Samuel and the Elders
Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” – 1 Samuel 16:4 (NRSV)
Philosopher and political theorist Herbert Marcuse, 1898–1979, said that, in his time, we had developed an “authoritarian ritualization of discourse.” He wasn’t being kind. He meant that patterns unconsciously seep their way into our speech.
Have you ever noticed how people say the same things over and over? It’s almost like somebody hands out a script at the start of the week and people repeat their lines.
“Why aren’t there more young people in church?” “Why do 20% of the people do all the work, letting the other 80% be idle?” “Millenials are too dependent on their parents and don’t know how to work.” “Why can’t we get a pastor in here who will grow the church?” “You have to be born here or people won’t ever accept you.”
That was the elder’s question to Samuel. “Do you come in peace, stranger?” “Yes,” said Samuel, “I come in peace.” That is the open exchange, the winning exchange, the escape from the authoritarian internalization of speech.
Open-ended exchanges slip out of the authoritarian ritualization of speech. The clichés are not open. They are actually closed. With their utterance, we wash our hands of the matters enumerated. We maintain the status quo, unintentionally, which the status quo really enjoys.
What is the opposite of closed speech? It is opening speech and learning how to open the speech of others. Good tools include, “I come in peace.” Or “Tell me more.” “What good might happen with young people who are no longer churched?” “How could the 20% rest?” “What role has the congregation in church growth?” “Tell me about a millennial you admire.”
Pry us open, O God, using tools if necessary. We come in peace. Amen.
Donna Schaper is Pastor at the Orient Congregational Church on the far end of Long Island, New York. Her newest book is Remove the Pews: Spiritual Possibilities for Sacred Spaces, from The Pilgrim Press.