I received what I think was my best preparation for ministry in a time of Covid several years ago at a weekend retreat at Mt. Wesley in Kerrville. It wasn’t a leadership forum; or a crisis management training event. It wasn’t a workshop teaching spiritual practices for difficult times. It was a youth retreat with about two hundred middle-schoolers and their adult counselors. We worshiped, studied the Bible, shared personal faith stories in small groups, and, of course, participated in the goofiest simulation games imaginable.
One in particular had teams of eight moving as a group from one outdoor location to another about a hundred yards away, crossing underneath some trees and over a couple of sidewalks in the process. Sounds simple enough. Except the rules required that half of the group could not touch the ground as we moved from here to there. Okay, that’s doable: piggyback rides, right? Oh—and the half that could touch the ground had to wear blindfolds. Oh—and those who were on piggyback riding on those who were wearing blindfolds couldn’t talk. Not with words anyway, though animal sounds were acceptable. So we divided ourselves up: those to carry, those to be carried, those with blindfolds walking, those who couldn’t talk riding. But learning their animal sounds: oink meant left; cluck meant right. You get the idea. It was all to get us where we needed to go—hopefully safely—the legless leading the sightless, or was it the sightless leading the legless? Anyway, what I’m describing—is it a goofy simulation game at a youth retreat, or is it life together in the time of Covid?
Every one of us is restricted in one way or another, possessing this skill but that limitation, lending what we can, accepting what we need: you borrowing this from him, they lending that to the other, robbing Peter to pay Paul, one clucks, while the other carefully steps to the right. One misstep, and we fall, usually on a forgiving surface, but not always. Improvising our way together across the calendar, month by month, week by week, sometimes for some of us—for those in grief, in illness, in social distress or economic strain or domestic turmoil—for some of us, one day at a time.
It has taken all of us, hasn’t it? Drawing on our shared abilities and resources in order to make that trek. In that sense I can’t think of a better comparison than that middle school retreat simulation game. Unless maybe it’s the story of a call from God to Samuel—a call that can only be heard and answered with another’s help.
A young boy, Samuel, is serving in the temple at Shiloh. He’s pliable, open, trusting, but we’re told he’s yet to hear the voice of God. His aging mentor, Eli, on the other hand, does know the voice of God, but has stopped listening for it. Samuel is ready to serve; Eli is ready to sign off. They make an odd but complementary pair; and both, as it turns out, become essential to Samuel’s hearing and answering the call of God.
Young Samuel hears a voice calling in the night. Thinking his elder has called him, he reports for duty: “Here I am.” he says to Eli. Three times this occurs. Eli finally figures out what’s happening and tells Samuel, “Next time you hear a voice, speak your ‘Here I am’ in God’s direction, not mine.”
Some of us are Samuels, others of us more like Eli. When it comes to the work at hand, some are ready to go; others are ready to let go. One takes up the work of trusting when the other is feeling doubtful. And then when one is low and discouraged, the other is buoyant, hopeful. Who have you known whose lamp of faith was often lifted into your dismal day when you had no lamp of your own to raise? And who has looked to you, on the other hand, for clues as to what they’re feeling, they’re experiencing, this inner stirring, this deep yearning, this persistent desire during this awful time to be closer to God, to do the work of God, and they turn to you for help in interpreting that voice, that stirring. Who has been that voice for you? When have you been that for them? And who will be next—who will be next to lean on you, or you on them?
It is as though faith; journeys—faith journeys from you to me, from me to you, from us to others; even within the heart from a doubting, uncertain, anxious side to a more assured and trusting side and then back again. Faith journeys. And the call to believe, to listen, to serve, the call is always one that when it comes to you is loud enough for others to overhear and the same with me. The call is yours and mine together. Because never do all of us get to touch the ground with our feet at the same time, or to see, or talk or…listen. None of us alone is likely to hear with clarity the voice of God calling our name, but all of us together might. And then, if we continue listening, we might hear someone answering as well. Here I am.
What is it about that phrase, that prayer, that when we overhear it spoken by someone else, it leaves us wondering what it might sound like on our own lips?
I am worried. I’m unsure. I’m tentative. I’m cautious. But Here I am. I am a little scared, but also yearning and hopeful, wanting to love in more purposeful ways, to reach deeper in, and further out with my life through this precarious time. Others have said yes; when will it be my turn? Here they are, so here I am.
Some of my most deeply encouraging moments during this past year have occurred at the corner of Woodlawn and Belknap at our prayer wall. And not always when I have been tying a ribbon there with a person in mind, or our congregation, or a world of hurt.
Sometimes encouragement has come simply by taking in the sight of that constantly changing menagerie of ribbons, each with its own whispered prayer. Each with its own aspiration, or hope, or longing, or lament, or remorse, or yearning, or joy, or some combination of those. It’s as though every ribbon whispers, in a voice you can almost overhear—see if you agree, the next time you are there. Once the bus has gone by and things quiet down, turn your ear, see if you hear the words I can sometimes hear: “Here I am.” If you do, then be prepared to hear them a second time, this time from somewhere deep within.