I took last Sunday at my church to praise the cultural institution of Father’s Day. We do well to pause and praise the accomplishment of fatherhood for a man, and for growth into manhood in general. To do that, we looked at the account of the prophet Samuel’s growth “both in stature and in favor with the LORD and also with man” (1Sa 2:26). In chapters 2-4 of 1Samuel, the narrator contrasts the boy’s maturation with Eli’s sons’ degeneration. This invites us to see in the funny story with the elder priest, Eli, in 1Samuel 3 a template for the maturing of a man.
The Secret of Every Boy
Here is a secret: Every boy begins with doubt that he is man. Every boy starts out with suspicion that he can be a man. Every boy wonders if he really measures up to manhood. Men who have largely achieved this goal may have forgotten by now. Though we all continue to grow in our manhood, if things have worked right, a man might not remember where he started. But the quest of every boy consists in this. He must conquer this doubt in order to become a man.
Many things threaten to derail this train, to thwart that mission, especially today. The quest is not a guaranteed success. That makes the lessons pictured in this passage valuable. How does it happen with Samuel?
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 And the LORD called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8 And the LORD called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant hears.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.”
The story begins, as it does with most boys, with the boy Samuel cheerfully missing his call, not once, not twice but three times (vv4-8). He begins blissfully unaware of what he is called to and, more importantly, Who is calling him. His uncertainty and misinterpretation are every boy before he becomes a man. Nonetheless, perhaps instinctually, the boy draws close to the Divine. He sleeps somewhere in the tabernacle, close to the ark (v3). He is tugged to the divine, yet not correctly identifying inside of him the urgings, the rumblings, the call.
Mis-identifications of the Call
Maturing to manhood usually entails many mis-identifications of the call, the boy attributing what he hears to lesser voices. So, for example, he gets lost in video games. They grant a sense of adventure, an experience of rescue, a semblance of achievement. But it is a lesser voice, a voice of Eli, which the boy misidentifies as THE call. He can spend all his time on it instead of stepping into the quest of life. Last year Americans spent $56.6 billion on hardware and software for playing video games. This is just in one year. In one country. Guys might play Call of Duty instead of answering real call of duty. They might respond to Ragnarok: The Gods of War instead of responding to the real God.
Another lesser voice is the siren of pornography, which hijacks a desire for connection, a stirring of driving passion. These are meant to drive a boy toward responsibility, to propel him toward relationship with a woman, to do the things to become marriageable. Instead he heeds the lesser voice of entering into sexual pleasure without laying down his life, without relationship.
The most serious mis-response of boyhood is to respond to God’s call in fear of the unknown. We ought not to read Samuel’s running to Eli when God calls as a cute story of confusion. When he runs to Eli (v5, v6, v8), he is running away from the ark (v3). Samuel is scurrying away from God’s presence! What is he doing? He is running to the familiar. He does not want to face the unknown. That’s scary. That’s more work.
If these mis-responses are not identified and addressed, a boy can lose hope that he can be a man. If a boy never comes to appreciate how his gifts, both the regular ones and perhaps unique or unusual ones, are tools of manhood, he is detoured from manhood. Tragedies or traumas exacerbate the initial fears. Then these can become serious dead ends, like suicide or believing he is better suited to being a girl.
The Hand on the Shoulder
I have counseled or discipled many young guys. And I have come to recognize, again and again, that what they needed, and what my role simply was, was to see and speak that they could be a man. That was it. Guys are greatly lacking that hand on their shoulder in our day. Within six years of their parents separating, a third of American children never see their father again. In Samuel’s case, thankfully, Eli was there. In this case, Eli did well, being the hand on Samuel’s shoulder to re-direct the boy’s attention to the real call (v9).
That was wonderful because Samuel had important things to do. Under his ministry the nation was transformed. An entire country freed and converted into a kingdom. He needed to become a man to do it. In fact, it started with a very difficult assignment the very next morning, that ushered him into manhood (vv15-18). Our boys also have very important things to do. They need to become men to do them. Our historical moment needs them to mature. Thus, we need to be Eli to them, putting our hand on their shoulders and re-directing them to the Divine call.
God bless the fathers.
For a fuller treatment of these ideas, you can listen to the Father’s Day Sermon.