To answer your calling in life fully, you’ll need to develop “Eli" radar.
If you’re like me, you never connected the Old Testament story of Samuel and Eli to your own life. Heck, I barely remembered that story. But not long ago I re-read it and a light bulb went off: Our lives are often a series of lost opportunities, and “Eli-radar” is the solution.
In the famous biblical episode, the sleeping Samuel hears a voice and mistakes it for that of his mentor, Eli (I Sam 3). He wakes Eli and asks why the old man has called him. But Eli, who had nothing to do with the call, sends young Samuel back to bed. The same thing happens again, and then again.
Most of us would become supremely annoyed with a kid who keeps interrupting our precious sleep. But the wise Eli has by this point understood that it was the Lord calling Samuel. He instructs young Samuel to remain attentive. Sure enough, the call comes again; this time, Samuel responds, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening,” and thus begins Samuel’s embrace of his calling as a prophet.
What does this have to do with you and me?
I’m not startled from sleep by disembodied voices, and, if you’re hearing voices at night, it’s probably a nightmare or fever rather than God calling you to quit your day job and become a prophet.
But while I’m not hearing voices at night, I am hearing voices all day long. I pass a guy on the street who begs for loose change; I’m contacted by someone who lost a job and seeks my advice or connections; I run into an elderly neighbor who wants to chat.
Just as Samuel mistakenly thought the call was Eli’s voice, I make a similar mistake: I presume the voices calling to me are those of a destitute panhandler or of a lonely, elderly neighbor. I empathize, for sure, but I’m often too busy to help. I think my problem is that if I get sidetracked constantly by such interruptions, I’ll never get through my day’s to-do list.
But that’s not the problem at all. My real problem is not understanding who is actually calling to me via that street person or elderly neighbor. Jesus himself made clear who is calling in such situations: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
I sometimes cringe to imagine myself arriving at heaven’s gate and hearing Jesus say, “Hey, pal, remember when I said, ‘whatever you did for the least,’ referencing those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, or imprisoned? What part of that didn’t you get?”
Hence our need to develop “Eli-radar.” Just as Eli trained Samuel to listen for God calling, we likewise must learn to hear God speaking to us and to see God present in the passing encounters that fill our days. Without Eli-radar, these moments float by us, unrecognized and seemingly inconsequential. But once Eli-radar locks in on God’s call and presence in these encounters, we begin to perceive that they may rank among our lives’ most consequential moments.
That’s not hyperbole. A venerable stream of Christian spirituality emphasizes that our Christian calling and path to holiness often lies in such small, chance moments. For example, 18th-century Jesuit Jean de Caussade called this “the sacrament of the present moment,” and Therese of Lisieux called it the “little way.” In our own time, Pope Francis made the same point by noting how often Jesus exhorted his disciples (and asks us) to pay attention to the details.
None of us has an Eli tagging along behind us to point out when God is calling. Each of us needs to sharpen our own “Eli-radar,” or, if you prefer, pay attention to our own “little way,” our own “sacrament of the present moment.” So, the next time someone asks you for spare change, maybe you should respond as Samuel did: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”
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