I wanted us to hear the poem, “Let us Prepare for Winter,” because I think it’s a good description of what we are invited to do as we welcome the new year. It is time to go inside; not only because the weather is growing colder, but because the new year invites us to take an inner inventory. It is time to go inside of ourselves; to sift through the experiences that have weighed on our hearts and minds this past year; to sort and to dust off our emotions; to take stock of another year of our living; to notice how we’ve grown and where we still have growing to do. A new year is an opportunity to realign and readjust; to reset ourselves according to a deeper order.
What exactly does this passage from 1 Samuel have to say to us as we move forward into a new year? How does it speak to us, the strange story of this little boy who held actual priestly duties, serving God alongside grown men in the temple at Shiloh, in his little miniature vestments. What message does it gift to us, as we prepare to go inside, and to prepare ourselves for a new year? On the surface, Samuel’s story seems completely foreign to us; his mother, Hannah, had dedicated him to the temple, essentially handing him over to be trained for temple work as soon as he was weaned, when he was still a toddler. It seems to us as though she offered her son to the service of the temple the same way others offered up the portions of their harvest. But if we take away the strange details the story is about a grateful heart; Hannah had received her son Samuel as a gift and she was so grateful for him that she wanted to give back. She had waited a long time to conceive and she didn’t know whether she would conceive again, and yet she’s portrayed in scripture as singing to the Divine: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exulted in my God,” she says. It was that which Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was most profoundly grateful, that became her unique gift to give.
As we go inside ourselves and take stock of our experiences of the past year, I want to propose that that which we find ourselves most grateful for in this past year may be what we are most suited to gift and give to others in the year ahead. Could we pass on what we have so gratefully received, as Hannah did with Samuel?
One of the most precious gifts I received this past year was friendship. On the first day of school just after we’d moved to Los Angeles a while back I approached a woman whose son was in the same kindergarten class as my own, just to make small talk and try to connect myself in a new community. It turned out that her family had just moved to Los Angeles as well – they’d arrived the very same day we had – though they had flown all the way from Tokyo. Over the coming weeks we bonded as we navigated a new school system and neighborhood and city. With no extended family around we set up a child care swap and became each other’s go to help. Others joined our group who had likewise just moved – from places like South Korea and India (via the UK) and Las Vegas. One of my favourite memories of our time in California was the day Tomoko invited us all over to her apartment to learn how to make “nigiri” – these Japanese rice balls covered in seaweed that her son would bring for lunch and our kids were always angling to eat. We were meant to come over for the morning, but morning turned to lunch and lunch into an afternoon cup of tea and that afternoon cup of tea into the amazing realization that we’d all been blessed by people who hadn’t existed to us a few months before. We felt that the world was a good and friendly and sustaining and nourishing place – no matter that the news said otherwise. Months before we were all strangers and now we were friends.
As I go inside myself, to take inventory and take stock, I realize that the gift for which I am most grateful this past year is friendship and so I have to wonder if, like Hannah, this is the very gift I’m called to give back to God’s temple of the world in this coming year. And what about you? What are you most grateful for? Could it be that out of your deep gratitude you might find that this is also your unique gift to give?
Jesus went to the temple not only to commune with God but to try to understand who he was and who God was calling him to be. “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” To go inside of himself, to take stock and inventory, Jesus went to the temple; it was where he could best hear what was going on inside of himself and where he could ask questions of God.
The story got me thinking about our own temples and where we go to sit and listen and ask our questions of the universe; where exactly we go to try to understand what is going on inside of us and who are our teachers. Temples are not only physical places but mental and emotional spaces as well. Some are sites of insight and learning that we recognize only in hindsight.
Years ago I was out on a glorious spring day going for a glorious spring run in all the glory of the nature on the trails in High Park when a dog ran right across my path and I tripped, fell, and snapped my elbow right in half. A visit to the ER confirmed what I felt in my bones the moment it had happened: I was scheduled for surgery that same day. The timing was terrible; I was meant to tape myself for a preaching assignment the following day and my work requires daily computer use and typing, and my role as a mother more often has me wishing for eight arms, not to be forced to go down to one. But in hindsight the experience was a kind of a “temple” experience for me, and injury a kind of teacher at whose feet I sat. I learned how caring people can be. I was astounded at how long healing takes, and came to understand healing as a process and not an event. I came to understand my own strength and ability to persevere.
Perhaps you’ve found yourself sitting in a rather unorthodox temple this past year, learning from an experience you’d never expected to have, asking questions of God and the universe you’d never expected you’d have to ask. No matter what our experiences or what stage we are at we have this promise: that God works together with us for good. And so in whatever temples in which you have found yourself, and whatever your teachers, may we find that they eventually help us grow in wisdom and in stature. God’s favor is with us and with all of humankind.