Is There a Future for the Church or Me?: Reflections on Samuel and Eli

Posted: April 15, 2015 in Church, Old Testament, Theology and Faith
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Within my own denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, there have been several recent developments that have created a great deal of tension.  These situations have raised certain questions among many in our denomination.  For instance, there has been an erosion of trust in our leaders.  This isn’t just among congregants.  Many pastors are struggling to find it possible to keep trusting the leadership being provided.  Also, because of the nature of these situations, many are wondering if there is still a place for them within the denomination.  They feel marginalized and pushed out.  They feel that their voices are not only discounted, but actively silenced.  In times of such crisis, and given our Protestant history, it isn’t surprising that so many wonder if there is a future for the denomination or for us remaining in the denomination.

Along with these various situations of conflict, I have also read a number of blogs and articles about people relocating to other denominations.  Again, many of these individuals felt genuinely discouraged and ostracized because they didn’t “walk the party line.”  They felt the need to look elsewhere for inclusion and acceptance, to be able to have intentional dialogue.  Even big names in theology have moved out of their denominational neighborhood to others (Rachel Held Evans comes to mind).  In the midst of the crises within our own denomination, I have felt the pull and wondered as well if there was a place for me still.  I have experienced in several ways the sense of a denomination that prefers silence over dialogue about serious issues.

And, so, we wonder: If we can’t trust the leadership and they don’t want us, is it time to uproot and plant elsewhere?  I particularly feel that this is the overarching question for many younger members of the denomination.  I had a conversation with a 30-something youth pastor this past week about pastoral ministry.  He asked me, “Are all churches this hard and difficult and hateful.  If so, I’m not sure I want to be a senior pastor and deal with all of that junk.”  What I heard in his question was not a movement away from pastoral ministry, but questioning whether there was a place that would accept him as a pastor because he might challenge others with his understanding of the Gospel.  That’s a sad reality that I have heard younger members of our denomination express and confide.  Perhaps the declining numbers of Millenials entering into these kinds of ministries is because they have seen a denomination that has been slow to create an environment that values their gifts and graces for ministry and doesn’t simply silence their voice.  Thus, we have witnessed an exodus of some very bright, creative ministers to other tribes.  And, we are diminished for it.

Again, the question remains: Is there a future for the denomination or for me in this denomination?  As I have wrestled with these issues, quite intensely, with mentors and friends, I have come to a conclusion.  Yes, there is a future for both the denomination and for me in the denomination.  Granted, it may not be the future I prefer or for which I hope, but there is still a future to which I have committed myself.  Covenant undergirds my commitment and goes beyond mere duty or obligation.  It is a labor of love, which does not guarantee that love might be returned by the other.  As any marriage, it’s not without flaws, squabbles, and difficulties.  But, “for better or for worse”, I have covenanted with this people and with God to work for the good of the other.  It seems to me that this is the attitude we must ultimately adopt, whatever side we fall on.

In reading some comments by John Wesley, I was struck by his very clear admonition to remain where God has placed us.  Wesley was no stranger to conflict, Typically, it came because he challenged the status quo.  His theology and methods were often highly suspect.  Yet, he continued to persevere while remaining within the fold of the Anglican church.  His basis for doing so is rooted in his understanding of God.  He noted that God could often do more in moments of affliction than He could otherwise.  It wasn’t that God was unable to do more in other situations; we just weren’t always as pliable to shape without affliction present.

John wrote in Plain Account of Christian Perfection: “The bearing of men, and suffering evils in meekness and silence, is the sum of a Christian life.  God is the first object of our love: Its next office is, to bear the defects of others. And we should begin the practice of this amidst our own household. We should chiefly exercise our love towards them who most shock either our way of thinking, or our temper, or our knowledge, or the desire we have, that others should be as virtuous as we wish to be ourselves.”  The call of the Cross is the call of suffering.  To be where Jesus is requires us to follow him in bearing the Cross.  We usually expect suffering to come at the hands of a hostile world.  We are then surprised to find that sometimes the Church itself can be the hand of persecution.  Yet, even so, we suffer with Christ for the sake of the Body’s reconciliation and redemption.  Painful, yes.  But, all the more necessary.

These reflections have led me to one of my favorite stories – the story of Samuel and Eli.  The text of Judges ends with the assessment that “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.”  Where that might be commendable in America, it’s a damning conclusion about the community of faith.  Entering the story of 1 Samuel, we hear several times that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.”  We might hear this to say that God has stopped speaking, like a pouting child not getting their way.  I get the feeling that God hasn’t stopped speaking but that the people, including the leadership, are no longer able to see or hear God’s word being spoken.  It is a time of spiritual barrenness.  Much as Hannah is unable to bear fruit from the womb, Israel is desperately barren and no longer able to bear the fruit of God’s Spirit.

Eli and his sons are the picture of this reality.  Eli, the text says, is getting more blind and deaf by the day.  What he sees, he misinterprets.  What he hears, he misunderstands.  And, even when he does seem to understand, he refuses to act in faithful ways to God.  He accuses Hannah of being drunk when she is praying.  He hears about his two sons taking advantage of the virgins at the Tent of Meeting and sticking their forks in the meat pots (can be read as a euphemism also) of the worshipers so that they can have the best meat for themselves, essentially stealing from God.  Still, Eli does nothing but scold them, but life continues as it did before.  Nothing really changes.  It is a barren situation for the leadership and the community.

A miracle transpires, by God’s grace.  Even though Hannah is barren, God promises to bring life from the barren womb.  In fact, that is what happens.  Samuel is born to Hannah.  After weaning him, she sends Samuel to be an acolyte under the care of Eli.  For those keeping score, this seems like a horrendous and disastrous idea.  After all, Eli is a miserable father and an inept spiritual guide.  Samuel will surely be caught up in the destructive vortex by serving under Eli’s supervision.  Not to mention, at such a young age, Samuel will surely become just another inept leader following in the footsteps of those around him.  The picture is looking bleaker by the minute.

“Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was” (1 Sam. 3:1-3).

I can imagine Eli, who is going blind, enshrouded by the darkness of his room.  Like his blindness, his spiritual leadership is unable to hear or see the Lord.  The lamp of God is flickering, threatening to be extinguished by the slightest gust.  It wavers as if it might puff out of existence, leaving the tabernacle enclosed in darkness.  But, it hasn’t gone out yet… there’s still light left.  Samuel, the young acolyte, lays at the heart of the tabernacle, in the sanctuary.  Proximity to the presence of God is intimated, even though Samuel has yet to have “the word of the Lord be revealed to him.”

It is in those moments of darkness and spiritual barrenness, God speaks.  If the barrenness and darkness are to be overcome, it can only be done because God has spoken and we have heard.  Samuel hears, but mistakes it for Eli’s voice.  He goes to Eli, but Eli tells him to go back to bed.  This happens three times before Eli realizes God is calling to Samuel.  It’s possible we’re supposed to think, “Eli, how blind can you be!?”  But, Eli does finally steer Samuel how to properly respond and hear God.  Samuel does as instructed and hears a word from God.  The word is both a word of hope and a word of judgment.  Samuel now has the task to go and proclaim that message to the community of faith.

“Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.  And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.  The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (1 Sam. 3:15, 19-21).

Dawn appears after the weary night.  Dawn dispels the darkness, scattering it before its warm rays.  God’s presence, God’s word has the same power over our darkness.  At morning, Samuel didn’t just open the doors.  The text should be rendered “he burst through the doors.”  This language is birthing language.  The barrenness of the tabernacle now bears fruit by the grace of God’s word.  Hannah’s barrenness was no deterrent to God’s life-giving ways.  Neither is the barrenness of Israel’s spiritual life a barrier which God cannot transcend.  God can give new life, even in the most barren of situations.  Where the word of the Lord had previously been rare, now it “continue[s] to appear at Shiloh.”  And, where leadership was distrusted, God has sown trust again, even as “all Israel… knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”  Barrenness to new life.

Part of the story that I find so intriguing is the paradox of Eli and Samuel.  Both were surrounded by the holy things in the tabernacle.  Both were entrusted with the shepherding of the community to be God’s people.  Yet, for Eli, the tabernacle and the holy things became a tomb.  He was enshrouded by darkness and unable to hear God.  For Samuel, however, the tabernacle and the holy things became a womb from which he is birthed into new life.  I find this to be a cautionary tale for our time.

In reflecting on these days in our denomination, I find tremendous hope in the story of Samuel.  We may find our situation full of barrenness and brokenness.  We may even think there is a peculiar silence from God, even though so many claim to speak on God’s behalf.  Yet, God is a God of life able to bring hope from the darkest and most barren of situations.  That’s the Gospel.  We may find ourselves under leadership that is particularly blind and deaf, totally inept, and unable to hear God’s word.  We may despair at finding a place to serve under that leadership, even as it must have been under the rapacious leadership of Eli and his boys.  Out of that soil, God brings forth a prophet to speak both words of judgment and words of hope.

Samuel sticks around long enough for God to work at bringing about leadership changes and reformation in the lives of God’s people.  New life happens!  Samuel is an intricate part of that new movement of God.  Imagine if Samuel had said, “Forget this, I’m out of here.”  It might have been a very different story.

In looking at our denomination, there is much to lament and repent.  The same is true for any denomination.  We have to own up to our barrenness.  We have to recognize our own inadequacies and brokenness.  Or, we risk becoming like Eli, more and more deaf and blind to God’s presence.  At the same time, I believe this moment in our history calls for us to again covenant with each other.  We are in it for the long haul because we believe that God is able to bring new life from very barren situations.  I know I want to be in on that moment when it comes.  Is there a future for the Church, our denomination, for me?  By God’s grace, I believe there is.

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