"Now the Lord came again and stood there, calling as before, 'Samuel! Samuel!' And Samuel said, 'Speak, your servant is listening.'" - 1 Samuel 3:10
Eli was the priest of the shrine at Shilo where the ark of the covenant was kept. His two sons helped him with his ministry, although mostly they helped themselves—to the ladies' auxiliary and the meat people brought to sacrifice. Their corruption infuriated Eli, but he didn't do much about it. He was weak, and they were too far gone. Like most conflict-averse people, he hoped the problem would just go away.
It didn't. Shiloh was emblematic of a world gone wrong, devoid of Presence and Voice: "The word of the Lord was rare in those days, and visions were not widespread." Why would God show up if nobody's looking? Why speak if nobody's listening?
Yet even at Shiloh "the lamp of God had not gone out” completely. The Bible says there was still a flicker, still a chance. And that chance had a name—Samuel, Eli's little acolyte. Out of the blue, in the dead of night, God decided to break the silence and talk to a kid in pajamas.
Samuel didn't know it was God, and the chance nearly died. But Eli had enough sense left to realize that the Lord was back in action. So he taught Samuel the most important words anyone can ever say—"Go ahead, God. Speak. I'm listening." The next time God spoke to him, Samuel replied, and soon Shiloh became a place where people could find God again.
Why God chose a boy with bed-head, we'll never know. There's no accounting for God's choices. There's only the accounting we'll have to make if God calls us and we don't answer, or if God calls others and they don't answer because no one taught them how to, or if we let the lamp go out when there's still a flicker, a slim chance that has our names written all over it.
Go ahead, God. Talk. I'm listening.
Mary Luti is Visiting Professor of Christian History and Worship at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton, Massachusetts.