Messages of Hope

Spiritual Alzheimers?

Published / by Sandy

What a charming story we have in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. The call of the boy Samuel, about 12 years old and on the cusp of adulthood (in those days), is a favourite of Sunday Schools, but it is far from an idyllic children’s story. It is a story for us all.

This miracle child of his ageing parents had been dedicated to God and given into the trust of Eli the priest to live in the temple and be his helper. One night when all was quiet and Samuel and Eli were lying in their beds, a voice called out his name, “Samuel.” Samuel answered: “Here am I” and ran to see what Eli wanted. “I didn’t call,” said Eli, “Lie down again.” And this happened a second and a third time. Then Eli perceived that it was God calling and guided Samuel in what to do next. “Go, lie down: and it shall be, if he calls you, that you shall say, ‘Speak, for your servant hears.’” And God called again, “Samuel, Samuel”, and Samuel said, “Speak; for your servant hears.”

This is a story for all of us. Often, this story will be recounted in a way that invites us to consider, how are we hearing the voice of God? What is God calling us to do, or to be? How might we respond? And maybe that’s a take home message that is very appropriate at this time of the year, as we consider our priorities for this new year. And appropriate for Epiphany, when we focus on God’s self-revelation to us. Samuel’s encounter with God reminds us that each moment can be an epiphany, a revealing of God, often hid in the busyness of our lives or even hidden in the repetition of our daily routine. Perhaps the invitation of this text is to simply pause and notice, and open the door to discerning God’s presence in our lives?

This story about the boy Samuel is about listening, hearing and acting. It is rightly heard as an invitation to open ourselves once again to the whispers of God, and be prepared to re-orient our lives towards the often surprising ways of God. But it is more than a story that encourages us in our private faith. It is a wake up call to who we are as church together.

The other character in the story is Eli, the high priest at Shiloh. His work would have been very repetitious, especially since “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Sam. 3:1). He was old, and losing his sight. One imagines him as just going about the routines, shuffling around the temple. It seems he had almost lost the capacity to re-imagine the world as though God were a real and lively and engaged agent. I think we can find ourselves in this experience, where we continue the routines of faith, and the routines of church life, and experience God as silent and strangely absent. At these times, the ‘what’ dominates – this is what we do here; this is the way we do things here. The ‘why’, where belief and passion and faith come from, can easily be forgotten, sidelined. We know how to go about the business of being church, and it is so well honed that God doesn’t even need to show up.

William Willimon, chaplain at Duke University, says, “Some of you have heard my theory of church design: I think the reason why we pad our pews, bolt the furniture down to the floor, print up the service in a bulletin, then carefully, deliberately plod through the prescribed acts of worship is out of an inner fear. We tie everything down, we make church so predictable, so settled and fixed because, in our collective memories, we remember stories like this one. We know Bible stories of ordinary people who have heard their named called. We know that the temple, or this church can be a risky, dangerous place, what with the living God roaming about.” William Willimon, unpublished sermon, The Dangers of Going to Church, 1/19/1997.

The current Pope has dared to accuse the church generally of an “impotent silence,” suggesting that the church and its leaders suffer from what he calls “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” which essentially means that the church has forgotten what it was here to do in the first place. It is provocative language, but serves as a wake up call for all of us, about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ of the church. Otherwise we are like Eli, shuffling around, or even rushing around, attending to our rituals and religious practices.

This text invites us to consider what is the ‘core business’ of church, and to set aside routines and rituals that are done for their own sake, rather than as structures and practices that support a lively and engaged faith. We need to be open to hearing God afresh, and orienting our lives to be co-workers in God’s mission in the world.

David Tacey says, If we look for God in the old places, with old expectations, we will have to conclude that God has disappeared. The same is true for religion: it has disappeared, if we are looking through the old lens. The present compels us to be prophetic, to move beyond conventions and see with new eyes the presence of the sacred in a secular time.

Walter Brueggemann writes in his book Disruptive Grace about the need for a sub-community that hosts an alternative world in contrast to that of the dominant community. This sub-community may well be the church, if the church can see this as part of its vital role – the ‘why’ of its existence – where the church will be open to listen and hear God’s whispers, and to embody the mission of God in the world. This is increasingly seen as a prophetic role that requires courage and imagination and responsiveness.

He says the core ‘missional responsibility’ may be:
1. The enhancement of the human in ways that energize, authorize, and celebrate our common humanity;
2. The reconstruction of a neighbourly infrastructure that requires acts of obligation and generosity; and
3. The recovery of a sense of the holy that resists every ideological reduction, that opposes every easy absolute, and that affirms a hidden mystery of governance out beyond all of our posturing and contestation.

What might it mean to cultivate and cradle this kind of counter-imagination, and to enflesh this kind of missional responsibility? What might it mean for us to actively listen for and to see what God is doing in the world, and to join in with what God is doing? These ancient biblical texts, the faith of our spiritual ancestors, preaching and our speaking and sharing together, our discerning of what God is up to in the world, our prayers, and our willingness to make space for truth telling, all provide tools out of which a new world can be imagined. And from this, we may see afresh the way we use our time, shape our missional priorities, and a missional budget and stewardship of resources, and a shared commitment to be practitioners of and advocates for justice, mercy and compassion. This is the ’why’ of being church. May we play our part. Amen.

posted 23 Jan 2015 by Sandy