When I was a little kid of 3 or so, one of my very favorite Bible stories was that of God, Samuel and Eli found in I Samuel 2–3. You know the story: Little Samuel, the child given to Hannah by God in response to her prayer, is given back to God by his parents and grows up in the presence of God, ministering in the temple with Eli the priest. Samuel was a responsive child, responding first mistakenly to the elderly Eli when God calls him, and then finally to God’s voice as Eli instructs him, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (I Samuel 3:10).
I would practice being Samuel as a child, lying in bed after our nighttime family devotions and whispering, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And then I would listen for God. I would listen with the intent to obey as God’s servant.
One of our students here at the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot works as a children’s pastor at a large Southern California church and has been working on incorporating Scripture use and spiritual formation into the church’s program for the 2- and 3-year-olds. Thus, during their opening exercises each week, the kids hear a short portion from the Bible read aloud and then they all spread out across the room, each finding their own “quiet place.” They sit on the floor or kneel for 90 seconds and respond to God about his Word that they just heard. Then they go to class.
Very cool, huh? But wait, there’s more. This young pastor came to class one recent morning grinning from ear to ear because of a call he received from one of the mothers at his church.
Here is what the woman said to him: “You don’t know me; I’m one of those crazy, car-pooling, SUV-driving California moms and I am in my car right now with my 3-year-old son, Jack. I have the radio going and I am listening to a local Christian station and they just ran a commercial that had a Bible verse in it. We were stopped at a light, and as I glanced in the rearview mirror before starting up, I see my son Jack in his car seat, sitting very still with his eyes closed, head tipped back and hands raised up. I said, ‘Jack! Jack! What’s wrong? Are you OK?’ And Jack says to me: ‘Mom! We just heard God’s Word, and I’m responding!’”
Doesn’t that just warm your heart? This little 3-year-old boy hears God’s Word almost accidentally in the course of his day, and he already understands the connection between hearing the Word, pondering the Word and allowing the Bible to lead him to relationship with God. He knows that God is near and that God is listening to him.
And this is, of course, why we read the Bible and why we pray, because God is present and we want to respond to him. It has always seemed to me that one of the gutsiest scriptural responses to God’s initiating presence comes at the end of Psalm 139 in verses 23 and 24. After David has enumerated all the ways in which God knows him —through space, through light and dark, through time past and time present, through conflict — the psalmist rests in his response by opening his heart to God in this manner:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart,
Test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.”
We read the Scriptures in order to learn more about this merciful, attentive God who is always inviting us into a living relationship of repentance and renewal through the work of our Lord Jesus on the cross and of the Holy Spirit given to His children. We read His Word and then we open our hearts, even the parts of our hearts that are hidden to us, to our loving Heavenly Father for examination, and God responds with forgiveness and healing and leading. And the loving response goes back and forth between us and this God who has made His home in our hearts as we say: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”