In Our Present Darkness (1 Samuel 3: 1-19)

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“Is it any wonder we are becoming fatalists, resigned to living in the impenetrable dark? I admit to feeling helpless, despondent and, at times, numb. Waves of depression and faithlessness wash over me, and I confess that I cannot feel the Divine presence. Because I for so long served as a Presbyterian minister, and because the Bronze-Age biblical stories still resonate with me, in our dark present time, I think back now upon Eli and Samuel. In First Samuel, we encounter this fitting verse: ‘The word from the Lord was rare in those days; visions were infrequent.’ It would seem that in those days, either the people were not listening to God or God was not speaking in a way that could be heard or understood. Perhaps it was a little of both. And those days are these days, at least for me.”—Rev. Robin White

Wing + Prayer

By The Reverend Robin White

My eyesight is dim and I have taken to my room. (Photo: Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash.)

My eyesight is dim and I have taken to my room. (Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash.)

We Grow Accustomed to the Dark
By Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

Robin White Weekly Hubris

PENDLETON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 January 2023—Life doesn’t even seem close to “stepping straight.”

Nor can I get the pupils of my eyes to adjust, and so there is no seeing in my, perhaps our, shared present darkness. Like the old priest Eli, my vision is dim, and I have taken to my room. I am overwhelmed by the commission of atrocities, both near and far—

The barbarity of “no vacancy in our inn” as busloads of immigrants, even tiny children, are dumped on the bitterly cold sidewalks of Washington DC on Christmas Eve, all to garner political points for evil men of power.

The burgeoning horrors visited upon Ukraine by Vladimir Putin; thousands upon thousands of Ukrainians murdered; the nation’s cities obliterated; infrastructure destroyed; the survivors searching for food, water, and warm places to wait out the holocaust

And, here at home, mass shootings one after the other, in schools, places of worship, nightclubs, grocery stores . . . committed not by foreign terrorists, but by men who live among us.

Government scandals, fraud, deceit, so many crimes committed by the powerful that the press must scramble to keep up on a daily basis.

Women’s health—very specifically women’s health—legislated away not by the bodies tasked with legislating, but by the very court created to safeguard our civil liberties: the supreme court of last appeal.

Catastrophic weather events, and all their attending horrors and privations, unequivocally connected to global warming.

Devastating public health issues resulting from climate change, and human encroachment on habitats once reserved for other species; highly contagious respiratory viruses; excess deaths and mental illness linked to pandemic-related isolation; as well as emotional and spiritual collapse in the face of our shared, ongoing horror.

Greed, idolatry, indifference, lust for power, debauchery, extortion.

Is it any wonder we are becoming fatalists, resigned to living in the impenetrable dark?

I admit to feeling helpless, despondent and, at times, numb. Waves of depression and faithlessness wash over me, and I confess that I cannot feel the Divine presence.

Because I for so long served as a Presbyterian minister, and because the Bronze-Age biblical stories still resonate with me, in our dark present time, I think back now upon Eli and Samuel.

In First Samuel, we encounter this fitting verse: “The word from the Lord was rare in those days; visions were infrequent.”

It would seem that in those days, either the people were not listening to God or God was not speaking in a way that could be heard or understood. Perhaps it was a little of both. And those days are these days, at least for me.

The first book of Samuel should be understood in the context of that era in Israel’s history, a period called the time of Judges. Judges were local tribal leaders and were believed to be appointed and raised up by God to meet the crises of the day. The Israelites had settled in the land of Canaan, where they had built altars and created sanctuaries as they began a new life as the people of the God of Israel. But as the years passed, the Israelites became so comfortable, even complacent, that their zeal for God faded. The priests carried on with rituals and made an effort to preserve the nation’s spirituality, but the people began to see little advantage in serving God. They became consumed with their own interests, their own endeavors at bettering their lives, and, as a result, their faithfulness to God waned. The last verse of the Book of Judges states baldly: “Everyone did as they wanted to do.”

It was a dark time in Israel’s history. Shortsightedness, nearsightedness, and spiritual blindness prevailed.

The story of Eli and Samuel comes to us out of that darkness. We know from Verse 3 that the call of Samuel comes in the very early hours of the morning (“the lamp of God had not yet gone out”). In both Exodus (27: 20), and Leviticus (24: 2) we are told that “the lamp” is a golden lamp stand, with seven lamps which are to “burn continually.” The Book of Chronicles tells us that the lamps are to burn all night as opposed to during the day. Lamps don’t need to be lit in the daytime; they need to be lit before dark. From this, we know—and the writer of the Book of Samuel takes pains to tell us—that the voice that calls out to Samuel comes in darkness, before the light of dawn.

You might recall that Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had been barren. She went to the temple every day, praying for a child. In those prayers, she promised to do anything if she could only bear a child. As soon as she knew she was pregnant, Hannah vowed to give her child back to God. Once Samuel was weaned, Hannah presented him to the high priest Eli, and Samuel grew up in the temple, serving Eli and God.

Eli had been a priest at Shiloh for most of his life. Eli had inherited the position from his father, and, traditionally, the priesthood would pass on to his sons. As the story begins, we learn that Eli is old and his eyesight is failing. In those days, blindness was often a metaphor for lack of spiritual insight. Perhaps Eli is spiritually as well as literally in the dark.

A hint of light still burning. (Photo: Paul Bulai on Unsplash.)

A hint of light still burning. (Photo: Paul Bulai on Unsplash.)

The darkness, like Eli’s blindness, illustrates the Israelites’ lack of spiritual vision and their absolute failure to embody their ancient calling to be God’s chosen people.

But let us not overlook the writer’s proffer of a tiny glimmer of hope: “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.”

So, on one particular night, with a hint of light still burning, the young Samuel hears his name called.

Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he leaves his place near the light, and runs to old Eli: “Here I am, here I am! What do you want?”

But it is not the old priest who is calling. Three times, the intrusive voice disturbs Samuel’s sleep. Three times, Samuel misinterprets the call and wakes Eli. Finally, we are told that “Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy,” and it dawns on Eli what might be transpiring. Eli may be blind, but he still has some insight when it comes to the Divine.

As Samuel lies down to sleep again, the Divine does more than simply call: “[T]he Lord came and stood there calling.” Samuel, apprenticed to the high priest of Israel since birth, knows exactly how he must respond.

The message vouchsafed to Samuel is one of radical change; it is news about the end of the old ways of doing things. Unfortunately, it is not news Samuel wants to communicate nor Eli wants to hear. God tells Samuel that Eli’s sons will not be allowed to lead Israel; Eli’s priestly family will be removed and replaced.

We have already learned in the second chapter of First Samuel that Eli’s sons are worthless and despise the things of God: “Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels: they had no regard for the Lord.” The writer goes on to state that the high priest’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, have been stealing meat from animals sacrificed in the temple, grilling the choicest cuts and carousing with the women who serve at the entrance to the tent meeting. Not only have Eli’s sons benefited from their position in the priestly family, but they have treated God, the offerings of God, and the servants of God, with vulgar contempt.

Apparently, Eli had tried to persuade them to change, but they haven’t listened. His sons embody the benighted course of Israel, and Eli himself becomes despondent, complicit, and accustomed to the darkness.

The Divine’s message to Samuel is fearsome: “I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle!” The people may be living in the dark because of their blasphemy, but those who hear will feel the judgement of God.

In the midst of the night that has descended on Israel, a spark of hope ignites when Samuel hears the call. This miracle child, this adopted son, outside the line of priestly succession, becomes the bearer of light.

Samuel anxiously awaits morning and the questions he knows will come with it. At daybreak, Eli presses him to the point of sounding threatening, to hold nothing back.

I suspect Eli knows that the news would not be easy to bear. I believe it is with profound courage that the old man presses Samuel about what he has been told.

Eli recognizes that a new leader has been called to carry the light to God’s people: his own time is over. In his acceptance of Samuel’s authority, there is gentleness, piety, and a commitment to God that ennobles the old man. The old and burned out, even failed, priest, sees the spark and recognizes it for what it is.

With the help of Eli, Samuel grows into his role as prophet, as bearer of God’s light.

After many years of service, Samuel has sons of his own, but they, like Eli’s, grow up to be worthless. And so, at the end of his life, Samuel must step into the role of Eli, and honor the light as opposed to tradition. As an old man, Samuel anoints a young shepherd boy, David, as king, and passes on the torch. David’s is a story for another time.

What matters in the end, I think, is that the Divine transcends all ordinary, flawed characters. Like Eli, Samuel, and David, perhaps you and I must not become accustomed to or comfortable with the dark. Somewhere, a lamp is burning and a voice is calling. Somehow, the Divine hovers in our midst.

As I, and perhaps you, too,  have succumbed to the pall of defeatism, depression, and despair, who will be our Samuel? Who will awaken us from our gloomy slumber?  Who will  point out to us that the lamp of God still burns, despite the hour? Who will remind us that God does indeed stand in our midst?

I await the widening of my own pupils as I grope forward in darkness; the courage to risk the blow of the branch against my forehead. I pray it will knock some sight into me, and I may perceive even the smallest intimation of the coming light.

About Robin White

The Rev. Robin Kaye White grew up in a farming community in Central New York State: she is descended, on both sides of her family, from dairy farmers, and is most alive, still, in rural North American landscapes. A voice major, she studied Music at Ithaca College; then earned her MDiv at Lancaster Theological Seminary and did graduate work at Princeton Seminary and The Theological Institute of Advanced Theological Research in Jerusalem, Israel. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), White was recently a Co-Moderator of the National Board of More Light Presbyterians. White is passionate about liturgy—“the work of the people”—and preaching. In her sermons, she strives to illuminate the original context of scripture and tease out its messages for the fraught present. She has had the privilege of “holding space” for the dying and their loved ones and experiences this ministry of presence as a gift: she is most willing to go with people as they journey to desert places. She states: “I have lived my life by adhering to Paul’s words in his letter to the church at Rome, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’” She is just as likely, though, to quote Rachel Held Evans as St. Paul: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” A Lesbian-Pescaterian-Presbyterian, Reverend White is most alive out of doors, whether hiking, biking, kayaking, golfing . . . or just sitting on a rock. (Banner and Author photos by E.B.-Herring, taken at Pendleton SC's Liberty Hall Bed & Breakfast.)
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4 Responses to In Our Present Darkness (1 Samuel 3: 1-19)

  1. Dan Dodson says:

    Between the Old & New Testaments, God says “I will be your God and you will be My people.” at least 27 times. Each time, people are intoxicated by the beauty of this devotion and change for a bit … and then go back to their old skullduggery. Fortunately for people, God repeats things to his slower people. Samuel’s story signed the history register as both last Judge and first Prophet, in both cases repeating that constant call. Thanks Reverend Robin.

  2. Dean says:

    That light surrounds you my love.

  3. Robin Whtie says:

    Dan, thank you for reading and commenting.

  4. Robin White says:

    Dean, Thank you for reading and as always, offering me a bit of your own light.