Wrestling With The Ghost of Samuel
By Ken Rummer
I’ve had trouble envisioning my life in retirement, and I suspect a ghost is involved, the ghost of Samuel.
Years ago, when I told my parents about my decision to go to seminary, they didn’t seem very excited. Not opposed, but not very enthusiastic. I asked them about this later on, after seminary and ordination. They said they didn’t want to push. They wanted the decision, if that’s what it turned out to be, to be mine.
But now that the die had been cast and the Rubicon had been crossed, they felt they could tell me an old family story about the days just before I was born. There had been problems. Serious problems. The doctor wasn’t sure if either my mother or I would make it through childbirth.
My mother prayed Hannah’s prayer: “Give me this child and I will give him back to you.” In the Bible that prayer was answered with the birth of Samuel (I Samuel 1). In the family story I was hearing, it was answered with my arrival, red and wrinkled, but hale and whole—mother and child unexpectedly doing well.
My parents didn’t tell me about that prayer when my dream was to fly like Superman or when I wanted to be a firefighter so I could slide down the pole at the fire station. Not a word, when I was putting in lots of hours on the violin or when I was studying electrical engineering in college.
They brought me up in the church. They prayed with me and for me. But there was no mention of anybody being given back to God.
So it was a surprise to me that my big decision for seminary and pastoring turned out to be the unfolding of a destiny apparently set in motion before I was born. How can a decision freely made turn out to be what God had in mind all along?
I know that Presbyterians, and others, struggle to understand how human choices fit in with what God has determined before the foundation of the world, but as I put the pieces of my story together, it seems that both can be true, and at the same time.
Through 40 years of ministry, having a life story that began with Hannah’s prayer and ended up in service before God gave me a foundation on which to stand, especially on Sunday afternoons when, in the grip of the post-adrenaline crash, I was pretty sure that the sermon had been a disaster and that I was a terrible pastor. Having a Samuel story helped me get to Monday afternoon. My life made sense within the arc of that narrative. It did, that is, until it was time to consider retirement.
As far as I could determine, Samuel didn’t retire. I found no Samuel reference in the Bible to golf or fishing, no mention of snow-birding to the Dead Sea, no direct deposit coming from the Board of Pensions.
So there I was, looking at retirement and wrestling with Samuel’s ghost. I should have taken a lesson from King Saul whose encounter with the ghost of Samuel led to trouble (I Samuel 28). It did for me as well.
A breakthrough came during a theological consultation that took place at one of my holy places. A spiritual advisor was in the house, and my conversations with her included my Samuel story and my struggle to make sense of my life in a coming retirement. The word that came to me was this: “You are not Samuel.” Short, obvious, freeing.
Now I find myself seven weeks into retirement. I’m doing my best to leave the ghost of Samuel to wrestle with somebody else, and I’m trying to be open to a new chapter in my own life story. I don’t know how it will play out, but I suspect it will involve both choice and destiny, both a new unfolding of my yes to God and God’s further honoring of my mother’s prayer.
Ken Rummer, a recently retired Presbyterian pastor, writes about life and faith from the middle of Iowa by the High Trestle Trail.