MIXED BLESSINGS by Barbara Brown Taylor ($10.95)*

COW: 1-56101-162-2

Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and former rector of Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Georgia. She currently holds the Harry R. Butman Chair in Religion and Philosophy at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. A popular preacher, speaker, and workshop leader, she was recently noted in Newsweek as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English language.

Mixed Blessings

1-56101-162-2 • 144 pp • $10.95 • paper

In this new edition of her earliest collection of sermons Barbara Brown Taylor brings her down-to-earth wisdom and keen perspective to the Bible readings of the lectionary cycle. Originally preached for the congregation of All Saints' Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta, the topics of these sermons range from conversations with Abraham and Moses in the texts of the Hebrew scriptures to our awareness of the communion of saints and how to recognize a miracle when one comes our way.

Part One: A Cloud of Witnesses
Wed by God
Uncommon Light
Voices in the Night
The Courage to See

Part Two: The Firstborn of All Creation
Saving Space
Decked Out in Flesh
Sacramental Mud
Blood Kin
The Familiar Stranger
Mixed Blessings
The Company of Heaven

Part Three: Inhabitants of Earth
Are You the One?
Local Miracles
After Words
The Automatic Earth
Without a Net

"Sermons wonderfully intelligent, moving, and direct." — Annie Dillard

"With no ax to grind except the Gospel, Barbara Brown Taylor has done what good preachers should do. She has preached the Word." — Will D. Campbell

"A poet with a sense of humor. Her imagination enlivens Biblical texts." — Verna J. Dozier

"Barbara Brown Taylor has a rare constellation of gifts—intellectual carefulness and depth, coupled with an artistic sensibility for image-making." — John Claypool

"Taylor lets the listeners in on the preparation and the thought and the delivery of her sermons. She invites them to bear some responsibility for the message she preaches." — Fred B. Craddock

Voices in the Night

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord has not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. (1 Samuel 3:7-9)

There was a Thursday morning tradition at a parish where I used to work whereby the preacher of the week met with a small but loyal group of people to discuss the assigned Bible readings for the upcoming Sunday. It is a tradition that provided a forum for the people and more than one sermon for the preacher. I remember one week we spent most of our time on the Old Testament reading in which a voice from heaven awakens twelve-year-old Samuel and transforms him into a prophet of the Lord. First we exclaimed over the beauty and mystery of the passage; then there was a lull in the conversation as we let the story sink in. Out of the silence one woman began telling about this strange thing that had begun happening to her just lately, how she had been waking up at four in the morning for no reason at all and found it impossible to go to sleep again. A thousand worries consumed her, she said, worries that became trivial as soon as the sun came up but really terrified her in the middle of the night. She did not know what was wrong.

Several older members of the group exchanged knowing looks and announced, somewhat gleefully, "It's age! You're just getting old, that's all!" It turned out that a hefty majority, of those present woke up at four in the morning—or three, or two-thirty—and worried. They all had different solutions for their common problem, which they shared with their new compatriot: one walked her dog, one got up and cooked, one pinched the dead leaves off her houseplants, several read, and several more, including me, made lists. (One, bless her soul, sang hymns, but few of us had the memory for that one.) What we all had in common was an uneasiness, if not a downright fear, of the night, of the literal power of darkness to make benign things seem bad and bad things seem much, much worse. We could not agree what it was all about, but we did agree that we all heard certain voices in the night, and they very rarely had anything good to say to us.

At four in the morning, my bed can become a coffin. Everything I do not understand crowds in on me: the meaning of life, of death, the fate of the earth, the size of the universe, where God is and what God thinks of the mistakes I have made. They bear down on me without mercy until I manage to numb myself with a prayer, a rhyme, anything mindless and automatic enough to put my panicked brain back to sleep. And I could not tell you what I am more afraid of—that I will hear a voice address me out of the silence or that I will hear absolutely, definitively, nothing at all.

But if we think our own beds can be scary places in the middle of the night, imagine poor Samuel sleeping in the temple next to the ark of God. Do you know Samuel? He was his mother Hannah's firstborn son, a miracle baby because everyone, including her, believed she was barren until the day she went to the temple at Shiloh and prayed for a child. She would do anything to conceive, Hannah said, including give the baby back to God. The old temple priest Eli heard her prayer, blessed it, and true to her word she brought her baby boy Samuel back to Eli as soon as the child was weaned. So it happened that Samuel grew up in the temple at Shiloh, serving Eli—who was ninety years old if he was a day and going blind on top of that—and helping the old man with his priestly duties: locking and unlocking the doors of the shrine, keeping the lamp of God filled with oil, scrubbing out pots used to boil the slaughtered sacrifices. It cannot have been a particularly pleasant childhood, even though Eli was kind to Samuel, loving the boy as his own kin, loving the life the child brought into that dark, holy place.

We can only guess what it was like for Samuel as the faithful brought their burnt-offerings, their sin-offerings, and their guilt-offerings to the temple. They were burdened, ashen-faced people, most of them, hauling their stubborn animals up to the altar to be killed. There was a great deal of blood, blood splashed on the altar and blood sprinkled on the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the sanctuary. The burning incense did battle with the smell but could not beat it; the place stank, no getting around it. Maybe Samuel tended the cauldron where the sacrificial meat was boiled, or helped Eli locate the portion he was allowed to eat as the temple priest. Maybe Samuel was allowed to feed on some of the scraps himself; there was little else for a growing boy to eat.

At night he lay down by the ark of God, the legendary throne of the invisible king Yahweh that Israel carried into battle at the head of her armies. It was reputed to contain all the sacred relics of the nation's past: a container of manna, Aaron's budded rod, the tablets of the covenant. Sleeping next to it had to be like sleeping in a graveyard, or under a volcano, but Samuel was apparently used to it. Night after night, with his hair full of smoke and the smell of burning fat, he lay down beside it and pulled his cloak around him, trying not to sleep too soundly in case old Eli called him during the night.

Someone does call him out of the belly of this particular night, not once but three times, and three times he answers, "Here I am," a variation on "I'm coming," and goes running to see what Eli wants. It is not Eli who has called him, however, but by the time Samuel has awakened him for the third time, Eli has a hunch who it might be. Samuel does not yet know the Lord, we are told, which seems incredible for someone, even a boy of twelve, who has spent his whole life in the Lord's house. There is more to knowing God, it seems, than being in church.

Anyhow, instead of cuffing the boy, Eli rubs the sleep from his eves and tells Samuel what to say the next time he hears the voice. Say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening," he tells the boy and that is exactly what Samuel does. It is a turning point for him that night, a point on which his whole life turns, not only because of what he hears but also because of what he says: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." He is no longer a child, a temple lackey who comes running at the sound of his name. He has become a young man, a servant of God who is ready to hear what the Lord has to say to him. Compared to the courage that required, sleeping next to the ark was nothing!

The message takes courage to hear as well, because it condemns old Eli's house forever—old blind Eli, the only family Samuel has ever known, damned because his loutish sons have gotten into the bad habit of stealing the best cuts of meat from the temple and taking them home to roast. Eli had warned them but could not make them stop, and now the bill for their wrongdoing has come due. Samuel does not want to tell Eli what he has heard. The next morning he opens up the temple as usual and when Eli calls him he answers as usual, "Here I am," the same words he used to answer Eli before Iris vision. He wants things back the way they were; he wants to remain a child, bur Eli knows better. He orders Samuel to tell him all that he has learned, and here there is a peculiar glitch in the Hebrew. "What was it he told you?" Eli asks, using a plain masculine pronoun that does not presume to know who "he" is.There are plenty of voices that can be heard in the night, it seems, and Eli knows enough to hear the message before he decides whom it is from. The boy balks but Eli makes it clear that he, like Samuel, is ready to hear the message so Samuel tells him everything. It is the content of the message—the righteousness, the judgment, the bone-rattling power of it—that lets Eli know whom it is from, who the "he" is. "It is the Lord," he says. "Let him do what seems good to him." And so it comes to pass that the boy he counted on to be his eves shows Eli the fiery vision of his own destruction.

Now if that is what happens when you answer voices in the night, then thanks very much but I would just as soon walk the dog. Does anyone really want to hear the voice of the living God? I wonder. I wonder, as I said before, which is worse: to hear it or not to hear it, to face fainting at the power of it or to live oblivious to it, eaten up by the thousand little fears that may prevent its ever getting through. That is what I think about the night terrors, see. Sometimes I think all my worrying about the bills, my health, my family, my life, death, and the universe—all that is what I worry about to avoid saying, in the middle of the night, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." I am so afraid that I will hear something, or that I won't. But all the evidence points toward hearing something, at least eventually. It is our faith and our hope that, since the beginning of time when God's word created heaven and earth, through the word he gave to Abraham and our forebears forever, through the word made flesh in Jesus, God has been speaking to us and is speaking to us still. But he has never forced us to hear.

If and when we choose to hear, we could do worse than claim Samuel as our patron saint and to remember his story of how the Lord waited to speak until Samuel declared his readiness to hear; how it took the wisdom of a fellow traveler, old Eli, to help Samuel make sense of what was happening to him and to discern whose voice he heard; how there was no going back once he had heard the word of the Lord; and how that word changed his life forever. It is no invitation for the fainthearted, but it is an invitation we have all been issued just the same. "See that you do not refuse to hear the voice that speaks," says the letter to the Hebrews. The truth is, it is a voice that is speaking to us always—not only in the middle of the night, although that may be when it is easiest to hear, when all the other voices of our lives are still—and not only in words, although words tend to be easiest for us to understand. The truth is that ever since God decided to speak through a person, the person of his son, his word has come to us in our persons, in our bodies, in all the events of our lives, if only we can learn to hear what they are telling us.

How can we find out? What is God trying, wanting, longing to say to us? His message is different for each of us, as different as our lives. Only our beginnings are the same, our first steps toward finding out, when we are able to summon all our courage, open our mouths, and say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

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