On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, we read an excerpt from the story of Samuel, a boy given to the Lord by his mother. The reading is from the first book of Samuel, chapter 3, verses 1 through 20 and offers a story of mentoring that has both some common and some difficult lessons to teach about what it is to be a mentor.
In the story, Samuel is lying in the temple of the Lord. Eli, his teacher, has gone to bed. Samuel hears a voice calling his name. “Samuel! Samuel!” He gets up and goes to Eli, thinking the older man has summoned him. Eli sends him back, saying simply, “I did not call.” This happens a second time and a third, before Eli understands that it is perhaps the Lord calling to him. Eli instructs him on what to say if he is called a fourth time, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel does as he is told and receives difficult words of destruction upon the house of his teacher. Samuel is afraid to tell Eli the next day, forcing Eli to demand that the boy tells him what he has heard. With this, the mantle of the trustworthy prophet is passed to Samuel.
You can of course draw your own lessons from the story read in this way, but we can begin by drawing out a few questions here. We invite you to perhaps use this particular passage as one to begin conversations and reflections around mentoring in your community. (What other scriptures have helped you reflect on the role of the mentor?)
The scripture begins by saying that, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Perhaps this is meant to offer explanation for both Eli’s delayed understanding that the call is from God and Samuel’s lack of recognition of God’s voice. In our own day, how often is the church as a mentoring body hesitant to understand that God might be speaking directly to (and through) those that come after us? Are we so convinced of the Lord’s silence ourselves that we are obstinate about seeing the word of God present in the culture that surrounds us?
Real Tools and Skills
Upon realizing that God is speaking to Samuel, Eli doesn’t fret that God is not speaking directly to him. Instead he looks in his experience and empowers and equips Samuel to both hear and respond to God’s words. As in much of the old Testament there is no tentativeness in teaching. God did not say to Moses, “Moses, why don’t you go and say something like: Pharoah, Let my people go. You know, but in your own words.” There is an empowerment in directness and in giving tangible tools for engaging in God’s work. Our tradition is full of these tools. How can our mentoring offer real skills for faith leadership in today’s world? How can we draw on our individual experiences to create tangible tools for instruction?
The scary part of this story is that God doesn’t share nice words with Samuel about his mentor. Once we equip others with tools and lay ourselves vulnerable as mentors, we must prepare ourselves for the consequences, and we must make safe spaces for those we mentor to do the difficult work to which they are called. We can see that the church is returning to the margins of society after 1500 years at its center. We can see the crisis and confusion this is creating at every level of the church. We must change. And we must trust that those we mentor will be part of that change, which means the news they share will more often than not be difficult to hear. Are we prepared for these words? Are we prepared to listen for God and accept his word when it comes, trusting we have taught them well?
What other questions and reflections does the passage evoke in you?