I have a vivid missionary memory — swooping along on my Graziella bicycle, coat buttoned tight against the Brenta valley fog, and sending up to the Lord what felt like a last-effort mental prayer, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m here. At least I’m here.”
There have been many times that I’ve felt at my wit’s end mentally and spiritually, but that prayer was a turning point in my faith, a moment when I acknowledged both my weakness and my commitment. Despite my doubts and uncertainties, I still wanted to stand with Christ, even if my accomplishments were imperfect and my motives sometimes muddled or selfish. I wasn’t always good at strategies and checklists, but I wanted to live deeply and spiritually, to love the places and people I encountered, to understand my purpose and have hope for the future.
In that moment, I didn’t purposely reference Samuel’s first conversation with God, but I’ve since recognized his simple words in my own brief prayer. Young Samuel heard the voice of the Lord and answered, “Here am I.” He didn’t understand who was speaking, but he was present and listening. After learning from Eli whose voice he had actually heard, and after repeating and re-directing his answer to the Lord, Samuel was ready to receive divine revelation and with it a call to prophecy and leadership (1 Samuel 3).
Like Samuel, we can all be in conversation with God. And Samuel’s dialogic learning process can become a model for our own divine dialogues. His simple conversation shows two crucial components:
1. Will Samuel’s prayer was a free offering of his will, a listening stance, a readiness to hear and follow. Samuel ended up doing many important things: anointing two kings and uttering powerful prophecies. But this early moment shows his heart. The child Samuel didn’t need to say or know very much, it was his willing readiness to be present in the conversation that counted.
2. Recognition with the help of his teacher, Eli, Samuel was learning to recognize the quiet prompting voice of divine inspiration. Part of that process of recognition was also identifying and locating himself in relation to divinity. Samuel shows us that a simple spiritual self-acknowledgement is the starting point of godly covenants and that only a conscious recognition of both God and oneself makes it possible to align ourselves with God.
But Samuel’s story also makes me think of my father. My father loved Bible stories and sayings, and he had a mischievous way of remembering biblical phrases during everyday life and making references that his kids didn’t always catch. Sometimes when we were little and would call out to him from our beds at night, wanting a drink of water or to be tucked in, he would walk into our bedrooms and say, “here am I.” We’d wonder why he sounded so old-fashioned and then realize much later that he was answering a nighttime call with cheerful willingness and remembering the story of Samuel.
Samuel offers us a model for our prayers with God, but his childlike willingness and readiness can be a model for our human interactions just as profoundly. I didn’t have a perfect father. He was flawed and couldn’t solve all of our problems, but he was there. He was a loving presence in our lives, and that made all the difference. My father’s simple “I’m here” helped us know he loved his children and gave us comfort and courage in our times of need.
And so the same components of Samuel’s prayer can also be applied to our interactions with others. We can use our free will to be present, acknowledging that we play a part in the lives of our fellow human beings, recognizing that our mission in life is to see one other for the divine beings that we are. This mission is perhaps most deeply felt within families, but it is just as real in our interactions with neighbors, members of our congregations, co-workers and classmates, or strangers. In our Samuel-like interactions with others, sometimes we may be the ones that call out in the night. Sometimes we may the ones who answer. The conversation doesn’t have to be complicated or busy or solve everyone’s problems, it just has to happen with love.
In the October 2017 General Conference, Bonnie L. Oscarson reminded us of the needs of others that inevitably surround us. Speaking to the young people of the church, Sister Oscarson said,
“I have seen and felt of your desires to serve and make a difference in the world. I believe that most members consider service to be at the heart of their covenants and discipleship. But I also think that sometimes it’s easy to miss some of the greatest opportunities to serve others because we are distracted or because we are looking for ambitious ways to change the world and we don’t see that some of the most significant needs we can meet are within our own families, among our friends, in our wards, and in our communities. We are touched when we see the suffering and great needs of those halfway around the world, but we may fail to see there is a person who needs our friendship sitting right next to us in class.”
What does it take to recognize those needs, to see others as we should? Like Samuel, we need to be present, not distracted. We need to be willing, not putting off opportunities to love others in anticipation of some glamourous or momentous occasion. We need to be there.