Remember the Bible story of young Samuel? He was sleeping in the temple when he heard the Lord call, “Samuel! Samuel!” The young Samuel said, “Here I am!” (1 Samuel 3:4). He thought his guardian, Eli, was calling so he ran to Eli again saying, “Here I am.”
I imagine Samuel’s mother had taught him to respond in that way when he was very young, even before he was sent to be raised in the temple under the guardianship of Eli.
It is just one word in Hebrew: hineini. When it is a response to being called, it is usually translated “Here I am” or “Here am I” in the Bible. The phrase comes up frequently and it is worth close examination. It is more than a polite response that says, “I hear you.” It is a declaration that I am present, totally present to the one calling.
Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” The challenge is not only to show up, but to be fully present, to be mindful of who, where, and with whom you are.
Pastors soon discover that words, even when quoting scripture, are never adequate in the face of tragedy. Words also pale into insignificance in the presence of great joy. What is most helpful at those times is personal presence. “Here I am.”
“Here I am.” This phrase turns up other places in the Bible. Isaac called his son and Esau answered, “Here I am” (Genesis 27:1). When Jacob wanted someone to take a message to Joseph’s brothers, he said to Joseph, “‘Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.’ He answered, ‘Here I am’” (Genesis 37:1).
Being totally present is hard! It involves being present in space but also being present in time, in the “now.” My mind often wanders between anticipation for tomorrow and second-guessing my yesterdays. Saying “Here I am” means relinquishing my obsession with past and present and accepting who I am and where I am in the present. Here I am, at this precise moment in time: a moment that has never been before and will never be repeated in my life. It is, as it always is, a holy moment.
Saying “Here I am” also involves being present within myself, identifying my emotions, owning my failures, confessing my sin, and accepting my strengths. Here I am, all of me, just as I am. I may not be where I wish to be nor where I pretend to be. I may not be where others wish me to be, but if I could be nakedly honest with myself, I could come out of hiding and answer, “Here I am!”
There is one glaring spot in the Bible where the phrase “Here I am” is shockingly absent. In Genesis 3:9 after taking the forbidden fruit, the man and the woman hid from God. God called, “Where are you?”
God’s call still rings through the world, “Where are you?” God’s question does not always come in words or even in clear categories of thought. More often it is a small echo of mystery, intangible and indescribable. Every human relationship and all of creation contains God’s question, “Where are you?” and yearns for a response. And each time we answer this persistent call with “Here I am,” we discover God’s “Here I am” in response.
We find that God may be more ready to say “Here I am” than we are. Isaiah 65:1 is especially telling. “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.” As Meister Eckhart said, “God is at home, it’s we who have gone out for a walk.” But if we return home—that is, return to ourselves— then we return to the presence of God. There is a deep connection between learning to become totally present and learning to recognize the presence of God. When one becomes completely “here,” it is not far to recognize that God is “here” also.
If “Here I am” is about finding one’s self, it is also about finding one’s task. When we say “Here I am” to God, it is not only self identity, it is a commitment to action. This is how the phrase feels when God called Moses. “When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he [Moses] said, ‘Here I am’” (Exodus 3:4).
The same was true of Abraham. “After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am’” (Genesis 22:1). And, again, “The angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am’” (Genesis 22:11). Jacob experienced the same: “Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’” (Genesis 31:11).
When “Here I am” is used this way as a response to the call of God, it is a declaration of willingness: “I am ready to be of service.” In the temple vision (Isaiah 6:8), God said, “Whom will I send? Who will go for me?” Isaiah’s response was, “Here am I! Send me!”
The most common prayers are “Help!” and “Thanks.” Think about letting yet your next prayer be “Here am I” with all that phrase means.
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.