Our family has found ourselves in something of a stealthy pen pal relationship with a neighbor girl. It all started early this week when there was a knock at the door. Now, we don’t always rush to the door when we hear a knock anymore because half the time it seems it is a delivery, someone dropping a box, a quick rap on the door and then they are off to the next stop without waiting for an answer. This time, though, we were just in the back room. I headed straight away to the door, but found no one.
It turns out it was a delivery, a very special delivery, though not from Amazon or the mail carrier. Instead there was a bag on the porch with a small bottle of coke inside it, and a note. Well, actually a couple of notes. One was on a Christmas card—I imagine it was an extra from the holidays. On the inside of the card, above its pre-printed sentiments of “warmest thoughts and best wishes for a joyful holiday season,” in large, beautiful, sometimes backward five-year-old hand-writing it said “Happy holidays” except holidays was spelled with a “y” so it actually read “holy days.” And below it, “from Catherine.”
And I think holy days may have been a more accurate sentiment given the youthful energy and generosity that was clearly behind this gift. On the other flap, Catherine wrote “I am have a piano resital. But I want your family to go. I did not now were or time or day.”
It was, in other words, a lovely invitation for our family to attend Catherine’s next piano recital.
Well, it was pretty obvious that we needed to write back. So we did. And I had just the thing to send back. I had been to visit Joyce Walker that day, and Joyce had left me with some of those cards she makes from prints of her paintings. So I used one of the cards to thank Catherine for the coke and her beautiful notes and I told her about my friend Joyce who had started painting in her sixties and was still doing it in her 80s and gave her a few more of the cards, suggesting she may enjoy using them since she writes such beautiful notes.
Well, she did.
I got home Thursday night and the kitchen table was about half-full of treasures that Barb and Claire had pulled out of Catherine’s latest care package, dropped, of course, with only a quick rap on the door, and, I assume, her bolting back to her own house.
There was a gift bag, black and gold with poinsettias on it that said, “Joy to the world.” And inside a box with a pink top that said Prada Chocolates. And inside that box, so much stuff—like a Volkswagen full of clowns! There was another bottle of coke, and a deck of playing cards, and two bags of candy—Reses peanut butter cups and fruit snacks and some big marshmallow things and some chocolates and in each bag a note in bright green marker: “to you from Catherine.” There was a separate envelope with a note in it asking if she could come over now to play a song. And, of course, there was a Joyce Walker card thanking us for the lovely cards and remarking how cool it is that Joyce started painting in her sixties and to write back soon, and updating the other note to inform us she had to go to piano class so she could not come over to play right now.
Well you can imagine my first response. I told Barb and Claire who had unpacked the package, “We have got to slow this thing down… or by month’s end Catherine’s going to have the deed to the house.”
The reading of the prophet Samuel’s call story begins by noting the “Word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Now, I imagine it might be easy for us, in this upside-down, divided time to consider this another era when the word of the Lord is rare. Although, as I think about Catherine, I should tell you, the word of the Lord, or at least an explosion of goodness seems only a door-knock away.
But what I love about this story is that it requires both the energy of the young child and the wisdom and even the courage of the old man for it to happen. The discerning becomes a communal affair. It takes them both to work it out. They both have something to offer.
The story of Samuel marks a transition in the scriptures. God begins to disappear from the story as a direct actor. The word of the Lord gives way to the words of God’s servants. Human speaking and human hearing become one of the main vehicles by which God breaks in. It gets more complicated, and less certain when the word of the Lord is rare and fake news is rampant, and you have to pull out threads of truth in the words of people like you and me. It takes both the attentiveness of the young Samuel’s ears and the wisdom of the old priest’s mind to birth this new office in service of God’s kingdom. It takes the whole community together.
It takes some care. On the back of Joyce Walker’s card, Catherine adds that she has $12 and wants to buy us a present with it. There is, you see, a vulnerability that is a companion of the word of the Lord that needs scrupulous protection.
This may be the most stunning thing about Eli’s role in the story. As he guides the young Samuel, it becomes increasingly clear that for Samuel to increase, Eli must decrease. The rise of the young Samuel’s vocation as prophet signals the end of Eli’s dynasty—it signals the delivery of the change that God predicts a chapter earlier to institutional leadership that has lost its way.
And Eli finds the courage as the institution’s guardian to faithfully surrender the future to God by guiding the young Samuel, by amplifying the word the young prophet has to speak, and by stepping out of the way when God asks him to.
It does beg the question, though, how are we to know? When the word of the Lord is rare and when human speaking is the vehicle for God’s revelation, how do we discern the spirits? How do we know when God is speaking to us?
The producers of the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt wrestled with this question—this according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff who was a consultant for the film. He tells us, they had originally wanted to have God speak in a blend of voices to indicate that we hear God in many different ways. This would have fit nicely with the Midrash that states that at Sinai each person there heard God according to his or her own ability[i] or with the story of Pentecost in which each person hears in their own native language.” Then they considered more routine approaches, like the rich, deep voice of a James Earl Jones or the proper English tongue of Julie Andrews. Ultimately, they decided to have the same actor who played Moses in the film speak the voice of God, leaning on an ancient Jewish commentary that suggests we hear God in our own voice, and echoed in Freud’s notion that our superego speaks to our ego—our higher self is God speaking to us.
But Rabbi Dorff ultimately ends on this answer to the question how do we know the voice speaking to us is God’s voice:
We recognize that it is God talking when the voice we hear spurs us to fight injustice with justice, to free the enslaved (whether physically … or figuratively) from the shackles of their bonds. We know that it is God talking, in whatever voice He or She speaks, by the moral content of the message. May we heed that call, as Moses did, and may we act on it.
[i] Exodus Rabbah 5:9; 29:1.