I've been recruited to teach Sunday School at our local church. To date, the nearest I've gotten to Sunday School was helping out with the church creche, tending crying babies and changing their nappies. A pretty safe job which doesn't require much of a stretch when it comes to language. But teaching Sunday School is a stretch and a challenge.
This class consists of about ten boys and girls aged 8 and 9 years old, who all behave like teeners do in the Philippines. They all speak Dutch and not a one of them will have english lessons until they get to seventh grade.
Like most kids who grow up in the church, these kids have been raised on Bible Stories. They know about the Ark, about the creation, about Samuel, Daniel, Job and David.
My first storytelling session involved telling them the story of Samuel.
"Just tell the story," our supervisor said. She's a determined lady who manages to keep our unruly bunch on a straight leash.
But just telling the story won't cut it. I imagine the scene turning to chaos if I stand in front of them telling them about the time when God called Samuel. Just telling it won't do.
For lack of commentaries and the extensive library that we have back home, I decided to call up my sister who is a theology expert and got the goods on Samuel. To my surprise, I discovered that life during Samuel's time was pretty much like how life is these days. Perhaps a bit rougher, but quite similar in many aspects.
For instance, there's Israel, beleaguered by enemies on every side. Tribal wars aren't uncommon and the priests of Israel have quite forgotten to teach the next generation about the Lord. Note Phineas and Hophni who committed all sorts of atrocities against the altar and who even took advantage of the women who came to bring offerings to the Lord.
This setting was what I needed to bring this story to life. To make it vivid enough for the children to step into Samuel's world. To see this little boy whom his mother had dedicated to the Lord walking in the midst of all the wrong things that were going on and somehow being preserved and kept pure because God had set his mark on him.
Take a map of Israel during this period, trace the important parts. Write down places that are familiar to these children and show them where the wars were going on. It's pretty much the same, they said. There is still fighting going on in the Gaza stroke. That put the setting into perspective.
Having done that, I went on to tell this story to the children. It may be a bit romanticised, but it's still based on I Samuel 3:1-10
A retelling of Samuel in the Temple
Samuel shivered and drew the covers up around him. Nights could be cold in Shiloh. Peering through the curtains, he could see the stars. Like a belt of shining diamonds, the stars embraced the wide waist of the sky, stretching out from horizon to horizon, from hill to hill, illuminating shrubs and patches of earth.
He murmured the words of a prayer that he had heard Eli utter aloud before the men and women who came bringing their offerings of sheep and produce.
Samuel did not understand all of the words yet. He only knew what his mother told him.
She had brought him to Shiloh when he was still too young to understand. Entrusted him into Eli's care, giving him over unto the Lord.
Samuel did not doubt his mother's love.
It was there in the constancy of her yearly visit and the coats that she brought him, one for each year that he remained in the sanctuary.
"Why can't I go home with you?" he'd asked her once.
He never forgot the look in her eyes, pride, sorrow and love combined in that look.
"I promised you to our God, Samuel. Even before you were born, he placed his mark upon you. You were born to serve Yahweh, honor him with your body, honor him with your thoughts and love him with all your heart."
As the years passed and Eli's health deteriorated, the old priest leaned more and more upon the young boy.
"God will call up a proper priest," Eli said.
Eli's own sons desecrated the sacrifices.
"Why don't they listen?" Samuel asked Eli.
"Because they were born twisted in their hearts," Eli sighed. "They're too old to change, Samuel, and I, I am just too weak to change them."
"But you're their father, they should listen to you."
"I'm too tired to make them listen now."
Eli often turned away after these conversations, leaving Samuel to wonder.
Surely, the sacrifices were holy, surely God was mighty, and yet Eli refused to honor the sacrifice and to honor Yahweh.
Samuel didn't understand it all. Nevertheless, he was bound to the temple, bound to the old priest and bound to his love for his mother. For her sake, he honored the old man and did all that was laid upon him to do.
It was his job to take care of the sanctuary, to make sure that the candles were lit on time, that the altar was clean, that the floors were swept, and that the old priest did not stumble over his own feet when he climbed into bed.
Eli slept in a separate chamber, on a soft bed of straw and sheep's wool. Samuel preferred to sleep on his woven mat. Lying as near as he could to the altar where the lights shone down on the cool gray stone, and warmth seemed to reflect from the place where the glory of God was hidden.
A chill wind blew in through the curtains of the sanctuary. It caused the candlelight to shiver and Samuel crouched down under the covers of his bed.
Would the wind blow out the candles?
But no, the candle flame only flickered and if anything it seemed as if the glow grew brighter. A glad light seemed to spread from its rays.
"Samuel," he sat up.
It was Eli calling. He jumped to his feet, forgetting that the stone would now be cold.
"I'm coming Eli."
He ran in through the curtains that divided his sleeping space from that of the high priest.
"Did you call me?"
Eli sat up.
Samuel saw the look of surprise on his face.
"No, Samuel. Go back to bed. You must be dreaming."
"I'm sorry," Samuel replied. "I thought I heard you call me. I didn't mean to disturb your rest."
"It's all right child. Go back to sleep."
In the sanctuary, the light still shone. It spilled over the grey stones like a warm blanket of gold.
Samuel wondered what glory it must be to see God face to face. It must be like being wrapped in the warm light of that flame.
He lay down again, drawing the covers over him.
Lying there, his thoughts drifted to the man of God who had visited Eli.
"I will raise up a priest for myself a faithful priest," the man of God declared. "He will do according to what is in my heart and mind."
Samuel wondered what the words meant. Was Eli not a faithful priest? The man had spoken such dire words against Eli, words that Samuel could not begin to comprehend. If God should call him to serve, would he be worthy?
He trembled at the temerity of his own thoughts. What did he know about God anyway?
"If you listen with your heart, you will hear him speak to you," his mother had told him.
All those years waiting at the altars, Samuel waited for some revelation, for a flash of light, for a message, for a lightning bolt to appear out of the heavens, for a flaming fire that burned and did not consume.
He sprang up and out of bed.
"I'm coming Eli."
He ran on his bare feet towards where Eli lay. What if the old man had fallen out of bed and broken his knee?
Samuel could not bear the thought. He loved Eli. For all his shortcomings, Eli was always kind to him and Samuel delighted in hearing the words that Eli spoke even though his own sons mocked him.
"I'm here, Eli."
He saw Eli rise up on his elbow.
"What is it Samuel?"
"You called me, Eli. Can I get you a drink of water or perhaps another blanket?"
He saw Eli's mouth fall open. Surprise spread over his face, even as realization dawned in his eyes.
"I did not call you," Eli said. "But I think that God wishes to speak with you. If you hear that voice again, you must say, Speak Lord for your servant hears."
Eli's voice took on strength.
"Go, hurry back to your bed, my son. Lie down and wait. Listen for the voice of God and when he speaks be ready to store up all his words inside your heart."
Eli made a shooing gesture with his hands, and Samuel turned and ran back towards his bed.
In the tent, the glow of the lamps seemed to reach out and embrace him in their warmth.
"Samuel," came the voice once more.
He sat up and he could barely speak.
"Speak Lord," he whispered. "Your servant hears."
Of course, I had to tell this story in Dutch, but this is pretty much the way I told it. One thing that amazed me about this telling was how I could tell it so fluently in Dutch, but for the life of me, I can't write it down the way I told it. Thinking about it, I can say that in that moment, I wasn't doing the telling anymore. Someone higher than myself took hold of my tongue and caused the words to flow so that the children would understand the message behind that story.
It's all about our readiness to listen. It's all about me, being willing to surrender myself to the voice of God.