my husband and I make reference to the “big, good, strong hands” of the Rock Biter. This movie, of course, combined things I loved: reading a big book on a stormy day, suspense, and a fantasy world. I realize now that it also spoke to me on subconscious levels, portraying a grief-stricken child who sought escape but who also possessed the power to make a difference. (After reading an online article, there are so many other aspects of the plot worthy of exploration!)
Bastian, the child in The Neverending Story, saves the fantasy world of Fantasia and even himself by being just the human child giving a new name to the dying empress. The name he gives the child empress is the name of his mother who had died, giving prominence and acknowledgement to his own grief but also breathing new life into a name he loved so deeply. The journey from when Bastian first snatched and hid away with the magical book to when he’s flying around on the luck dragon himself to get even with the bullies who plagued him is full of moments of facing the reality of what is, even if it meant looking at what is true through a fantasy lens.
If that makes sense to you, then you understand how it is that we read our Holy Scripture. Even if everything is not completely literal, then even in the figurative sense, there is Truth to be learned, even Truth to be applied to our lives centuries, even millennia later.
While some have the luxury of time to immerse themselves in the full scope of the stories of the Bible, most get a little snippet on Sunday mornings. Some, and hopefully most of you, get a little every day, enough to chew on and engage with daily, to keep you fed yet still hungry for more. It takes time and practice, but we do get to a place where we can come to the stories and experience them deeply.
Remembering what it’s like to be a child, hungry to read more, to explore more, I come to the story in Samuel and experience it. I picture Samuel as an apprentice, relegated to stay in place and do what is told by an aging superior. Samuel is young and alive, his eyesight as keen as his hearing. One night he hears his name called out, “Samuel! Samuel!” and with obedience he responds, “Here I am!” not once but three times.
The fourth time, however, was different. The elderly Eli, to whom the Word and the LORD had already been revealed, perceived that it was the LORD calling to Samuel. The elder now hopes that all the instruction has not been in vain, that the child is ready for the encounter, that he will be deemed worthy. Like any parent or teacher, we hope that the younger will reflect well on the elder. Eli’s sleep was probably restless the rest of the night, racing through all the possibilities, but our focus remains on Samuel who receives the Word of God. It is not good news. The burden of what God has spoken weighs heavily on Samuel through the night.
At morning’s light, Samuel rises to open the doors of the house of the LORD, as he had many times before. Only now he has the weight of the Word in his heart and mind. Not wanting to tell Eli, afraid to share the vision with Eli, Samuel undoubtedly cast his gaze elsewhere, focused on everything away from Eli. But Eli summons him, tenderly, “my son.” “Here I am,” Samuel replies, and at Eli’s bidding, he does the hard thing of telling him everything, of hiding nothing. What a relief to unburden, to share with his elder, but now the story continues. We know that the life of a prophet is not one to be envied.
If we focus solely on Samuel, however, we miss an important aspect of the story. While Samuel’s story shows us his becoming a prophet, even at such a young age, we also have a glimpse into Eli’s story. The back-story is that Eli’s sons have blasphemed God, and Eli did nothing about it, allowing it to persist. Eli was elderly, his eyes growing dim, but there was widespread lack of vision, the word of the Lord rare. Acknowledging the significance of the moment, perceiving that the Lord was breaking into the world, Eli demonstrates great faith in stepping back, letting Samuel step forward. Eli demonstrates great faith in hearing the truth, encouraging Samuel to share what has been spoken to him in full detail. Eli demonstrates great faith in allowing God’s will, acknowledging the presence of God, trusting God to “do what seems good,” even though he knows that it means punishment for his house forever.
We know that it’s not an easy thing to face the truth, that we’re not always ready to see it. Bastian in The Neverending Story didn’t see himself as a hero for a long while. Samuel needed the instruction from his teacher to guide him. Eli, the adult in our stories, shows his humility in accepting the consequences of his actions–or inactions.
As a country, the United States is relatively young. In many ways we are a child, too, filled with hope and imagination but already struck by grief and trauma from our birth. Some of us bear the marks of the collective trauma having Indigenous or African foremothers and fathers. Some of us bear the marks of our individual trauma, having lived through any manner of abuse, loss, addiction, (insert your trauma here). Any one moment of our lives where we choose to keep going when the light seems to fade, when visions are few and God seems far away, our story reveals how we persist in finding joy, find some way closer to fulfilling what it is we seek.
At some point, with all that has been said and done, we accept where we are and what is to come with faith that God will accomplish that which seems to be good. Such acceptance and allowance comes with maturity of Spirit. Let us not forget that we are always children of God. Remembering that we are children of God, we are part of God’s story. We, like Samuel, are called by name, called to reveal something of God in the world, something True. Maybe it’s joyful and beautiful like a song. Maybe it’s terrible and sad, like the fall of a household. Whether it’s lovely or awful, however, depends on how you see it. If we can’t stand rap, Hamilton might grate on our nerves. If we’re a white supremacist, the demise of the Proud Boys is awful. We all have our preferences, just as we all have our prejudices. But with whom does ultimate judgement lie? And how do we make sure that our story leads us along the narrative arc aligned with goodness?
“Lord, you have searched me out and known me…” the psalmist writes. Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree before his friend called out to him. Something of our lives, of our stories is known, maybe even before we realize it ourselves. When we are called, it is up to us to step forward and do what we’re given to do–whether that’s to speak the truth, to call for civil rights, to step into a new administration, to keep light shining when we’re in a dark place, or to do whatever it is that God sees fit for us to do to keep the presence of God alive. We keep that presence alive in our faith, hope, and love–the greatest of these being love.
If you wonder where your story has taken you or where it might be taking you, look for the times in your life where you realized something new. Pay particular attention to those times when what you learned empowered you to live more fully, liberated you from a limiting worldview, and opened your whole self to love more generously. Chances are that these were not easy moments in your life but a time when tremendous healing, grace, and mercy were present. Look around those moments in your life-story and see who might have been the Jesus in that moment inviting you to “come and see” or asking you to “follow me” toward a fullness of life made possible by God alone. Those particular moments are part of your story but enrich the lives of us all, for the better.