The courage to listen

January 1st, 2021

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)

The year after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I was a third grader in Ridgeland, Mississippi. I lived in a segregated world—separate and unequal. Everybody I knew wanted things to stay the way they were. The white people in my hometown didn’t understand what Dr. King preached. We didn’t hear what he heard God say. We didn’t hear God say anything we didn’t want to hear.

I knew that there were African Americans living nearby, but we went to different schools, stores, post offices, and saddest of all, churches. Then one Friday afternoon, Mr. Williams, our bus driver, told us to sit down and get quiet.

“Starting on Monday,” he shouted “there will be two black girls riding on our bus.”

Several boys in the back started booing.

Mr. Williams yelled, “Get quiet! I don’t like it either, but there’s nothing we can do about it. None of you will have to sit by them. They’ll sit in this seat right behind me.”

Then he started the bus. The bad kids said that they would call the new girls names and let them know that they didn’t belong on our bus. The good kids said that wasn’t fair and that the best thing to do was to say nothing at all. On Monday and on the days that followed, as far as I know, none of the bad kids ever said anything loud enough to be heard, but something no less tragic took place. The first children on the bus each morning and each afternoon sat in the back row. Every day for the rest of the year the bus filled from the back with every white child sitting as far as possible from the two children sitting in the front seat.

It’s embarrassing to confess that years passed before I realized how evil we were. It didn’t occur to me to sit on the second row, say hello, or question our actions. As the good white children of good white parents, we didn’t think of ourselves as bigots. We just found it easier not to challenge what was expected.

Years later, I became what my relatives in Mississippi consider a liberal. The liberal white children of the Deep South who left home are proud of the alienation we feel from the most embarrassing parts of our roots. We’re arrogant about our newfound sophistication, but sometimes I wonder what we would hear if we listened for God’s opinion on the subject of our prejudices.

It’s easier not to listen to God, because listening is dangerous. It was for Samuel. He grew up in “the church,” helping Eli with chores around the temple—lighting lamps, sweeping the floor, putting the hymnals back in the pew racks. Samuel never thought about listening for God, because no one was listening for God. The author writes: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

It’s not surprising that when twelve-year-old Samuel hears a voice while sleeping in church—he was neither the first nor the last to sleep in church—he assumes it is Eli. Three times someone calling his name awakens him. Three times he goes to Eli and asks what he wants. After the third time Eli wonders, although God hasn’t been heard from in those parts for some time, if perhaps Samuel is hearing God’s voice. He tells Samuel that if he hears the voice again, he should answer, “God, I’m listening.” God speaks and gives Samuel disturbing news—news that Samuel doesn’t want to repeat. After he hears God’s voice, Samuel’s life is never the same. It’s harder—much harder!

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, and uncle were all preachers. When he became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, however, he still hadn’t had a firsthand experience of God. But then Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus and Martin found himself in the middle of a boycott. Although he had only been in Montgomery a year and he was only twenty-seven years old, he quickly became a leader of the movement. It wasn’t long before his family started getting threatening phone calls. He wondered if he could take it. He wanted out. Then one night, around midnight, another threatening call came: “We’re tired of you, and if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”

Dr. King prayed aloud that night. He reports hearing a voice calling him to stand up for righteousness, justice, and truth; the voice of Jesus promising to be with him through the fight. Dr. King’s life from that moment on is a testimony to his response to that prayer.

What would we hear if we listened for God’s voice? Would God tell us to be honest about the prejudices that lie so deep within us that we don’t admit them even to ourselves; to repent not only of whatever hatred we feel but also whatever apathy we hide; to let worship penetrate our hearts enough for us to say, “Speak God, for I’m listening”; to realize that if racism seems like someone else’s problem then we are part of the problem; to stop waiting for others to take the first step and step across the lines ourselves; to speak with kindness and courage when it would be easier to say nothing; to do more than vote right and work for economic justice for all; to do more than tolerate our differences and honor and celebrate them; to be impatient with inequality, impatient with anything less than freedom and justice. If we listen for God, we’ll hear a dangerous voice telling us to do what’s right.

This article was first published in The Abingdon Preaching Annual.

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