All of us have our own methods of coping when life presents us with a particularly challenging day. For my part, there is comfort in retreating to the kitchen (to concoct a big batch of homemade soup), comfort books, and comfort movies.
One day recently, I had Exodus on my brain and based on my day, felt sympathetic to the Hebrews’ experience of either still being in Egypt or wandering around aimlessly in the desert. I wasn’t sure which sentiment I more closely identified with: slavery or aimless wandering in a desert. So upon arriving home, I dropped my bags and aimed straight for the kitchen. I pulled out herbs, veggies, a roasted chicken, and started on a chicken stock (comfort cooking, check). Then, I turned on The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 animated rendition of the story of Moses (comfort movie, check).
Re-watching The Prince of Egypt made me pause and consider the way God calls and the way we respond (or are at least supposed to respond) to God’s calling out to us. Oddly enough, it also made me realize the ways I had probably failed to respond to God in my life that day.
When God called Moses to send him back to his people in Egypt, Moses was tending to his daily duties of tending sheep. In the midst of that work, Moses discovered the burning bush. Once Moses’ curiosity was piqued, God called out Moses’ own name:
When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely,
God called out to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
He answered, “Here I am.”
God said, “Come no nearer!
Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place where you stand is holy ground.
I am the God of your fathers,” he continued,
“the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
But the LORD said,
“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt
and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers,
so I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them
from the hands of the Egyptians
and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”
God has plans in store that Moses did not even want to begin imagining in this moment. And indeed, all Moses does at first was give a simple answer: “Here I am.”
By this point, my thoughts were off to the races. I remembered learning in my Old Testament class about the Hebrew word “hineni” (the word we usually translate as, “Here I am”). This word stuck enough in my mind as an undergraduate to keep this quote from our professor:
This same Hebrew phrase, “hineni,” is found almost everywhere in the Old Testament where someone receives a command and responds affirmatively. It means, "I am here: in the sense that I am ready - right this very moment - to do whatever you ask.
To illustrate this pattern a bit, here are a few more examples: in the account of Abraham, we learn in Genesis 22:1, “Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test and said to him: Abraham! “Here I am!” he replied.” We find that Jacob responded similarly; in Genesis 31: 11 we read, “In the dream God’s angel said to me, ‘Jacob!’ and I replied, ‘Here I am!’ And Samuel, in 1 Samuel 3:4, also listens and responds: “The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.”
There are plenty of other examples to be found, but you get the picture: “Hineni; here I am; I am ready to do Your will” is, to put it mildly, a scripturally big freakin’ deal. This is no mere teenage shoulder shrug to God. “Hineni” does not serve the Mosaic equivalent of, “What’s up?” or a shoulder shrug, begrudging acquiescence that God is present.
“Hineni; here I am, Lord” signifies an instant attentiveness and a willingness to do whatever God will ask—even if questions arise down the line, even if we do not know what is to come, even if God intervening in our lives seems quite inconvenient.
The thought crossed my mind this particular evening that a posture of quiet, willing listening, even in the midst of daily tasks, often comes prior to God calling our name via another person’s call to us. Some days, that prerequisite humility and quietness absolutely pains the know-it-all part of me: the part that identifies shortcomings, the part that desires action and change, and hopefully action and change now. Regardless, we are asked to listen enough so that we can hear and respond properly when God calls our name and gives us our work. To illustrate this point, I turn to Ratzinger’s advice on preaching:
The first duty of the preacher is not to be on the look-out for foreign models and to expect relevance from them but, rather, to start by becoming personally a hearer of the Word and then welcoming its reality. We will be able to be preachers of the Word only in the measure to which we have become its true hearers. (Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching, 57).
Thus the call of the catechist (and the Christian more generally) is to hear God: to be quiet enough in spirit that we will hear what God asks of us. We are asked to become, “personally a hearer of the Word” in order that we may “welcome” the reality. This means, too, that we cannot be so caught up in our own plans that we are un-open to interruption when it comes. St. Augustine keenly understands this challenge, but has advice for us when we fall into this trap:
You may, however, be dejected because you have had to leave aside another activity which in your view was more essential and upon which you were already intent. The result is that you are in a grumpy mood and thus give your instruction in a disagreeable manner… We ought indeed to schedule our activities as best as we know how, and, if we are then able to carry them out in the way we have planned, we should be pleased with the outcome not because it was what we wanted but because it was what God wanted. If, on the other hand, a very pressing situation arises and disrupts our schedule, we should willingly bend to it so as not to be broken, and the schedule that God has preferred to our own should now be the one to which we adhere, for it is right after all that we should follow his will rather than ours…. (St. Augustine, Instructing Beginners in Faith I.14.20).
From this grumpy Tuesday, I learned that to be a catechist necessitates a listening spirit that makes it possible to hear God calling our name: that humility and quiet necessitates willingly drop our own plans in favor of what God places in front of us.
And so on this particular day, upon examination, I was found lacking by Moses, by Ratzinger, and by St. Augustine. But maybe on a future day I will do a better job of listening quietly, so that when God calls through prayer, through my parishioners, and through my coworkers, I will be ready and attentive to His plan for my day and my life. Maybe, given another opportunity, I will say “Hineni, my Lord: here I am.”
And maybe that time, I will really mean it.