In my childhood, we were instructed to use care before opening the front door. If the bell rang, and we were not expecting anyone, it was wise to inquire, ”Who is it?” And, to call for Mom if we were unsure about the response.
The readings from this past Sunday took me back to those early days, and put me in mind of these questions:
Who is it?
How do I respond?
And, what is the role of others in how I discern answers to those questions?
To recap the readings:
In the first, Eli helps Samuel to discern that it is God calling, not Eli himself, and helps Samuel fashion a response. In the Gospel, Philip proclaims Jesus to Nathanael, who is convinced that no one from that part of the country could amount to anything.
What is the value of, or even need for, others in our own discernment? We are certainly intelligent people, who mean well. No?
The questions of “who’s calling?” and “how do I respond?” may not be readily and reliably answered, contrary to what we see in the national political-religious arena, where many boast of their divine promptings and the rightness of their responses. I think of Bush II and his divinely-guided war on Iraq, and Herman Cain’s declaration that God wanted him to run for office.
We have agendas, attachments, resentments, anxieties, self-image concerns. Not to mention limited self-knowledge. We don’t always see our own stumbling blocks.
This is not to say that we are utterly undefended or bereft of own resources. Surely, contemplative activities (prayer, self-examination), therapy, 12-step work, and the crucible of relationships help us to access our higher selves and witness our less salutatory egoic schemes.
Relationships play a role in both Old and New Testament readings. Eli eventually discerns, on behalf of Samuel, just “who” is calling and what the proper response might be. Interestingly, Eli was a High Priest and Judge, but his inability to remove his corrupt sons from the priesthood brought doom upon the Israelites. Although sage in his advice to Samuel, Eli was unable to act rightly on his own home front.
We humans bring both blindness and sight. We might, from this perspective, be safe in saying that it is rare to find someone who has the whole picture; whose vision is completely unclouded.
Interesting, then, that the New Testament teems with exhortations to “see”, to see rightly, and to regain sight:
- Taking out the log in your own eye before removing the fleck in another’s
- Reminding us that our eyes must be healthy so that the body is full of light
- Recounting Jesus’ healings of the blind.
And, in today’s story, Philip suggests that Nathanael “come and see”. To witness for himself the man he deemed unworthy (“Can any good come from Nazareth?”). Philip did not attempt to convince, but to invite.
This piece of the narrative reminds me that we sometimes need the encouragement (or, witness, as the case may be) of others to help us look beyond our pre-conceived notions of what is possible. And, as I have certainly seen in myself, these notions can be based on unfounded biases, or past experience, or fear, or…
And, when faced with someone/something new, how helpful it can be to allow ourselves to wonder, rather than to judge. But, as with Nathanael, we are sometimes incapable of removing our own logs in order to accomplish this.
I have oftimes consulted with trusted friends before responding to a particularly sensitive email, or making what might be a very challenging phone call. I find that it is invaluable to check my perceptions, and my own sensitivities, which may prompt me to skew my responses in unhelpful ways.
How invaluable it has been to ask my soul friends to hear me out on matters of spiritual formation, especially when I have felt confused or convinced(!). This is not to say that I mistrust my own instincts. But, it is also true that I, like Eli, am not always able to see my own situation clearly and take right action, unaided.
If I take the long view, I see that I take different roles depending on the situation. I am often Samuel, or Nathanael, in need of others’ assistance. It’s also the case that, for others, I am their Eli or their Philip. It depends on the day and the circumstances.
What about you?