Once again during the Christmas season, I experienced this strange cultural phenomenon:
How many decades has it been that every December, movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Elf”, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “The Bishop’s Wife” get replayed and replayed over and over again, year after year? And only at this time of year? You can probably add several more of your favourites to this list.
That is why I was a tad apprehensive last month when we received tickets to attend the National Art Centre (NAC) Theatre production of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol.” I know the story. I’ve read it several times. I’ve watched television renditions of the story over the years. What could the NAC Theatre do to bring it to life, once again, for me? Same old, same old, right?
On the other hand, I believe there is a good reason why we turn to these stories every year. There’s a reason for our culture’s yearning for their repeat-performances. A higher reason, I might add. Perhaps there’s something in those stories that we need to take to heart, and make positive changes to our lives. Perhaps, we need to see the story-telling as more than a mere syrupy, sentimental “Isn’t that nice” tradition.
So, I was surprised and intrigued by what the NAC Theatre troop did with the story. It was introduced by two actors who came on stage — one was blind and one was deaf. In the introduction they invited the audience to participate in a simple activity with our hands, both to show that the two actors needed each other in accomplishing their jobs; and, what is more, near the end of the story everyone in the audience was needed to give the sign with their hands in order to encourage Scrooge finally to embrace a more compassionate approach to life.
Without taking anything away from the traditional story-line plot, the meaning of Dickens’ famous “A Christmas Carol” was conveyed to me in a fresh way.
We encounter in young Samuel and the elder Eli one such repeat performance story in today’s text from the Hebrew scripture.(1) It is a story many of us know — of the boy Samuel in the temple who is called upon by God. It gets told many times in the life of the church over and over again — every three years at least. It is true: it is a nice, little story, isn’t it?
At first, Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice, believing instead that it is his old mentor, the priest Eli, who is calling him. Finally, with Eli’s help, Samuel responds to God’s call by saying, “Here I am. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”(2)
Well, as I said, many of us are familiar with these very words. We even like to sing a popular hymn (3) reflecting the words of one responding positively to God’s call — a call that changes the life of the recipient. How does this familiar story speak to our lives today? How is it more than just ‘a nice, little story’ from the Bible? How can this story change our lives?
In this story, an old man and a young man collaborated to hear God’s vision for a new Israel. For God was about to do a new thing: Soon to emerge in the life of God’s people was a new lineage of kings, beginning with the inauguration of King Saul.(4) What was passing, was the rule of Judges along with the sinful house of Eli. What was emerging was the likes of King Saul, King David, King Solomon, and so forth.
In God’s message to Samuel, God condemns Eli’s lack of restraining his sons’ immorality. Eli’s sin was his aversion to do something even though he recognized what was happening. Even though Eli knew the ongoing problems in his household, Eli turned a blind eye and ignored it all.
He did not act. And no matter what Eli would do now to try to redeem himself by making various sacrifices to the Lord, God was intent to establish a new order of leadership over God’s people starting with the demise of Eli’s household.
Doing nothing was the problem. For us, today, doing nothing about a problem we know exists is the problem. How do we begin to move out of the prison of this self-inflicted inertia?
We need to recognize that growth and healing is a process. The birth of the new thing God was doing began as a cooperative affair. It took the attentiveness of the young Samuel’s ears and the wisdom of the old priest’s heart and mind to bring about God’s purpose. It took both the authority of the failing, feeble priest and the obedience of his youthful protégé to bring about God’s purpose. In other words, it takes a community to bear such a task.(5)
Responding to God’s actions and call in the world and in our lives today is not a solo effort. Religion is not a solitary practice. Indeed, it takes a village. It takes the various gifts of people in our lives. What one has and the other does not, what the other is good at that the first is not — it takes everyone’s attentiveness and participation.
How do we live into this collaborative way, especially challenged by our society’s emphasis on individualism, privacy and self-reliance? We are, indeed, up against a culture that is at odds with the Christian vision. How do we live the way of God’s reign? Where we value mutuality, diversity, common purpose in the mission of God for the good of all people?
In contrast to the way in which God spoke to the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah and the later prophets of Israel, God does something unique with Samuel. You will notice that God does not enjoin Samuel to deliver God’s message to Eli. God does not charge Samuel to tell Eli what God is telling Samuel with words like: “Thus says the Lord, tell the people Israel”, etc., etc. No.
Rather, God wants simply to confide in Samuel. Basically, God expects Samuel, first, to listen. Just listen. It seems, Samuel first needs to learn how to do this. And it will take some time and some practice, evidently.
Can we have the courage, and the patience, to learn how first to listen to God and the other — without jumping in too soon with the energy of our own bravado, our own opinion, our own self-justifications, our own visions of what must be? The simple act of listening, can change our lives. Because listening first means we believe that the other has something of value to offer that we don’t have.
God works at a slower pace, it seems, compared to the hypersonic rhythms of life in 2018. Not only does God give Samuel and Eli one chance to figure it out, but two and even three opportunities to get on the same wavelength as God.
The story-telling is both appealing and intentionally slow early on. Dialogue is repeated. The action of Samuel getting up from sleep and going to Eli are repeated. We have to slow down with the narration and feel the build-up to the great reveal of God’s message.
Even though both Samuel and Eli are slow in finally getting it, even though they are encumbered by sleep, drowsiness, denial and avoidance, even though their response to God is compromised by vision and hearing impairment, by youthful pretence and the attrition of old age …. God still finds them. God still speaks. God still acts in the way God will act.
Despite human arrogance and self-delusion, despite all our toiling and pride, despite all our ego compulsions, God keeps at it to tell us, guide us, and instruct us.
We may not like the answer. We may not like what God has to say. We may be challenged to the core of our being by what God is telling us. Regardless of our hesitation, denial or self-delusion, God finds a way. God doesn’t give up on us. God gives us people, and stories, and experiences — even the same ones, over and over again — to help us finally get it.
God doesn’t give us just one chance. God is not just a God of second chances, as we often say. God gives us many chances, as many we need. May we, like Eli, finally come to accept what God has to say to us, with his words: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”(6)
(1) 1 Samuel 3:1-20, the first reading for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Ordinary time, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary.
(2) 1 Samuel 3:4-10.
(3) “Here I am, Lord”, Hymn #574, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006); also, for the Christmas cycle, this hymn is also appropriate in singing Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s visit to her, announcing Mary’s role in the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:38).
(4) 1 Samuel 8-10.
(5) Richard Boyce in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.245-247.
(6) 1 Samuel 3:18