Like the little bear in Martin Waddell's story ‘Can’t you sleep little bear?’ the boy Samuel – who was probably not much older than six or seven – couldn’t sleep one night. Before dawn, while it was still dark, he was woken by a voice calling to him. He ran to his master, the old priest Eli, who was sleeping in another room. He thought Eli must be calling him, but Eli was still asleep. When the boy Samuel asked him what he wanted, Eli told Samuel to go back to bed.
This happened three times, and Eli could easily have got a bit irritated, but like Big Bear in the story he was very wise and kind. Instead of getting cross he tried to figure out what was troubling Samuel. And then it occurred to him that perhaps God was calling Samuel’s name.
The story reminds us that when God calls us it’s not always easy to recognise his voice. It’s a bit like taking part in a sound quiz. Can we recognise at once what all the sounds are when we hear them? Or would we find it difficult to tell the difference between lions and tigers?
God sometimes talks to us through the Bible, or through other stories and poems, or through music and pictures. Sometimes it’s a particular experience that inspires us and connects us with God, such as the birth of a baby or climbing a high mountain. Sometimes God speaks to us through other people. The Prophet Hosea, for instance, heard God speaking to him – and to Israel – through his wife and children. What they said and did inspired him and made him realize what God was saying.
Sometimes, and the Prophet Elijah particularly comes to mind here, God speaks to us through a still small voice, like a whisper, in our heads. Sometimes people actually hear a voice calling to them, just as the boy Samuel did.
Once we have heard God speaking to us, of course, the next thing we have to do is take notice of what he is saying and do something about it. That’s why the old priest Eli told Samuel to say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!’ The right response – when God speaks to us – is first to listen and then to do, to be a listener, yes, but also a servant, a doer of God’s word.